Andrew's life has been marked by immense challenges. As a forced adoptee, he endured a difficult start, followed by psychological and physical abuse at school, leaving him deeply affected by complex trauma.
At 15, Andrew turned to alcohol, and by 20, he reached a point of despair, owing a significant debt and resorting to robbing his own family's house, even attempting suicide. This triggered a path of destructive addiction as he used various substances to escape his pain.
Due to his addiction, homelessness and imprisonment became part of Andrew's life. The weight of his past experiences made life unbearable, devoid of meaning.
However, Andrew's journey took a positive turn when he finally embraced change and committed to healing. With no other option, he confronted his addiction and trauma head-on. Since 1994, he has been involved in the AOD field, dedicating 17 years to Corrective Services NSW. Andrew now shares his story to inspire others in similar situations and devotes his time to helping them.
Darcy Milne (0:00)
We acknowledge the lives lost to suicide and recognise those who have survived suicide attempts and those who struggle today or in the past with thoughts of suicide, mental health issues and crisis situations. We acknowledge all those who have felt the deep impact of suicide, including those who love, care and support people experiencing suicidality and those experiencing the pain and bereavement through suicide. We respect collaboration with people who have a lived or living experience of suicide and mental health issues and value their contribution to the work we do.
The trauma that I experienced in my life and what I went through in my life really disconnected me from myself, so the only experience I could ever get feeling okay was when I had that drug hit my brain.
Darcy Milne (0:44)
Welcome to Holding on to Hope, the series that shares the stories of everyday Australians that have experienced moments in crisis and found a path to support. Whilst all of the stories shared of hope and inspiration, att times, you may hear something you find triggering. If you or someone you know needs crisis support, please phone Lifeline on 1311 14, text 0477 1311 14 or visit toolkit.lifeline.org.au for Lifeline chat service, which is 24/7.
Ruben Mackellar (1:17)
Hello, and thank you for joining me. I'm Ruben and I'm a volunteer telephone crisis supporter at Lifeline. I'm one of the voices you may hear if you call for support. At the age of 15, I lost my dear father to suicide. Ever since that fateful day, I always wished my father had the opportunity to talk to someone like me when he needed it the most. 13 years later, and four years into my journey with Lifeline, I'm now part of that opportunity and this is why I'm so passionate about hosting this series. If you're not quite ready to talk, perhaps you will find comfort by listening to the stories of people who have experienced the value of reaching out for help. Today we have a very special guest with us. Andrew's life's journey started with a difficult beginning as a force adoptee at birth, and he later experienced psychological and physical abuse. As a result, Andrew is left with complex trauma that affected him deeply. At the age of 15. Andrew used his first drug, which was alcohol. And at the age of 20 he found himself in total despair, owing someone $300, which felt like 3 million at the time. He robbed his family's house and made an attempt on his own life. From that point on. Andrew continued on a path of chronic self-destructive AOD addiction, using any drug to the maximum as a continuous attempt to escape his pain. Andrew's addiction led him to a life of hopelessness and imprisonment. But he never felt like he hit rock bottom because he always felt like he was already there. Andrew's journey took a turn where he finally let go and was willing to do whatever it took to get well. Since 1994, Andrew has worked in the AOD field dedicating 17 years of that time to Corrective Services New South Wales. He continues to share his story to give hope to others in similar situations and dedicates his time to helping others. Andrew, thank you so much for being with us today. We're obviously very happy to have people that are willing to share their story. Can you tell us a bit about your experience as a forced adoptee at birth? And how has it impacted your life journey?
