An excerpt from “I Only Said” I had no choice

[Miss Tina] tells me to go back to my chair in the group and doesn’t say one word about me losing my temper and being aggressive in Beach Haven, which I know is not allowed. I’m so grateful that she’s given me another chance.

“Okay, so we’ve talked about ‘guided imagery’ as a way of keeping yourself safe from others who try to instigate you and make you angry, but what happens if you’re already angry? What ‘guided imagery’ can you use to get rid of the anger that’s already flowing through your body?”

We all look at her waiting for the answer.

“Someone wrote on the flipchart that taking a hot bath was a good way to get rid of anger, and although it isn’t a physical activity - which is almost always the best way to get rid of the tension in your bodies that builds up when you’re angry - it is a good way of relaxing. I’ve got another good piece of ‘guided imagery’ that will help you. When you’re angry and the ‘feist’ is raging through you, not only will your heart beat very fast but you’ll also start sweating. I want each of you to close your eyes.”

I close mine and listen.

“I want you to ‘see’ the beads of sweat glistening on your body; they are Anger Beads. Within each bead the reason for your anger floats, turning the bead a mucky dirty color. Imagine that your body is covered in these Anger Beads, and as they get too full of anger they burst, leaving your skin covered in mucky Anger Slime.”

Ugh, my body’s covered in mucky slime, all originating from my anger towards him, and I know exactly what I have to do.

“The only way to get rid of the Anger Beads covering your body, and those that have already burst leaving you covered in mucky Anger Slime, is to have a shower and scrub them off. As you stand beneath the water I want you to ‘see’ the Anger Beads drop away from you and roll down the drain. If your anger’s so bad that the Anger Beads burst and you’re covered in mucky Anger Slime, then scrub your body good and hard and ‘see’ all the Anger Slime disappear down the drain.”

I suddenly feel very itchy and dirty, and I long to take a shower.

“Open your eyes,” Miss Tina says.

I look around and every one of us looks disgusted.

Miss Tina starts to laugh as she watches our faces, then we laugh too.

“It’s pretty gross, isn’t it? But it really is a great piece of ‘guided imagery,’ for what better way of getting rid of anger than to wash it down the drain. You’ll feel free of it and clean. Try it.”

“I feel filthy,” I say. “My anger towards my stepfather has burst all over me and I need to take a shower.”

“Me too,” most of the kids say over each other.

Miss Tina’s laughing.

“Okay, you’ve all worked really hard today. We’ve learned about where anger comes from and that it’s a normal response to things that hurt us, or things that go wrong in our lives. Then we’ve learned how to cope with anger using physical activities to release the tension inside your body that builds when you get angry, so that you won’t get into trouble by acting out your anger. Then we’ve learned some mental techniques, ‘guided imagery’ to help you stay safe and resist other people’s instigation, and then to help you get rid of your anger by washing it away.

“Yes,” she laughs, “I imagine that you all feel mucky with Anger Slime; go and shower, all of you. Get rid of your anger and feel clean.”

We all rush out of the room and race up the stairs to our rooms. I can’t wait to stand beneath the steaming water and watch my Anger Beads disappear down the drain, and to scrub myself clean of mucky Anger Slime... cool.

Chapter Six

I scrub and scrub myself imagining all the Anger Slime sliding down the drain and him with it. I feel good, not only clean, but good.

I come out of my room and follow the other kids downstairs.

“We get to make our own dinner tonight,” Ollie says, as we go into a classroom that has lots of ovens and sinks set out like several little kitchens around the room. “That’s Miss Cassie, she’s our Life Skills teacher. She’s cool.”

There’s a huge table at one end of the classroom and she asks all of us to sit down while she pulls her chair out and sits at the head of it.

“Today we’re going to make pizza,” she says, and some of the kids cheer. She holds her hand up to silence us, and grins. “D’you know, there’s never a time when I don’t want to eat pizza, but it’s not only good to eat, it tells us a story too, a story about life. I think life is like a pizza. Can anyone think why?”

“Because it’s a mess?”

