Monday, February 20, 2017

The girl who survived

Susannah Birch
Susannah Birch is a birth doula, a writer and an activist in Toowoomba, Australia. She is working on her first book about her bipolar mother. Having survived violence as a child, and later, being catfished online, Susannah has truly been an exemplary example of what it is to rise out of adversity. Here is her story.

Could you share your story to the extent that you are comfortable? 
It was Australia day, 1989 and I was 2 and a half years old when my father came home from work to find police cars surrounding the small cottage where we lived. My mother was sitting in the back seat of a police car and I was being rushed away in an ambulance.
I can still vaguely remember my mother sterilizing the knife in boiling water, then laying me on the sheepskin rug...putting my hands up in front of my face to stop the falling knife. My mother had cut my throat and held me for 40 minutes as I bled. After awhile she realised what she'd done and called 000 - fortunately for me they didn't think she was a prank caller.
My mother was in her late twenties and this was her first psychotic episode. This episode was going to start a long and complicated saga in our lives.
My mother was rushed into a mental health ward and I was to spend 3 months in a hospital and then live with a tracheostomy tube in my throat for a further 11 years. After a year my mother was discharged from hospital and came home to live with us. She was originally diagnosed with Schizophrenia and it would be years before she was re-diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. She wasn't allowed to be alone with me at first, so by the time I was 6, we had built a house with a granny flat so we could live with my father's parents.
As a young child I didn't have much of an idea about what had happened - I remembered it and knew my mother took medication, but never really grasped what it meant. That was why it was such a shock when my mother had her second breakdown when I was 10 years old.
This time my mother didn't hurt me, but during our morning prayers and bible reading, she started talking about seeing an angel and tried to help me see the vision. At this stage I still looked up to my parents and believed they knew more than me - so I tried my best to go along with what she was saying, despite my confusion. But, after a little while, she began to scare me. I finally managed to ring my father who was working five hours away. He immediately realized what was happening and instructed me to go straight to my grandparents. My father drove straight home but by the time he got there, my mother appeared fine. It wasn't till years later that we realized this episode had begun her downward spiral.
Till the beginning of year 8, I had been homeschooled by my mother. By the time I got to year 6 and 7, she basically left it up to me, just handing me books and then returning to such occupations as the phone and spending money. My mother never held down a job during this time - except for a 3 month part time job at a nursery.
By the time I was 13 I knew there was something wrong with my mother but was still too young and scared to figure out what it was. When I tried to tell people they labelled me as rebellious or told me that I was rude. My father was running his own business so often didn't see or hear all that my mother did.
When I was 13, we travelled to the other side of the country for my youngest uncle's wedding. I found out later that my mother had been talking to relatives while there about my father's 'abuse' of her. Within a week of returning home my mother told me to pack my bags so we could stay at a nearby family friend's house. Upon arrival I found another uncle that had driven a long way just to pick us up. I was upset and surprised when told that we'd be travelling back across the country. The adults kept telling me that my father was "volatile" and "like a volcano". No one asked me what I thought.
After a long drive - full of verbal abuse about my father - and then a plane ride, we were finally at my Nana's place. Of course my mother told stories of my abusive father and spent hours buying things, meeting new people and telling all sorts of untruths. I tried to interject but my mother simply explained that I hadn't realized the full extent of my father's abuse.
Thanks to having a tracheostomy tube in my throat for 11 years, I developed the uncanny ability to talk without taking a breath in between sentences.
We spent more than a month at my Nana's house, my father frantic with worry. I was allowed to write to him but never to reveal where we were. During this time my mother was socialising all day, every day, and had at least one affair. Finally my Nana started to get worried and called my father. Once my father arrived I went to pieces - so glad that someone else realized how sick my mother was and that it wasn't all just in my head.
My father left a voice message on the phone and my mother must have heard it - she disappeared that evening wearing nothing but a tiny dress that barely covered her undies. The family spent hours looking for her and finally the police found her, taking a taxi to one of her various new boyfriend's houses. She yelled and screamed, claiming the right to be taken to the address she'd asked for in the taxi and threatening to sue the police and everyone else in sight.
My mother spent several weeks in hospital there and then we finally returned home. Before this episode, our house had almost been fully paid for. By the time we got home, between plane tickets, living costs and lost work time, we were $50,000 in debt. My father had had enough - within a few months I was enrolled for the first time in school and by the school holidays my parents announced their split. I was overjoyed.
I still haven't reached a resolution - in fact I'm sure that as long as she lives my mother will always be somewhere in the background. But I can't hang around and wait for her to cause trouble or decide that she wants to get healthy again. There comes a point when it's no longer my responsibility as a child to care for a parent who won't help themselves. And I know she can - I've seen her more than once control a manic episode, easily fooling a doctor or someone she wants to impress before letting her bipolar disorder loose once she is in 'comfortable' surroundings.
I may not have come to terms with everything - but for now I just need to get on with my life - my work, family, university and hopefully one day, a book. To anyone out there who has stood years of abuse at the hands of a parent, sibling, child or lover, that's all I can say. There comes a point when you need to move on with your life, no matter how selfish you feel doing it.

