TROY: FROM DRUGS AND VIOLENCE
interview by marie chung
Between the ages of 13 - 21, developmental psychology suggests that our peers and media are our greatest influences. In what is usually a tumultuous time for us, adolescence was one of those journeys that would later shape Troy’s life in philanthropy. Now Troy works with youth in a program that diverts at-risk young people from homelessness and disengagement. He has a family and children and everyday at work, he brings a placid cool presence to lunches. After some passing comments and conversations, his deeper and darker past appeared in small hints. Intrigued, I sat down with Troy and delve into his own experiences and what drives him to do the work he does today.
So Troy when we talked a few weeks ago we talked about your previous employment, you’ve now landed at Melbourne City Mission (MCM), what were you doing prior to MCM?
Before MCM the community organization I was working for was VACCA (Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency) family coaching in the pilot program ‘Family Couching Victory’ . Before that I was at the epilepsy foundation counseling, and then prior to that I was at Disability Justice Advocacy - advocating for individuals with disabilities.
You seem to have created a path around advocacy and disability, why have you chosen that?
I have cousins with muscular dystrophy, they were the same ages as me (a year younger and two years younger) and with them having muscular dystrophy and becoming weaker and weaker, I was explained at age 10 what that condition was and that it was a terminal illness. So I kind of had a very thorough understanding of disabilities and the fact that people’s lives can be short. I chose to help out when they were doing wheelchair soccer or hockey or whatever they were doing at the time. So that’s where I first got involved, most people in the disability sector or the majority have some form of relationship with someone with a disability.
I understand that you were previously retrenched as well, can you tell me about that situation?
Alright well, where do you want me to start?
(laughter) Should I start where things changed? In terms of getting ill, because that’s when things changed in terms of all that.
Okay, well let’s start with when you did get ill…
Okay, so I had a dirt bike accident when I was 13 and acquired a brain injury and had seizures when I was 15. I was having partial seizures at the time not clinical seizures (there are 7 types of seizures which I can explain to you down the track).
My seizures are known as partial seizures where I remain conscious but lose my conscious awareness. I would begin with a feeling of prolonged dejavu before I would lose my conscious awareness - so very difficult to explain unless you talk to someone else with epilepsy and they say ‘yeah exactly’!
It was as if I was stepping into a dream and saying well
‘hang on, where am I?’
Anyway, that’s the type of seizures I was having but I thought it was related to my drug use at the time. So it wasn’t the type of thing I went and spoke to people about , because I thought it was part and parcel of taking drugs at the time. It wasn’t until, um, I was about 24 did those seizures manifest into convulsive seizures - and at that time I was diagnosed as having epilepsy and it was all tied back to the motorbike accident and the scar on that area of the brain.
So from that point on, I wasn’t allowed to work for 6 months and they said I needed to get medicated.
So I had 6 months to do bugger all, which at that time was pretty good but knowing that 6 months was coming towards an end, I applied for a traineeship at a special school and was successful. That was working in a classroom. It was very structured, it was a great place to work at…but I guess that was the first big change, or the beginning of change for me.
I had someone take me aside and kind of say I had two directions to go in. You can look at your friends and keep going or else you have an opportunity in life, where most people don’t, capabilities, confidence, leadership - those kinds of things…and that was all through football and sporting, those sporting capabilities, I was told if I used them outside of sport I would achieve…and I had a moment of clarity during that 6 months as well, whilst working at the specialist school, I decided I should stop being a sook. Working alongside people with disabilities it certainly but things into perspective.
In what way do you mean?
I should stop walking around thinking ‘poor me, why don’t I have this?” A train of thought that was entitled, thinking ‘I deserve this’.
I was there for 6 months, I communicated with the kids I could talk with, half the school kids were nonverbal, though just as capable, but for the first 6 months I guess I didn’t pay those people attention. I mostly interacted with the ones who were verbal, obviously I worked alongside or with those who weren’t, but interacted more with those who were verbal - 6 months down the track I had been at the school for a while learning about communication aid devices for a while - I learnt I’d been disrespectful, or ignorant to them for 6 months!
And that was the change!
How dare I walk past these beautiful people and not show everyone equal attention. That’s what came to me. Everyone deserves to be spoken to equally, everyone deserves an opportunity.
Did you have an understanding you were being ignorant or you had a judgment on them at the time…
No judgment on them, it was more just the fact that I connected with those I could communicate with.
It wasn’t a deliberate act but I need to be mindful I could have stopped there and said ‘hello hello hello’ and I didn’t. In the end I had a lot stronger relationships with those who were non verbal, I can communicate with them using devices, their eyes, pointers whatever it may be, but we can have those conversations.
What I learnt was they are equally as capable but trapped in a body that doesn’t work so the majority of their minds were still sound, depending on the disability would change their capabilities.
What was it like, how did they communicate their internal feelings, and how did you handle that?
Noise, noise, was something that I found strange and unusual. Loud noises, but slowly you understand that’s the way they express themselves, it may be anger, frustration, wanting attention those sort of things. I’ve learnt slowly to read signs, to hear tones of voice and to get an understanding of emotional state during the time, and sign language
So, you’ve picked up sign language?
