How a Melbourne skateboarder beat his long-term battle with the bottle.
Words by Junior Pene. Photo by Andrew Mapstone.
On December 18, 2012, I decided to quit drinking alcohol. To some people this may be a very small and easy decision, and to others a much larger one, but for me, it was the equivalent of euthanising an infallible, familiar and beautifully treacherous friend.
A companion whom had comforted me when times were low, gave me courage to run my mouth off without any form of filtering or censorship at the most inappropriate times, and enabled me to piss the bed (regularly) and then continue crashing on through life as if everything were fine. I’d granted permission for this insidious animal to consume me and I did not care.
So how did I get to the point where I was unemployed, bent over a toilet bowl in the morning vomiting Satan, while at the same time trying to force straight vodka down my throat to quell the painful alcoholic tremors? How was I haemorrhaging friends at the speed of Bill Cosby and in such a poisonous mindset that suicide seemed the only honourable resolution?
Growing up, I was always going to join the Mongrel Mob (one of NZ’s largest and most feared gangs) because I had family members in the gang and I idolised them. I loved the “respect” they commanded by intimidating everybody else around them, and I clung to their stories of drinking ’til blackout, “rooting bitches”, bashing, maiming and sometimes even killing anybody that crossed them. Drinking was always going to feature heavily in my life seeing as though a large percentage of my family were straight-out alcoholics. I’m not talking about weekend warriors here. I’m talking on the dole, buy in bulk, get as fucked up as possible to the point of being paralytic, every day! That variety of alcoholic.
My earliest memory of drinking alcohol is from when I was around four years old. My seven-year-old sister and I would be left alone at home with half-finished crate bottles of beer, and of course, we wanted to try it. It tasted disgusting, but we wanted to emulate the adults around us and so we pushed through and eventually grew to love it. Later on, my parents split and I moved away to live with my mother in NZ’s most notorious ghetto, Palmerston North’s Highbury.
I quit school at 13 and on most days was drinking, smoking weed and getting into trouble with the city street kids. I had been skating for a few years, so I would skate every day, and then try to find a way to get wasted with the other hood rats each night. A lot of the time I would sleep on the streets, in disused shops or squats because the situation at home was a fucking nightmare. The noisy, drunken parties were hard to deal with, but the violence that followed was always vicious and terrifying. I’d usually escape then arrive home later to find holes kicked into the walls and doors, smashed windows and smeared blood all over the house. Baseball bats, chains, knives and sawn-off shotguns were our permanent household protection weapons. These were all used or unloaded upon others at one point or another to settle disputes.
It was a harrowing time and there were only two things that freed my mind from the shitstorm happening around me: 1) Skateboarding. 2) Drugs and Alcohol.
Through luck and a supportive network, I had managed to crash on through life into my 30s. Living in Melbourne, Australia I had studied a bit and had done some small things with skateboarding and music, but I had always been pursued by demons. I lacked the emotional capacity to be able to deal with them.
Then suddenly, in 2007, I found myself injured with time on my hands. I was already renowned as a heavy drinker, but it was here that I truly climbed into the bottle and began morning drinking. Usually one to two bottles of whisky and three or four bottles of wine daily. People avoided me. I crashed, I burned, I apologised and promised to quit drinking and then did it all over again. This went on for five years. Five years! Let that sink in.
A lot of people showed concern for me during this time. They gave me encouragement and support, but there were two people who fought diligently to try and fix me – Renton Millar and my ex-girlfriend, Kara. Renton would call often and let me have it: “Junior, you have to learn to ‘hate’ drinking, man!” I loved Renton, but hated those phone calls. I remember in Berlin once he came to grab me in the morning to go skating and I was laid out on the street drinking a litre-sized bottle of Sangria. Anyone else would’ve left this Sangria-drinking pile-of-shit there in the street, but he helped me up and showed me around the city while tactfully berating me for being a pile.
Back in Australia, I bowed to pressure from both Kara and Renton and called The Basin rehab centre in regional Victoria. That one moment would finally put the brakes on this train wreck and completely change the course of my life.
On December 18, 2012, I was accepted into a four-month live-in rehabilitation stay at The Basin.
Once my mind had cleared I had time to reflect on what a tragic and utter disaster I’d made of my life. I was ashamed of just how close I had been to checking myself out of life altogether. There was no mistaking that this may well be my last real chance at beating alcohol, and so I took in all of the advice and guidance that I could.
I fully immersed myself into the rehab program and began reading positive self-help books like The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. I was boxing each morning at the gym. I attended the rehab groups throughout the day and wrote music or read in the evening. I received messages of love and support from friends and family and gradually changes began occurring inside my head. I started to believe that I wasn’t a complete waste of space and that I had some good things to offer the world. I wrote numerous pieces of positive and uplifting music. Eventually, I graduated from rehab. I moved into a suburban community drug/alcohol support house and enrolled into a Diploma of Music Composition course. I also did voluntary work at a local Salvation Army Thrift store, but most importantly I was back skating at the park with my mates.
It is a fact that positivity attracts more positivity. So many good things have happened as a direct result of my sobriety. I completed a Diploma of Music Composition, I featured in a skateboarding telly ad for Visa, I have an I.T. job that I love, I uploaded my song “Blocks Of Rhyme” to iTunes and YouTube, I live in a rad apartment that’s a five-minute skate from St Kilda skatepark, and my girlfriend, Jess, is everything I’ve ever wanted in a partner and so much more.
The single greatest quality that I’ve discovered in my recovery is mindfulness. That state of active awareness in which you evaluate the true intentions of your actions, encouraging a life of honesty, and ultimately self-insight. The world can be a cruel and evil place, but peace, joy and love also exist here. They reside inside you if you have the courage to seek them out.
[Today marks Junior's sixth year of sobriety! He hopes that his story will inspire other people struggling to take action. Article from Slam 204, 2015].