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Just Listen is a seven-part mental health podcast series, exploring how to support a person in serious and ongoing mental distress. Six New Zealanders and their support people share their mental health journey and challenges with journalist and host Juliette Sivertsen. Made with support from the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, and Like Minds, Like Mine.

Tamara Waugh is a handy person to know in a crowd. She knows exactly what everyone around her is doing and the location of the nearest exit.

While having eyes like a hawk may sound like a helpful trait to have, there's a heartbreaking reason behind her hypervigilance - she's endured years of sexual abuse.

"That's about safety, because I don't know what that drunk person might do over there, or I don't know if that drunk girl on the grass over there is actually okay," she explains. "If I feel like I don't know that everyone is [okay], what they're going to do, then anything can happen and I'm unsafe."

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Listen to Tamara Waugh's full story in the Just Listen podcast, here.

The abuse continued into her teenage years, which led Waugh down a path of drug use, addiction and self-harm.

"I felt like I was in a prison and I had no way out, and this would be life and I just had to endure it. It felt really horrible."

"I guess that's when you go a little more internal as a child and learn dissociation as a coping mechanism. So you're not really living. Not here on the Earth, not so grounded."

Dissociation is a common coping strategy for sexual abuse victims, where a person disconnects from their thoughts and feelings. Waugh describes it as out-of-body experience. "Just being an observer in the moment, not really feeling anything, just kind of shut down, I guess."

In New Zealand, anyone who has experienced sexual assault can make a claim under the ACC Sensitive Claims Process, which allows them access to free therapy with an approved trauma counsellor or psychologist.

But Waugh says she still feels gross about the interview that was required to make a Sensitive Claim. She says it felt like an interrogation and was cold, clinical and completely lacking in compassion.

"You're having to recollect events that are really traumatic, that immediately send you back into that space. So for every single one of these events, and there are numerous events. Not just childhood sexual abuse, it's rape and gang rape. These are horrific events that have happened to me over a very long period of time."

Years of sexual abuse make many aspects of intimacy triggering for Tamara Waugh, but being aware of those triggers and communicating clearly with a partner are crucial to navigating a relationship. Photo / Michael Craig
Years of sexual abuse make many aspects of intimacy triggering for Tamara Waugh, but being aware of those triggers and communicating clearly with a partner are crucial to navigating a relationship. Photo / Michael Craig

Waugh submitted her thoughts to the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction and hopes it will spark a change in the process, so that is designed with the input of the consumer. She says the system is much better now.

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Through ACC, she learnt she was eligible for other services, such as trauma-sensitive yoga, and family/whānau sessions, where family members of the trauma survivor can see a psychologist to learn how to support their loved one in their recovery.

Waugh also appreciates the difficulties that come with being in a romantic relationship with someone who is a sexual abuse survivor. She says there are many aspects of intimacy which are triggering for her, but being aware of those triggers and communicating clearly with a partner are crucial to navigating a relationship.

One of Waugh's friends is psychologist and motivational speaker Dr Paul Wood. He says showing support is about listening, not talking.

"Not many of us are particularly skilled in dealing with someone else's emotions, so that creates additional uncertainty, which causes us anxiety. And we don't like those emotions, so we avoid the situation, or go in there with all guns blazing with some kind of answer."

Wood says despite Waugh's painful past, her experience means she understands other people's distress. "She's exactly the type of person I would go and talk to about problems that I was going through, as opposed to someone who hadn't been through any struggle and would tell me to just be positive."

Waugh uses gratitude and mindfulness practices to stay on top of her health, founding the global movement The Happiness Experiment. She works for mental health advocacy group Changing Minds, where she hopes to help do exactly that - change people's minds about mental health, and let people know recovery from trauma is possible.

Listen to Tamara Waugh's full story in the Just Listen podcast, embedded at the beginning of this article.

Tamara and Paul's tips for supporting a person with PTSD

• Recognise the person's need to feel safe.
• Learn what situations that may be triggering.
• Be patient, especially in relationships and recognise both parties' fears or insecurities.
• Show compassion when a person is experiencing a triggering situation.
• Talk and share stories when appropriate, but respect that sometimes talking about specific events or details may be too overwhelming.

WHERE TO GET HELP:

If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633

Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)

Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)

Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

There are lots of places to get support. For others, click here.​