That’s a good skill, I love that language, with your hands it is so much more expressive.
We had, art therapy, colour therapy, water therapy so there are a number of ways that the children are able to be themselves and flourish, each to their own, they all had the opportunity to flourish as a human.
I mean, do you feel like nowadays attitudes towards non-verbal individuals with a disability, do you feel like attitudes have changed? Or they have opened up or do you feel they are relatively the same?
I’d say they are the same.
I put it down to a lack of public awareness, I don’t think people are deliberately ignorant.
Just like myself, I wasn’t deliberately ignorant but I was only talking to those who I knew how to communicate with, but with greater community awareness…such as you can still walk up and have a conversation with those people, I don’t think we’d have such a big divide. The other thing is people are intimidated, people are scared to come up and talk to someone with a disability, why? I don’t know why. But they are.
Do you think it’s because It’s more convenient to talk with someone who is ‘easy’ to communicate with and it’s too much to ask of themselves to find alternative ways to communicate?
Well, they do have to step outside their comfort zone, so yeah that’s what I put it down to.
What type of work would you typically expect someone with a disability to get nowadays?
Ummm, well I’m coming from a different frame of mind but I think someone with a disability should be incorporated within organizations.
We should be able to accommodate at least one person within an organization, someone with a disability of some form. It’s the simple things that people who are able to easily move around forget. A person in a wheelchair rang me and said ‘Troy I have a puncture and I am stuck , and I have no money’. So for that weekend, that person had to lie in their bed because they had no money to fix the puncture and to get someone to come out and fix the puncture. It costs $70 to fix a puncture on a wheelchair
That seems ridiculous.
It is.That’s a persons with no legs life, independence, everything that lets them be them taken away because they have a puncture, and who takes that into consideration outside of the home? If you get a puncture on your bike, at least you can wheel it home, if you get a puncture in your wheelchair, you are buggered.There is no RACV for a wheelchair.
And just in regards to epilepsy, there is stigma and a lack of public awareness.
I don’t know of many people with epilepsy, but the ones I do , I don’t know if they are open to sharing it.
Yeah, there’s a lot of stigma they are reluctant because people associate epilepsy with mental disorders.
So, growing up with epilepsy you said you coupled that with drug taking behaviours. Why did you resort to taking drugs?
Peer pressure was the start. I think I always had an addictive personality if it be in sport or other activities and studying sociology,
as much as I probably could not have got caught up in that scene I was destined to because that’s the environment I was around and I could have been one of the 3% that didn’t get into trouble and mischief but I wasn’t.
Uhuh, so what were your friendship groups like?
I literally had three completely different friendship groups. There were the friends from school, sport and friends I would hang out with after school.(after school) This group is where all my troubles started.
And in terms of their class and upbringing would you say they come from fairly privileged backgrounds?
The ones after school were from pretty dysfunctional backgrounds.
What about your upbringing, did you feel supported within your family?
Absolutely I was a very fortunate child. So there are no reasons as a child for ... I think there are none, there might be, well, who knows? I was a troubled kid from an early age, I’m not sure why.
Before your accident?
Yeah, well and truly, in grade three I was expelled…or asked to leave.
For what reasons?
I just, I think, they shouldn’t have told me about my cousins being terminal. I was going to a Catholic school at the time and began to question the Christian faith.
And because I questioned the faith I wasn’t a very good student and my beliefs contradicted everything the school was about, to the point where a classroom was set on fire, and I was blamed for it, and it wasn’t me, but I was blamed for it.
So that was why you had to leave?
My parents didn’t believe me either, I said to them, ‘I think you impacted my emotional state’. I was 8-9 and yearning and pleading that I didn’t do this, and no one believed me, which was a pretty demoralizing thing, a big impact.
For me that would be very traumatic..
Bloody oath it was, upon reflection it really was.
Do you feel that if you had had support throughout your school years, you would have stayed more on a conventional pathway?
Nah, this is what happened, what set me off was that I was always a bit of a tough kid at school. Dad kind of said ‘do it like this’ and I did, so I was a bit of a bully, not a bad bully but a bully nonetheless.
Your dad encouraged that? In what way?
Um, he said ‘just do what you have to do’. He said go hit someone before they hit you and they will leave you alone. So that was my philosophy and I look back I’m not proud of it, I was larkish, I was 14 and came home with a lairy haircut, tints in it and all. My father was a big homophobic, he came home pissed as usual and saw my hair and gave me a punch in the face.
Wow, was that common from your father? To be physically abusive?
No, nup…but that, I think was what kind of ..
…Set you off on a different pathway?
Changed my train of thought I guess, I think. It broke my spirit a little bit, but to cop that over a haircut at an age where I was trying to identify who I was as an individual.
How old were you?
That’s quite young. After that did you take drugs and keep playing sport ?
Well, I wasn’t drug taking at that time, I may have dabbled but I wasn’t because I was a pretty keen sports person. After the punch in the face, I trained at Footscray Sports Club, I was pretty good and got an AFL contract offer at 15.
