The following article contains material that some people may find distressing, including reference to bullying and sexual abuse. If you find yourself in need of assistance, visit beyondblue.org.au or call our Support Service on 1300 22 4636.

Growing up as the only child of Dutch immigrant in the working-class Melbourne suburb of Williamstown in the 1960s, Phillip just desperately wanted to fit in.

His parents, like most other families around the docks, didn’t have two cents to rub together, but all the same his mother, conscious of being an immigrant, made the effort to dress up to the nines when picking him up from school, in the kind of bright colours and fitted fashions that were more common in Europe.

Mother picking son up from school.

“I was involved in many fights because of that,” Phillip says dryly, “there were many nights I’d lay awake crying as a result. But Mum was the sergeant major of the family and I didn’t have the courage to say anything.”

There were other kids from immigrant families at school, but they tried to avoid each other in their attempts to be seen as assimilating into Aussie culture. But ostracised by his Australian classmates and resentful of his strict parents, Phillip would play alone after school, climbing onto the roof of the house, or playing chicken with the red rattler trains on the railway lines. “Looking back, it was a need for attention from my parents,” he says.

In the hope of being accepted by other kids, he tried rejecting his culture and refused to learn Dutch.

 

My parents would talk to me in their language and I’d only ever answer in English.

But it was no good. Every break at school, he’d get harassed or bashed, and the nuns were no help. So he was relieved when he was sent away to boarding school in Mentone.

There, he was not bashed, and in some ways it was preferable to Williamstown. “I had a few friends there and I didn’t want to go home, because home was not a happy place,” he says. But he was sexually abused multiple times by another student. And once again, there was no-one to turn to.

Boy in school uniform stands alone.

Being his parents’ only child, there were great expectations of Phillip to do well academically, and to perhaps become a doctor or a lawyer. Phillip thought he’d rather be a fitter and turner like his dad, but in the end he chose neither option, and has worked as everything from a taxi driver to positions in sales and retail.

 

I still don’t have an education. I rejected both paths just to spite my parents to my own detriment.

The legacy from his childhood has been one of depression, anxiety and a deep-rooted fear of not being accepted. Phillip squashed these feelings down for most of his adult life by working 14-hour (or longer) days, not allowing him any time to dwell on the past. He married and had two children, whom he loves, but family friends would jokingly refer to him as a grumpy old man.

His childhood trauma finally came to the fore in his early 50s, when he experienced bullying at work.

Phillip’s mental health deteriorated over the next few years, until one afternoon he was called into his supervisor’s office. The boss enquired after his wellbeing, and Phillip found himself opening up a little about his depression and the sexual abuse – something he’d never even told his wife. It turned out Phillip had actually been called in for a dressing-down over something else. He felt flooded with shame.

Illustration of two men talking at work.

“It just destroyed me,” he says. “You think you can open up to a person you can trust but then they don’t want to know, which just reinforced for me what kept happening in my childhood. Everything erupted to the surface.

My wife found me crying like a baby when she came home that night. I was fortunate enough that my sister-in-law, who’s a child psychologist, sat me down for a couple of hours and we just talked and cried.

His boss at the time told Phillip to  enroll in an anger management course. After discussing it with his wife, Phillip opted not to, though he didn’t tell his boss. Instead he “came up with a strategy to go to my GP and get the mental health subsidised visits.” This, he says was what started the healing process.

The road to recovery wasn’t an easy one. In 2016, still going to work and maintaining a façade, Phillip attempted suicide six times. It was maintaining his appointments with his psychologist and being as open as he could with his family that got him through it.

“Talking to my wife about all this has made our relationship much stronger,” he says. “And, as my dear beloved son would say, ‘If I ever see that boss of yours, I’ll give him a whack!’”

Hiding who he was was no longer an option, so Phillip decided to finally learn Dutch and accept his heritage. He had been estranged from his parents for 15 years, but now he maintains a civil relationship with them. He accepts that conversations are best kept to day-to-day topics.

“Talking to my wife about all this has made our relationship much stronger,” he says. “And, as my dear beloved son would say, ‘If I ever see that boss of yours, I’ll give him a whack!’”

Hiding who he was was no longer an option, so Phillip decided to finally learn Dutch and accept his heritage. He had been estranged from his parents for 15 years, but now he maintains a civil relationship with them. He accepts that conversations are best kept to day-to-day topics.

Illustration of a man cycling.

He’s a keen cyclist, and knows that a three-hour ride will clear his head and help him focus on enjoying his surroundings. Cycling also provides a community, though he’s more cautious about who he opens up to now.

“There are big advertising campaigns around mental health these days, and many companies claim to have mental health policies, but a lot of time it’s to appease the public or the media. We’ve barely scratched the surface,” he says.

Even with his new coping mechanisms in place, Phillip says he still has to be very attentive towards his wellbeing, particularly when he lost three jobs due to COVID-19.

“I’ve finally made the decision that I need to take my medication for depression,” he says. “I hadn’t been wanting to go down that path, but as someone put it to me, ‘You would take an antibiotic if you needed to, so what’s the difference?’”

To empower himself further, Phillip made the decision to make a statement to Victoria Police’s SANO Task Force, which was established to investigate historic and new allegations of child sexual abuse, and also to Victims of Crime, for assistance with psychological treatment.

“I used to feel shame,” he says, “but the more I talk about it, particularly as a public speaker, the more comfortable I feel because I know it’s helping other people.”

Where to get help

If you are from a diverse community and need support for your mental wellbeing, Beyond Blue has information and translated resources on our website, or you can google the ‘transcultural mental health service’ for your state or territory.

If you have been a victim of racism or discrimination, you can find out how to report it here.

The Blue Knot Foundation empower recovery and build resilience for adults impacted by complex trauma, including those who have experienced childhood trauma. They provide support via their helpline, which is available between 9am and 5pm AEDT on 1300 657 380 or or via email helpline@blueknot.org.au.

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse, 1800 RESPECT provides confidential sexual assault and family and domestic violence counselling via phone and webchat. Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Phone 1800 737 732.

If an interpreter is necessary, you can request one via 1800 RESPECT, or call the Translation and Interpreting Service (TIS) on 13 14 50.

If you need assistance visit Beyond Blue’s support services. Our mental health professionals are available 24/7 on: 1300 22 4636. Click here for a web chat (3pm-12am AEST). Alternatively, contact us via email (responses within 24 hours). 

For immediate support call Lifeline on 13 11 14 and in an emergency, always call triple zero (000).

Related reading: “Mental illness is a taboo topic in Chinese culture.”

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