Purchase Edition

Edition 15

Contents
Essay

The exiled child

Shortlisted, 2007 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, The Alfred Deakin Prize for an Essay Advancing Public Debate

OUR BATTLE WITH the twenty-one-year-old party girl next door over her top-volume dance music came to a head one evening. Having tried the friendly, then friendly-yet-firm route, my husband and I decided to show we were serious. We'd called the police before and the music had promptly been turned down, but the cop who came that fateful night heard the doof-doof blast from downstairs and took it upon himself to issue a twenty-eight-day summons to cease and desist, even though she'd turned the music off on her way out a moment before he reached her door.

As he pulled out his pad, we listened from behind our door, exchanging triumphant smiles. Then all hell broke loose. We opened the door to find our neighbour, dressed to go out, screaming at the cop to get out and trying desperately to shut the door on him. He stood firm, one leg holding the door open, demanding the information he needed for the summons. When she realised she had no retreat, she became wild, kicking at his shins and throwing a live cigarette at him, her eyes wide in confusion, rage and terror. He warned her he would arrest her for assaulting a police officer. I appealed to her to calm down.

Suddenly his back-up arrived, and six or seven officers surrounded her in the hallway. She flailed like a trapped animal; her breast fell out of her dress. She cried out: she couldn't breathe; she was having a panic attack, a heart attack; she wanted her doctor, her mother; she couldn't believe this was happening; she had a party to go to. As the cops descended to make their arrest, her heels made skid marks on the walls. It was obvious that they viewed her as just another methamphetamine loser or, worse, a lunatic cop-hater. But for the first time since I'd met her, I saw her as a kindred spirit.

There have been many times in my life when people have come to negative conclusions about me, and many terms applied: juvenile delinquent, alcoholic, drug addict, drama queen, borderline personality disorder, self-destructive, hysteric, depressive, neurotic, phobic and hypochondriac. But I've discovered a new one, and according to the literature it may be at the heart of all the others: chronic trauma survivor.

I realised some years ago that I was a traumatised person, but it wasn't until I read Trauma and Recoveryby Judith Herman (Pandora, 1998) – a book my therapist refers to as "The Bible in the field of trauma studies" – that I came across this phrase and finally understood the true nature of trauma. Many who have grown up in an environment of domestic violence, where trauma has become the norm, come to this realisation after decades of suffering. Most, like me, will have collected a hefty sack of labels along the way, labels that all too often only succeed in describing symptoms. The hardest thing about being a chronic trauma survivor (and it has no end of hardships) is the crushing loneliness of being misunderstood.

The simplest definition of trauma is that cited by Elizabeth Waits in Trauma and Survival: Post-Traumatic and Dissociative Disorders in Women (Norton, 1993): "Injury to mind or body that requires structural repair." I have known for the best part of two decades that growing up with domestic violence damaged me, but I used to think of that damage as a vague, amorphous influence on my equally vague and amorphous emotional life. Until recently, I didn't know that this damage occurred at a concrete level on the actual structure of my developing brain, and that this "structural damage" explains why the process of recovery for those chronically traumatised as children is such an enormous challenge.

Researchers from the University of South Australia, in their 2002 report Children and Domestic Violence, describe children as "the 'silent', 'forgotten', or 'invisible' victims of family violence". They outline the problem of the traditional division between domestic violence and child protection – when child abuse is viewed as a health and welfare matter and domestic violence is referred to the police, courts and women's refuges, children fall through the cracks. The researchers conclude that domestic violence is a child protection issue: "There is now increasing recognition that these are not separate phenomena and that children's exposure to domestic violence is a form of child abuse."

 

MY PARENTS DIVORCED when I was five. After that came "the boyfriends". My mother had three live-in relationships between the divorce and the time I left home at fifteen. It was the second, a man I dared to love and came to fear, who proved to be the most traumatic – the man I'll refer to as Arthur. He earned the dubious title of "the worst" partly because he was probably sociopathic, and partly because he let me down so badly; I had desperately wanted him to be a loving partner for my mother and a father figure to me.

