To be honest, I never felt like I’ve ever belonged. From a young age I suffered with learning difficulties. When I first went to school I always felt that I was different and I lacked a lot of confidence. I had a lot of social anxiety too, so when I was around people, I just wanted to crumble. I just wanted to disappear into the back of the wall and just not be there.
My mum and dad worked really hard when I was young. But the result of that was I was left alone a lot. I hate being left alone too much. My mind ticks over too much; my thoughts just go in circles and in a constant flow of thoughts.
When I was about 13 years old, it was the first time I ever drank. And I remember it like yesterday because that shy boy, who lacked confidence speaking to girls, who had insecurities about being in social situations completely disappeared. And I became the life of the party. I became the person who had all the confidence in the world. My thoughts slowed down and for the first time in my life, I was at peace.
I remember getting home that night, blind drunk, vomiting everywhere and blacking out. But I also remember waking up the next day thinking how much I loved it. And then from that day, at 13 years old, I drank every weekend.
Meanwhile, at school, I wasn’t getting help or support and was constantly getting into trouble. But the more trouble you get into, the more you get put into environments you probably shouldn’t be in. You get pushed into classes with kids that are also in trouble, and who are usually into the wrong things. I started using ecstasy, partying all the time, sometimes going for two to three days at a time. This went on the whole way through high school. I’m a deep, deep thinker, and I worry a lot about things. But when I took drugs and drank, I didn’t have any worries at all. I could be out for three days and not care about anything. But I’m equally really hard on myself, so I would hate myself afterwards.
As a kid I played rugby league. And whilst the game was probably my greatest teacher in life, it was also detrimental, because it once again put me in unhelpful environments. Around 17 years old, I had my first line of cocaine. And it was the best thing in the world. I fell in love straight away and continued using it for the next ten years whenever I could get hold of it. I started out doing it with mates before buying bags to do on my own. It got particularly bad when my Pop passed away. He was my closest friend. If I wasn’t on my own as a kid, I was with my Pop. When I was with him, I felt 100% like myself. So when he passed, I spiralled right out of control because I had no self-regulation and no identity of my own.
I started using drugs as often as I could, whenever I could get them. And what started as something fun that I was doing with friends turned into hanging with people that I never really liked or knew well. It was that whole identity crisis thing rearing up again. I would hang out with my footy mates and be the footy player. Then I’d hang out with the bikies and I’d be a tough bikie. I would fight people, rob people. I would do all these things that completely ripped me apart inside because it’s not who I was, but I did them because I felt like that’s what I needed to do to survive. I put myself, my family and friends in bad situations.
Around 27 years old I had one of the scariest moments of my life. I was doing drugs by myself in the back room of my parents house; completely frantic. I was ready to go, I thought. I had attempted suicide in the past, but this time, I was properly ready. I was pacing back and forth in my room when I just happened to catch a glance of myself in the mirror. I don’t even know how to explain it, but it was like an out of body experience; I didn’t recognise who was looking back at me in the mirror. People often say they didn’t recognise themselves, but I truly thought there was a stranger in the room with me.
Seeing that person scared me enough that I ran out of the room, and as I started running out and up the stairs, my dad started running down. I grew up in this tough rugby league scene where we were told ‘don’t you dare show weakness. Don’t you dare cry’. And that’s what I believed. But that day I ran straight into my dads arms, and it’s the first time I had cried in about 15 years.
My dad was great, and he’s been my biggest supporter. He was the one who got in contact with South Pacific Private, although I was very reluctant to go. I think everyone who walks in there probably is, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt as anxious as I did standing at the front of those doors that day. I had put myself in some pretty difficult situations while I was drinking and drugging, but that moment was the hardest one of my life.
After I was admitted, I was taken upstairs and the first person who spoke to me was a guy called Sam*. He just walked up to me and he told me his story. And his story was just like mine. So for the first time in my whole life, I felt like I belonged. I had never felt a connection to something or someone like that before. It’s funny, I read this thing the other day that said ‘the opposite of addiction is connection’, and that connection with Sam was what really helped me. He didn’t offer me any advice. He didn’t do anything. Just shared his story. But I owe a lot to him because I truly believe that interaction saved my life. For the next few weeks I committed myself wholeheartedly to the program. I actually wrote in a diary every night, and I often go back and reread it to see where I came from.
I met people at South Pacific Private and later, in the rooms of NA and AA that are such great people. What I want people to know is that they’re not junkies. They’re not gross. They’re people that have just made really bad decisions, and that’s what South Pacific Private taught me. Not to make assumptions about people, and to get to know people on a deeper level. After speaking to Sam that day I knew I had to be there and I knew I had to invest myself wholeheartedly in the people.
I was so afraid when I arrived at South Pacific Private but when it came time to go home, the fear was back. So for the first six months of my sobriety I followed my safety plan like no other. I didn’t go near my triggers and I hung around a lot with my dad. I stuck close to the people that were really close to me and I also found running as a hobby. I had to stop hanging out with people that were pushing me to do bad things. And unfortunately as a result of that, I lost a lot of friends. A lot of people from my old life left me in the lurch and I had to rebuild myself from the bottom up. It was a day by day process.
Today, I’m over 1600 days sober. Before South Pacific Private I would usually get to about 6 days, and say to myself ‘look at me! I’m killing it!’, before sliding back again. Not once did I think for a second I’d be sitting here with over 1600 days sobriety, but I often remember that saying from AA meetings; that it’s a one day at a time thing. I live by that statement. So just because you have a shit day today, it doesn’t mean that tomorrow will be too. I’m sober today, and I’m grateful for that. I’ll deal with tomorrow when tomorrow comes.
One of the best gifts I received from my time at South Pacific Private was allowing me to really connect with myself and others. While I was in treatment I had a really strong spiritual moment with my Pop. He always wore a pinky ring, and he gave it to me just before he died. I had never worn it before, but I wore it to South Pacific Private. Sitting on my bed, maybe six or seven days into my stay, I was playing with the ring when suddenly his voice came into my head, and said to me “it’s OK Dean, you can take it off now”. And I felt at that moment that I could take it off and finally be safe. So I took it off, and I haven’t worn it again since.
I share my story now with kids because I’m a teacher at a pretty rough school with a lot of domestic violence, drugs and abuse. With the kids, I want to be honest. I want to show them that this is the reality of it, and that I’m living proof that 1) you can get through it and 2) that it’s a really hard thing to do. Because I battle every single day. I don’t ever wake up thinking ‘this is great. Everything’s great in my life’. Addiction is a battle that you have to be ready to face every day. And I’m proud of myself because I do.
*Some names have been changed.
If you, or someone you care about is struggling, recovery is possible. Start by taking a free, confidential self-assessment or call our team on 1800 063 332.