Jamie ‘Stedo’ Stedman has lived a few different lives… he discusses drugs, family, death (his own), and his view on finding ‘purpose’.
When I first met Jamie Stedman, ex-prison officer and current editor of Orange City Life, I immediately liked him. Not sure why, but that’s how it works for me. Over the next few years, I changed my mind several times as we butted heads big time, but I always came back around. On this particular day when we first met, Stedo and I were introduced, we exchanged hellos, and that was it – I knew he was an alright bloke.
What I didn’t know then, and wouldn’t for years, were the colourful stories that shaped who he is, or who he chooses to be. A man of loyalty, bluntness, defensiveness, humour and often pig-headedness. It’s a lot easier to understand him when you discover where he’s been: a kid who tried his best to look after a dysfunctional family; who hid heroin in piles of pigeon shit from his mother; who has died twice with a cricket ball through his spleen. And that’s not even half of it.
The eldest of his mother’s six children, Stedo’s childhood involved trying to protect “the kids” from witnessing his mother’s drug use.
“The first six years of my life were normal. Mum was a very hard worker. Dad was out of the picture when I was five. My mum was the first ever female Manager of Kentucky Fried Chicken in Australia. You know, it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it was a massive deal. She was a hard worker, a really hard worker and a provider. Back then.”
I ask how it all started.
“It was the 1970s. Back then heroin was as easy to access as a bag of chips. She started on soft stuff, tried the hard stuff because that’s what you did back then, and it just spiralled out of control. She got involved with some men who weren’t very nice to her, and in some awful situations.
“We got raided by the police one time, and mum shoved all the drugs down the front of my pants because she knew the police couldn’t touch me. I would have been eight years old. I went out the back and I buried it all. I remember thinking to myself at the time, ‘I will never live this life. This will never be me.’
“I got knocked around a couple of times for it. I hid them out the back in the pigeon cage, and I’ve got a funny feeling the boyfriend found them,” he laughs. “I thought to myself, ‘At least if they find them, they’ll get covered in shit digging them up.’
After taking on a lot of responsibility from a young age, it was somewhat matter-of-course that young Stedo took most of the impact of a terrible car accident when he was nine.
“I was in the back passenger seat with a couple of cricket balls in my pocket. We ended up wrapped around a telegraph pole, the car hit it on my side. The cricket balls went through my spleen, and one of my ribs pierced my lung.
“Back then if you damaged your spleen they’d remove it, and no-one with their spleen removed had lived longer than twenty-five. They trialled micro-surgery on me instead, I got one hundred and sixty five internal stitches. I died on the operating table twice.”
At the time he appreciated not having to worry about anything for what he thinks were a few months, “But it’s hard to say, it’s all scattered.”
Stedo is still close with his mother and maintains she did the best she could.
“She did her absolute best in a fucked up, horrible way. She did notice we had no food. It was her absolute burden every day, but we didn’t have any money. We went four months without electricity at one stage. There were always drugs, but there was never food.
“Although one time, she gave me thirty eight dollars to get groceries, with a list. I got everything on the list with my brother, went to the checkout and realised I’d lost the money. Thirty eight dollars was a lot of money! I just cried and cried for an hour, begging people to help us.”
So, did anyone? I ask.
“Nup. We looked everywhere. I eventually found two dollars and bought two dollars worth of hot chips, which was a lot back then, and took them back home. Mum had another baby by then, so the little baby, that’s what she had to have, too. Because there was just no more money.
“That experience scarred the shit out of me for a long time. It’s funny that’s the sort of stuff that’s stuck with me – the things where I thought ‘fuuuuck, now what?’”
Stedo smiles as he shares his memories of stealing food with his younger brother who was closest in age, despite knowing the situation was far from ideal.
“There was the time we got busted stealing from the grocery shop because we didn’t know any other way. Me and my little brother had all these chocolates stuffed up our jumper and we got sprung together. The shop owners basically stood there screaming at us, dragged us up into the manager’s office. I knew there nothing they could do. They said, ‘We’re gonna ring the police’. To me it was like, ‘Cool, this will be great. Maybe they will help us.’”
Nothing changed, and it was years before help actually came for the kids. It all started with Stedo’s beloved Pop working behind the scenes, against the wishes of his wife.
“My grandfather on Dad’s side hired a Private Investigator to find out where we were. Mum had distanced herself from everyone in the family quite a while ago, and Dad would have had no idea where we were, he was doing his own thing. That’s just the way it was back then.
“I would have been about eight and I remember it as clear as a bell: I remember being at school and looking up and thinking, ‘Geez that man looks like my Pop, across the road’. He just nodded, and I took no notice. When I finished school that day, he was standing there waiting for us. He had lollies.”
Stedo’s voice shakes as he remembers the emotion he felt at that moment.
“I thought we’d been rescued. But he couldn’t take us. It was all a big legal thing at the time.
