One of six siblings growing up in a small town just outside Sydney, Ida was sexually molested by her father and uncle. The abuse was ongoing and caused Ida to attempt suicide, first when she was 10 and then again when she was 12. She reported the abuse at the local welfare office, but the officer she spoke to was a friend of her father. The only action he took was to tell her father about the complaint. ‘I was severely disciplined for that’, Ida said.
When she was 15, in the early 70s, Ida left home to train as a nurse at a regional New South Wales hospital. But she made some decisions her father didn’t approve of, and he had her committed to a psychiatric hospital.
At 15 years old, Ida was placed in an adult ward and prescribed antipsychotic drugs and tranquillisers. She knew nothing about the medication she was given or why she was given it. As the youngest by far in a large ward of men and women she was very vulnerable. ‘I had no power, no control, and no voice. I was invisible’, she said.
The medication she was on made her situation worse. ‘It takes away your will. It takes away your will to defend yourself. It takes away your strength to fight, to survive. It’s just really bad’, Ida told the Commissioner.
Ida was regularly assaulted by other patients while she stayed in the ward, physically and sexually. She recalled getting hit, tripped up, pushed over or into things and having her hair pulled. The sexual abuse took place at night. Ida reported the incidents to staff but was ignored. ‘I was shut down on every occasion’, she said.
Eventually Ida was transferred to a therapeutic facility for young adults, within the same institution. But her situation didn’t improve. Poor supervision and staff who refused to believe her complaints allowed her abuse to continue. She was still prescribed strong medication and was also given electro convulsive therapy. She didn’t remember seeing a doctor or any discussion about what was wrong with her. At the time of her visit to the Royal Commission, she was seeking access to her medical records to find out why she received the treatment she did.
‘I’ve never been the same person after all of that’, she told the Commissioner. ‘It just changed everything. It changed me as a person.’
Ida became pregnant at the young adult facility, after being raped by another patient.
‘As soon as they found out I was pregnant, that was it’, she said. ‘Nothing was said to me. I was put in a taxi and the driver was given instructions to drive me to the single women’s home.’
Ida’s pregnancy lasted its full term, but complications during labour caused her baby to die. Ida herself required a blood transfusion. Some 10 years later she discovered she’d been given contaminated blood, and as a result she developed a life-threatening disease.
Ida’s experience in the psychiatric institution has had deeply painful and enduring consequences.
‘It impacted on me being able to form friendships with people – I’ve never had a person I can ring up as a friend and say come and have coffee, or come to my home, or whatever. I don’t have that. I’ve never had a friend.
‘With work I always struggled with jobs. I’ve often walked out on jobs because of stress – I couldn’t cope at that moment. I’ve just left. I’ve had some really good jobs I’ve just walked out on because I just haven’t coped.’
After years of heroin use she is a recovering addict, though she still uses occasionally. ‘I’m not proud of it, but it’s what helps get me through.’
Ida has been married for 42 years, to another ex-patient from the psychiatric institution. They have two children – a daughter they’re estranged from as a result of their drug use, and a son who lives with them. ‘It’s not always good. There’s been a lot of violence, a lot of drug use, a lot of homelessness, a lot of refuges. But at the moment we’re together as a family’, Ida said.
Ida said she had spoken to the Royal Commission because she wanted ‘to be believed’.
She said that trying to convince people of the truth of her story has often been difficult. ‘I have struggled to get people believing that what happened, happened … I guess because it doesn’t sound real to them. “You sure that happened? You’re sure you’re not making it up?” Then I walk away. I don’t want to talk to them. I just turn my back. I’m over it.’
Ida wishes that as an adult she’d reported the abuse she suffered. She didn’t, she said, ‘because no one would give me the guidance and support and direction on where to go, what to do, how to do it’. The message she wanted to leave with the Royal Commission was that there needs to be a safe place for people to report.
‘Any reporting has to be taken seriously. Everything. It doesn’t matter how insignificant it might sound, or whatever. Everything has to be taken seriously.’