COMING HOME — Healing from Housing Instability
CW: Childhood sexual abuse, parentification, slibling abuse, religious abuse, and PTSD.
INTERGENERATIONAL FAMILY TRAUMA
I grew up with a lot of material privilege: a beautiful home on 2 acres of property, cable TV, ducted heating/cooling, always had food on the table, and went to a private Christian school (even if it was through a bursary programme). I even had singing and piano lessons (and went to performing arts school with Zachary Ruane from Aunty Donna — true story!).
But there was a maelstrom of abuse going on behind closed doors.
What my five siblings and I experienced varied from child to child; a combination of sexual, physical, psychological, and spiritual abuse — from parent to child and sibling to sibling over the course of many years. While the onus for violence, volatility, and religious fundamentalism was on my parents, they were also the facilitators of beautiful moments of genuine care and joy — a toxic dynamic born of traumatised adults who find themselves the parents of little children whose entire world they’re responsible for.
And because our nervous systems remember things that we would choose to forgive and forget, it laid the rocky foundation for the early onset of a plethora of complex mental health issues that I still experience today.
And while my parents weren’t all bad or all good (as is the case with most people), the culture they created or allowed, made way for fractured relationships between my siblings and me — and unfortunately these sibling relationships became the catalyst for my personal ongoing housing instability and a deeper, more chronic experience of psychological damage that years of therapy, self-help books, and spiritual healing sessions haven’t been able to heal.
My siblings were traumatised by the person I was growing up. I was parentified from a young age and stepped into the mother role. At around 10 years old, my parents forced me to physically discipline my siblings. But I had the head and heart of a child which meant that I wielded power with all the wisdom and responsibility of, well, a child.
It caused lots of damage because I was the scary one in their eyes (not my parents) which set me up to be alienated from my siblings pretty much from the get go. I could be awful to them. But I also loved them and simultaneously felt responsible for protecting them against my parents. I look back at the moments born of these confusing dynamics and I can pinpoint them as the place in my life where my personality started to fragment.
When it came to trying to protect myself, my siblings, or to reason with my parents, I yelled. A lot. My voice was the only weapon I had to use against their size, age, fellow adult allies, and economic power.
I thought that by yelling I could get through to them — to help them wake them up and see how much their kids were suffering because of their behaviour. I didn’t learn until I was an adult that my brothers and sisters resented me for this as they wished I had just been quiet. The toxic culture in my family was normalised and my railing against it was seen as the cause of our household drama.
I was Crazy Carrie. The mentally ill one who yells a lot.
While experiencing abuse from my parents, I also abused my siblings.Thankfully, they weren’t subjected to the same kind of treatment I received from my parents as the eldest child. But unfortunately because of that, it meant they weren’t privy to the ways I was being tormented behind the scenes into becoming the kind of child I was. They remember me as an abuser. And why wouldn’t they? And as an adult with space and time between us, I can also accept that their feelings and opinions about me are valid.
But the thing that breaks my heart is that they don’t seem to remember the good things I tried to do for our family — or sacrifices I made. Like when I dropped out of high school in my final year to cook, clean, and be their emotional support because my father forced my mum to go work outside of the home full time. It was my dream to be the first person in our family to finish high school. B that honour went to my brother. I’m proud of him and glad he got to do it. Yet at the same time, it feels as though the things I tried to do right count for nothing.
And I guess that’s the complex nature of intergenerational family trauma.
Everyone’s a victim and no one comes out unscathed.
THE BEGINNING OF HOUSING INSECURITY
When I was 18, my father was eventually removed by The Department of Human Services.
And we turned to a church for hope and support. We were then exploited and abused for 6 years. You can listen to that story in full detail here.
[TLDL version: inappropriate touching of me and my siblings by church leadership, encircled by a group of church members in a prayer meeting and forced to take communion while crying and choking on breadsticks and cranberry juice, the pastor putting wedges in between children and their parents so she could be their mother).
My siblings and I had explosive relationships before going to the church. But after what we experienced at the hands of our former pastor, the dysfunction and dissension multiplied 50xfold. They became toxic and so did I. Our home, post-church, became a cocktail of trauma, brainwashing, and siblings hurting siblings.
