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Sharing stories about the importance of safe spaces, when healing from family violence

As part of the #JustJustice series, Darren Parker, a Ngunawal man and Phd candidate at Melbourne Law School, shared a very personal account at Croakey last year, One man’s story of surviving the trauma of family violence.

The author of the article below, Clinton, a Gamilaroi psychologist, has also had to deal with the impacts of family violence upon his life. Much like Darren, he has channelled his experiences into his work. In Clinton’s case, this is helping other men.

Below, Clinton reflects on Darren’s story, the issues he has faced personally, and discusses the impact that family violence has on men, drawn from his experience as a psychologist. He talks about how men can turn to “negative coping mechanisms” to deal with their pain, and how Culture can improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men’s wellbeing.

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Clinton writes:

Like Darren, I too have experienced the full brunt of domestic and family violence and completely understand the scars it leaves. I have also had the dark beast of depression chase me throughout my life, and was at the brink of suicide on several occasions in my younger years. I have had to work through my own scars over the years.

I engaged in almost 20 years of negative coping after negative coping strategy and am definitely someone, like Darren, who managed to be high functioning throughout these years. I managed to successfully complete my entire university degree and honours year in a messed-up state of negative coping. It allowed me to escape, or so I thought at the time.

I acknowledge that it is only through sheer luck that I did not end up as another Aboriginal male incarcerated or suicide statistic, and thank those who have helped me on my healing journey thus far and those who will help me into the future.

My name is Clinton and I am a Gamilaroi man and a psychologist by trade.

Most of my current work happens in the area of men’s wellbeing including: drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and loss and grief work. I am a current PhD candidate and have been investigating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culturally bound mechanisms for protecting wellbeing.

I completely acknowledge the pain caused by some men through the perpetration of family violence; however, I do not believe that men are inherently violent or that those who may perpetuate violence are necessarily “evil men”.

I do, however, believe we have a lot of men who are very damaged and disconnected, lost and scared of them themselves and the world around them. Men who grew up witnessing negative coping mechanisms have been left with imprints of “how we survive”, which become the driving force behind “bad behaviours”.

I believe many of our men have not had the opportunity to engage with the positive and protective factors of our true Lore and culture, and that a loss of Lore and culture is the greatest issue we face as Aboriginal peoples. This loss contributes to the high rates of incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

While media and government policy may cause hysterical stereotypical images of Aboriginal society in the minds of unknowing Australians, our culture and our Lore is positive and, if utilised, can keep us strong, safe and secure as Aboriginal peoples. It can build and maintain strong positive men, women and families. It can keep us out of jail.

We often hear of the physical scarring caused by domestic violence and family violence, yet rarely is the equally damaging impact on our emotional, psychological and spiritual self acknowledged. For many who have experienced domestic violence or family violence, they will have had multiple attempts at “fighting” the threats of the past.

This is often through drug or alcohol abuse, through gambling or withdrawing from society. Or unfortunately through perpetuating the exact same violence onto their loved ones.

On holistic healing

We don’t often take the time to find our “safe place”: that space in which we feel connected, stable, supported, and where we are able to fight our problems.

If you watch a kangaroo when it is threatened by wild dogs or dingoes, you will notice, more often than not, it will head for water if it is available. Water is the kangaroo’s “safe place”; here it is balanced, empowered and strong, and can size up and tackle the threats (the dogs) that chase it.

We need to find our “water” – that place where we can be strong and empowered to tackle our “dogs”. Just like dingoes, social determinants and negative life events hunt in packs. You will not find someone struggling to cope who has only been impacted negatively by a single social determinant or has only experienced a single negative life event in recent times.

Again not dissimilar to Darren, despite my ability to carry on with the day-to-day grind at a high level, I was struggling beyond explanation inside. I mostly chose drugs and alcohol, but the drug and alcohol use generally led to other negative behaviours.

To heal, I needed to heal as a whole being. From an Aboriginal perspective, this is largely yarned of as having to heal my social and emotional wellbeing. I needed to accept my scars, all of them, and to learn from them. I needed to accept I couldn’t erase the past or the wrongs, both those created by me and those by others towards me, my family and my mob.

I needed to take responsibility for the pain I’d caused others, I needed to take control of my thoughts and actions and to empty myself of negativity, to allow space for positivity. I needed to learn from the lived experiences and knowledge of others in a positive way, and I needed to learn and return to cultural epistemologies and ontologies, or ways of knowing and being. I had to learn to truly respect myself with all my scars to be able to truly love and respect others.

Most of all, I needed to stop trying to escape through a bottle or baggie and to find my “safe places”.

I now spend much of my days guiding other men who have had similar life experiences to me and my family, on their journeys, helping them learn how to be positive, fathers, husbands, workers and men.

Positive principles

I do this by allowing them an opportunity to learn positive principles of being. Principles such as respect, responsibility, empathy, acceptance, gratitude and most importantly, truth. I’ve been fortunate to learn these from an Aboriginal perspective, yet do not see these as Aboriginal specific but rather underlying concepts practised by all spiritual belief systems across many cultures.

As people we strive to experience acceptance in all aspects of our lives, we want to be loved and nurtured, we want to have friendships, we want to be positively recognised for our work and most of all we want to feel safe in our identity.

However, often what we witness and experience is rejection, including neglect, disregard, disrespect and constant identity conflict or confusion. This was something I initially learnt from Uncle Tommy Powell, a founder of a successful Aboriginal wellbeing program called Red Dust Healing.

