I lost a mate today. My wife and I stood beside him and held his hands as he slipped away after they’d turned off his life support. He was a few weeks short of turning forty-five. I hadn’t met anyone like Tony*: tough on the outside with all the signs of wear that a hard life brings but soft on the inside, like a marshmallow. He was also a very good cook. I seriously think that the Chicken Cacciatore he made at our place was the best I’ve had. He was very funny, with a great sense of humour and was a very good conversationalist – in fact, the perfect dinner-party guest – except that he was a little shy of large groups.
I heard a guy on the radio the other day; he was one of the teachers who’d worked in the state prison system and had recently been sacked by our government, in order to cut spending. His worry wasn’t that he’d lost his job but that so many people – mainly younger men – wouldn’t get the chance to build something good from their broken lives.
He said that there are some pretty rough, hard and nasty types in prison but that they only made up ten to fifteen percent. He reckoned that the rest were basically good people who’d had a rough start to life.
Tony had had a rough start; he’d been caught in a web of abuse as a young teenager. By the time he got free he was addicted to drugs and alcohol. It messed with his head and his heart so much that he spent literally half of his life in prison, mostly for drug possession and petty crime. He learnt to read and write in prison.
I’ve heard said that if people really wanted to change they just have to make a choice and that prisoners have it too good. But that’s usually said by those who haven’t seen the real stories of trauma, drugs and addiction. I’ve lived long enough to know that we make most of the choices in our lives not based on what we know, but what we feel; and if what we feel deep down is pain, then we just want to make it go away, so we often turn to alcohol, or drugs, or gambling, or sex, or food – even work – whatever will numb the pain.
Tony had been through numerous rehabs and treatment programs over the years; some had been mandated by the court; others he chose himself. Most recently he asked if he could stay with us because he desperately wanted to get clean, break the cycle, get into a rehab out of the city and build a free, whole life.
He did well and was enjoying life and doing new things like paddle-boarding, surfing, even visiting the art gallery with us, which he described as one of the best nights of his life.
We had many conversations over the years that we had known each other. He confided that for most of his life he hadn’t been able to open up about the abuse he’d suffered as a kid. I found it appalling that the first time a judge asked him why he got involved in drugs was only last year.
I can’t help but feel that if in his early years Tony had been supported in and treated for the trauma that he had suffered and treated for his subsequent illness of addiction, that his life would have turned out differently. Instead, he was treated as a criminal.
A couple of years ago I had breakfast at the beach with Tony and his son. Afterwards, I watched them both run down to the water and dive in. For that moment it was a beautiful metaphor: the sun was almost too bright, glistening on the ocean, the water was cold and bracing, but they were running into it.
I had tears in my eyes as I watched them, filled with admiration for this guy who was doing it tough, but nevertheless was doing it.
He had been doing so well while he was staying with us, but the place in rehab didn’t become available in time. The pull of addiction became too much and he left us with a text message apologising.
I don’t think he meant to overdose. I suspect that his heart had been too damaged from the number of times it had been restarted and this time was one too many.
I still love that picture of him running down the beach and diving into the light. We love him and will miss him more than he would have known or believed. He was a good man and our world let him down.
*Tony is not his real name