A lot of times I share with people about my story or I always say I was a good kid until I was seven. When I was seven, three things happened. I moved towns, I changed schools and I found out I was adopted and I repeated second grade because of my age, not because of my abilities. I could read,write, spell was quite intelligent and quite interested in school and curious. And also the school we went to was quite a violent school. So not from the students, but the teachers said the clerk or the nuns and monks were quite violent at that school. So and I'm not sure how the question of adoption came about. But I imagine there was a curiosity or someone brought about or someone said something. But when I found out I was adopted, it was interesting to put all those things together and then plus the adoption and something happened in me. That's almost like the day my brain changed. And all of a sudden, I thought to myself, well, I'm on my own here. So I really don't have anyone or anything. I remember feeling really disconnected from life at that moment. And it was almost at that moment or at that period of time when all those things went on that I actually went into survival. And I stopped being curious, I stopped wanting to learn. I started doing a lot of started smoking cigarettes. I look at a seven-year-old and I just I can't imagine that kid having a cigarette or going down to the shop to buy cigarettes. You know, I started stealing money or started fighting these kids at school I started getting punished at the school quite aggressively, especially by one of the nuns there. And I was almost getting caned every day so it was almost like those combinations of things but the adoption thing had a big effect. Then I was sort of started thinking, Well, why did I get adopted into this situation? If I was gonna be adopted why couldn't I have been adopted into a better situation. Then I started this idea that it has to be better somewhere else. Then I started watching other parents with their children and other fathers with their sons and I really started to feel like I'd missed out. That belief or that idea grew in me to a point where I did really feel separate from other people. And I sort of almost developed a bit of an outside looking in sort of experience that definitely changed the way I experienced myself and the way I experienced the world.
How did you feel after it happened?
Well, I've been using heroin for a while. I was 20 when I had the attempt on my life and started using heroin. I was late 60s, early 70s, around that period of time. So I had a bit of a conscience and also also like a fearful kid. So I remember thinking, when I was using heroin, I just had this idea that I'm somehow going to become a bank robber like, I'm going to have to go and rob banks. I had a lot of concepts, you know, and the concepts I had of things were my realities. I probably stopped using heroin for a little while and then sort of started again. So I was at a nightjars, I started again, I probably didn't quite have another heroin habit yet. I was getting there. And I remember I went into my parent's room, and I was looking for a box of matches to light cigarettes. And I was going through my father's drawers little wad of money. And I think this would have been in 1983. And I remember it was like it was over $600 I'll grab the money. I went in, and I write down all the notes. So write down x amount of 20s x amount of tanzic. And as far as because in my mind, I was gonna put it back at the time, I didn't think, will I or won't I take it but it was like, I am taking it and then I'm gonna put it back. So there was not like it was a choice. It was like, well, it's there I have to take and then I went and met a friend. He hired a car, we headed off down to Melbourne, we got down to Melbourne, we bought a lot of heroin, we're using heroin, we came back to Griffith where I was living and I remember we went back to his place and we divided it all up into little $100 packets. So we're gonna sell the $100 packets you know recoup the money? Yeah, basically, then everything was going to be okay. And I was walking home and also had a debt. There was a guy I owed money to this guy $300. I robbed up the house, I had this debt. I was back using heroin again getting close to probably getting a habit again, and I was walking through the train yards. I just started to feel this overwhelming sense of just despair and it's interesting the $300 popped into my head and I had this moment I thought God seemed like 3 million at the time I thought how can I do this you know the robbing the house that just the shame and the guilt that I started to experience and I thought I'm never gonna get out of this. I'm in a deep hole like in isolation that's no big deal. But years of just depression years of anxiety years of poor mental health years of drug addiction, nothing sort of ever working out. You know, I had this sense that I didn't belong anywhere I didn't fit in so a pile that on top of the so I've got $800 packets of heroin in my pocket. I'm walking through these train yards. I'm starting to experience these feelings and I just thought I can't go on. I just can't do this anymore. Well, firstly, I'll put all the packets in my