I had a relatively humdrum life.

I was the eldest of three children and grew up in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne in a classic middle-class family. My father was a dentist and my mother a home-maker. I attended a private girls’ school and was a general all-rounder. I did well enough academically in year twelve to get into medicine. I graduated, become a GP, married a colleague and had three beautiful children.

Life was a piece of cake. Then…

My middle child Sam became a drug addict and my life was turned upside down.

Sam was a delightful child – warm and sensitive, caring and funny. He had the ability to befriend anyone, regardless of their background. He communicated equally well with company CEOs and street sweepers, always genuinely interested in what they had to say.

He had a huge circle of friends. Everybody knew Sam, and he was usually the focus of the group. Despite this, he lacked self-esteem and so he was vulnerable to drugs and the false confidence they bring. He started by experimenting with marijuana, moved on to ice and finally was introduced to heroin, his drug of choice.

My family struggled with Sam’s addiction for twelve years. As his life spiralled out of control, so did ours.

We struggled with the lies and deceit, with the stealing, with the bad behaviour, with the gradual loss of friends and the gradual loss of opportunities. We didn’t know how to deal with him. We dreaded coming home to the unknown at the end of each day.

Drugs turned him into a different person. I would worry every time the phone rang that something had happened to him. I would go to extreme lengths to keep him alive, to protect him from the world he was so eager to be a part of. I dreaded the ups as I knew the downs would hit harder and faster with every score.

My eldest son became more and more angry with Sam, and subsequently with us. He couldn’t comprehend the choices his brother appeared to be making and didn’t understand our commitment to wanting to help him. My daughter tried to support her brother, to keep him safe and engaged with the family. She and I were his go-to when things were bad and he took advantage of our love. My husband felt powerless, became deeply saddened at the crumbling of their unique bond and gradually withdrew from any interaction with him.

We tried countless times to seek help, but were unable to find any. There was support for Sam if he wanted it, but he didn’t. Professional services accused us of not understanding him; some accused us of enabling him and tried to point fingers at everyone but Sam. It was these services who didn’t understand. They didn’t understand the nature of an addict and didn’t understand that an addict in active addiction cannot be reasoned with, given direction or plan beyond his next hit.

We felt guilty, that we were somehow the cause of his addiction. I gave up work to be available for him at all times. Our whole lives revolved around him and we felt we were always walking on egg shells. Finally, and as a last resort, I asked him to leave the family home. I told him that we loved him but could not condone his self-destructive behaviour – behaviour that would likely kill him.

That gesture proved to be the turning point, his “rock bottom”. Sam entered a rehab, and over the period of several months, became clean. He returned to being the wonderful person we remembered and so desperately missed.

Through our long and taxing journey, we were open and honest about what was happening in our world. It became evident that we were not alone in this situation and by talking about our issues, we were able to help others.

We decided with our medical backgrounds, and Sam’s and our lived experience, we were in a unique position to make a positive contribution to help others in our situation – and so Arrow Health was born.

Now, three and a half years later, we run a range of services for drug and alcohol addiction treatment, all underpinned by comprehensive and long-term family support programs.

The transition for me, from retired GP to rehab director, has not been an easy one. Our clients and their families are at their most vulnerable when they first present to us. They have been traumatised and are fearful of the future. They have lost all hope. However, the rewards are immeasurable. It is incredible to watch individuals transform into healthy, happy, confident and engaged members of society, and to witness the rebuilding of fractured families.

I am extremely thankful that I have been given this opportunity at this time in my life, to have such a positive impact on individuals, families and the community.


Post script: Our dear son Sam passed away in May 2015, from an unrelated medical condition. Arrow Health continues as his legacy.

Contact Penny Lawrence and Arrow Health, located in St Kilda, Victoria, at www.arrowhealth.com.au. Phone 1300 295 989.