“Like anything traumatic, you’ll never forget it,” former police detective Narelle Fraser told me over the phone.
In 2012, on her 52nd birthday, Narelle was tasked with watching 1700 child sex abuse videos – the content of which was beyond the scope of human imagination.
But the job, as horrific as it was, served an important purpose. Narelle was classifying the material on a scale of one to five, five being the most horrendous, in order to have the person responsible adequately prosecuted.
A vast majority of the tape received a classification of five.
Narelle was a seasoned detective who thought she’d “pretty much seen everything…”.
But over the course of those two days, she discovered she hadn’t.
“Do you believe in evil?” I asked Narelle, given her work on hundreds of cases that dealt with child sex abuse material throughout her 22-year career.
After a lengthy pause, she replied, “Probably not…”
“I think it’s often learned behaviour. There’s something very, very wrong… they have often grown up in an abusive sort of household themselves. And so they don’t know anything different…”
Child sex abuse material, she told me, is being produced, distributed and consumed all over Australia.
“I think you would be horrified at how much child sex abuse material is being made in Australia… even maybe in your suburb. It’s frightening to see how much it’s going on,” Narelle told Mamamia.
Often, police are tipped off by computer repair shops who come across illegal material on their clients’ laptops.
“Most paedophiles or people interested in child sex abuse material, they will somehow ingratiate themselves into an area where they will have access to children. The kids may even take these people home and their parents might think they’re great people,” Narelle said.
Often, the abusers are manipulating the parents as much as they’re manipulating their victims.
In the majority of cases, Narelle found that the material was being produced by friends of the parents, or an organisation that has a great deal of access to children; within footy clubs or the church for example.
Listen: Would you ban men from looking after your kids? We discuss on the latest episode of Mamamia Out Loud. (Post continues below…)
Their victims – contrary to what many would assume – are predominantly boys.
“A lot of it that I investigated it were boys actually rather than girls,” Narelle told Mamamia. “And the experience I’ve had, it’s the girls that are just coming into puberty, maybe nine or 10… but the boys it’s younger.
“And the boys don’t seem to be able to, or have difficulty, in actually expressing what’s happened or telling somebody because of shame. Girls are more encouraged to open up and talk to someone,” she said.
“You see this stuff,” Narelle said, “and think; how could someone do this to another human being? Let alone an innocent little kid?”
The images of what she saw over those two days back in 2012 have not disappeared.
If she goes to the parks and sees children playing, something is “automatically triggered”.
“Even when I go to exercise classes,” Narelle said, “a lot of the girls bring their little kids and I often look at them and it takes me back. It’s a trigger. I just think, how could you ever do that?”
Following the case, Narelle found herself haunted by what she saw. As a naturally talkative and open person, ordinarily she would have spoken about her worries with friends or family. But she knew she could not tell anyone about what she had seen, because it would traumatise them too.
It felt like a big secret that she had no choice but to keep.
Eventually, she saw a psychologist, the first of many she was required to see by the police force.
Narelle began retelling one of the most traumatic memories she had of the videos, and the psychologist put up her hand and said; "Narelle, you've got to stop or I can't do this."
"There's not a lot of people who could actually hear what I saw and experienced," Narelle said.
Her experience with the psychologist made her realise just how bad what she'd seen was, and the level of the "damage that had been done".
Narelle was referred to a different psychologist, who has helped with her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for many years.
"I cannot imagine what I must have done to her mind with what I've told her," Narelle said of her psychologist.
"It helped me to be able to tell someone everything that was in my head. Everything that was troubling."
The psychologist spoke her through a scenario, where she was told to go downstairs into a den, and put her box of thoughts into a cupboard. She was instructed to lock that cupboard and walk back up the stairs, knowing that she was the only one in possession of the key.
"I just found that helpful," Narelle said.
Even though Narelle thought she could 'handle' the material she was required to watch, it took an irreparable toll on her mental health.
Narelle has used the analogy of a bottle to explain her experience with PTSD. Some cases were a drop, and others - like the child sex abuse case - were a decent pour.
Eventually, the bottle began to overflow.
Slowly, since leaving the police force and focusing on her health, the contents of the bottle have become more manageable.
Her story reminds us of the enormous sacrifice police officers make in order to find justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. It's the ultimate act of altruism.
While doing so, they must also edge a little too close to the darkest pockets of our society.
Pockets that most of us have the luxury of never discovering.
If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.
You can visit Narelle Fraser's website, here.
You can listen to the latest episode of Mamamia Out Loud, here.