BY BRENDAN TANG @BrendanJTang
He may share the same name as our current Prime Minister but this Malcolm Turnbull has never considered a life in politics. He grew up fishing, surfing waves and proudly supporting the Cronulla Sharks who – much to his delight – will be playing for their first premiership this weekend. We meet in an unassuming Marrickville restaurant on a clear afternoon. Malcolm warmly greets the waitress as he goes past to which she returns a bright smile. As we take a seat, he serves me tea before I can offer to do the same. It may be tempting to think this is nothing more than feigned politeness but sitting there with him one gets the sense that this is his genuine character. To find someone so optimistic and generous with life is refreshing but what is even more impressive is that Malcolm, having lost his ability to walk, could quite justifiably be as cynical about life as many able bodied people today.
As a kid Malcolm went to a Catholic school but soon found himself in the clutches of drugs. After a drug-related incident in Sydney, he and a couple of friends decided to travel up the coast to Coffs Harbour to try and take some time to dry out from drugs and once again find enjoyment in surfing.
A night of heavy drinking found them four wheel driving along dunes. Recounting the story, Malcolm pauses for a moment. “Ultimately my friend lost control of the car,” he says. He still bears scars from the accident. Their car had plunged off a 20 metre cliff. Immediately after the shock of the impact, he says he just knew that he couldn’t and wouldn’t walk again. Malcolm had severed his spine at about chest level. His friend was killed instantly.
One of the most difficult things following the incident was relearning the most basic functions that many of us take for granted. Perhaps even more difficult was that for all his love of surfing, sports and the outdoors, he would no longer be able to enjoy them the same way. “I basically lost my identity. I had to rethink my whole life, who I was and deal with the loss of what was no longer.”
In recovery it was important to him to focus on what he was still able to do, not forgetting what was lost but also not dwelling on it. He continued to use drugs for another 10 years. “In my opinion, I didn’t have a drug problem, I had a lack-of-drug problem.” He believed he could cope with his external problems by taking more drugs. As his drug use escalated and life spiralled more and more out of control, he realised that he felt all the more helpless. “And at that point I just made a desperate prayer to God for help.”
Malcolm’s friend Pete had beaten drugs about a year before. “He was the only person I had ever seen do it, so I had this idea that I could get clean,” Malcolm says. The next week he found himself at a rehab centre. Initially there was no wheelchair access, but for his sake they made everything wheelchair accessible. “And that was the beginning of my new-found belief that there was a God who cared.” Malcolm felt so utterly defeated that he completely gave himself to the rehabilitation process. Rehab wasn’t without its own struggles; he dealt with obsession and withdrawal for 90 days, minute by minute, and wrestled with self-doubt. But the pain of rehab became motivation to never turn back to drugs and have to go through the process again.
He hasn’t used drugs in 27 years.
Two years after his rehab, seeking to find other wheelchair users he could relate to, Malcolm started playing basketball. “I met so many great, positive people who were in a similar situation as me,” he says. It was a great time of healing – he made friends who would go on to impact profoundly upon his life. Later, seeing a hole in the Australian market for wheelchairs and accessories, he started a business with some of them. Their business was recently sold to the multi-national wheelchair and accessories company Permobil.
Malcolm’s experience with drugs, his conflict of identity and experience of God have led him to understanding of what makes him truly happy. “I can trick myself into believing that any number of external things can make me happy, whether that be the right car, the right job, the right wife, the right whatever … but none of that stuff brings happiness. I’m always so shocked at how empty those things feel when I finally get it. I don’t belief that happiness is a commodity that can be pursued, I believe that it is a result of living a life worth living.”