Q: In interviews, you discuss how Anna slipped through the cracks. What changes need to be made to our care systems in order to better help people like her?
Wow, I could write a million words in response to this question! I don’t think readers want me to do that, so I’ll focus on one vital issue. Care systems need to acknowledge that many, perhaps most, people who abuse substances or turn to other addictive behaviours are attempting to mitigate mental pain. It is ridiculous and dangerous to turn people away from addiction support services because their mental health issues are too complex, which happened in Anna’s case. She was also expelled from a residential mental health facility, on her first day there, because she broke the rules by smuggling in prescribed medication in her underwear.
I believe that care providers are beginning to acknowledge that mental health and addiction services need to be integrated, but we have a lot further to go in this area. People can’t truly benefit from programs like SMART Recovery if voices are howling in their heads or past trauma is eating away their self-esteem. We need a team approach to mental illness and addiction care, with a lot more government money being allocated in both areas.
Q: You’ve expressed particular interest in the Be SMART family & supporters program. What is it about that program that you admire, or align with?
‘A mother can only be as happy as her unhappiest child.’
For many years I felt this adage to be true. My heart broke for Anna so many times, it felt like scar tissue in my chest. When she repeatedly declared she wanted to die, and nearly made it happen, and there was nothing John or Katie or I could do to stop her, I couldn’t see how I could go on living.
Finding AlAnon, a 12 step program for the families and friends of people with alcohol addiction, was a great support for me. Although the group did not align perfectly with my beliefs or Anna’s situation, in my guilt-ridden state it was a great comfort to hear the 3 C’s: you didn’t cause it, you can’t cure it and you can’t control it.
I would love to help other families, especially parents, to believe that their own lives are precious and worthy of care. Loving a deeply addicted person is exhausting and heartbreaking. Families need psychological tools to deal with this, something I believe that SMART Recovery philosophies could offer to people like me who don’t fit so well into the 12-step model.
Q: How do you see yourself assisting SMART Recovery Australia as an ambassador – what does success look like to you in this role?
Well, I am just beginning my journey as an ambassador so it’s a work in progress. But this is my dream: to comfort a person overwhelmed by addiction by providing them a safe time and space where they will not be judged, will not be told to be abstinent, but, rather, offered mentorship and tools to deal with cravings during the next few days.
I know what it feels like to be overwhelmed because I have struggled with a food addiction from the age of thirteen. It’s not difficult now to say I ‘struggled with an addiction’, but it took me decades to name the brutal battle that savaged my soul. Before that, I believed with deep shame that it was my own lack of will that caused my problems. During my late teens and through my twenties, I was engaged daily in a vicious internal fight. My waking thought on every single morning was a stern instruction: today you will eat less than a thousand calories. Actually, that would be me being kindest to myself. Too often it was this demand: today you don’t deserve to eat anything, you weak pig. In order to lose five pounds by Saturday you can’t even drink water!
I threw away too many days of my young life because I couldn’t adhere to my own demands, because hunger or panic or fear would drive me to eat a doughnut and then I would scream at myself, now you blew it! Today is a write off, you gluttonous idiot. Go ahead, you can stuff yourself with whatever crap you can find, but tomorrow you have to starve.
If I can help lead a person away from that sort of thinking towards a more healthy relationship with whatever addiction they are battling, then I believe I will be a good ambassador.
Q: The families of those affected by addiction are often left out of discourse surrounding alcohol and other drugs. What can Australia do to better tackle this, and provide support to those whose loved ones are suffering from addiction or mental health issues?
Families need to be seen as a vital part of any treatment team. When we were desperately trying to get help for Anna at psych wards and addiction services and various other agencies, Katie and I were often regarded as an annoyance rather than an asset. Yet who knew this young woman better than we did? Who better could alert the system to her escalating pattern of mental illness, addiction and violence? Because we were ignored, as Anna herself has said, ‘A good man paid with his life … and I’ve paid with my future.’
Let’s stop pushing families aside. Let’s include them as an essential part of the team that helps a person to recover!
Q: You and your daughter Katie wrote a children’s novel about an eleven-year-old boy who swaps brains with his dog. If you could swap brains with any animal, which would it be, and why?
I love this question! And it’s easy to answer … As long as I can remember, when I fantasize about being reincarnated, it’s as an eagle. So I would choose to swap brains with a sea eagle. I’m not sure how the eagle would adapt to my routine of writing in cafes and scouring op shops to find interesting containers to put my bonsai succulents in, but I’m pretty sure I would love the adrenaline rush of spotting a fish from half a kilometre up in the sky and then diving at top speed to scoop it up in my powerful talons.