Music can nurse you through every human emotion, lift you up and break your heart. There’s a song for all of the defining moments in your life. Some music will always remind me of this seven years. This song linked above is the first that will remind me of The Conclusion, The New Start, A Win. Being free of the vice that is being an injured worker. Let the real healing begin.
It is almost seven years exactly.
Seven years since I walked into that school and felt all of the pride and excitement that comes with starting the job of your dreams. Especially after returning to university to get there. Giving up a professional income to study for this because THIS is where your heart is. Where all of the best things can happen. The classroom. And it was mine.
Seven years since I moved into my first real home on my own. Not a granny flat or weirdo share house. Mine. Two bedroom unit I would pay for with my dream job in the school I had chosen, in the beautiful small suburb on the edge of town.
I was in a relationship. I had my home. I was happy. All my ducks were in a row.
Seven years since the school year started but I see now that by that day, I was on his radar. He was a predator from very early on, if he has ever been any other way, I couldn’t say. Certainly the gossip from those on his interviewing panel were that his references were questionable. Inappropriate relations with staff, in general, were part of his MO. But hey, they knew him. He was a Nice Guy. Further complicating my experience, the power plays and existing alliances amongst such a small, long term staff list would ensure I would not get any of the support that was rightfully mine when the time came; ethically, morally, legally or as the profession standard.
Seven years I have tortured myself. First with denial – This revolting creature could not possibly be serious? But I will never forget how he asked for a ‘team photo’ on school photo day and as they took the shots his hand slid down my back and squeezed my buttock. But I look so happy in the photos. My hair was shiny, my eyes bright. My belief that I was in the right place with important work to do with students as a caring, empathic teacher was at peak level then. And I fought it’s demise every step of the way. Then I tortured myself with the guilt and shame spiral that I’d come to know well working in welfare with child survivors of sexual abuse. No amount of reasoning and research means a thing when you feel so stupid and trapped in your own skin. That theoretical knowledge probably makes it worse in some ways. Another thing to beat yourself with. How could I miss the signs? How could I be fooled? How did I get to this? I am an educated adult in a fair country in 2007. I am a Union member who knows my rights by heart. I can talk. I know who to tell. How the hell can you have all of that and still sit at the bottom of your running shower every night and wail? How?
It really has been seven years of screaming into people’s faces as they stare blankly ahead and pretend they can’t hear me. I did it that first night. We had the children on a school camp, you see. While you wondered how your kids were on their first big camp away, they were tucked up in bed but the most senior teachers were both in a dark room with me. One trying to remove my pyjamas, one joking about how I was young and “probably giving HIM an erection” as I fought him off and yelled about how much trouble he would be in. She was awake. She did hear me. I fucking told her I was upset about it when he left the room and she said, “He’s just an affectionate guy” – hard to say in your sleep.
I just had to stop for a bit. Seven years and it still hurts. It is still hard to believe that two primary school teachers acted in that way with kids asleep in the cabins beside us. He was supposed to be in a cabin on the other side of the camp. With the fathers who had volunteered to assist. On this camp so far away from home. No car. Only HIS car.
I am in awe of the human mind, how it worked to get me through that camp. That whole year with HIM, in the office next to my classroom, only windows between us. Six months later, after he was sent home and the Police became involved. As the Principal held a staff meeting to tell everyone that HE was suspended due to accusations by a staff member. And the room fell in on top of me. (Protocol that can be found on a Google search clearly states that this meeting should not have taken place, staff should NOT have been told but apparently the Principal should not be reprimanded because “he was new to the job”.) I printed out the guidelines for him, you know. Highlighted what he had to do next and the ‘chain of command’, if you will. I spoon fed it. I knew enough to have little faith in either his abilities or interest. And he pretended I hadn’t. Because they went to school together as kids. He knew HIS wife. HE was immature but harmless, couldn’t I see that? They were both just NICE GUYS.