She laughs. “It can be, yep, life can be messy and so can a pizza, but let’s think about it. Today each one of you is going to be a chef, the one who decides what kind of pizza he wants to make, just as you are the one that decides what kind of life you will have.”

She stands up and walks around the table putting something in front of each of us. Alison gets an onion, Liam gets a clove of garlic, I get a red pepper, Wayne gets a tin of stuffed green olives, and there’s a big bag of pizza dough, a chunk of cheese, tomatoes, shrimp, sausage, pepperoni, a tin of anchovies, a bag of mushrooms, two bundles of spring onions, and a pot of salt and pepper. Then she puts all manner of pots and pans in the middle of the table, with lots of little bowls and silverware.

As she sits back down she picks up one of the pizza trays and holds it up in front of her.

“Think of your life as a pizza.”

We frown, but she carries on.

“Think of your life as a pizza. You have to make it fit the pan because if it doesn’t then it won’t be right - it’ll burn, fall apart and be in pieces - so that means that you have to fit into this world, the world is your pan. Do you understand? In this case the pizza pan is the world, where human beings have to fit.

“If we see the pizza as a human life, then how tasty, satisfying and nourishing your life will be will depend upon the amount of effort you put into making it. How your life turns out, how satisfying and how good it becomes, is going to depend on how much care you take and what you choose to do with it, just like your pizza.”

She uses weighing scales and gives us each a dollop of dough and tells us to knead it with our fingers. I laugh as Alison has flour on her nose and she glares at me.

It feels squashy under my fingers. I’ve never made pizza before; it’s fun.

Miss Cassie stands at the head of the table and she has three lumps of dough in front of her. She lifts one piece up.

“Okay, so I’m the chef, the one with free will, the one that will decide on how my pizza is going to be made. The piece you hold is your life,” she says again. “What are you going to do with it? Are you going to treat it right? Are you going to take care of it or drop it on the floor so that it gets dirt in it and makes you sick? Are you going to treat it with care and roll it out to make the right shape, or if you can’t be bothered are you going to take so little care that it’s going to be a mess? Or are you just going to squash it and see how it turns out?”

She takes a rolling pin and before our eyes she rolls lightly and turns her dough as she rolls it, making a perfect round shape, then she moves to the next lump of dough and rolls the pin unevenly and carelessly, so that it’s lumpy and shaped like a lopsided cloud. Then she makes us all jump as she slams the heel of her hand down on to the third lump of dough, bashing it this way and that until it’s squashed flat.

“What do you think?” she asks. “Look at these three pizza bases, these three lives. We are the chefs, or the master of our lives. The chef that made this pizza cares about his life,” she points to the first perfect shape, “but this person doesn’t care too much about making his life as good as it could be,” she points to the lopsided shape. “And this person has deliberately not bothered to try and make his life good, in fact, it looks like this person has deliberately tried to destroy it when it could have been great.”

I ask myself, “Am I the last chef? Have I deliberately tried to mess up my life when it could be great?”

“And all this before we even start putting all the good things on our pizzas to make them good and nourishing, or rather, and all this before we even begin to fill our lives with good things that will make us happy and good people.”

We’re all quiet for a moment until Miss Cassie tells us to roll out our dough to fit the size of our pizza tray. I try hard to get it to be as round as I can, but I seem to have grown too many fingers and the dough has a mind of its own. I glance at Ollie and I can see him squashing the edges out with his thumbs, trying to make it fit. He’s cussing under his breath and I grin.

When we stop kneading and rolling Miss Cassie starts talking

“Are you satisfied with your pizzas? And I want you all to think about whether you’re satisfied with your lives.”

Most of the kids mutter “no.”

“Okay, now to prepare for what you’re going to put on your pizzas, what you’re going to put in your lives. Let’s each prepare one thing and put it in one of the bowls in the middle of the table, and when it’s all ready we can choose. Remember, you’re the chef, you get to choose what’s going on your pizza, just as you get to choose what you do in your life.”

