I had suffered sexual violation as a child.
I finally disclosed as an adolescent and was referred to you.
You, a sexual abuse counsellor
I was despairing with all I had to navigate –inescapable memories, fear, devastation, hurt, loneliness and isolation
I put my trust in you, to help me move free of the pain.
I should have been safe with you.
You were deliberate in your sexual assault.
I could not comprehend what you had done.
You, a woman, I thought I’d be safe
You showed me I could trust no one.
I stopped you and buried it, I could not deal with it.
I blamed myself that I had let my guard down.
I tried hard to have the life I deserved.
I sometimes decided this life was not for me.
Things became much worse.
You continued your violence.
You supplied alcohol and drugs that brought a welcome relief for the hell in my head.
You protected yourself at the cost of my freedom.
You entrapped me.
You isolated me so I could not tell.
You presented yourself as a caring professional.
You are a highly skilled perpetrator of violence.
You knew what you had done, and what I was responding to.
You sat on psychiatric assessments about me.
You let them label me.
You let me be committed.
You had the ultimate power.
I believed that I would never recover, that something was wrong with me.
I was robbed of the hope of having a better life.
I thought my family was better off without me.
You could have killed me.
I acknowledge my silence.
Knowing others would believe you, keeping quiet kept me alive.
I acknowledge my scars.
Pain to my body brought ease to my mind
If I had not cut, I would have died.
I acknowledge my drug use.
It helped me laugh and forget.
I acknowledge my fast driving.
It made me feel alive.
This was my resistance to all that you did and what it was I was up against
I acknowledge my past.
It is exhausting trying to hide it.
Perpetrators of sexual violence live amongst us, they are rarely strangers.
They are people we know, friends, family members, professionals and colleagues.
Their violence is deliberate.
They work to obscure it.
They work to silence us.
How we respond to victims allows this.
We blame victims.
We continually ask them why they didn’t make the violence stop.
We declare that perfectly appropriate responses to violence are symptoms to be treated.
We take stories of survival and classify them as disorders.
We give victims mental health labels.
We are well-meaning but we create more harm.
We should honour victims by hearing their full stories in context.
It is here you will learn how they resist violence.
You will see their spirit, dignity, warmth, courage and ability.
You will see how perpetrators use strategies to silence and control.
We will then place the responsibility of violence where it belongs, with perpetrators.
You will always be a perpetrator, even though you tried to obscure it.
You know it. I know it.
I have survived against the odds.
I am a health professional and a mother.
I have done all I can to protect others from harm
I am honest, caring and loving.
I would never intentionally harm another.
I still have courage, spirit and humour.
I have hidden my past for years.
I was ashamed of my journey through the psychiatric system.
I resisted, I fought for my life.
I can now tell my story.
You can no longer silence me.
I chose to have my photo taken at “the Mount’. Mount Maunganui is a special place for me as I came to Tauranga to start a new life and to escape my past.
When I came to Tauranga I could barely function. I had been taken out of the psychiatric ward. The best part of my day was when it turned to night fall. I could take some pills and shut out the world for a little while. I could no longer smile and I just wanted to curl up and die. I thought I had nothing left.
I was shown a post card of Mount Maunganui as an option to move somewhere different. It looked like a resort with its apartment buildings, surf and white sandy beach. I have always loved the sea.
That postcard was enough for me to try one more time. Best of all it was far enough away that no one would know me.
I learnt Mt Ruapehu was in driving distance of Tauranga. I had always wanted to learn to snowboard.
There is nothing like sitting on top of a mountain. You are untouchable. Especially when the clouds come in and the world below disappears. Snowboarding became my thing. I would take off mid-week through winter to hit the slopes. I’d come back absolutely shattered and hardly able to walk. The exhilaration of flying down the mountain on a board that could throw you off at any moment. The feeling of being alive when you managed to stay on against the odds because in the early days I had no control at all. I eventually mastered it and it felt great.
For me the hardest part for me being a survivor of sexual violence as a child was the isolation and loneliness. It’s like you are on the outside looking in. You have all these worries you can’t talk about to anyone. Your life becomes one lie after another. You learn to smile when at times you are dying inside. Nothing makes sense. You become an observer.
Even after the abuse had stopped the isolation and loneliness continued.
I recall my friends talking about going out with boys and their first sexual experience. The isolation I felt because I thought that the abuse I had suffered was my first sexual experience. I wish I had known this was not the case.
People ask, ‘why didn’t you tell?’ As if it’s that simple. I can tell you that I told a million times in my head. I had many conversations in my head trying to find the words. You can’t tell, but you imagine telling. When you focus on what the perpetrator did to make it impossible to tell instead of thinking about why a victim didn’t tell, it automatically shifts the blame from the victim to where it belongs.
We blame mothers too — “how did she not know?” I know my mother struggles with this. I can’t imagine her pain because as a mother I too would be devastated.
It’s quite simple — it is the perpetrators actions that work to obscure the violence and silence the victim.
