‘Whilst I have blacked out a lot of what’s happened to me, some moments are etched into my brain like a cigarette burn and I can’t quite get rid of the scar.’
The level of abuse inflicted on Audrey throughout her childhood was so traumatic that dissociation became the only way she could cope with life. Along with a litany of psychological impacts, she sometimes has flashbacks that have no sound or vision attached, just a high level of panic that she can’t get away from.
Audrey grew up in the 1970s in Western Australia, in what she described as ‘a highly dysfunctional and abusive family’, where she experienced violence, torture, depravation and rape.
The sexual abuse committed against her started from a young age and continued well into her teenage years. Her abusers included men who lived in the same block of flats as her family, her great grandfather – watched on by her mother, someone in her father’s bedroom, a policeman who was her mother’s boyfriend, an old man on the street, a friend of her father’s in their own lounge room, boys from school, a friend’s uncle, and another man on the street.
‘This had a devastating impact on my psychological development. Numbness and shut down was my coping mechanism. I saw running away as the only way to survive. I felt it was safer for me to be on the streets. I slept in clothes bins, playgrounds and my school.
‘I look back now and think how sad that is. I was a child, a little girl. How damaged I must have been to feel safer in those places. I don’t even like walking in the dark now.’
She ran away from home over and over, hoping that somehow she would be rescued, but it never happened. Each time, the police returned her to her mother’s house. Nobody ever asked her why she kept running away.
Eventually child protection were called in but they too failed to help her, instead making her feel like she’d done something wrong. They threatened to charge her with being an uncontrollable child. Audrey said she tried to stay at home but just felt too unsafe and ran away again.
The timelines of Audrey’s story are fractured, as a result of her blocking out painful experiences, but at some point she was placed into foster care and sent to see Doctor Waters, a child psychiatrist, for help.
‘He built my trust by playing games with me and laughing and joking. I trusted him. I really believed he would help me. I was hopeful and happy. But the games started to change. He asked me to take my pants off.’
Waters raped Audrey during repeated sessions in his care.
Audrey said the fact that Waters was ‘bigger and smarter’ than her, and that she had been specifically sent there for help, contributed to her sense of trust in him. She said she believed him, even though what he did to her felt wrong.
‘What Doctor Waters did to me was terrible. He took a tortured, fragile little girl and used me as his plaything, damaging me even further. I don’t think I’ll ever fully recover. I still have flashbacks today, lots of them, taking me back to the feelings of fear, disgust and shame.’
The abuse only stopped when Audrey ran away again. She had further placements in foster homes and eventually became involved with some street kids and ended up in juvenile detention at 15 years old.
At this point, what might seem like the impossible happened.
A social worker offered Audrey the chance to take up a sponsored training place on a sailing ship. He said he would only give her the spot if she was determined to make the most of it.
‘I went and sailed for two weeks with all these – I call them normal people – and it was the first time I hadn’t been around mean people, violent people, alcoholic people. Where I grew up was a lot of violence and stuff, like a lower socio-economic area, so I never mixed with people that didn’t have to fight for everything, I guess.
‘They were a lot more calmer and just really nice to be around and I just remember wanting a life like that and wanted to do anything that would help me get that way.
‘That really changed my life. From then on I got a job and started to find things in life that I wanted to go after. I knew that there was a different way.’
Audrey said for a long time she still felt that the abuse had been her fault, that there was something wrong with her. When she was in her mid-20s she told a boyfriend and a friend about the abuse. She then disclosed to a counsellor and is now in regular therapy.
The impacts of her abuse are deep and ongoing. Issues she faces include a fear of doctors and therapists, depression, numbness, anxiety, panic attacks, nausea, flashbacks, dissociation, self-harm, suicide attempts, low self-esteem, eating disorders, trust issues, shame, feeling disconnected from people, sleeping problems, nightmares, fear of men, fear of closed spaces, fear of people in power, fear of sex, relationship issues, and anger.
She said she faces all of these on a daily basis and ‘it takes an incredible amount of effort for me just to function’.
After talking to the Commissioner, and despite her fear of authority, Audrey decided that she was strong enough to begin the process of referring Waters to the police, in the hope that her actions might help someone else.
She has ongoing support from her partner and a counsellor and continues to make progress in dealing with her past trauma.
She told the Commissioner, ‘I feel good and I feel hopeful. I was ready for this and it was good that it’s happened, that I got to say it. I feel at this point that it’s good’.
Audrey’s decision to report Waters to police resulted in him being charged with child sex offences and criminal proceedings being taken against him.