From criminal and drug addict to life coach
Five years ago, Paul Bramble was a physical and mental wreck. After 30 years of drug abuse and 20 years as a career criminal, including four years on the run from police, he had hit rock bottom.
He was homeless and living in men's shelters; his convictions for armed robbery under numerous aliases covered three pages, while his psychiatric and medical history would make your hair stand on end. He walked with a walking stick and was on eight medications to cope with everything from Hepatitis C to bipolar disorder. He was seriously considering ending it all with a drug overdose.
Today, Paul radiates joy and goodwill. The only pill he takes is a thyroid medication – he is cured of Hepatitis C and has thrown away his walking stick. He is not only free of pain; he plays touch footy and cricket. He is a respected member of the community, mentoring young Aboriginal offenders through Tribal Warrior, a programme that involves boxing and maritime training. He also acts as chaplain for the Redfern All Blacks, an Aboriginal rugby league team. To cap it all off, last December, he sailed with the first all-indigenous crew in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race.
"At 52 my life has never been better," says Paul, who is not Aboriginal but jokes that he has a black heart. "It's a phenomenal story. It's one of grace and redemption and transformation."
You may wonder what caused this turnaround. It was not being "saved" because Paul first called on the name of the Lord at age 12 at a holiday sailing camp. Over his life, he reckons he has gone forward at 47 altar calls and "every one of them was heartfelt, every one of them I would have rivers of tears coming down by face, uncontrollably sobbing and remorse".
But each time, within a day, a week or a month, he would relapse and start using drugs again. "I would get pulled down, the biggest temptations would come in my life and I didn't know how to resist," he says.
Paul's world turned upside down at the age of four when his father suddenly left. He then lost his mother too when he was adopted by a "super-strict" God-fearing couple who lived north of Sydney.
"You weren't able to ask any questions, and I was always getting smacked for asking why about things," he recalls. "There was stability in the house but the love, the secret ingredient that we all need, was a little bit lacking."
Paul started dabbling in drugs at about age 15 and a year later he moved on to heroin, which started the merry-go-round of robberies, jail, rehab and relapse.
"I've been to about 20 rehabs but there wasn't really a heart change so when I got out within a week I'd bust again," he admits.
In the mid-80s his fiancée was killed in a car accident and he had to go to the morgue and identify her. After that he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and "one day my whole body and mind broke down. "Once you become mentally sick and physically sick and spiritually sick, it escalates."
A year or so after his fiancée died, Paul started "looking for love in all the wrong areas" going from one bad relationship to another. Then his partner got pregnant and six months after she gave birth to a son they separated, which precipitated another emotional crisis.
"Knowing what it was like for me not to have my dad ... here I was, that pattern was repeating. I was hurting so I went to church."
One day, after a supervised visit with his son at church, Paul sat on the steps outside and started crying.
"I felt like a train had hit me. You have no idea of the trauma inside and the anguish inside the whole situation. In that moment, a very light, audible voice said to me 'That's how I feel when you're not walking with me.' That was the first time I heard God telling me how much He loved me. When I wasn't in relationship with Him and talking to Him, the pain and anguish that I was feeling that day was what He felt."
“God, I’m sick
of running, ...
I’m just going
to surrender”Despite this significant moment, Paul spent another 20 years wrestling with and yelling at God. "I felt that God was a million miles away sometimes. I felt his love and grace was insufficient for me," he said.
What finally broke the pattern was realising from the little glimpses of God throughout his life, how much better life would be if he could put those times together.
"I was actually feeling suicidal and I'd been homeless for a couple of years and been in men's shelters. I had just got housed and I felt like I was in a big coffin," Paul recalls. "I was getting on towards 50 and I thought 'what has my life become?' and seriously feeling suicidal.
"It was then that I actually cried out to God from my very essence. Unlike some of the other times in the past – there was no agenda. It was like 'God, I'm sick of running, I'm sick of being disobedient; I'm just going to surrender ... Take me and I will do whatever it takes.'"
Within weeks of that total surrender, Paul was attending church regularly, was off his medications, did not need his walking stick and felt joyful and at peace. That was five years ago.
His involvement with the community programme Tribal Warrior has given Paul a sense of belonging and sense of value and worth. He has also begun to study at a Bible college.
"For most of my life it was about me and this programme taught me that it's not about you; it's about others. I realised I had something to give to others; I had life experiences to share with the young kids.
"Then I realised that the more you contribute and serve, the more you get back anyway. If you give out of the goodness of your heart, God blesses you in other ways. Doors open."
Paul finds it incredible how God has been able to redeem so many traumatic events from his life. "Eighteen months ago I had a holiday in Queensland and I went past the roadside where my fiancée was killed in a car accident and for once there wasn't that anguish or that pain in there, so that was remarkable. And there are many instances of that where God has taken me full circle and all the bad, ugly, messy hurtful memories are now joyful and positive."•
This article first appeared in Eternity News.