Locked in a basement as a child, Angela Alexander suffered lasting damage to her ability to hear. Now, 23 years on, she is helping other children suffering the same condition, writes Emma Russell.
For four years Angela Alexander was locked in a basement by her dad and repeatedly told by her step-mum that "children like her should be seen and not heard".
Concrete walls, loosely covered with dusty curtains and black tarpaulin resembled an obscure prison cell. From aged 13 to 17, a plastic bucket dumped in the corner of her solitary confinement was her toilet.
She was allowed to leave the basement to go to school and work her multiple jobs, though she must not use the front or back doors, instead, she said, she was forced to climb through the casement window.
"I wasn't allowed to tell anybody how I lived, I wasn't talked to, I wasn't touched. I was conditioned into thinking if I did tell someone, life would get much worse," she told the Herald on Sunday from her home in Sunshine Coast, Australia.
But though her unhinged teenage life remained a dark secret, it didn't stop her from being curious.
While working at a pet hospital, she would scavenge through newspapers used at the bottom of animal cages.
"I was looking for stories of people experiencing the same thing as me . . . someone asking questions about being locked up by their family asking 'is this okay?'.
"Because it was my reality I thought it must be the reality for other people," she said.
There were periods when she was trapped in the basement for several months without leaving.
"I remember a whole year passed without my seeing either of my step-siblings, despite us living under the same roof."
Some days she would hear ambulances echo through the cracks of her window and, she said, she would think the world was ending.
"One time my family went on holiday for a week and my dad brought me down a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter. As a hungry teenager I ate it all that night, then of course I had no food for the rest of the week.
"I was scared to crawl out the window but I was so hungry. I ate their entire garden, it was delicious - juicy tomatoes, watermelon, I remember it like it was yesterday."
Every day she wasn't at school, she would count 15 steps before a click. A warning her father was coming.
Wordlessly and without eye contact he would dip his head through her door and deliver her meals: Cheerios and milk for breakfast, a peanut butter sandwich for lunch and a cheese sandwich for dinner.
Yet, 23 years later, she still yearns for the "cheeky, fun" father who existed before she turned 12.
Before the basement
Alexander - now a highly regarded audiologist who lived in New Zealand for 10 years - was born into a Mennonite commune in the US state of Kansas in 1981.
"Mennonites are non-resistant so they believe if a person breaks into your house, you're not supposed to defend yourself. You allow yourself to be hurt or even die and that person will get what they deserve in Heaven or Hell."
When Alexander turned 2, the commune disentangled. She stayed living in Kansas with her mum, dad and older brother.
"My dad was cheeky and fun and everyone's favourite teacher."
In a blog post several years ago, she wrote about her father shooting a python. He told her how something changed in him when he walked the snake home. He saw how beautiful it was and suddenly he was filled with remorse for taking its life.
"This snake skin was his promise to never willingly cause the death or harm to a living creature again," she wrote.
But in 1991, her father's personal evolution took a different path. The primary teacher met Alexander's future step-mum.
"My mum was completely wrecked by it, she didn't see it coming."
Alexander was separated from her mum and brother when she was 12.
"My dad and my step-mum created this narrative that my mum was this really abusive controlling person, which is really ironic."
Alexander said her dad slowly faded and became more dull, and she was constantly told she was a bad kid. She started feeling unsure of how to act around her step-mum.
"[My step-mum] began counting the words I said at the dinner table and telling me at the end how many were appropriate conversation pieces and improper ones."
At first, Alexander said, she slept on the floor of her step siblings' bedroom before she was moved to under the kitchen table. Eventually the basement became her permanent bedroom.
Her abuse, she said, was all psychological. "I would often endure hours of hearing how bad of a person I was and how dumb I was."
Escaping the basement
Fast-forward four years, Alexander remembers at aged 17 being pulled into the school counsellor's office to discuss her career options.
The counsellor noticed I was becoming cagey: "I remember getting more uncomfortable, thinking 'oh no, something is going to get back to them, this is going to be awful'."
The next day the counsellor introduced Alexander to a social worker and they devised a plan.
"Everything started clicking into place really quickly after that. That social worker was only 21 and she navigated it like a boss"
A woman known to the school put her hand up to foster Alexander.
"My dad and step-mum got called into my high school principal's office . . . this group of women at my high school were amazing, they did it all strategically because they had to get my dad to willingly give me up and confess to the abuse, which he did.