We all start chopping, grating and peeling. Alison’s got tears pouring down her face from chopping the onion and Liam’s teeth are clenched together as he squeezes the garlic cloves through the mincer. I’m staring at the red pepper and feel stupid. I have no idea what to do with it but Miss Cassie comes over and shows me what to do. It’s hollow inside with lots of seeds, but soon it’s sliced into thin slithers and placed in one of the bowls.

“How am I supposed to peel these mushrooms?” a kid asks. “They keep breaking away from their stalks; it’s too hard.”

“Ah,” Miss Cassie says, smiling. “No one said that what you choose to put in your lives would be easy.”

Eventually we wash our hands and all sit around the table with our pizza bases ready and lots of bowls with things to choose from to go on top of them in front of us.

“Right, before we go any further, we need to do something else first.”

She stands up and walks around the table giving each of us a plain white label.

“We’ve got lots of yummy things to put on our pizzas but we need to name all the good things that we can put in our lives. I’ll start, okay?”

She thinks for a moment and says, “I want children in my life,” so she writes “children” on the label and sticks it next to the bowl of mushrooms.

She passes the pencil to Alison and asks, “What is it that you want in your life?”

Alison writes, “to have a home,” and sticks the label by a bowl of sliced pepperoni. I know what I want in my life; I write, “to live happily with my mom without my stepdad” on my label then I stick my label next to the bowl of peppers I’ve just sliced.

Everyone writes a label and they say what they want in their lives. The labels say a new car, to be a pop star, to have a boyfriend, to have a girlfriend, to have no nightmares, to get an education, to have friends, to have a proper family, to go to college, to get a basketball scholarship, to be happy, to believe in something, to be loved.

We’re all pretty quiet as each kid sticks their label by the bowl of food they prepared.

Miss Cassie smiles at us. “Good job. Now, remember, you’re the chef. You’re going to make your pizza for dinner and you get to choose what toppings you put on it, and as you do I want you to remind yourself that you are the person that’s in charge of your choices. As you choose what goes on your pizza, think about the things you choose to have in your lives. What is it that you want, for you are in charge of your lives - they’re yours to live, yours to make as good as possible.”

We all get up from our chairs and it’s noisy, yet I’m deep in thought. I want my mom in my life, the mom I used to know before she got married to him, before she changed into someone who can’t stand up for herself, or for me. I don’t want him in my life. As I put bits of chopped up food on my pizza base the thought flashes through my head that if she won’t give him up and I don’t want him in my life, that means that I won’t be able to live with them anymore. That means that I won’t have my mom anymore. I suddenly feel sick and not at all hungry.

When we’ve finished putting food on our pizza dough, Miss Cassie tells us all to sit down again.

“Now, look at your pizza. How much care did you take? Did you just throw it all on or did you put each piece of food carefully in the place where you felt that it was supposed to go? Your pizza is your life; have you taken care with it so that it’s the best that it can be, the best that you can make it?”

I look at mine and feel a bit ashamed, since while I was thinking about my life, I didn’t take as much care as I could have. I can feel my cheeks burning when a thought hits me… I didn’t take enough care in my life, and I ended up in juvenile.

I glance over at Ollie’s and see that the things he chose are clumped together and slopped over the side of the pizza tray.

Miss Cassie says, “There’s one final thing to do and that is to bake it, and what I mean by that is to ‘live your life,’ and how will you do that? Will you shove it in the oven, walk away and not tend to it, leaving it to scorch or burn? Or will you keep an eye on it, make adjustments to it if you think it might get ruined, so that it’ll turn out right? Think about it, what are you going to do to make your life as good as it possibly can be?”

She looks at each of our pizzas and says “good job” to most of us but when she gets to Ollie she says, “Oh, dear. You see how you didn’t take care of that bit and it’s all slopped over the side of the pan; well, that’ll burn when it’s cooking and it’ll ruin your pizza. Let’s get rid of it, shall we? Then it’ll be good.”

She wipes a kitchen towel around the edge of Ollie’s pizza tray so that his won’t be ruined, and carries on her inspection of our lives.

