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Allara and Asha

I started school when I was 4. My mother was a teacher, and I somehow negotiated that I only needed to go 3 days a week! The other two days I would go to work with my father, he was a tree lopper, and I would help pull branches and eat cookies and drink lemonade at the old ladies’ houses. Those were the nicest moments of my childhood. Just that memory.

I started using substances, knowingly, at the age of 12. But it turns out I was given marijuana when I was 8, which I thought was cigarettes. That was also the time a family friend started giving me wine. My folks knew, but didn’t want to offend him.

When I was 10, I remember hiding behind the fridge door and having a few swigs of the cheap wine my parents used to buy. It gave me a new found feeling of relaxation. By 12, I was a chronic cannabis user, and at 14 was seeking out other drugs. I was lucky, people that I approached for heroin just looked at me and said, 'you're too young, I'm not going to do that'. I would be in a very different situation had I started using heroin in my teens. I probably wouldn’t be here.

I spent a lot of those years in the city. There was a group of Aboriginal, homeless people that hung out outside St Paul's Cathedral. They took me into their group and would keep an eye on me. I'd give them some weed, and they'd buy me alcohol.

During those years, I kept a lot of secrets to protect my family. I was shy, private and scared. I didn’t want anyone to know about home life. I never wanted to go home, I felt sick turning the corner into my street.

I left school in Year 11 because of the trauma, because I was in survival mode. I flew under the radar; I missed months at a time, and no one noticed.

My older siblings all graduated with good grades, but even within the same family we all had such different experiences - I had two more perpetrators than they all had.

The trauma took up all the parts of my life, so studying really wasn’t on my mind.

I ran away to the furthest place I could - Ireland.

I was lucky, the people at the back packers recognised that this 17 year old was wandering around aimlessly, not doing touristy things, and took me under their wing. I got a job as a cleaner and then a receptionist.

There was this 'Bermuda triangle' between the hostel, the pub and the fish and chip shop - that was my life. I was drinking, smoking and gaining weight.

To stop drinking, I started separating cigarettes from alcohol - I allowed myself two cigarettes per beer, and then dropped down to one cigarette per beer and then I got to a stage where I didn't associate alcohol and cigarettes anymore. So, I stopped drinking. It was never my thing anyway.

When I returned to Melbourne, I enrolled at Uni to study social work. I was interested in the human condition, but social justice was my real passion. On my first essay, I was astounded to get 95% - that's when I realised the difference between living in a chaotic, dysfunctional household and what you can do in a stable environment.

I did my final placement at an Aboriginal community controlled organisation, researching Aboriginal child rearing practices. They asked me to stay on, and I loved the work, but I started to come undone - the work hours left me feeling stressed and my physical health was not great. I was always fatigued and anxious and shaking.  And, I was still keeping all my family and childhood secrets at age 30.  I couldn't speak about myself or my family, but also wanted so desperately to.

I was reaching a point where the trauma from my childhood, that I had not dealt with, that I kept pushing away, was coming to the front.

I finally sought support from a sexual assault and family violence service provider. By then, I was suicidal and regularly self-harming, which I had done since I was 16. The CAT team recommended I enter a detox facility, but after 4 days, despondency kicked in. The tears started to flow, and nothing could interrupt that realm - it was like a bubble around me. I'm not even thinking in those moments, it's just coming. And it doesn't stop. After 4 days of it not stopping, I discharged myself.

I was lucky to find a GP who took an interest in me. She realised early on that she didn't have the capacity or the resources to provide me with the care I needed so spoke to her brother-in-law who was a mental health nurse.

He recommended First Step.

At First Step, I've learnt a lot about my substance use, that it had to do with the extent and severity of the childhood trauma, and from undiagnosed ADHD.

I was adamant, even after the diagnosis, that I didn't have ADHD - I thought it was just the trauma and anxiety. All my hyperactivity is internal, and the more hyperactive I am on the inside, the calmer I come across on the outside. The First Step team have educated me and provided support to understand this.

With ADHD, when people try to tell you to find that calm within you, that's like telling someone to grab hold of a pole that doesn't exist. Once I took the medication, once I gave it about a week, it's not something I feel all the time, but if I need to find that calm in my stomach, I can seek it, whereas before I couldn't do that.

I was lucky to find First Step. I was a wanderer. I was lost. Days would bleed into weeks, and sometimes you just need that appointment in the week to make it to. Especially if you are feeling unwell or suicidal. At a minimum that has been a huge benefit to me. Just that one contact, as well as having a regular GP, something I have never had.

At the same time as my ADHD diagnosis, I was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm.

The aneurysm is delicate, fragile, aggressive and is expected to rupture at any stage without warning.  I decided not to have surgery because my mind is the only safe place that I have and the idea of anyone messing with that, I couldn't... There would be nowhere else I could be, so I'm glad I didn't get it.

My family were not supportive of my choices and made clear that they would not follow my medical care directives. I imagined myself ending up in their care and that's when I decided I could not protect these people anymore.

With the compassionate support of First Step, I was able to distance myself from my family and set up my advanced care directive.

So for now I continue to live, and at some stage the aneurysm will rupture, and when that happens, I want palliative care. I feel like I have suffered enough, and I don't want any more.

