Genevieve, 33, was sexually abused by men when she was between the ages of 2 and 16 in New South Wales. Bred by her father specifically to be abused, she has suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), dissociation, flashbacks, and an eating disorder. Many times she wanted to end her life. Last year she almost succeeded.
Charlotte, 27, has also suffered for years as a result of childhood abuse for more than ten years, beginning when she was 2, at the hands of her father, uncle, family friend and strangers in Queensland. She has endured PTSD, dissociative disorder, eating disorders, anxiety and depression. More than once she has made attempts on her life.
Ally Marie, 44, was sexually abused throughout her childhood by men in her adoptive parent’s church. She has spent years in and out of mental hospitals in New Zealand and Western Australia; she abused drugs and alcohol to numb her pain and also struggled with suicidal thoughts.
What these three women have in common – in addition to histories of sexual abuse – is a deep grief and profound horror that another victim of abuse, a 20-year-old Belgian woman, was killed by lethal injection after medical professionals determined this was a suitable treatment to end her suffering. (Her death took place last year, but the Dutch Euthanasia Commission has only recently released its report.)
The young woman had been sexually abused between the ages of 5 and 15. She suffered PTSD, severe anorexia, chronic depression, hallucinations, suicidal mood swings, self-harming tendencies and obsessive compulsive behaviours. Her psychiatrist declared that there was no prospect of recovery. Doctors believed the woman to be “fully competent with no major depression or mood disorders affecting her thinking” that she wanted death – which makes no sense, given her many diagnoses.
“I’m horrified,” says the mother-of-one Genevieve from Queensland, who I met recently.
“It’s abominable. She was only 20! No 20-year-old with sound mind says ‘I choose euthanasia over living’. Yes, it’s a failure of the medical profession. It’s also a failure of humanity. The decision to kill her says to the rest of us: there is no hope, your life doesn’t matter! You are beyond repair, we have nothing to offer you. It tells us we are leeches who should be eradicated.”
A nursing graduate hoping to work in acute mental health care for young adults, Genevieve has first-hand experience of how difficult it is for survivors to get the specialist trauma care they need. She pays $200 a fortnight to access the specialist medical help she needs through the private health system, which she can’t get through public services. She says survivors are made to feel like burdens:
“Instead of finding alternatives and offering real hope, this decision says ‘let’s just eradicate this person, it will cost less’. Doctors don’t have to deal with what caused this person to become like this in the first place. If society says ‘This is OK’, it becomes acceptable. There is no longer a deterrent to ending your life. Our suffering makes us feel isolated and lonely. It’s taboo to talk about what happened to you. We are made to feel we are too hard. But we need to hear there is hope, keep going, things will get better. We need people who will come alongside and say ‘We can do life together’. We need a community, a network, so we don’t feel like an island.”
Genevieve, Charlotte and Ally Marie feel strongly that the 20-year-old lacked these necessary supports. And like many others on the long journey of recover from abuse, they know that if euthanasia – the medicalised killing of another person – had been legally available, they themselves may not have been with us today to stand as survivors. If their community and the medical profession had offered death as a compassionate resolution to their suffering, they may well have stepped from suicidal ideation into death.
I know Charlotte as a contributor to Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade – so many child abuse survivors end up in the prostitution industry. She was distressed when reading about the end of life of another abuse victim. While the intensity of suffering echoed her own wounds, she says she has been encouraged to live, not die, helped through regular therapy, the support of loving friends, her teaching studies and her dog. As she writes about overcoming a desire to end it all:
“the knowledge that I came so close to dying fills me with sorrow. I am very lucky and grateful to still be here today. There are so many beautiful and wonderful things in life that I would have missed out on, and it is those moments which make recovery that little bit easier … No one should ever be made to feel as though suicide is an option.”
Ally Marie also recalls a childhood destroyed by sexual, physical and emotional abuse. She has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals much of her life. “Had someone given me a needle back then to end it all I would have gratefully accepted,” says Ally Marie, who now has nine children as well as running her own business helping women reach their goals.
“Thank God they didn’t. Thank God I am alive to share my story. Because now I am grateful as I look at my beautiful family I created, as I look around at the lives I can change with my story … What happened to this girl is murderous. Who are you to anticipate what her future holds? I was this young girl but I found my way and pulled through.”