“There’s just one more thing to say, just one, and then you can cook your dinner. Did you see how I helped Ollie clean up the mess he’d made when he sloshed tomato paste over the side of the dough and onto the pizza tray? If I hadn’t it wouldn’t have been as good as it could have been. That’s the same as being here in Beach Haven and having us adults here to help you clean up the mess that’s been made in your lives so far. No one’s saying that you have made the mess, but there’s a mess there anyway, and you all need help to have it cleaned up so that you can carry on with your life and have it be the very best it can be. Do you all understand? That’s what you’re here for, and that’s why we’re here, to help you make really good choices that will make your life yummy and wonderful.”

She smiles at us, and says, “Go on, go and cook them, and mind your fingers, don’t get them burned!”

I take mine to one of the ovens and place it inside, then I go and sit with Ollie and Liam while we wait as the tantalizing smell fills the room and makes my appetite come back.

Miss Cassie continues to talk to us as we eat.

“So, think of your life as a pizza; whether your life is satisfying or nourishing will depend upon the amount of effort you put into making your pizza, your life.”

My mouth is full of pizza.

“You get to choose what you put on your pizza, what will be satisfying to you, what you choose to have in your life. You choose. You can keep the people who have hurt you in your life (they’re the sour pickles that are past their sell-by date) or you can choose the people that make you feel good. But you choose.”

I’m listening to her as I eat. If I choose, then I choose that he is not on my pizza, or in my life, but how can I have a say on whether he’s in my life or not? It’s one thing choosing what’s on a pizza, but I’m just a kid; how can I choose who’s in my life? I swallow hard and speak out.

“I choose not to have my stepfather in my life; he’s an anchovy and I don’t like them, and I hate him.”

Some kids laugh but it’s not really funny, I’m not trying to be smart-mouthed.

“I can’t stop him from being in my life, on my pizza… but he’s poisoning my pizza and making me sick.”

The kids are quiet, waiting to see what Miss Cassie will say. She’s quiet for a moment.

“That’s a tough one, isn’t it? It is a bit like being forced to have anchovies on your pizza and being forced to eat them. I guess the whole point of this exercise is to acknowledge that you have the choice over how your pizza turns out. If you’re forced to include anchovies, the way you deal with that is what will determine whether your pizza turns out to be okay or whether it’s messed up. You could smash it to pieces or throw it away, or you could sit there and have a tantrum demanding that the anchovies are picked off, but you could gently pick them off and push them to the side of the plate and ignore them. It’s the same as being forced to accept a new stepdad that you don’t like. If you kick off and have a major tantrum you’re just as likely to be told to “sit there until you eat it,” and become trapped in a confrontation where no one wins. But if you accept that he’s on your plate, you may find that you aren’t forced to swallow it.”

My appetite’s gone again and I put my fork down.

I will never accept him, yet as I think about everything Miss Cassie’s said while I lie in my bed, I wonder what would happen if I ignored him and just pushed him to the side of my plate. Would my pizza really be ruined just because it had anchovies on it, or could I still enjoy it even if I had to scrape them off and push them to the side of my plate? Can my life still be good even if he’s in it? But as I think these thoughts I feel weighed down, for although it sounds good, I know him and I don’t believe that he could ever settle for being shoved to the side of anyone’s plate, let alone be scraped off into the trash. Why is it that my mom can’t see what he’s like, why did she have to go and marry him? We were happy before he came along.

Next morning we’re in the Group Room and Miss Tina smiles at us.

“Miss Cassie tells me that you all made pizza last night and that you compared it to your lives. I like that idea, especially the idea that you are in charge of what you do in your lives and whether you make them good or bad, but there’s one thing that I really want to make clear. All of you are here because the things that have happened to you in your lives so far have caused you pain, and it’s important to know that although you are in charge of what you do with the rest of your lives, you are not responsible for all the bad things that have happened to you. That doesn’t mean, though, that each of you didn’t respond in a negative way that eventually led you to being here; we each have free will as to how we respond to the bad things that happen to us. Suicide can never be the right thing to do, ever, you’re all too precious to be lost in such an act.”

Several kids glance at each other and their discomfort tells me that that’s why they’re here.

Celia Banting 2006

This excerpt can be found in the novel, "I Only Said I Had No Choice"