Tim Gray was only eight months old when his mother decided it was best for him to be looked after by foster care because she couldn’t cope raising him alone.
At the time, they had just moved from northern NSW, away from his dad, to the Block in Sydney’s Redfern. Yet Gray only found out later in life that it was his mother’s decision to have him grow up away from his father. “I was told that he was a terrible man and she thought it was best that I was as far away from him as possible.” Gray says.
Spending his first 13 years being raised in foster care within an Anglo-Saxon family in Western Sydney, Gray was well looked after and told from a young age about his cultural heritage. “I was always told that I was Aboriginal, but in our school curriculum there was nothing taught about culture, so I didn’t know what it meant.”
He clearly remembers meeting his biological family one day at the age of eight. “We all met in Hyde park, Sydney for a couple of hours. They wanted me to go home and visit with them every now and then but I didn’t want to. I was too scared. I can remember thinking ‘Who are you?’”
Though he felt distant from his family then, when his foster mum passed away, Gray started to ask questions. Feeling lost, he decided to run away from home. Armed with some knowledge of his biological family and their whereabouts, but still a sense of displacement and confusion, Gray started to experiment with drugs and drinking and found himself homeless.
“We all met in Hyde park, Sydney for a couple of hours. They wanted me to go home and visit with them every now and then but I didn’t want to. I was too scared. I can remember thinking ‘Who are you?’”
“At that time, I was mostly hanging around Woolloomooloo. I really liked it there because I was able to drink and do drugs freely. I was hanging around people my age at school time, but when it came to drink I was with older people, because I was so tall I could get in to most pubs.”
Gray did find extended family members, but a growing addiction to alcohol and drugs, mostly ‘uppers’ that would allow the drinking to go on for extended periods, led him to couch surfing and getting in trouble and being locked up several times. He found jobs but would eventually lose them and was also expelled from school for drinking on the grounds.
He describes this time of descending into addiction and homelessness as a ‘slow avalanche’. “I was slowly burning bridges and trust. A lot of times it wasn’t that family and friends didn’t let me stay with them, it was because I felt so guilty and shameful, I didn’t want to stay with them. I would rather be on the street so they didn’t have to worry about me. It was like I thought if I was out of sight I was out of mind. You don’t have to walk around on eggshells on the street.”
Gray recalls his first night of sleeping rough. “I found a park-bench and just got as drunk as I could to pass out. That’s how I dealt with it. I didn’t worry about getting attacked. I was mostly thinking about why I was in that position and also about killing myself. I would hope that I didn’t wake up in the morning. My fears were more around me than anyone else.”
Several more years of struggle and addiction followed before Gray landed a job with Tribal Warrior, an Aboriginal owned and operated cultural boat experience. It was there that his life started to turn around thanks to Tribal Warrior’s manager Shane Phillips who encouraged Gray to enter rehab. “I should have been sacked 10 times from that job, but Shane persisted and kept me on, he’s one of those people that sees the best in everyone, even if they are using or full on alcoholics.”
"I found a park-bench and just got as drunk as I could to pass out. That’s how I dealt with it. I didn’t worry about getting attacked. I was mostly thinking about why I was in that position and also about killing myself. I would hope that I didn’t wake up in the morning."
It was during his time at Tribal Warrior that Gray finally learned about this heritage. “Through all those years of drinking and homelessness – even though I was always around Blackfellas - after running away from foster homes I still never really learnt what it was to be a Blackfella. I just learnt lingo and found out where my tribe was from and things like that – I didn’t really start learning about my culture until Tribal Warrior.”
Gray says that going through the AA program saved his life and it’s a program that he still attends several nights a week. “The 12-steps of that program made me look at myself and why I was drinking. That’s what the program does - the substance is just a symptom of what’s really going on.”
He found his first home through Aboriginal housing several years ago and hasn’t touched a substance since 2008. After joining his first band, Aboriginal group the Black Turtles, Gray rediscovered his love for music, having had classical piano training from the age of seven to 12, and also became an activist after learning about Aboriginal cultural genocide.
"..That program made me look at myself and why I was drinking. That’s what the program does - the substance is just a symptom of what’s really going on.”
Gray combines the two passions of social activism and positivity now in his own reggae/funk band Green Hand Band and as a cultural guide at Sydney’s Barangaroo precinct, and says his mission in life is to help others find a sense of belonging as he now experiences.
“Being an Aboriginal guide immersed in and sharing my culture is one of the biggest thing keeping me grounded at the moment, also AA – I used to just drink, drug take and gamble it all away to suppress it all. But now it’s just out in the open and that’s why I’m so open with things, it helps. I know how to deal with it and let it go. If I can help to make the world a better place in any shape or form starting from Redfern, I’d be happy with that. And find my one true love of course...” he shares with a laugh.
Addicted Australia premieres Tuesday 10 November, 8.30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand. The four-part documentary series continues weekly on Tuesdays at 8.30pm and will be available with simplified Chinese and Vietnamese subtitles.
Join the conversation #AddictedSBS
For more information: sbs.com.au/AddictedAustralia