Many years ago I was working with this young woman who was under house arrest. The house was like a minimum security prison for people with a disability and extreme mental health concerns. One client I worked with in that facility had killed an elderly woman because she had got between him and his lunch. After he killed her he sat down and ate his fish and chips. This facility was designed for clients extraordinarily complex needs. It was purpose built with bars on every door and window. Each client had their own area which had a bedroom, toilet and small private lounge room. Each segmented area could be locked down in an emergency. Their room could be locked, the lounge room, the walkway, the central common area and the staff room. There was a TV in the common area but it was locked behind an impervious perspex screen. All the cutlery was locked away. The staff were issued with digital tags to keep around our neck so we could quickly escape through magnetic locks on every door and gate in the complex. The organisation had gone to an impressive length to make the facility feel as homely as possible. So it didn’t feel like a prison. It had well kept gardens and each of the rooms were decorated. It really was a brilliant facility to work at compared to most places.
One night I was rostered on the graveyard shift and the police had transferred this woman to the facility. She was under house arrest and had strict orders.
Now this girl was scary. I’m a big bloke but she dwarfed me. She was 6 foot in every direction and she was filled with an unholy anger. I tried connecting with her but she was cold as ice and had murder in her eyes. It was the police and the primary staff worker’s responsibility to check her upon arrival. This is necessary in case they sneak in a weapon or some other contraband. It was quite a common occurrence.
After she had dinner, she left and went into her quarters. I was barely conscious reading my book when the alarm went off. I ran over to her area and sure enough there was smoke coming from her quarters. I grabbed the fire extinguisher and ran as fast as I could to the fire. I emptied the extinguisher onto the fire. It was already raging. She’d set the bed alight and the whole room was burning up. I ran back, called emergency services to make sure they were on their way. There was another female staff member working. She was quite scared and left the building. She was on the phone to emergency services to make sure they came to the right address. I grabbed a second fire extinguisher and went back into the fire. That whole room was on fire now. I couldn’t go all the way in because it was too hot and there was too much smoke. I emptied that entire fire extinguisher on to the fire. It was futile. It temporarily decreased the intensity but the moment it was empty the fire was raging again.
I retreated back in to the next room where she was. I grabbed her hand to take her out of the building but she refused to leave. I yelled at her telling her to get out. Yet she refused to move. I realised in that moment she hadn’t lit a fire. For her: this was a cremation. She felt dead inside and she wanted to burn in that fire and it was because of the horrific abuse she had unjustly endured that had driven her to that point. Me yelling at her was only reinforcing her reason to burn.
I realised the only thing that was going to get her out alive was love and by somehow really connecting with her to demonstrate that. I couldn’t just leave because her section was locked down and she didn’t have a key. If I left she would’ve been trapped and she would’ve burned alive. It would have been a truly horrific way to die.
For a moment I thought I had to make her get out. I thought I could get the doona off the bed, punch her in the head, knock her out, roll her onto the doona and carry her out like Santa Claus. I didn’t do that.
It was getting hot. I sat down next to her which fortunately meant I was underneath the thick dark smoke billowing from the blaze. We were both coughing between sentences. I kicked off the conversation with some dumb question like, “How was your day?”. It was from experiences like this I’ve learnt it’s not about the words you use. In those situations people get the intent before the words are spoken. She returned with something like “pretty f*$king awful…”. I responded “What happened?”… She started crying and blurted out some God awful story. I mean it was sickening. She was looking at me incredulously. I guess she could see that I was genuine in my intention to risk my safety, genuinely for her well being. I put my hand on her shoulder and suggested we move somewhere cooler to continue chatting. She agreed and we went outside and talked.
This girl was in her early twenties and we could look at her and say she should know better. Yeh, she should’ve. I reckon a lot of us have that question inside of us that surfaces in our most selfishly terrifying moments of insecurity… If I set fire to my world does God love me enough to rescue my selfish fat arse from the flames?