The story of ‘Cheesy’ is of the type that makes AB Facey’s seem like a fortunate life indeed. In his own words, ‘Cheesy’ knows what it feels like to be a black bastard’ and only now that he’s into his forties does he feel able to shed the tattered baggage he’s carried with him all his life and tell his horrific tale.
He’s covered in scars from head to toe. Deep tracks mark his thirty-year dependence on heroin and a number of cuts across his limbs and body echo his attempts to exorcise his pain. His knees are shredded from scrubbing ablution blocks with a toothbrush.
Cheesy has spent most of his life in juvenile and adult detention, mainly on charges of drug-related theft.
He was born a ward of the state at Lismore Base Hospital and was immediately fostered out to an impoverished Gundurimba family. Only years later did he discover he grew up just metres away from his biological parents.
So began what can only be described as a truly miserable childhood living in a three bedroom house with a large extended family and sharing a bed with his adoptive siblings.
Cheesy was subject to myriad abuse at the hands of drunken uncles and neighbours and began escaping into town — on foot — as soon as he was able.
When the Aquarius movement rolled into the ‘Rainbow Region’ in 1973, Cheesy was already drinking heavily and its increased availability attracted him to cannabis.
It wasn’t long before he was pinched for stealing and by the time he was sent to men’s prison at 16, he’d ‘done time in every boys’ home in NSW’.
“I told them to send me to Maitland Gaol. It had to be better than what I was facing,” Cheesy says in his modest, well-kept Goonellabah flat.
“I just couldn’t take any more of the bashings that I was getting at Tamworth Boys’ Home. They’d call me abo, boong, coon, so I made ’em send me to an adult jail.”
Cheesy reckons it’s impossible to tell how many times he has been thrashed by those in authority whose ostensible charge was his care and wellbeing.
Not surprisingly, the lure of hard drugs proved irresistible.
The drugs led to crime, crime led to prison, prison led to more misery. The cycle seemed destined to continue and most likely would have, had it not been for Gurgun Bulahnggelah, Lismore’s Aboriginal Health Service.
“Without Gurgun I’d be dead,” Cheesy says.
It wasn’t until he began working with the team at Gurgun, and taking part in the North Coast Area Health Service’s innovative MERIT program, that Cheesy’s life began to take an upward turn.
Cheesy speaks highly of Magistrates Early Referral (MERIT) Into Treatment Program Areas.
Cheesy is just one of MERIT’s success stories. Of the 1200 clients the program has serviced since its inception in 2000, 638 have completed it.
The difference with MERIT, which is described as ‘intrusive’ and ‘structured’, is its participants harbour a genuine desire to get off illicit substances and move forward with their lives. “We’ve set the bar very high,” says a MERIT employee “It’s not just about getting off the drugs, but changing the lifestyle factors that lead to drug use. Anyone who is dependent on drugs has lifestyle issues,” he says.
“We’ve had one-man crime waves come through the program and have now been clean for seven, eight years,” he says.
“Cheesy has come a long way. He maintains his own accommodation, plays a supportive role for his children and, by and large, has tried to be a responsible member of the community under significant circumstances,” he says.
Cheesy’s paintings now adorn Gurgun and the Goonellabah Medical Centre. Cheesy says its detail and the total attention it requires has become a means of therapy for him as he sheds the crippling weight of shame that has plagued him for so many years.
“I’m still an addict,” Cheesy confesses. “But now, painting is my drug.”