Upon leaving that church, I became aware of how toxic I had been in so many ways. I started apologising to everyone in my family as soon as I became conscious of it. I still wanted to hold onto my faith and I wanted to process what we’d been through so that we could heal.
Unfortunately, the siblings I have had the most conflict with over the years — and I — had such deeply opposing perceptions about our behaviour toward each other.We all have contrasting feelings about who should be taking responsibility for what. Or what had transpired between us over the years and what hadn’t.
They told me that I was selfish for wanting to talk about what happened and that if I truly wanted to move on, I would just do it. I felt constantly shut down and dismissed by them — just as I had with my parents growing up when all I wanted to do was to connect by bringing things out in the open for two-way, exploratory conversation.
In conjunction with this, because of how much shame and self-hatred I had for the way I had been growing up (and who I’d become at church), I believed that even if I felt hurt by their behaviour now, that I should allow them to treat me however they want because maybe that’s what they need to do to heal.
But no matter how much I apologised or tried to change, it felt that they were committed to misunderstanding me because they wanted me to hurt as much as I’d hurt them. Which I understand because their pain and trauma needs a voice. And because I was the cause of so much of it, their frustration and anger landed squarely back on to me.
I guess they just didn’t realise how much I had been hurting, too.
This eventually led to me going into fawning mode. And I was eventually forced to leave home because of the bullying that I experienced at their hands. I felt really betrayed by my mum who allowed certain things to happen without standing up for me, a feeling which triggered painful emotions associated with the way she singled me out for abuse as a child.
When I finally left home, I told her that I wanted nothing more to do with her. And that if she ever wanted a relationship with me again she’d have to earn it.
Note: I’m sure you understand that I can’t share everything about my family in detail. This blog entry is actually a redraft of a much longer, much more explicit, piece that explains all the awful things I did to my siblings and all the awful things they’ve done to me. We’re all adults now. And at this stage we’ve all traumatised each other. It’s unfair. And it sucks for every single person involved.
When you are driven out of your housing by personal circumstances or through danger to your person, it’s a complete upheaval. Personally it was utterly jarring when my family situation led to me needing to leave before I was ready. Especially when it was catlysed by the dismissal of me and my survival needs in preference for another sibling who was causing literal damage to our house (among other things).
Once I’d moved out, I crashed. A sort of emotional paralysis took over.
And I’ve carried that paralysis and accompanying dissociation with me for the last 7 years. Every move bringing it to the surface and causing me to plummet into the self-hatred and fear associated with being driven out of my home in the first place.
Anyone who’s rented knows that good housing situations are the luck of the draw.
Throughout all the moves I’ve made in the last decade, some have been a dream: like Jake and Beth who were fellow live-in mentors to an at-risk young person for the Vista Lead Tenant Program where we had beautiful chats about faith, doubt, politics, and played Jackbox TV games. Like the international sharehouse where I learnt Farsi from Reza and Shohra — an Iranian immigrant couple who didn’t even have a mattress to sleep on but would invite me to eat almonds on the blanket they had laid out on their bedroom floor.
The majority of them, though, have been utter nightmares.
Like the one where I was being stalked by a neighbour in the unit behind mine. When I told her to back off, she retaliated by making a false report to the police — saying that she was fearful for the lives of her fiance, her pets, and herself. I was taken to court and the mediator saw through her straight away. Thankfully, he was incredible and encouraged me to file for a cross-order/ intervention order so that she didn’t just have one against me. Which would give me some measure of protection against her if she wanted to start making trouble for me. I agreed. That SAME day, she breached it and came right up to my bedroom window and started looking around my unit.
Another time, I moved in with a man whose Gumtree ad I responded to out of desperation for a place to stay. Then after a week, he told me that I wasn’t allowed to file for rental assistance from Centrelink because it would cut into his welfare benefits. I agreed because I needed a roof over my head. And it also didn’t take long to learn that he was an alcoholic who stayed up all night listening to the radio up to 11 and I found myself unable to sleep.
And finally, the nightmare of my most recent living situation up until two months ago. I lived next door to two meth addicts. Let’s call them Tarzan and Jane.
