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.

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.

Rise And Shine

A tiny child, born into the world ten weeks too early. A child who when finally released from the confines of the humidicrib ten weeks later, was still small enough to fit into a single one of his fathers cradling hands. This tiny child held on through being born so early his lungs weren’t fully developed yet and a severe case of Bronchiolitis. He fought to stay alive in the cold and scary world he was dropped into far too early, cradling this tiny spark of light he had been gifted, with everything he had.

This tiny child became a small toddler who was removed from his mothers care and then placed back into it time and time again. A tennis match volley between horrific foster care placements and his mothers utter inability to care for herself, let alone a tiny child. He was slipping through the cracks of a system, supported only by small moments of love, gifted to him by the heartstrings of carers who passed through his life in ever so brief moments.

This child grew and instead of learning about the love of a family, he learned how to spot an oncoming violent outburst and find the perfect hiding spot where the adults couldn’t reach him. An escape artist after Houdinis own heart. He learned how to pack his favourite toys into a garbage bag as quick as he could, so he wouldn’t leave them behind again when the workers showed up to bundle him into the car and on his way to his next foster placement.

He learned that the hardest part of every day was home time at school, when the bell would ring and all the other kids parents would come into the classroom to give hugs and ask all sorts of questions about how their day was and what they had learned. His eyes would automatically sink to his shoes as if that was a way he could avoid the heartbreak of witnessing those moments shared between everyone but him. He would make his way to the front of the school and hope that the foster carer who dropped him off that morning, was the one picking him up that afternoon. If anyone came at all.

He felt as though he was living in a completely different universe to every one of his classmates, they complained about how awful their parents were because they wouldn’t buy them the complete set of toys that were the current fad. He was just grateful to not have to wrap his arms around his dinner plate in the evening so that his food wouldn’t be stolen from under him.

This child, who had been raised by chaos and violence quickly learned how important small gestures of kindness could be. He learned the enormity of a kind smile shared between two strangers passing each other by on the street. That a small act of warmth in a cold world could mean the difference between life and death, to someone who was ready to take the emergency exit.

A child who had only known instability began to learn the true value of this thing called ‘home’ even if he had never truly experienced one. He was cultivating an internal scrapbook of all the times he witnessed someone turning on the light for someone else who was trying to navigate in the darkness. He savoured those moments like a melting chocolate on his tongue, collecting them like precious objects to be stored away in some safe part of himself the darkness couldn’t get to. He explored all the intricacies of each moment of kindness he witnessed, and used them as glue to begin to fill the cracks left in the foundations of his childhood.

A child, who had only been taught by the outside world that he was expected to fall and become the darkness he was raised in, slowly began learning that the only way to build himself out of the life he had found himself in was to rise, and to shine. To rise, every single time he was pushed to the ground when the world came crumbling down around him. To shine, every single time the world enveloped him in darkness, and he couldn’t see his way through to the other side.
He learned that the most important thing about life was not just the ability to rise after falling to the earth, but to continue to shine a light of kindness and hope for others, even when the easiest thing to do would be to shut off from the outside world that had caused so much pain.

That child eventually grew into an adult who decided with every fibre of his being that he was to rise and overcome his experiences, to shine a light for those who hadn’t learned to to cast one for themselves yet. To convey the importance of compassion and hope and how small acts can change a persons entire life trajectory. One act of kindness doesn’t cost much to give but it can be valued as a gift that shapes another persons entire world. Dig deep, no matter how thick that blanket of darkness gets, continue to make the choice to rise, and to shine.

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.

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.