For a child to have gone through such violence at the hands of her own mother is nothing short of traumatic - and to have risen like a phoenix out of that violence is really powerful. Would you like to share a little about your thoughts growing up, the mind space you had and the self-talk that went into your growing years?
As a child, I saw the other adults around me treating my mother as normal, despite what she'd done. I also talked a lot with my father about what had happened, and he was very honest and open about her illness, the attack and her treatment. Because of that I viewed her as two people - the bad one who attacked me and the good one who was my every day mother. 
When I became a teenager, I began to feel as if that was very simplistic and naive. My parents separated the year I turned 14 so I began to question my mother more and more. She eventually moved away and I rarely saw her, but when I did, it was often emotionally traumatic for both of us. I found forgiveness while working with ABC on a radio documentary about the attack, but I still don't communicate with her.

Later in life, you were catfished for 12 years. Could you talk about that?
“How can someone be dumb enough to believe a lie for 12 years?” The fact that I considered myself so web savvy was a big factor in why I did…
“The email you supplied to us is linked to the Facebook account we’ve provided below. We believe Brent Murphy* is at least 60 years old.”
I read the email in shock, not really believing the first few lines.
‘I can’t believe we’ve been talking on the Internet for 12 years,’ I’d told Patrick Brent* just a few months earlier, ‘It’s amazing. But I feel like our busy lives stop us meeting in person and I really really want to meet you.’
I’d met Patrick in a teen chatroom, when I was 15, in 2002. He was 17 and in his last year of highschool. He lived just ten hours away from my Australian home, an amazing coincidence in a chatroom filled with Americans. I wasn’t new to the chatroom scene; my house had had the Internet connected since I was 9, so I considered myself fairly web savvy.
Shy and inexperienced with boys, I was delighted to find a guy who I could have deep conversations with and who showered me with compliments. I wanted to impress him, so I read War and Peace and sparkled in the praise he lavished on my intelligence.
Not everything was rosy though. Patrick was prone to outbursts of temper, often ending in a breakup and a promise to never talk to me again. More often than not, the outbursts would come when I’d refuse to send a nude photo or when I asked too many questions about his life and why he wouldn’t visit. I’d spend a night crying myself to sleep before he swore he’d never hurt me again and begged me to resume the relationship.
The first time Patrick phoned me was scary but I loved the sound of his light Irish accent, even after my best friend talked to him and announced ‘He sounds like an old man.’
For three years we ‘dated’ via the Internet, exchanging photos, talking for six hours straight on occasional weekends and even picking out names for our future children. Patrick made plans to apply to a nearby University so he could come visit me on weekends. Unfortunately, plans changed and Patrick had to move to a different town.
Although a few close friends knew of our relationship, I never told my father or claimed publicly to have a boyfriend. One part of me was embarrassed while another felt that the mature and deep relationship I was in would be tarnished by outside opinion. I’d take any chance I could to spend a few hours home alone, hoping Patrick would be online and maybe even phone me. Something just felt so right when I was talking to him. Due to trauma in my past I was mature beyond my years in some areas but immature in others and Patrick seemed to share many of my own idiosyncrasies.
When I was 18, Patrick proposed. I said yes without a second thought. This was the moment I’d been waiting for. But just two weeks later, we broke up again.
The big pile of breakups, culminating with the cancellation of our engagement, was just too much. I told Patrick I couldn’t keep being his virtual girlfriend, but I was willing to be friends.
Two years later, I married a wonderful man who was both very real and very upfront, a refreshing change from the secrets involved with dating Patrick. But the question was still there; who was Patrick Brent and what was missing from our relationship that stopped him following through on his promises?
We’d still talk by email or on the phone and Patrick would always mourn his biggest mistake in letting me go. But he refused to come visit me, claiming University, travel and work commitments.
I kept him at arm’s length but Patrick teased me with just enough promises and guilt trips to make me want to continue talking to him. So for 7 more years, we continued to talk. Our relationship was comfortable and we talked about everything from his latest girlfriends through to my breakups with the friends I’d had in highschool.
