real life

When she was 15, Susan Berg's parents and brother drowned. She blamed herself for years.

On a late October afternoon in 1985, Susan Berg joined her parents and her 16-year-old brother on a family boat trip in Victoria’s Western Port Bay.

It was the family’s second time out in the newly purchased boat. A relaxing afternoon on the water.

But within mere hours of entering the bay, Susan Berg’s life would change forever.

As the sun started to set, the family began to head back to the shore to return to their car and trailer. Within minutes Susan’s brother, Bill, noticed that water was quickly filling the boat.

Soon the family were desperately clinging to the hull of the boat in the chilly water.

Last year, Susan Berg spoke to The Project about her experiences. Post continues after video.

Fearing hypothermia, they had no option but to start swimming, as Susan, then just 15 years old, swam ahead to find help.

After reaching solid ground, Susan went up in a search helicopter to look for her parents and her older brother with no luck.

The next morning, their bodies were recovered.

“It was a time of disbelief,” Susan told Mamamia.

“It was like everything that I had known was suddenly ripped out from underneath me.”

After the accident, Susan and her two sisters, who weren’t on the fishing trip, moved in with another family who were friends of their parents. It was a time in Susan’s life that was marred by survivor’s guilt.

“I blamed myself for Mum and Dad and Bill’s death. I was the person driving the boat at the time that it sank. The fact that I lived and they died, it just felt like it was all my fault,” she recalled.

“A few weeks after the accident, we were getting lots of letters from people who had heard about the accident in the newspaper. I got a letter, which said: ‘You f***ing b*tch, your brother went to help your parents and you left them dead, you wh*re.’ And I guess that, for me, cemented the guilt.”

susan berg
Susan with her brother and her father. Image: Supplied.
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susan berg
Image: Supplied.

It was the ever presence of survivor's guilt that eventually led Susan down a "total path of self destruction", leading her into a "destructive cycle of nightclubs, drinking too much alcohol, taking party drugs and feeling totally lost and incredibly sad".

"I was brought up in a very religious household. You don't drink, you don't smoke, you don't do drugs, you don't have sex before you get married – you're a good, decent human being. I basically went against every single one of those rules," Susan told Mamamia.

"I was going out with my sister to nightclubs and I met a guy who introduced me to drugs. I had been brought up dead set against drugs – you just don't go there," she recalled. "But because of the accident, I couldn't sleep at night. I was frightened to fall asleep because I would have bad dreams of boats sinking and people drowning."

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After almost falling asleep in a nightclub, Susan met the man who would introduce her to drugs. Although the man insisted he had just given her prescription drugs to help wake her up, she later learned that he had slipped speed into her drink.

"When I had finally found out what he had done, it was too late. I felt the effects and I thought it was great and I was ready to try again," she said.

In the years that followed, Susan faced a string of incredible challenges including sexual assault, death, cervical cancer, and domestic violence.

And after entering a relationship which soon became physically and emotionally abusive, Susan fell pregnant at 19 years old.

READ: The words that shocked this woman to act: ‘He’s unstable. Leave now.

"It was like walking on eggshells in that relationship," she recalled. "You always have the fear of what was going to happen."

After almost two and a half years together, Susan left her relationship and embarked on yet another challenge – single motherhood.

"It was bloody hard," Susan recalled. "I was just a kid trying to bring up a kid. I was 20, none of my friends had kids and I had no backup support."

But despite the challenges of raising a child alone, Susan still remembers the birth of her son as a huge turning point in her life.

"It kind of gave me a reason to live again. Before I had him, I didn't care if I lived or died. I was so unhappy and lost," she said.

"It gave me a family to belong to again."

susan berg
Susan and her son, William. Image: Supplied.
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Susan with her son, William. Image: Supplied.

For Susan, her introduction to motorbike riding in her thirties was yet another turning point in her life. It gave her a new challenge and an invaluable opportunity to simply think back on her life while riding through country and coastal roads.

Then, on one particular ride with a group of friends, tragedy struck when one of Susan's friends was hit by a car travelling on the wrong side of the road. Susan's friend, Kev, was killed instantly.

"Kev hit the car and his bike exploded into flames," Susan recalled. "I was right behind and I had nowhere to go."

"The heat and the brightness of the fireball was just extreme... I couldn't see anything and all I could feel was the debris of his bike hitting against my body," she added.

"I think that accident – he was such a beautiful man, he had a wife and three children – it affected so many different people.

"But I guess with that happening, although I had already made great progress in becoming happier, I think that that accident made me really stop and look at how quickly life can be over. It made me focus on the positives instead of the negatives and I've really done that since."

The accident led to a significant shift in Susan's mindset and after writing her book, The Girl Who Lived, she was challenged to face her fear of swimming.

For 30 years after the boating accident, Susan didn't go anywhere near water.

In fact, when a man suggested that she try to face her fears by swimming in the Lorne Pier to Pub challenge, she didn't even own a swimsuit.

As she began to prepare for the challenge, the first few months of training were incredibly tough.

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susan berg
Image: Supplied.
susan berg
Image: Supplied.

"My anxiety was through the roof," Susan recalled. "I would do one lap, stop, wait four minutes for my heart rate to come down and then do another lap."

"After four months of continuing like this, and feeling like I wasn't getting anywhere, I went to my doctor and asked if I could take Valium before I swam. While I thought it was a good idea, she thought it was a terrible idea. She said that I really just had to persevere."

After Susan's coach began to work with her on an emotional basis, her relationship with water soon changed.

"One of the things he said that really helped me was he said, 'Instead of looking at the water as something traumatic and claiming the lives of your parents and your brother, look at it as if every time you're entering the water, you're being reunited with your family,'" she recalled.

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"I think that was the first step to healing with water. As time went by, I was managing to do more and more and I was getting further. I was getting less and less stressed," she continued.

"Eventually, I got to the point where I was able to swim without having meltdowns."

susan berg
Susan after the Pier to Pub challenge. Image: Supplied.

In January 2017, Susan completed 1.2 kilometre Pier to Pub swim.

"Completing that race, I felt so proud of myself," Susan said. "I felt that Mum and Dad were with me on the swim and I felt that they would have been proud of me too."

Since then, Susan has joined a relay team in swimming the English Channel, and this month she's competing in a 19.7km open water swim from Cottesloe Beach to Rottnest Island.

Susan Berg's book, The Girl Who Lived, is available to purchase online. You can find out more about Susan on her website or on Instagram.

Feature Image: Supplied.

For more on this topic:

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.


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