‘It was the day after surgery that I was wheeled to X-ray to check on the operation … I remember being in that room for what felt like an eternity. I remember him taking my pyjama pants off.’
In the mid 1970s, when Julene was about nine, she underwent surgery in a Victorian children’s hospital. Her mother had been with her at all times during her stay, but during the X-ray, she had to wait only metres away on the other side of the radiology department’s door.
Julene remembers that a hospital worker who was wearing scrubs or a hospital uniform came into the room. ‘I remember him pulling down the blanket’, she said. ‘And what he did with his hand. And I was told to be quiet and not to cry. And I was in there forever, just forever.’
‘After that, the radiologist came into the room and his comment was, “Someone should put pants on this girl”. And the blanket’s around my knees.’
Forty years later Julene is still furious. ‘I can’t understand how that person came into the room and thought that was okay … to have a blanket at your feet and no pants on and your pyjamas are there. Don’t understand how that could be.’
Julene had loving parents and many siblings to whom she was close, but she didn’t disclose her abuse. ‘I felt like I’d just died … Never told anybody. Didn’t even understand what it is.’ With the support of family, and a structured school life, Julene ‘just got into it’ during primary school and did well.
‘I suppose secondary school is when things hit you. I have siblings who are tertiary educated and I’m not. You know, you go into a classroom and they shut the door - and all of a sudden you can’t concentrate on anything.’
‘So I struggled with study, I struggled with education and being stuck in a room. I’m easily distracted, so concentration, even now, is still hard.’
The effects of Julene’s abuse multiplied as she moved into adulthood. ‘I had trouble with relationships. I wanted all the things but I just couldn’t … I never trusted anybody, whether they be female or male. The whole time you want someone to see who you really are - but inside you’re this broken, dirty, horrible person, but that’s how you feel.’
‘You still have fun with your friends … You still have good memories, but you can never relax.’
‘I was just very angry at the world and I hated my mother. My mother knew, but never knew why I hated her. She knows now. I was angry at her for leaving me there … I know now that she didn’t.’
Julene eventually married, and her husband has been her biggest supporter. However, when she had children, Julene was brought into contact with hospitals once again, and this triggered a severe breakdown. She then developed serious mental health problems.
‘I was never right in the head, I was just not. You know but you don’t know, because you don’t want to face it. It’s like that bucket of shit you keep pushing down and pushing down and pushing down - and in the end you can’t stop it from overflowing.’
‘I thought he was coming to kill me … You have no idea how many times I used to check the doors at home. I wouldn’t let my kids sleep with the windows open. If we went to Melbourne I’d never unpack my bag. I was always ready to run. I’m always ready. Because the adult knows you’re okay; the child knows he’s going to come after you – or that’s what the child thinks.’
Bad dreams also plagued Julene. ‘Images of me, child-like, stuck in a room with the white hospital gown and my lips are sutured together and I’m – it’s just not good.’
‘I wanted to kill myself … I did two eight week courses of cognitive therapy and mindful meditation … That’s what made me decide that I couldn’t fuck up another generation, I couldn’t do that to my children - I couldn’t put that burden on them, that I had to fight, that I had to live.’
‘You have to fight this stuff all the time to stop doing it … it’s a fight all the time and it’s tiring.’
Julene’s crisis prompted her to finally tell her story to her husband and to mental health professionals. She has a strong sense that she is handing the story over as she tells it, and that this will help her to move on.
The lawyers and police she has spoken to are not optimistic about the success of a prosecution, but Julene remains positive about her experience of talking about what is now in the past.
‘You just have to take each day as it comes and keep busy. Busy stops my mind from talking too much to itself.’
For Julene talking to the Royal Commission is another step towards recovery.
‘That’s what I try to focus on. That I have a second chance to feel and to be better.’