DR Karen Demmery, Wiradjuri from Dubbo and Barkindji from Bourke, was kicked out of school in year nine, told she was just wasting her principal’s time.
“I guess after that I was trying to figure out where I fit, and it was really hard,” she says.
“My parents had divorced, I wasn’t sure where I was going or what I was doing, so then I got into trouble with the police, drugs and alcohol, and my life began spiralling out of control.
“My whole concept was that if I got to 12.05pm I didn’t have a drinking problem. I’d sleep late into the morning, get up just before lunchtime, have something to eat and start again, and I told myself it wasn’t a problem.
“Then one day, I was standing in the lounge room, and my son – he was about nine-years-old then – looked at me, and the look on his face clearly said: ‘Who are you, what have you done with my mother?’ and that was the moment I knew that I needed to do something.”
Her son, now 33, is in Dubbo looking after Karen’s mother, as Karen, 53, is celebrating her win as the 2023 ACT Woman of Spirit.
“It’s the first award I’ve ever won,” she says.
“I’m so passionate about what I do now, because I know the impact that it can have and obviously there are more people who are needing help.
“Winning, for me, was the coolest thing, next to so many other brilliant women. We don’t do what we do for recognition, but it’s great when we get it. When they read out my name I started laughing, I was not expecting it and I had no speech written.”
Karen’s continuing to build her own business, to help others in a way she wished she’d been helped all those years ago.
“I became what I had to leave town for all those years ago,” she says.
“When I left town I quit my addictions and went cold turkey. It was the worst two weeks of my life, it nearly killed me. Now I have no cravings, I haven’t touched anything since, it’s just something I have incorporated into my life.”
When Karen first started her business, it was called the Trauma, Leadership, Mental Health and Coaching Institute.
“I know that when you’re in the midst of it, you don’t realise how bad it is,” she says.
“And I’m thankful for my son every day, because I’d have been dead.
“These options for help now, what I am doing, is for my grandkids that aren’t even here yet.”
Once Karen got clean, she began study, which led to a Cert I, II, III and IV, two diplomas, a grad certificate on indigenous trauma and recovery practice, a masters in health, and a PhD in “Women Conversations, Yarning, Connection”.
“It really shows people that there’s possibilities,” she says.
“It’s been a hard slog but it’s been well worth it. What I do now is really about helping people to figure out why they do what they do, because once you know, then you can change it.
“My father passed away on January 1, and the name of his company was Burbirra Boomerangs. He was the only person I knew that had run a business.
“So, when he passed away, I was looking for a change in my business, and the word burbirra means working with wood.”
Karen says it’s now very much a legacy.
“I’d heard a saying which just completely hit me too, in that we plant seeds that grow and sprout shade that people will sit under, that we will never get to see,” she says.
“That’s the legacy that I want to leave, it’s going to impact people well after I’m gone.”
Karen says if people take one piece of advice from her, it’s to figure out what makes your heart happy, and do more of that.
“When I was going through my healing and Brian, my husband, would ask me what I’d want for dinner, I couldn’t even answer,” she says.
“I had been through so much and made all sorts of choices and decisions, I didn’t trust myself any more.”
Karen says she is confident in herself now, and her go-to dinner options (butter chicken).
She is also confident in saying she loved pink way before it was cool.
“The Trauma, Leadership, Mental Health and Coaching Institute had very earthy colours, so when I changed to Burbirra I chose to embrace me, and if you don’t like it, too bad,” she says.
“Everything’s pink, and people love it, and importantly, it makes my heart happy. So, it was really about stepping into that comfortableness and living my values.”
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