Darren: Everyone has a story and this is mine

June 24, 2021

Darren Harland

My name is Darren and this is my story.

It’s a story of a struggle with mental health disorder and addiction and of its impact on my life.

My childhood was nothing out of the ordinary. I had a loving family where football was always at the forefront of everyone’s mind. In my younger years, my family and I lived in government housing known as "Park Towers". There were always lots of kids around and we would always be playing sport. My father played football in the 70’s for Port Melbourne, a bayside suburb of Melbourne, Victoria, in one of the club's most successful eras, and I always wanted to follow in his footsteps. As a result, football became everything to me and my younger brother. At the age of eight we moved out of "Park Towers" and my parents purchased a family home, remaining in Port Melbourne.

Park Towers

My first ever drink came at the age of 14. I’d been playing in under 18’s football and we would always go to the same local pub after every game. One time a few of the older blokes in the team asked my mum if I could have a drink and she obliged. At that moment, after my first drink, I felt a rush of freedom that I’d been craving for so long. All I ever wanted to do was grow up fast, and it was always in my head that to be the man I wanted to become, I’d need to be able to have a beer when everyone else was having one.

Fast forward two years from that first drink and my drinking had become a problem. I’d found myself in an alcohol-fuelled assault where I was arrested and sentenced to a three-year stint at a youth training centre. This obviously wasn’t something that I had in my plans and it seemed to be a real roadblock to my planned career in football. One major thing that I took from this incident was that when I drank alcohol, I would always find myself in trouble.

While doing my ‘time’, I was lucky enough to still be playing football for Port Melbourne. Every game my dad would drive to pick me up and then drop me straight back to the training centre afterwards. I ended up doing one year and was left with a two-year parole period.

Darren during his younger years

Following this stint, I completed my apprenticeship as a plumber and started to build a life. I was married and had two beautiful daughters. At this point, I was struggling with alcoholism - without even being aware that I had opened "pandora's box" on what would become a spiral through addiction.

Fast forward a few years to 1996, the football team I was playing for won the reserves premiership and I’d had one of my best seasons playing. Despite this, I felt that it was time to move on from the club that I’d been involved with for the best part of twenty years. I went to Werribee (a growing suburb south-west of Melbourne) in October of ‘97 and it was at this point that my spiral downwards really started to accelerate. A strange feeling of fear started to often come over my body and it would hang around for prolonged periods. I became a hermit, and wouldn’t leave my house unless it was to go to the doctor.

I had no energy and I fell into a deep depression at home which had a damaging negative impact on my wife and two daughters. I barely left my home for months and with every doctor I went to, I would just be left with more questions. All I wanted to do was find out what was wrong with me.

Finally, after months of searching, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

I’d never previously thought that mental health problems were something that I would ever experience. It was a really hard time in my life, and reflecting on that now, I probably never thought about how it was impacting my wife and children. The doctors prescribed lithium and other forms of medication for my depression.

I really struggled with the notion that these pills were now part of my life. I distinctly remember one instance where I grabbed all of my medication in a rage and threw it all in the bin. I didn’t feel that it was working and just wanted all of my problems to go away.

Post my diagnosis, I gradually started getting out of the house a bit more which, at the time, I saw as a real positive. However, I was really struggling at home - a young family, paying off a mortgage, struggling with depression – at times it felt overwhelming.

Playing football had always kept me busy and focused, but when I retired I felt that I had no plan and no purpose. Looking back, I see this as the catalyst for the dark road that I was about to go down. I had stepped away from a place that I held so much love for and set the course for my spiral into depression and addiction.

It was at this point in my life that I tried the drug known as speed for the first time. For a long time I would decline the offer to use it, as I had always been very anti-drugs growing up. This was mostly due to the effect of addiction that I’d seen on a number of my family members.

So, there I was at 28 with a few of my friends and I drank a glass of water with some speed in it. To this day I’ve never had an experience quite like it. I truly thought “this is the cure for my depression”. For the first time in a long time I didn’t feel down in the dumps. The drug was an upper, so, in my mind, it was just what the doctor ordered and this began a long period of self-medication.

Following that first experience with the drug, speed, my family life began to quickly fall apart. Unfortunately, the drugs took away my ability to be the father that I wanted to be, and, to this day that’s one of my biggest regrets - losing my young family at that point in my life.

For the next 15 years, my life went down a very dark road. I became a daily drug user and yet, at the same time I went from a career in plumbing to working on the Melbourne wharves.

My drug use really took off behind-the-scenes on the wharves. A part of my job was loading and unloading ships and trucks. It was an absolute death trap thinking back. I was on all sorts of drugs and would frequently have to sneak off to the toilets to use. With the condition that I was in, it still shocks me that I never killed any of my work mates or myself while working there.

Following some ups and down on the wharves over the next few years, it eventually came to a point where I had a supervisor ring me and explain to me that if I didn’t start turning up for work that I’d be sacked. I’d constantly be missing work and other commitments due to sleeping in and trying to recover.

I started giving my supervisor all the excuses under the sun and told him that everything would change and that I’d get clean. Four weeks later, nothing had changed and I got a call from a work mate – he told me that they were going to give me the sack.