They were good enough neigbours until COVID-19 hit. I think it’s because they used to party at other peoples’ places before restrictions were implemented but couldn’t anymore.
The drugs, the psychosis, the cackling-witchy ramblings of Jane, and waking up to her yelling in the street early morning after early morning
One time, they had a 17-hour bender.
He groaned in this deep, demonic sounding voice for 40 minutes. She began to tell herself a story. At 4am, Tarzan stood at my bedroom wall shouting, “Fuck off, poofter” for 15 minutes. I dragged my mattress into the lounge and closed the door while they continued to party hard to loud music for a further 7 hours.
I spent most of 2020 sleeping in my living room because I was so scared. It triggered PTSD episodes for me on a daily basis.
Then Jane passed away from an overdose.
The woman from across the street (we’ll call her Julie), started coming over to visit Tarzan all the time. He started putting up a fence without permission from the landlord. I felt like reporting him at first, but decided to leave it alone.
And one of these days that she came over to visit Tarzan, I hear Julie start yelling about me through the wall. It wasn’t just about her being a bitch. She was another loud, rude, scary person disturbing my right to a peaceful home and I decided enough was enough.
I decided to confront them.
I grabbed my phone because I knew that if they reacted badly without video evidence of their actions towards me, nothing could be enforced by the authorities.
I’m glad I thought that far ahead because Julie physically assaulted me, snatched my phone away, and then smashed it on the ground. It turned out Tarzan had received a breach of lease notification from the real estate agency for the unapproved fence and thought I had reported him.
Because the attack was caught on camera, when the police arrived and saw the footage and damages, they arrested her and charged her with unlawful assault.there anymore. But that was it. I couldn’t stay there anymore.
The physical attack by my neighbor was just the beginning of a series of injuries that would also take their toll on my well being.
At the end of October last year, just after the assault, my friend Tash graciously offered her home to me while she and her husband lived in Melbourne short-term for his cancer treatment. In exchange for looking after her cats, I received rent-free, bill-free accommodation while I looked for a new place.
I needed a safe place to recover and roll out the first session of my online coaching programme Mother Mary Speaks, so I promptly moved into Tash’s and was able to run my first session.
One week passes, I’m working at my desk, and I get up to move around a bit because my legs have fallen asleep — my ankle crushes beneath me. I rolled it and couldn’t get up.
I ended up in hospital with ligament damage.
So there I was, living in interim housing, $300 in my savings, a cat in tow, unsure of how I’m going to afford a new place and whether I’ll be accepted by a real estate agency even if I can (because I am self-employed and don’t yet have a livable wage/ am still receiving Centrelink benefits). And now I can’t walk. Oh, and I’m running a 6-week programme where people need me to hold space for them.
And each day I’m without a home, I’m cripped more and more by PTSD associated with housing and family.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF CONSTANTLY MOVING FOR 7 YEARS
Moving is expensive.
Like really expensive.
Transporting furniture and possessions is really pricey if you hire a professional. And honestly I’ve never been able to afford it. Which has also been really hard as someone who doesn’t drive due to having seizures since she was in her teens.
The stress of having to coordinate help when your former pastor made you believe that anything you express needing help with makes you a selfish taker of resources — someone who is unworthy of their faith for not putting it in God’s hands only. The anxiety and shame from those past conversations and beliefs about myself are almost unbearable at times.
Then there’s the cost of bond and first month’s rent. And all the utility connection costs that can really add up depending on how old a property is or what kinds of outlets and wiring a place has installed.
During the last 7 years, I managed to support myself financially for nearly 2 whole years with a livable wage. Because the work was flexible and online, it meant that I could work around the PTSD episodes and manage the effects of my Borderline Personality Disorder (like chronic self-harm urges, sui* ideation, and anxiety/ depression). More recently in 2019, I was casually unemployed for about 5 months and then COVID-19 hit and the work fell through.
I have been building a business using my life experience, professional experience, spiritual gifts, and a combination of small wages and welfare payments.
