By David Southwell
WARNING: Some readers may find elements of this story distressing.
They say the darkest hour is just before the dawn but for Holly Taylor incapacitating darkness can linger long after morning’s first light.
This might surprise those who only know of Holly as a third year high-flying bio-medicine student at La Trobe University, whose transcript boasts a weighted average mark of 91, well over the hurdle for high distinctions, and who is part of an excellence academy as well as being president of the campus’s biomed society.
So it might seem uncharacteristic that Holly doesn’t always attend morning classes but those in the know are aware she still suffers from a terrible childhood secret that only a few years ago made her such a danger to herself that she couldn’t toilet or shower alone.
“I still get terrible nightmares,” Holly says.
“They’re really awful and I find that I can’t get up in the morning after one of those. So, I have a system in place at uni where all of my teachers know that sometimes I don’t turn up to 9am classes because I just can’t.
“The nightmare will be so stark and so real that it will take me hours to convince myself that it didn’t happen. It really twists my reality.”
It wasn’t always like this for Holly, who was such a bubbly and precocious 10-year-old that she self-published short novels that can be found in Canberra’s National Library and her old primary school in Melbourne.
“I thought I was completely normal growing up, that changed at 18,” Holly says.
“I found that I didn’t feel like myself. My social abilities weren’t as good as they had been.
“I was always a confident, outgoing person and all of the sudden I was worried I hadn’t said the right thing. I found myself just too anxious to go out and hang out with people.”
Holly had started doing an arts degree at university when her growing anxiety and depression developed into anorexia, which led to her being admitted to hospital.
It was there Holly was able to write in a journal about her growing realisation she had been sexually abused by an uncle from the time she was five up until age 15.
The uncle was the considerably older brother of Holly’s mum. He lived alone as his children were already adults with kids themselves.
“The uncle was actually a great help to my family after my sister was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when she was born and when I was five,” Holly says.
“He helped by looking after my older sister and I. He took us on holidays that we couldn’t really get because my parents had to look after my younger sister.”
Holly said she knew her uncle was treating her differently than her other sisters but just accepted it.
“He gave me anything I wanted, all of the sweets and things my parents wouldn’t give me,” Holly says.
“It was almost like an unspoken law that I not talk about what was happening. I never mentioned it to my sisters, even though they could have been in the other room. It was just kept hush.
“I definitely knew it was odd but it didn’t dawn on me until 17 or 18 that abuse is actually what happened. My sisters said they didn’t experience abuse.”
After writing the terrible truth down, Holly told a psychiatrist, who then told her parents.
“What convinced me to tell others was that there were other kids in my family, my cousin had a three-year-old girl and once he (my uncle) mentioned them, I thought I had to say something,” Holly says.
“My parents then went home and told my sisters and checked they were OK and nothing had happened to them.
“My mum’s first question was if he’d raped me. I think she just needed a measure.
“Then I think it was a bit of a realisation on their part, maybe they’d seen some signs throughout the years and not known if it was a bad sign or just something else. But also just a lot of grief on their part.”
While exposing the underlying issues helped Holly deal with anorexia, her ordeal was just beginning.
“For a long time I struggled with the idea that that’s all I was going to be, a victim,” Holly says.
“I was never going to amount to anything. How could I amount to anything when I had gone through all this stuff and that’s going to be with me for life and will affect how I manage my life, how I deal with situations with other people?
“I suffered panic attacks. It was an overwhelming sense of dread. You could feel it coming on and then I would almost just fall to the floor. I would scream ‘help me’.
“It happened on a date once. It also happened at my ex-boyfriend’s apartment and the neighbours called the police. It was very awkward.”
Holly became a danger to herself.
“I think I had said to my mum I wanted to die,” Holly says.
“I was very suicidal. My parents couldn’t leave me alone. My mum slept next to me in my bed, she sat in the bathroom while I showered. I was trying to do all sorts of things which I won’t go into. When that was relayed to my psychiatrist I was sent straight to a psychiatric intensive care unit.”
Holly described one of her ICU experiences as basically being a big common space with a nurse’s office that had a glass wall.
“There’s nowhere to hide. Depending on how safe you were, you could go to the bathroom alone, but most of the time you couldn’t,” she says.
“You don’t get shoelaces, you don’t get a belt, you don’t get pens or pencils, even the chord out of your tracksuit pants is taken out.
“You don’t have a room, you just have a bed with a curtain around it. During the day you just have to entertain yourself. I did a lot of reading, I wrote diary entries every day for eight months.
“That was probably my lowest point. I just couldn’t get over that I was always going be a victim of this and wouldn’t amount to anything.”
