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First Step newsletter: Summer 2021

At this time of year, it would be remiss to not say something like, “Well, it’s been a very challenging year, but we’ve survived and learnt a great deal”, and then reflect on organisational achievements.
So, I’m going to be remiss!

Billed as a time for celebration, Christmas is also a time of societal pressures, social anxiety, revisiting old family wounds, sometimes fueled by alcohol. We would love for all gatherings of family and friends to make the words of Tim Minchin (‘White Wine in the Sun’) true for all:

Wherever you are and whatever you face
These are the people who'll make you feel safe.

But we know that this is not universal. Not by a long way. Poverty, dislocation, substance use and abandonment don’t make for a good start in life, and they don’t make for a good Christmas either.

As we say at First Step, ‘everybody deserves every chance to turn their lives around’, and this is just as true for every family, every friendship group and every support network.

It is our Christmas wish to all our clients, all our staff and all our supporters that you make of this summer break everything that you can. Be kind, listen, hug when the hugs are good, give, receive. During and after lockdowns we’ve all been re-evaluating life a little – let’s do that for Christmas too and make the most of every social connection we have.

And if you know someone who is going to be lonely at this time, please reach out to them.

Please enjoy our Christmas Newsletter.

Patrick Lawrence
Chief Executive Officer

Relationship rebound - a ResetLife client story

I grew up in a typical Aussie home in the ’80s. Big sprawling house. All the neighbourhood kids hanging out together. My three sisters and twin brother playing at the pools in the summer. Family trips to Bright. I had a great family life and a fabulous childhood.

Until I was 7, when my mum left.

In my early-teens, some issues started to emerge for me – even though I looked masculine, that’s not what was inside me. I’ve always had a feminine side.

I was nervous about being around people and fitting in, so when I started going to parties, I found that alcohol could be the lubricant for confidence. But instead of fitting in, I would end up the joke of the party. Once, my brother shaved off my eyebrows when I was passed out!

My drinking accelerated after I finished school, and this was the start of 30 years of alcoholism.

There were a few years in my late 20’s when I felt I was getting my life together. I met a woman, and we had a child together. I went to University to study and was drinking only on the weekends.

But this didn’t last long and soon I was alone, lonely and miserable – and drinking every night. Twice, I lost my license and had to explain to my daughter what the ghastly interlock device on my car was. She was too young to understand, but I was so humiliated.

The first time I tried to take my life, I was admitted to a psychiatric unit and was diagnosed with Schizophrenia. Thirty years of alcohol abuse really pickled me. But I didn’t stop. Until one evening when providence intervened, and I thought: ‘Why am I drinking this? This is foul. What am I doing?’ And from that moment on, I never drank again.

Unfortunately, I replaced alcohol with drugs to fill the void, and that didn’t turn out so well for me. The drugs interfered with my Schizophrenia medication, so I decided to stop taking the meds. I began to hallucinate, I was paranoid, I wasn’t showering, I wasn’t eating, and my apartment had a cockroach infestation. I barricaded myself at home and thought there was a death squad out to kill me. I was frightened and couldn’t trust anyone.

I had hit rock bottom. My dad came, and so did the Crisis Assessment Team. Enough was enough.

Now, I am on the right medications every day, which means I can speak fluently without any voices in my head. I have the ResetLife Program at First Step, which helps me keep accountable to my own abstinence journey. And a long list of people to call for support.

ResetLife taught me about the physiological side of drug abuse. That my brain tried to keep me in addiction, but the longer I was into recovery, the more the logical brain took over and I could rationally consider, ‘Why would I want to take drugs when everything is working right now? Why would I want to take drugs when all of my relationships have recovered?’

All of my important relationships have rebounded.

I have reconnected with my mum. My sisters are more active in my life. My dad continues to be my rock. But most importantly, the relationship with my daughter has flourished. It’s incredible! She is the pride of my life. She accepts me for who I am, and we spend hours on long walks where she shares her stories with me. I feel so privileged that she trusts me! And so lucky to have great people in my life supporting and mentoring me.

I feel so good.

And now I want to get back into society – to work, study and volunteer. My graphic art has been a constant outlet over these years, but I really love writing so am looking at doing a writing and editing course in 2022. And I want to get involved within my local LBGT community so I can give back there too.

Everyone who sees me says, ‘You look so much better’. I have recovered.

ResetLife Client

Silver linings by Dr Basanth Kenchaiah

As I think about a COVID-19 normal world, I am planning to visit family in India, which has been long overdue.

The second wave in India was so intense, almost everyone in my family contracted the virus, many were hospitalised, and two passed away.

Throughout this period, the discussion between friends and family was consumed with concerns for our loved ones. Phones were constantly ringing. We were looking for medical supplies, beds and even cremation facilities as they were hard to find.