For the first few years after my parents' divorce, I clung to the hope that they would reunite. I interrogated my mother about why they'd parted. Though there must have been tension between them and in the home, my memories of early life are tranquil. The most damning thing I could say about my father was that he seemed distant and was often absent. During the late '60s and early '70s, I felt the stigma of being a child of divorce keenly. I absorbed the images of happy television families, and suffered from a constant sense of inferiority for failing to belong to one.

I was nine when my mother and I moved into a new apartment and I started at a new school. Stacey was among the first children I befriended. She was my age, the daughter of a single father. It didn't take us long to hatch a Brady Bunch plan. We decided that Stacey would come to my place after school one afternoon and stay too late to walk home. In between the idea and the execution, we each primed our respective parents about the availability and charms of the other. Arthur arrived at the appointed hour and lingered late into the evening, talking with my mother on the sofa while we girls giggled excitedly in my bedroom, plotting our deliriously happy future as sisters. Arthur and Stacey moved in quickly and the four of us enjoyed a blissful honeymoon. My mother, who was an indoor person and an avid reader, was lured out of doors on a seemingly never-ending string of adventures. We took boats out on the water, enjoyed long country drives and even went on holidays.

Not long after I'd started calling Arthur "Dad" and Stacey started calling my mother "Mum", my newfound happiness gave way to mayhem. Home became a place of increasing fear and secrecy. "If the idea of 'home' implies physical and psychological safety and security as well as shelter," as Jill Astbury wrote, "then a child, adult or older person affected by domestic violence experiences a hidden 'homelessness'." For a child – who needs a safe environment to develop – this homelessness can be a kind of lifelong exile.

 

EVEN AFTER YEARS of therapy, I am unable to map out a reliable and linear timeline of events, or to articulate a cohesive reconstruction of the disintegration of their relationship. All I know is that one day they seemed content and the next they were fighting. I have no idea whether I witnessed ten, fifty or 150 violent fights. All I have is a collection of random memories without their broader context. This is, the experts assure me, completely normal for someone with post-traumatic stress disorder. Judith Herman describes how it works: "Traumatic memories lack verbal narrative and context; rather, they are encoded in the form of vivid sensations and images. Robert Jay Lifton, who has studied survivors of Hiroshima, civilian disasters and combat, describes the traumatic memory as an 'indelible image' or 'death imprint'." These are among the most vivid of my "indelible images":

A fight has started on our way home from a wedding on a Saturday night. Arthur is in the driver's seat and he has pulled over so that he can strangle my mother. I'm sitting behind him in the back seat, leaning out the window screaming for help so loud my throat hurts. Three or four people pass by and look at us, but they keep walking and do not help. I'm watching my mother gag and I reach out and pull on Arthur's hair with all my might. His hands release my mother's throat; he twists around and belts me in the head.

We are camping in a tent pitched at the top of a hill. They've been fighting all day and Arthur and Stacey appear to have abandoned us there.

My mother and I are sitting in the tent. The air is thick with apprehension and tension. Suddenly we hear the car revving up the hill. We emerge from the tent and start running. I turn around and am blinded by the headlights coming towards me at full speed.

I'm running up to the police station in my nightie in the dead of night.

My mother and I arrive home to find slurs scrawled all over the walls in huge, mad letters.

My mother lies on the floor in the kitchen. I think she is dead.

My mother sleeps on the sofa in the living room with a knife under her pillow.

Elizabeth Waits explains why these memories still feel like a bad dream from which I can't quite wake, rather than reality: "The shock of trauma produces states that are so different from ordinary waking life that they are not easily integrated with more normal experience. As a result of this discontinuity, the traumatic state may be lost to memory or remembered as a dream is sometimes remembered, as something vague and unreal."

