By Emma Young
In almost-darkness, Keira told her story for the first time. She’d never spoken up at the rehab meetings before, but it was a burning candle that finally softened her guard.
No-one could see her in the candlelit session, and she was finally free of the feeling of nakedness, and the fear of further pain, that had made her refuse to share.
“But I can still smell this vanilla scented candle,” she says. “I felt this massive warmth from all the women around me. I had never thought women could be like that. I had never thought I could feel so loved. For one moment it was OK to be me, for the first time in my 22 years of living.”
Keira started to cry. And to talk: about how drinking and smoking weed on the weekends had turned into a full-blown injecting habit. How at 19 she was fired from her hairdressing apprenticeship, the job that had once meant a ticket to freedom.
How her mum kicked her out and she started sleeping on the street. How she thought men would make her feel better about herself, but how they just ended up hitting her.
How hope bloomed when she got pregnant, just before her 20th birthday, and she got clean. Not because she cared about herself, but because she couldn’t live with herself if she harmed her baby. Her mum took her in again, and she white-knuckled her way through withdrawal.
Keira thought motherhood would save her. She had a natural birth and breastfed her daughter for seven months. Then she met a new man, a man who seemed gentler than all the rest. He turned out the most violent partner she had ever had. She started using again. Her 18-month-old was taken away and her world came crashing down again.
“I had no reason to live,” she says. “I wanted to die. I felt there was no purpose for me anymore.”
In a desperate bid to get her daughter back, Keira virtually begged for her place in rehab. And in finally opening up there, she suddenly understood she was not the first person who’d sought all the wrong kinds of escape; and she finally understood what she’d really been escaping from.
Keira knows a thing or two about hardship. How early it begins, and how complex its causes. So much so that she’s now advising an Australian-first project, a massive research initiative that seeks to really understand how Perth’s most vulnerable families ended up where they have, how they cope, and what they need to claw their way out.
Inspired by the Auckland Family 100 project, which sought a deeper understanding of families living below the poverty line in New Zealand, a group of researchers from the University of Western Australia, along with WA’s biggest social services including Anglicare, Centrecare and the WA Council of Social Services, teamed up to do research “with people, rather than on people”.
They surveyed 400 Perth families experiencing entrenched hardship, and 100 people from that group are now doing a year’s worth of fortnightly interviews. Their answers to some very personal questions, along with long-term data on their interactions with the health, justice and child protection systems, will form the backbone of the project and ultimately recommendations to government.
The design of the 100 Families project relies on a team of community advisers, which Keira is part of.
And its recently released “baseline report” of findings from the initial survey show Keira’s far from alone in both the experiences that have shaped her life and the impact they’ve had.
Like almost 80 per cent of the people surveyed, Keira’s experienced domestic violence. Like more than half of them, she’s experienced homelessness. And like a third of them, Keira is Indigenous.
She was only eight when she started getting bullied for it, and the bullying soon became so bad her love of learning was drowned out by her fear of going to school. When asked what she means by bullying, she’s matter-of-fact.
“I would get called a boong, I got mocked, I got bashed,” she says.
“From Years 8 to 10 all the students would watch me get bashed and there was nothing I could do. I didn’t know how to stand up for myself, I was a shy girl … I got my head slammed into poles.”
Like 43 per cent of the survey group, Keira didn’t complete high school. She dropped out in Year 10 and worked fast food jobs. When she landed her hairdressing apprenticeship at 17, she was determined to leave that shy girl far behind. No one knew her. It was time to reinvent herself.
“I had understood that it was not OK to be me,” she says. “I created this persona, I bleached my hair … caked the makeup on so you couldn’t see I was of colour. I thought maybe then, people wouldn’t see me as this horrible person.”
She loved the work. She knew what it was like to feel worthless, so she loved making people feel good about themselves.
But then she discovered how drugs temporarily soothed her buried confusion and self-hatred.
She lost control of her drug habit, her job and finally her baby girl, who had been in the care of the state for two months when Keira finally faced facts.
“I realised if I didn’t give them clean urine and rock up sober to visits I would lose her until she was 18,” she says. “I had friends who had gone through that and I watched them suffer.”
She made contact with a rehab centre. It was even harder to stay clean than it had been during her pregnancy, but she hung on grimly, stayed clean for two and a half weeks, continuously calling, pleading for a place, and finally landed one.
She still remembers walking in, horrified by the institutional feel; terrified that it would be “like school all over again, but with adults”.
“But I had nowhere else to go and I knew I needed to try,” she says. I was slowly killing myself.”
In stage three psychotherapy, “your inner child stuff,” the penny dropped. “I had a problem a long time before I picked up a drug. The drugs just multiplied it,” she says.
“That’s why I now know that I can’t just have one, and be OK. I can’t just go out for a girl’s night and have a couple of drinks. I will always annihilate myself, I will do it not to feel. When I realised that, I knew I couldn’t use drugs, or alcohol, or men, anymore, to fill this hole.”