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.

Escape from the Monsters Den

I’ve been listening intently to the rhythm of the breathing beside me for hours. I count, calculate, triple check, make sure the breaths signal deep slumber and not just the mere pretence of it. I feel the firm bed of carpet beneath me as I roll painstakingly slowly onto my side, my heart thundering in my ears and I pray it isn’t loud enough to wake the monster sleeping in the bed beside me.

I know that it’s now or never, I need to make my escape now in the dead of the night or I will be trapped here yet another day. My entire attention is focused on moving my body as silently as possible into a crouching position, moving one centimetre at a time, hoping the floor of this strange house doesn’t betray me with a creak, alerting the monster to my escape.

All the exits in this house are locked and can only be opened with a key, there was a flashing glint in the monsters eyes as he had explained that this was for my safety, we must make sure DHHS and the police can’t take me away. My eyes have adjusted to the darkness of the room as much as possible but with the curtains drawn and no moonlight I only have my sense of touch to guide me. I pat the carpet in front of me gingerly, the key to the door is in the pocket of the monsters tracksuit pants, I heard the muffled jangle as they hit the floor when he took them off, sliding snakelike into his bed.

My hand taps the soft material pile of his tracksuit pants on the floor, this is the most dangerous part. I must take the keys out of the pocket without making a sound, the monster sleeps in the bed right beside the floor where I am crouched. I locate the ring of keys in the pocket and grip the bundle tightly so they won’t knock together. One millimetre at a time I desperately transfer the keys from inside the pocket and into my hand. I grip the ring of keys so tightly they cut into the palms of my hands, they must not make a sound, I cannot explain this away.

The sound of the breath in the bed beside me is rhythmic and consistent, the lion still sleeps. I slowly rise to my feet, trying to quieten my breathing just in case the sound wakes him. One foot in front of the other, I step as quietly as I possibly can towards the bedroom door. One hand reaching out in front of me, feeling for any obstacles and trying desperately to locate the door, the other hand grips the precious keys to my chest. I twist the cold round door knob, praying there is no sound as it turns. As I open the bedroom door, light enters the room and I realise I must move more quickly now. I dart to the other side of the doorway as silently as I can and close it behind me.

There is another monster somewhere in the house, it is his house, but I don’t know where he is. I silently pad my way to the back door and unlock it, it is a heavy glass roller door that makes what seems like a cacophony of noise as I slide it just wide enough for me to slip through. I am outside. The fresh air fills me with a nervous excitement, I am almost free.

A ten foot high sheet iron fence winds around the perimeter of the suburban house. The huge sliding gate is closed like a fortress. How the fuck am I supposed to get out of this monsters den? I try to climb the fence but it is just too high for me to get a grip on the top of the sharp metal to pull myself over. I look at the padlock on the gate and try to see if any of the keys match up. The keys jangle and my heart pounds in my ears, I am so close but I am not free yet.
One of the keys finally matches the lock and the padlock clicks open, I pull it off the gate and throw it into the garden bed. The ten foot high metal gate is heavy and the screeching metal sound it makes as I try to push it open fills me with complete terror. The monsters must have heard the sound, how long will it take for them to get outside and catch me in my escape attempt. How many seconds do I have left.

I notice a car key on the key ring and decide I’m going to have to drive through the gate, I haven’t got the strength to open it any further. I unlock the car, jump in and turn it on. I’m going to have to reverse through the gate and hope for the best. I’ve only driven forwards on a straight country road so the mechanics of reversing are foreign to me. I smash the car into the gate and knock it half way off its roller, there is a terrible thunderous sound as the car hits the metal, my heart pounds in my chest and I know it’s go time, I must have less than thirty seconds before the monsters get to me. I drive forwards and then reverse again with my foot to the floor, the car somehow makes it out of the gate. I throw the car into drive and screech away into the freedom of the night outside the monsters den.

I drive until I find a parking area where I get out and assess the damage to the car. The side mirror is hanging off and there are deep scratches down the entire left side of the car but it is still drivable. I just need to get home now. I make futile attempts to stick the mirror back on to the car but each time it swings back down again. I rip the entire mirror off and throw it away onto the bitumen of the carpark.

I don’t know where in the city I am, I am lost and just want to get home. I drive, following the freeway until the names of the turnoffs look vaguely familiar. Attempting to obey the road rules I know of and draw no extra attention to the fourteen year old kid driving a beat up car in the middle of the night.

It’s just starting to get light as I hit my home street and my body relaxes slightly. I have survived, I made it out of the monsters den alive. As I drive up my home street I notice a car driving slowly in front of me, I wonder if I should go around it but hesitate. Then right when we are crossing a one way bridge the car in front stops suddenly and flashing red and blue lights appear behind me, I am wedged between the two cars and have nowhere to go.

A police woman walks up to the drivers side window and asks me to get out of the car. She reassures me that I am not in trouble, they are glad I am safe and it’s time for me to go home. One of the youth workers from my residential unit picks me up in their car and takes me the last 500 metres to my house.

I am safe, I am free, I am finally home.

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.

Speedwobbles

It’s late spring in 2008, I’m living in a pilot therapeutic care program an hour out of Melbourne in a country town that grew roots in my heart; the first place that still feels like home.

