As I browsed the shelves in my local supermarket, a familiar green label caught my eye.
It’s just a tin of Milo, I tried to tell myself.
But it was too late.
My heart was hammering and my chest was tightening with every breath I struggled to take.
In the middle of my panic attack I felt like I was eight years old again. And I was right back in the room where my life had changed forever...
My childhood had been so much fun until I turned four.
My family owned a farm and I loved playing with the newborn lambs and running through the fields with my sister and two brothers.
Then, one day there was a knock on the door.
It was two Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mum and Dad had invited them in.
“Non-believers will go to hell,” they’d warned, explaining how good the religion was for kids.
Wanting the best for the family, Mum and Dad joined the religion.
Suddenly, we were moving to live closer to Kingdom Hall – our equivalent of a church.
I quickly learned our new life had strict rules. Instead of comics, we read scriptures, and we prayed before each meal.
If we got sick, we’d visit a religious elder before going to the doctor in case we were given blood products or antidepressants, which were forbidden.
We had no TV and I had to wear plain clothes. I wasn’t even allowed to wear coloured ribbons in my hair.
We weren’t permitted to celebrate birthdays or Christmas, either, and couldn’t associate with non-believers.
It was as if the joy had been sucked from our lives.
The school library was my secret escape. There, I read all the books I wasn’t allowed at home, imagining my life was as free as the characters in the stories.
We’d been Jehovah’s Witnesses for a few years when a new family moved to town.
They were in the religion too and had a little girl around my age.
Her name was Alice* and we quickly became friends.
Because Alice’s dad, Simon*, was a religious elder, the equivalent of a priest, we’d go to their house for weekly scripture readings.
When Alice invited me round for a sleepover, I was thrilled.
After playing board games all evening, it was time for bed. I went into Alice’s room and put on my pyjamas. When she joined me five minutes later, she was holding a tin of Milo.
“Let’s eat it all!” she giggled.
As we sat on the bed, chomping away, the door creaked opened.
It was Simon.
We’re going to get told off for eating the Milo! I panicked.
“You won’t be in trouble if you play the game,” he whispered to me.
“This is what I want to do to you,” he sneered, as he touched his daughter.
I was only eight but I knew what he was doing was very wrong.
I froze in fear as Simon walked towards me. Then he touched me, too.
I was so terrified I wet myself.
“If you tell anyone, I’ll make sure your family pays,” he growled, before leaving.
Then Alice turned out the lights like nothing happened. I didn’t sleep a wink that night.
The next morning, Alice’s mum came in and stripped the bed without saying a word. She drove me home and dumped my clothes on the doorstep.
“Tara wet the bed,” she said bluntly.
As soon as she drove away, I started crying.
“What’s wrong?” Mum asked concerned.
Remembering Simon’s cruel threats, I knew I could never say anything.
From then on, I wouldn’t let anyone touch me and I started having nightmares.
Mum was desperate to find out what was going on. But I wouldn’t tell. What if Simon hurt my family?
If Dad suspected anything was wrong, he didn’t let on.
I stopped spending time with Alice. But for the next four years, I still had to attend Simon’s scripture readings.
I’d sit there shaking, trying to pretend I was somewhere else.
By the time I hit my teenage years, I started to rebel. I wore all the bright clothes I could get my hands on and started drinking alcohol.
When I was 14, I argued with Dad about my drinking.
That’s it, I thought. I don’t need them in my life anymore.
Slamming the front door, I left home. For good.
Staying with friends, I started seeing a counsellor.
At first I was able to open up, but I’d fallen in with a bad crowd and had started using drugs to try and numb the pain of what Simon had done to me.
One night I was arrested for stealing. Sat in the holding cell, my blood ran cold when the cleaner came in.
It was Simon
“That’s the monster!” I screamed.
He just walked past, as if he’d never seen me before.
I wanted to die right then and there so I tried to take my own life.
The police got to me in time but, even then, I couldn’t find the words to tell them what was tearing me apart inside.
Getting off drugs, I cleaned myself up and my counsellor convinced me I needed to make a statement about the abuse.
Mum and Dad had split up by now and Mum was stronger on her own.
When I told her I was going to the police about what had happened to me all those years ago, she clasped my hand.
“I’ll come with you, love,” she soothed.
But at the police station, an officer explained I wouldn’t have a strong enough case unless other victims came forward, too.
Deep down, I suspected Alice and I weren’t Simon’s only targets. But getting anyone to testify would be impossible.
Then, last year, the Royal Commission, a formal public enquiry into child sex abuse, called forward former Jehovah’s Witnesses who’d been victims of abuse. That included me.
I was heartbroken to learn that thousands of others had suffered similar experiences to mine.
The Commission concluded that Jehovah’s Witnesses’ general practice was not to report child sex abuse allegations to the authorities, which demonstrated a serious failure to provide safety and protection for children in the community.
While it’s a step forward to recognising what went on all those years ago, I’ll never be able to let it go. Just seeing a tub of Milo sends shivers down my spine, transporting me back to that terrible night.
Now, I’ve started a support group for other ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses so that we’ve got somewhere to talk about what happened to us.
I hope my story will give others the courage to come forward and get help. You don’t have to suffer in silence.