Sex, Drugs & Meditation

Mary-Lou Stephens is the drive announcer at ABC Sunshine Coast. She has written an explosive tell-all book about her life.

“I didn’t want people cutting heroin on my coffee table. I didn’t want a taste. But Todd was persuasive, he always had been. He was a happy druggy and totally unapologetic about his lifestyle. I said yes. He arrived with two guys clearly eager to taste the fruits of their bounty. They cut the drugs and gave me a foil. Enough for a good taste. I didn’t have a syringe. They gave me one of those too. Me and the drugs and the means to administer them, alone in the house by the river. I didn’t have time to take drugs anymore.

“I had fudge to make, rehearsals – hell, I even had a band interview at midnight at a radio station in town. The drugs and I stared each other down. The drugs won. As soon as they hit, that familiar taste in the back of the throat and then the explosion of warmth through the body, I regretted it. Not tomorrow but the next day I’d feel like shit and for what? One more lonely night with pinned eyes. The band came around and picked me up at about eleven. The bass player was an ex junkie who recognised the signs immediately. He didn’t say anything. I already felt bad. Once the initial euphoria had gone, I just wanted to throw up. If anyone had any doubts about my state they were completely removed by the time I had to leave the radio studio halfway through the interview. Humiliated and ashamed I ran to the bathroom and vomited in the toilet”.  

“When I was living in Sydney I resented having to work. I wanted to spend all my time making music and touring the country with my new band. So I stole from the source of my resentment. My job. But my job happened to be in a charity shop. I stole not only clothes, which I then sold at a second -hand shop down the road, but money straight out of the till. I wouldn’t ring up some of the purchases and at the end of the day I would slip a twenty into my pocket with no one being any the wiser.”   Stephens, Mary-Lou (2013-04-01). Sex, Drugs and Meditation. Pan Macmillan Australia. Kindle Edition.

Greg Smith: Mary-Lou, it takes incredible courage to bare all as you have in this book.  Tell us why you decided you had to write it?

Mary-Lou Stephens: Ah, Greg, that second extract you’ve chosen was the thing that worried me the most. The morning after I’d signed the publishing deal I woke up terrified. I said to my husband, “Everybody’s going to know I stole. From a charity!” He laughed and said. “With everything else that’s in the book, that’s what you’re worried about? You gave it all back!”

And it’s true. I gave it all back. Repaid all the money. Gave anything I hadn’t paid for back to charity. And repaid the money from the clothes I’d sold. That was thanks to Twelve Step programs, AA, NA, OA and the like. Step Nine is all about making amends so that’s what I did.

Now to your question….why did I put myself through that terror? Why did I risk my job, my friends and the love of my family to write this book? When I used to read self-help books I turned straight to the case studies, the stories. I think human beings are hard-wired for stories, we love them. When I realised my life read like one of those case studies I wondered if other people would be interested in my story.

My first attempts to write Sex, Drugs and Meditation weren’t successful. A literary agent read some of it, saw potential but told me I had to get really, really honest if I was to continue. I wasn’t brave enough at the time so put the manuscript away and write a novel instead. After a few more years and a lot more meditation, I found the courage and rewrote Sex, Drugs and Meditation. I knew when I’d finished the endless drafts that I had written a book worth reading. Pan Macmillan agreed and published it.

Sex, Drugs and Meditation has been described as a very brave book and that’s true. As a radio presenter I was afraid that the revelations about my past in the book might get me fired. There was a real danger that I could lose my job, my friends and my family because of the book. That was something I decided to risk when I signed the contract.

In the end though everything was fine. I still have my job, my friends love me more than ever and almost all of my family are still talking to me.

GS: You were brought up in a dysfunctional family.  You became addicted to food, especially chocolate. Why did this happen?

ML: I was eight years old when I realised food was more dependable than people. Up until then I’d felt safe and loved. But something shifted in my family and in my life. A change of schools left me friendless and at home I was ignored. It was as if I’d become invisible to everybody around me, except when they wanted someone to pick on. I was the youngest of six children. It’s a myth that the youngest is often spoilt. I was the easiest to disregard, the easiest to taunt, the easiest to demean. It set me up for a life of desperately wanting love and attention but angry and defiant because I’d learnt I would never be given it. Chocolate became my best friend and anything with sugar in it was surrogate family. I didn’t need anyone or anything else. If alcohol or drugs had been available to me at that age, I would have been an alcoholic or drug addict at eight. Instead I became an addict of a different kind, resorting to stealing from my parents to feed my habit.