It was distressing to be so far away.

Things are looking much better in India, though there are concerns about a third wave with the new variant. I am really looking forward to going back to connect with loved ones.

While Melbourne has achieved the dubious distinction of the most locked down city in the world, and admittedly we have all struggled, I believe we are very lucky to live here. We have had relatively few deaths and our vaccination numbers are high. I find it hard when I come across people who dismiss the impact of the pandemic, even after I have shared my personal stories.

Generally, we would not disclose personal information during consultations, but COVID-19 has been one instance where patients have enquired about us, and our families, and the sharing of some stories have been a benefit to everyone, and a great equalizer.

One of the silver linings for the community has been the wide roll-out of telehealth which is now being made permanent. It has transformed healthcare in a significant way with numerous benefits.

There are limitations and our approach will have to adapt to them. For example, on occasion, all I see is a patient’s face, so it is difficult to ascertain what physical state they might be in. Do they have side effects such as tremors or weight gain from the medications? Where I would once observe the subtleties, I now have to use different skills. Some telehealth etiquettes need to be established so that the consultations don’t occur when people are driving around or sitting in a toilet!

The other silver lining, for me personally, was the birth of my son a couple of days before our first lockdown. At first, I was concerned about the impact of being born into lockdown, but soon realised what a remarkable bonding opportunity I had, thanks to the lockdowns!!!

As he starts exploring the new normal we live in, and we all start celebrating the Christmas spirit, welcoming a New Year, I hope you can reflect on this year, and also see the silver linings.a

Dr Basanth Kenchaiah
Psychiatrist, First Step

A game changer for First Step

We are excited to announce our new partnership with 3 Phase Marketing (3PM), supported by

3PM are an award winning, boutique, digital marketing agency with a big heart and an amazing ability to quickly understand complex social issues.

They get us, they believe in our work, and they care about our clients.

3PM were introduced to us by Director, Con Nakas, who saw the potential in this partnership to be a gamechanger for First Step. Con put philanthropy in action by connecting time, money and people for the greater good.

First Step receives no state government funding to deliver our health services. We rely on the generosity of our community to provide care to our unfunded clients, fill the funding gaps, and support innovation and growth.

Today, the sector is not able to meet demand, let alone what we anticipate it will need over the next 10 years.

This partnership aims to reach a wider audience than ever before, improve our financial sustainability, and grow our advocacy network. Our objective is to find people who believe what we believe, who admire the strength it takes to take the first step towards recovery, and are proud to assist people taking the second and third steps.

This will be a game changer for First Step.

Check out our first campaign together, the First Step Gift Shop.

In our Gift Shop, select a gift option to donate, instead of buying Christmas gifts, and we will then send you an eCard that you can print or email to your loved ones. Give a meaningful gift this Christmas.

We are very grateful to and 3PM for their partnerships.

This is the kind of law I want to practice by Sasie Wijewardana

I wasn’t going to go into law. I was going to be a teacher. I come from a family of teachers – my brother is a teacher, my parents are teachers, their siblings are teachers. I wanted to do something that involved working and interacting with people.

My year 12 teacher suggested I apply for law, but I wasn’t too fussed, because in the back of my mind, I was going to be a teacher.

Needless to say, I’m not a teacher. And in fact, last week sat my final law exams!

About a year ago, I saw in a Facebook group a call out for First Step Legal volunteers. I researched the First Step model and what struck me was that people in Sri Lanka (which is where my family is from) with mental health issues don’t have access to appropriate resources and services, and I was in a position to positively impact this for people here in Melbourne.

I joined the team as a volunteer and quickly learnt that the theoretical knowledge taught at university is different from the practical application. Sometimes we deal with heavy subject matter that takes an emotional toll, but the lawyers are extremely approachable and prioritise supporting the volunteers, which is really comforting.

Spending time at First Step and seeing how closely we work with people with mental health and addiction issues, I thought, ‘yes, this is the kind of organisation I want to work with. This is the kind of law I want to practice.’

I get to work hands on with people, to speak to them and hear their stories. What I’ve seen time and again, is that their circumstances and experiences have led them down the path where they might offend. And I’ve also seen that the way we treat offenders is just not right. We disregard them, throw them in jail, don't care about them. And many people have already gone through such unfortunate circumstances in their lives.

I have now stepped up into the role of Legal Case Manager at First Step Legal, where I am responsible for managing client files, supporting the lawyers and overseeing the volunteers. I am grateful for the mentoring and guidance I have received from the team, and in my new role want to ensure that our volunteers have a positive, supported, experience.

Sasie Wijewardana
Legal Case Manager
First Step Legal