So I drove down to work and started yelling and screaming at people who were just trying to do their job; once I finished my rant I walked off the site and never went back. I was out of control and unapproachable but still somehow managed to find a new job in Port Hedland, Western Australia, over on the other side of Australia as a 'wharfie'. Within four months, I’d tested positive to amphetamines and I lost my job. I realise today that I kept running away from my problems and turning to drugs. I was unable to stop and truly connect with the idea that these drugs were the root of so many of my problems.

I had lost my family and my job, and, to top this all off, I was enduring frequent psychotic episodes in public places which led to multiple arrests.

Darren and his wife, Heidi

In 2010, I started dating a wonderful person who is now my wife. At the time, I was still a daily user and that continued for the next three years. My behaviour was continuing to push those I cared about away from me and once again I felt that I was letting the people I care about slip away due to this addiction that controlled my life. My health was beginning to deteriorate, and the drugs, which were once the solution to all my problems, were no longer working. I was aware that they stopped working, but could not stop; I was using against my will.

By 2013, my life had spiralled to a point where I was losing all things of importance in my life. And on Mother’s Day, 2013, my wife finally left me and told me that I needed to do 90-day rehab stay. But as many people experience with addiction, I was in heavy denial, and thought I knew what was best for me and that I could control my problems. So, of course, rehab wasn't something that I was open to, despite having another relationship in danger of being lost due to my habit.

I was in a mess, I knew it, but just couldn’t take the step. But I also couldn’t bear to live with my life at that point.

My rock bottom moment was approaching. I had been on a 12-day drug binge and on that last day, I accessed a gun as I was suicidal and wanted to end it all. The next day, I walked around for six or more hours with the gun, struggling with my suicidal thoughts, until 11pm that evening when the psychosis I was dealing with took over and I started firing off rounds into the air.

I think, upon reflection, it was a serious cry for help.

Coincidently, a family friend came out of a nearby pub and realised that I was in distress. He could see the trouble that I was in and wanted me to follow him; but the voices in my head told me otherwise. The next thing I remember was the flashing blue lights of police cars. I looked down and there were multiple red dots from the police officers’ high-powered rifles on both my mate and I.

The night that changed everything

At this point I thought it was over, I put the cocked gun into my mouth with my friend still beside me. Luckily my mate managed to get the gun off me, and at this point I turned to see my father in a side street waving his hands at me trying to get my attention, I started to walk towards him and that’s when the police rushed and arrested me.

These events were established in a later court appearance, where one of the female officers confirmed that the gun was loaded and ready to fire indicating just how much of a mental health crisis I was experiencing that evening.

Darren Harland today

Following that fateful night, I spent some time in jail and rehab and, miraculously, that night was the catalyst for change. It began my 8-year recovery journey.

I can’t thank my beautiful family enough for the love and care I received from them after coming out of rehab. I would have been homeless if it weren’t for the support I got from both my parents and wife.

Today, I now have another two beautiful daughters. All of my family have been so supportive throughout this process and I couldn’t have done it without them. And, I am so grateful for my amazing friend that dark night.

A big part of my journey has been a decision to start ADA Australia alongside my friend and colleague Anthony, who has his own story around mental health and addiction. We now have a business that works to ensure that Australians in the workplace are given the necessary information about drugs, alcohol and mental health which can so easily take over a person’s life.

At ADA Australia, we head out to workplaces and deliver training face-to-face or virtually. Our courses range from alcohol and drug awareness, depression and suicide prevention, anxiety and stress management all the way through to specialised leadership training.

We want to empower every single person in the workplace to make better life choices and self-reflect on their own behaviours as well as equip them with the tools to identify the red flags in others and offer tips in how to best start that supportive conversation that could save someone's life; so that every person can have the best chance of getting the help they need.

Like myself, all of the facilitators at ADA Australia have their own 'lived experience' with drug and/or alcohol dependence and mental health battles. Not only does this create a meaningful learning opportunity, but it creates an environment where participants feel safe to open up about their own hidden struggles. We want to play a role in minimising the stigma associated with mental illness and substance-use disorder through the power of education.

I am very grateful to be where I am today. My drug use started from a mental health problem and at the time I didn’t have the information that could help me overcome these issues. Everyone has their own story, but it’s important to know that there is help out there. One of our goals here at ADA Australia is to help people start that road to recovery early, so that the mayhem brought on by addiction and mental health battles doesn’t have to become a part of their lives, like it does for so many.

Today, I am happy to report that I have come full circle - I now get to go back into that same workplace where many of my drug struggles first began, and educate management and employees on how they can best help themselves and support each other so that others don’t have to end up down the same path that I travelled.

If you would like to know more about how ADA Australia can come out and help your organisation around drugs, alcohol and mental health, simply click here or email us at enquiry@adaaus.com.au.

If any of the information discussed in this article has raised any concerns for you, please do speak to your GP, they can help you back to good health, or call a helpline: LIFELINE 13 11 14 or BeyondBlue 1300 22 4636.

Article by
Darren Harland