Once used by others to control and to hurt her, today Vickie Roach's long, greying hair is a symbol of her strength and resilience.
The proud Aboriginal woman has not cut her hair in decades - in defiance of the strict foster mother who used to chop it off as punishment, and the men who later used her long mane to inflict pain on her, to hold her down and drag her around by it.
Born to a Stolen Generations mother, and then taken herself and sent to live with a strict, religious family in Sydney's western suburbs, Vickie became a runaway at nine, a heroin user by 14 and eventually turned to prostitution to stay alive on the streets of Kings Cross.
She's spent much of her 60 years in and out of prison - and violent relationships. Between 1976 and 2003, she had 125 convictions or findings of guilt made against her, but when released for the last time in 2008 felt she'd finally managed to break free of the system.
So many women describe these relationships as 'like walking on eggshells' and that's exactly what it's like ...
But it was while she was imprisoned in Victoria that she gained a master's degree, and in 2007 national notoriety for her role in a ground-breaking legal challenge to the High Court, which returned the right to vote to prisoners serving less than three years.
Vickie has since carried on her advocacy work for change in the criminal justice system. She's also become a passionate advocate for women experiencing domestic and family violence.
"I've experienced physical abuse, verbal abuse - every kind of abuse you could imagine from men that I thought loved me," she says.
"The father of my only child knew the domestic violence handbook chapter and verse - the isolation, the constant put-downs, the total destruction of your self-esteem and your personality.
"So many women describe these relationships as 'like walking on eggshells' and that's exactly what it's like - you don't speak because you're afraid that anything you say might be the wrong thing - the thing that makes them turn violent. And you just can't sustain a life like that."
Vickie's former partner was able to inflict more pain during the relationship breakdown, and through a vicious custody battle where he managed to get custody of their son. The now Wollongong woman says she was warned at the women's refuge that took her in at the time, that she was at risk of falling into a relationship with the same kind of man - and she did. This time she nearly lost her life.
"I had broken bones, he smashed my front teeth out, I lost a piece of my ear. He'd use his fists, or kick with with his big, biker boots," she says.
"Then he started holding me captive, he'd padlock me in a room with a chain while he went to work so he could beat me up when he came home. The last time, he tied with up with jumper leads and cut my clothes off with a knife. At that point I relaxed, as I just thought he was going to rape me, but he didn't - he beat the living shit out of me.
"Then he rolled me out in a sheet and took me outside and tried to put me in the boot of his car. I thought he was going to take me somewhere, finish me off and dump my body. But someone must have seen and rung the cops - they turned up while he was still trying to get me in the boot."
The man wasn't jailed for his crimes against her, but she managed to leave by taking refuge overseas for a time.
In recent years, Vickie says - in her wry way, with her endearing, throaty chuckle - she's worked to address the trauma through counselling. "The thing with trauma is that it can be lifelong - it takes a lot of unpacking. And you need to be in a safe space to do that unpacking."
That's why she's one of many supporting the Illawarra Women's Health Centre in its bid to establish an Australian-first domestic and family violence trauma (DFV) recovery centre.
On average at least one woman a week is killed by a partner or former partner in Australia; with one in three experiencing physical violence since the age of 15. The vast majority of dangerous, abusive and violent behaviour that occurs in people's homes is committed by men against women.
In the Illawarra, in the 12 weeks to the end of January, police from Wollongong and Lake Illawarra commands were called to almost 2000 incidents of DFV. More than 580 were physical assaults; over 185 were breaches of apprehended violence orders and around 120 were for intimidation.
Illawarra Women's Health Centre general manager Sally Stevenson says DFV can have a serious impact on the long-term health of women and children.
"Research shows that left untreated, the traumatic consequences of DFV can have a lifelong physical and mental health impact, including increased rates of drug and alcohol use, heart disease, acquired brain injury, depression, suicide and chronic pain," she said.
"It is a complex issue. Whilst there are many crisis intervention services, there is increasing recognition of the need for DFV services to go beyond this and address the ongoing impact of trauma, particularly in terms of the mental health, emotional and psychosocial needs of women and their families."
