A little boy who hid under the bed – a survivor of the Stolen Generations

Marcus Woolombi

The nation’s most elevated risk group to suicide is of individuals who as children were removed from their biological families.

Dr Woolombi Waters The Stringer August 28th, 2016

Marcus Woolombi
Dr Marcus Woolombi Waters

My childhood trauma is on the public record. I was not raised by my Aboriginal mother and for this I have suffered. Right throughout my life I have been victim to abuse. When I discuss, in detail, these abuses to my non-Aboriginal colleagues, to friends and to counsellors, many of them are taken aback, commenting on their inability to comprehend the depth, the extent of the trauma I have suffered. Unfortunately, my story is not unique – so many Aboriginal people suffer the same.

To the world, I am a highly functioning individual however I often relapse and return to the darkest days of my childhood. I would hide under my bed as a little fella escaping into a world of fantasy similar to the ‘The Lion, the Witch, the Wardrobe’ – it was my only means of surviving.

The cruelties I suffered early were not at the hands of another Aboriginal person. And then, eventually, as for so many of the Aboriginal children that returned to their families there were no celebrations, no balloons and streamers instead there were just gaping wounds reopened. My Aboriginal mother had long mourned and grieved my loss. We were unable to cope and though we love each other no ‘Apology’ will ever mend the many scars we carry today.

My introduction to my Aboriginality was difficult. There was the torrid torment of substance abuse, sexual abuse and violence. This became normality, subdued only when I self-medicated. The music of Archie Roach, ‘No Fixed Address’, and Warumpi Band my companion. For years I couldn’t listen to Archie because of this connection.

Just recently the carriage of my trauma cost my marriage. The extraordinary support I have received by a remarkable Aboriginal woman for over half my life is also on the public record, I have often written of it, what my wife meant to me. She too has suffered, like I suffered, pain that no children should ever experience. In the end the burdens were too heavy. It all became too much. My heart grieves in her absence with the worst pain I have ever felt, and I have felt real pain.

Hiding under the bed again

Once again I found myself hiding under the bed, rolled up sobbing; once again the little boy who clung for dear life through fantasies and imagination in the hope of survival. That little man who has carried me for over forty years now had to be let go and I had to step forth and take my place in the world. If anything I owed my wife that.

Losing her is the deepest wound, the biggest scar that I will now carry. This scar runs across my chest and over my left shoulder and down my back disfiguring all the other scars that initiate me. Initiation scars that were once embedded with hot ash to be a constant reminder to the healing and rites of passage into the manhood we once celebrated. The scars of today, though not physical are there and they are deep and will be felt through the rest of my days.

I am not alone in what I endure but many of us in the pain borne upon us turn to alcohol, drugs, violence, any escape at hand and for many to the ultimate act of escape, suicide. Though I have been there, I am still alive. I am a survivor.

I look back on some of what has carried me. I have been successful as an academic. I have enjoyed a wonderful marriage to a wonderful human being; one of the strongest most beautiful women anyone could know. Together we came out the other side, both with university degrees, professional careers a gorgeous house and the legacy of five amazing children.

But I still suffer the demons that have trailed me, it is time I challenge them publicly and set myself free by taking a rightful place in this world exercising these Demons once and for all.

This week, at a time I could not help myself I turned to helping another. When I came to understand a person who like so many of us experienced real hurt.

However unlike me she had not been availed to the opportunities I secured. She does not have my social mobility and nor the level of agency that I have achieved through education. I sat with her for hours and eventually convinced her to let me take her to a hospital. Out of cultural respect and her right to anonymity I will simply refer to her as ‘Kelly.’

When I first met Kelly she was in the midst of a psychotic episode. She was living in her car. She was no longer able to negotiate a world that was cruel to her. When at my lowest and inspired by two great friends, Gerry Georgatos and Anthony Dillon I went once again looking for ‘Kelly’. Now, both these two gentlemen are influential but also polarising, heavily criticised by those who disagree with their views.

They are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, Gerry from the left and Anthony the right but both are respectful and civil to each other despite their different views, and importantly both were there for me in my darkest moments. The world could learn so much from both men. They have also shared many of their own stories where they have helped the homeless, slept alongside the most vulnerable, assisting those most in need in communities and neighbourhoods others would be too scared to go.

When I found Kelly she was still sleeping in her car. For 48 hours I was able to set aside my own suffering, my own pains and listen and be there for someone who has it worse than I do.

When I found Kelly she was still sleeping in her car. For 48 hours I was able to set aside my own suffering, my own pains and listen and be there for someone who has it worse than I do. Kelly gave me a blanket and I laid it on the dirt beside her car and sat. We yarned, drank goon (cask of wine) and smoked rolled tobacco. These were my first cigarettes in three years. I was reminded of Mark Twain, “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I have done it a thousand times.”

Over the next two days with support Kelly contacted State Housing and arranged the loan for her bond and this weekend she is moving into her own place. She insisted on a gift to me of $50. I didn’t need it but she insisted and so I am going to buy her groceries for her first dinner cooked in her new place. The saddest thing I realised was that all she required was some compassion, someone to listen, someone to support her, and with that she took her first steps to a new life simply by seeking the medical treatment she needed and making some phone calls.

I have known Kelly for less than a week and she has helped me more than I can say inspiring me to write this article, to encourage others to put themselves out there in seeing what they can do for others. I called Kelly and read out the article over the phone, she asked that I make special mention to the Logan Police who would come to the park regularly and check on her when sleeping in her car. She also asked that I acknowledge ‘Kerryn’ from the Residential Tenancies Authority who drove to the park to meet Kelly at her car with documentation to sign before close of business allowing her to move into her new place.

It makes you think just how much easier we could make life for those suffering by simply taking some time, and going out of our way occasionally. The reward for me is in now being inspired from Kelly’s example, to accept my failings and work towards my own life changes. Though my heart grieves and I remain sad, I am also excited by what life now has in store for me in having the strength to finally leave behind at long last the little boy who hid under the bed in order for me to survive. I owe him that.

  • Marcus Woolombi is an accomplished language speaker of the Kamilaraoy nation and he is also a published academic.
  • According to suicide prevention researcher, Gerry Georgatos, the nation’s most elevated risk group to suicide is of individuals who as children were removed from their biological families.