I am lucky to have the First Step GP and Mental Health Nurse work together. I'm one of those people that wants to know everything, to understand everything and the mental health nurse has time to spend with me, to explain how the medications interact, the doctor has time to spend with me, to explain what’s happening to my body. They are the best and I owe a lot to them.

I'm actually glad for the aneurysm diagnosis and choosing not to undergo a craniotomy. I don't want to be suffering every day. That's why I talk about my head being my safe space. Because I can shift my thoughts.

Almost 3 years ago, the sexual assault and family violence service I was attending for 8 years abandoned me without notice or warning. I was devastated and re-traumatised. And I needed to understand how that could happen.

I learnt that internal policy changes meant that people with complex developmental trauma, people with a multitude of diagnosis’s especially those who use drugs and alcohol, had nowhere to go. There were no government funded programs in south-east Melbourne. I also learnt that there was a 10-year national plan to end family violence and sexual assault and that the government thought this could be done in one generation.

Mostly, I learnt to advocate for myself and to speak up – something I have never done before, which I was able to do with the support of my Mental Health Nurse.

And I began drinking again.

Honestly, I see that the only way to bring domestic violence and sexual assault down is to intervene early, to not give parents endless chances whilst the child is flinging around in foster care having their life, and their future life destroyed while they wait for people to get their shit together.

Services in the sector are geared towards parents, not children, and when you come from a family like mine, you see how wrong that can go. I came from a family that could mask, could outsmart the workers. A lot of brain washing goes into families like mine. I remember sitting in the child protection office and a family member insisting on coming in and I didn't know who to appease. I didn't say a word, I couldn't tell them my name or how old I was. I was stuck between the two. They can't use that as evidence.

I see parental rights as secondary rights. That's where my drive and advocacy come from - to try and put some consciousness, some awareness for that focus to change onto the child.

I was lucky to meet with people in the Department of Health Lived Experience branch, to share my experiences and advocate on behalf of myself and other children who don't have a voice. It's all starting to come together and I'm building up my networks and taking opportunities to speak with others.

Asha came to me just before COVID.

I was looking for a lap dog to sit on my lap and be anti-social with but found out about an accidental litter of kelpie-cross-staffy pups that I couldn't resist meeting.

When she came to me, she was a right terror! I used to be so embarrassed at her behaviour out on the street. Then one day I realised, it wasn't my job to worry about what other people thought. My job was to make sure she's ok and I'm doing the right thing by her.

When you have a dog like Asha who really did require a lot of training and a lot of work as a puppy, I didn't have time to worry about my own stuff. In fact, she won't let me have big emotions - crying or yelling is not allowed. She will feel so sorry for herself, that I can't do those things!

I am lucky to have 4 dog-walking friends now, I go to the beach most days and see other people with dogs, and we stop for a chat. I wouldn't have dreamed to do that once upon a time.

Not long ago, Asha and I bumped into a friend from primary school. She remembers me as being a feisty, justice-driven person that stood up for what I believed in. She never saw the repressed, physically awkward, me which is who I was for most of my life. I've reflected a lot on that, and it's been enlightening.

Now, I've regained my confidence and come out of my shell, partly from Asha, partly from the ADHD medication, partly from having an aneurysm and not giving a f*ck, and partly through the support and services at First Step.

I look at my family and see what they are capable of, see how dysfunctional they are. I am the only one receiving help, working on growth and trying to heal. There's still a lot of reflection to go, but I've come a long way.

To have someone offer a range of perspectives opens your mind to realising the truth of things. I was lucky that that's what the team at First Step did for me. They gave me perspective and showed me what I couldn't see, supported me when needed and understood more than I thought they ever could.

Their ability to talk about family violence, sexual abuse and be unfazed, compassionate and understanding is truly honouring of the experiences, feelings and thoughts of such clients.

I'm still very good at putting on a front, Because of the way I present most people don't know I smoke weed and drink alcohol every night, but I am in Zen. I'm no longer going from crisis to crisis, I am more emotionally and mentally stable. I weigh up what's important and return myself to a place of Zen.

I remember when I was younger, I did see a psychologist for a few sessions. On my last appointment, I blurted out that I had been sexually abused and she dismissed me telling me I was wrong and that my experience wasn’t ‘abuse’. Hands over eyes, she didn't want to hear about it. I left wondering whether my experience was real or not and didn't talk about it again for another 10 years.

Mainstream mental health services find it very uncomfortable to talk about that sort of stuff, so to have the courage to talk about it and be met with disbelief and lack of understanding by those who are trained in that area, was devastating.

First Step has done what no other organisation can do. I am lucky to have a good care team around me, a team that I feel safe talking about family violence and sexual assault with.

If I didn't have First Step, I would have no support and be in a very different place.

When trauma is not dealt with early, as you get older, the more pathological these things become. So, they're not just ingrained in your personality, but start to take up all areas of your life.

These days, I offer my voice, my lived experience of trauma, addiction and mental ill health. I advocate on the impact and benefits of certain practices and policies within the wider sector, government and with individual clients.

I speak openly and with purpose to ensure trauma appropriate responses, policies, practices, services and funding work to save lives. I share my sector and social work knowledge, my personal experience, the harm caused when appropriate models, practices and support are not available or provided.

I am lucky, I have purpose, something I have never had before in my life.

Thank you to our photographer, Nicholas Walton-Healey