Content warning: This article includes discussions of suicide and mentions of sexual assault, abuse, and domestic violence.

Two former Australians of the Year have spoken out about the toll of speaking out about the worst moments in their lives and being an advocate, warning that “trauma is a beast”.

Grace Tame and Rosie Batty spoke about their experiences during a talk titled ‘Protecting the Outspoken’ at the 2022 All About Women festival at the Sydney Opera House on Sunday.

Ms Tame revealed she had gone to the emergency room seeking mental health treatment after recent media storms, including the coverage of her drug use as a teenager.

“I was actually in the ER the other day because I lost control and I was really scared,” she said.

“I called up the clinic and I said, ‘I can’t, I can’t, I’ve stepped too deep into the shame spiral’,” she said, adding that she was experiencing suicidal thoughts.

“That’s real and that’s the toll it takes. That’s the price of shame. And so that’s why I wrote that open letter. You know, I’ve got a sense of humour, I can have a laugh.”

Though she said she could “make jokes” about the pressure of being in the spotlight, the media had “a lot to answer for” after publishing a photo of her with a bong when she had made it no secret that she had managed her trauma and self-harming behaviour with drugs.

“The media has a lot to answer for where it directs its shame. There is a disproportionate amount of shame that is still pointed towards people who do not understand yet what has happened to them,” she said.

“And that shame needs to be pointed squarely, not (at) these people who are trying to figure out what the f**k happened to them, it needs to be pointed at the perpetrators of domestic violence, of sexual assault and child sexual abuse.”

Ms Batty, who has campaigned for domestic violence reform following the murder of her son, Luke, by his father in 2014, said her place in the public eye had been “bittersweet”.

“I think it’s overwhelming. I think imposter syndrome. I think, ‘all these people I’ve (been) nominated against, you know, have done amazing work for decades. Who am I?,” she said of receiving the Australian of the Year award in 2015.

“I always felt very conflicted. Am I just getting this award because my son was murdered?”

Ms Batty said it took her many years to process her grief and had poured herself into her work to avoid the “deep trauma” of her son’s death.

“I was so afraid of failing and not being good enough or perhaps overcompensating and poured myself into it,” she said.

“I mean, this is eight years since I lost Luke. And it is an overwhelming journey.

“I had a sense of purpose and meaning that gave me a reason to get up every day. So ultimately, it was my drive. It was my reason to keep living. So I would never change that.

“But what it did do was isolate me, disconnected me, and I couldn’t understand why people didn’t keep in touch with me anymore.

“I can tell you during the first year of Covid lockdown when other people were working out, and feeling dissatisfied or frustrated or pushing back on government restrictions, I was finally choosing which urn to put Luke’s ashes in. And it was uncomfortable and it was painful, but you have to eventually sit with pain. And we do avoid it, we drink, we smoke, we take drugs, we do anything to avoid pain.”

Ms Tame also spoke about the backlash she faced over a campaign she was involved in to fight for women’s rights, after complaints emerged that it featured too many white, middle class faces.

She has urged feminists and progressive campaigners to avoid exclusionary language and said she was still learning about the language and history of feminism.

“There’s been a lot of criticism, and that’s part and parcel of the landscape. But, you know, people bring their heart and soul to this. And there’s a lot of trauma in it,’’ she said.

“I’m accountable for my mistakes. And that’s one thing that I’ve tried to do as best as I can, especially as someone who, you know, I didn’t go to university. I didn’t do gender studies. You know, and I don’t have as good a knowledge as I could have of feminist history, and all the terminology, but I do my best to understand and to learn.”

Image: Roy Vandervegt / Adelaide Festival

This article first appeared on OverSixty.