So one doesn’t have much savings or proof of income in these situations. I’ve had to borrow money more times than I can count to make sure I have a roof over my head. And I’m one of the lucky ones who has someone to help me in these situations.
Then there’s the deep-seated uncertainty that comes with constant unwanted relocations. Each move has felt like a deeper, harder blow to the foundations of my stability.
I’ve tried everything to ground myself and make myself feel safe over the years — and thankfully I’ve found many tools to make life more bearable.
And while I’m able to cognitively understand that renting is the reality for so many of us (and that in this day and age, home ownership is a privilege that fewer and fewer people are able to afford), my body and all my emotions have been ever filled with anxious anticipation that life is just about to be pulled out from under me.
The same question arises with each new property, “ What if this was how it’s going to be for the rest of my life? And what if it’s going to continue happening in really dramatic ways like being assaulted or taken to court? What if my life is a never-ending cycle of mental illness, trauma, and housing crisis? Will I ever get a chance at stability? A chance to build something sustainable beyond survival?”
THE END OF HOUSING INSTABILITY
Years ago, when mum began making amends for the ways in which she didn’t come through for me when my siblings bullied me out of home, she apologised to me as much as was humanly possible.
And while the journey toward reconciliation was far from smooth sailing, each year has seen our relationship blossom and grow. She has spent the last 7 years since earning my trust back. She hasn’t just said sorry. She’s made recompense where possible.
She has helped me with transport, paying rent, bills, bonds, moving costs, and has been an incredible rock of strength when I’m experiencing extreme mental illness symptoms. No one understands me or holds space for me with the love and strength that my mama does.
I’m open with her about the fact that I’m writing this article. I’m a writer, I need speak my truth. And the cost-benefit analysis of sharing the story of our healed relationship comes out as a choice with lots of benefits. I also want to say that I don’t just forgive her. I adore her. She is actually my most favourite person in the world and I can’t imagine my life without her. She even told me last year that she has left her house to me in her will because she wants to make sure I’m taken care of when she’s gone.
I’ve come to learn the ways in which her life was shaped by family trauma and abuse. And how that flowed down into our family unit.
She’s had her world destroyed over and over again. And I couldn’t see that when I was younger because all I could think about was that I needed her — in the ways a young child needs their parent.
But as I’ve grown older, I look at her with so much gratitude and compassion.
Because being an adult is hard. And life is mostly hard. And being an adult, with trauma, when you have children must feel insurmountable. Yet she never gives up. She never stops. She keeps coming back to our relationship to be the mum I need.
And this is exactly what she did when I got ligament damage at Tash’s house.
She moved in with me and took care of me every day for two months. While also working during the day from the office (because of COVID-19). It’s been a beautiful time of bonding.
During this time, though, she’s watched me struggle immensely. Because of inaccessible housing opportunity after inaccessible housing opportunity. The houses that are affordable are high-risk for dangerous neighbours and my mental health couldn’t handle another attack. And even they are so expensive that I couldn’t rent them.
Then on top of this, the rental market in Gippsland isn’t what it used to be. People from Melbourne have fled here in droves to escape catching COVID-19. bUT Their relocating and renting out all the properties with their big city incomes means that there’s hardly anything here for the locals who fall within the lower socio-economic bracket.
Time to leave Tash’s home was coming to an end and I had nowhere to turn. I ultimately secured the last affordable caravan in Gippsland and was going to live on mum’s front lawn. But then one day, about two weeks ago, she comes back to Tash’s after being out for the night and says she has some news.
She tells me that she is giving me her house.
Not the house I lived in with her and my siblings 7 years ago. She’s since moved into a home that I’ve never lived in.
She’s been in Gippsland for over 30 years. She’s originally from Melbourne way, and she’d like to do a bit of a homecoming of her own. Because she loves all six of her children and can’t fix all our divided relationships, outside of her working hours, she wants to be a wandering mama.
She’s decided to keep one room in her house for when she lives with me, and then she’ll be renting a place with one of my sisters who has been needing to move to Melbourne for her job (as commuting so far was exhausting her). And I get to start decorating it exactly how I’d like as though I already own it.
