One of the Victoria's Central Highland's most prominent Indigenous advocates has courageously spoken out about how an alleged violent assault catapulted her into a serious mental breakdown.
In doing so, she hopes to raise awareness about mental health and the importance of reaching out for help.
For many years Ballarat's Sissy Austin has made headlines across the state for her Indigenous advocacy.
But last year the proud Gunditjmara Keerraay Woorroong DjabWurrung woman stepped back from the spotlight when she experienced a mental breakdown and spent numerous weeks in hospital after two attempts to take her own life.
This week Ms Austin bravely took to social media to explain the reason for her breakdown: she claims she was viciously sexually assaulted in Melbourne in late 2019. The alleged perpetrators were known to her.
Speaking with The Courier, Ms Austin said she believes sharing her story, about "something that quite literally changed [her] life", to be an important part of her journey towards healing from the trauma she endured.
She has not reached a point in her journey where she feels she can approach police with the allegations.
Ms Austin said the assault occurred mere days before a Djab Wurrung rally in Melbourne, calling for the protection of sacred Indigenous trees near Ararat.
She said a photo of her speaking at the rally, flanked by other strong Indigenous women, only tells one half of the story.
Minutes afterwards and in intense pain, Ms Austin stood in the bathroom of a McDonald's restaurant and photographed deep purple bruises on her side.
While not ready to divulge to anyone what had happened to her, she knew she required medication to ease the debilitating pain.
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"Once the adrenaline from the rally had worn off, the reality of what I was experiencing at that time smashed me," she said.
She walked to the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service (VAHS), where she felt comfortable - she was treated by an Aboriginal nurse who did not pressure her to detail how she was injured and saw a doctor.
The service also organised for her to see her regular doctor the following day before she attended a hospital to have her injuries documented.
Supported by strong Aboriginal women throughout the process, for months afterwards Sissy tried to continue living as though nothing had occurred.
The day after visiting the hospital, she attended an event showcasing those running for the First People's Assembly of Victoria.
"I had such high expectations of myself - what I'd gone through wasn't enough for me to not show up.
"I love and respect my community, I appreciated it so much that they voted for me so I continued on with it despite everything that I was going through at that time."
At the same time media attention was focused on issues such as Tanya Day's inquest and the plan to remove culturally significant trees on the Western Highway near Ararat.
"There was a long period there where I didn't want to take any painkillers because I needed to be okay to drive up and back to protect country. I wanted to be switched on.
"I didn't want what had happened to me to be the reason why we fell behind in our fight to save Djab Wurrung country."
She "desperately tried to move on as though nothing had happened" but said this was one of the biggest contributors to her mental breakdown.
In addition to her advocacy, she continued with her day job - working to assist victim-survivors of family violence and sexual assault.
"My day job was working with women experiencing violence and then outside of that the government was trying to destroy country. It felt like this massive, overwhelming cycle of just so much suffering for Aboriginal people.
"Trying to navigate through the roles that I have within community and dealing with something that tears your life apart was the most challenging thing."
It wasn't until she was hospitalised months later that she finally accepted what had happened and began to feel the difficult emotions she had been blocking out.
Trying to do too much, not focusing on healing and trying to ignore what had happened - I wouldn't advise that to anyone.Sissy Austin
"Trying to do too much, not focusing on healing and trying to ignore what had happened - I wouldn't advise that to anyone.
"Obviously it ended up getting way too much for me and impacting my mental health. It took for me to literally fall apart and break to realise that I needed to strip back."
With love, support and therapy, Ms Austin took a step back from certain responsibilities including from the Assembly.
"I had this mindset where I didn't want to let my community down," she explained. "But if you're literally just trying to survive, you're not letting community down. You are simply existing and navigating life.
"I stripped back and let go of the high expectations I had of myself. I also have accepted that you don't have to always be okay."
Ms Austin explained the importance of always treating people with kindness, as despite social media posts or the facade they put up, they could be navigating through something significant or traumatic.
In sharing her story publicly, Ms Austin wishes to raise awareness about sexual assault and mental health and to highlight the strength of Aboriginal women, whose support and strength she is most grateful for.
"Aboriginal women deal with so much on a daily basis," she said. "We are so strong, so powerful and we also have each other's backs. I know my aunties and my sisters have my back.
"We are guided by the power of mother nature and of country, especially as Aboriginal women. I truly believe we are a force."
If I could give myself advice... to the Sissy that was trying so desperately to push through... I would tell myself to slow down. It's okay to cry.Sissy Austin
Looking back on her "rollercoaster" journey so far, Ms Austin recognises that trying to ignore the trauma of what had occurred rather than processing it in her own time contributed to her spiraling into a mental breakdown.
"If I could give myself advice... to the Sissy that was trying so desperately to push through... I would tell myself to slow down. It's okay to cry.
"Every single day was different - you don't know when you'll have a panic attack... or a nightmare, you might be feeling angry at yourself or anxious. That is so okay in response to what is happening so don't beat yourself up for that."
Today she is feeling much stronger and is feeling positive about the future.
"I've been very open about my journey and stripped back [my responsibilities].
"My main goal moment is just to be a strong, healthy and happy aunty to my nieces and nephews."
Support is available through support services such as the Centre Against Sexual Assault, though some people choose to take the step to report their experience to police.
A Victoria Police spokesperson acknowledged how difficult it was to report a sexual offence.
"It may take days, months or years after the incident has occurred. Our message to victims is that you will be listened to.
"We understand that victims of sexual assault, for a number of reasons, may choose not to report the assault to police or tell anyone about what has happened to them.
"There are also times when a victim of a sexual assault may choose not to go ahead with an investigation after reporting the assault to police.
"This decision may occur at any stage of the investigation process. Police will support the victim throughout the process when they are ready."
We understand that victims of sexual assault, for a number of reasons, may choose not to report the assault to police or tell anyone about what has happened to them.Victoria Police spokesperson
They said trained detectives worked across the state with the force's Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Teams (SOCIT) and were trained to prioritise victims needs when investigating the complex crimes.
"SOCITs deal with a case from the time of disclosure, through the investigation process and then on to court.
"This means that victims are able to establish an ongoing relationship and trust with one or two police members without having to continually retell their personal experiences.
Victims can report to their local police station or to their SOCIT team.
Affected by this story? Help is available via Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Yarning SafeNStrong for 24/7 Aboriginal Crisis support: 1800 959 563. You can also phone the Ballarat Centre Against Sexual Assault, in Sebastopol, on 5320 3933, or free-call the crisis care line 24 hours on 1800 806 292.