Warning: This article may contain content which may disturb some readers.
Kallena is a 52-year-old survivor of childhood sexual abuse who still lives with the effects of the trauma she experienced in her younger years.
The brave survivor tells SBS that she was abused by her mother and raped by her father on a regular basis from age four to 25.
“As a little kid, when your parents tell you the way we do things in our family is the correct way, you believe them,” Kallena tells SBS.
“You’ve got no context. You’re not aware of comparisons. You can’t think, ‘hang on, what’s happening in our family is not the right thing, it’s not okay for me to be raped at night by my dad.”
“As a little kid, when your parents tell you the way we do things in our family is the correct way, you believe them."
Kallena’s parents were Latvian refugees who came to Australia after World War Two under the White Australia Policy. Her mother, she says, was also abused as a child by her parents. “My parents grew up through war and that’s very traumatic in itself. That was a very difficult experience for them. But it’s not why they behaved the way they did to their children. There are an awful lot of people who are refugees who I know are nothing like my father and mother.”
Kallena says it has taken her almost half her life to talk about the trauma. “I was so totally ashamed, I was able to black it out and deny to myself that this exists."
But in 2001, Kallena’s daughter turned four years old; the age that her childhood abuse began. It was only then that the reality of the trauma she had endured hit home. “It sounds like a cliché but I saw myself in my daughter.”
Her mental health deteriorated, she experienced an emotional break-down and she quit her job.
“I really couldn’t function at all anymore. I ended up a total recluse. I couldn’t talk, the flashbacks and everything was so totally overwhelming.”
After 15 years of therapy, Kallena says she is now able to talk openly about her experience and is starting to heal. She has also begun looking for work again.
“People [who have experienced childhood trauma] are able to be helped but only if they recognise the root cause of the issue.
“…I now know I have the capacity to be a very high functioning person who can contribute a fair bit and do well in society.”
Tip of the iceberg
Kallena’s personal story of childhood trauma is not rare. A new report released by the Blue Knot Foundation estimates that five million Australian adults have been affected by childhood trauma, including those who have experienced emotional and physical abuse, and neglect.
The 2015 study was based on a US-based longitudinal study on childhood trauma involving over 17,000 participants; data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare; and information collected from 2,465 phone calls to the Blue Knot Foundation’s Professional Support Line.
President of Blue Knot Foundation, Dr Cathy Kezelman says this statistic may seem high but it is a conservative estimate, perhaps only the tip of the iceberg, as many child abuse survivors never speak up about what happened.
“Often people will go through life blaming themselves for what happened,” says Dr Kezelman. “That feeling of shame is very withering, very profound. It stops a lot of people coming forward, seeking help.”
“If I hadn’t been able to access the appropriate therapy, I honestly don’t believe I’d be alive right now."
Dr Kezelman, a survivor of childhood abuse herself, says that such unresolved trauma can have a ripple effect on the individual, their family and society.
“This is probably our most significant public health issue right now. It underpins a majority of our social issues, criminal justice, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, you go through the list.”
Dr Kezelman believes the first step to help survivors recover is for the community to assist in creating ‘safe spaces’ where survivors can re-wire their understanding of relationships and trust. Long-term support and professional counselling services are also advantageous to recovery.
“When people have been hurt by negative relationships they need positive relationships to heal that.”
Kallena agrees. She says she was “lucky” to have been able to find a therapist who was equipped to provide the intensive and long-term counselling she required.
“If I hadn’t been able to access the appropriate therapy, I honestly don’t believe I’d be alive right now,” Kallena states.
She encourages survivors to acknowledge their experience and believe that it is possible to obtain the support needed to recover and live a fulfilling adult life.
“Issues that arise from [childhood trauma] are certainly treatable. “[You] are able to recover from it, with the right help.”
If this article has raised issues for you or you need to talk to someone, contact Lifeline on 131 11 14.
Adult survivors of childhood trauma can also call the Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380 from 9am-5pm, Monday to Sunday.
This week marks Mental Health Week, which runs until Saturday 15 October: #MentalHealthWeek #WMHD16
Watch Living Black discuss the issue of child abuse. Warning: some viewers may be disturbed by the content of the video.