IN the back room of the Rural Outreach and Support Centre, several people sit with heads bent over crochet, steaming cups of tea to hand.
The activity is innocent, but the conversations often touch on past fear, terror, despair, the ugliness of life, but more often now, freedom and joy.
They are shared histories.
“We’ve all been in violent situations, and we’ve come out the other side,” group member Deidre Dwyer said.
“We all have stories to tell and we just wanted to share it with each other, and to see how we feel, and how we felt back then, and we’re not alone in the situation.”
The women agreed they draw strength from each other, and speaking out is a right they never felt they had before.
“And the group’s safe, and it stays here,” said member Lynda Mallise.
She said members come and go, and all are supported.
“And a lot of our aim is not just to help ourselves, but to help other people,” she said.
“So no one else has to go through that, what we did.”
Geelong resident Judith Arnott has been attending the group since she parked her caravan in Inverell last year.
A victim of emotional, physical and sexual abuse from a young child through her married years, now 80, she has widely shared her own story in the media and with the Victorian police.
She said her lifetime of keeping secrets is over.
“It’s the secrets we keep that help destroy us,” Judith said.
“My story, I say, if a woman and a child doesn’t have to live as I have, and my two sons have, my life is worth living.”
Judith has been on her own since 1996, her ex-husband was imprisoned in 1999.
Her brother was an early perpetrator of her abuse and frequently threatened to kill her if she spoke out.
She married at 17 with a child on the way and her history of abuse continued.
“When I was married I got told, ‘Now you’ve signed your death warrant, you’ve made your bed, you lie in it.
She said she lay in that bed for 43 years and five months.
“My broken bones have healed, but what he’s done here,” she said indicating her head.
“The first time he hit me, he cried and said he wouldn’t hit me again,” she said.
“The second time he hit me, he laughed, and he never stopped.”
Rural Outreach workers Kerrianne Anderson and Leanne Johnston brought a new project for the group to work on this week.
“(We) went to a workshop in Armidale called the Shark Cage,” Kerrianne said.
The project is made of paper shapes that carry messages.
The bars define boundaries, victims are the fish, dolphins symbolise friends and strength, treasure chests mean hopes and goals, and sharks menace with personal dangers.
It was created by Ursula Benstead for participants to define their right to things like personal space, their religion, to be heard, to have respect, or tell their story.
“And I have a right to be free of violence,” Kerrianne said.
The project is organic, with each participant reviewing their own journey to freedom.
“Any time you have a weakness or a strength to deteriorate, then we need to strengthen the bars,” Kerrianne said.
The mornings of crochet or projects like the Shark Cage often ignite an atmosphere for sharing.
Deidre said the bars of women’s protective cages often fail because they are too accommodating.
“A lot of the times we do stay quiet, and we don’t put our opinions forward because we’re scared of being cut down with what our opinions are,” she said.
“But we’re all learning to have a voice, where we didn’t before.”
When they do speak out or share the secrets, the women agreed they can often leave the group feeling lighter.
“Some days you walk out feeling pretty heavy. Especially when you’ve heard some of the stories like we’ve heard,”
“Your heart breaks.”
The group welcomes women and men of all ages who carry the burden of abuse. For more information, phone the centre on 6721 0855.