mouth just in paper envelopes. So I'll put all the packets in my mouth. I remember I'm sticking to all a roof of my mouth and I couldn't actually saw him and I found this tap and ended up swallowing them and I thought well, when the paper dissolves, there's enough heroin in there to overdose and I'll die. So I kept walking or close to home I found a park at home and I lay again in this pop and it would have been three o'clock in the morning, and someone was jogging through the park, and they stopped and asked me what I was doing. I didn't say anything but still lie. He's dying. I want to die. I don't know why. But I got up there and I actually went home and I went home, I got into bed. Then I went into the bathroom and got some razor blades and I cut my wrists. And my next memory was waking up the next morning with my parents standing over my bed saying, Did you steal the money? And I said, Yes, I stole the money. And they said, get out of the house. And I threw the sheets back and there was like blood everywhere. And I didn't have time to have any experience of the attempt being unsuccessful. I was so intoxicated and like I was so stoned from the amount of heroin they had on board that ended up leaving the house, I went up and set up on the side of the hill behind our house. And then I saw my father's car drive off to my friend's place because I don't know why he, in his mind, he thought if he could go and confront this friend that would somehow make it out, like fix me or appease him or something I'm not sure so, and I sat there for a while I can't remember what was going through my head at the time. But I went back home, I said, I'm gonna get my Medicare card so I can go to the hospital, we sort of stitched me up. Next thing on, I just remember being in his group room, or running a group in there. And I was just still so stoned from this heroin. I could only stand up. And I remember sitting in this group, and I'm not sure what it was about, what was going on. And then the next thing I know I was sort of woke up in a hospital bed again. And then the next memory I had was waking up in bed at home. And then we went and saw a GP and the GP rang around a whole bunch of Drug Rehabs and I got into a drug rehab, and I think I went there like the next day. But at the time through this whole experience, I was just so out of it, that I didn't really have an after experience till probably later. I was 100%, I'm out. I can't stand his life anymore. I can't stand living anymore. But no hope, I didn't see any future for myself. All I felt was guilt, I felt shame. I just felt quite mad and just connected and not a part of anything. Didn't have any reason to want to be a part of anything.
Ruben Mackellar (12:04)
What was it like living with addiction?
It's like living in a frenzy. I think addictions are largely misunderstood. I remember I had my first drug which was alcohol. At the time, I thought it set me free. The drug acted on my brain that just released all the pain, all the tension. I said before that experience of feeling on the outside looking in and sort of all of a sudden it felt like I was in and I definitely fell in love with the experience. Like I vomited that night. Even that night, we actually ran off my mother's car going for a joyride, nearly 50. To be truthful, I didn't actually care about that, what I cared about was having that experience again. It's almost like I'd say I devoted my life to the pursuit of having an intoxication like being intoxicated. I had no control over this. Like I didn't want to be like this. I just wanted to be a regular kid and progressing through all the drugs like drank alcohol, I drank a lot. I drank a lot. And I drank a lot, a lot of the time and a lot of alcohol going introduced in cannabis and everything I did, I said I'd never do. So I said I'll never use other drugs. The day my parents found marijuana in the house, they packed my bags and put the marijuana on my bags at the front door of the house. So they actually kicked me out of the house. It's interesting how different drugs have perceived like alcohol is like fine, it can be blind drunk all the time. No, no bad, gnarly, but you use another drug and all of a sudden, it's like you don't belong in the house. Then I use powders. I certainly never use powders and I use needles, I said I'd never use needles and I used heroin, I said I'd never use heroin. And it's like this progression of the theme. But that initial experience gave me the illusion that I've discovered my true self. But what it actually did was it took me further away from my true self. I had to use more and more and more and more to have that experience again, the trauma that I experienced in my life and what I went through in my life really disconnected me from myself. So the only experience I could ever get a feeling okay, was when I had that drug hit my brain.
Darcy Milne (13:58)
We hope you're enjoying this episode. Lifeline's new support toolkit makes it easier to care for family, friends and loved ones and look after yourself along the way, visit us at toolkit.lifeline.org.au. Now back to the episode.
Ruben Mackellar (14:14)
Can you walk us through the turning point when you decided to face your addiction and trauma head on.
