“It’s a long time without a sister” -Robert Fraser

By Vanessa Brown Edited by Jake Watson

“People don’t always understand disability. People with their cars, their parents, and their kids, all high tech, they don’t understand.”

There is no one who knows Box Hill like Robert Fraser. He is part of the furniture, as far as anyone who spends time in the area is concerned. A cheerful bloke and a “coffee-holic” by his own admission, he is always keen to chat and make friends. There is much people don’t realise when they meet Robert. He is one of the 200,000 Australians affected by schizophrenia.

Robert Fraser

Robert Fraser

“I have no one to tell me what I was like as a child,” says Robert. Robert Fraser was born on October 28, 1953 at Queen Victoria Hospital in Melbourne. Immediately placed in the care of the St Joseph’s Children’s home in Sebastopol, his parents quickly fell behind on the medical bills to keep him there.

At barely a year old, the Children’s Welfare Department took charge of Robert on November 23, 1954. Records show his parents lived a “nomadic” lifestyle.

“Assessments for me at an early age described me as ‘dull,’ and a ‘withdrawn boy,’” says Robert. He was passed around a few foster homes (“After a couple of weeks they often didn’t want to care for me anymore”), until he finally settled in a family group home in East Preston.

“They tried me at a public school, but I found the work too hard. In those days, the class size was anywhere up to 50 students!” Soon after, Robert moved to the Croxton Special School, with class sizes of six.

“When I first started at Croxton, I cried for 15 minutes in the morning and again later in the day. Doctors observed that I was unable to mix well with other children, and I often found myself alone with no friends. Sometimes I still feel like this. I think that’s why I’m so talkative, so I can make friends and not be so lonely. “

Continually moved from group home to foster care and back again, Robert had no personal possessions. A list he has kept to this day shows all the things he owned in 1967: a pullover, shirt, trousers, belt, shoes, socks, singlets and underpants, amounting to a total of $15.

Successfully living in the foster home of Mr and Mrs Murphy of Alphington, Robert decided it was time he went out on his own. The Murphys taught him to dress neatly, shower regularly, do his laundry and catch public transport. Robert found work as a ‘bricky’s labourer,’ and travelled to and from his workplace in Research every day.

Things didn’t go to plan though, and in 1977 Robert suffered a psychotic breakdown and was admitted to Larundel Mental Asylum.

“I was 26 years old at the time. It was around then that I was referred to a psychiatrist who helped me a lot. I found out later he had an affair with a patient of his and wasn’t allowed to practice. I thought he was a very smart man, though I could tell you a few stories about him!.”

Robert returned to Larundel many times through the 70s and 80s, and his life took a turn for the worse. He stopped taking (antipsychotic) medication, and voices in his head would tell him to do things like spend all his savings. In 1980, Robert committed himself at the asylum. He felt depressed, and wasn’t eating or sleeping properly. This time doctors diagnosed him with a stronger condition- “chronic paranoid schizophrenic with psychotic depression.” He tried to commit suicide by running in front of a car.

This time though, his stay was not all doom and gloom. Robert learned to read and write. His new medication enriched his quality of life. He found out later that his mother, who he never met before, was an inpatient in Larundel at the same time!

“I remember saying ‘hello, Heather’ to a lady in Larundel. It wasn’t until years later when it clicked that the same Heather Stewart was my mother.”

“I met with her a few times years later, in a clinic in South Melbourne. She was also a paranoid schizophrenic and she died when she was 59. That’s younger than I am now,” says Robert.

One of the best times in Robert’s life was when he took off on a holiday around Australia, “I’m not allergic to planes you know!” He went to Queensland, Perth, Tasmania and Sydney. He bush walked in Tasmania and camped in the National Park. Walking is one of Robert’s favourite hobbies. The holiday got him started.

Things kept improving. He lives in a flat in Box Hill, which he keeps neat and clean. “I’ve been brought up clean and I can’t live dirty, people don’t want to know you otherwise. I’ve been in Box Hill years now. Box Hill Police are on my automatic dial list, people know me around here. It’s even been said that I’m ‘quite an identity’ around Box Hill.”

Robert recently met his sister, adopted before he was born. It took 60 years to find each other. As he says, “It’s a long time without a sister.”