The younger a child is, the less easily they will be able to articulate the trauma, but it is a mistake to equate this with a lack of registration. Judith Herman points out that among twenty children with documented histories of early trauma studied by psychiatrist Lenore Terr: "None of the children could give a verbal description of the events that had occurred before they were two-and-a-half years old. Nonetheless, these experiences were indelibly encoded in memory. Eighteen of the twenty children showed evidence of traumatic memory in their behaviour and their play. They had specific fears related to the traumatic events, and they were able to re-enact these events in their play with extraordinary accuracy."

She describes the difference between people who experience a one-off traumatic event and those in "captivity" who are subjected to repeated and inescapable trauma: "People in captivity become adept practitioners of the arts of altered consciousness. Through the practice of dissociation, voluntary thought suppression, minimisation, and sometimes outright denial, they learn to alter an unbearable reality." The person who experiences a one-off trauma from the basis of an already stable personality suffers differently from someone whose selfhood has formed in its chronic presence. Herman says: "People subjected to prolonged, repeated trauma develop an insidious, progressive form of post-traumatic stress disorder that invades and erodes the personality." Because chronic trauma survivors do not fit the classic description of "simple" post-traumatic stress disorder, she calls for a new category – "complex post-traumatic stress disorder"– that can better describe the complicated picture with which chronic trauma survivors often present.

Chronic trauma is, literally, unacceptable. Even now, after all these years, a memory will flash up – like the image of me jumping on to Arthur's back and clawing at his giant shoulders to pull him off my mother – and I tell myself I must be mistaken, this cannot have happened. These images cannot possibly belong to me and my life. And while trauma is trauma and "the severity of traumatic events cannot be measured on any single dimension", Herman says certain "identifiable experiences" increase the probability of harm, including "being taken by surprise, trapped, or exposed to the point of exhaustion". Each of these "identifiable experiences" is typical for the child of domestic violence. Days that started out as joyful excursions whose sunniness seemed sure to continue would, in a second, cloud over and become a publicly humiliating storm.

The most common time for fights to erupt was late at night after I'd gone to bed. I would lie awake for hours stilling myself so that my breath was almost inaudible – the better to monitor the sounds from outside my door for any sign of discord – but once started the fights went on for hours. Adrenaline would keep me from feeling tired, but I passed countless sleepless school nights trying to referee. No one is more trapped than a child who cannot survive without the adults on whom they depend. When those adults are also their prime threat, they are trapped in a double bind. In some ways it might have been easier if the discord had been constant. But the contrasts were extreme: the highs the highest I'd known – our home was wonderful when the adults were happy – the lows unbearable. I dared to relax into pleasure and security only to be jolted out of it by the all too familiar signs of a fight.

Children in violent families are on the classic domestic violence roller-coaster. Everyone is familiar with the cliché of the woman with the bruised face softening at the sight of a repentant abuser. Without the benefit of a fully developed brain and life experience, children are particularly susceptible to the magical thinking that the cycle of domestic abuse demands. My mother didn't fit the mousy victim stereotype: she was an outgoing, modern working woman who owned her own apartment and was not economically dependent. And yet she stayed in a relationship in which control, jealousy and intimidation were routine, vulnerable time after time to the sweet words of remorse and promises.

If at first I too believed these words, I soon grew familiar with the devastation of fairytale faith giving way to bitter disappointment and despair. In the shadows of this devastation, a child develops certain beliefs in an attempt to make sense of the cycle of trauma. As Elizabeth Waits explains: "Trauma is not merely experienced but interpreted ... A child's perception of what happened is frequently quite accurate, and vivid veridical memories often persist long after a terrible event, but understanding why is harder."