The Belgian woman is not an isolated case. Among psychiatric patients receiving euthanasia in the Netherlands, most are women. A study published this year showed that PTSD and anxiety were prominent in such cases between 2011 and 2014. Four women were cognitively impaired, some had eating disorders, others prolonged grief. More than half were lonely and isolated. In one case, the report says, “The patient indicated that she had had a life without love and therefore had no right to exist.”
Sydney academic Katrina George has analysed criminological data from around the world to show that euthanasia of women is overwhelmingly at the hands of men. Patterns of assisted death in women reflect that of violence against women. The data simply doesn’t support the tidy theory of autonomy, choice and control put forward by euthanasia advocates.
Two of the most heartbreaking cases reveal how the cause of euthanasia becomes more important than the lives of women. A young Indian woman, Aruna Shanbaug, was brutally sexually assaulted 40 years ago and died last year. She became the inspiration for euthanasia laws, rather than for a campaign to fight violence against women, “a cause much more bitter than passive euthanasia.”
Nathan Verhelst was born as Nancy, a Belgian girl unwanted by her mother (“If only you had been a boy”) and sexually abused by her brothers from the age of twelve. Later in life, as a transsexual, Nathan underwent hormone therapy, a mastectomy, and failed surgery to construct a penis. He was euthanised at his own request in 2013. “I did not want to be a monster … I had happy times, but the balance is on the wrong side,” he said in an interview hours before his death. “I was the girl that nobody wanted.” His close friend Marisol later said, “If his family didn’t hurt him so much, he wouldn’t have wanted [euthanasia]. I don’t like the idea that you give your life because other people broke your life.”
If death is sought/offered to escape the pain of sexual abuse, incest, rejection, loneliness, what kind of choice is that?
Reforms to allow euthanasia in Tasmania, South Australia and Victoria are likely to be debated this year, and Senator Leyonhjelm and the Greens want to give the Territories the power to legalise euthanasia. While suicide itself has long been legal throughout Australia – attempted suicide attracts no penalty or consequence – they want medical killing legalised.
Troubled teenagers will not be eligible (though Philip Nitschke continues to promote his suicide bag for them) but patients with “intolerable” psychological conditions might be. Already, Australian teens and young adults are increasingly taking their own lives with the drug recommended by Nitschke’s euthanasia groups.
In the Netherlands and Belgium, the laws were originally very strict and limiting. But over time they have relaxed to include those people without a terminally ill condition: teens; children; babies; abused, lonely, isolated women.
It is no stretch to imagine that a young woman with PTSD, a survivor of sexual abuse, might qualify for euthanasia in Australia in the future especially in an environment of over-stretched and under-funded mental health systems.
Aside from system failures, we need to look more closely at our own attitudes. There is a subtle discrimination in favour of able-bodied people – ableism – so well described by Shakira Hussein. The able-bodied cannot imagine living with a permanent physical or psychological disability.
The response from the online blogs and forums of people recovering from abuse and PTSD challenge these attitudes. Most have condemning the killing of this young woman. Like Genevieve, Charlotte and Ally Marie, they have shared how glad they are not to have been tempted with a death-inducing injection:
“I’m still alive and I can think and feel and love and do all the things I thought I’d never be able to.” (Jenn Selby)
“As someone who suffered severe depression throughout almost two decades (on and off), but who is now free from it through learned insights and changes to core beliefs, and has the tools to prevent myself ever getting to that place of no hope again, I find it very alarming that people are condoning assisted suicide for sufferers of mental illness. I believe it is an illness that is curable, therefore helping someone end their life before they may have found the tools, insight, help they need to help themselves out of the hole, is tragic. While it may have taken me 17 years to get to where I am today, and while I used to believe I would continue to suffer through, and have to manage my depression, for the rest of my life, I am now in a very different place. There were a number of times that I got so low, for so long, that I wanted to end things, but taking the next step to actually do that yourself is a big step. If society’s perception was that it’s normal to end the suffering, and they could assist me in doing so, easily and painlessly, then I probably would have taken that option and wouldn’t be here today. Which would mean I would have missed out on another 50 – 60 years (hopefully) of life, free from that level of debilitating depression. That would be a tragedy.” (Alison – posted privately on Facebook; quoted with permission)
