‘I didn’t think I could get any better than him, and he made sure I believed that.’: Aboriginal woman shares inspiring story escaping poverty, domestic violence

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Disclaimer: This story contains details of sexual assault and domestic violence that may be upsetting for some. 

Early Challenges

“Struggling with depression and anxiety from a very young age is extremely confusing and frustrating, especially when you don’t know what mental health is. Particularly with a lack of support in your household. As a child, my family moved around a lot. It felt like we were moving every 6-12 months, and I ended up going to 6 schools in total. My parents also divorced when I was very young, so I really didn’t know what stability, or a healthy relationship looked like. I was as young as 8 when I remember displaying symptoms of mental health issues. I’ve always been very self-aware and have known from a young age that I needed help, but didn’t have access to professional services for most of my childhood. I remember being extremely sad and angry all the time and not knowing how to deal with all those emotions. I would get so upset I would stop breathing and go blue.

Aboriginal girl standing on front steps
Courtesy of Zoe Raymond

I remember when I finally got diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety at the age of 14. I said to my mom one day, ‘I think I have depression.’ When speaking to the doctor, he said it was very rare for kids my age to be so self-aware and bring themselves in like that. The diagnosis wasn’t a shock for me, so it was nice to get some direction and validation for all those feelings. I came to realize having regular panic attacks and crying day after day wasn’t considered ‘normal,’ so I decided I needed help.

In my senior years of high school, I was convinced to take on a full workload as well as a school-based traineeship. Looking back, this was pushed on me because I am Aboriginal, and it helped the school and employer get funding. I was really pushed to believe the only way to make a career for myself was to excel in my 12th grade studies and go on to college. This pressure took a huge toll on my mental health, and my grades started slipping in some of my best subjects, like art. I was never asked if I was okay or why I was failing, but instead got in trouble for it. I only just managed to pass and graduate high school. Looking back, one of my biggest and proudest achievements was being awarded an Indigenous Leadership Award amongst my peers.

Aboriginal woman sitting and holding an achievement certificate
Courtesy of Zoe Raymond

Once high school finished up, I felt lost again. I really didn’t feel prepared for the real world and didn’t know what direction I wanted to go in. I ended up in the hospital a few times for attempting to end my life and self-harm incidents. It got to a point where it became too much for my mother and she kicked me out of the home. I felt like a burden.

Dealing With Homelessness

I wasn’t hanging out with a good crowd at the time, but I managed to find a couch to crash on while I figured things out. It was a household of boys that I’m still friends with through social media. They were so kind and didn’t make me feel like a bother. I would cook and clean to pay my way for the time I spent there. I eventually found a local youth homeless shelter and was lucky they had a bed that became vacant for me at the time.

Room with green wall at homeless shelter
Courtesy of Zoe Raymond

I remember it was just before Christmas time I was taken in, and I felt so alone. Waking up Christmas morning, there were some gifts made up of makeup and perfume that were donated to the shelter. It completely made my day. This is a big reason why I donate when I can to charities like this. A few weeks later, I was told a room had become available for me in a housing unit with another girl. I told myself I was never going to get myself back into a homeless shelter after that experience, and I’d do whatever it takes.

I moved into housing, got a job, and worked on getting my driver’s license. I was in a 100% commission sales job at the time, so I was spending more than I was earning. I lasted about a month in that job before it broke me mentally and financially. I was still trying to find a good job, and making my way through life, when my friends at the time introduced me to a boy.

A Toxic Relationship

Unfortunately, growing up in a household that lacked certain support, I was very naïve from a young age. I didn’t know what a healthy relationship, stability, or love looked like. So, at the fragile age of 19, this boy sucked me in by something called ‘love-bombing.’ He was 6 years older than me, so I thought it was supposed to be a good thing. My self-esteem was at its very lowest, so I didn’t think I could get any better than him, and he made sure I believed that.

We were only a few months into dating when he suddenly said he was moving back to his hometown, 14 hours away, and he was going with or without me. It seems like it would have been easy to say no, but I ended up going anyway. Before this, he went on a drug and alcohol-fueled rage, which ended with the police being called and taking him in for the night to sober up. However, I still packed my life up 2 days later and moved with him anyway. Away from my family, friends, and everything I ever knew.