For seven years I have heard that. From every level of the hierarchy. I have been questioned, cross examined, shamed, blamed and talked about. I worked for another two years (because I’m stubborn, and I truly believed in Right and Wrong) but this followed me. Like they told me it would. When I sat in her office, broken down, desperate, and asked the Principal for help as HIS frightening behaviour was breaking all kinds of LAWS (I thought that would scare him into action HAHAHAHAHA) and he stated very simply, “If you make this known outside these walls, your career will be ruined. Mud. Sticks.” I still thought he was being dramatic, or referring to other difficulties. I did not realise that what he actually meant was that the three of them together would almost kill me from the inside out. That he would laugh when a temp agency called to ask if I had worked there before. That I would become unemployable because someone with authority over me in the workplace decided that he would have me, body and mind, whether I wanted that or not. Every time I got the guts (or pissed off enough) to say something I was “being unprofessional” and “should reconsider whether I am suitable for the job”. Said the ‘new to the job’ principal. Was he also new to planet Earth and Australian Law?
For seven years I have known that the only option for me was to fight. At times I had nothing left. I considered how I could stop the insanity…only one way that I could see. Then I would decide again that they couldn’t have all of me, the pricks. I didn’t try to wipe myself out in defiance because that would be too much of a gift to them. All gone. Nothing for them to worry about. I wanted them to have something to worry about.
For seven years I imagined bloody revenge. Fiery vengeance. Sometimes violent retribution. What else can you do? I did take myself to a counselor then and ask if I was becoming a psychopath, had I crossed the line? What had I become? (It’s particularly disconcerting when the targets inhabit primary schools, really makes you feel fucked up) Just a normal person after trauma, apparently. Using anything that my brilliant mind could dig up to release some of that pain. I don’t think you can ever be the same though, after a mind shift like that. My tolerance for hearing about other people’s trauma is much lower. I am enraged. Angry. Sick to fucking death of sexual violence and manipulation and victim blaming bullshit.
It has been less than seven years since I first called my union representative and put this scenario to them. Probably about three years since I saw a lawyer. The union works with this law firm to aid employees financially and legally in a way I cannot emphasise strongly enough to you. Join your goddamn union and investigate your rights at work. That wasn’t enough to help me, true, but I have utilized those venues in the only way they are available to some of us – with the impending threat of a public hearing. Seeking some financial compensation. Not to get rich. Hahahaha you don’t choose Workcover to get rich, kids. Turns out you have to be a bit of a sadist, or one tough mother. It’s brutal. For bringing Rape and Stalking charges against your boss…faaaaark.
Even with all of the evidence that I had, the Police and Court documents, countless psychiatric examinations by strangers and sharp legal representation to face their scary lawyers…seven years to come to an end. Three years of constant legal action. He pled guilty, right? Still three years for that to be recognised. To prove that I was damaged by what we agree he did. Prove damage enough that I might get some recognition in the eyes of…well…anyone. I wasn’t fussy by now. Only one option. I had to fight for it. I knew I couldn’t go on any other way.
Yesterday, I got the call. My lawyer. Her voice happy and light. It IS over. I’ve taken it to the limit and the other side has made an offer that indicates I was indeed the victim of some hellish wrongdoing. There was a tussle, mind. Some initial offers which were insulting to the person reading them out and all of us. This kind of settlement could’ve meant a much higher one should I have been forced into jury trial to prove employer negligence. It could also have meant the same, or less. Depends on the jury. It would have meant more public knowledge and opportunities for more abuse and pain for me. I was willing because I wanted to prove a point but I’m pretty bloody glad that I don’t have to, as I’m sure anyone would be. Seven years is enough.
Turns out that there is no precedent for this scenario in workplace/employer law to get this far. Has a boss sexually assaulted an employee? Well, yes. Was it like this? Did everyone involved lie, bully and blacklist the victim? Was that person able to fight this long? Nope. When I first called the union they did say, “Um, I don’t know where to start. This is a new one for us!”
I wanted to make a mark on the world, you know. And I hope I do it in other ways, too. But in these circumstances, I have had a big win.
