The day Briony made her first trip to Foodbank WA’s Centre for Hunger relief, is a memory both bitter and sweet. She’d been given a ticket to survival, a fifty dollar voucher. Her rent was paid, the lights were on, she had nappies, baby Marlow had been fed, but Briony had been going without.
There was just enough fuel in the car to take the forty-five minute trip. Briony hated to waste fuel; she’d been saving those miles for emergencies.. and this was a matter of survival.
Three years earlier at age thirty, she never could have imagined being without food. She was fit, full of fun and loving her full time job working for an art supply specialist in Subiaco. Everything fell apart the afternoon she got a call from her doctor to come in urgently.
Briony’s breast cancer treatment started right away. She had radical breast surgery, an infuser port put in her heart, chemo and radiation. She had her precious eggs frozen and was told she could never fall pregnant naturally. Briony says the treatment worked by killing everything inside her body so there would be ongoing health issues like osteoporosis and lymphedema.
Emerging from two years of treatment, Briony felt lost and isolated. She’d been out of the social network, friends had moved on to start families and her life experiences weren’t really something others connected with. Keen to restore normality, Briony returned to the job she loved.
“After treatment when your hair grows back it makes everyone else comfortable. It makes them feel satisfied that ‘I’m ok now’, without really having to check in. People don’t understand that you are still enduring a personal struggle post cancer, also there was always this grey cloud of possibility of it returning.”
It was too much, too soon. Briony had a breakdown and hasn’t returned to her job since then.
“It was like a physical, spiritual and emotional step. I had to learn that I couldn’t replicate the person I was before that which is what I was trying to do. There was a long journey of letting go of the person that I was prior to cancer and rebuilding my sense of self from the ground up.”
The following year, Briony went to see her doctor. “I feel like I’m pregnant”, she said. The doctor and several other doctors she saw in the weeks that followed said it wasn’t possible. Early tests didn’t prove anything and when elevated hormone levels did start to show up she was sent for urgent ultrasound for fear the cancer had returned. And there she was, little Marlow, her tiny heart jumping for joy at six weeks of life.
Pregnancy is rarely easy, and for Briony there were traumas and challenges every step of the way, but little Marlow arrived safely. Briony juggled being a new mum with ongoing medical appointments including a hip replacement when her baby was only four months old.
“I was a disabled single mum so there was a real big struggle in my life. Marlow was my purpose. I was obsessed with keeping her alive because I didn’t think I was even going to get her to this earth.”
Briony struggled to pay the bills, and at a time when her own health and nutrition should have been a priority, she was putting herself last. Little Marlow was always fed, Briony hoarded what little food she had and went without.
Help for Briony came via her Mothers group. It was a group for vulnerable mums run by Uniting Care West and everyone was given a list of support services. Taking that step of asking for help was very, very hard, but Briony says by that time it was a matter of survival.
“I was apprehensive at first because it was a struggle to even get there. Once I got in and saw how much I was able to fill up my trolley with it became a relief. A relief of stress and anxiety. So much useful stuff, even a treat like an iced-tea. That food was going to make such a difference for me and last several weeks.” Briony said.
“Foodbank WA provided a safe space for me in a situation where I was vulnerable. Sometimes all it takes is someone filling up your pantry to give you the confidence to keep going.”
Briony is in a better place now, but as a single mum on a disability pension with chronic pain, lymphedema, bulging discs and osteoporosis, life is still hard work. She has regular rehabilitation but always makes time to walk Marlow to school and walk the dog. Without making time for her health Briony says she could be in a wheelchair. From time to time Briony has turned to Foodbank WA, but she still says asking for help isn’t easy.
“People aren’t going to sympathise with you just because you’re a mum trying to feed your kid, they don’t want to hear that you’ve had cancer or that you’re hungry. They don’t want to hear how they have to be responsible for you, they just want to hear what you’re doing to fix it. There was a strong sense of having to figure it out on your own and you judge yourself for it.”
“People don’t choose poverty. We shouldn’t take anything for granted, especially after this past 18 months, there are a lot more people in this situation.”
While Briony is doing a great job of caring for herself now, she will still always be priority #2, because gorgeous Marlow is her everything.
“She’s my shining light. Marlow does show empathy and kindness which was the most important impression I wanted to leave on my child. I want her to stop and notice when people need help. I know it’s part of her fundamental makeup and I’ve never been more proud of anything in my life.”
Sometimes all it takes is someone filling up your pantry to give you the confidence to keep going.