Captains Daniel and Amanda Ross ... a long way from a life of drug and alcohol abuse.
Captains Daniel and Amanda Ross ... a long way from a life of drug and alcohol abuse. Warren Lynam

Before I found God I had to beat drugs and alcohol

DANIEL Ross began his university life by getting drunk and falling off a railway overpass, dislocating his hip and breaking an arm.

The fact he survived the fall was more surprising than the fact he was drunk, because he was drunk a lot back then.

Being drunk, high and partying had been the focus of his life for several years and would continue to be for several more.

It's hard to imagine now.

These days Daniel is a responsible husband, a father of four children and a Captain in the Salvation Army at Maroochydore.

He's also devoted his life to helping others in the same way the church helped him when he was at his lowest.

 

Christmas cheer, courtesy of the Salvos.
Christmas cheer, courtesy of the Salvos. Contributed

Daniel says he first discovered marijuana when he was 14 or 15 and growing up in Alstonville, near Lismore, in northern NSW.

"A lot of my friends and their families grew their own, so it was easy to get," he recalls.

"So I did that plus, of course, like a lot of teenagers I drank to be a man because that's what you do in country towns.

"Like many people my age, I was anxious because of the pressures of being a teenager.

"I found those high school years difficult. Not for any major reason - just because of the stresses on kids my age.

"They tell you they are the best years of your life and you have to have it all worked out and you're like 'seriously, if these are the best years of my life, then what's the point?'."

We're talking in a small office in the Salvation Army's Maroochydore offices.

Sitting beside Daniel is his wife Amanda, who is also a Captain with the church.

She was born into a Salvation Army family and was, she says, a "good girl".

The chances of their paths crossing would normally be slim.

But that's getting ahead of our story - it's usually best to start at the beginning.

Born in 1976, Daniel had a "fairly ordinary", stable childhood in a working class family.

Dad was a builder and mum was a teacher. Both were from farming families in the Alstonville area.

Daniel was the eldest of their three children and had a younger brother and sister.

When he discusses his childhood, it's obvious he's analysed it pretty closely over the years.

"I think I went from being a good kid to a kid who was trying to find his place ... to come to terms with who he was," he says.

"I was probably lucky not to get in more trouble than I did, because many of my friends did. 

"Some days we would smoke marijuana on the way to school, some days at school and we would definitely smoke it on the way home.

"And it was all free because it was peoples' own private supplies.

"I was lucky the consequences of my bad decisions in those teenage years were not as bad as they could have been.

"I know some friends of mine did some illegal things and got in trouble for it. I happened not to be there those nights.

"It's not that my heart was bad but you do things with friends ...

"I also look back at the way we hooned around and realise we were lucky not to have an accident.

"Years later I've heard about people who continued down the path I was on and got into a bit of trouble."

He remembers he was on the verge of being expelled from high school but was saved by his natural ability at science.

He also remembers his physics teacher, Mr Cox, interceding on his behalf.

"Halfway through Year 11 I had not met minimum requirements to finish that year and he became involved.

"He knew how naturally talented I was but I wouldn't turn up for school and when I did, I smelt of cigarettes or other substances and yet still did well.

"Unlike a lot of my friends who were asked to leave school because of their poor attendance, my attendance was probably overlooked because I still produced good grades.

"I genuinely didn't feel at terms with who I was.

"I think a lot of teens struggle with that - who am I?

"In my case, I discovered that getting off my head with different things - alcohol or marijuana - relieved that tension.

"You are with a bunch of other people who just roll as friends and you get sucked along with it.

"But it was more about coming to terms with who I was.

"I was a shy and anxious kid who struggled to come to terms with things."

 

Daniel brings a smile to a young face in his work as a Salvation Army captain.
Daniel brings a smile to a young face in his work as a Salvation Army captain. Contributed

Daniel graduated with good enough results to study chemical engineering at Newcastle University but finished his O-Week celebrations by falling off the railway overpass and having to spend a month in traction.

"I was lucky to survive," he admits.

"People say 'oh you were lucky you were drunk or you wouldn't have survived' and I'm like 'well, I probably wouldn't have done it if I wasn't drunk'.

"I didn't realise I had a problem. I was just partying but I was one of those drinkers who, once I started, I kept going.

"By the end of high school I had probably stopped smoking marijuana in a major way and drinking became my primary outlet.

"So that began three-and-a-half or four years of doing okay at uni but starting to do worse and also finding alcohol was a way I dealt with my problems.

"If things got tough, I would just go out and party and university was a place you could hide that well because on any night there was always someone going out and partying."

Daniel says he was a hard drinker for another three-and-a-half years and threw a few other substances into the mix as well.

"I used LSD a lot but I wasn't into going to dance clubs so I never tried ecstasy which was the drug of choice at the time," he reveals.

Eventually, the effects of his heavy drinking and drug-taking combined with his anxious personality to cause serious depression and anxiety attacks.

"At the peak of that I had a panic attack on the side of the road as I was trying to find my car that I'd left in a carpark at the university five days earlier because I was too drunk to find it.