I knew to tell would cause so much pain. I was a very caring kid and never wanted to hurt anyone. Although my sister may say otherwise as she often wore the brunt of my anger at times. For that I am truly sorry.
I was a kid who always loved adventure, especially outdoors. I would put everything in to what I enjoyed. I was the dirtiest kid coming off the soccer field as I would put my all into a game, and a willing volunteer to try out some crazy go kart with a sail that my brother had built, or be the first one to jump off a high ledge into the sea.
You would think that after you tell there would be some relief, and you wouldn’t feel so alone. I felt more isolated. It brought more questions and more pressure on me to name the perpetrator when I sensed people hoped it wasn’t someone that they loved. The memories of what he did flooded me and I could not share these with anyone. It was too hard. I just wanted everyone to go away.
Part of my survival after disclosing was driving for miles. Luckily back then petrol was cheap. I would drive until I was exhausted. It was my escape, like you could just drive away from all of this. At times I just didn’t want to live, I was so distressed.
This despair led to my first experience of the mental health system where they told me there was something wrong with me, that I had a mental health condition that needed treatment. I believed them. They noted I had been sexually abused as a child, they asked about my sleeping, my appetite and my wish to die. They gave me medication to treat the symptoms of despair. I took the medication, I so wanted to feel better. I didn’t feel better
When I met the ‘sexual abuse’ counsellor, I finally had someone I could talk to that wasn’t family. In time, the counsellor offered me a place to stay in her home. I thought she was amazing, she was going out on a limb for me. My family was relieved and they too put their trust in her. Because she was a woman and a sexual abuse counsellor, it never occurred to me that I would be unsafe.
For the first time in years I finally let my guard down and I was sobbing about all I had suffered as a child. This became her opportunity to sexually assault me. I kept crying and the assault continued. I can’t write in words what this did to me. It was simply cruel.
For years I couldn’t understand why I didn’t drop her to the floor. I have since learnt a lot about the ways that victims respond to violence. You have this expectation that you will react a certain way — society does too. The lights went out for me, I shut down and was locked in my head again.
All I wanted was to feel better and find some peace about what had happened to me as a child. I went back to smiling when I was dying inside. I tried to erase it from your mind. That was all I could do at the time. You just exist and you do anything that gets you through, but you never really live. The alcohol and drugs helped me forget for a while.
Unbeknown to me the counsellor told my family that I needed to work intensively in counselling without family support. I sensed a change had occurred and thought my family had given up on me.I believed I had nowhere to go. The actions of the mental health system told me I was unwell and needed to be ‘fixed.’ I thought I couldn’t survive on my own. This further entrapped me.
The mental health system first labelled me as a ‘sexual abuse victim.’ This meant that professionals already had an opinion of me, how I would ‘be,’ how to treat me and how I would progress. I took the medication as I wanted to feel better, when I didn’t improve more and more medication followed.
When I didn’t get better, more labels followed.
There were times I was relieved to be locked up. To be taken out of the world for a while because it was just all too hard.
I recall sitting up until the early hours in the psychiatric ward, desperate to tell someone what had happened to me. Instead I was given medication and sent to bed. Sometimes I refused medication, not because I was ‘non-compliant’ but because I was trying to get to a point that I could say what was happening out loud. I was fighting to tell. Other times I gave up and asked for medication to stop the conversations in my head, as it was pointless. They did nothing to show me that anyone was interested in what had happened to me. They had already decided what I was, and I was there in a holding pen until showed improvement or it was time to be released, whichever came first.
I could not relate to the psychiatrist who first saw me. I asked for someone else and was told in a letter that I should ‘... commit my energy to using the help at hand.’ It was implied I was trying to find the ‘perfect fit’ when in fact I was trying to find someone I could trust.
My basic rights were denied. I couldn’t be upset or angry as this would just feed their perceptions of me. I soon learnt that it didn’t matter what I had to say.
What’s sad is the many missed opportunities to intervene that would have reduced my suffering. There is clear documentation from professionals expressing concerns about the counsellor, but nobody acted.
What is not documented is that throughout it all, I trained as a nurse. The strength it took to turn up feeling absolutely miserable, to try and focus on studying. One tutor asked me if I really wanted to be there. She thought I was disinterested when I was simply struggling to focus or even exist.
I ensured other children were safe by making sure my childhood perpetrator attended treatment.
For over 20 years I have continued to fight to ensure the counsellor cannot harm others. It has not been an easy journey. I had to sit next to her at a hearing as I tried to tell my story.
This should never have happened. The psychiatrist even provided her with a statement for the hearing. Thankfully it was recognised as a complete breech of my rights. It just reinforced to me that I had been right in not telling at the time of my psychiatric care. I would not have been believed and that would have destroyed me.
The counsellor could only be charged with unlawful sexual connection. Just that sentence makes me want to vomit. The language used in law that minimises and mutualises sexual violence needs to change.