Later, one of my many therapists told me I’d been the victim of gross neglect, which was soothing to hear but ultimately didn’t mean anything. It was not until one of sisters told me that I’d been neglected as a child that I felt validated. I was left to my own devices when I was young, having to look after myself for the most part, and I didn’t do it very well.

GS: Would you agree that three things that saved you were meditation, your music & radio?

ML: Radio was the thing that drove me to meditation! The first chapter of Sex, Drugs and Meditation describes how the ABC went about the restructure of our station. It was brutal. And what followed was even worse. Management had the grace to apologise for it all later but at the time it was shocking. Thanks to my time in Twelve Step programs I realised I couldn’t change my boss or the ABC. I loved my job and if I was going to keep it the only thing I could change was myself. That’s why I went to a silent ten-day meditation retreat. To change myself and save my job. It worked.

Meditation has continued to keep me saner than I would have otherwise been. I’m not perfect that’s for sure but meditation helps.

Music, yes, music is amazing. Although I listen to it less now than I used to. I haven’t been a music director for a while now and our station is pretty much all talk these days, a big change from the old Coast FM days. To tell you the truth it’s a relief now to listen to music only when I want to and to what I want to – not because I have to.

GS: Step us through your radio career. Who helped & hindered you along the way?

ML: All praise to Chris Wisbey from ABC Hobart for pointing me in the right direction, the radio direction. He and I were having lunch and I was heartbroken because my last band had broken up. I had no idea what I was going to do next. He told me I should get into radio, that it was a perfect fit for me. I was gobsmacked. I knew he was right as soon as he said it but I’d never even considered it until he said it.

From there my biggest support and mentor was Simon Marnie (right), now with 702 ABC Sydney but back then he was PD for the fledgling FBi. He gave me a show, taught me how to panel and helped me through the multiple processes and auditions that it took to land a place at AFTRS. He MCed the Sydney launch of Sex, Drugs and Meditation. He’s a true gentleman and a generous soul.

Lucienne Joy was Head of Radio when I was at AFTRS and she was sensational. I loved her. Still do. We had a great group of students in our year including Barry Keohane who has gone on to big things. He was always the one I turned to if I had a radio problem at AFTRs and he always had the answer.

My first job was at 2TM in Tamworth. Michael Church (left) was the PD and a quiet source of support with a great sense of humour. When I asked if I could be the music director he said yes. That had been my goal since I was at AFTRS, to be a music director. When I was a finalist for best new talent at the radio awards the next year and the phones started ringing with offers, I turned them all down until Rod Brice was smart enough to offer me a gig that included being the music director.

I helped start Mix 106.3 in Townsville co-hosting Breakfast with Mark Darin (right) as well as being music director and eventually APD as well. The first few weeks were tough. Mark and I had nothing in common. But we grew to respect each other and appreciate each other’s abilities. I learnt a lot about radio from Mark. He’s a very smart man. Although at the time he said, “No I’m not smart, I’m cunning.” Make of that what you will.

I learnt so much at Mix in Townsville, mainly because I was working such bloody long hours doing everything for the station. But it was invaluable. I almost wasn’t given the job at ABC Coast FM because they thought I’d get bored after the work load I was used to. Never happened. Coast FM changed and changed again. There was never time to get bored. And now the station is ABC Sunshine Coast and I have three hours of talk to fill a day. No time for boredom!

GS: In your book you complained about programming consultants making it hard for you during your time at Mix in Townsville. I believe that my old firm esp was to blame.  I found this in the archives.                        

‘Mark and Mary-Lou have established good chemistry in a very short period of time.  Both are working hard and have put together some good shows. So far they have achieved a strong basic format.  They’ve had some good responses to Primal topics and are doing great show prep. Mary-Lou is spending too much time doing the MIX music.  She needs to work with you on cutting this down.  She’s working too many hours in the station and will eventually burn herself out’.                                                                             

GS: Was this a fair assessment?

