Christmas 1997

As a child Christmas was always a time of inner turmoil, growing up in Foster Care I quickly learned that Christmas in real life, was far different from the idea of the day that had been sold to me in psychedelic children’s cartoons. The holiday season always seemed to be a time of heightened emotions and increased alcohol influence. When you live with volatile people who are prone to sudden, violent explosions of emotion, instead of being a time to cherish being around people, it becomes a time to watch even more closely for the signs of imminent danger and hysteria.

My first memory of Christmas goes back to when I was about four years old. I was living in an awful foster home in the Northern suburbs of Melbourne, the family had been given on and off care of me ever since I was an infant but I had never been accepted as part of the family, I was always the resented ‘other’.  I awoke, put on my fluffy robe and slippers and padded over to the loungeroom where the rest of my foster family had already gathered, there was my foster mother and father, their poisonous brother, my foster uncle, and their two biological children, one boy and one girl.

I scanned the room delighted to see piles and piles of brightly coloured presents all around, my foster siblings ripping right into them with huge smiles plastered across their faces. I sat on the floor by the door and watched, waiting to be invited into the action, knowing not to overstep and intrude just in case I was banished from the room in annoyance as was usual. My stomach felt like oil and water, on one hand I was delighted to witness such a beautiful Christmas day but on the other hand, I missed my mum and wanted to be part of the day, not just an unwanted observer to someone else’s joy.

After everyone else had opened their mountains of gifts, all eyes turned to me, my foster mother handed me a brightly wrapped package and I almost squealed in glee. I carefully peeled back the tape that bound the package together, wanting to make the moment last as long as possible. I was never given gifts so I could hardly believe my luck. As I peeled off the last piece of tape and began to pull off the remaining paper, a kilogram bag of homebrand salt was revealed, I didn’t understand. What was I supposed to do with all this salt? I looked up at my foster parents, searching their faces for some kind of explanation, trying to be thankful for having received anything at all. My foster mother sneered, a cruel icy expression creeping into her eyes as she snarled in my direction “naughty children get salt”.

The floor dropped out from underneath me, I tumbled into the roiling pit of my stomach, my head spinning and trying to make sense of what was happening. I must have done something bad, I was a naughty child, how could I even think that I deserved a present? I tried and failed to stop the tears falling from my eyes, I was spinning inside my body as I sat cross-legged on the floor. My foster brother who was a few years older than me and usually prone to overt resentment, came over to me and handed me his 200 gram salt shaker and said he would swap it for my kilogram of salt because he was bigger. An attempt to calm the situation and blunt the sharpened, predatory air that had developed as a result of my tears. From that moment, presents became dangerous objects to be rejected or opened in the safety of isolation.

Even today, two decades later, when I receive a wrapped present, that small four year old child inside of me recoils in panic for a split second. It takes a moment before I can remind myself that I am no longer back in my childhood, that the people I have chosen to surround myself with are safe, loving and kind people who wouldn’t subject me to that kind of treachery. It has taken work to rethink the idea of Christmas, not as a time of danger and threatening parcels, but as a time when I can retreat into the forest to spend time with the ferns and the birds, gifted brief encounters with the creatures of the forest who have no pretence about them.

0 To 100 In Ten Seconds

There’s often a saying that kids in care go from 0 to 100 in a split second, sometimes for what seems like no reason at all. One minute they’re seemingly fine, sitting on the couch and watching TV, then suddenly, the couch is tipped over, everything in sight is being thrown around and then the kid is creating an abstract expressionistic art piece on the kitchen floor, using every single condiment and cleaning product.

Something to understand is that kids who have experienced lots of trauma have nervous systems that are in over-drive all the time, even when they’re sleeping. This means that instead of being at 0 like those of us who can regulate or calm ourselves down, so we can stay at our baseline of 0, or close to it. These kids are often functioning with a baseline that is more likely to be around 80.

This means that smaller triggers have much larger emotional impacts, take for example a comparison between a kid who isn’t traumatised and one who is. Kid A who we will call ‘Jessie’ with no trauma history, is watching the Hulk on the loungeroom TV but it’s 11pm on a school night, his Mum tells him it’s time to switch off and head to bed. Jessie is at a 0 baseline, he hears his mum and feels a bit fed up as he is right in the middle of watching his show. Jessie’s numbers might kick up a notch to 5 or 10 and so he grumbles a bit but that’s the extent of it, Jessie pretty much heads right to bed after back-chatting his mum under his breath.