Our striving for acceptance, which brings the rush of the so called “happy brain chemicals”, leads us to chase acceptance in the most unlikely of places, and yet our desire to be free from rejection is often what leads us to reject others. Often young men who have experienced frequent rejection or domestic violence and who feel disconnected will search for acceptance elsewhere.

They may already be using negative coping strategies such as drug and alcohol use, petty crime, the disrespect of others, fighting. While these young people perceive a sense of satisfaction (through the release of serotonin and other “happy” hormones) that comes with feeling accepted, they don’t realise the rejection they are causing toward themselves (largely through a lack of self-respect) and for others such as family, teachers, employers.

They don’t find the opportunities to learn truthful respect or absorb how to fulfil responsibilities and obligations in a purposeful, respectful and meaningful way. This conflict drives the young person to want to “escape” again and again, furthering the negative coping. Things can then quickly spiral out of control for many.

The young person grows and the cycle becomes more entrenched. The negative life events increase in frequency and compound. Drinking a little turns into drinking a lot, marijuana use leads to harder drug use, petty crime morphs to serious crime and abuse becomes more violent.

How do I know this?

Because I lived it and witness it every day in the lives of almost all those I now work with.

Where opportunities and resources are scarce, where oppression is a continued lived experience and where loss is frequent, negative life events and negative coping will go hand-in-hand.

It is no surprise then that we see such high rates of offender behaviour, such as family violence, and therefore incarceration rates amongst groups of society in which we know there has been and continues to be such concerns.

For instance, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples make up only 3 percent of our national population, yet our incarceration rates sit at nearly 10 times this rate. And a report from an Amnesty International investigation found that our children are 24 times more likely to be incarcerated than other Australian children.

Incarceration leads to further disconnect – leads to further need to cope – leads to further negative coping– leads to further offender behaviour – leads to further incarceration, and the cycle continues.

An AIHW report indicated as many a quarter of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women will report having experienced domestic or family violence in the past 12 months.

A large proportion of these will report having experienced such violence from someone who was intoxicated or under the influence of drugs. Women reported that 30 percent of these attacks came from a current or ex-spouse (commonly categorised under domestic violence) while as much as 40 percent of these came from relatives (commonly categorised under family violence).

This is not at all to say men do not experience violence, it absolutely must be acknowledged that men experience high rates of both physical and psychological domestic and/or family violence also.

It is, however, much more difficult to obtain accurate data on men’s experiences with family violence and domestic violence. With each of these offences, comes further incarceration and again further disconnection. The cycle continues as the problems continue.

So what is the answer?

Well to me that’s a complex question, and one that I personally believe most in positions of power do not truly want to explore, because it challenges the very societal structures that keep them in such positions of influence.

  • Why is one man worth 10-fold of another?
  • Why is the day-to-day effort of a minimal wage shift worker worth less than that of a politician or GP?
  • Why is opportunity plentiful for some and not others?
  • Why as a nation can we not recognise our own naivety and dis-truth?
  • What really is a “fair go for all”?

We need to be truthful as people and as societies. We need to break the cycle of disconnect. We need to increase opportunities and resources for all people within society.

There’s a desperate need to assist people to learn to positively cope in times of distress and disconnect to enable them to replace negative coping strategies.

We need to assist people to find their “safe places”, where they can stand and fight their problems and heal. We need to re-educate ourselves and our children on positive living, and not allow ourselves to be continuously caught up in the negative, self-centred whirlwind that is Western capitalism and all its consumerist values.

As Aboriginal peoples we need to get back to Lore and Culture and to heal our spirits.

I congratulate you Darren on your honesty, thank you for your strength in sharing your yarn, and wish you all the best in your journey.

• For more information on Aboriginal family violence and working with those who have experienced such please refer to – Working Together: Aboriginal mental health principles and practice 2nd Ed.

• For descriptions of Aboriginal healing models see Part six of this text (chapters 24-31). Links to free downloads of all these chapters can be found here.

• Clinton is a Gamilaroi man and registered psychologist with a keen interest in holistic wellness. He is undertaking a PhD with Griffith University, researching factors of holistic wellbeing for members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workforce. Clinton founded Marumali Consultations in 2010 and continues to run this business along with Stacey Vervoort.

Marumali Consultations specialises in: providing holistic counselling services for Aboriginal workers; in specific men’s and women’s wellbeing; cultural competence auditing and training; cross cultural psychological and business management services; and wellness focused mentoring and professional supervision.

• Croakey thanks Summer May Finlay for editing this article.

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Mental Health Contacts

• If you are depressed or contemplating suicide, help is available at Lifeline on 131 114 or online. Alternatively you can call the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

• For young people 5-25 years, call kids help line 1800 55 1800

• For resources on social and emotional wellbeing and mental health services in Aboriginal Australia, see here.

Family Violence Contacts

• In emergency situations or danger, call police on 000

• For confidential help and referral, call the National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line on 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732)

• Children/young people needing help should call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.

• Call the Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service Victoria toll free on 1800 105 303.

• The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling help line can be reached at 1800 737 732

• The Men’s Referral Service provides anonymous and confidential telephone counselling, information and referrals to men to help them take action to stop using violent and controlling behaviour: 1300 766 491

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Crowdfunding thanks

Croakey acknowledges and thanks all those who donated to support #JustJustice (see their names here). We also thank and acknowledge our premium sponsors, the Jesuit Social Services, and Frank Meany of One Vision.

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