real life

'When I was 19, I became a nun. It had nothing to do with religion.'

This story includes descriptions of child abuse that may be distressing to some readers.

When I was 19 years old, I did something that shocks most people when I tell them. I became a nun. Yes, you read that right. I was once a nun in a convent.

Now, reading this, you might be imagining a scene straight out of Sister Act with Whoopi Goldberg leading the choir, or thinking I joined because of some deeply rooted religious conviction. But my journey into the Convent was far from a Hollywood movie and didn't solely stem from religious reasons.

The truth is, the Convent was an escape from everything I knew. Let’s rewind to my childhood, shall we? For most of my life, I have been subject to emotional abuse and a highly dysfunctional family environment.

Growing up, my father's narcissistic behaviour made my childhood a living hell. He was controlling, manipulative, and incapable of showing love. He consistently put me down, belittled and bullied my siblings, and had strict ideas about how we should behave and dress. I couldn't even put my hair up in a ponytail.

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What about my mum? Well, she enabled his behaviour.

As kids, we weren't allowed to have friends because friends meant social support. Playing sport was a big no-no because it took me out of our family dynamic and exposed me to healthier alternatives. No one came to the house, no was one allowed to call.

It was a slow, insidious process of abuse. Each moment of cruelty by my father, and each moment of enabling by my mother, became a part of the fabric that I was woven with.

If I challenged the rules, the verbal abuse would only intensify, or they’d withdraw emotionally altogether.

Living in this environment was extremely damaging.

For many of us who have endured such trauma, the idea of leaving may have seemed utterly impossible for a long time. Fear of retaliation, isolation, and the unknown can keep us trapped in the cycle of abuse.

The other thing is, emotional abuse often leaves you feeling undeserving of anything better, and you internalise the toxic messages you’ve been fed, making it difficult to see your own strength and potential. So, when the opportunity came up to join a convent and become a nun, it seemed like a lifeline.

Now, becoming a nun might seem an unlikely choice for someone seeking freedom, but at the time, it felt right—after all, I was a good Catholic girl. Plus, the Convent offered more freedoms than I ever had at home.

The prospect of an escape from the suffocating atmosphere at home, a chance to break free from the cycle of abuse, and the opportunity to find solace and purpose elsewhere was appealing.


Initially, it was pleasant enough, but life has a way of revealing its truths, and soon, the cracks began to show.

While I was in the Convent, I found myself deliberately kept at a distance, supposedly to "detach from the world," a feeling that struck a haunting chord of familiarity.

The sense of sisterhood I had held out hope for was nowhere to be found.

I was very lonely.

And despite the outward appearance of a holy and peaceful place, I sensed a troubling undercurrent of mismanagement.

Eventually, I realised this wasn't what I wanted long-term. I knew I needed to listen to my inner voice and it was time to embrace a new chapter. This involved posing the fundamental question of what I actually wanted to do for the very first time.

So, when my vows expired, I returned to Australia and began working as an occupational therapist.

Truthfully, it wasn’t until I became a mum myself that I realised, for the first time, that the validation I was seeking from my family would never come and that the problem was with them, not with me.

This was the start of a profound shift in my mindset and the beginning of a life-long journey towards reclaiming my self-worth.

It's been quite a journey to open up about this deeply personal and painful experience, but now that I feel ready, I want to share the lessons I've learned along the way.


You may never understand.

Seeing things from an outsider’s view, it's tough to get why not just reach out to someone, right? But it's not that simple. When you've grown up in such an environment, it's your world, your normal. I'm a smart woman; you'd think I'd find a way out, right? But you can only act based on what you know. Leaving abuse is a personal journey, no one-size-fits-all answer. Each situation's unique, respecting every survivor's path is crucial.

It may take years to recover.

Leaving an abusive family or any harmful situation requires more than just physical detachment; it demands a significant emotional and psychological shift. It's about rewriting the scripts embedded in our minds, overcoming feelings of guilt and shame, and building the courage to step into the unknown.

You can write your own story.

Emotional abuse is where my narrative began, but it was up to me to define the next chapter. I could have allowed myself to be limited by the familiar patterns of behaviour endemic in my family, but instead, I chose to create my own narrative. I chose to break the cycle of negativity that had defined my family for generations. The real story of my life is not a story of debilitating emotional abuse, but a story of resilience, courage, and self-belief. It's the story of how I chose to take all the lessons from my past and use them as stepping stones towards creating a brighter future.

Don’t internalise what happened to you.

You don't need to internalise what's happened to you, no matter how traumatic or damaging it might be. Self-reflection is key, as is finding trusted, professional help to navigate the darkest parts of your childhood.


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Your biggest challenge could be your superpower.

I chose to reframe the abuse I experienced as an opportunity to build resilience, empathy, and a deep sense of social justice. It was through those experiences that I was able to disrupt an entire industry. I realise now that it's my biggest demons that have allowed me to become the leader I am today—a leader driven by doing what’s right.

Boundaries set you free.

One of the biggest lessons from my childhood is the power of setting boundaries. When we set boundaries, it helps us to feel safe and in control of our lives. It’s the ultimate act of self-kindness. But we must get much better at communicating our boundaries if we want them to be respected. Women, in particular, have to learn to assert our boundaries and to not be scared of the opinions of others. In fact, it’s important that people don’t feel comfortable crossing our boundaries. So, expect a little discomfort. And remember, you can be assertive without being aggressive.

Make it about more than just you.

It’s not always about you. Sometimes, it's about the people around us and the generational pain that’s been passed down.

Believe you can rise from almost anything.

With the right support, it is possible to rise from almost anything. I'm proof of this. Today I am a far cry from the little girl I used to be, yet that little girl remains my driving force, always reminding me of my value and pushing me to do better. My difficult childhood has made me battle-hardened, strong-willed, and unafraid to tackle any challenge life throws my way. This strength helped me recover when my marriage ended in divorce. It helped me speak up when I witnessed wrongdoing throughout my career. And it's since helped me build an award-winning, values-driven company.


Escaping the clutches of emotional abuse and a dysfunctional family environment was a long process, one that demanded immense inner strength and the courage to rewrite my own story. It's a story of resilience, boundary-setting, and turning challenges into strengths. It's a story that shows, no matter how difficult the circumstances, it's possible to rise, thrive, and create a brighter future.

Ultimately, my change in mindset helped me kick my insecurities to the curb and build my own LadyStartup, Australia's first and only occupational therapy franchise business—ActivOT—which invests in health professionals, turning them into successful business owners.

We launched in 2012, and now, eleven years later, I'm proud to say ActivOT has over 55 franchisees and is rapidly growing around Australia.

Helen Whait is an award-winning occupational therapist, an innovator and the founder of ActivOT, Australia’s first occupational therapy franchise which helps occupational therapists become successful business owners.

If you find yourself needing to talk to someone after reading this story, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For children and young adults, Kids Helpline is available on 1800 551 800.

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