24 Feb 2019

Dr Gregory Smith: from homeless alcoholic to grateful academic

From Sunday Morning, 10:37 am on 24 February 2019
Dr Gregory Smith

Dr Gregory Smith Photo: Elise Derwin

Dr Gregory Smith is now a respected lecturer of social sciences at Southern Cross University on the Gold Coast, but his life before academia was a mix of drug addiction, alcoholism and homelessness.

Gregory details his sad childhood and his incredible tale of living in the bush in the book Out of the Forest.

He talks to Jim Mora about how he dramatically turned his life around and how he sometimes helps others do the same.

Now 63, Gregory lectures at the university and also researches out-of-home care for children whose own families are too damaged for them to live with.

He says that he had never really thought about writing a book based on his experiences.

"There was no motivation, to be honest. It wasn't a book that I considered writing. During my PhD, I made a decision that I wasn't going to hide my story anymore because I was working with a lot of very vulnerable people and the stories I was hearing impacted me profoundly. So I just decided that I would always be candid about my story."

To cut a long story short, Gregory says, he ended up on an ABC television programme in June 2016 and half an hour after it aired he'd had three invitations to write his biography.

"So I deleted those, I wasn't interested. A few weeks later one of the publishing companies rang me ... and I said 'yeah, not interested'."

It took about eight months, but Gregory was eventually convinced it would be a good story to tell.

A childhood of constant fear

Gregory's story begins with a "constantly terrifying" childhood he says he was lucky to survive.

He was abused physically by his father and his mother did very little to intervene.

In 1965, aged 10, Gregory and his sisters were abandoned at an orphanage.

There, he faced more physical, mental and sexual abuse.

"I lived in constant fear. I was diagnosed as a sociopath. And to contextualise that, back in that era, the concept of trauma had not really been researched. I was standing before the New South Wales state psychiatrist. The state had asked him to assess me. He was looking for a label to put on me for the court system. The only one he could come up with was sociopath."

Gregory started escaping the orphanage and sleeping rough young, learning to survive and be vigilant.

"If you practice something long enough you get good at it."

He ran away from school aged 14 and by 15, he was in and out of youth justice centres.

Ten years later he was a violent alcoholic living on the streets of Sydney.

In later years, a marriage collapsed, he burnt down a house, spend time in a psychiatric hospital and had a near-fatal car crash.

Once, during a stint working on a fishing boat, the crew had no idea what he was capable of, Gregory says.

He lived on eggshells.

"It was a very fragile existence. I was prone to going into what I would call 'red-outs'. Somebody could say something innocent like 'good morning' and I would just fly into a rage. I was just so dangerous.

"I was a lot of things but one thing I wasn't was a liar. I couldn't lie to myself, although I hid a lot of things from myself. I couldn't lie to other people. One of the problems was that I hated myself so much and I was so afraid of myself that if - in my mind - if anyone started to get who I was, they would begin to hate me, too."

Gregory went through phases of good earning and entrepreneurship, only to sabotage himself most often, he says.

"Money has never really been a problem. Money is not that difficult to come by if you're willing to think outside the box and have a go. But at the same time to someone like I was, it could be dangerous too because that type of money invites trouble."

Into the bush

At some point in the late 1980s, Gregory disembarked from a boat at Byron Bay in the north of New South Wales and walked into the bush.

He would spend a decade there, choosing the wilderness over the "shame and stigma that I faced in society".

During that time, Gregory became notorious and despite efforts on occasion to find him, he managed to stay hidden.

He says it was the first time in his life that he felt calm.

"I had never experienced that type of calm before. I would not go so far as to say it was peace of mind but there was just this small idea that there was something different that I could experience.

"What I learned was when we move out of our established societies and begin to live independently out in the wild our senses changes - our hearing changes, our sense of smell changes, you see differently. Your peripheral vision is enhanced."

One morning he woke up to find a snake on his chest.

"That was one of the longest nights of my life. There's something about being comfortably asleep and then you feel something quite heavy just sort of nudging up against you and then it starts to move across you.

"I knew it was a snake but I didn't know what kind of snake it was. I wasn't going to move because I mean there is tiger snakes, brown snakes, taipans, red bellies. There's a lot of snakes up in there and they're big snakes.

"But you know, after that eternity it moved across me, I jump up and grab a stick out of the fire and it was a python and I think 'Thank you, awesome, dinner'."

Gregory only ate snake once as his psyche couldn't handle it, he says: "I had nightmares for months after that."

Eucalyptus trees in New South Wales Australia.

Dr Gregory Smith spent years living in the bush in northern New South Wales. Photo: Copyright: (C) Picture Partners

But the bush was comfortable, despite him still being "wild".

Occasionally he'd head into a town and ask people in a pub what year and month it was. He would scavenge food from bins outside cafes and bakeries. He didn't care what people thought of him.

He'd also head into town to sell lizard skins and cannabis. The money would go towards tobacco and alcohol, but also things like flour, salt and rice.

The alcohol Gregory home-brewed in the bush "did the job" in terms of killing the pain but its side effects were devastating.

Towards the end of his time there, his diet frequently included beer, marijuana and magic mushrooms.

"Inevitably, an exotic diet such as that has a price to pay over time. For me that price was psychosis. But I did really have some interesting conversations and have some interesting experiences within that psychosis."

Gregory's hallucinations eventually turned into visions of aliens and people who told him to leave the bush.

"They tricked me, in the end, into leaving the forest. Well, they didn't trick me, but their logic was so simple. Die in the forest, never be found, your family will never get closure. Go out, die in society, your body will be found, at least your family will have closure."

A new life

By the time Gregory left the forest, he weighed only about 40 kilograms.

He was hit by a car in a remote part of New South Wales and admitted to a mental health unit.

After he was released, sitting by a river with a bag full of alcohol, nicotine and other drugs, Gregory decided it was time to change his life - he left it all in a bag and walked away.

He finished his high school education, then went to university where the other students didn't realise he was living in an old van.

Eventually, Gregory obtained a first-class honours degree.

Sometime later he came across Australia's 2004 Senate report Forgotten Australians, which detailed physical, sexual and psychological abuse suffered by up to 500,000 children in institutional or out-of-home care through the 20th century.

For his university thesis Nobody's children, Gregory interviewed others who had been through the same orphanage as him, and then obtained a PhD.

Now he teaches full time at Southern Cross University.

"One thing I understand very clearly now, we cannot live by ourselves. As much as we would like to, it's too hard. We are a social creature, we need people.

"We are all worthwhile. Never give up. If we open ourselves to the idea of community, the idea of sharing, listening, telling stories, caring about people, we have a lot of potential.

"I live a very grateful life today. I'm very appreciative. Even today I woke up [and thought] 'Another day...'

"Life's a beautiful thing and I'm very fortunate to be here."