What I am hoping for is that this seven years and yesterday’s outcome serve as a warning to employers and other staff (especially THIS employer) that rape, sexual assault, stalking, harassment and gossip ARE WRONG, EVEN IN YOUR ISOLATED WORKPLACE! A Duty of Care exists even if you choose to think that young women are “dick teases” who “bring it upon themselves”. (Yes, direct quotes). If an employer in the future only acts out of fear for his own hide rather than being a lawful and ethical professional, so be it. As long as someone’s silent suffering is minimised or prevented. The moral revolution necessary and thorough smashing of the patriarchy that enables this shit must come also but that’s work far beyond the capacity of the utter bastards in my story. It was of course their strongest weapon.
If there happens to be another asshole out there preying on a Bright Young Thing who dreams of Making A Difference (and I think we know there is), and she has to call her union rep or a lawyer one day, I want to make sure they know there is a precedent in this area. You are not lost in the woods entirely. Because I tried my best to slash my way through and I think I left a trail with a little light. It’s yours if you need it and I’ll be here somewhere if you need directions. Funnily enough, in about seven weeks I don’t have to be an anonymous shell anymore.
After a five year fight to be recognised as ‘damaged enough’ for the powers that be, I’m on the top of the mountain. A long, steep climb with an obscene amount of hurdles to jump. But I think I can say now that I am at the pointy end of the process. The beginning of The End. Thank. Fucking. God.
I’ve ‘passed’ all of the assessments, each by a new (strange) psychiatrist, usually every three months.
I’ve done whatever has been asked of me by the insurance company of my former employer.
I’ve taken the medication, spent hours upon hours pouring my guts out to various counsellors, mental health nurse and a couple of eccentric psychiatrists.
I’ve kept journals, tried natural therapies, meditation, talismans, crystals and read so many texts on How To Manage This.
I’ve been lucky enough to become part of a group of women who share, learn and grow together.
Most importantly, I started sharing here.
All mostly positive learning experiences and opportunities for reflection and forgiving myself. Because when enough people blame you for your own abuse, you blame yourself with cruel regularity.
I’ve been surviving but also rebuilding.
The next official step in the legal process is a Case Conference. This is an informal meeting of myself, my lawyers and the lawyers representing the other side. The purpose of this meeting (which is compulsory, kind of like mediation before Family Court these days) is to try to resolve the case and avoid the need to go to Court. Again.
I must attend to advise my legal team regarding any ‘offers’ made regarding a settlement but I should be in another room to where the lawyers all discuss issues at hand or negotiate. This is to protect myself should they say anything offensive or upsetting. I will chat to my lawyer and barrister just prior to the conference. The timeframe of a Case Conference can vary from half an hour to a full day but the average is apparently one to four hours. Sounds like a day in the park…
I can take a support person, and someone has offered, but I think I’ll probably go it alone. It’s hard to imagine.
It is hoped that the ‘other side’ is prepared to make a settlement offer as the idea of a Court hearing with a jury is in no one’s best interests. If the do not make any offer, we prepare for court. This would add another twelve months to the wait.
The hope of a settlement is based on where we are at now. The original perpetrator pled guilty in the County Court. It has been proven that the damage done to me at work was a direct result of being sexually assaulted, stalked and then bullied for saying something about it and expecting help (what was I thinking?!?). The damage to me has been ruled likely permanent, stabilised and basically ‘as good as its gonna get’. I’ve met the almost unmeetable threshold…30% Whole Person Impairment.
So, what price my body, mind and mental health? The wages I’ve lost over the last five years? The wages I should have been free to earn for the next thirty years? Pain and suffering? The constant grief of being kept from a career I dreamt of, that I was made for. That made me so happy. And that I was good at.
Apparently it is unusual to be facing this at my tender young age. I had at least 30 good working years left in me. That’s a significant amount of time. I was going to be a Leading Teacher, Assistant Principal…Principal even.
I need the money to live off at this stage. But I also need the money because it is the only way I have to seek recognition of what happened. It won’t say ‘I’m sorry they were such assholes’ on the cheque but I’ll read it that way as it suits me. Finally, I want this money to set a precedent. I know it won’t ‘cure’ me and I’ll have a lot of work to do to help the anger fade with time but I will have pushed the boundaries as far as they possibly go. And if I win, when the next person meets a lawyer, distressed and unable to go on, the lawyer may say that a workcover battle is a very difficult one but they will be able to say, “We’ll, there was this one case in 2013…” and maybe that worker will feel a bit stronger.