The police never formally interviewed her as she lawyered up and produced her own statement, which they accepted. The police file is almost all about my psychiatric history. This is not the fault of Police, it is the reality. They would never have won a case against her. My psychiatric history has served her well in obscuring what she did. I have done all I can.
While we continue to blame and label victims we will continue to deny their right to justice. We give perpetrators a free pass to continue to perpetrate.
As a health professional, it has been a difficult journey.
Every piece of literature I read tells me that “people like me” are likely to have many future problems and that they will probably not be great parents unless they get help. I know this because I have listened to many lectures on how damaged we are likely to be, and every time I sink in my chair.
I tried many times over the years to return to counselling as I wanted to be a mum. I didn’t believe I would be a good parent unless I dealt with all of this. Many times, I felt I had failed as the anxiety was so intense and I couldn’t continue. It just reinforced that “they” were right about me, I was screwed. At times, I thought that this would be my life forever. I had learned to fear my anxiety, when in fact it was just a normal response to all that was happening.
There are many documents that said it’s a shame I was ‘resistant to help.’
One thing I know about me is that I was persistent, not resistant. I kept trying.
I could never let myself cry in counselling, it was just too unsafe. The fear that I might cry was terrifying. If I cried I knew I might not be able to protect myself. This made talking about anything distressing impossible. I could feel myself shut down, even when I didn’t want to. I would talk about other things, hoping that I could move into a space where it was safe to talk more. But I was stuck, and I felt frustrated by this.
My life has been unnecessarily hard, but it’s not all sad. I was loved by my parents and they wanted the best for us kids. They truly wanted to provide a happy, carefree lifestyle for us. We grew up in a small seaside community and could swim every day. I lived in the sea swimming, snorkelling and sailing. We always had animals to love and this became so important in my survival. I have never been without a dog in my life. They instilled in me a love of camping and outdoor adventures that my own kids will benefit from. They supported my soccer playing which was lifesaving for me. I had parents that wanted us to have careers and choices in life. I had a nephew I would have done anything for, and was lucky to have care of from time to time. I had an aunt and uncle that stood by me no matter what, a sister that spent a lot of time visiting me in psychiatric care when she was struggling to parent a small child on her own, and a brother who always helped me to laugh (we won’t tell our mum how!). I have a mother who against medical advice took me out of psychiatric care.
I have had good people along the way. People who truly know me. One friend was the only person ever who directly asked about my scars. My simple answer was “abuse”. She has hung in there to hear my story. It has taken years. Friends that have just said the right thing at the right time. Friends who take the piss out of me.
Colleagues who have become friends because they share the same professional integrity and desire to help. Who hate the bullshit. Who stand up for change when they know the way we treat victims of violence, though well-meaning is not working.
I became a parent of two beautiful children. They make me laugh every day.
The second image is of my wrists. I thought really hard about showing this image. I show this picture because professionals constantly view cutting as attention seeking or copycat type behaviour.
The first cut I made to my wrist was with a knife. I had attended my first sex education class at school and came to realise all that was happening to me. The panic and fear was indescribable. I drank anything marked poison in the shed. When that failed I stabbed my wrist with a knife.
That first cut was such a relief. It was all I could do. I could not stop what was happening to me. Nobody knew about that cut because I hid what I had done. I knew no one at school who was cutting and it certainly wasn’t on TV 30 years ago.
There have been other cuts over the years. For me it was like a pressure relief valve for my head. It was often the only way I could cry. I show this picture because in health we need to be talking more about cutting and what it means for that person. For years I have been self-conscious of my scars. I have heard many health professionals discuss cutting and those that cut. Often their eyes roll.
The fact that someone would inflict pain on themselves tells you they are suffering and distressed. To call it anything else is just plain stupid.
This is what I did to survive and because I hated every part of what was done to me but I could do nothing to stop it. This picture also symbolises that I was not resistant to help, that I keep putting my hand out for help.
This past year I have worked in the area of family violence and child protection. I cannot see myself doing anything else. I have learnt more about how victim’s respond to violence. This has been a rewarding experience, both professionally and personally. I have learnt so much about my own responses to violence. I understand now that my responses were a form of resistance, not only to the sexual violence I experienced but also to the institutional violence that followed.
It is important to always understand the context in which responses occur.
I want to see changes in health so that we stop blaming and attaching mental health labels to victims of violence. There are multiple services that aim to fix victims when it is in fact the perpetrator’s violence that we need to address. We put so much responsibility solely on victims. It requires a complete change in how we think and practise.
It is important for me to no longer stay silent about my own story.
I am so grateful to the work of Dr Allan Wade, Dr Cathy Richardson and Dr Linda Coates for restoring my dignity, and to Response Based Counsellor Bren Balcombe who has taken me on this personal journey. This has been life changing.
I am so grateful that my practice as a health professional, though well-meaning has been influenced for the better. Every survivor of sexual violence, and every health professional working in the field of violence, should have the opportunity to engage with Response-Based Practice.