There was a time when Matthew Gruber had a family, a marriage, a job and a home but they all disappeared when he sank into the abyss of addiction. The next 25 years became a revolving door of crime, jail and more drugs until he found a new life at his favourite place in Shepparton. John Lewis talked to the man who returned from the abyss.
Matthew Gruber sits at a table in the tiny garden of The Cottage in a quiet central Shepparton street and describes the moment it all became clear to him — when his life turned around.
“I was in a car with a lady, another resident here, and we were looking at properties and we were driving along and she was talking, talking, talking — and I'm looking at the sun and not really listening and all of a sudden my head opened up and everything flowed in and I understood everything about myself, my life, my addictions and everything I've learned here. It was like an orgasm in the brain,” he says.
The Cottage provides accommodation and support for recovering addicts, many of whom, like Matt, arrive on bail from the court system. All the Cottage people have been through the hoops of the criminal justice system, homelessness and other rehabilitaton programs.
Matt grew up in Diggers Rest, north-west of Melbourne, with his parents who worked in motels and hotels. When he was 16 his parents separated. He left school and worked in hotels and pub kitchens with his mum and her new partner.
“That's when I started hanging around motels, drinking alcohol, stealing money out of the till and just running my own race,” he says.
In his early 20s he married and got a full-time job with the water board and bought a house. Things were looking good, but when he was about 24 the marriage collapsed and he sank into depression.
“Then I found drugs to cover that. Drugs mask everything, all your thoughts and everything,” he says.
At the start it was alcohol and amphetamines, then he graduated to heroin and so began the familiar cycle of crime, prison, freedom and more drugs.
“It was theft and burglaries, stealing to pay for my drug habit. I went to prison for 16 months when I was 24 for the first time. Then it was pretty much every second year — it became 25 years of addiction and crime,” he says.
Every release from prison saw the same pattern, starting with two days in a motel and $600 for clothes.
“You're carrying two suitcases around living in Melbourne boarding houses with other people from jail and they're straight into addiction. So I steal a car and I'm living in a car and I can't go near family because of the stolen car and so the only people I know are other addicts. I get lonely and depressed and then I'm back in addiction. Within six to nine weeks I'm back in jail,” he says.
Matt has done all the jail rehab programs but says they don't work for a simple reason — the jailhouse pecking order.
“You can't get honest with the programs in there. You do not want to be vulnerable with other jail people; you become weak, you become a target. You can't show emotion, people take advantage of it,’ he says.
“I've done about 12 years worth of jail and I know every second bastard in there and now it doesn't scare me one bit, it's not a deterrent.”
Matt says the biggest hurdle to getting back on track is always finding somewhere to live that's safe and drug-free.
“The first thing you think is where am I going to go? So you try and get decent housing, you register with housing — I've been on the housing list for 14 years,” he says.
Matt arrived at The Cottage a year ago when his solicitor in Bendigo heard about the new facility that was turning lives around.
After completing the facility's six-month program, he is now employed as a property manager at smaller transitional Shepparton properties owned by The Cottage.
“I love working with the people here. I try to give them the best advice. I just love seeing them improve. The four-letter word that I now use the most — it's my tool — is hope. You just need hope.”
For the first time in 25 years he has been drug-free for nearly a year.
Now that he has secure accommodation, Matt has his own big hope — to get his two boys aged 10 and 12 back to live with him.
He says The Cottage has given him a space to breathe and, for the first time in his life, to find himself.
“The first thing here is safe and stable accommodation,” he says.
"But then it's more than that. There is a sign in the check-in room where we have our meetings that says ‘self-leadership'. And that's what it is — taking charge and being honest about my past. What I've done is like an apprenticeship. It's not a good thing to do — but now I can give back to a lot of other people that are in the same position I was.”