Addiction was first. After that attempt on my life. I went to rehab, I stayed for three months. I decided I really didn't want to be who I was. I wanted to be someone that could use alcohol and other drugs successfully. So I left there. When I first walked into rehab, a woman in that rehab, who I ended up working with later when I work in Corrective Services at a coffee table opposite me in this room in the rehab. And it was the first time in my life that I ever felt understood. And that moment, I think gave me a hope that never left me. I only stayed for three months and I thought well I don't want to do this anymore. I just want to be a normal person. If I don't do use needles, I'll be alright. And I think within two hours of making that decision, we're shooting out Ritalin and have an eight admission into this rehab. The first seven, I decided I had a great plan, and I'd leave. And when I wasn't in rehab, I started going to prison as well. So I was either in prison, I was homeless, I was in the rehab. So that was the three states, you know, for probably about 18 months, the last time, I was admitted into rehab, which was on the ninth of August 1985, was the day before I remember being polyas out of his own ever been in my life, I've been using heroin pills, marijuana and drinking. And I felt fear. I remember saying to myself, that the drugs don't work, because I was like, so out of it. But I still felt frightened. And it was like all the previous admissions into this rehab and all the connections with this peer group of people that I felt understood by and that actually made sense to me. And I actually felt connected to because it's like, I found my tribe, you know, I'd found this group of people that had been to everything I'd been through, and that were great people. They just welcomed me for who I was, and I, my whole life had been rejected for who I was.
Did you feel for the first time that you're making the decision for you? you know, was it something that you wanted to do and what you felt that you needed to do? It was that moment for you?
Yeah, was 100% me doing it for me. And I think the other previous times, I was doing it for myself, but generally, there was an external motivation or the crisis. There was like, you know, there'd be a crisis, but then the crisis would pass. So I thought, well, once the crisis passed, I'll be alright. But there was just there was an inner acknowledgment, like an inner, like surrender within myself, it's almost like giving into a reality. You're running into a brick wall, and you don't give up and just sit at the foot of the wall. Yeah, sort of give in and find a different direction, you know, and the one thing I'd probably done previously was I constantly gave up on myself, whereas this time, I just gave into the truth about my situation, which then opened the door for me to get help. Because until I acknowledge that within myself, I didn't need help, because I knew everything. And I had the answers for myself. But once I surrender to that fact, that I actually don't have any answers, and I don't know what to do. And I need to learn how to live. That's when I was able to accept, you know, the help that was available and then put that help into practice. In my life today, I just practice all the tools that people practice to get better or to improve themselves. And I think dealing with the trauma, it wasn't till I was probably about 10 years drug-free before I even started looking at that. I probably didn't have the capacity or the support in my life to go through that process. And I'm a bit sort of wary when people want to introduce dealing with trauma with people that are fresh out of like a rehab or fresh out of a detox or freshly freshly out of an active addiction or even fresh out of a mental health episode that there actually are you got to deal with your trauma, it's like you need a lot on board. To work through trauma, I needed a lot of ability to self-support, self soothe structure in my life. I know a lot of people around that I could lean on talk to get support from. I needed probably a fair bit of insight. I've learned over the years to support myself as well. Because when you open that door and dealing with your trauma, it's a lead you take off that you can never ever put back on. So it's something that I'm also really wary of when I talk to people, I don't invite them to open doors that you're in this for the long haul.
Ruben Mackellar (16:42)
How was your experience impacted your views on addiction and mental health?
