I have been ringing Lifeline since I was 12 years old. That’s more than three decades since I started a relationship that would ultimately save my life.
I still call Lifeline around every Christmas – but for better reasons than before.
Christmas is a time of celebration for many Australian families. But many people also dread it, because it can be a time of confronting relationship problems, worrying about money, feeling alone, or facing bad memories from our past.
For those of you who might be feeling this way, I want to share my story in the hope that it might help you, or someone you love.
Facing ghosts from our past
Earlier this month, the latest Children’s Rights Report was released, showing that one in 12 Australian men and women had experienced physical abuse by a family member, and one in 28 experienced sexual abuse by a family member, before the age of 15. A further 23% of children witnessed violence against their mother.
National Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell put those statistics in more human terms:
You can think about an average class of teenagers – that’s at least four or five kids in every class that have either witnessed or experienced violence as direct victims.
They’re shocking statistics – except they weren’t shocking to me.
As I know from experience, you don’t just “get over” a childhood like that once you’re an adult. Experiencing such trauma as a child or adolescent has been identified as a significant risk factor in developing poor mental health and disorders later in life.
This is not a conversation we usually associate with Christmas. But Christmas can be a time of real stress for people, including because of remembering past trauma or anxiety.
If I could talk to those four to five teenagers in our Australian classrooms – or go back and talk to myself when I was only 12 years old – what would I say?
“It’s OK. I’m right here with you. This is not how your life will be when you’re older. You will learn to breathe again, to trust people, and to love and be loved. You will learn to live with this, you will even learn how to forgive and, yes, you will be happy.”
And then I’d encourage them to find help – just as I did.
My story of overcoming shame
Many readers of my past Conversation articles have written comments asking why I have been successful when so many of my Aboriginal people are suffering.
I too am suffering. I didn’t grow up with my Aboriginal mother. I love her but I will never have the relationship I should have, neither will my children. Even now, I cry … I am diagnosed with depression and at times still cut myself off from the people I need the most. My wife pays a terrible burden for loving me.
But over time, and with help and therapy, I have learned how to manage my pain.
Poor mental health is an illness, and like any illness it can be treated. But the longer it goes untreated, the harder it becomes.
Overcoming inter-generational damage done to our children is a challenge for the whole Australian community. It was through the people I loved that my early addictions and self-harming behaviours began.
It was uncles and older cousins who introduced me to yarndi (marijuana). I don’t mean youthful experimentation: I mean systematic substance abuse. They were supposed to clip me around the ear and tell me to “knock off”, not ask me if I knew where they “could score”. What we believed were flirtatious playful sexual interactions were in reality abuse and sexualising of our youth.
Non-Indigenous readers may be interested to know the one phrase in particular that held my generation of Indigenous Australians back: “Shame”. It’s why many of us wouldn’t talk up in class, or didn’t want to get better grades that would make us stand out … because that would be “Shame”.
We were not a naturally shy people who were opposed to success. I believe much of this was due to trauma. A deep emotional trauma, passed down through generations, reflecting unspeakable crimes carried by families who never received the support required to put an end to the pain.
I have now learned not to let shame define my life the way it once did. And we need to help more Australian kids and adults – non-Indigenous and Indigenous alike – by declaring that this is an Australian problem and we are in this together.
In my case, prayer and taking responsibility changed my life. I believe in Jesus Christ as the son of Biami (God and creation) and see no conflict within my own Burruguu-ngayi-li or Dreaming.
In prayer I began to read and in reading I learnt that I was responsible, not for my pain, but for choosing to dwell on it and allowing it to overcome me, rather than choosing better options that would guide me out of the darkness.
Why I still call Lifeline every Christmas
I remember the first time I was able to go up to my local shops and sing out to everyone with a happy smile, “Merry Christmas!”. Complete strangers would smile and answer back. It was an awesome feeling. Not just being part of Christmas, but knowing I was overcoming the demons of my past.
But every 33 seconds, somewhere in Australia, someone is making a new phone call to Lifeline. This “festive” season, Lifeline is expecting to receive about 2,500 calls a day for help.
When I first began calling Lifeline I would get through almost immediately, whereas now I’ve sometimes had to wait for 45 minutes to an hour before getting through. If you do call and you’re on hold, don’t hang up. You will get through, and it will help.
With more support from individuals and from government, Lifeline could answer even more calls, sooner. If you’re looking for a last-minute Christmas gift, Lifeline really does make a difference.
I still call Lifeline around every Christmas, and I will again this year.
But now, I no longer ask for help. Instead, I call up to say gabayiindah (thank you) for helping me all those years ago.
I explain to the person on the other end of the line that even if it wasn’t them personally who saved me, someone just like them listened to me and saved my life.
I tell them that, over the years, the people on the other end of the phone have become some of my closest and dearest friends. They know my deepest secrets and my greatest joys. I still live with pain, but they have helped me to manage it, live beyond it and overcome it.
It’s a call I plan on making every year.
Merry Christmas, and see you in the new year.
* If your life is in danger, call 000.
For help or information call Lifeline on 13 11 14, which is free from mobile or landline phones. You can also call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or MensLine Australia on 1300 78 99 78 or visit beyondblue.org.au. The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.
Marcus Woolombi Waters does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.