“I had no idea how low and broken I was until I was found”.
At 21, Bronwen Healy was a drug addict and a prostitute. Her heroin addiction had overtaken her. She sold her body to pay for drugs, living shot by shot, hit by hit. On the streets of Brisbane, she loitered near bus shelters and outside strip clubs, offering herself up to men as they walked by, and taking them back to an illegal brothel. On a slow night, she’d have two clients; a busy one, up to 12.
Bronwen describes the 12 months she spent as a sex worker as the “the most soul destroying” of her life. Feeding her heroin habit had lost her a job working in a cinema, required her to sell many of her possessions to get more cash, seen her evicted from rentals, seduced her into stealing from friends and family and finally pushed her into doing the only thing she could think of to continue her habit.
“I’d run away from everyone in my old life, except a heroin-addicted partner. After I got fired, I went home on the bus and I never thought about stopping. I opened up the phone book to escort agencies, made one phone call and started work that night, selling my body and soul to strangers for money.”
The work paid off, but the money went straight into Bronwen’s veins. “I went from maybe $100 of heroin a day on a big day when I’d been stealing money before, to up to $1000 worth at my very worst.”
She had hit rock bottom, but didn’t know she’d arrived.
For those who’ve never had an addiction, never felt its power, the question has always been: how do people get themselves into such a mess?
The answer, says Bronwen is: all too easily.
Raised as a ‘regular kid’, Bronwen says she always knew her parents loved her. She went to an elite private girls school and as a teenager dreamed of a job in Hollywood. She’d had a part time job at the local cinema. Unhappy with her school at the time, Bronwen had lobbied her parents to let her transfer to a school with a special focus on film and TV Brisbane. It was there that Bronwen was introduced to drugs.
“My parents had been wary of the school – it had a bad reputation. But I was a good student, and they eventually let me go. I was maybe one of two people the class that didn’t smoke pot most days. I studied hard, got good grades. And then, three weeks out till the end of school, I new I had the grades to get to uni, and thought I deserved a treat.
“So when someone offered me pot, I tried it. I was 16, and quickly I was smoking pot almost everyday with the others.”
At Schoolies celebrations, Bronwen dabbled with other drugs: acid, speed, ecstasy. She partied hard on weekends.
“But weekends started getting longer than the weekdays.”
At 18, Bronwen was in a relationship with a heroin addict and discovered she was pregnant. Her doctor recommended termination and Bronwen wasn’t in a good place. After the abortion, she says she fell into a deep depression.
“The guilt and shame of it—I was so angry at myself and at my boyfriend because he was so high he didn’t think or feel anything. I’d ask him to give some to me, and he’d say ‘No, I love you too much to give it to you.’ I thought that was so sweet at the time. But one day, he needed money, and I wanted drugs.”
They both got what they wanted. Within two weeks, Bronwen was using heroin every day. Three years later, and we’re back at her lowest point.
Getting ready for a night of work, Bronwen’s mum turned up at the brothel. She hadn’t seen Bronwen in over a year.
“She told me I wasn’t the girl they’d raised, that they’d been looking for my name in the death notices. I didn’t feel sad—in that moment, all I was thinking about was how I just needed to start work to get more money to get more drugs. I needed her to leave. I didn’t need the guilt trip.”
But as she was leaving, Bronwen’s mum said something that penetrated: “I just want you to look at yourself in the mirror, and ask, ‘who am I?’”
It was a comment Bronwen immediately dismissed and scoffed at that night, but over time, it’s exactly what Bronwen did. “I just started to hear my mum in my head. The only time I looked at myself was caking on the make up to go to work in the brothel. And I freaked myself out by what I saw.”
Eventually, the question went from “Who am I?” to “How do I get out?”
Running away from the brothel and her old life, Bronwen wound up at a rehabilitation centre run by Christians in Mt Gravatt, Queensland. She says looking back now, she is ashamed of her behaviour in the first couple of weeks of getting clean.
“I’d signed a contract to stay there, which pretty much meant I had to attend prayer meetings and Bible studies and church. It was all compulsory. I was angry, hurting and broken. I’d yell at them, ‘Why do you have to study the Bible every day? I thought these people are just too intense.
“But they chose to see beyond who I was right then, beyond my language, my sarcasm, my lack of appropriate dress sense. They just saw me.”
Bronwen would go to the church services and sit as far to the back as possible, more often than not she’d stand in the door way and smoke, blowing smoke in through the door “just to annoy them”. But one Sunday, it was pouring rain. And she had to go inside.
“The pastor was preaching something about forgiveness. I wasn’t really listening, but he got to the end and said something about ‘forgiveness for your past and a new life today’ and I thought, actually, I need that. The next minute, I was at the front, and the pastor asked me if I wanted to accept Jesus.
“People knew me there as a hard case. I wanted to say something to God, and the pastor said ok, but told me it wasn’t a good idea to swear. So I prayed. I dared God to take me. If the love those people had shown me was real, and came from him, I dared him to have his way with me.”
Bronwen describes herself as a person who “lives outside people’s comfort zones”.
“I’m all in. And I was with God. Those days after that, I believe God set me free from addiction.”
Six years after Bronwen started using heroin, she was saved.
Now, she wants that same love for other women. Founding The Hope Foundation, Bronwen is meeting women with all sorts of addictions – drug, alcohol, gambling – and women working in the sex industry who want help getting out.
“Most of these women are coming from backgrounds where there’s been some sort of sexual abuse – they’ve got such low self worth. I want them to know that they’re loved, valued and created for a purpose. We want to promote their God-given worth.”
In 2013, almost 15 years after Bronwen started the process of detox, and met God in rehab, she was nominated as a state finalist for Australian of the Year. It’s an honour, says Bronwen, for a woman with such a story. But now, true to form, her focus is on increasing the capacity for Hope Foundation to reach out to more women.
“We’ve gone from assisting 30 women a month to 30 women a week,” she says. The foundation employs two full time case managers to help Bronwen, meeting women “where they are, in the midst of their own stories” and gives them something to do: free lunches, prayer support, resources and referrals to other services, art therapy, creative workshops, cooking classes. Ultimately, somewhere safe.
“We use the power of my story to show them that anything’s possible,” says Bronwen.
“God saw me. He had seen everything, and he loved me anyway.”More