Meet a Voyager: Mike Mather

Mike Mather is the founder of the Dharmaholic newsletter and community, and this bird is their mascot.

Q: Can you tell me about your childhood?

I was born in 1963 in Brisbane with 2 larger sisters, and in 1965, a sickly brother was born. Just before my 6th birthday, David died. That year, my only male cousin choked and died, and my granddad passed after mowing the lawn. Dad and I were the only males the eye could see.

Photo taken right before Mike’s dad died and Mike got sober.

My father was a heavy drinker and hit the bottle hard then, and my mum, sisters, and I suffered from that as well as the loss. What he didn’t tell until later was that he fathered another daughter in 1965. He was trying to support that child too.

Eventually, he stayed sober for 3 years and got financially and physically fit. My sisters married young, and I was Mum’s only one left. Dad began to drink again, and Mum made me a surrogate spouse.

Q: How did that affect your life? What about your mental health?

I didn’t know about mental health then. I felt that my family was the best in the world.
A sobering alcoholic is a very hard person to live with, and my dad didn’t have AA, therapy, or spirituality to help him with this transformation. I remember he was very strict with my sisters and me, including ‘Be seen and not heard’, ‘Go to church on Sunday and holy days, and ‘Do what I say, not what I do’. So, my mental health? I was a crier and got teased about it by my brothers-in-law. I became a very studious and pious boy and never missed a day at school, went to Mass every Sunday with my sisters or alone, and I played all the sports I could manage. In hindsight, I was trained to not feel but to do. My sisters both married when I was around 9. I was also being nurtured by my grieving mother.

Q: What happened next in your life?

I got my girlfriend pregnant, and we married. Adam was born. I began to drink alcohol right from the start and was seeing a psychiatrist at 20. We divorced in our early 20s, and I tried several selling professions to make a career.

From left: Sebastion, Imagen, Mike and Adam

Sebastian and Imogen were born from a chaotic yet convenient relationship. I was pretty successful at Real Estate and owned my own agency for a while but went bankrupt in the late 20th Century.

Mike and Imogen

Imogen and Sebastian moved with their mother to Ireland, but Sebby didn’t like it, so I flew him home, and he lived with his drunken Dad for 15 years. Imogen and her mother came back to Australia. Imogen died of complications arising from her Down Syndrome in 2019. Seb now lives with his Mum and doesn’t answer my calls.

I now have a long-term partner, Heather. She is also a sober alcoholic. I received a small inheritance and restored a 1967 vintage caravan, in which I live. It is 2m × 4m. I pull it around Australia in a 20-year-old Subaru Forrester.

Q:  How do you describe the link between mental health and alcoholism? 

Alcoholism is a mental, physical, and spiritual disease. I have a mental obsession to drink to alleviate pain or suffering. The physical craving then steps in and I cannot stop when I want to. I do not know if I was bipolar as a child, but the highs for me are very high, and in our family, we drank to celebrate anything. My depression feels like it has always been there, and my father suffered badly too. He would take sick leave often and sit in front of the TV, shouting out for more cups of tea for hours. When he drank, he always got drunk. I not only saw this as role-modelling, but I was powerless to do otherwise. Alcohol relieved all my suffering until it began to cause suffering. I became a morning drinker in my thirties. 

Q:  What about when you got sober? What finally helped you get sober?
I have rarely worked in this century, but due to the Disability Support Pension the government gave me when I was 44 I have had an income. I was back living with my Mum and Dad in the coastal paradise apartment that I sold them. Dad’s lung cancer got worse, and he died. One year after that, I got sober.

I cared for my mother when I got sober in 2008 until she needed full-time High-care.

It took me 2.5 years of going to AA before I stayed sober for more than 50 days. I am now 15 years sober. The week that I finally got sober, I went to my first Buddhist Dharma class, and I combined Dharma and AA for my spiritual resurrection.

Being a solid part of both the Kadampa Buddhist community and AA has saved my life.

Q:  How did you find Buddhism? Can you describe what you felt when you discovered it? 

I became a reader of all matters Theological when I turned my back on religion the day after I got married (I was a grown-up now!) Eastern mysticism seemed attractive and the Beatles might have helped. When I was struggling with AA, and on the first anniversary of dad’s death, I picked up a flyer for a Buddhist class that was on the next Thursday night. On Monday, I got valium for the DTs from the doctor, went to AA every day, and began to study Tibetan Buddhism in a newly formed group in my city of Gold Coast. I did a lot of service work for both organisations and felt a sense of purpose for something other than me and my family.

Q:  How do you support yourself now?

I write a weekly newsletter structured around a 12-month cycle of Dharma and AA work. My Dharmaholic business has just made a little income this week. I have plans to build a platform that combines the two guidelines provided by Buddhist philosophy and the framework of the 12-Step Workbook. There will be courses to complete and people to associate with that can bring relief from suffering and a genuine community.

Myself, I feel that approaching 60 without any money or security is scary. I have the opportunity to share the experiences that I have been blessed to have with others. The digital age has certainly provided that opportunity.

I feel some real responsibility to give back what was given me. The Kadampa Buddhist community is a worldwide organisation that helps spread Tibetan Buddhism in the West, and AA is a worldwide community that helps alcoholics achieve and maintain sanity without drinking.

Q:  If you could share one piece of wisdom about mental health and alcoholism to your younger self, what would you share? 
You’re not that important. You are unique, valuable, and precious, but your life is not all about you. Our interdependence is what is real, and constantly trying to fix your own problems is a losing game. Help others and learn from the experience of giving compassion. The rewards in life come from giving of yourself, not from getting for yourself.

Q:  What do you wish people understood about you that they might not?
Being an introverted, bipolar man, I tend to enjoy the business of learning how to do “the business,” more than actually meeting and helping people. At least, that’s the story I tell myself.

I am a part of both houses—on my own terms, in my caravan.

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