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Myra Heather's story

From the early 1960s Myra was subjected to ‘neglect, deprivation, physical, and emotional abuse’ in her family home. It was known that her great-grandfather had sexually abused another child, but her parents still allowed him to be alone with her. She was two when he first made her fellate him and digitally penetrated her anus. This happened many more times.

When Myra was nine, she and her brother went to a council swimming pool in western Sydney. A pool attendant molested her in the water, then followed her into the women’s change room. Shoving her into a change cubicle, he ‘started to try to get into my swimmers around my crotch area. I think I had a sense of what was about to happen, from the buried memories of incest.’

Myra screamed. He slapped her face hard. Then he shoved his penis into her mouth.

‘I wanted to vomit, I felt like I would suffocate, I couldn't breathe. He ejaculated into my mouth and over my face ...

‘A small yet telling symptom of the psychological impact of this assault is that to this day I have only once ever vomited ... nothing has got past my epiglottis to exit my mouth.’

One of her brothers was angry that she had taken so long in the change room, but the other ‘hung back and walked home alongside me. I don't think we talked very much but I recognised in adulthood what I think the feeling was between us – solidarity’. Later she learned that he had been sexually abused as a child too, by a priest.

When she was in Year 7, Myra’s Catholic girls’ school took students to a different swimming pool. The children were getting changed when a teacher, Sister Agatha, took Myra outside to some grass near the showers.

The nun put her hands inside Myra’s uniform and felt her breasts. She indicated Myra should lie down, then ‘reclined next to me and I felt her hand slowly move up my thigh, then inside my undies’. Myra began dissociating.

‘I recall my heart racing and looking up through the branches of the tree saying in my head, it’s okay, take yourself away, go away, it’s okay, just take yourself away ... I don't remember anything else that happened that day.’

Myra does not consider this assault as bad as her previous experiences. ‘If one can scale child sexual abuse it was ‘mild’ in comparison to the other sexual abuse I suffered in childhood, which was penetrative and often violent.’

Still, ‘I think what happened with Sister Agatha powerfully reinforced for me that it is not possible to feel safe in the world. I also started to feel like I had a tattoo blazoned across my forehead saying, “I'm vulnerable, fuck with me”.’

The nun’s sexual offending seemed common knowledge among the girls. Soon after this assault, another student warned Myra about which toilet blocks Sister Agatha would frequent at the school.

Myra’s grades began dropping and she left school to do other training. In her late teens, a man she knew locked her in a car. ‘I don't think he raped me, though he did do a lot of groping, as I remember fighting off his hands and trying to push his face out of mine when he tried to kiss me.’

Her adult children know she was abused, but not every detail. Her son sometimes obsesses about the people who harmed her, and she has tried to explain her feelings to him.

‘This might sound odd, but I have some sympathy for paedophiles. Because I understand they are sick, and there are reasons behind the things people do. It doesn’t absolve them of their crimes or any of those things ... Having some kind of feelings of vengeance or vendetta against them is not going to be helpful for him.’

Myra told the Commissioner that impacts of this repeated sexual abuse resulted in ‘risky promiscuity in late adolescence and early adulthood’, self-harm, suicidal ideation, teeth grinding, and compulsive overeating.

‘With regard to the obesity, to put something very complex into a sentence: I've been trying to get the taste of my great-grandfather's semen, and that of the pool attendant, out of my mouth for a lifetime.’

Being on a disability pension, she fears some people will think she is just lazy. ‘They don't see the impairment; the effects of complex PTSD; the nightmares; the sleeplessness; the hypervigilance; the loss of libido; the reduced capacity to concentrate; the irritability; the inability to retain information read or heard but minutes ago; the significantly compromised personal resources; the toll of having to interact with “the other” when my sense of self is frequently not robust enough.’

After Myra started therapy more than a decade ago, ‘I frequently fragmented or decompensated, sometimes in the shower. There were many times I became immobilised in the shower, then dissociated’.

If she becomes distressed, being touched by anyone will only exacerbate this. At times when she has been suicidal and assisted by emergency services, ‘the police and ambulance staff are very good at not touching me, as are the psychiatry registrars I've interacted with’.

Unfortunately, not all professionals she encounters respect this need. ‘I am yet to have an encounter with a mental health worker – ie a nurse, social worker or psychologist – that hasn't included being told “no one is going to touch you”, only for them to eventually lean over and do exactly that.

'I appreciate the intention may be comfort or consolation; however, the impact for me is re-traumatisation, having my bodily integrity compromised by someone else's needs or desires over my own.’

Myra also spoke of the ‘stigma of mental illness’. ‘Worse though is that I have at times felt stigmatised and vilified by the government of my country as I, and people like me, on disability support pensions, have been described essentially as a huge drain on the country, “leaners, not lifters”

'I'm well aware of the financial burden I am ... There is a huge human capital cost to the nation with regard to all who are sexually abused in childhood.’

She lives in fear that her pension will be cut, or the services she needs to survive defunded. ‘Apart from stressors relating to pathology and the child sex abuse, I live with a background of constant fear and anxiety that my Centrelink payments will be cut and/or even more importantly that some bureaucrat will decide the excellent psychiatric treatment I'm receiving is too costly, and therefore will no longer attract a Medicare rebate.

'If that were to happen, I would not be able to continue with the treatment which is vital to me living not just a better, fuller life, but one which sees a lessening of the PTSD and all the symptoms listed previously.’

At times Myra feels bad about the cost of her healthcare, social security and lost earnings. ‘But I also think I am what happens when as a society we turn a blind eye to what is happening to the most vulnerable in our communities. This is the price paid when we don't treasure and protect our infants and children.’

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