Irrational interpretations can themselves distort developmental processes and complicate recovery according to Judith Herman, and I've uncovered a number of my core beliefs, including: Don't hope for the best because the worst will always happen; Don't trust happiness because the rug will always be pulled out from under you when you least expect it.And most detrimentally, a belief that is so deeply embedded as to almost evade consciousness: You will be annihilated any minute now. These are the thought patterns that trigger the anxiety and panic so endemic among chronic trauma survivors, and they inform a dazzling array of symptoms and behaviours, most of which have eluded correct diagnosis for centuries.

 

DURING HER 1990S reign as Queen of daytime therapy TV, Oprah Winfrey liked to say that child abuse changes who you are. Neuroscientists now confirm that this is exactly what happens to a developing mind exposed to abuse and trauma. Louis Cozolino, Professor of Psychology at Pepperdine University in Malibu and author of The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy (W.W. Norton, 2002), describes how the systems of the brain link up to create experience: "When we reach a certain level of traumatic experience our brain does a number of things that don't enhance our ability to integrate experience. And that really is what dissociation is, it's a cutting off, it's a disconnection of different neural networks." In other words, trauma causes a profound split between the language-producing conscious part of the brain and the non-verbal, more primitive regions. In a "war zone", change takes place at the structural/neuronal level as an adaptation to relentless stress. When the "war" is over, the brain doesn't shift out of its now-programmed, fill-tilt limbic response; it gets stuck there and fires up even at minimal stimulation – real, metaphoric and metonymic. Therapy aims to heal this split between thoughts and feelings by encouraging speech connected to the traumatic event – activating cortical areas that allow a person to reintegrate neural networks dissociated by trauma.

Herman cites three categories of symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder: hyper-arousal, intrusion and constriction. Hyper-arousal includes irritability and restlessness, impulsive and risk-taking behaviours, hyper-vigilance, sleep disturbances, and psychosomatic complaints. Intrusion comprises the flashbacks and nightmares typical of war veterans. And constriction entails various avoidance strategies: shutting down or out, surrender and psychic retreat, fantasy, numbing, trances and dissociation, in which the traumatic experience may "lose its quality of ordinary reality".

My hyper-arousal symptoms included asthma attacks during our time with Arthur. They stopped as soon as he left and have never reappeared. Traumatised people are also prone to "real" illness and impaired immune function as a result of inescapable stress. Waits cites several studies in which the experience of trauma "has been found to be associated with increased susceptibility to infectious diseases, autoimmune disorders, and cancer". I recall the surreal sense of derealisation that would descend on me during fights – they always felt like film, not quite of this world. In its most extreme form, this detachment presents as Dissociative Disorder (previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder, the condition made famous by films like The Three Faces of Eve and Sybil). This usually only develops in children subjected to early, severe and prolonged abuse. Most people who dissociate do so in less elaborate ways – amnesia for certain memories, absent-mindedness and a lack of clarity. As a teenager and young adult, I experienced almost complete amnesia regarding the violence. When a drug counsellor asked about my early life I told him I'd had a "happy childhood". I wasn't lying – I believed it; I couldn't remember.

But even (or maybe especially) in an amnesiac survivor, complex posttraumatic stress disorder can manifest as eating disorders, self-cutting, addictions, compulsive sexual behaviour, anxiety and/or panic disorder, phobias, obsessive/compulsive behaviour, perfectionism and over-achieving. Exhibiting lots of symptoms is no guarantee of diagnosis, though. Survivors suffer first from the condition, and second from a lack of understanding of it. As Judith Herman notes: "Because post-traumatic symptoms are so persistent and so wide-ranging, they may be mistaken for enduring characteristics of the victim's personality. This is a costly error, for the person with unrecognised post-traumatic stress disorder is condemned to a diminished life, tormented by memory and bounded by helplessness and fear." People often get frustrated with survivors and counsel them to simply "let go" of their anger or fear, failing to realise that: "The survivor is continually buffeted by terror and rage. These emotions are qualitatively different from ordinary fear and anger. They are outside the range of ordinary emotional experience, and they overwhelm the ordinary capacity to bear feelings."