In late 2015, Holly and her parents reported her childhood abuse to authorities.
“In the process of getting his confession, my uncle actually tried to put the blame on me saying it was my personality, my confidence, my outgoingness that … obviously it wasn’t, it was his doing,” Holly says.
When police believed they had enough evident to arrest the uncle they went to his house but he wasn’t there.
They left a card in his letterbox but when they went back to find him the uncle had committed suicide.
“I think it was guilt that drove him to suicide as opposed to fear of facing arrest,” Holly says.
For Holly the immediate effect of the news was devastating.
“I actually tried to take my own life the next morning,” she says.
“I think that was the manifestation of the shock. I didn’t feel guilty, just shocked. That was not supposed to happen or be the end goal.
“But after a couple of days it was actually a big relief, I was very grateful. I had skipped that whole period of the criminal investigation, going to court, going to trial if he pleaded not guilty and all that drama.
“And also I just didn’t have to see him anymore. I didn’t have to deal with not going to family events because he’d be there. “
Holly says the state of her mental health has been like being on a rollercoaster.
“You do have days where you’re better when you think ‘hey I should be out of this ICU’ but then the next day you don’t want to get out of bed and you’re ready to fall asleep and never wake up again,” she says.
“I think as you get better the days where it’s really bad become fewer, and the days when it’s better become more, it’s just that transition.”
Medication has helped Holly manage her anxiety, depression and PTSD but she says there are no magic cures.
“It’s not something I can ever run away from,” she says.
“I get a lot of emotional flashbacks, for example, if I see the type of car my uncle drove. Then I get stuck in my thoughts for a while.”
Holly says there has been one constant sustaining thing through all the ups and downs.
“I had amazing family support,” she says.
My parents gave an arm and a leg for me. All those hospital stays were at private hospitals through private health insurance. They paid for all of that.
“They took countless days of work, watch me while a showered, slept in my bed in case something happened during the night, dealt with panic attacks and crying and forcing me to eat food and so much stuff.
“So they went through a lot but they were always there, that was really helpful. Also friends that stuck around, just having that consistency.”
After a period of being unable to work or study, Holly eventually felt well enough to go back to university but couldn’t find the enthusiasm for her arts degree.
“I decided to try a new subject, biology, and discovered I loved it and was good at it,” Holly says.
“I think if I wasn’t getting better I would have put my walls up and not engaged and not gone to classes where you have to have a partner and do lab work. I did really well despite sitting the exam in hospital.”
This year Holly moved out of the family home to live with Tom, who has been her boyfriend for two years.
It was on their third date that Holly revealed all her history and its effects.
“I put all of my baggage on a platter and said ‘here you go’ and unloaded it to him.
“I said ‘this is what I’ve been through and what you’re going to have to deal with, now’s your time to walk away’.
“He thought that was very brave, even though I was really just saving myself from being dumped later on.
“It’s not an easy street, it’s not a normal relationship. There are separate things that we have to deal with but Tom is amazing and he’s been very caring, a great support.”
Holly has also been very open telling her story to friends and even on social media.
“I’d rather people know and be aware that it can just happen to anyone, to normal people,” she says.
“I think people are too shocked or taken aback by my openness and ability to say it how it is.
“If people have stigma towards me I don’t feel it or hear about it. The worst stigma I experienced when I was given extra time on an assignment in second year and someone said ‘why do you need it you don’t look sick?’ You can’t see why I’m sick.”
Holly says social media has been beneficial to her and she has made friends from being open about her story but there is a detrimental side as well.
“I think it’s a very fine line to walk,” she says.
“In the mental health and eating disorder world on social media it can be a competition of who is the sickest. You have to have photos and numbers to show how sick you are.”
Holly wants to be a doctor, possibly a surgeon or working in emergency medicine.
Despite studying bio-medicine, the degree she is completing only acts as a prerequisite to enter most Australian medical schools, so Holly has been receiving offers to interview for admission.
Holly knows relating her experience won’t necessarily help others going through similar struggles but she would offer this advice.
“When I was in that time, no matter what others told me, it was really hard to see that getting through it,” she says.
“But I felt that way and I’ve come through it. That line ‘hold on, pain ends’ was true. It does. It might be a really long journey but with treatment and support you can get there.
“For me, it was almost like I got to the end of a really dark tunnel and there was the world open to me and I was like ‘crap what am I going to do?’
“I now know I can do whatever I want with my destiny, with my life. I can make it what I want it to be.
“Even though that all happened, it doesn’t have to define me the rest of my life.”
Need help? Contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.