“In my wildest dreams I never imagined that I could recover from a significant PTSD diagnosis. It took years and a chance meeting with a psychiatrist who was able to offer me the therapy I needed but had been unable to access before that time. In my 20s, any option was a good option to break free of the exhausting battle. I remember feeling deflated that I woke up in ICU, a failure even in trying to end my life. In my 40s, I thank God for not having been offered help to end my life and always encouragement that others depended on me to live and live well. Now, I have beautiful children, an incredibly patient and loving husband and LIFE. Once, I never thought I could say that. I have life and am more than my damaged mind. I am terribly sad that this young woman, whose living hell I am not trying to minimise, did not have the opportunity to know that there was more.” (Gabrielle – on the Women’s Bioethics Alliance Facebook page)
“At my worst, I remember feeling an almost ‘logical’ desire to commit suicide … Now I see that thinking as one of the tricks that PTSD plays on you, that you start to think suffering is the only path and death doesn’t seem so bad … For three decades this option would have been a gift to me, not a punishment. I’m immensely grateful that this was not an option because I’m starting to enjoy living.” (“RuthieJujube”)
“PTSD is not a ‘mental illness’ we are born with. You take a perfectly healthy person/child and expose them to unspeakable horror and they develop PTSD. We were each born healthy and we owe it to ourselves to find the way back to our core self – before we were hurt. Call me whatever but I still have hope for each and every one of us. We deserve it. Suicide lets them win … What heals PTSD sufferers is connection, safety, and community.
“The world needs PTSD survivors. Yes, I contend that it needs us. Think about a world where people could be traumatized and then get help to end their lives as a solution to the deep wounds and costs of that trauma. That’s not good for society as a whole … Many movements to end traumatic things on this planet were started, if not led, by people who had survived trauma and were forever changed by it … But by making it legal for doctors to help we would be sanctioning it as a society and saying ‘this is ok’ and we can’t afford the deep cost of sending that message. It’s not just about adults who have been traumatized, but kids too. They need to grow up in a world where we will fight to protect them, not send the unintentional message that their life is not worth living if they are shaken to the core by trauma. We need to send the message that their life matters, period.” (“Justmehere“)
The suffering of women and children is perpetrated in a culture which too often overlooks the violence against them. The State, rather than dealing with the offences, properly punishing abuses, providing every care for survivors, instead may offer them an individual way out of a problem it has helped tacitly to facilitate. It becomes a personal rather than a collective problem. How is it that so many men can continue to abuse so many little girls in a global avalanche of sexual abuse? How is this not everyone’s problem?
Is death the best we can offer? Genevieve, Charlotte and Ally Marie and the many others like them need to hear: Stay here with us. We will help you, not with a needle, but with everything you need to become well.
This week marked the International Day For the Elimination of Violence Against Women. If any voices should be heard at this time, it is those of survivors. Here are two, addressing the physical, mental, emotional, and financial costs of the harm done to them by male abusers.
Sexual assault has robbed me of my confidence and my self-esteem. My dignity, my autonomy and my self-respect. My faith in myself and my faith in the world have been decimated
On Wednesday, the 21st of May, the man who raped me was sentenced. Four years, four months and four days after the assault took place. In the end, he did not face charges of rape – the two charges of rape were dropped and the Prosecution accepted a plea deal from the Defense for the accused to plead guilty to one charge of “indecent assault”.
At the plea hearing, I read a Victim Impact Statement to the court. I have posted my statement below.
A Victim Impact Statement is the sole space where the criminal justice system allows the victim of a crime – or the Crown Witness in Victoria’s criminal justice system – to speak of how the crime has affected them. Victims can choose to read their statement to the court themselves or have it read for them by the Prosecutor.
I chose to attend the court and read my statement myself. My family came with me for support and my mum also read a victim impact statement to the court – reflecting on the impacts she had noticed in me and also on the impacts the crime had on our entire family.
It was a distressing experience. Also present in the court were the accused, his legal team, the prosecution, the judge and her staff, journalists and my entire family. To stand up and speak of how my life has been ruined, how I have been crushed, by sexual assault before this group of people was one of the most intimidating and vulnerable things I have ever done. It is not often that we reveal our suffering plainly, explicitly before an audience. To do so publicly, and before the very person who caused that suffering, was distressing and somewhat humiliating.