Kid B who we will call ‘Josh’ is consistently at a baseline of 80, he had a shitty day because got a call from his mum who was in an emotional crisis of her own and it sounded like she had been drinking, meaning that she had broken the sobriety she had been working so hard on to get Josh back home and living with her again. Josh had been heightened from his baseline of 80 up to 90 all day after the phone call with his mum, he had just calmed down to a point where he could sit down on the couch and watch his movie, without feeling that constant, almost painful rush of adrenaline, which made it impossible to sit down and concentrate for more than a few minutes.

It was 11pm, the resi unit rules stated that the TV had to be switched off at 10pm on a weeknight but the worker who was on shift that night had turned a blind eye to the extra hour because she knew Josh was in the middle of his movie and didn’t have anything on in the following morning. At 11pm the worker made her way into the loungeroom to check in with Josh how long the movie had left to finish because it was 11pm. Josh didn’t hear that the worker was just checking in as to how long the movie had to go, he was already at 90, all he could hear was the worker imply that he had to go to bed, immediately breaking the concentration on the TV that had been able to get his mind off his day for a little while.

Josh lost it, all his cylinders started firing and he was immediately at 100, he felt like he had nothing left to lose. His mum had given up trying to get him back, so he was stuck in that shit hole resi-unit for good now. Josh throws the entire couch at the wall and then starts punching at the wall until he has made a hole through both sides of it and he can feel the cool night air pour in which calms him slightly. The worker must comply with workplace policy and call the police, leading to Josh being charged with property damage and beginning a link into the juvenile justice system.

Josh didn’t go from 0 to 100, he already had a baseline of 80 and had been pushed up to 90 due to the phone call from his mum earlier that day. From the workers point of view, he had been a little more restless and irritable that day but that was somewhat usual for him. It would have taken someone who really understood the effects of trauma to spot the warning signs that Josh was escalating, because Josh didn’t show much emotion usually, he had been taught to keep it all in.

Each kid in care has a different baseline with different things that will trigger them. Some kids will be triggered into anger, some into dissociative almost catatonic like states, some use substances, some run away and some will cycle through a few of these responses. Each kid is different and needs to be approached differently. It is so important that youth workers start to inform themselves about the effects of trauma, that way, when kids do become triggered, the workers may have a really valuable chance to work with the kid to help them understand what they are feeling in that moment, and how they can manage those feelings.

Sanctuary Within The Pages Of A Book

I’m fourteen and still spending time in the hallway of my residential unit almost every night, petrified and alone, waiting for the safety of morning to come so I can retreat back to my room and try to sleep.
I can’t leave the house very often, even if the logistics pan out for one of the workers to be able to take me, I still have an internal war waging that makes the process an ordeal.

I am scared, all the time. I am certain that every single person who glances at me as I’m walking down the street can tell I’m a resi kid, they can tell my tattered, over worn clothes had to come from a strangers washing line, because I couldn’t get my DHS worker to respond to my request for my $200 clothing allowance. The one pair of jeans I had left were so big they would fall down if I didn’t keep my hands in my pockets, holding them up.

I am on my fortnightly trip to the local library two suburbs over, the five-minute drive in the safety of the car passes too quickly and we’re in the busy car park and it’s time to get out. As soon as I open the door it feels like my safety bubble has popped, the outside world rushes in loud and bright, I scan around for any immediate danger but everything seems dangerous.

Every single person I see is a threat, I can feel them staring at me, I stick out and they know I don’t belong here. Making my way over to the doors of the library every sound in the car park signals danger, adrenaline pumping through my body I am ready to run or fight at a moments notice.

Inside the library there is less sound but the people seem noisier, they fill my head with a buzzing anxiety. I wonder if there’s a reason they’re all staring at me, maybe I’ve done something terrible and forgotten about it. Maybe there’s a manhunt and I’m a wanted person, do they all know? Are the police on their way and they are just trying to keep the appearance of being calm to keep me there until they arrive? Maybe that’s why it was so easy to get the worker to bring me here this time, they are all working together.