Domestic violence has an undeniable effect on a child's self-esteem. In order to preserve faith in their caregivers, a child must reject the obvious conclusion that something is wrong with them. Instead, they will assume responsibility – and a belief in "innate badness" or "wrongness" is born. In an attempt to "construct some system of meaning that justifies it", the child "seizes upon this explanation early and clings to it tenaciously, for it enables her to preserve a sense of meaning, hope, and power". My sense of culpability was heightened by my belief that I had brought them together. Poor self-esteem can manifest as anti-social behaviour or it can be masked by an abused child's "persistent attempts to be good".

I was not an outstanding student, but I did excel at dance school. During the Arthur years, I threw myself into dancing with unprecedented zeal. I went to classes after school and all day Saturday. I pushed myself to the limit in one class after another – classical, jazz ballet, acrobatics – and it wasn't long before I was chosen to be part of an elite group of students who performed professionally on television and in shopping centre showcases during school holidays. I absorbed the showbiz ethic – "the show must go on" – and no matter what torments might have kept me up the night before, I would turn up and dance my heart out with a smile frozen on my face. But by early adolescence, I had given up both dancing and trying to be good.

 

WOMEN AREN'T ALWAYS the victims of violence, and men aren't always the perpetrators, and even when they are it's not always as clear-cut as many would like to think. My mother often provoked Arthur. At times it seemed she thrived on the chaos. If this reeks of "blaming the victim", to my child's mind it looked like "asking for it". I could never understand why, just when Arthur seemed to be settling down, she would slam doors, throw objects and revive the drama.

I bristle at the coupling of "women and children" when people speak of domestic violence, as if they were equal in their capacity to confront their circumstances. I hold my mother accountable for failing to seek help. However economically, emotionally, or otherwise trapped an adult may be by their abuser, whatever fears they hold for safety, they have power that a child does not. Perhaps this is what remains of my rage toward my mother: part of me says: "I don't care how much he broke you down, you were the mother and you should have protected me."

According to Judith Herman, the final step in the psychological control of the victim is not completed until they are forced to violate their own moral principles and betray their basic human attachments. The moment Arthur succeeded in forcing my mother to betray me is burned in my mind. He made no secret of the fact that he beat his daughter. He believed that whipping Stacey with a belt was an acceptable form of parental control. My mother had never hit me nor allowed anyone else to do so. But there came a day when Arthur decided that Stacey and I were equally guilty of some childish wrongdoing and that we should both be beaten with "the strap".

Stacey could take the beatings and she rarely cried, but I cowered and pleaded with my mother not to let him hit me. As the strap came down on my flesh, blow after blow, I screamed in anguish. She sat on the sofa and watched, her face twisted into a grimace of pain and guilt. I could see in her eyes that she knew she was violating us both, and my howling as she looked on is my "indelible image" of betrayal to this day.

We later lost many years in estrangement when my incomprehensible wrath was too great to stand being in the same room as her, and we reconciled only shortly before her death. My already troubled relationship with my father was also a casualty. In my child's mind, I reasoned that if he loved me, he would have known and done something about it. My relationship with Stacey, too, was shattered. We were not only no longer sisters; we weren't even on speaking terms. By the end of their stay, Stacey mimicked her father's abuse of my mother by writing barbed slurs on all of our belongings. The literature discusses the business of identification – a child will identify with one or the other of the adults. I identified with my mother, Stacey with her father. She slept through the fights. I rushed out of our bedroom fearing for my mother's life. I had no one with whom to share the terror. She had lived with violence all her life and accepted it as normal, having known no other reality, but to me it felt life-threatening every time.

It ended, finally, not with a bang but the whimper of my exhausted challenge. I told my mother that she had to choose: him or me. She took out an "apprehended violence order" and they left. I thought that was the end of the story, but it was just the beginning of my life as a traumatised person.

