The April 2013 day was like any other. Except something was seriously wrong for Russell Hodge.
The self-funded retiree from Sydney pulled into the driveway of his waterfront home and wrote a note to his wife and four children: “I’m going to live on the street, I’m changing my identity and you won’t be able to find me.”
Mr Hodge put the note on the passenger seat of his Porsche sports car, emptied his pockets of all identification cards and walked out on his life.
“If I was knocked over by a car, no one would have a clue who I was,” Mr Hodge, 73, told The New Daily.
Hours later, the former corporate lawyer and ex-director of Regional Express Airlines found himself rummaging through a rubbish bin for a piece of cardboard to sleep on.
Because he’d left his mobile phone behind at home, Mr Hodge used the digital clock on a parking meter to check the time.
For weeks his family searched the streets of Sydney, putting up missing person posters and liaising with police to track him down.
But Mr Hodge had no desire to be found. The next time his wife – who wishes not to have her name used in this story – heard from him was in a phone call asking her to pick him up and take him to hospital.
After living on the street for about a month, Mr Hodge had been badly beaten. His wife was happy he had made contact, but when he climbed in the car he told her, “I don’t want to be here, I’m only here because I’m bashed.”
He spent the night in hospital then returned home, but his stay was short-lived.
It would be about 18 months before Mr Hodge could return permanently.
He had a fully loving and supportive family, investment properties, even a waterfront tourist resort in Berrara, NSW, yet was sleeping rough on the street because of mental illness.
Mr Hodge became so “incapable of rational thought” he transformed into a completely different person.
“Everything I did was totally unconscious, programmed, unplanned. It was just me at my absolute basic sickest,” he said.
“All I was concerned about was going to the State Library to read the paper in the morning, where I was going to eat that night … (and) having a sleep in the sun in the Botanical Gardens.”
In between sleeping on the street and couch surfing at friends’ houses, Mr Hodge sought help for depression.
“At the time I had no emotional intelligence,” he said.
“I don’t want to sound arrogant but I’m pretty smart intellectually, and I think to a certain extent I was able to intellectualise that I’m suffering depression.”
He later admitted himself into hospital to undergo psychiatric treatment.
There he learned he was suffering from intergenerational trauma. His father’s post traumatic stress disorder from fighting on the front lines in World War II had, in part, been passed down to him.
“What made it worse was my emotional intelligence never developed beyond that of a 13-year-old,” he said.
“That’s what caused the behaviour. The important thing was to have my age of emotional intelligence raised to that of an adult and that’s taken years.”
Mr Hodge’s spiral into homelessness was kickstarted when he came home from a six-month study trip at Paris’ prestigious Sorbonne University and realised “he certainly wasn’t needed”.
During his absence, his wife “had been looking after all the finances” and maintaining the household.
“There was nothing I had done before that wasn’t now being done by somebody else. The world had gone on without me being there.”
Feeling “replaceable” as well as “having absolutely nothing to do pretty quickly pushed me into depression,” he said.
Being stripped of all normality and responsibility and living on the street helped Mr Hodge gradually get better, although he admitted it cost close to $100,000 in treatment to “get me right”.
Homelessness is not a choice, he said.
“You’re either desperate or you’re really sick. I don’t see how as a society, we can tolerate the fact that people live on the street.”
As part of Homelessness Week, which starts on August 4, Mr Hodge is urging more be done to ensure homeless people receive the help they need.
“It’s not a matter of just giving people a roof over their head. There has to be support around them and we’ve got to pay for it as a society,” he said.
These days, he has learned to live his life “without trying to achieve too much” and said while he is better, “I don’t know how vulnerable I am.
“Generally, because of what I’ve been through, I try and be – this is bit clichéd – but I try and be present.”
- Mr Hodge has written about his experience in new book The Oldest Student at the Sorbonne.