I scan the titles of the books as I walk down the isles of the library one by one, mostly interested in epic fantasy novels that will take me into a different world or gritty fiction that hurts my heart but makes me feel less alone.
I wonder if the police will check my library history when I’m arrested, am I accidentally setting myself up to look guilty by my choice in books to borrow? I start second guessing every book I am interested in picking up.

I can barely take in the titles of the books in front of me, I am so heightened and overwhelmed it’s hard to process the writing. Without realising it I find myself going through the motions of scanning the spines, not taking them in but just noticing the different colours and sizes of the books.

When I come back into focus I find myself in the fantasy and sci-fi section, just the place I want to be. Each book holds the promise of the perfect universe, the chance to escape for a little while into a journey where I am a character who has purpose and every catastrophe holds meaning. I am drawn to the largest books I can find and also to long series, I want to be immersed in this new universe for as long as possible.

I end up checking out a stack of 12 novels, comics and audio books, I’m surprised as I let out a laugh with the librarian about the possibility of me getting through this many books in a month. I don’t think she believes me as I tell her I can read a 500 page book in a day.

Making my way back to the car I am almost hugging my stack of books, clinging to my safety net, knowing that now I might be able to make it through the next two weeks.
I am already calmed with thoughts of which book I’m going to read first and wondering what adventures are waiting for me within the pages.

When I’m reading life drops away and I become the characters in the book, I am no longer laying in a bed with the other kids I live with banging on my door or yelling threats to kill me through the cracks in my window. I am on a quest to save the kingdom or trying to get through some fantastic ordeal.

Within the pages I find a rare comfort, a sense of peace I can find nowhere else. The outside world shuts off along with the painfully loud chatter of my mind. I am finally free, I have found sanctuary within the pages of a book.

Garbage Bags

The night my mother died I was placed with a foster carer about an hour out of Melbourne, Mums two bedroom flat chaotic with Paramedics, Police, DHS workers, people in suits and my mothers boyfriend bumping into each other. They were all trying their best not to look at the body or at the confused six year old sitting on the couch who had unknowingly just become an orphan.

I didn’t understand what was happening, my six year old brain couldn’t comprehend that Mum wouldn’t be ok in a few hours, all I knew was that I had to stay somewhere else again. In the chaos I was able to pack a change of clothes into a garbage bag but my toys had been locked in a toy chest by my mother a few days prior and no-one could locate the key.

It was almost pitch black as I lay on the lounge room couch at my new foster home, my surroundings completely alien. I didn’t know where I was, what the rules were or what was going to come next. My entire world was spinning and I didn’t have a single person or object to hold onto that felt familiar.
I was petrified and trying desperately to keep myself awake, my six year old brain unable to make sense of my mums death and so I thought if I fell asleep I wouldn’t wake up either.

What was meant to be an emergency overnight foster care placement turned into weeks and then months because there was nowhere else for me to go. My foster brother held a growing resentment for me invading his home and this showed itself in escalating violent threats and bullying tactics. He was trying his best to turn his mother against me and get me kicked out so he could have her and his home back to himself again.

After school one day the car ride home was so tense it felt like all the noise and air had been replaced with the ticking hands of my foster mothers watch, and the whiteness of her knuckles as they gripped the steering wheel.

In slow motion my foster mothers key turned in the front door and as it opened I saw black garbage bags stacked on the couch, my orange basket ball resting in the pile.
My foster mother let out an extended sigh as she made her way towards the kitchen “your worker is on their way to pick you up, they’ll be taking you to your new house” she hadn’t stopped walking to break the news to me “All your stuff is packed on the couch and ready to go as soon as they get here”. My eyes were instantly magnetised to my scuffed shoes, I hoped she wouldn’t look at me and see the tears welling up in my eyes or the black-hole painfully breaking apart my chest.

I was in another government sedan filled with that new car smell I had grown to distrust, all my worldly possessions stacked behind the cage in the boot in black garbage bags. Trees, power-lines and houses raced past the car window, each house that passed  felt like a countdown on a bomb, I was getting closer to my new placement with each one that disappeared from view.