I’ll report back after the meeting next week.
I’ve been spinning around like the proverbial top for a few weeks. Still going. I have bursts of happy, mostly of the potential for something different from how I have been living.
Money is a form of power and choice. Until now, I worried that my payments would be stopped, that someone was watching me, how would this end? Now, for a moment, I can concern myself with making investments in our future with the money in my hand. Money owed to me ten times over, not enough compared to what I could have earnestly earned, but I’m choosing to look at it like some kind of Extreme Savings Plan. They…did me a favour and kept some aside so that I could have a lump sum to set up a new home. Or something.
I loathe applying for rental properties because you have to share your private details and try to be chosen over the others like Annie at the orphanage. And I haven’t been rejected in that area before. This first one hurt. Made me panic. What if I can’t get accepted into a decent house now? I’m permanently like this? A financial loser? A non-contributer to society? Not number one any more. *need for approval evident*
I talked myself around. The right house will be mine. What is meant to happen will happen and all that. And I think it has! The house I wanted the most, with a view of Autumn in the mountain ranges, is mine to live in.
This is what this new home means to me…
A home for my child, with space to be together and also slightly apart when the need or desire arises
A backyard to die for. Half of the space is dense greenery and foliage – our jungle. The other, grass crying out to be filled with a swing set and a cubby house. I can’t think of a better way to spend a few of these dollars than setting up a place to laugh
A safe place. I live in a property now which is wide open to the street and I feel exposed. I can’t relax. I can’t enjoy the sunshine through the open window because I can’t afford to Be Seen. The new house has sensor security lights. The doors are secure and have no glass. I quite fancy having the windows open and taking in the colourful view. I so hope I feel this way when I am in there. With a happy, safe home base, I believe this will be the New Start we all hear about. Hope for. My safe, comfortable house.
From here? It’s only going to get better. I have a good feeling about that.
When you’re on Workcover (receiving partial pay for being injured at work) you are warned that you may be ‘monitored or under surveillance by private investigators’ employed by the insurance company or employer.
The first time I was told, I didn’t take it in.
The time I read it in a letter as a gentle warning, I thought, ‘Who would do that?!’
I looked for some information about other people’s experiences on the Internet. You know, you can’t ask out loud, just throw it out there. It’s an isolating experience. You find answers where the rest of us go to find each other. Forums. Blogs. Websites.
And I read some stories about ways detectives had followed and reported on injured workers. One who pretended to be a potential tenant and attended an open house, asking the kids questions about their Dad who was on Workcover. I mean SERIOUSLY. I’d erased the old me from the Internet years ago. Used search engines to find mention of myself by anyone, anywhere I’d appeared, even proud moments or awards I’d won. And deleted them.
Delete. Delete. Delete. All gone.
If I leave the house, even for an appointment with someone or to see my GP, I look around me at all times. I check for people watching me. I avoid open spaces. Main roads. Shopping centres. And schools. I avoid schools like haunted houses. 3.30pm when the kids all spill out…terrifies me. They’re everywhere. Teachers. Students. Parents. And they’re all laughing and busy in a place I dreamt of working in, a place that should be safe. I am scared of them, yet wish desperately to be back there. It’s a shitty, mixed up feeling.
My son goes to daycare occasionally so that he learns that there is more to the world than the bubble in which we have lived. I went to pick him up one afternoon recently (in obligatory sunglasses and hat) and I felt a man watching me. I saw him scribbling down some notes. I thought, ‘Is he making notes on me?’
I felt sick to my stomach. Shrunk into my seat. I became harder to breathe.
I reversed the car and noticed his number plate. The letters.
If that man was an investigator, he has a bloody wry sense of humour. And brass balls.
I laughed later, though. That paranoia. Is he watching me? SPY. Yeah, probably not this time.
Bloody Workcover. If you’ll excuse me, it’s a headfuck.
PS Thanks for saying lovely things lately. It’s very, very special to me that you take the time to do that. Much appreciated xx