In the early 1970s, when Nel was very little, her parents split up because of domestic violence. Nel and her siblings went to live with their mother on an Aboriginal Mission in Queensland.
Seeking a better life for her kids, Nel’s mother decided to go off on her own to secure a house for the family in Brisbane. She explained this plan to the Mission Council before she left but they didn’t listen, and while she was away, the Council arranged for the kids to be fostered by Nel’s auntie, Mary. When Nel’s mother returned, the Council refused to give the kids back to her.
That was the real story, but it was hidden from Nel for many years. For most of her childhood she believed the lie that Auntie Mary told her: that she was sent to live with them because her mother didn’t want her.
When Nel was 12 years old, Mary’s partner Les started sexually abusing her. ‘He had sex with me’, she said, ‘in the car, out in the bush, up the dump, in the school bus. Anywhere he could get his hands on me, if we were alone.’
To keep Nel quiet, Les threatened to kill her and her siblings. Later Nel found out that he also abused her sisters and told them the same thing. ‘He used our love for each other to get away with it.’
The abuse continued for years until, at 16, Nel approached her auntie Mary and told her what Les was doing. But Mary already knew what was going on and didn’t care. A short while later, Les found out that Nel had talked. He came after her, planning to make good on his threat.
‘He wanted to kill me that day with – it was a big wood, about that big. He just picked it up, he was going to put it over my head.’
Nel escaped Les that day and fled the Mission. She lived with some relatives for a while before ending up on the street. It was a tough time. She drank a lot and moved from one violent relationship to the next.
‘All the men I picked up, I thought their violence was love but it wasn’t. It’s like I got used to being abused. It was like normal to me.’
Eventually her mother’s sister tracked her down and brought Nel down to New South Wales to live with her mum. This was a happy moment for Nel, but it couldn’t repair the damage she’d already suffered, and soon her mental health declined.
‘I was so depressed when I first come back down here. Really depressed. I wouldn’t even go outside the house for about two years. Just didn’t want to do anything. I just sat. I don’t know why.’
Then two things happened that helped Nel gain control of her life. First, she saw an ad for a healthcare training course and signed up. ‘That course’, she said, ‘made me feel so good about myself’. On the back of the course she got a job in healthcare that she enjoys to this day.
The other thing that happened was that Nel went back to the Mission to confront Les.
‘He’s dead now, but before he died I made him admit to me that he raped me. And that’s probably why I’m stronger than the others, because I got out and I got him to admit it to me.’
Together these things – Nel’s education, her job and her confrontation with Les – have changed her life for the better.
‘He made me feel worthless. And I’ve felt worthless all my life until I met the people at [the training course] and they said, “You’re not nothing” … And doing what I do today helps me. That makes it all worth it, you know. And I am worth it.’