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The Sunday Age

How losing my family has stopped defining who I am

Date August 31, 2015 Susan Berg at Hastings Pier, Western Port Bay, near the site of the boating accident. Photo: Damien Pleming

I was 15 when I went on a fishing trip in Western Port Bay with my mum, dad and 16-year-old brother, Bill. It was a fabulous family outing, until the boat suddenly took on water and sank. It was late in the evening and the closest land was nearly four kilometres away. Dad struggled to swim in the freezing water, so Bill swam over to help him.

I told Mum to keep up with me, but she couldn't. I knew we had a better chance of survival if I went ahead for help.

My lifejacket was choking me and I struggled to swim. I battled on; the thought of losing Mum, Dad or Bill was unbearable. We'd always been a close family. I had to find help.

I swam alone in the darkness for hours, battling against the freezing water, predator birds, and the fear of sharks. I passed the time in prayer and song, my body engulfed in icy water. It felt like I wasn't making much progress.

I suddenly felt slime beneath my feet. I tried to stand but sank deep into thick mud. I crawled on hands and knees, counting each movement – one, two, three, four – until I reached 100, then I turned over and pushed my body backwards with my arms, again counting to 100. I continued, rolling over and over until I'd lost count. My arms and legs felt like dead weights.

The closer I came to land, the more my surroundings changed. Tall, dead trees cast dark shadows across the black mud with their spiky branches. As I entered the shadows, the mud became like quicksand. It sucked me down like a vacuum until it was up to my thighs. I cried out for help but no one heard me.

Finally I reached solid land, alone and exhausted, and imagined I would be greeted with streets bustling with people who could raise the alarm.

But there was no sign of life anywhere.

I had crawled onto French Island, a remote landmass 61 kilometres south-east of Melbourne, with surroundings so treacherous it had once housed McLeod Prison Farm. I staggered along an overgrown track before coming upon an old farmhouse – the only house within a 30-kilometre radius.

The bodies of Mum, Dad and Bill were found floating face down in the water soon after sunrise.

I blamed myself for their deaths. I had been the person driving the boat when it sank, the person who had left them to go for help. The person who had failed to locate them from the helicopter. The person who had survived. I agonised over why I had lived instead of them.

Never again would I look into the loving eyes of my mother, father or brother. Nor did I live in the family home, sleep in my own bed, or throw a ball for my dog Digger, who was given away to strangers. Instead I was sent to live with a new family.

In one night I had lost my family, my home, my security – and in the months that followed, I also lost myself. Sad and alone I headed down a path of self-destruction. There were plenty who were eager to help me down this path – like Matthew*, the 19-year-old son of a trusted family friend.

It was only weeks after the accident that he took away my innocence. It was an incredibly confusing time. I had been raised to believe that sex was to be saved until after marriage. I was ashamed, yet thankful that I was no longer alone – I was convinced Matthew must love me. I was wrong.

In the 12 months that followed, I lost my grandmother, an uncle, a cousin, two kittens and a goldfish. Everything I loved died. I wondered if I should take my own life, too.

By the time I was 16, I'd been preyed on by a sleazy pimp who tried to entice me into the world of stripping and I'd been introduced to drugs. I'd also been raped, although no one believed me. I grew up feeling isolated and alone.

As the years went by, I no longer recognised the person in the mirror.

She was a stranger to me – one that I loathed. I rebelled against my religious upbringing, seeking solace in casual sexual encounters and party drugs – anything to disconnect from my life and to feel a sense of love. But there was no escape from my reality, and my self-destructive behaviour put me through such shame that sometimes I wondered if Mum and Dad would still love me if they were alive.

The relationships I chose reflected the lack of love I felt for myself. At 19, I became pregnant.

My son William was born and along with his birth came my own rebirth. I had a new sense of self-worth and happiness. I had a family to belong to again and was able to give and receive the love I so badly craved.

When William was eight months old, I made the decision to leave his father. It was the first good decision I'd made in years. But life as a single mother was a struggle without any support. I was on my own, trying to play the roles of mother, father, provider, nurturer and disciplinarian. William was sad and I was sure my own sadness and negative feelings were being transmitted to him.

William was eight when he started playing ice hockey. It was a new beginning for him, providing a life of fun and new friendships. It wasn't until he was 11 that I realised life could be fun for me, too.

I found strength in challenging myself and facing my fears. I learnt that beyond fear, there was freedom. And I also learnt that the only person who had prevented me from becoming the person I wanted to be was me.

I wanted to rid myself of negative thoughts and feelings and be free.

It was liberating to jump out of a plane at 4420 metres, and then face my biggest fear since the accident – swimming with sharks. I also found a passion for motorbikes. I wanted to feel empowered by mastering what some might consider a sport within a man's world. I felt freed as I rode through the countryside and quiet coastal towns.

It was through my passion for motorbikes that I became friends with my work colleagues, Kev, Doug and Tony, who invited me to track days at Phillip Island. I was in my element – fast bikes, roaring engines and the thrill of riding faster with each lap. I was told I rode like a bloke – confident and quick.

It became a tradition after Christmas that my colleagues and I went away for a weekend to the Alpine Ranges. The roads were brilliant, and with excellent visibility and virtually no traffic, we were able to ride the sweeping bends at high speed with confidence.

Heartbreakingly, one of those rides ended in tragedy when Kev was killed in a head-on collision with a car travelling on the wrong side of the road. It was a miracle I didn't die too. Paradoxically, it was by surviving this accident while following his line that helped me shake off my survivor guilt once and for all.

The following Easter, with the memory of Kev's accident etched in my mind, I packed my motorbike and took off on a solo ride from Melbourne to Byron Bay. I knew that getting out on the bike would give me time alone to reflect and heal from the trauma of Kev's death.

The journey was cathartic – I had no husband to report to, no young child to look after, no job to get back to, no meals to cook, no house to clean, no place to be. Nothing was holding me back. It was just me and my bike. I felt totally free. I had the opportunity to reflect back over my life and to heal many wounds. The time had come for me to package up my past and put it behind me.

Upon my return from Byron Bay, William and I took the barge over to French Island. I was apprehensive on the way over. I wondered if painful memories would come flooding back and stab me with grief. But they didn't. Instead I was able to reflect on what had happened that night, 25 years earlier, and see it for what it was.

A terrible accident.

I had allowed the tragedy to be the focal point of my identity while I was growing up. I was Susan, the girl who'd lost her parents and brother in a boating accident – the sole survivor.

While losing my family will always be a part of who I am, it no longer defines who I am as a person.

William is now 24 and together we've put the difficult years behind us. We embrace the future, eager to participate in whatever wonderful and exciting adventures tomorrow may bring.

Lifeline: 13 11 14

*Name has been changed. Susan Berg's memoir, The Girl Who Lived, is out now through Affirm Press.

This story originally appeared on Sunday Life.

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