Grabbing a tiger by the tail

 by Mark Koehler

This is a condensed extract from a longer Australian story I wrote about a interesting character indeed. It’s a short memoir about a bloke called Jack and his road to self-destruction and back again. He has been brutally candid with me and some of the information is incriminating so details have been changed to protect his identity.

In the Navy in his late teens Jack fell in love with big guns and the red light districts of Asia. It was post-Vietnam and he loved the opium dens.

The world was his oyster. On a Navy Destroyer he was in charge of the big guns but he later found out that other things would become his master. On a visit to Fiji he fell in love with Kava, a mildly narcotic local brew. Alcohol was a big thing and he took to heroin and ‘speed’. The massive on-board guns provided a perfect hiding place for the drugs.

There was adrenaline in his addictive lifestyle. He saw it as if he was ‘grabbing a tiger by the tail’.

‘I’d be smashed,’ Jack says. ‘Don’t know what would’ve happened if we really went to war. I would have been shooting at anyone. Something had to give.’

He was discharged because of his drug use and by his twenty-eighth birthday was a junkie squatting in a Sydney slum. In the midst of old newspapers and takeaway wrappers one morning he woke with a jolt, with the barrel of a gun pointed into his mouth. The bloke wanted payment of several thousand dollars inside four hours, or else.

He roamed agitated and stressed and finally sought safe haven at a Salvo’s detox centre. He’d be protected and anonymous. He could disappear.

In time he regained his health and graduated to a long-term rehabilitation farm called Miracle Haven. But even in the sanctuary of the farm his baffling obsession sneaked up once more. Again the tiger’s claws slashed as he relapsed into confusion in another city. It was another endless and dangerous maze. He chased the idea of becoming ‘normal’, but could only find a world in which everything was exaggerated, sunless and frustrating. Each glimmer of a job eluded him.

One job held some promise; a roadie for a couple of musical groups. It suited drugs down to the ground. But the stint was short-lived. He joined a street gang. He got married and had two kids. The years rolled on with frequent visits from his demons.

But why care? In his mid-thirties he was awarded full membership in a bikie gang. Another safe haven, on the surface. His wife had left him and now the trouble was, he was dealing heroin on the side unknown to club members. Until they started watching him.

He was bashed close to death and his ‘colours’ and motor bike removed. The gang expelled him and life spiraled into more heroin, jails and emergency admissions to hospital. One kindly doctor said, ‘We nearly lost you.’ It seemed the medical people wanted to hold on while he would have been happy to let go.

He cannoned around the countryside for several years and ended up again at Miracle Haven. The man interviewing him wondered if there was anything  fair dinkum about Jack this time. ‘Are you prepared to do anything different this time?’ he queried.

‘What do you mean?’ said Jack.

‘Well you’ve tried everything your way. I just wondered if you were ready to try something different. Your way hasn’t worked. Are you ready to commit to something else and see what happens?’

Jack mulled over a couple of possible responses. ‘I’ll do whatever you want me to.’

‘No, no, no. You don’t understand me. You have to do what you want to do. I’m wondering what that may be.’

And so began a new period of recovery. In slow motion, the penny began to drop. Jack’s keepers steered him gently on his journey, helping him make his own choices.

Jack transferred to another Salvation Army full-time residential program of rehabilitation where they challenged his thinking, questioned his actions and behaviour. He searched for underlying problems from the ‘child within’. He cried and grieved and got angry and felt the pain of it all. He felt the ache of being alive.

The tiger was still with him. Jack still feels as though he is locked inside a house with it. But he has grabbed the tiger by the tail and for the moment will not let go.

‘Grabbing my addiction by the tail means that I have stopped using. But I’m laying out a new foundation. I have a plan for when the addiction is trying to bite me again.’

The strategy includes what to do when he lets it go. With some help he has designed a recovery plan with practical and spiritual tools at his disposal. He has an awareness and acceptance now, all aimed at finding a way out of his dilemma.

Soon he’ll graduate. ‘But it’s a lifetime process,’ he says.

So where to next? He wants to stay connected. There will be a quiet celebration and a move to a half-way house. Hopefully some study. A resume. A job. He has it in mind to become a counsellor. Get his own place.

And when he’s ready, he will let go of the tiger.