ML: Okay, here’s a direct quote from Sex, Drugs and Meditation: “The hours were crushing, the workload impossible, and the highly paid consultants made my life a misery every time they came to town.”

Yes, you were one of the highly paid consultants. The reason you guys made my life a misery is that my workload would triple every time you came to town. I was the APD, the music director and presenting Breakfast. Anything to do with the station I had to be across and help implement. So every time you guys visited you would put changes in place and whammo – I was the one who had to make sure they happened because every change affected an aspect of my job. When the music format changed because the station wasn’t cutting through, I had to rebuild the database and the clocks as well as everything else. So yeah, it was tough but like I say, I learnt a lot.

GS: Content Directors are screaming out for breakfast talent who are comfortable with revealing their personal lives on air.  Why aren’t you doing breakfast somewhere?

ML: I hate getting up early. Enough said. I used to play in bands. I’m a night owl. I was happiest when I was presenting Evenings for the ABC. Drive is about as early as I do. I’ll fill in occasionally on Breakfast if need be but it wrecks me for the rest of the week. All respect to Breakfast announcers – you have every excuse to be extremely grumpy.

GS: You were breakfast producer to the late John Stokes on Coast FM. What was that like?

ML: When I produced Stokesy on Breakfast I didn’t start work until 7am. Back then Breakfast went from 5am to 10am and we played a lot of music. The ABC couldn’t afford to pay me penalties so I started later. John had been doing that shift for years without a producer so he wasn’t fazed. I was also the music director for both the Gold and Sunshine Coast at the time and had plenty of other work to do. John and I kind of did our own thing.

I went on to present Evenings then Afternoons and then Drive, which had been my original shift before the restructure.

Later, after John returned to work after a year off for chemo and other treatments, he didn’t want to present Breakfast anymore. It was too stressful on his body. He wanted to do the Drive shift – which I was presenting. The ABC asked me if I’d present Breakfast. I said no (see above). That left the ABC in a pickle until I volunteered to come off air to produce Stokesy. Management were amazed. No one volunteers to come off air. I did it for John. He was a wonderful broadcaster, a great connector with a real sense of the community. He was a force of nature and was still ringing us with story ideas even after he’d had to retire due to ill health. He was one of the reasons I loved my job as much as I did. He made me feel as though I’d come home from the moment I met him, that I belonged. He is greatly missed.

GS: Tell us about your new book that’s just been released.

ML: My first book Sex, Drugs and Meditation told the story of how meditation changed my life, saved my job and helped me find a husband. How To Stay Married, is the truth behind the happy ending; a journey from fear, resentment and financial devastation, to a place of love, joy and trust.

How to Stay Married takes you around the world; from the glitter and glare of Las Vegas to the sub-zero temperatures of the French Alps and the tropical heat of Thailand, all with cabin luggage only.  The discoveries I made about myself and my marriage are a modern day parable about learning to travel light in life, love and relationships.

GS: Which song of yours are you most proud of?

ML: Strange Homecoming is the one that’s connected with the most people, it’s the song that almost got me a record contract and it’s always been the hardest song for me to sing. It took me two years to be able to sing it without bursting into tears. You can listen to it here

At the other end of the spectrum is You’ll Always Be in Love With Me. It’s cheeky and it’s brutal – just listen to the lyrics. I used to love performing this song live. It’s the most seductive song I’ve ever written and the cruelest.

GS: You’ve achieved so much since your dark past. What’s left on your wish list?

ML:  I’m writing another novel at the moment. I have a list of books that need to be written, such is the plight and the pleasure of a writer.  And more travel is the big thing on my wish list. When I was playing in bands I lived on very little. I saw a lot of Australia while touring but I’d like to see more of the world. The perspective travel brings is life changing – as you can read in my book How to Stay Married 🙂

Mary-Lou can be contacted on her website here.

A kindle version of her book Sex, Drugs & Meditation is available here.  

Greg Smith is an inductee into the Australian Radio Hall of Fame, and a Director of Radio Today

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