It’s been a wild ride for Ayik Chut Deng. He survived unspeakable violence as a child soldier in the Sudan, before moving to Queensland as a refugee in 1996.
But for a while, life was turbulent here, too. After his post-traumatic stress was misdiagnosed as schizophrenia, Ayik was wrongly medicated. He began abusing drugs and alcohol, clocking up a slew of criminal charges ranging from drug dealing to drink driving. “It was being a father that sorted me,” he says. “That gave me something to live for.”
Here, Ayik explains how he turned his life around and why – after everything he’s lived through – he can handle the craziness of being a single dad.
Australia is one of the best countries in the world. If I’d gone to America, I’d be dead by now. I’d have joined a gang – of course, I’d have joined! I was into guns due to my past as a child soldier.
When my child was born in 2006, I was at the birth in the hospital. But the love wasn’t as strong as it is now. I reckon the love of a father builds and builds over time.
At the time when my son was born I was on medication. I’d been misdiagnosed with schizophrenia instead of post-traumatic stress disorder. But at the same time I was using illegal drugs – weed and ecstasy – but I was also drinking.
His mother left me in 2008. I was mixed up in the drug world and lost track of where I was going in life. She said, “You’re going to get locked up, so there’s no point – I’m leaving.”
That did wake me up. After that I realised, OK, I’ve been on medication now for six years and I’m not getting better, I use illegal drugs and my partner left me because I wasn’t doing anything with my life. That’s when I stopped using drugs.
The problem was that I started drinking more instead. There was a time when I used to wake up and grab a beer out of fridge. It was like a breakfast.
I stopped drinking in 2013. It was being a father that sorted me. What happened, I realised that I was raised without a father – he was killed at the start of the war. And I realised that although my son had a father, I had a problem. So I decided to stop drinking to be able to connect with my child.
I wanted my kid to know what it’s like to have a father, because I missed out on all that. And being a child soldier too, I wasn’t raised with my own family so I missed out on my own childhood, too. When I play with my son now, I’m living my childhood through him.
I feel good when I’m with my son. I feel really good that somebody is looking up to me, and I’m making promises that I stick to. I don’t break my promises with my children.
It took me a long time to get access to him. But my message to dads who don’t have access to their kids is never, ever, ever give up. Now I have joint access. At the moment I’m getting along pretty good with the mother and I try and help her in every way.
But now I’m also a single dad raising a child by myself. My daughter is 16 months old – she was given to me when she was only eight days old. Her mother had drug problems, which I never knew when I first met her. It was a one-night stand and she got pregnant. So when Sunday was born, the child safety called me and said: “This is your child – the mother can’t keep her. Are you going to take the baby or not?” It took me half an hour to make my mind up.
Being a single dad – okay, it is hard, especially the first few months when the baby wakes up every single hour. But it’s not as hard as how some people describe it. All the baby wants is to be fed, loved and cared for. You keep them clean, you give them lots of attention and then I think you are covered, honestly. All you can do is you take it day by day.
And I’ve been through worse my life. I suffered in the war as a child soldier. I’ve been shot at. I’ve been bombed by jet fighters. I’ve been ambushed. In Africa, there were times when I had to eat rats and drink my own urine. Compared to that being a single dad isn’t so hard.
What advice do I give my son? I tell him: “Always give everybody a chance. Don’t judge people before you get to know them. Your friend’s enemy might be the best friend to you in the long term.”
I tell him: “I lost my dad when I was very young and my grandmother was burned to death. Just remember: we’re not going to live forever. So the time you have, live it well and be nice to people!”
I tell him: “If I die, you take care of your little sister. Take care of Sunday.”
I’m getting some work now as an actor. I signed a contract today for an ABC series. I really want to work on Thor: Love & Thunder with Chris Hemsworth. My favourite movie of all time is Commando with Arnold Schwarzenegger – that was the first movie that I ever saw.
My best achievement, the only thing that I’ve ever really achieved in this life, is my two children. There’s nothing else. My acting, all these things don’t count to me. My children make me happy, and I hope one day they will make other people in this world happy, too.
The Lost Boy by Ayik Chut Deng is out on March 31. Pre-order it here