The solution to Australia’s drug epidemic starts with a conversation

“Did Steve Morris block me because I beat him in a gif war?” I asked my Facebook friends. The reply came from Steve’s wife-to-be, “He said you got a one month ban.”

Typical stuff. We niggle each other all the time, me and my five-eighth. My “employee”, Steve (he hates it when I call him that). Mostly it’s good fun but when you cover more than 15,000 clicks side-by-side in a car and share countless nights in motels together, you can get on each other’s nerves a bit. So why do we put ourselves through it all?

Steve and I are co-founders of Brothers 4 Recovery (B4R). Our not-for-profit organisation is now more than a year old and while there have been a few tough times, straight up, it’s a dream come true for the both of us. We intend it to be our life’s work.

Jeff and friends eating dinner

‘We both did time (me at the age of 18). And we both put loved ones through things that we sorely regret. But we’ve faced up to our mistakes and turned our lives around’ Photograph: Jeffery Amatto from Brothers 4 Recovery

B4R is all about starting and facilitating conversations around the difficult topics of drug, alcohol and gambling addiction through sharing our own stories. Conversations are powerful. Conversations and storytelling have been part of my people’s culture for more than a thousand generations. And conversations are at the core of B4R.

Steve and I have both been deep in addiction. I won’t bore you with too many details but you can imagine most of the classic stereotypes that those deeply addicted to drugs, alcohol and gambling suffer through.

We both did time (me at the age of 18). And we both put loved ones through things that we sorely regret. But we’ve faced up to our mistakes and turned our lives around.

My turning point came from a conversation with my cousin BJ. He saw the mess I was in after 14 years in heavy addiction and he knew a few family members and friends who’d turned things around at a place on the NSW Central Coast called The Glen. “Good rehab,” he told me almost eight years ago, “Indigenous focus, good men.” Simple as that. From that relatively short conversation, I got on the road to recovery.

I’ve been proud to build my life up in the years since. I’ve earned good money working hard on the railways and provided for my family. But B4R has taken things to a new level. Over the past 12 months I’ve jiu-jitsued (if that’s a word) the worst years of my life into ones that I now share with others to educate people about addiction, how it happens, what it can do to your life and, importantly, the pathway out.

I dropped out of school at 14 (Steve likes to gig me about my spelling and grammar). But when I was at school, I didn’t get any education around addiction. Perhaps there was some and it just didn’t make an impression. But Steve and I have now spoken to thousands of kids and the impact we make is undeniable.

Some people think I look a bit rough (though I reckon I’m a solid eight out of 10), and Steve is covered in tattoos. We’re messengers with credibility. We tell our confronting stories in a raw fashion, and it’s touching how many high school kids want to come up and hug us after we present.

A huge and unexpected highlight came in November. At the inaugural National Dreamtime Awards I was named “Community Person of the Year”. I was stunned to find myself accepting the award on the same stage as the likes of Stan Grant and Jessica Mauboy (and also my childhood mate, Nathan Towney, who won “Teacher of the Year”).

That night I reflected on both my personal journey and that of B4R. While we’ve come a long way, our dreams are even bigger. So far we’ve mainly delivered to groups who’ve been able to pay us. Our aim is for B4R to develop alternative sources of income so that we can travel to communities who may not have the resources to pay us but desperately need the conversation started.

In the meantime, me and my five-eighth will keep trucking along. This year we’ve spoken at NDIS forums, high schools and jails (it feels good to walk in to a jail knowing you’ll walk out that same day). We’ve even squeezed in one of our favourite activities – a night under the stars with 12 “at risk” boys and community mentors out at Bourke. We then headed further west to Wilcannia and Steve’s country, Menindee (good feed of yabbies out there, I tell ya).

Australia is facing an epidemic around drug use that Steve and I have experienced first hand, and Indigenous people are suffering disproportionately. We don’t have all the answers to these complex problems but we sure know where the solution will start. A conversation.

This article was first published by Guardian Australia on 30 March as part of their ongoing collaborative partnership with IndigenousX

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