Adhi kuikaimaw – Let’s begin the story
My family thought it was hilarious when I told them I was hoping to publish my memoir. They laughed like drains. When they worked out I was half-serious they scoffed and told me that’s what old people do, old people at the end of their lives. Not a middle-aged bloke like me. Middle-aged? Me? I’m only in my 40s … oh, hang on, wait.
Although I laughed along with them, and the conversation moved on, I was stung by the fear that I wasn’t old enough to tell my own story. It meant I delayed this project for years. I had some other fears too.
Plenty of people will tell you I’m not afraid of anything much, but the thought of telling my story made me uneasy. To be honest, I was scared of looking too closely into myself – I knew I might not like what I saw. So I kept putting this project off. I put it off while I worked, put it off while my life went on, and put it off while I attended funerals, so many funerals. Too many funerals.
But even as people I loved were dying around me, it took a while for the penny to drop: my chances of living to a ripe old age were pretty slim. The Australian government agrees. Official statistics tell us that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men will, on average, live far shorter lives than non-Indigenous Australian men. Almost a decade shorter. That gap is even wider for those living in remote and very remote locations. Locations like the islands of the Torres Strait, for instance.
High suicide rates are one aspect of the appallingly low life expectancy. In 2019, suicide accounted for 5.7 per cent of all deaths among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Among non-Indigenous Australians, suicide accounted for only 1.9 per cent of deaths. That is, First Nations people were three times more likely to take their own lives. It’s not a typo, don’t you dare fucking look away: three times, or three hundred per cent, more likely.
The combined result is chilling. After the last census, the government reported that fewer than five per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were aged 65 years or over, compared to 16 per cent of non-Indigenous Australians. So what were the chances that I would become one of the five per cent?
With those figures in mind, and with those funerals too, I decided that I needed to tell my story now. Even if I’m not an old man, it’s entirely possible that I’m near the end of my life. Because I’m black. Because I’m Indigenous. Because I’m a proud Torres Strait Islander man who grew up, and lives a life, immersed in Torres Strait culture. Look at me. I literally embody my culture. It’s in the shape of my face, the colour of my skin, the way that I speak. It’s in my blood and my thoughts and more than anywhere else it’s in my spirit.
I’m not scared of dying. The spirit leaves and continues on its journey – that’s what my culture tells me, and my religion too. But I do want to leave the world a better place, as my relatives and Ancestors did for me.
I start my story with a fight, and some related drama, but that is just to draw you in. The real story begins in my heart, and my heart belongs to some small islands off the northernmost tip of mainland Australia. My people there are warriors, that’s for sure, but we are storytellers too. I want people to know about where I’m from, about my culture, my people and my community. I also want people to know that this is why I’m like this.
I’ve made terrible decisions and I’m sorry for them. Unreliable, unpredictable, selfish, moody, volatile: at one time or another I’ve been all those things, because too often I was vulnerable, I was hurt, and I felt alone. I battled with myself every day. I put up walls, and some people thought they knew me when they didn’t. I’m the one who seems to be always laughing, joking, making everyone else feel comfortable. But until I fully trusted someone, they were never going to see me tender, relaxed or sensitive. But I’m those things too.
The experiences I’ve had, the decisions I’ve made, the people I’ve rolled with – all of this has forged me into the person I am today. Although I’ve fallen on my face again and again, somehow I’ve always got back on my feet – probably through the example of the incredible women who raised me. Maybe I look like a big, dumb bruiser but that’s another stereotype, another trap for people to fall into. I’m more complex than that; everyone is more complex than they seem.
For too long I didn’t realise the depth and intensity of what I’d been carrying. I’ve had to suppress a lot, because otherwise it would eat me up, but it compounded with the other hurts below the surface. Then, all too often, something would trigger me and that psychological shit popped out when I wasn’t expecting it, so I’d overreact. I’m not offering this as an excuse, mind you; I made the decisions and I’m accountable for them.
I am so sick of letting myself down, sick of letting other people down, sick of not fulfilling my potential.
Trauma has ankle-tapped me so many times, forcing me to fall short when I’ve been running for a try. Layers of trauma, begun in childhood and compounded by … well, compounded by almost everything else. To take advantage of my current opportunities I have to make sure I’m mentally and emotionally in the right place. I want to move up a gear, to deliver over and above, and I have to make sure I’m ready. I recognise that I have to do the work on myself, hold myself accountable and work through those layers of trauma.
An important part of that work involves telling the truth, here, in this book. I know that people will look at me differently because of it.
I’m guessing I’ll lose some work, lose some opportunities, possibly even lose friends because it won’t sit right with them. It doesn’t sit right with me either, it won’t ever sit right with me. I was a piece of shit, and I was despicable. If I could go back, I’d have removed myself from the situation, but I didn’t and here’s what happened. I can’t shy away from it. But I can tell you the truth about it.
One thing I’ve learnt is that if you tell the truth, it remains in your past. Tell a lie, and it’s always going to haunt your future.
So I’m telling the truth. Not because it will help anyone else (although if it does, great), and not because it will help me (quite the opposite, probably) but simply because it’s the right thing to do. And because I’ve got enough ghosts in my life already without adding lies to the mix.