Aboriginal woman sitting next to a box of cake with a fork in hand
Courtesy of Zoe Raymond

Once we were in his hometown, he dictated everything I did and made sure I didn’t make any of my own friends outside of his. He would constantly look over my shoulder while I was on my phone, question where I was at all times, and belittle and degrade me every single day. Most of my family stopped speaking with me because of this relationship, and I once again felt very much alone. I tried to leave him many times, but he’d always find a way to manipulate me to stay. He made sure I knew he was all I had.

The night I finally had the courage to commit to leaving him, he came home very drunk with a bunch of friends after disappearing for a whole day with no contact. The next day he tried begging me to stay as usual, but I stuck to my word and started looking for my own place. For another two weeks, I had to withstand his abuse before I moved out. I would try and sleep in a separate room in a separate bed, but he would turn on the light while I was sleeping and stand over me yelling, ‘Zoe, Zoe, Zoe! Wake, up Zoe,’ repeatedly. It was torture. He would do this until I gave in and went to bed with him. He would then force himself on to me every night during those two weeks, and I’d never felt so sick in my life. I would just lay there and pretend I was somewhere else. I didn’t know anyone in the area, so I agreed for him to help me move my big furniture, and I would later come to regret this.

Aboriginal woman sitting on a boat
Courtesy of Zoe Raymond

Breaking Free From Relationship Abuse

As soon as I moved out, he would call me repeatedly, day-in and day-out. Every time I tried to block his number, he’d find a new number to call me on. This went on every day for several weeks. One day, I answered, and he said he was coming over to my place to smash my car up. I knew he was serious about this so, in a panic, I hopped in my car and met some friends at the gym to get away. Sadly, in my rush, I left a door unlocked and he went inside. He called me from inside my house and said, ‘You should have made sure you locked your door,’ while laughing. I broke down in tears at the gym at the thought of him inside my home. A man approached me, said he was an off-duty officer, and advised me to go to the police and get a restraining order. I didn’t sleep at all that night. Even though my neighbors witnessed this event and I had evidence, I was the one who left my door unlocked, so it wasn’t technically a break and enter and they couldn’t charge him with anything. The next day, I took myself down to the local Domestic Violence center to submit an application for an AVO (Apprehended Violence Order).

I’ve never felt so useless in my life. The lady who took my statement and details made me feel like I wasn’t a victim of domestic violence because I wasn’t covered in bruises or showing any physical evidence of violence. Being treated like that from another woman who works with DV victims made me feel as if my situation wasn’t worthy of her time. However, the application was put through, and the court granted me an immediate, temporary AVO while I awaited the hearing.

At 21, all alone, I walked into a courthouse for the very first time. Seeing my ex again was horrific. Thankfully, he was convinced to agree to everything without fighting it out in court. On his way out of the courthouse, he turned around and gave me the most chilling smile I’ve ever seen in my life. I absolutely, without a doubt, believe if I didn’t leave when I did, it would have become a very violent relationship.

Discovering Powerlifting

Following the end of this relationship, I joined a local gym because I felt I had a lot of internal anger I needed to get out through physical activity. It’s here I discovered the sport of powerlifting. I saw some men at the gym doing deadlifts, and I thought it looked like the most empowering thing ever. I was right. I just happened to work with a chef at the time who competed in the sport, and I begged him for months to show me how to do some of the lifts.

Aboriginal woman standing in workout gear
Courtesy of Zoe Raymond

I completely fell in love with the gym and how it made me feel. It made me feel like I had control and power over something for the first time in my life. I would wake up, go to work, go to the gym between shifts, go back to work, and then do it all again the next day. I was addicted to the feeling of getting better physically and mentally each day. I lost a lot of weight and started to love myself for the first time ever. The day came around when I felt ready to head back to my hometown on the Sunshine Coast. I made a promise to myself I would get myself a coach, sign up for a powerlifting competition, and see how I liked it.

