Life was a drug and alcohol-fuelled-haze for Simone Elise Winter ever since she can remember. After struggling with her identity, as she led a secret life of a transgender person, Winter turned her life around to find purpose, meaning and a sense of belonging. The Sunnyhills resident talks to FARIDA MASTER about her transformative journey and being clean for the last five years.
It never felt right
Growing up was tough being a transgender kid. There was a lot of trauma involved. In the 80s it wasn’t accepted as it is today. I knew I was different but couldn’t really express myself. Dad was an angry man… I struggled thorough school, it didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. I was born in the UK and at the age of 10 my mum and I, together with my brother moved to New Zealand. We lived in Wellington, then.
Drugs and alcohol
By the time I was 15, I was into drugs and alcohol. At the age of 17, they said I was bipolar and put me onto strong medication that I just didn’t like. They were strong drugs like Lithium. I started self-medicating and doing weed.
Joined the Royal Navy in UK
In search of an identity at the age of 22, I returned to UK. At 28, I joined the Royal Navy. In the navy, I had to hide my identity and act like a man. There was so much confusion within me. I was learning to be a marine engineer mechanic, but then alcohol started getting in the way. Within six months I went absent without leave, AWOL, and disappeared. I was on the next train to London. I didn’t have a place to go and literally did a tic tac toe. That’s how it was decided that I was going to Spain. I landed in Malaga, Andalucia. Luckily, I got a job in a day’s time and worked in a bar. It’s difficult for transgender people to get jobs.
Sick and tired
I was sick and tired of being tired, of suffering from depression and anxiety. I knew I had a major problem. At my worst, I was an IV drug user. I used to inject drugs in my veins. Sadly, when you are into drugs you are living in a dangerous world, dealing with dangerous people. They never let you get it out of your system. They want to keep you sick. There were times I used to drink myself to oblivion. And tried to end my life.
I woke up at Tiaho Mai (Adult Mental Health Services) in Middlemore Hospital after an attempt to take my life. It was there that after talking to the psychologist I realised that either I do something about my life and turn it around or then there was no point living it.
It was a wake-up call! It’s funny, I was looking for freedom but ended up in my own cell!
Came out of the closet
It was in the year 2012, I came out as a transgender. It was a huge struggle. I’d felt so alone and didn’t find any connection with the outside world. I slipped into the drug world.
In 2016, I started with Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD) respite. I was told to start with just keeping myself clean for five days. I felt good and kept going. Next, I got the 30-day tag.
Soon after I did the 12-step NA and AA fellowship program a peer-based mutual help program for alcoholism, drug abuse and other addictive behaviours. The steps are guiding principles that outline how to overcome addiction, avoid triggers, and live a healthy, productive life.
I also did the eight-week Salvation Army Bridge Programme on self-awareness that gives you an understanding that you ‘can’ do something to change things around. You also learn about spiritual awareness. It was wonderful how many people and agencies came together to help with my recovery. At the end of the day, it is not a ‘me’ programme, it’s a ‘we’ programme. It’s about having a purpose, a meaning in life. I did groups with Care NZ Counties Manukau, Wellness, Recovery, Action, Plan (WRAP) a simple and powerful process for creating the life and wellness you want; and DRIVE, which is part of EMBER Korowai Takitini Care services in Otahuhu.
Clean for five years
I have been clean for five years and 24 days (at the time of the interview). I realised that once I started connecting with people, I started to feel better. There was a sense of belonging. It’s important to surround yourself with good people who care for you. I also did a Level 4 Mental Health and Well Being course with Future Skills and got a job as a residential peer support with AOD Respite. I worked with them for the last three and a half years. Now I’ve just got a new job as peer support for mental health with Emerge Aotearoa.
Last year when I returned from Korea after a voice surgery, a friend suggested that I come for a run with Speed Freaks, which is running for recovery. The Speed Freaks Trust is a charitable trust that supports recovery from addiction and mental distress through running and walking. At the time I was feeling quite weak after the surgery and decided to just walk instead of running. However, in the month of October, I ran my first Auckland Marathon.
The Speed Freak Trust meets up every Saturday morning at 7.45am at Barry Curtis Park. It’s an achievement for a lot of people to connect. It’s getting bigger and bigger. It’s about health, fitness, connecting with like-minded people as we support each other. I’m a peer representative. What’s wonderful is that at the end of the run, we have a check-out round – just to know how you are doing. We check on each other.