I’d always suspected Patrick was lying to me about something. I thought it was something embarrassing such as Photoshopping his pictures or not having the University degree he claimed. For the 12 years we talked, I always tried to gather enough information to find him. But he’d phone from a private number and all my Google searches found nothing. He worked for his father’s company which took him around the world. Phonecalls often saw him hanging up when executives entered his office, meetings were about to begin or his latest girlfriend came to visit.
When we started talking, I was young enough to believe I couldn’t be tricked and by the time I was old enough to know better, he was just another part of my every day life. Patrick had talked to me for hours, sent me hundreds of emails and helped me deal with so many of my mundane problems. He’d never asked me for money and he’d continued to talk to me for years, so I knew he had to be legitimate. I just wanted to be absolutely sure.
I knew not to ask him for more information.
‘I’m a very private person,’ Patrick would tell me, ‘You know I share more with you than with anyone else. I don’t like newfangled sites like Facebook. Don’t see the point and I’m too busy working, anyway.’
It wasn’t till 2014 that I discovered the term ‘catfish’ and found a site (SocialCatfish) that promised to dig up information on any online suitor even if there was only an email available. I didn’t expect much, but I thought it would at least be nice to know the name of the company he worked for or some fun details I could surprise him with during a conversation.
But I was the one who was to receive the surprise when I found out the truth about Patrick. He’d spun a web of lies which had taken him around the world, given him a fancy career and kept him too busy to ever come visit. In reality he’d never left the town where he’d first said he’d lived and the photos he’d sent me were stolen from a younger friend’s Facebook account.
Patrick Brent was Brent Murphy. Brent Murphy was married with children and grandchildren. A part of me didn’t really believe it, not until I rang the phone number of the office where he really worked.
‘This is Brent Murphy’s phone…’ the voicemail began.
Then I knew it was true. Part of me felt relief, glad that I no longer questioned the breakup all those years ago. Another part of me was sad for my first love, which was nothing but a lie. And another part of me was disgusted by the fact that someone had groomed and lied to a teenage girl, then continued the farce for 12 whole years.
I confronted Brent Murphy when he rang me later that night. His denials and hurt rang true and for a few moments I wondered if I was wrong. Then I remembered the phonecall to his office. Suddenly the Patrick I knew crumbled into the Brent I didn’t, first claiming that he was too scared of hurting me, before trying to emotionally blackmail me.
‘My wife and family don’t deserve this.’
‘Goodbye Patrick.’ I hung up the phone.
Six months later I still have a hole left where Patrick once existed. It’s hard to look at a 12 year friendship from a whole new perspective, reexamining each detail and applying a whole new layer of information. More than anything I’ve learned that just because we accept something as normal, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question it. The experience has given me some humility, making me realise that believing I was ‘Internet savvy’ actually made me more vulnerable to a person who could convince me to trust them and who displayed none of the obvious ‘scam’ markers till too late.

Today, you are a writer, a doula and a blogger, and a digital media expert. Could you talk about your journey since all the violence you faced, into this place in your life that you own and hold in your hands?
I'm not short on my own mental health problems - particularly depression and OCD. However I think the biggest thing for me was seeing how mundane things were in relation to what I'd been through. Doing something daring isn't half so scary compared to where I’ve been. I was told a lot growing up that I must have survived for a purpose, so I think a part of me also feels invulnerable. I guess I feel as if I have to think big, to reach this mystic purpose people keep telling me I have. I experience anxiety, so I have been known to cry or get nauseous before public appearances, or even when my story has gone viral and I can't tear myself away from watching. Fortunately though, nothing triggers me, other than contact from my mother. Even an email or hearing she's in town stresses me quite a bit and makes me very reactive. 

You have a book coming up! Could you talk a bit about that, so that our readers can pick it up?
It doesn't have a title as of yet unfortunately, but it's currently in editing (the hardest part). It examines how I was catfished, how it felt being homeschooled by my mother, my rebellion during my teen years and the steps I took to find healing and forgiveness - at least some of the way if not all, because I think there's no such thing as once off healing - it's a never ending process.