“Little kids get crayons and pencils to colour in with. I was given scales and pot to trim.”
Renae “Rocket” Bretherton started doing drugs when she was six. Her parents were both users and she “wasn’t taught that drugs were wrong”.
“Every sentence I’ve ever done is drug related,” she tells ABC RN’s Life Matters of her time in jail.
Rocket has recently completed her seventh stint at the Darwin Correctional Centre — but this time she’s emerged with a different view of herself.
A new podcast called Birds Eye View, made inside the prison, has empowered Rocket to tell her own story, and given her the opportunity to see herself in a new light.
Redefining your story
Rocket has Noongar heritage and was raised by Wakka Wakka family on Bribie Island in Queensland.
“I’ve always been a pretty angry person. Like not ‘pretty angry’ — a f**king angry person. And I had no release, I had no control over my anger for a long time,” Rocket explains in the podcast.
For a long time, her story has revolved around drugs.
“It becomes your best friend, it becomes your lover, it becomes your brother, your sister, your parents. It becomes everything you’re missing in your life,” she says.
When she was six, she came home from school to a group of people smoking marijuana.
“Someone said to me: ‘You want one of these? You’re a big kid now,’ and handed me a bong made out of a barbecue sauce bottle,” she remembers.
Rocket’s early exposure and dysfunction at home meant she would spend weekends in foster homes with her older brother.
Birds Eye View, the result of a two-year storytelling program, helped Rocket understand herself in a new way.
“Until recently, I was just going to go out and get back on the drugs. I’ve seen no point in changing,” Rocket says in episode one of the podcast.
But that’s not how she feels now.
“I just feel it’s important to let people know that I’m not just a junkie or a drug user. I’m not just a number,” she says.
Taking charge of the stories that shape your identity
Being in charge of telling your own story can be a vital step in taking control of a chaotic or dysfunctional life.
While Birds Eye View wasn’t a medical or psychological initiative, its method echoes the central theme of narrative therapy — that empowerment comes from learning different ways of understanding who we are.
“Our identities are shaped by story,” says David Denborough, the coordinator of a master’s degree in narrative therapy and community work at the University of Melbourne.
“It’s not as if we have one fixed identity, it’s not as if it’s some essential, unchanging self. It’s a different understanding of identity, one that’s shaped by story and also by culture.”
David — who also works at the Dulwich Centre in Adelaide, a hub of narrative therapy — says history, politics, gender, class and race all contribute to the dominant stories we have about ourselves.
In narrative therapy a “thin story” refers to a one-dimensional understanding of the self — and acts as an easy rationale for our behaviours.
As an example, David uses a fictional character called Vanessa, who is based on clients he has seen in the past.
Vanessa, he says, has been struggling to pay her rent.
“And she just thinks, ‘I’m good for nothing,’ and it’s like this theme becomes a headline in relation to her life,” he says.
“This is actually the phrase that her ex-male partner used to say about her. So he still has the storytelling rights — his voice is still defining reality.”
Vanessa focuses on all the other times in her life when she’s failed, and this dominant storyline makes it difficult for her to take action in her life.
But by focusing on that “thin story”, she’s missing out on other aspects of her identity.
For example, Vanessa’s sister often called her the kindest person she knows.
David says this alternate storyline — “that somehow throughout the difficulties Vanessa has experienced, she still values kindness” — injects a “rich description” into Vanessa’s understanding of herself.
In this way, complicating how we see ourselves can be a path toward freedom, and help us acknowledge that what one person thinks may not necessarily be reality.
“There are always multiple stories of identity. It’s just that some have become dominating, more powerful than others,” David says.
“It can make a real difference for people to be able to name problems in their own words and terms rather than in words and terms that have been given to them by others.”
A person becomes empowered through this process of naming and owning their experience.
A ‘hectic’ new life
Since accepting a more complex view of herself, life has changed significantly for Rocket on the outside.
“It’s hectic, to say the least. In a good way,” she says.
“I’m looking after my goddaughter at the minute. I’m the full-time carer for her. And I’ve got my shit together.”
Rocket is aiming to extend her reach and positive impact through her work as an advocate for women who have been in prison.
“I’m finding my voice for speaking up for women who can’t speak up for themselves,” she explains.
Her goal is to help women find a job when they come out of prison, which means creating relationships with businesses that are willing to help.
Until coronavirus started to wreak havoc, she had an invitation for a fully-funded trip to Tasmania to tell her story to a prison outreach group.
Johanna Bell, the executive producer of Birds Eye View, says “slow storytelling” was the key to the project’s success in getting the women to express to the outside world the complexities in how they see themselves.
“I think we had eight weeks or so before we even brought mics into the room,” she says.
Another success of the podcast has been the community building and shared learning experience — for the women inside prison and for the team producing it.
“I’d never actually stepped inside of prison prior to starting the podcast. So it was all a pretty steep learning curve for me. And I think that made it good because we were all learning together,” Johanna explains.
Rocket has also learned a lot.
“I never looked at myself as a survivor. I never looked at myself as strong,” she says.
In the process of making the podcast and launching it into the world, that’s all changed.