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Terry McGrath – “Giving back”


Hi, my name is Terry McGrath and I am currently the Team Leader at Namatjira Haven. I began my employment here in January 2007, originally as a Case Worker. I have held the position of Team Leader for approximately 10 years. I am also a Registered Nurse. I have qualifications in Nursing, Community Services and Drug & Alcohol including a Graduate Certificate in Clinical Science in AOD. The later is my pride and joy as I was able to go to university for the first time some 5 years after I began employment at Namatjira at the age of 57 thanks to the foresight of our Manager Dian Edwards and this along with my lived experience as an alcoholic in a previous life means I can now boast that I have a framed Certificate on my office wall that says I am officially an expert ex drunk. This if nothing else showed that it’s a myth to say one can’t learn even after experiencing not insignificant cognitive damage affecting my memory and other cognitive functions from being a hard core alky for over 15 years.

In approximately 1986 I was a Resident of Namatjira Haven and I spent 3 months here. Namatjira Haven was the first Rehab I went to. I am a local, born and bred in Lismore and my then AA Sponsor lived up the road from Namatjira Haven and he recommended I come here as I was struggling to achieve any sobriety at that time. I had first been introduced to AA at the age of 23 and achieved some 5 years of so called sobriety during which I got married and had my first son and did my hospital based Nursing training at Casino Memorial Hospital. My marriage broke up and while I stumbled for a few more years I eventually succumbed to alcoholism and then went through 10 years between the ages of 30 and 40 where I attend 6 different rehabs, many hundreds of AA meetings, many psychological appointments and read just about every self help book on the planet before somehow I managed to get my act together enough to get back to work in the 90’s. I did this via Tafe and entered the Community Services in Youth and Employment services. Prior to beginning work at Namatjira I had spent a year out of work nursing my mother in her last days. During that year I did a Cert 4 in AOD via Oten online and just after I completed all the needs regarding mum’s estate lo and behold a job appeared at Namatjira. I have been now a Registered Nurse for almost 40 years, luckily keeping my registration through those very difficult blurry years.

I remember driving up the driveway to the job interview and feeling again the peace I had felt some many years before when I came here as a resident. There is an aura around this place and I realise it is the spirits of the residents who have been here before. They offered a Haven, a place to shelter in the storm that was my life then and a place to repair the sails for the journey ahead. In my drinking days I had graduated to become a metho drinking zombie in a very short time, I was unemployable and alone and had lost the trust of everyone except my mother and a few very dear AA friends then who put up with my frequent relapses and failures to realise the enormous potential I have always shown but never realised.

I am a white fella and while I had come across Indigenous Australians in my nursing work I had never had close contact with Aboriginal people. During my stay at Namatjira Haven I became very close friends with two men from Cherbourg and we had such fun, amidst the seriousness of early recovery, that I still remember those men. There were others too I got to know really well and I have absolutely no memory of any racism at that time. I was accepted, loved and treated with decency by both Staff and other Resident’s at Namatjira. That now is how I seek to treat all who are under my care here now, in a compassionate and empathetic way.

Now I am content that the circle has come full cycle and that I can give back some of what was given to me. I love working here, and while the work is often hard there is always the joy of seeing men get healthy again, after being battered by life, sheltered in the Haven from the chaos that is inherent within a serious Alcohol and Drug use disorder.

I have studied drug and alcohol misuse for most of my adult life in one way or another, formally and informally, and my attitudes have changed considerably from those of years ago. I no longer believe personally that a Substance use disorder is a disease, rather I now believe it is a learned adaptive state, the individual’s way of dealing with major and often chronic anxiety caused by any number of factors including childhood experiences, traumas of various kinds and psychological disconnection from a meaningful and purposeful life. In short a (Substance Use Disorder) SUD is an habitual behaviour that has become overwhelming and all encompassing and one that enables the person to avoid facing their demons which while initially protective eventually means the person’s solution becomes the producer of more anxiety rather than alleviating it. Sooner or later I simply had to face life. Today I do and it’s nowhere near as hard as maintaining a SUD.

Substance use is only one form of disorder – behaviours are by far the most common potential disorders and most are socially acceptable. Shopping, sport, internet, phones, work, money, power, gambling, sex, relationship etc. etc. Those with a SUD are no different from any other human being; that is my firm belief. They just have chosen a way to adapt and cope that is both not eventually non functional but also socially derided and results in stigma and discrimination. For Indigenous men I now serve that stigma sits on top of that created via colonisation and marginalisation and add to that the mental ‘illness’ of anxiety, which is universal in all substance misusers, and they get a triple whammy. My belief is that we do not remove addictions, we simply with self development can change our relationship with ourselves and thence the world, and we can then adopt positive habits instead of negative self defeating habits and in doing that we can then be a part of life and achieve anything anyone else can. We swap habits rather the eliminating them and in that we remain essentially the person we have always been. I believe I am recovered.

There is much I still have to do at Namatjira, but time is running out. At 63 years of age I can look back and remember the doctor who at 30 told me I would not live to 40. So far I have a bonus 23 years and counting and after giving up tobacco smoking some 6-7 years ago maybe I’ll live to a hundred. I have in part Namatjira to thank for being here both when I needed it as resident and also as I need it to give me the employment and security that enables me to face life now without fear. I survived addiction and whatever life throws at me now is never anything as bad as that was and so I do not fear what lies ahead.

Terry McGrath




Dez Hoy

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