Cherie* – Melbourne’s South

“I had a happy childhood until I was 13.

Mum and Dad didn’t understand me. I dyed my hair and I hated school.

But one of the things I was good at was short hand. I could write 150 words a minute.

So I got a job when I was 16 as the private secretary to the local Shire Engineer. That allowed me to leave home and I moved around the corner.

My boyfriend was four years older than me and my parents didn’t like that.

Then the obvious happened – I got pregnant when I was 16.

Mum and Dad had me married to him in two weeks. But just before that, he had beaten me up so badly that I had to get stitches.

He was a Catholic and I was Anglican.

We set up house in Gippsland, rented a Housing Commission place for a bit, and then we bought a place. At that time, it only cost us $9 a week to pay off.

My husband had his job at the SEC – he’d been there since he was 16.

When the violence happened it was serious because he was a boxer. He would just snap.

The frustration for him was that I was aspirational.

By 20, I’d had the two kids and said, “I’m getting a job”. He wanted me to do the finances, do all the cooking, all the cleaning, and have his dinner ready for him every night.

He said “you will never get a job”. Of course, I got the first one.

With our social life, that’s when I used to get hit a lot, when we were out. He would get jealous and think I’d looked at somebody. And constantly told me I was no good.

I started working longer and longer hours. I didn’t know it was because I didn’t want to be home. It was the only way I could do it.

I had a really high profile at work. On the one hand, I had that life and then had to navigate a different life at home.

I got really involved in the community and sent the kids off to weekly boarding school to get them away from the violence. But that’s when one of them became a victim of the Catholic Church. Their lives changed forever after that.

One day, after 17 years of marriage, I packed all my bags and I never went back.

I moved to Melbourne with one of the kids – the other stayed with his dad and went to Tech School.

I rented a place in South Yarra and fell in love with a younger man. He was from Sydney and wanted to go back there, so off we went with him.

Once we got up there, I realised it wasn’t working out between us after six months.

At the time, I was managing a travel agency. I stayed single for a few years and ended up opening my own agency.

I met my second husband and it was instant, absolutely instant. I was never in love with my first husband, so it was just so powerful. I married him and made him a Director of my company.

The day after we got married, he changed instantly.

He was a compulsive gambler. It turned into a nightmare.

He’d take my ATM card and I’d have permanent finger marks on my arms from trying to get away from him.

Love is blind and I justified it.

There was so much control, it was absolutely full on.

That period was devastating because I went from being a completely independent person to being totally dependent on him.

I lost my business. He got me into gambling. It just got so toxic and I couldn’t get myself out of it.

He’d always do these big, grand gestures – sending red roses to the office and things.

My son took off because he could see it all.

Then I got into the women’s refuge system. I lived up and down the coast in 27 different refuges over two years to get away from him. He found me every time.

I got an intervention order. By that point, I could barely function. My mental state went really downhill and my self-esteem was rock bottom.

When I lived in the refuges I always continued working. I’d get dressed and leave for the day and then come back and hang out with the women.

Then I came back down to Melbourne and got a job teaching at a TAFE. I helped set up the curriculum and taught tourism.

I still had problems with gambling and had discovered the casino at this point.

In the middle of that, I met another guy and fell in love with him.

We were together on and off for a few years.

He was a gambler too and turned violent – the police had to come and cart him off.

Moving into public housing was really the key to my recovery.

I only had to wait a few weeks to get a place because I was in a really bad way.

Getting in here had such an effect on me.

I didn’t even realise I had PTSD.

The thing that I can’t seem to get over though is my view of myself. You know? That I don’t deserve anything.

If I didn’t have this place, I don’t know where I would be.

Having this secure place has been the key for me – being able to get the building blocks together to get where I am now.

It’s taken so long.

The other important thing that had an effect was Gamblers Help.

When I met the support worker for the first time, she said “I’m here for the long haul.” It gave me that sense of stability.

I started to get my feelings back. One night I was watching TV and I felt it. I actually felt myself laughing and I thought, “Oh my god”.

The feelings came back gradually – I started to feel like I was in reality again.

Before that, I was just existing in a parallel universe.

You have to just take baby steps and have a positive attitude.

Living in public housing is fabulous. It’s secure and if you have the right attitude and know your rights, it’s great because it’s your home.”

Cherie, Melbourne’s South