Diana's story: 'Everything needs to be connected'

It might have seemed that the worst moments in Diana’s journey to escape a violent relationship came during the first three weeks, when she and her teenage son lived in their car in a McDonald’s car park.

But it was actually 12 months later when she reached her lowest ebb. The aftershocks of her decision to leave were continuing to reverberate. Problem after problem compounded. Her initial hope that it would take six months to return her life to ‘normal’ had proven to be a mirage.

‘That’s when I began to feel...not like ending my life…just like getting in the car and never coming back. Because it seemed it would be easier simply to not be here,’ Diana says.

As a New Zealander who had no access to social security payments, Diana had endured a violent marriage for years. She had decided to wait for her children’s education to be complete before making a move.

She was embarrassed about even the idea of being divorced, let alone the stigma of family violence. And with her family all overseas, and living in a rural community, she thought the best option was to try to placate her husband and ‘keep the peace.’ Diana also had major health issues to manage, having survived a serious battle with two different forms of cancer, which means she is dependent on a feeding tube for much of her nutrition.

But just at the point when her son was completing Year 12, the violence escalated, and this time her son was also a target. Diana and her son fled their home with just the clothes they were wearing.

She had to enlist police help to return to their home the next day and grab their belongings – including her son’s school uniform and Diana’s essential medications. She hooked up her feeding equipment, and kept her phone charged, through a power point at McDonald’s.

Diana didn’t want to tell the school what was happening, and the nearest support services were two hours away. With only a $300 one-off Centrelink payment, their situation was dire.

Over the next months, new problems arose on all fronts. Her daughter, who was at university, had to leave her studies; she and her brother had to work so that the family could survive once they finally moved into temporary accommodation.

There were battles with an ineffectual court system, with her husband breaking the intervention order 13 times, including an occasion when Diana had to barricade herself inside the house. At one point her husband stole her son’s work boots from outside the door, simply so he would have to pay for a new pair.

There were seven moves in two years, reliance on food vouchers, skipping medications just to get through each week, and at times a crippling loneliness while struggling to get the right help.

Diana’s daughter became extremely anxious about the pressure for her to earn money for the family, and grieved for the life she once had. Though the family were offered counselling, it was not with a specialist family violence service, and Diana felt it lacked sensitivity to the trauma they had been through and was largely ineffective.

‘We were all stuck, and hurting,’ Diana says. ‘It was like we were in quicksand, with no way out.’

Throughout the following two years, Diana was also dealing with legal problems. She represented herself in family law proceedings; with great tenacity, she taught herself – via Google – how to issue a subpoena. But the biggest burden she was carrying was a $12,000 overdraft debt. On the very day Diana finally fled the violence, her husband had withdrawn the entire amount from an account where Diana was a joint signatory.

Though she negotiated a $20 a month repayment plan with the bank, even that amount was onerous given the family’s precarious situation. ‘You don’t realise how much being in poverty makes everything cost more,’ says Diana. ‘You can never get a discount for paying bills early; I could never afford to connect to the internet. I used the free Wi-Fi at McDonald’s just to get by.’

Several months ago the family came to Melbourne. ‘You lose your life again with each move,’ says Diana. She rang 12 different organisations trying to get help, and was turned away at every point as not eligible, as she was by now technically not ‘homeless’ or ‘facing family violence.’

The phone call she made to McAuley turned her life around. ‘McAuley had all the pieces of the puzzle to give us the right help. We were finally referred to specialist counselling, which has made a huge difference to us processing what we went through. And we were connected to WEstjustice for the legal mess I was dealing with.

‘That bank debt which had caused me years of sweat, tears and stress was taken off my hands

and then solved straight away. The dread of those phone calls when I missed a payment was gone at last.’

Slowly, with all the pieces of the puzzle finally being addressed, the lives of Diana and her children are coming together. Diana herself is completing a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Reflecting on all she has learnt over the last three years, Diana says: ‘We got through, but we shouldn’t have had to fight like we did. For so long we were in limbo. You can’t move on with your life, unless everything is connected.’

Diana has given us permission to use her real name in this story, because, she says: ‘Survivors of family violence shouldn’t feel they have to live their lives in the shadows.’