George Johnston

, safe

Have you noticed that people sometimes finish a conversation with the phrase ‘Stay safe?’  Maybe this is a thing that people always did and I just didn’t notice it. Maybe it grew out of the worst of the pandemic. Either way the words are well intentioned.  But let’s think about this. What does staying safe look like for you?

I guess everyone’s answer would be slightly different. We all have different life experiences and would all be afraid of different things. When we tell someone to ‘Stay safe’ my guess is that our kind words include an assumption of what safety looks like. I am about to introduce you to a forty year old lady who has spent the greater portion of her life not feeling safe. She lives in Brisbane and on this warm November morning chats freely with me about herself and her story.

She was raped by a family member when she was twelve years old. This was repeated over a protracted period of time. Her mother had also experienced the same behavior when she was younger but had the view that these things should be swept under the carpet. Of course ignoring something does not make it better. She had to go away, to leave the situation and find somewhere safe.

She knows that she left home when she was fourteen but has no specific memory of the event.  Escaping the family home she took with her the lessons she learnt from hard experience.  Lessons distilled into simple mantras like ‘Don’t get mad get even’. She needed to hurt people before they had the chance to hurt her. So to stay safe she became a bully, inflicting on others, what for her was a necessary violence.  Soft drugs lead to a diverse range of hard drugs. To survive she earned an income from prostitution living a nomadic lifestyle. Her childhood family had moved some thirty times so in a way it was natural for her to do so.

One outlet for her propensity to violence was Muay Thai kickboxing. It was another way to earn money and strike back at the world at the same time.  Most people would have heard of the fight, flight freeze response. She was good at fighting and also good at running. 

If it is easy to run from the things that we are afraid of it can also be difficult to acknowledge what we should to run towards. Like all of us she wanted to run to a place where she was loved. But to be loved you need to be seen for who you are and getting seen, well how do you do that? Her experience learned from her mother was that you have to look good to get attention.

She speaks about her life today with a forward looking confidence that is encouraging to hear even though she may still freeze in some situations. This is not surprising given her history. When abused by family members freezing up protected her from what was about to happen.  Now that she is clean and sober when people want to get close she may still freeze but she now has the ability to physically remove herself from the situation till she feels better. For her, safety is in the crowd not in the close confines of intimate relationships.

She has been married and does have children. It was something that her daughter said that changed her life. They were on the move again when her daughter asked ‘Can’t we just go home?’ She had never really had a stable home, a single place to feel safe. Deep down she longed for this but had no idea how to make this happen.

She had worked for various bikie gangs and had done some debt collection for them. In their own way they could be protective of her. But when in 2018 she stopped the sex work and began the painful process of coming off the drug dependency it was time to finally find a home of her own.

She discovered a faith in God which for her was the ultimate safe place where she could feel love. Lots of people profess a faith in God and claim to speak life but their words do not always match their actions. Fortunately she met enough people who did more than just make empty promises but knew how to bring life by seeing and meeting practical needs; like helping her off the drugs and finding a way to get her into her own stable home.

Today she hopes to do some work in Africa because she has learned that there are kids over there who live in situations that she can relate to. She mentioned frustration that it can be difficult to have other people see and support her efforts. But I have no doubt that in time she will find the right people who share her vision. Why am I confident of this? It seems to me that it is simply this: she is no longer just fighting against people or running in fear from them.  There is no need to fight and she is now running towards something better. I don’t think she will ever find a totally safe place in this life. Nobody does. But if it is true that there is no fear in love then she is heading in the right direction.

George Johnston

02 December, 2022

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