Tony Steenson is a 36-year-old bricklayer from northern NSW. Just a few years ago his life was spinning out of control. This weekend he will be one of the keynote speakers at a men’s conference in Lennox Head.
Tony is now happily married with two children and is passionate about his job. But for a large part of his life he was a heavy pot user, and in his early adulthood he spent eight years on the drug ice, while still working full time.
Tony says, ‘For many years I participated in serious substance abuse in order to cope with what was going on in life and around me. My life was on a downward spiral and my health and relationships suffered greatly. But now, today, I am going from strength to strength and feel the best I have ever felt.’
Having never felt that his story was worth sharing with other men, Tony has come to realise that a significant part of his turnaround has been thanks to his ability to open up and reflect with honesty on what was a truly dark part of his life.
‘Many people associate drugs and drug use with broken families. But my family was a solid country family. We were beef farmers, and my dad was also a bricklayer. My first experience with drugs was with pot at the age of 13. Looking back, I felt uncomfortable around other people, and the drugs were just a way of fitting in, to gain acceptance with my mates.’
But, as Tony says, that innocent foray quickly turned into a daily habit that eventually included heavier drugs, including ice.
‘When I was in my early twenties, I desperately wanted to escape the boredom of my life. I had very little self-esteem. My whole life my dad told me we were ‘just bricklayers’ – and this is how I saw myself. Desperate to escape, I moved to Western Australia and joined a bricklaying gang. But again I found myself trapped in a culture of ‘working hard and playing hard’. All of the guys on the gang were into drugs, and I quickly fell into step in an attempt to fit in. Life quickly became about working hard to earn enough money to support my drug habit.’
The turnaround point for Tony came when he started to realise what an effect his drug taking was having on his relationship with his wife and children.
‘My wife started to make healthier choices in her life. She started cleaning up her diet, and drugs and alcohol no longer fitted in. So, basically, my lifestyle was no longer compatible. I had a choice to make, and at first that choice was to move out. But, eventually, my body was giving me signs that the life I was leading was not right. I tried to ignore these signs, but eventually I could not, and I had to start facing up to the reality of what my life was like.’
Tony sought out assistance from counsellors, and, with the continued love and support of his wife, started to make positive changes.
Tony says, ‘for me it was important to get to the realisation that really my problem was not with drugs. Drugs were the end result. My real problem was the way that I saw myself. I had a lot of unresolved sadness and anger, but could not acknowledge those feelings, and so I used drugs to keep those thoughts and feelings buried.
‘We live in a world where men are told that to have such feelings and doubts are seen as a weakness, as something to be ashamed of. But as I learnt, with help, to express those feelings I started to realise that those thoughts and feelings did not have to own me. After this, it became easier to deal with the attraction to drugs, as I realised I no longer needed them to bury my issues. Talking about things made me realise those feelings I had suppressed were not as painful as I had feared.
‘Many ex-drug users continue to see themselves as addicts, and judge themselves as such. But the fact is that we are not forever addicts. When I look back on those days, I just see someone who was struggling to deal with life, someone who could not feel like they could talk about how they were feeling to anyone. I do not see myself as an ex-addict, and these days there is nothing in me that is even remotely attracted to drugs (or alcohol for that matter).’
Men’s Health – Starting the Conversation is free community event for men, women and children. It brings together professional speakers to talk about the situation with men’s health. But the lineup also includes real, everyday men from our local community talking openly on issues that for most men are considered taboo. Substance abuse, the challenges of single parenting, depression, and living with the challenge of a medically diagnosed heart condition are just some of the stories you will hear at the conference, as these men inspire all of us to ‘open up the conversation’.
When: Sunday 17 November 10am–3pm.
Where: Lennox Head Cultural and Community Centre, cnr Mackney and Park lanes, Lennox Head NSW.