However, I chose to speak my statement myself because I wanted my words to be my own. I didn’t want them coming out of someone else’s mouth. I didn’t want them spoken by someone who has not lived what I have, who has not been subject to sexual assault, who could not know what I am trying to convey. I wanted to claim this one paltry opportunity provided in the criminal justice system to be heard as a victim and to speak for myself.
It’s hard to know what the value of a Victim Impact Statement is, whether it makes any difference. But when the system has so little time or care for victims this is our one chance and I was grateful for the opportunity it provided, even if I am still reeling from the experience of delivering it.
The impacts of sexual assault for me have been devastating, profound and far-reaching. They have impacted every area of my life and every part of my self.
Almost immediately after the sexual assault, the losses started and to this day I continue to be held back and limited in my life because of the impacts of sexual assault.
First of all I lost my home. Rae Street, my home, was also the place that the sexual assault took place and, to this day, that area remains a place of terror and distress to me. I managed to return to that house only a few times after the assault. Within days of the assault I knew that I would have to move out, leaving my friends, my housemates and an area I loved. My family had to move my belongings from the house because I could not manage even that, the associations were so negative and fearsome.
I lost my career. At first, I took 5 weeks off work. Then I tried to return part time. But it quickly became clear that I was in no state of mind to manage even that. The impacts of trauma were so invasive and so omnipresent that I could no longer carry out my job. As a manager my role entailed responsibility and high-level decision-making. It was a stressful and demanding position, full of challenges. I had thrived on those challenges. But now, trauma prevented me from accomplishing even the most basic tasks. I would jump if the phone rang. I would try to work but flashbacks and intrusive thoughts prevented me from concentrating. As a result, I felt I had no choice but to resign from my position while I sought help to heal my mind and my body.
That was only the beginning of my professional losses, however. About a month before the sexual assault I had applied for a scholarship with the French government for a teaching position in France. A few months after the assault I received notification that I had been awarded a scholarship. A teaching position in Paris. Had I not been assaulted this would have been a dream come true. Something I had long wanted to do. However, I was no longer in a position to take up such an exciting opportunity. I had to turn it down. All because I no longer believed I could be safe. All because, with the traumatised condition I was in, I knew I couldn’t survive without the constant loving support of my family. I needed the familiarity of my childhood home, the security of my family’s unwavering assistance and the relative safety of a country in which my extensive support networks could be constantly about me. There was no longer any way I could move to the other side of the world. Losing this opportunity still devastates me today and will remain a life-long disappointment for me.
To this day – nearly four and a half years since the assault – I have not been able to work full-time. The physical and psychological impacts of the assault continue to interfere in my daily life and prevent me from achieving what used to come so easily. I do not know when I will be in a position to return to full-time work.
Not being able to work full-time for over four years now has had a significant financial impact – severely restricting my earning capacity and costing me tens of thousands of dollars in lost income. It has meant that at different times during the past four and a half years since the assault I have been dependent on family or on welfare to support me. However, it has also exacted a huge personal cost. Not being able to work full-time is humiliating and distressing. Full-time employment is not just a way to make a living, it is a way to participate in and contribute to the world.
I see a psychiatrist every month for support with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. The hyper-vigilance, the repetitive and intrusive thoughts, the flashbacks, sleeplessness, insomnia, nightmares, difficulties in concentration, memory problems – all of these are things I struggle with on a daily basis. I continue to rely on psychiatric medications to support me to manage these symptoms. The persistence and invasiveness of post-traumatic stress wears me down and consumes so much of my energy that full-time work is not a possibility.
However, my career is not the only thing I have lost as a consequence of sexual assault and the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. I have also lost my social life. Before the assault I had an active and vibrant social life. Spending time with friends, going out, socialising – these were things I took completely for granted. They were a normal and completely unremarkable part of life. This is no longer the case. Since the assault, I have lost my social life and the inability to socialise freely and regularly has meant that in many ways I have lost my social networks.
So much of my life revolves around negotiating the impacts of sexual assault, of coping with post-traumatic stress and of trying to keep myself safe and well. All this takes up time and energy – time and energy which, prior to the assault, would have gone to work and to my social life.
But it’s also more complicated than that. Sexual assault has robbed me of my confidence and my self-esteem. My dignity, my autonomy and my self-respect have all been compromised as a result of the crime carried out against me. My faith in myself and my faith in the world have been decimated.