It’s a warm day and we’re restless, two 15 year old kids with a painful need to always be chasing the next distraction. After deciding we want to go skateboarding, we then have to round up the staff and convince them to drive us to the local skate park. A tiny place with one bowl and one half pipe, surrounded by acres of neighbouring farm properties and a pony club.

The car pulls to a stop and before the worker has the chance to put the hand brake on we’re out of the car and heading over to skate.
My housemate, for the sake of anonymity we’ll call him Meerkat (His head was always on the pivot and his dark brown eyes and messy hair reminded me of Meerkats I had seen at the Zoo) was heaps better at skating than me so after the 1.5 seconds it took him to build up the courage to drop in on the half pipe, he’s going back and forth attempting to spin the board as he gets to the top so he can stop then drop right back in again.

After five minutes we’re frustrated we’re not already pro-skaters so decide to up the stakes and head for the nearest massive hill we could find. We all pile back into the car and drive around the local country roads searching for the perfect hill, we’re just about to give up when we see a one that would put fear in any of the local kids, it’s pretty much vertical bitumen for 100 metres.

The worker parks the car at the bottom of the hill and me and Meerkat make our way to the top, projecting bravado because there’s no way either of us are going to chicken out at this point. As soon as we make it to the top of the hill we both decide we’re going to go down at once instead of taking it in turns. The hill is so steep that immediately after putting both feet on the skateboard I’m hurtling towards the bottom of the hill at an ever increasing speed. The wind is rushing past me so fast it’s making my shirt stick to my chest, my eyes open wide and I square my body lower to the ground to get more balance. I feel so alive, there’s no thoughts going through my head except for making sure I’m balancing ok and not headed towards any of the parked cars that are scattered on the side of the road.

Everything is going fine until I’m halfway down the hill, my trucks that I loosened so I could turn easier start to make the board wobble, at first its manageable but it quickly becomes a lost cause. I begin to panic, I’m three quarters of the way down the hill now and going so fast I know bailing isn’t going to end well. I have no other option so I step off the board and try to force my legs to keep up with the speed the rest of my body is hurtling down the hill. I can only keep it up for a few giant steps before I hit the road, sliding on my elbow and side for at least four metres on the hot bitumen before finally coming to a stop.

One of the workers races up to me to make sure I’m ok, I’m sore and have some pretty gnarly grazes on my elbow and knees but I know I haven’t done any serious damage. As soon as I can stand back up again I hunt for my board which had shot past me when I got up close and personal with the bitumen. I decide that I’m not going to let this hill beat me, that before I can talk myself out of it I’m going to try again straight away.

I’m a man on a mission, I limp my way back up the hill sore but determined as ever. At the top I take a deep breath and look down at the spot where I had stacked it just moments before, there’s no way I’m going to leave this hill before showing it I won’t be beaten so easily.

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.

Nights at the Resi unit

In 2007 I was living in a pretty stock standard residential unit, a purpose built house filled with locks and a pervasive sense of darkness.

To go to the bathroom I had to ask a staff member to unlock it, to get something to eat I had to ask a staff member to unlock the pantry, to get a cup of hot water for tea I had to ask a staff member to boil it in the office and supervise me putting it to use.

There wasn’t much choice, it felt like every single aspect of my life was restricted and controlled. As if I was in a prison for which my only crime was having parents who were terminally unable to look after themselves, let alone a child.

I felt trapped, isolated and hopeless to the absolute. I was thirteen turning fourteen, a kid who had been in the care system since they were just ten weeks old and who had been accumulating a collection of personal shame and responsibility from every single placement breakdown and trauma they had experienced.

After months of my mental health worsening to the point I would sit in the hallway overnight because the darkness held terrifying thoughts of people breaking in through my bedroom window. I was so hyper-vigilant and anxious that my brain started creating the sounds of them drilling into the window pane next to my head.
I was terrified, alone and dead sure that every night was the night the ghostly apparitions of my traumatised brain would finally solidify and become real enough to serve out the punishment I was due.

It got to a point one night where I was so utterly terrified that I knocked on the office door, seeking some kind of comfort and safety from the staff member working.
I felt like I knocked for hours, the fear came flooding through even stronger. What if my knocking was a signal to those outside the window to come and get me? What if they had already got the staff member and they would be the ones to open the door?
The staff member finally came to the door, her hair messy, eyes tired and face looking beyond irritated. “It’s 3am” I knew that, every second that passed during the night was like a day marked off the calendar, I knew exactly how long it was going to be before the sun rose again the next morning.

“I’m scared, I can’t sleep” I told her, hoping that somehow she might hold the answer to make it all stop, that she would help me make it through the night but instead her face grew more frustrated than it already was “I’m off shift at 11pm, there’s nothing I can do” “you need to go back to your room and try to get some sleep, morning staff will be here at 8am” she shut the door and I retreated back to the corner of the hallway where I could see both the front door and the door to my room. My back against the wall of the office closest to the staff member, this was as close as I could get to the comfort they could have provided.

The darkness felt even more solid than it had before, it felt like the single lifeline I had left had been snuffed out. I still had two and a bit hours of darkness to fight my way through until the sun finally started shining again and I had no idea how I was going to make it through. I was completely alone and isolated in my petrifying terror, I almost wanted them to just come in through the windows and get me so it would be over with already.