Cilla was very clear about the message she wanted to convey. It was one learned from her own experience with counselling that not only didn’t help but may have done damage, as she explained to the Commissioner.
‘Really what I’d like to say is you just can’t hang a shingle on the wall and say you’re a counsellor, and offer professional services to people who are genuinely traumatised, which I believe I was.
‘What I would like is some accredited and trustworthy counselling service that doesn’t cost an extra $100 over the Medicare levy.’
Born in the 1960s, Cilla was an only child who grew up in a small community in rural New South Wales, where her parents owned a farm. She went to the local primary school, just two classrooms and two teachers, one of whom was also the principal. It was difficult for her to share her story of the abuse she believes she experienced there, as she doesn’t really remember it.
The incident occurred while she was in Year 1. ‘The clearest memory I have is standing on the [school] verandah’, she told the Commissioner. She had marks on her legs, from being caned. She knows she’d been sent to the principal’s office for punishment, and that she’d hidden in a cupboard while she waited for him to arrive. ‘I knew that something really bad had happened to me in the principal’s office. But I don’t remember, in that memory, knowing what that really bad thing was.
‘I remember him coming in and being really angry. And I feel like I should be able to remember really clearly what happens after he opens the door, but I don’t.’
Cilla said it was clear to her something had happened, and her life as it unfolded afterwards suggested some trauma had occurred. Though she could vividly recall her kindergarten year, her next year of school was a blank. She had to repeat Year 2, as she suddenly suffered acute learning difficulties.
‘I was having trouble with learning, I distinctly remember that. Learning how to read and how to count and add up – all those things created anxieties. I can call it anxiety now but I didn’t know what to call it back then, but I remember finding it extremely difficult to learn how to do any of those things. Sitting in class was difficult.’
Anxiety became a feature of her life. A once active, extroverted child, she became quiet and withdrawn. When she was in Year 6 a counsellor came to assess students attending high school the following year. Cilla was so nervous she wasn’t able to sit the test, and at the beginning of Year 7 found she’d been put in a remedial class for slow learners.
Troubled high school years followed. ‘I went into teenagerhood feeling ashamed, and there was something wrong with me.’
It’s a source of satisfaction that she went on to prove she wasn’t the backward student the school system said she was. She trained as a nurse and later went back to university and got a BA and a masters degree. When she spoke to the Commission she was working on a PhD, supported by a scholarship. She married at 21 and is still married, some 30 years later – another source of satisfaction.
Throughout her early years though, she continued to suffer severe anxiety and self doubt.
‘I just felt ashamed of myself, I don’t know why, and kind of dirty.’ In her early 30s, there were conflicts at her work ‘and that’s when I kind of crashed’. A colleague advised her to see a counsellor, and referred her to Anglicare.
‘The woman that I saw took a very hypnosis approach and tried to get me to reconstruct the memory’, Cilla said. After about six sessions, the counsellor said she didn’t need to see Cilla any more. Cilla was devastated. ‘It felt like I’d been molested all over again’, she said.
‘I have found out subsequently that this is the worst kind of counselling to give survivors of child abuse because it only serves to re-traumatise them’, she told the Commissioner.
She later decided she still needed help, and this time turned to the Baptist Community Services. ‘I needed someone to help me make sense of all this stuff that had happened and whether, really, did I have a real memory here’, she said.
Her experience this time was even worse. In the first session she explained what had happened. Ten minutes into the second session, the counsellor interrupted her. ‘The only way I can sum it up is she told me to get over it. That she had more important people to see, with real problems.’
Since then Cilla has relied on friends and is mostly doing well. But she believes she should have had better support than she got. ‘My parents were concerned about me, they knew something bad had happened … I think people are much more aware now. I think that if it was now, Mum would have worked it out. But back then, people didn’t talk about child molesters or anything like that.’
Cilla’s complaint about the principal was genuine, she said. But the counsellors she saw didn’t treat it that way.
‘I’m cross about that. Cranky.’