I struggle to believe I have anything to offer my friends anymore. I am not the person I was before the assault and I will never be the same as a result of what has been done to me. I struggle to remember what life was like when things like safety could be taken for granted. I am afraid I cannot live up to the expectations of those who knew me before. I struggle to connect to people in good faith and to trust them. I constantly wonder if the people around me mean well or mean me harm. I struggle to find the energy, on so many days, to fight through the difficulties sexual assault has created for me and reach out to others. Solitude and isolation too often seem like the safe option, the safest option and so, social isolation has become yet another reality of life for me since the assault.
It has not all been bleak. I have found ways to cope and I have had the extraordinary good fortune to have a supportive and loving family who have unwaveringly stood by me. I have had excellent professional support, too. However, the impacts of sexual assault continue to affect me, years after the assault, on a daily basis. Not a day goes by when what was done to me does not interfere with my life or limit the life I lead in some way. Sexual assault has cost me profoundly, in many ways, and has set my life on a completely different course from the one it would have taken, had I not been assaulted. I have lost so much and many of those losses cut right to the core of who I am and can never be undone.
For information about Victim Impact Statements and services for victims of crime in Victoria you can go here.
Consider the huge financial burden of putting women back together
An estimated 198,000 sexual assaults [occurred in 2011 in Australia], the vast majority of which were against women. The average medical cost for those injured was $950 per incident. The estimated total cost of sexual assault, including those not reported to police was $775 million.
As a survivor of sexual violence, I read with great interest. One line in particular stood out to me:
‘The average medical cost for those injured was $950 per incident.’
I recalled my own personal history and the lengthy process of working towards healing, and the costs associated with recovery, $950 seemed low. (Of course, the financial costs for victims of rape and sexual assault are often far greater than merely medical as the account above shows).
In the process of obtaining a restraining order against the man who had abused me for almost a year, I incurred legal bills totaling almost $4000. My parents came up with the money somehow, as I was a traumatized nineteen year old university student and my few shifts a week in a fast food chain didn’t cover much more than petrol money.
Therapy, extending over twelve years and three psychologists totalled about $6000.
I spent hundreds on a variety of antidepressant medications, including Zoloft, Pritiq, Escitalopram that GPs offered me as I struggled with depression.
At one point, my husband resigned from his job in a leadership role to stay home and care for our children because I could no longer function. This was around the time when I had finally reported my abuser. After months of going back and forth with police, they concluded that because the perpetrator was exercising his legal right to remain silent, they did not have enough evidence to charge him.
Our family survived on a carer’s pension during this period while my husband played the roles of both father and mother and I just slept and slept. I recall one day her came into our room, gently woke me and said,”It’s 4pm, maybe you should get up?”
We had hoped to spend more time on my recovery, on slowly building my strength back up and taking on some of my regular tasks again. However, circumstances necessitated my husband get back into the workforce sooner than we had anticipated, when our landlord significantly raised the rent and we could no longer afford it. After applying for ten different properties and being rejected from all, it was clear we could not keep a roof over our heads without my husband resuming full time employment, which he did. By this point, of course, we were in a pretty desperate situation and my husband had to accept a job with a $20000 pay cut. We didn’t have the luxury of being picky.
There were appointments with the psychiatrist, ten years later, who finally diagnosed me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which I had been living with ever since the abuse without knowing there was a name for it. Throw in a few hundred dollars for those appointments.
I was fortunate to be accepted into a clinical study where researchers at a hospital in the city had been awarded a substantial government funding to study different treatments for PTSD. I was one of nineteen people who participated in the study and received treatment. Six weeks of intensive treatment, including PET scans and MRI scans to record any changes to the brain throughout and after the process was competed.
Hospital appointments and follow up appointments every three months. How many thousands of dollars were spent there?
At the time, I lived in a regional area, hours from the city. My petrol costs driving to and from the city each week came to around $2000.
Then there was the day when I couldn’t bear it any longer and I overdosed on pills, landing myself in the hospital attached to a cardiac monitor. Who knows how much that cost?
That year of sexual abuse has taken a massive toll on myself and my family, emotionally and financially. While I wasn’t personally covering every cost outlined above, someone was – whether it was Medicare, government grants, my parents.
We cannot underestimate the cost of rape, sexual assault and violence against women. Consider the huge financial burden of putting women back together. I can’t help but wonder what the world might look like if we hadn’t been broken in the first place.
Antoinette Jones – Principal – Mitcham Girls High School
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