"I did not press charges, the police left it up to me."
A week later she was out of the basement.
"I remember going home to pack my things and feeling like a suicide bomber. My step mum came downstairs and said 'I've never had someone treat me so poorly' and my dad looked like a person who made a really big mistake."
Alexander later reconnected with her mother, and they have shared a close relationship ever since.
The last time she saw her dad was more than 20 years ago. She was in college and had a sudden urge to reconnect. She for drove two and half hours to the school where he worked.
"I remember waiting in his classroom and he just goes 'what are you doing here'. I didn't expect that. I handed him some treats I'd picked up on the way and left."
Her dad died just days after Alexander shared her story at a TEDx talk in Tauranga in July.
"The 13-year-old me was sad, lonely and felt like I had no purpose in life. That's a huge transition to where I am now."
Discovering auditory processing disorder (APD)
It wasn't until after Alexander become an audiologist that she discovered she had auditory processing disorder (APD) - a condition where the ears detect sound normally but the brain doesn't process sounds correctly.
"So instead of hearing boat, they might hear goat or maybe even book," Alexander said.
Throughout her early childhood, she was tested for hearing loss but passed every test. Instead, she was misdiagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders detected in children. People with the condition can be easily distracted and often act without thinking.
Alexander was taking prescribed ADHD medication from age 7 until her early 20s, when she found out she'd been misdiagnosed.
"I remember having wine with a bunch of psychologists and psychiatrists friends who worked with adults with ADHD, and saying 'this is kind of embarrassing but I actually have ADHD myself'."
She did a Test Variables of Attention (TOVA) assessment and her results were normal.
Her professor suggested maybe she had APD.
"I used to fall asleep in lectures and record every lecture about four times. Someone would say something and I would be thinking on it over and over again trying to figure out they said, I couldn't keep up in conversations."
Through her own therapy she was able to overcome APD. She said it wasn't uncommon for people with APD to unconsciously be drawn to a career helping people with APD because they could empathise.
Since then, she has helped hundreds, of all ages, defeat APD with therapy involving frequent sound, word and background noise training.
In 2010, she and her husband moved to Whakatāne before setting up a clinic in Taupō. She was one of seven audiologist specialised in treating APD in New Zealand.
"There are few loud voices in New Zealand saying devices are the only evidence-based way to treat people struggling to hear, which isn't true."
She said APD often went undetected and it was a massive problem with huge psycho-social impacts.
"We know there's a high prevalence in prisons."
When the condition was picked up and treated, it could be life-changing.
"With children I've treated, the first thing I hear from parents is 'my child is so much more present and aware and comfortable' . . . I'm addicted to watching that change."
*Alexander moved to Sunshine Coast, Australia, last year with her husband Sean and 3-year-old daughter Izzy. She said she was constantly telling her little girl she was good.
If Luke Green, 7, hadn't met Angela Alexander it's unlikely his APD would've been picked up.
His kindergarten teachers suspected he was struggling to hear but when he was tested by a doctor the then 4-year-old passed with flying colours.
By the time he started primary school, "the kind and empathetic" little boy started to isolate himself.
"His teacher told me he was slower to get underway on tasks and often wasn't doing what he'd been asked to do," Luke's mum, Kylie Hawker-Green said.
On one occasion he ran home from school, Hawker-Green said, because he couldn't comprehend what had happened at school. "His response was just to leave."
Another time he was playing hide and seek at lunchtime but when the bell rang to go back to class, he remained hidden until staff found him.
"Again, he didn't understand he was meant to go back to the classroom."
Hawker-Green had already met Alexander through business and asked her advice.
"She got him to do a series of tests and sure enough he's hearing levels were totally fine but processing was definitely not.
Alexander would get Luke to match picture cards to sounds. "He got more wrong than right and it terrified me because it was so much worse than I thought," Hawker-Green said.
But within six months of treatment sessions with Alexander and one-on-one support at school, Luke has gone from being so far behind in his learning to well above for his age.
"He has absolutely flourished."
Now, his teacher understood he needed slightly different instructions and gave him his own, quieter, workspace, Hawker-Green said.
"One of the best tips that Angela told us was that we encourage him to repeat back what he has heard."
However, treatment for APD wasn't funded and the family has spent thousands to get Luke support.
"There are so many obstacles to get help for APD . . . it's really scary to think how different Luke's circumstances could have been if he hadn't been able to get help from Angela."