David learned the value of keeping silent at a very young age. He came from a family of five boys, headed by a drunken, abusive father.
“I remember at one stage being thrown against the wall, and sort of slumping on to the floor,” he says. “I couldn’t feel my legs. I was crawling away, and I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t know what was going on.”
He got his breath back, as well as the feeling in his legs. He estimates he was about eight years old when this incident occurred. He told a teacher at school about it, who immediately phoned his mother.
“My mum just had this heartbroken look and she said ‘did you tell someone?’. I said, ‘yeah, I did’…feeling like the person I protected was just very disappointed, wasn’t nice.”
Feeling that he couldn’t talk to anyone about his feelings, he decided to write them down. Prose made up of the deepest, darkest pain he could muster from the feelings in his gut. This turned out to be a bad idea as well. His friends – who he says now were “the wrong friends” to have at that stage of his life – found the book.
“After a few drinks, I found them behind my garage. I could hear them reading out what was in there and laughing,” he remembers. “So I never wrote that stuff again.”
For now, memories simply became buried, each new traumatic experience packed in on top of the old like a fresh layer of mud, never to see the light of day.
David was seen as the sensitive kid in the family, right in the middle of a group of boys destined for masculine, manual pursuits; construction work, truck driving. Rugby was played, and David engaged in it for a while, but found he often preferred to stay at home on his own.
However, staying at home often found him on clean-up duty. Told by his mother to clean up after his father, getting booze out of the house, even putting his father to bed when he was too comatose to make it there himself.
“That’s the role I played in the family from when I was about eight years old. There was actually a period in my life when I thought I had a pretty normal childhood.”
“I realised that no, I’d probably had a fucked childhood. I acknowledge that, and I [need to] deal with that.”
Initially, he wasn’t dealing with it. By the time he was a teenager, the family situation had become a lot less volatile. His father had stopped drinking and been through anger management, but the damage for David was already done. He became more introspective. He gained weight, became depressed, and dropped out of school as a teenager.
“I wasn’t able to hold down jobs,” he says. “I was the guy who was under a blanket at 2 o’clock in the afternoon because I’d been playing Playstation all night, and it’s just…it’s really not a good place.”
His brothers all eventually left home, but David stayed put. There’s a saying in Samoan which he says sums up his life accurately at that time – “ma’imau le ola” – it means “waste of life”.
“I was unemployed for such a period that I became New Zealand’s longest unemployed youth,” he says. “I remember my case manager at WINZ (social welfare office) telling me that I was number two in the country. I said, ‘well, at least I’m number two’, and then even number one managed to get a job.”
His case worker made sure to tell him that he was now New Zealand’s number one unemployed loser (she didn’t use the word loser, but she was sure to let him know he was now top of the charts in the long-term unemployed stakes – how this was supposed to help, I don’t know).
When he finally did manage to get a job, after many doors being slammed in his face, his case worker said, “I never want to see you again,” he remembers. “I was like, don’t worry, I don’t want to see you again, either.”
By now, he’d formulated a plan to save money and escape to Australia, like some of his brothers had. His self-esteem had started to pick up, not just because of the job, but because of some internal barriers that had begun to break down.
“I was constantly in my head worrying what people thought about me – you can’t achieve that, you can’t do this, this is where you come from, this is who you are.
“It was partly because of things people said to me, but I also looked around at my situation and thought, ‘this is my life, this is how I’m raised.’ It wasn’t a white picket fence with some level of ‘normality’. I was just a very sad boy that had nothing to do and just wasn’t challenged. School failed me.
“I was a bum for such a long time. People would walk past me in the street now and not recognise me from where I was then.”
His self-image began to change, inside and out.
“Once I actually got off my fat arse and stopped playing Playstation so much, was running for the bus and doing normal things, the weight started to come off, the confidence was kicking in. I was looking better, feeling good…I felt empowered with having a job. And from that, I bounced into another job which I did even better in. So all these levels of confidence started building.”
It was a combination of carrot and stick that got things moving for David. On the one hand, he’d be hearing stories from friends living overseas who were doing exciting things and leading fulfilling lives.
“Family and friends telling me to get a job and I was a waste of life, that didn’t work; but having friends tell me odd stories about going to Sun Beach to take photos of seals and stuff…I wanted to do those things. I wanted to have stories to tell rather than, hey, I got to stage two of this new game I’m playing.”
The stick came when he was sent through training by his case manager at WINZ. He was called up one afternoon and told to be in the office by 8am the next morning or he’d have his benefit cut.
They first tried sending him to a teenage army-style boot camp where he got “yelled at by the military”. He ignored them and sat doing crosswords, and was off the programme within days.
He got sent to another agency that dealt specifically with Pacific Islanders and started getting training around how to perform well in job interviews, which was a big confidence-builder. It was also a reality check, because he was the youngest in the room.
“I thought, here I am with these people that could be my parents. They’re struggling to find work and they want work, they don’t have a great command of the English language, they don’t have the necessary skills to… and they were aiming for just normal things. And I thought, you’re doing nothing.”
The time finally came when he’d saved enough money to go to Sydney. But he still worried about his family, where things still didn’t feel right at home.
“I remember calling for one of my brothers, just giving him a call and said, ‘look, it’s just really bad, you need to come back. And he said, ‘not my problem, bro, I left’, you know, ‘you deal with it’. And so it was like ‘ok’. So I did. I dealt with it, and I dealt with it up until I was about twenty-two. Then I thought, ‘ok, you guys are stable, you’re doing ok’.”
Tickets, passport, bag packed, and off to a new life.
“It was a huge decision, Sydney. It was my first time on a plane, first time moving out of home, going somewhere where you don’t know a whole lot of people, and you’ve got no family there to fall back on.
“But I kind of had it in my head – I’ve taken care of this family for the last ten years, I need to go, I need to play catch-up with life, because I felt like I was left behind.”
Next week, we’ll learn about David’s four years in Sydney where he discovered his emerging sexuality, and eventually returned home to his family to tell them who he really was – at Christmas.