But I’m also a runner, a daughter, a girlfriend and an Australian of the Year. None of these titles define me as a whole. That’s why it’s time to talk about child sexual abuse and exploitation.
Sexual abuse is characterised, not just by physical abuse or violence, but by incredibly meticulous, calculated psychological manipulation.
This is so important and we don't talk about it enough. It's important that we understand this as a community so we can work towards preventing abuse.
Abusers identify victims whose circumstances make it easier for them to get away with the abuse. They're looking for people who are vulnerable, who don't have stable circumstances; lonely, isolated people. My abuser got me at a weak point - but he underestimated my resilience.
At around the age of 13 or 14, I began dealing with the traumatic memory of being molested as a six-year-old by an older child. And that's when I started to struggle with anorexia.
I was hospitalised for about six weeks in April 2009. This is when things really began to slip and become difficult for myself and my family. I was vulnerable. And that’s when he gained my trust, developed a rapport with me and identified a gap in my life and filled it.
In my case, I was not without love or support - but the love I was receiving at the time was tough love, and I was resisting that. My abuser saw an opportunity to tell me everything I wanted to hear, putting me on a pedestal, praising me, telling me that I didn't need my family. He gradually and subtly started introducing the concept of sex into conversation, exposing me to sexual content: movies or books or whatever. I was exposed to blatant examples of pop culture that glorified sexual relationships between really young people and much older people.
He also was an expert at maintaining control, striking a perfect balance between causing pain and providing relief from that pain, so that I was programmed to feel intense confusion and guilt if I ever spoke up.
I remember him saying, "You can't tell anybody, I'll lose my job," so there was the guilting. And there were indirect threats. My abuser was a soldier in South Africa. He told me about killing people. He used to sit outside my house in his car at 9pm. I'd look out my window and he'd be there, watching me. He was everywhere. He knew my timetable. I'd turn around and it was like a horror movie – he'd be in the doorway, staring. It was predatory. Then there was the physical abuse, which was incredibly painful. So I was terrified.
I got angrier and angrier. At 15, I didn't have a complete understanding of how bad this abuse was, but the degradation, the humiliation, being assaulted and then having to sit in a classroom and know that, after school, I would probably have to do the same thing again was more than I could bear.
Eventually, I went into his office and I just let out all this boiling anger. I told him I hated him. I was crying hysterically. I told him he was a monster. I told him I thought he was evil and hoped he burned in hell. He sat in his chair, in the room where he had abused me every day, and he just shrugged and smiled at me. And in that moment I knew I was dealing with absolute, pure, concentrated evil, and that it needed to be stopped.
I told another teacher first – an amazing teacher called Dr Simon. I told him because I knew he valued people above policy. He right away arranged a meeting with the principal and he went with me. I told the principal and the police were called. I remember looking the police officer in the eye and naively saying, 'Please don't tell my mum and dad'.
Even after it’s over, the effects of the abuse don't just stop. It impacts your entire life going forward, and predators know that. They know that, because of cultures of victim-blaming and the guilt they implant, victims are going to battle self-doubt and engage in very destructive coping mechanisms.
I went on to abuse drugs, prescription and illegal, I drank, I cut myself, I covered myself in piercings, I dressed like someone I wasn't, I found myself in violent relationships and in relationships where I was again abused by older men who knew that I had been abused.
But I have built from this, I take each day as it comes, but I am using my past trauma to educate people and shed more light. So little is understood about the psychological manipulation of sexual abuse, and what that does to victims and their families.
I am defined as a survivor but I also love spending time in nature, connecting with the earth, swimming in the ocean, running. I am a member of a family and I work every day to find things that bring me joy. Speaking out against my abuser has allowed me to process what happened and begin the healing process.
My advice to other young people suffering is: start the conversation. Find someone you can open up to. I remember thinking that if there was just one person who believed me that would give me enough strength to share my truth.
This is only a part of my story. The rest is for me to decide.
Come on Australia, it’s time to talk about child sexual exploitation