So I was pretty capable sports person, I still had a focus on football, on that side of things I was an angel, pretty good at school, I mucked around but it was friends outside of school where I was trying to be a ‘try hard gangsta’.
So I signed the contract, played for a year, but they started TAC cup, to get drafted you had to go through TAC cup. I had gone through Footscray but they said you now have to do it this way.
I had gotten a tattoo, I was 15… I went to do the TAC training and I didn’t even get a practice match. I put that all down to having the tattoo. There could be no other reason to not get into a practice match. That was my dream and goal, and overnight that was taken away from me. I just thought fuck everything, excuse my French, and I guess that’s where I took on a ‘woe is me’ attitude. I moved towards drugs and violence, mostly cannabis, but violence was an every week appearance.
So if you were to look at yourself reflectively, would you attribute your behaviour to internal inclinations or external factors? What would you suggest people around you could do, to help those who are taking that pathway?
What happened to me was the best thing for me! Someone took me aside politely and didn’t tell me what I should be doing or should do, but pointed out the options that I had, and offered to support me as much as possible in whatever choice I made. He was a very good mentor and I didn’t realize until later that he had been keeping an eye open for me.
I guess given your experience, I am kind of interested in what you think of policing, if it’s effective? Or if you think rehabilitation would be a useful method to address these issues?
For us, we would have thrived on police trying to come in and do something, it would have been like a game, if the police had of come in and tried to do something or implement a proactive program, we would have sabotaged it, done whatever we could to have stuff with the police. In my point of view there is nothing that the police could have done.
How then can you effectively support people who are involved in crime?
Recreation is probably the key for youth, boredom played a huge part of it. If we had something to do we wouldn’t have gone drinking and smoking.
Look, as an outsider I’m just thinking, how do we change perspective on crime? Or do we let people do what they need to do in criminal activity because they aren’t going to respond well to programs and policing?
I think, for me, unless there was something to look forward to, what was the point, we could do whatever, but unless there is a light or something at the end of the road, they have no motivation to do anything. Why should I change? Why should I put effort in, when coppers are going to give me a hard time…I dunno…but that would have been my train of thought at the time…keep the bastards off my back!
It is interesting getting that perspective because we are always trying to figure out what to do and how to reduce crime. But you guys have to be receptive towards those programs as well. Would you have preferred to go down a different route towards the end of your teen years or?
Definitely, if I had my time over again, hell yeah!
That’s what I say to people I work with, I wish I had said it was NO. Learn to say no and you’ll go far in life.
What could have changed for you to go down a different route? What supports could you have had at the time?
Probably my dad could have played a bigger role, when I had my dream and heartbroken, he could have said it is not over yet you can still achieve, it’s just that not going to happen this week.
Better parental support?
Guidance, mentoring, young people aren’t going to connect with their parents. There needs to be someone else who they can connect with that will go a long way. I like the idea of community elders. I know the Pacific Islander elders work with their troubled youth. I think we need something similar to that, how that elder earns that respect is still something to be seen.
So, ideally it would be a mentoring program where you match kids with a person of their choice…I find it interesting that you are now contributing back almost on the opposite end of the spectrum. I understand, that you had a few points in your life where you recognized things needed to change, and now you are back in the community, giving back, what was the biggest reward of that for you?
Working with kids who are the same as I was at that age. There is one kid who I saw at the crossroads and we were able to get him to see a drug and alcohol counsellor, and offer insight so that he could do what I wasn’t able to do, and that’s stand up and leave the friendship group he was in and transition towards people who live a different lifestyle. Therefore he isn’t as exposed to drug as often as he was, which has already halved his drug intake, just by changing groups - so it’s just the little things that ideally add up.
And you have a family now?
Yes I do have a family now, a six and four year old.
Do you think your whole life experience has influenced how you parent them?
No. I’m not a very good parent.
I’ll edit that part (laughter). Why do you say that?
Long story. I’ll be honest, I’m probably a selfish person and when you have children they become the forefront of everything so I guess sometimes I don’t give as much as I should. I need to lift my game as a parent.
That’s honest of you. Troy, how can public perceptions change towards violent behaviour and disabilities, what can we do to better support these in the future?
Look it’s been a journey, a journey that’s taken me from being a very capable kid, who lost his way because of a lost connection with my family. I lost my passion and dream and then set myself on a path of self destruction where anyone and everyone who gave me a hard time or didn’t agree with me, felt my wrath!
Then things changed, I got sick and as I was saying, I got a wake up call, changed my attitude, and gained inspiration again in life. That made a difference, and working with people with disabilities gave me a fresh perspective. Now I am lucky enough to have employment at MCM. I’ve gone through education, disability, child protection, homeless sectors and now working in youth and families, but I’m always going back to disabilities, always always.
So do you plan to be with MCM until you find that path again?
Yeah, I’d like to go back to advocacy - that is where I flourish. I can council, I can be kind and all that, but I think I work better as an advocate for disabilities. I like to challenge the legal side of things and authority too.
And it sounds like you’ve been able to maintain your sense of rebellion within the workplace, which is great.