I think of living through it myself and being quite mentally unwell and cognitively unwell. And I think being a traumatised person as a, you know, a heroin user as a, you know, substance user that was sort of were enough isn't enough, it's not well, I can't just use my money, you got to use other people's money and you got to do crime and stuff. And so that person that might have been sexually abused at five years old and ends up breaking into your house as a heroin addictee, you know, like, people don't make the connection. All they see is, you know, some scumbag junkie that's breaking into my house. And I think then to punish that person further, there's like, you can't punish the trauma out of people always love back to life by people who had had been through that experience, and were willing to actually walk that journey beside me. And then to have compassion is a pretty enormous thing. You know, and it's not easy for people to have compassion for people who seem to have done the wrong thing, you know, in the stigma attached to that stuff. So and even at times myself, like, I've worked with people and like, I've worked in prison for seven, eight years with people and I even found it difficult to have compassion and I lost my compassion at times, you know, and I've become judgmental and became critical and became sort of really like what's wrong with you, you know, and even for me lived through that experience to found it difficult to maintain that all the time and I've grown a lot through that and I learned a lot about myself through that experience and really knowing now that it's there's nothing wrong with me. There's a lot of stuff that it's what happened to me was the issue and now when I see people off people coming through, I don't think we're what's wrong with you I just often in my head, I just think, well, I wonder what happened to you. Then I can get curious about that. And I can ask about that. And I can then be in putting myself in that person's shoes. And the idea you can just sort ouf snap out of it, and just sort of get better, it takes a long time for some people to reach out and get help because some people are in their in their mid 30s, late 30s, early 40s so it takes probably a long time for people to reach out and get help, especially for people that are difficult, people with mental illness you know, we are difficult. We're not easy to work with. I don't know what I'm doing. Sometimes, when I was in those situations, so how can someone else know what I'm going to be doing? I think there's a lot of people in our society, a lot of people who have an enormous compassion and have an enormous wisdom around these sort of issues. I think it's growing and expanding all the time. There's people that don't. So it's not that everything is always perfect or everything is always imperfect. I think everything is complicated and confusing. One of the greatest things I've learned working with people, I call it 50-50. I can give 50% and I can give that line and I'm there for people to turn up with 10%, 20%, their 30%, 40%, 50% of the relationship. If they give 10% that's not good for me or them for me to give 90. Just keep turning with my 50% and if they give 10% great. Then the next time they might give 11%, they might give 12 or 15 or they might not turn again at all. They might just wonder and go do something else. I've got to understand, it took me a long time to understand that I can't fix people. I can just be valuable to people and I can show people respect and compassion. It might only be a little thing, just being nice to someone that's in the situation, just letting someone talk and listening and letting them know they are actually heard. Like I was that one day that I first walked into rehab, even though it took another 18 months and a lot of prison and homelessness and drama in between. But that planted that seed and I was able to get better. So that person, no, no, no one in the world could have fixed me that they are available just long enough for me to have an experience within myself that that said, there is hope. I think that's so important. I don't know if we'll ever understand mental illness and addiction. I think a lot of people try a lot of people throw things at it. There's a lot of miracle cures all the time around this that now that I don't know, just think trauma and addiction, I think they've probably just part of the human condition. And it's something that I think we can definitely get better at. But I think compassion and understanding are probably the two most important ingredients in understanding that, you know, think judgment, punishment, criticism, stigma, I don't think there's that's ever going to work.
Ruben Mackellar (20:57)
What do you do in your day to day life, Andrew, that helps manage the frequency and severity of the difficulties that you may have.
I still do meetings regularly. So I still do support groups regularly. And I'm active in those support groups, I do services and like, I host meetings on Zoom. And, and I'm involved, I actually support other people in those programmes to actually work through those stuff. So you know, so I'm available in that sense, by going to therapy once a week as well. So soon a psychotherapist now for a long time, I guess it's sort of, there's a bit of a principle, like that sort of adjustment today, like I try to really live life really simply, I totally get up in the morning, I take a bit of time, you know, I'll go and my thing is I just my ritual is not going to walk the dogs, you know, let them run out in the desert, and I just take time to just reflect on where I'm at, you know, I try to connect with where I'm at, just like basic things I've tried to be honest, I you know, try to keep my mind open to things, you know, I try