 

LIKE MAY TRAUMA sufferers, I abuse substances. I started smoking and experimenting with drugs at thirteen, by fifteen I was drinking heavily and consuming drugs recklessly. I over-ate and was depressive as a teenager; as a young adult I lived on the edge in an addiction to drama that I now know is commonplace. I had a volatile relationship that had its own share of violence, followed by others that kept my stress levels high. I started mainlining speed at twenty, and then turned to heroin. I was never tough and I was never cool – I was a messy addict, and not fussy. I'd take anything in any combination.

Sometimes, traumatised people are suicidal. I remember waking up from yet another heroin overdose and realising with absolute clarity that I was trying to kill myself. This realisation brought with it a sense of eerie comfort. But when I continued to survive overdose after overdose, I decided instead to live. Living in a non-self-destructive way was not something I knew how to do however, and quitting drinking and doing drugs was only the first of a series of necessary major changes.

I lived on mania and cigarettes and after the shock of adjusting to sobriety subsided, the trauma surfaced in dysfunctional and now painfully unanaesthetised relationships and as anxiety, which Judith Herman describes as a "major symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder". I was afraid of flying, tunnels, home invasion, the night and physical attack. I arranged my world so that these fears were rarely confronted and the disorder did not impinge on my life. Over the years, I developed new phobias: I was afraid of storms and became claustrophobic and agoraphobic. I developed an obsessive fear of illness and drug reactions, meeting Judith Herman's observation that chronically traumatised people often "perceive their bodies as having turned against them". The calmer my life, the more anxious I became. My brain was maladapted to "peace time".

Most of my friends considered me delightfully neurotic and eccentric, but my partners struggled to accommodate my relentless array of phobias, distortions, fractures, obsessions, compulsions, internal dislocations, and neediness. Everyone who has loved me has suffered by association. My friends could not have failed to notice my extreme self-absorption, although few had the insight to connect it to anxiety and trauma. Being mistaken for plain self-centred is one of many misreadings. Even if survivors finally see the connection between their past and present symptoms, it doesn't guarantee that others will extend the compassion they crave: if we ignore our past, no one knows; if we discuss it, we risk being seen as malingerers, as people who live in the past – which is, in a sense, exactly what we do, if not consciously.

"Traumatised people feel utterly abandoned, utterly alone, cast out of the human and divine systems of care and protection that sustain life. Thereafter a sense of alienation, of disconnection, pervades every relationship, from the most intimate familial bonds to the most abstract affiliations of religion and community." This passage from Herman's book might sound melodramatic, but it perfectly describes the non-trusting, faith-challenged world of the survivor.

Some time ago I found myself in hospital, a mystery "mass" revealed in a scan. The baffled doctors did not think cancer was likely, but I was not reassured. One night I phoned my father and told him how scared I felt, how certain I was that the news of further tests would be bad. He did what many have tried to do: he reasoned with me. He pointed out other possible explanations and counselled me to be patient, not to jump to conclusions. I was not consoled and he grew exasperated. His voice rose as he demanded to know why I was the way I was, why I always assumed the worst. I shocked myself by breaking down and making, for the first time, a direct connection between my traumatised past and my anxious present. I told him what it felt like never feeling safe, never knowing when the end might come. I told him how, in the wake of violence, a child hopes madly that it will not happen again and when it does, time after time, they learn to expect the worst. The worst feels more reliable than any other possibility. My father listened in stunned silence and his voice, when he spoke, was shaken. It stayed that way for weeks.

After the cancer scare passed, he emailed asking why I had never spoken of the violence. If only you'd told me, he said. I tried to explain the cone of silence that descends on violence and abuse. I can't recall whether anyone ever told me explicitly not to tell, but I knew. There was a teacher once who took a special interest in me. She might have suspected, but she never asked. No one did. If my father had asked the right questions, I am certain I would have told – but it's too much to expect a child who is carrying the weight of her own and her mother's misery and shame to confide in those by whom she feels abandoned. Even after many years of therapy, publicly breaking the silence is uncomfortable. As I write, I wrangle with feelings of disloyalty to my mother's memory and fear of being judged a whinger. But my desire to reach even one other traumatised person so that we both might feel a moment of solace is stronger.