I get bad stage fright, but there is something about being on a platform, lifting something heavy, and the crowd going wild. You don’t feel like you’re being judged by anyone. My first competition just set my heart on fire, and I still participate in the sport to this day. I have taken home many gold, silver, and bronze medals, and went on to set some Junior National squat records in my weight class at the time. Powerlifting hasn’t just been a hobby for me. It has kept me in a routine and improved my mental health incredibly. I have also met the most incredible people from all over the world who will be life-long friends. Most of them ended up in the sport through similar struggles, so you always have a family of people to relate to.

Aboriginal woman powerlifting
Courtesy of Greg Elkenhans
Aboriginal woman with gold medal standing with coach at powerlifting contest
Courtesy of Zoe Raymond

Working Through Poverty

When I did finally get back to the Sunshine Coast, I found myself between jobs again. By the time I finally got offered a position at a pub, I would pretty much drive to work on an empty tank of fuel, just to get to my shifts, because I had no money. I remember at the start of this job, there was a payroll issue and they couldn’t pay me for a few weeks after starting work. I would pretend to eat lunch or dinner on my break, but would just sit in my car and pretend I had eaten, when I was starving, because I was too embarrassed to say how poor I was. If I managed to find a dollar somewhere, I’d buy a cheap chocolate bar just to get me through my shift.

Aboriginal woman working at bar
Courtesy of Zoe Raymond

This is the job that started what is now a strong work ethic of mine. I’m so driven now because work, to me, was the difference between eating and not eating. It was the difference between paying the rent and being homeless again. If I didn’t go to work, I was terrified I’d end up back where I was. The gym helped give me a mindset I could do anything. So, after 8 years on and off within the hospitality industry, I finally decided to get back into office work for more structure in my life.

Bar and gaming roles took away a lot of my early 20’s. I missed out on so many events and milestones because I was working nights and every weekend. I was also severely taken advantage of within the industry, because I was doing tasks well-above my pay grade without knowing it. Managers liked me because I was really good with banking and management duties, but I didn’t realize it myself. After hospitality, I found myself in a finance job for a few years, which then led to my current role within Indigenous Recruitment.

Aboriginal woman sitting in front of art wall with a cup of coffee
Courtesy of Zoe Raymond

Persevering Through Health Challenges

As a proud Aboriginal woman, I felt like I finally found a life’s purpose in giving back to community through my own lived experiences and how I’ve learned from them. We are only 3.3% of the Australian population, and yet we make up 28% of prison population, we have shorter life expectancies, and are less likely to finish 12th grade studies and gain meaningful employment. Unfortunately, being a First Nations person also means you are likely to be born with health issues. We are more susceptible to chronic diseases.

After 7 years of symptoms around debilitating pain within my stomach, lower back, and hip area, I had a laparoscopy this March to confirm I have endometriosis. Just prior to that, I was diagnosed with PCOS as well. I spent years being gaslighted by medical professionals. Being told it wasn’t anything, it was just bad period pain, being turned away in the hospital because they assumed I only wanted drugs for the pain. I also live with asthma, arrhythmia, and low iron issues.

Aboriginal woman working on aboriginal painting
Courtesy of Zoe Raymond

None of these stop me from living my life though. Some days are just harder than others. I also started working with a mental health professional 2 years ago on healing my traumas and repairing relationships. I love my family unconditionally, and have come to understand they were dealing with their own traumas at the time, and it was passed down to me and my siblings. I have no hate in my heart for the things I have been through. I only wish to keep working toward maintaining a good, healthy, and happy life and helping others do the same.

Going through the challenges I have just drives me to want to make change. I want to show other Indigenous people we can change the statistics and live good and meaningful lives. Imagine how many people are out there that could change the world, but they might be homeless or unable to afford basic needs or education. I want to be a part of that change.”

Aboriginal woman at beach with aboriginal face paint
Courtesy of Zoe Raymond
Aboriginal woman in halloween outfit holding a drink and balloons spelling 27
Courtesy of Zoe Raymond

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Zoe Raymon of Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. You can follow her journey on her personal Instagram, her art Instagram, her TikTok, and her website. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribeto our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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