Lydia grew up in a Catholic orphanage where she suffered years of physical, psychological and sexual abuse. She told the Commissioner that because of her epilepsy she was labelled ‘mentally and physically retarded’. Assumptions were made about her, she was singled out for abuse and denied educational opportunities. She said, ‘they created my disability’.
Lydia arrived at the home at age five. From the start she encountered a hostile environment where many of the nuns administered ‘a daily dose of violence. That was the way that they controlled you: fear and violence’.
Lydia’s epilepsy was diagnosed at age nine, though she’d been having fits before then. She described the nuns’ response to her condition as ‘medieval’.
‘In their eyes I would have been a manifestation of the devil itself. The frothing of the mouth represented the demons, and I was bashed violently after I had fits … dragged by the hair into the toilet, and my head shoved down toilets, and then brought up and the head was sort of bashed from side to side with the hand, and repeatedly saying, “You’re a devil, you’re a filthy pig”.’
Lydia found it impossible to report the abuse. She said that independent observers from the Department arrived every now and then to check on the girls, but the nuns always sat in on these meetings.
‘Having the perpetrator in the room, glaring at you, and the government representative opposite … if you were asked, “How did the nuns treat you?” you’d say, “Very well”. You’d say everything in your own interest.’
Lydia said that she never experienced any love or affection at the home, so when she was sexually abused on two occasions by older girls, she found the experience confusing.
‘Because it wasn’t brutal, because it wasn’t bashing, perhaps it was in one sense welcoming. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand what was happening to me. But it also had its downside where mentally I was totally divided.’
This ‘division’ was something that stuck with Lydia into her adult life. She said she felt like she was ‘living a lie’, constantly wrestling with the conflict between her sexual attraction to women and her duties as a devout Catholic. She described herself as ‘brainwashed’ and said, ‘that indoctrination caused chaos in my life’.
Lydia married soon after she left the home and was subjected to violent abuse from her husband.
‘The bashings seemed normal to me, and if that person would apologise – I didn’t pursue a bashing to have the apology, but once I was apologised to it was some gratification that I had worth, that I was worth something.’
On the other hand, Lydia said that in some ways the trauma she endured at the home had a positive effect on her.
‘It made me extremely strong. It was like reverse psychology to me. The more I was beaten, the stronger I became, and the more determined I was to overcome … I went to the absolute extreme to prove them wrong.’
Lydia sought out educational opportunities and eventually earned a number of academic qualifications while raising two children on her own. The task was made even more challenging by the fact that her son was born with a disability. Informed by her own struggles, Lydia worked hard to provide him with the independent and fulfilling life he enjoys today. She’s now focused on the future.
‘I’m grateful – as many, many wards of state I’m sure are – that this is now out in the open. It can’t change our childhood. You can’t get it back. But you can prevent, and my child, who will be in care when I die, this is for him as well.’