 

THE PSYCOLOGICAL EFFECTS of trauma do have an upside. Survivors often have a remarkable empathetic capacity and many work in the helping professions. Some days I think I'd trade my freakish antennae and supersensitivity for a non-traumatised childhood and peace of mind in a heartbeat, but we don't get to rewrite the past – only our interpretations of it. When a crisis took me back to therapy a couple of years ago, I focused for the first time on the anxiety and panic disorder and its roots in trauma. Recovery is possible, but it's slow and arduous. Herman describes three stages of recovery: establishing safety and support; remembrance, mourning, reconstructing and telling the trauma story; and reconnection with ordinary life. My therapist thinks I'm in the third stage. Sometimes I think so too, and feel that I'm about to turn a corner into a new life rooted firmly in the present and a solid sense of self. Other days, I'm not so sure.

At the heart of a panic attack is an utterly overwhelmed child, saying: "I can't cope. Help!" Recovery means facing the fact that no one is coming; one must learn to soothe oneself. Medication is sometimes necessary but it is most effective when the survivor makes an active decision to use it as part of a broader recovery process.

Even well into recovery, the chronic trauma survivor remains vulnerable. High levels of stress or fresh trauma can set off a relapse. When my hysterical neighbour was wrestled to the ground and handcuffed in the hall outside my door, my husband did what most people would do: he backed off and watched from a distance, ready to help if called on. Without realising it, the scene triggered a deep cognitive activation in me, and I took my place in the eye of the storm – where I had always been – trying to placate my irrational and frantic mother, begging her to be reasonable and stop "making it worse", imploring her all-powerful assailants who were mismanaging her hysterics to back off and let her go.

When she was dragged off to St Vincent's psychiatric unit for an assessment I called three times to plead her case against committal. And when she was released and taken to the station to be charged with resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer, we were outside at two in the morning, in the cold, waiting for her. When she emerged, she said: "I'm broken." She stopped and lit a cigarette with shaking hands before walking off into the night.

I worried frantically about her the next day – ancient neurons were sparking and I was finding it hard to separate my neighbour from my mother and myself. When she knocked on the door and apologised, hiding her face in disgraced tears, I told her I too suffered from panic attacks and that I understood. I suggested she get a letter from a psychiatrist explaining that her behaviour was the result of the fight switch being activated in the "fight or flight response" of a severe panic attack, and told her such a letter might help her defence. I loaned her a book called Power Over Panic by Bronwyn Fox (Prentice Hall, 2001). She said wanted to find a therapist and I mentioned gingerly that the majority of people with panic disorder have experienced trauma or profound neglect, and that if this was the case she should look for a trauma therapist. She immediately disclosed that she had grown up with domestic violence. Me too, I said. And there we stood, two survivors, twenty-two years apart.

 

POSTSCRIPT: The federal government has committed $1.8 billion in new funds for a five-year plan to include more primary health and clinical services for people with mental illness. This means Medicare will now rebate up to twelve sessions with a registered therapist. Australian researchers in 2000 estimated that 20,000 women seek shelter in women's refuges and take out protection orders each year. Clinical studies in emergency departments and antenatal clinics suggest up to a quarter of women will be subjected to domestic violence in their lifetime. Others argue that these numbers dwarf the reality, because they depend on police reports and domestic violence is often not reported.

I look at my neighbour and know she has a long, hard road ahead of her. And while twelve sessions is unlikely to take trauma survivors through all three stages of recovery, it is my hope that this initiative might nevertheless encourage them to seek the help they need to rebuild their minds and lives.


From Griffith Review Edition 15: Divided Nation © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review