It’s going to be my forever home. From now until I inherit it (which will hopefully not be for decades to come). And then from when I inherit it until I decide to sell it (or not).
I’m a little shocked. The symbolism of this beautiful, full-circle and healing gesture is not lost of me.
Thankfully my siblings are pretty high-functioning people who have material stability and are building the lives they want. And I’m really glad for them. Even if I don’t have relationships with most of them. I want to see them grow and prosper. And receiving this generous gift from my mum is her way of taking care of me and ensuring I keep growing and prospering, too.
It’s the proof I didn’t know I needed that I am as loved as my siblings.
Some of us choose the nomadic life.
Some of us buy or build our own homes.
Some of us are living from rental to rental knowing that we’ll never be able to break the cycle.
And even worse still are those of us who end up on the streets because they can’t afford any of the above.
I can’t speak for everyone, but experiencing both homelessness and unrelenting housing instability drove me to the brink of madness. That’s not an expression. I mean, as much as I’ve healed myself in so many ways over the years, I was starting to lose my mind after living through these consecutive housing traumas.
I don’t care what anyone says: people don’t need to just learn how to make their bodies their homes and learn to make themselves feel safe. That’s New Age bullshit. The reality is that just like children need shelter and stability from their parents when they’re growing up. All people need shelter and housing security that isn’t going to be taken from them. They need to know they are loved and safe, and having a home helps ensure that. There are only so many grounding techniques, meditations, and reframes that one can do before the instability of housing insecurity hits sends you spiraling mentally
Coping every now and then isn’t flourishing.
Never having a solid, unmoving homebase to trust in so that a person can build their life financially and relationally is common but not normal. Or healthy. Or okay.
I’m 32 now and I work hard on my mental health. I have taken radical self-responsibility for my life and the direction it’s going.
But no matter how hard I work or try, I can’t hustle my way out of complex mental health issues that affect my ability to work in a mainstream job (and thusly earn the money that I need to live a comfortable life). I’ll never stop trying to build a degree of wealth that can help me make ends meet. But I will NEVER AGAIN shame myself for not being able to pull myself up by my bootstraps and climb my way up the socio-economic ladder.
The capitalist narrative that we live in a meritocracy where all you have to do is work hard and you can get everything you want is a lie.
The capacity to work varies from person to person. And this isn’t just in relation to physical disability but disabling mental health experiences.
I’ve struggled for 7 year up until yesterday, and all of a sudden I’m someone with housing privilege. I didn’t earn this home. It was a gift from my mum.
But don’t I deserve it? Doesn’t everyone deserve this?
I say a hearty yes.
And yet, it feels bizarre because I don’t know myself as a person who isn’t struggling to survive.
I know it’s going to require a LOT of unpacking. My identity needs to evolve so that I can adapt to this move.
My body still holds a lot of fear around what some of my family can do to me. And moving into this home feels a little bit scary because of it. I asked my mum if she’d agreed to signing a written agreement with me. Something to support my right to be in this home if toxic sibling relationships bleed over into my housing situation again. She is the best. I can’t celebrate her enough for going the extra mile here to prove that she loves me and wants what is best for me.
Because of the familiar instability story, I’m feeling scared to trust that I have a home or won’t be driven out of this house, too.
But I’m choosing to put faith in my mum now. And in the 50% possibility that this situation can work out really, really well.
I get to return “home” and give myself the parenting I never had.
And I’m devoting 2021 to figuring out what this means. Integrating it and working through the painful associations with it.
Fulfilling little dreams like: the joy of being allowed to put pictures up on the wall, creating Pinterest boards for each of the rooms in my new home, watching Workaholics with the sibling I still have a relationship with, and feeling peace because I know my cat can call it his forever home, too.
Adapting to the fulfilment of bigger dreams like: freedom from landlords and real estate agents, and knowing that I can finally put down roots.
Where the repeated upheaval of my life was a constant trigger related to feeling unloved by my siblings and mother, it’s being replaced with a home that represents my mum’s love for me; a testament to relationships that are worth fighting for, parents who are people with their own stories and need a chance to be seen in their humanity, and children who never stop needing to know that they are loved.
Follow me on Instagram: @heycarriemaya