“When he decided to find us, he had to hide it. He hid it from Nan. She didn’t want to get involved, she begged him not to. You know how it was back then, ‘Mind your own business’. But he was determined. From then things happened very quickly.”
For the next couple of years, things got worse and the money disappeared fast, especially when Stedo’s mum stopped working, opting to move to Sydney and shift the children around to avoid being found. Stedo recalls going to four different schools in as many months, with his schooling suffering in some areas.
“I’ve always been a reader, but maths was difficult. It just never happened. I went to one school, and another and they were so far in front of where I was. Then another and they were doing it differently. I always just managed.
“I hate not being able to do maths now. When I’m helping with my kids’ homework I have to break it down from the answer and work it out backwards. Or I google it for Christ’s sake! Frustrates the shit out of me. Maybe maths would have never been my thing, but it would have been nice to have that grounding.”
While the family was being moved around from place to place, school to school, Stedo’s Grandfather was still doing everything he could, “But we kept shifting and they kept missing us I suppose.”
That was, until Stedo’s mum finally ended up in gaol and the kids got taken off her.
“Myself and my brother mostly stayed together and my younger sister – I can’t recall the timing of it properly, but she was only six and I think she stayed with Mum at the rehab facility. Then Mum had another baby. She was born a drug addict, born addicted to heroin.
“We could have stayed with Pop, and we did end up back there for a while. But my brother was wild, he was too much for Nan.
“Then we went out to an aunty and uncles, then to other aunty and uncles on the other side…all a bit fucked up at the time but I didn’t care. I remember thinking, ‘As long as we’ve got food in the fridge and a warm bed at night I don’t care.’ And people were taking care of us all for the right reasons.”
By this stage the kids had been declared Wards of the State.
“It’s not the same as a Foster Child. Ward of State just means that the State is responsible for you. When we needed clothes the State would pay for it. When Mum was in a rehab facility in Goulburn an old matey used to pick us up and take us to the shops – he was from a Welfare Agency of some kind. They’d organise it all.”
Whenever Stedo was placed somewhere without his younger brother, he’d simply run away, or make threats in order to get him back. Eventually the authorities got tired of it and kept the two eldest boys together, although the girls remained living with other family members. And sometimes they’d all end up back with his mum.
By the time Stedo was twelve his dad had been located, who came back from Sydney to raise the two eldest boys, since the other children had a different father. By that stage there were only four kids.
“He packed up and took on us two boys, uprooted his own life to put us back in Orange because that was where we wanted to be. The two girls stayed with Mum and then they resettled.”
He has no idea why they girls were allowed to stay with his mum, but believes that sometimes they were looked after by other family members. He mentions they aren’t particularly close as adults.
“They all have my number, we keep in touch but we aren’t close. My sisters distance themselves from me a bit, and that’s OK. They’re smart girls, I always knew what they were capable of. I expected too much from them.”
Stedo explains how his background influenced his career choices later in life.
“I became a prison officer as a ‘fuck you.’ A fuck you to society and to my background. If anybody should have put the green clothes on, it should have been me, but I chose not to.”
I ask Stedo if it made him have more empathy for the prisoners.
“It did and it didn’t. I could be sympathetic to their issues and what got them there, but not sympathetic of them not getting their shit together. I’m working on that. But don’t play the victim card. You got you there, no-one else.”
Years later, Stedo had the “normal” family he’d always wanted with wife Lesa, a son, and a feisty little girl on the way. That’s when the course of his life changed yet again, coinciding with another visit from his Pop.
“I was in hospital for three months with what they think was swine flu. I was put in and out of comas during that time, and everyone else who’d been admitted with the same thing had died. There was a point where I decided I couldn’t fight anymore. It was 2am in the morning when I made the nurses let me call my wife to say goodbye.
“Next thing I was walking through a field and my Pop was standing there with my Nonna from the other side of the family. They were the two grandparents who had died by that stage, my favourites. I thought, ‘Why are they together?’. I kept walking towards them but I could see they were angry. Nonna was shushing me away and Pop asked me what I was doing there, and told me to go back.”
During this time, Stedo received remarkable support from his prison officer “family”, for which he’s forever grateful. He looked at life differently after that experience, but not only in the way people might assume.
“When I lived and other people didn’t, I had survivor’s guilt for a while. People would say to me, ‘You must have a whole new lease on life’ and I’d think, ‘Must I?’ I felt like I maybe I had to earn my place here.
“I went back to working at the prison, and one of the crims had something that was contraband and I thought, ‘You know what? I just don’t give a fuck’. That’s when I knew it was time to quit.”
Stedo got the role as Managing Editor at Orange City Life, a magazine with a mission to “bring out the best in people”. Among other things, it provides a platform for members of the community to share what matters to them.
“I like that I can help other people tell their story. There aren’t many places where people can do that sort of thing. I think that’s a good thing. You know, maybe that’s enough.”