When Edna was growing up children were expected to do as they were told, and never to question the judgement of adults. Her childhood was happy, though her family upheld strict traditional values.
Edna was required to have orthopaedic surgery when she was around nine years old. ‘Prior to going into hospital I can still remember my mother telling me to do as I was told by doctors and nurses, and not to cause them any trouble.’
It was the late-1960s, and this operation took place in a public hospital in the Illawarra region of New South Wales. A metal frame was put over her bed while she recovered, so that her blankets did not touch her. This limited her visibility when she was lying down.
One weekend other girls in her ward had been discharged, and Edna was alone in her room. A man wearing a white coat came in. He had a stethoscope in his pocket, so she assumed he was one of the medical staff. He directed her to lift up her nightgown, and she did so.
As Edna was not wearing any underwear, she was fully exposed. This man – ‘I now wonder if he was a doctor, or just someone presenting as a doctor to gain access’ – then sexually assaulted her.
‘I didn’t scream and I couldn’t run. I just froze. I can still see him standing over me, watching and looking at me, feel him touching me.’
When he had finished abusing her, he pulled her nightdress down, threw the blankets over her, and walked out. ‘I never saw him again.’
Having been raised to always do as she was told, and never query her elders, Edna was unable to disclose this abuse. ‘I felt if I told my family I wouldn’t be believed, it would have been my fault, and I would be in trouble.
‘I’ve carried these same thoughts with me ever since. I still have a fear of being judged by disclosing my secret. Carrying this has always set me apart from others.’
Edna does not feel she ever ‘fitted’ into her family, and often feels the same in social settings. ‘I find it difficult to trust people, and will back away if people start asking questions or want to get too close.’
She ‘became very much an advocate for women’s rights, and I rebelled against the traditional family model of the female, and people telling me what to do as a woman’.
In her late teens, ‘I had what I now recognise as an eating disorder’. She has only ever disclosed the abuse to five people, including two friends.
Her personal relationships have been unsuccessful. ‘My choice of partner is seriously flawed. Now I actively avoid relationships rather than have another bad one.
‘I am a workaholic, and drive myself to achieve, as it stops me thinking too much, and going places I don’t want to go.’
Edna lives with ‘a number of health problems, which I now understand are associated with targets of child abuse, including gynaecological problems’, and has been unable to have children.
‘For years, I’ve had recurring nightmares where I feel like someone is sitting on my bed and leaning over me. It’s so real I can feel their breath on the back of my neck.
‘I wake in a panic too scared to move, with my heart racing, and I’m trying to scream but no sound will come out. For more mornings than I care to count, I just stand in the shower and let the tears fall.’
Edna finds it hard to deal with being exposed to reports and conversations about child abuse in the media and elsewhere. ‘While the increased awareness, discussion and media coverage of this crime is absolutely necessary, it also heightens my anxiety, and I have a lot of difficulty in taking part in such discussions.
‘I find myself either very angry, or withdraw from the conversation in panic. My chest tightens, and I am unable to breathe.’
Edna has been prescribed anti-depressants at various stages of her life. She saw a counsellor in the early 2000s, after being bereaved, ‘however the counsellor was young, and not equipped to deal with my issues’.
Over the last year or two, Edna started ‘having panic attacks, memory loss, and uncharacteristic outburst of either tears or temper’. She consulted a psychologist, and after a while was able to disclose the sexual abuse, which lead to a diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
‘I’m angry at how difficult it is to get help. I want targets of child abuse and other trauma to have direct access to psychologists (and Medicare), without having to go through their GP. The current process stops people getting help, and leaves the statistics largely underestimated.’
Despite these difficulties, Edna achieved numerous qualifications, and has had a successful career. ‘I think I’ve had a very good support network. I’ve always had good and close friends, and I have friends that go back a very long way.’ She doesn’t take any medications for her mental health these days, instead managing it with exercise and therapy.
Her psychologist gave her a press clipping about the Royal Commission. ‘I took it home, and some time that afternoon I picked up the phone. The driving factor in calling was the thought of the power of the secret, and that if no-one speaks out, nothing will ever change.’