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Crafting a Future – Phil

It’s been a topsy-turvy time for Phil Hankin over the past few years but he’s now crafting his own future thanks to the mental and physical tools he receives through the Partners in Recovery (PIR) program.

Most days he’s head down at a work bench set up in his kitchen, creating all sorts of leather goods. Smiles have replaced frowns and while Phil’s family has been fractured, it is functioning fairly well once again.

We chat on the couch while waiting for Phil’s PIR Facilitator, Aftercare’s Adam Dreyer, who has stopped en-route to get us coffee.

Phil’s small flat is comfortably eclectic. He collects pocket watches and clocks – none of which show the same time – and commanding attention in the corner is a suit of armour.

“He’s been in storage for yonks,” Phil said. “When I finally got this place, I couldn’t wait to get him out. Needs a good spruce up though – he’s a bit tarnished.”

Phil has been living with depression and anxiety for five or six years but was in denial. He’s done some time in “The Big House”, thought about suicide, gets anxious about his anxiety and is battling the booze.

Anxiety affected Phil’s day-to-day living.

“I’d worry about every little thing … still do a bit,” he said. “I’d get confused on roundabouts. Once I went into Robina shopping centre and couldn’t find my way out no matter how hard I tried to remember where I entered.

“I got the panics and walked in circles. I was jumpy. My heartbeat was erratic and I got the sweats. I went up to the information booth to ask the assistant for directions and I had to reassure her I wasn’t drunk or on drugs. She’d point the way but it was embarrassing because I’d get even more confused and had to return two or three times.

“Eventually the woman walked me to the exit I needed. She wasn’t supposed to leave her post. I appreciated her help but mostly I was grateful for her trust.”

A while back, Phil’s dark thoughts turned suicidal and landed him in the Hospital’s mental health unit.

While there he underwent electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which uses a carefully-controlled electrical current to change brain activity and improve mental functioning.

Phil’s not so keen on the treatment – “I don’t like needles … I don’t like not remembering” – but admits it did him some good. “I felt more balanced in the head, a bit more focused, not so erratic.”

A social worker referred Phil to PIR.

Adam Dreyer has been working with Phil for about six months, arranging links with various support mobs. “Recovery from mental conditions is not a race it’s a marathon, so we invite other services to cheer people along the way,” Adam said.

Through the Homeless Health Outreach Team (HHOT), Phil got into Blair Athol housing for a few months while he got his life back on track through life skills sessions, including budgeting to take control of his finances.

He now lives independently in private rental with his two teenage children who have foregone a dining table for Phil’s workbench.

Phil’s face lights up as he tells how his father got him into leatherwork.

“He showed me so many things,” he said. “I started with basic stuff about age nine and I kept on learning. I had a kit of sorts and was making belts and tobacco pouches etc but then I lost interest when I was 16 or 17 and sold it.

“I started leatherwork classes in jail and rediscovered my love for it. Leatherwork keeps me busy, and my mind creative and active, off bad things. When I got out I found a starter kit at Cash Converters.

“I make lots of things. My goal is to have a stall at the Burleigh markets but I’m a bit anxious about public interaction. My daughter will do the sales while I make things – people are interested in seeing  craftspeople in action at markets.

“I also hope to sell items on EBay or Gumtree. We got a refurbished computer that PIR helped us connect with through Rotary’s Computers for Kids program.”

Hi son was chuffed. He wrote to Nundah Rotary: “Thank you for this computer. It is helping me learn and also helping me teach my dad about computers. It will also help my sister with her school studies. It is a great service your organisation does for people in need.”

Adam: “I also presented a case to PIR’s Flexible Funding Committee, explaining Phil’s commitment to make his hobby sustainable by building it into a steady income stream.”

Phil: “I was given a voucher and I went to the hobby centre and got leather, tools, stamps … lots of beaut stuff.

Hi daughter, who has just come in to the room: “I went with him. Dad was like a kid in a toy store. He was there for, like, hours!” Grins and winks.

Phil: “I get to use my imagination. I also get feedback about products that make people happy so I am happy also. For example, I do women’s handbags: one of my support team even bought one! Now I’ve added a flower. They’ve all been white so far but now I’ve got more leather I’ll do them in bright colours that women can match with their outfits. It might also encourage men to buy one for their wife!”

The leather work is helping Phil tick off some goals: busting his anxiety, getting out more and finding employment. He’s also working hard at sticking to a budget and drinking in moderation.

Over the past couple of years Phil’s daughter who is now 17 has stepped up to take on the role of carer for her dad and brother.

“We’d be lost without dad,” she says. (Phil interjects: “… and me without them.”) We support each other. The leather work is therapeutic for him.”

Adam connected Phil’s daughter with the Young Carers program, which organised diversionary activities such as outings, horse riding, whale watching and a day at Sea World. “These have been great distractions for me … it can get a bit stressful sometimes at home,” she said.

The Kids in Focus team encouraged Phil’s son into You-Nique, a behavioural change program which addresses young people’s emotional frustrations by helping them to express themselves rationally.

Phil: “This has been a big benefit to him. I didn’t think it would be any good but after only two or three sessions his behaviour improved markedly. He calmed down, did not throw crockery around.

I also worked up the courage to speak with the school and be transparent and honest about our situation. They have been very patient, understanding and encouraging, particularly the guidance officer and chaplain.”

Phil was quick to say “a psychiatrist who listens!” when asked to sharing what works for him.

“I like the one-on-one with my psychiatrist and also my occupational therapist,” Phil said. “I have learnt to recognise early symptoms of the onset of anxiety; the importance of stopping still and controlling my breathing to calm me down. I am also learning to honour myself.

“I am making headway but there’s a long way to go so Partners in Recovery helped fund some more sessions with my Family Therapist, who has helped me see what an amazing father I am.”

Adam: “Phil’s progress is a great testament to the power of having a hobby, passion or interest to keep the mind occupied and focused on positive things.”

Phil’s been comfortable talking about his recovery journey for the past hour or so. But he’s become distracted, picking up pieces of leather, fiddling with tools.

We say our farewells and Adam and I are hardly out the door before Phil’s back at his bench, ready to tackle his next project.

Postscript: Phil, coming from a place of gratitude, designed and created leather key rings for the PIR fleet vehicles.

And is about to launch a leather craft business, which he designs and manufactures tobacco pouches.

By Ian McDougall

For other Gold Coast events and activities visit the Gold Coast Primary Health Network’s website:

PIR is a Federally funded program. Other consortia members include Gold Coast Health and Mental Health Association QLD