Marika Councillor learning from tough life lessons


Sheer willpower: Marika Councillor at home.
Marika Councillor learning from tough life lessons
Sheer willpower: Marika Councillor at home.

SITTING in her lounge room surrounded by Department of Child Protection (DCP) agents and opposite a daughter who refused to meet her gaze ranks among the lowest moments of Marika Councillor’s life.

Five years later, accepting Polytechnic West’s Geof Gale Medal for top overall student in front of her family – their eyes burning with pride – is among the best.

Through sheer force of will, Mrs Councillor has weathered a storm that would rip most families apart.

Having emerged from the other side, her message is simple: You cannot control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond – and it is your actions, not your circumstances, that define you.

Mrs Councillor first discovered her daughter had been sexually abused at the hands of a relative in 2010.

The then 13-year-old was immediately put into counselling through the public health system.

“The first counsellor she was assigned had to leave, so she was put on to someone else, and then they also left,” Mrs Councillor said.

“The third time around she just refused to do it anymore – she was sick of repeating herself to different people.”

Around that time Mrs Councillor became aware that her daughter was occasionally self-harming but had no idea of the true extent of the problem until a panicked phone call from her husband in 2011 to say that DCP was at their house.

“Walking in and seeing all these people sitting in my lounge, I couldn’t understand what was going on,” she said.

“One of them said they had been approached by a student who said our daughter was planning to kill herself.

“I didn’t think it was that bad. My daughter just put her head down and I felt like such a failure.”

Mrs Councillor credits the DCP-assigned counsellor with saving her daughter’s life.

“The sessions were intensive and during that time we found out that she was suffering chronic fatigue as a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, something she is still dealing with,” Mrs Councillor said.

“She is now in a much better space and tells me all the time that she couldn’t have got through it without me, but that is still hard for me to accept,” Mrs Councillor said.

“She would tell me that she didn’t blame me but that didn’t stop me from blaming myself.

“The counselling was one of the biggest steps towards getting her life back and the family getting back on track.

“We didn’t have to be punished. It had to stop for us to heal.”

Mrs Councillor, then living in Ardross, returned to part-time work as a teacher’s assistant with Good Shepherd Catholic School in 2015.

There she was encouraged to pursue a Certificate III in education support, completing the usually year-long course through Polytechnic West in just three months – all the while juggling work, her four children and her husband’s fly-in, fly-out schedule.

“When everyone else had gone to sleep I would sit on my computer and just bang it out, because a lot of it was online components,” she said.

“When everyone else had gone to sleep I would sit on my computer and just bang it out, because a lot of it was online components,” she said.

“I didn’t think too much of it, I just did it but my lecturer Craig Noonan was impressed enough to nominate me for Polytechnic West’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Student of the Year award.”

At an award ceremony earlier this month Mrs Councillor scooped both that award and the prestigious Geof Gale Medal.

Even more importantly, she took a big step towards winning back her sense of self-worth.

“I took my daughter to the awards ceremony with me and she told me ‘Mum, I’m so proud of you.’

“For me to hear that from my daughter, after everything she has been through, was incredible.”

Clontarf Aboriginal College, where Mrs Councillor has worked full-time since the start of the year, is now sponsoring her to pursue a full teaching degree.

Ironically, she will be returning to the Deakin University campus in Geelong where she first met her future husband in 1994.

“I was in my first year of a teaching degree when I got pregnant, he finished his degree but I had to drop out to look after the baby. Now I’m going back. It might be 22 years later, but it is going to happen,” she said.

“That’s the thing about life, you get so distracted along the way by so many different things it is so easy to lose your path.

“I’m just thankful that I never lost it completely. At times it felt like I was walking a plank with people firing cannonballs at me, but I’m still here and I’m still moving forward.”