The decision to take a serious look at my health and lifestyle was not a considered one. In 1998 at the age of 36, I found myself decimated by substance abuse.
Eighteen years prior to this, I had been a high achieving student – duxing my school in the leafy suburb of Mosman on Sydney’s north shore, and excelling in arts and humanities subjects. But by the age of 36, I was on a disabilities pension, living in a housing commission flat in Sydney, working as a prostitute, and doing crime. I had become part of a subculture that was sadly ignorant of self-care issues, where everyone smoked cigarettes incessantly, drank regularly, attended the methadone clinic, popped valium and other pills, took heroin, and worked at night as sex-workers or crims to feed drug habits. I had contracted two strains of Hepatitis C from using intravenously, and had developed a debilitating case of psoriasis, which was further exacerbated by my poor habits. I had firearms hidden in my flat, a gangster partner who has since been murdered (I am told), and I had no idea of how to live in the real word anymore. In short, my health was in a shocking state, and I felt I had fallen apart not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. There was barely a remnant left of the bright and intelligent child I had been – the little girl so full of vitality and enthusiasm before abuse at home disrupted her joy and life.
It is often difficult to fully communicate the brutalities of a drug and prostitution lifestyle. There is the nightly danger working the back lanes of Sydney’s infamous Kings Cross, the copious drug use, and the night-owl mentality. There is the endless cigarette smoking, the harshness of the cold pavement in Winter, and grimy humidity in Summer. There are the pickups by police, the cold and bareness of prison cells, and the humiliation of the court system, halfway houses and refuges. There are the boarding houses where cheap rooms are rented out to welfare recipients at exorbitant prices by unethical owners, who take ruthless advantage of ‘down-and-outs’ because they know they have nowhere else to live except the streets.
There is the earned money that slips through ones fingers and is quickly traded for the next shot of heroin, and there is the utter sadness and grief of emptiness and empty lives, of decent and often abused human beings who have spiraled down into a chasm of self-harm and antagonism towards others.
Most like me, had been abused when young, and carrying those scars, set out on a path of self-abuse as the replication and repetition of self-loathing continued. What one is taught, one learns and then teaches. It is a tragic place to live. This was my life on and off for many years.
In 1998 I actually FELL into recovery and healing. About nine months prior, another prostitute I worked closely with was murdered. It was front page news - tabloid fodder. I had known her quite well and her death shook me. Bit by bit my tough and angrily abusive exterior began to dissolve and the fear at my core could no longer be hidden beneath a brusque and throwaway façade. I was so broken by years of addiction and its concomitant abusive lifestyle, that I attended my seventh and final rehabilitation centre. It was not an active and considered choice. Rather, it had been a slow process of elimination of the alternative over many years, until finally, I reached a point of such desolation that I surrendered to the alternative – which was to change my life – to change everything and go clean.
And how fortunate I was to land at the highly regarded Buttery Therapeutic Community in northern NSW. I knew it was essential to leave Sydney – to remove myself entirely from all that was familiar, so I dragged myself into this strange new world of trees, chooks, group therapy backed up by individual counseling sessions, and a considered approach to diet, community living, and high quality care. Initially I found the process excruciating and painful because I was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress symptoms, and I found relating and communicating with other people an additionally unbearable and difficult task. I spent a year within these facilities, before moving into Byron Bay proper with a renewed but deeper understanding of the need for ongoing change and development as a human being.
It is nine years since then, and I am now 45 and living in northern NSW in the small country town of Murwillumbah - just south of the Queensland border. I am still clean. I am a painter/artist with a growing reputation, and I am seriously committed to my studio practice. My work appears in exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne, and is collected and appreciated as work of substance and depth. I love what I do with a passion.
I am also a partner to a wonderful husband, who despite his human flaws, has done his utmost to help and support me become a woman who lives to her fullest capacity. And most importantly, I am mother to a beautiful 5 year old boy named Elliot.
My son has never seen me in my old guise. He knows me as I am today - a loving mother who trots off to the naturopath, who cuddles him and laughs with him, who takes early morning walks, and who is committed to a life of growing wisdom, intelligence and sensitivity towards self and others. He also knows me as a mother who gets sick quite a lot, who suffers from a tad of depression and goes to therapy, and who goes to get acupuncture and herbs, and who, despite ongoing health issues, takes responsibility for these in a full and meaningful way.
As my recovery from my old life has continued, I have added more and more refinements into my life. However, there have been times when the journey towards a well-rounded life has been almost insurmountable. Damage and trauma from the past has impinged on the present and continues to do so at intervals. And yet I have tried to regard these as signal points – moments or passages that can be embraced and learned from.
The difficult patches have often preceded periods of remarkable emotional and spiritual growth, and have been key periods of learning and also pain.
About three years ago during one such period, a friend suggested I see a Gestalt therapist and I have not looked back. I’ve found Gestalt therapy to be of profound benefit, helping to free me from trauma, and offering me new ways of thinking and viewing the world. It has been an enormously beneficial commitment to make, and I am really starting to understand how a healthy formation of self can be developed and consolidated through daily gestalt practices and new ways of behaving, thinking and approaching others.
As is often the case with people with severely traumatic histories, there can be a somatisation of emotional issues. I have always been a skeptic of alternative therapies, and yet over the past two years I have naturally gravitated towards naturopathy, herbs, acupuncture and a more holistic approach than that provided by Western medicine. After many months of consistent commitment to these practices, I am noticing significant changes in liver function, emotional wellbeing and energy. I have paid particular attention to a refinement of the family diet, under the helpful instruction of an exceptional practitioner. Here in Murwillumbah we are particularly fortunate to have one of the country’s top herbalists and acupuncturists. A visit to her clinic in King Street, Murwillumbah, is a chance for me to heal, learn about health, wellbeing and the absolute joys of living a full life.
And so today, I not only paint and enjoy the delights of my family and friends, but I believe in giving and being of service to others. My newfound values ensure I live a life with a spirit of inclusion and kindness and at the same time uphold a responsibility to self. These days I hold the art of healing and recovery close to my heart and have a profound belief in the capacity of human beings to rise from the ashes - if given the love and the chance each of us is worthy of. Life is good. It is not always easy or kind, but it is full and joyful and good.
Camilla Connolly’s work can be seen at: www.camillaconnolly.com
Read the full article in the Artist Profile in Vol 4 Issue 21