Ms Stevenson said women recovering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder caused by DFV may require a range of support services including counselling, parenting, financial and legal support.
"These services are most efficiently and effectively provided in one - safe - place, from a case managed team of professionals," she said. "And yet, this is currently not available - anywhere. There is nowhere in the public health system, or across the community service sector, where women can access integrated, comprehensive long-term support to recover from the health impact of this violence.
"There is a limited range of short-term programs provided by different services (government and non-government) which are largely siloed and only available piecemeal to women, often at different times depending on the waiting lists, and their capacity to pay for services.
"This makes it incredibly difficult for women to co-ordinate services, to have timely access to resources as well as being extremely stressful, which only exacerbates the trauma many women are struggling to cope with."
An integrated Illawarra Women's Trauma Recovery Centre would fill the gap.
"The centre has the potential to be a circuit breaker not only in an individual women's life but also for governments seeking to support a common sense, cost saving and compassionate service response. After three years, we expect to demonstrate the model is both cost effective and efficacious and can be rolled out across Australia. It is a unique, innovative and necessary proposal."
To read more about our Road to Recovery campaign, click here
If you or someone you know needs help:
- Call triple zero for emergency assistance
- Kids helpline 1800 551 800
- Lifeline 131114
- 1800 respect 1800 737 732
- Domestic violence helpline 1800 811 811
- Illawarra Women's Health Centre42556800
- You can also find more information at womenshealthcentre.com.au or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
$60k needed now for Illawarra Women's Trauma Recovery Centre
The voices of women with lived experience will be central to the design of the proposed Illawarra Women's Trauma Recovery Centre.
The Illawarra Women's Health Centre is behind the push to establish the centre, which needs an initial funding injection of $60,000 for concept and design, and is expected to then cost $10 million to build and run for three years.
Health centre general manager Sally Stevenson said it would provide a range of holistic, and free, mental health, legal and social support services for women and children affected by family and domestic violence.
"It will be a specialised centre offering a whole-of-organisation trauma sensitive approach that enables recovery from DFV trauma and helps to break the intergenerational cycle of violence," she said.
Over the next six months the women's health centre, in partnership with UNSW School of Public Health researcher Dr Patricia Cullen, will be working with women with lived experience, mental health professionals, DFV service providers and other key stakeholders to design the centre.
"Using this co-design process will ensure that from the beginning the voices of women who have experience of DFV will be central to the centre," Ms Stevenson said. "It will also enable us to embed the best research on trauma-informed care and safe spaces as well as establish robust impact evaluation measures at the start."
A specific location for the centre has not been decided upon, as it will also depend on the results of the design process, as well as what sites are available and importantly what resources are available - either through funding mechanisms or the community.
There's been enormous support for the centre - from local representatives such as Wollongong Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery, Shellharbour Mayor Marianne Saliba, Labor MPs Anna Watson, Paul Scully and Ryan Park and Liberal MP Gareth Ward, the NSW Minister for Minister for Families, Communities and Disability Services.
There's also been support federally - from Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Labor's Sharon Bird and Stephen Jones and more. Other supporters include the Illawarra Legal Centre, Lifeline SouthCoast, Royal Australian and NZ College of Psychiatrists and DVNSW, as well as businesses such as Waples, Wollongong Diagnostics, Culinarius and BlueScope.
The proposed centre received an important donation from the family of Sydney dentist Preethi Reddy, who was murdered by her former boyfriend in March 2019. And funds were raised during a community fundraiser featuring Turkish-Australian soprano Ayse Goknur Shanal.
Yet substantial funding is required, for the benefit of all Australian women. "The model will be a stand-alone centre that can be replicated across Australia," Ms Stevenson said. "It will have the flexibility to adjust to particular needs and capacities of a community, but in essence the principles of an integrated, comprehensive affordable and compassionate service will be at the core."
The Mercury is supporting the campaign to establish the centre with its Road to Recovery series. Along with the Illawarra Women's Health Centre, it will present an exhibition of family and domestic violence survivors by award -winning photographer Sylvia Liber, to be launched on April 2 at Wollongong Art Gallery.