and stay willing to act in ways that are, that are not old ways, you know. So it's very easy to go back into old patterns now, especially when I'm feeling threatened or feeling insecure, or feeling like I'm under pressure. So it's always it's easy to do default survival protection, things that are set up that are so sophisticated. And they promise a lot, you know, but the thing is what I've learned over time that recovery is delivered what drugs promised, I guess I keep trying to live in the delivery, practising those tools of just being patient and just making sure I have contact with someone every day, making sure that I take care of myself eat well that I you know, that I actually clean up after myself, like the basic domestic things, I'll go through all that stuff, definitely don't even notice I'm doing it. And some days, it just seems like an effort to clean my teeth, you know, so they're the days that I've just got to just go alright, this is just a day. So and especially in the therapeutic process, sometimes you get a lot of stuff come up or working with people and, and this triggers everywhere things living as a traumatised person and a recovering person. There's, it's not like it's, it's never ending, but you just get moments where you need to actually just take time and just go, Okay, this is a tough day, or this is a tough moment, or, you know, sometimes I just forget, you know, I go for three days, and I just forget that I'm supposed to take care of myself. See what happened over the last three days, you know
Ruben Mackellar (23:46)
I agree, you know, like, sometimes the way things are, it can just, you can just feel like a bit of a blur. And, yeah, to have that ability to we use the term you know, self care or love using it, the fact that you can give yourself that I think it's amazing, and what works for you works for you even take the dogs out, you know, I haven't been to Broken Hill myself, but I'm sharing, that's probably a different experience from walking the dogs in the suburbs, not that I have a dog, but I used to have a dog, that unique experience that you get, I think it's good, and you got to cherish that
My term for self care has come home, you know, and I think my practice now is just to stay in my body, and then stay with myself, you know, and I think what I did in a sense is like I picked up where the perpetrators left off, I became the person that was hard on myself and I became that person who was critical of myself. So, you know, so and part of that was about, like, constantly living outside of my body. Today, more and more and more, I'm able to stay in my body, which is where everything is where the hope is where the passion is, but it's where the insecurity is, it's where the fear is, it's where so it's like, if I go into a situation where I have a bit of social anxiety, I don't leave the social anxiety in the car and try and pretend to be okay, I walk into the situation with my social anxiety, we're all going to this party, not just the pretend confident person, we're all going to go into situations if I'm, you know, fearful or anxious or whatever, I go, Well, we're all gonna go, you know, because that is part of who I am. So I'm learning to integrate all those parts of myself. So all of me goes everywhere. And that for me is my, where I'm in my strength and where I feel the safest. Whereas once upon a time, I thought my job was to pretend to be someone else. So I wouldn't get in trouble. I wouldn't get punished, I wouldn't get hurt, you know. So, today, I don't need to do that, you know, because I can take care of myself and I am a safe vessel for myself. But that's taken a lot of work. You know, a lot of tears.
Ruben Mackellar (25:15)
What advice would you give to someone who is struggling with addiction or trauma and is afraid to seek help?
Well, that's a big question. Yeah, yeah. Well, the one thing I would do is to probably say to someone just to look within yourself, and ask yourself what you really, really want, and then find where you can get that need met. And don't give up if you don't feel understood the first time or you don't feel like you're getting in He met the first time like a try. And I think, to value yourself as someone that deserves to have peace. And then the other thing I'd say, once you do start this journey, it's one thing to get help, then I think the most important thing is be willing to do the work that will help. It's easy to try and avert a crisis or to get into a situation where you can get a moment of help and support. But then when the crisis passes, to give up on yourself, and then just let the always sort of take over again, I think it's important not to give up on yourself
Andrew, I did want to say thank you so much for today. It's been absolutely amazing being able to hear you and hear your story and be a part of it. And I'm sure our listeners or watchers will absolutely adore being able to hear you and hopefully connect with your story as well.
Thank you, Ruben. Yeah, and thanks, everyone that that sort of put this together. And it's been quite an emotional and humbling experience for me, you know, I've just yeah, I've just felt really privileged to be in a position where I can actually do this because many, many years ago, I didn't think I could actually own a pair of shoes, let alone be able to have been given such a gift that I can actually share. Thank you.
Darcy Milne (27:01)
Thanks for listening to Holding on to Hope the podcast. Lifeline is grateful to all holding on to hope participants for choosing to share their personal lived experiences openly and courageously. In order to offer hope and inspiration to others. Your act of kindness makes for a better world. And remember, you don't have to struggle,visit toolkit.lifeline.org.au today.