THE framed photograph still takes pride of place in the formal lounge room.
Two blond-haired sisters, aged about 8 and 6, grin widely as they nurse their new baby brother.
It’s a professional shot that portrays a happy family and idyllic childhood. There’s no hint of the trouble that would befall the doting eldest sibling.
Today, about 14 years after the photograph was taken, Michelle* is sitting beside the treasured image and holding her own baby.
Michelle’s former partner – the baby’s father – is in jail. Another boyfriend, who has also spent time behind bars, is now subject to a restraining order. Both men abused Michelle, physically and emotionally.
The 22-year-old has now been left to raise a child on her own. Living once again with her parents and sister and brother, Michelle has vowed to leave years of ice addiction and petty crime behind her and provide a bright future for her daughter Mia*. The new mum is also reflecting on how it all went so wrong.
“It’s not like there’s anything that made me choose the path that I did,” Michelle says. “There are no bad influences in my family. My parents are very straight. I’d finished Year 12. I had my licence and a part-time job… and then I made some bad decisions and I got into drugs and wasn’t around the nicest people.”
Within two months of trying crystal methamphetamines – “I had the same mentality as everyone else, ‘I’ll just try it once and then I’ll stop’” – Michelle was “110 per cent” addicted and smoking ice every day. She began stealing from local shops and hanging out with other drug addicts.
She also fell under the spell of a man who quickly went from “nice” boyfriend to violent partner.
“He had heard from someone that I’d cheated on him, when I hadn’t, and he just flipped one day and bashed the sh*t out of me,” Michelle says. “But I didn’t tell anyone because in that world it’s ‘if you tell on me, you’re a dog’.”
Michelle says it started with “just one hit”, but before long she was being beaten every other day – and becoming increasingly frightened about what Robert* would do if she went to the police.
“Once he tasered me in the face,” she says.
The escalating violence came to a dramatic head when Robert dragged Michelle along a road and punched her in the face. Police were called, Robert fled, and Michelle was sent to hospital and then whisked away to a women’s refuge for four nights. Michelle says that during that time, Robert “broke into a house with a machete looking for me”. He was arrested, convicted and jailed.
Sadly, that exposure to domestic violence was not Michelle’s last. And while the abuse in her next relationship was not as physical, it was just as damaging.
Jason* banned her from using a mobile phone and Facebook. He once poured petrol over Michelle’s belongings and would generally “push and shove” the woman he claimed to love.
“And he would spit at me,” Michelle says. “That was his favourite thing to do when we were fighting. It was so degrading; I think that’s even worse than getting hit.”
Even so, she says the bad times were interspersed with good: “The whole mind-boggling thing about it is that when things were good, they were really good.”
Michelle fell pregnant just before Jason was convicted of drug offences and jailed for about a month. She didn’t tell anybody, including Jason, that she was expecting until she was 25 weeks along. The silence was in part borne of denial – Michelle freely admits she initially did not want to become a mother at 21 – but also fear. “(The abuse) was worse when I was pregnant,” Michelle recalls. “He started back on the drugs again and was 10 times more angry”.
Jason was jailed again a week before Mia’s birth and remains there. This has given Michelle time to adjust to motherhood, which she believes has saved her.
“Mia truly has been a blessing,” Michelle says. “It scares me to think where I’d be now without her. There were a few times when I would have gone back, but Mia has given me a reason to stay away.”
Michelle credits her family, as well as a Western Health midwife with help in turning her life around.
More than just providing pre- and post-natal care, her midwife offered vital emotional support.
“The first time she came to see me was just the best thing,” Michelle says. “Not only did she listen to me, but she really said it as it was. She didn’t sugar coat anything and she confirmed to me that this was wrong.
“I have always wanted to help other people and I guess I was sticking around so Jason could sort himself out. I feel like he does deserve help too, but it’s like he got a hold on me. The longer I spent away from him, the more I have been able to realise how wrong he is for me.
“Now all I want to do is be a good mum for Mia. I have been in a lot of bad situations and I want to be able to educate my daughter so she doesn’t make the same mistakes.”
Michelle’s midwife says she is “very proud” of Michelle.
“She is an amazing young woman with an equally wonderful family.
“It just goes to show that you should never give up on anyone. Michelle never gave up, her family never gave up and, as a hospital and a community, we should never give up either.”
*Names have been changed.
The Greatest Need Project is an online story-sharing website with two major goals – to help patients facing significant hardship and disadvantage, and to facilitate research at Western Health.
As a patient, Michelle is sharing her story in a bid to help those at Western Health who need it most.
By making a donation on Michelle’s behalf – and sharing her story on social media – you are making a difference too. Thank you.