Gemma's story, mother

Man playfully throws a child in the air while playing in the park

I saw a lot of awful things growing up

There was terrible violence in my home. To escape I would run away all the time and I started using drugs and alcohol when I was 14. When I was 15 my boyfriend died and I began self-harming, overdosed and ended up in the Children’s Hospital. Despite all this pain I was in I managed to become a professional dancer when I was 19. But my drug use meant I was unreliable and missed out on jobs. By my twenties, drugs were all I cared about. I’d pushed away anything that might have helped me and that included people. The worst part was that all my relationships revolved around drugs and alcohol and with men who hurt me. I was controlled by drugs and men for years.

I used drugs intravenously; every type I could get my hands on. Ice had the worst impact. One time I got sepsis and nearly died, ending up in ICU. I would go to rehab and get clean for a while and then the next day I would use again. It was complicated as I was also living with anxiety and depression and spent time in a psychiatric hospital. I really wanted to stop, but I couldn’t get away from the physical and emotional cravings. 

When I was 28 I had a son, Charlie. I loved him so much but I wasn’t able to care for him in the way he needed. When I got together with Michael things really started to spiral. The drugs would make us both paranoid. Michael started to control me, questioning where I was going and making all the decisions. Then the physical violence started. After he hurt me I would wake up the next day aching all over; it felt like a domestic violence hangover. I prayed that I would die. I couldn’t see a way out. I thought I would either kill myself or Michael would kill me when he was using.

Parenting while using drugs is a nightmare. You cannot be the mum you want to be and you lose your judgement about what is safe. Charlie was removed by DCJ when he was four and went to live with my mum. This was a really dark time for me. Every day I’d say, today is the last day I’ll use, and then the next day I’d wake up and think, no, this is the last day. Except for years it never was.

A few years later Michael went to prison and I discovered I was pregnant with Pheobe – all in the space of three days.

Getting help

Maybe it was the desperation but something in me clicked and I called a rehab centre and begged them to take me in. I was ready to do the work. I did Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, domestic violence counselling, saw psychologists – every program I could do. I needed to prove to DCJ I was committed this time, and I needed to prove it to myself. The process really helped me. I was learning about myself and breaking things down into steps. Even when you haven’t used drugs for ages the fear is there that you could slip back. I cried every day, but I knew God was there with me. I don’t think I would have survived everything without my faith.

Pheobe was taken from me twice. Once from the hospital to show I could sustain being clean outside of rehab and again when I got back together with Michael when she was 10 months old. Michael had been to rehab as well and we were supporting each other to stay sober. This was the hardest time because I had been doing everything right. I understand that DCJ were worried Michael was going to start using drugs and violence again, but it felt like Pheobe might be gone forever this time. 

We got a new caseworker and Olivia coming into our lives was a blessing.

Olivia could see how motivated I was to get Pheobe home and how committed I was to everything the department asked of me. There was a calmness and warmth in the way Olivia talked that made me feel safe, and she really listened to what we had to say.

Visits with Pheobe at the office were hard; there would be someone watching you with a little clipboard and you feel judged. Sometimes Pheobe would have a grumpy day because she was so little and you would worry that the workers would think you were not connecting with your baby. It is hard not to feel ashamed in that setting. It was much better when we got to have time with our families. We could all relax. I’m grateful Olivia made that happen. 

Olivia could see how well we were doing and recommended to the court that Pheobe should come home to us. We never skipped a beat settling back into family life again. Pheobe is a little chatterbox and loves school; we have the best time together.

Building a new life

We’re building a community around Pheobe; she has lots of people who love and care about her. Her church, schoolfriends, our families, and she is also loving martial arts. Her teacher has been really helping by talking to her about things when we’ve asked. We are trying to model to her that you don’t need to only rely on yourself when things are hard. We lean on people in our life for help and we talk about things in our family.

Michael and I try to be as honest with everyone about our lives and what we’ve overcome. It helps with the shame because most people don’t judge us and actually want to help. I think it would be better if our society were more open about drugs and mental health so people know how bad it can get.

Charlie is 11 now and still with my mum and my stepdad. He is doing really well and I am so grateful to my mum for taking such beautiful care of him. We see Charlie all the time and do things together as a family, but every day I live with the guilt I couldn’t get it together in time to have him home with me. I’ve got Pheobe, I’ve got Michael and we’re a happy family but I feel grief all the time I’m not with my son.

I sometimes think about the parents we knew from the old days who also had their children removed but never got them back. It breaks my heart to think about it, but those children deserve to live in a safe home with people who can care for them. 

I want to tell other families going through tough times how important it is to be honest with DCJ.

You need to build a relationship of respect and trust on both sides like we did with Olivia. A good relationship helps families to feel safe and have hope. It saved our lives. I can’t thank Olivia enough.
Last updated:

30 Mar 2023

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