"So I started seeing a counsellor to deal with the depression because, to my mind, the only real problem was that I couldn't afford to keep drinking.

"Alcohol didn't seem to be a problem as far as I was concerned ...

"I was put on medication for depression but kept drinking on top of that, so I ended up going to a 12-step program in 1999 at the tender age of 21 or 22."

It was while he was on that program that he ran into his cousin's best friend, who had been bailed to a Salvation Army rehab program and urged him to go along.

"He said there were a lot of young people there, no one drank and it was a safe environment," Daniel remembers.

"Other people were suggesting the same, so I went to the Salvation Army one night midway through 1999 as a 22 -year-old and I instantly knew that whatever I was looking for, I was going to find it there.

"I can't tell you anything more about it but I know I walked out of that first night knowing I had found what I was looking for.

"It was just a sense of certainty in a time of great turmoil and when I was really hanging on for dear life."

And that's how Daniel met Amanda, the "good girl" who had grown up in Maitland as the youngest of three girls in a strong Salvation Army family.

"I had a pretty normal childhood," Amanda says.

"I was probably a good girl - a born and bred Salvo who'd been at church all my life.

"I didn't get into trouble. I didn't do much. I didn't go to parties or anything like that.

"I was an average student. I wouldn't have said that academically I was great - singing was my thing.

"I wanted to be an opera singer."

Her life was uneventful until Grade 10, when her mum was diagnosed with cancer.

With both her older sisters married and left home, it was just her and her parents at home during a very difficult time.

Although her grades suffered, she made in into the conservatorium of music to study opera singing, but lasted just a few months.

"I ended up pulling out of that by Easter because mum had got very sick," she says.

"I cared for my mum at home for the last two years of her life and worked for my parents in the family business to help mum and dad."

It was shortly before her mum died in August 2000 that she crossed paths with Daniel.

"The church we attended at the time had rehab guys who would come on a Sunday night so there was always new faces.

"I got to know Daniel a little bit in our extended group of friends and we went to a young adults camp run by the Salvation Army in March 2000, which was a big thing because I hadn't left my mum's side for ages.

"I got to know him a little bit then and from that point on our friendship built and a couple off weeks after that we started dating.

"It just felt right."

Maybe suprisingly, she says her family and friends supported her decision to date a young man with "a past".

"Both my sisters married Salvos guys, so there was an expectation I would marry somebody who had grown up in the church.

"But mum was so sick at that time ... I remember that Mother's Day she got so bad that the officers followed me home from church to visit her.

"The next morning Daniel called me - just a 30-second phone call to see if I was okay.

"From that point on, mum and dad thought 'he's going to take care of her'.

"They saw the way he treated me and the other stuff became insignificant."

Aftre his tearaway youth, it took Daniel several months to come to terms with the church's teachings but he says the attitude towards his past made it possible.

"Even though I didn't grow up in the church, it was a Salvation Army church that genuinely believed in new beginnings and saw people who had a whole lot of different backgrounds become new people and get whole new futures because of love, because of forgiveness, because of grace and because they genuinely believe that's what this is about - that's what our faith is about," he says.

"That was how I was treated - not as the person who did all that stuff in the past.

"I was a person who gets to be whatever I want to be ... whatever God wanted me to be, which isn't that broken person."

 

Daniel and Amanda with their children at a Brisbane Roar game.
Daniel and Amanda with their children at a Brisbane Roar game. Contributed

He went back to university and finished his chemical engineering degree before accepting a job in western NSW.

Three months later, in November 2001, he and Amanda were married and she was able to join him.

Their first child was born a year later but Daniel and Amanda soon began feeling they had to do more with their lives.

"By the end of two years we felt God wanted us to do something else," Daniel says.

"We had a very awkward discussion about throwing everything in because we were on the path of success in Australia - a good career path, a young family, paying the house off - but then God's telling us it's time to shut the door on that and become officers in the Salvation Army."

After two years of training in Sydney, they were posted to Griffith, in the Riverina area of NSW.

Three years and two children later and with their fourth on the way, they went to Bathurst, then Newcastle and finally the Sunshine Coast.

With the four children and busy careers, life today is busy but the couple say they have definitely found their calling.

"Being Salvation Army officers, we get to participate in some of the most amazing experiences in peoples' lives and also some of the most tragic and heart-breaking," Daniel explains.

"We get to participate somehow.

"We don't do any transformation - no one can change someone's heart. That's between them and the Lord.

"But we get to be a conduit of that love."

He says he uses his life story to guide young people but doesn't try to force it onto them.

"I talk about me and my past but I don't lecture them because who wants to hear that?

"I try to know them and have time to hear where they're at and just do life with them.

"One of the most powerful things we have in our lives are the things that have happened to us and how we've dealt with them.

"But what's happened in your life doesn't have to define you.

"It informs who you are but it doesn't define your whole future.

"We can't ignore decisions we've made - we have to own them.

"But they can make us better people."

If you have a problem with drugs or alcohol, help is available at:

Alcoholics Anonymous - 1300-222222

Lifeline - 131114

The Salvos - 137258


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