Just like shoving a USB stick repeatedly into a computer, ‘fitting in’ doesn’t always work the first time. No one knows this more than Robbie Maestrecci, a former addict whose past transgressions led him to serve time in prison. Not wanting this to define him, Robbie made the decision to flip the narrative and now uses his larger than life personality to ‘make good’ as a social worker, prison chaplain, and all-round great guy. Robbie has been through it all and has lived (only just) to tell the tale.
We sat down with Robbie to talk about how you have to go through the process of figuring yourself out, and how it makes fitting in with society easier.
Welcome. So, you’re very positive and articulate. Have you always been self-confident?
No. [When I was growing up] I didn’t have a strong sense of self at all. I was just an empty shell. Bit of a chameleon, I’d just blend into situations and circumstances. The dudes I grew up around and looked up to were always beating people up and doing bad things to other people. When I would find people that I looked up to or admired, I’d try to be like them. I think for a lot of my youth anyway. As a kid, you thought they were so tough, as an adult you realize how much they’re not.
How does self-identity play into ‘fitting in with society’?
I’ve forever been on a quest to establish and figure out my identity as a man. Forever trying to figure out what sort of man I am or who I want to be. Over time I realised that I should stop trying to act like someone else. It took a really long time to figure that out. In the end, I realised the most important thing was to just be the real me.
It also takes a bit of time to earn your own self-respect and being comfortable with your true self. When I was young, I would try to be what I thought Arnold Schwarzenegger was like – some big, tough guy. As it turns out, ‘fitting in’ has never worked for me when I tried to be someone else.
Nowadays, I’m glad to say, I’m not really like anyone else. In today’s world, having a soft heart towards people (as a man) can be seen as a weakness, when really that’s far from the truth.
How have you ‘made good’ on your past mistakes?
Looking back throughout my life, I’ve made many mistakes. In a strange way, everything I’ve gone through [has] shaped me to the man I am today and led me to where I am now. Especially when I work with people who are now going through similar struggles that I’ve overcome, I know I can understand them better than anyone else. I know I can reach them and help them to get off that path quicker.
What happened to the friends you had when you realised you needed to change?
I don’t feel like I left anyone behind. I just went my own way.
To get clean I had to be in a clean environment, and that doesn’t happen if you’re still hanging out with mates that are still using. They’re doing the things that you’re trying to stop, so you have to put space between yourself and them. It doesn’t mean you have to stop loving these people when you’re fixing yourself. You just have to learn how to love people from a safe distance. It’s tricky.
Have you kept the same friends as you’ve changed?
Nothing makes me more excited than running into people that I used to know. I love reaching out to them and offer them a different way of doing things. I’ve been able to help quite a few of them move forward. When they see me, without saying a word they know something extraordinary happened. Because when I was a junkie; I looked different, I spoke differently, I walked differently. Now, everything about me has changed. That on its own is enough to get them curious.
How’s ‘fitting in’ now you’re a bit older?
I’m more confident now. If there’s someone I want to talk to I’m going to make it happen.
I’ve also been in some extraordinarily awkward situations. Not awkward for me but awkward for the other people. [Smiles] I had a meeting with some of the Islamic community and the former Attorney General. I walked into the room wearing a t-shirt with a couple of swords on it while these guys were in their suits. They didn’t know what to do so I sat right next to the Attorney General. There’s a photo of us and you can see he’s leaning away.
[Laughing] I love making people uncomfortable because my image has really worked against me, but when people actually chat with me they find I’m super friendly.
So it’s hard for others to accept you for who you truly are?
As far as some people are concerned, I’m some kind of fraud. They still have the mindset of ‘once a criminal, always a criminal’. You know, that’s fine. They can have whatever opinion they like. It just is what it is, frustrating.
I think, to feel more accepted in society you have to be more accepting of yourself.
‘Fitting in’ is about finding yourself? Why is that?
Yeah, as I said, when I was younger I wasn’t anyone. I was just a bunch of ideas and thoughts, there was nothing concrete about me in terms of opinions, views, even physically. I was someone that could walk into a room and no one would shake my hand, Mr. Invisible. It had to do with a lot of things being unsure of myself, being physically a little fella, being unconfident. But yeah, that’s changed. Working with the community has taught me so much about myself.
What effect did volunteering have on you?
When I couldn’t have sunk any lower, I went the other way to see what that felt like.
When I was about 30 years old, I started volunteering in a church, helping to prepare meals for the local needy and get some groceries for them, that was a wonderful experience. It was nice to be around people at the church. They were welcoming to me, they were non-judgemental, they weren’t too interested in my past, they were only interested in my future.
But along with that came a bit of a spiritual journey, looking for theological answers. Looking at the history of different religions. I felt like it would have been ignorant for me just to take the first story that I happened to be born into. Considering there are so many other versions out there, I thought it was sort of duty for myself to go out and explore what the other stories were in relation to God and life, in order to figure out what I actually believed was the truth in my heart.
For me, that ended up being Islam, it was what got me off the drugs and kept me off the drugs. I’m now eight years clean and eight years a Muslim. Above all else, it just made sense to me, which is why I checked it out. I was prepared to come out of that quest with nothing at all, but lo and behold, I found everything.
Today I work with the community mostly. I am a board member of a charity that distributes financial aid to the local community. I also do some outreach work for marginalized youth, at-risk kids who are engaged in criminal behaviour. Kids who are using or selling drugs.
Do you think kids have it easier these days?
I’d just be guessing but I’d say, these days, things are different. They’re definitely different in terms of social media and stuff.
I can only imagine that there’s a lot more pressure on young people to look a certain way and be a certain way, which couldn’t make things easier under any circumstance.
People are putting these filtered photos of themselves all over the Internet. It’s just showing the best moments of their life, so we’re comparing our ordinary life to the absolute best of everyone else’s lives, I think it just makes people a little bit more miserable.
What would you say to someone who’s struggling to feel like they belong?
Do something to make life a little bit better for someone other than yourself, it takes the focus off your own crap.
So, go out there and help people. Go out there and make a difference. Volunteer. You don’t need a degree in medicine to go out and make a significant impact, a difference in the lives of people.
Commit yourself to different opportunities; visiting the elderly, the sick, help feed people. If you’re not a people person, go to the RSPCA and help look after neglected animals.
It doesn’t mean that you won’t need to deal with your own issues. However, reaching out, doing things for others, and making a difference, makes your life more meaningful. The more good you do, the better you’ll feel about yourself.
If you hadn’t done that. If you hadn’t changed your path what would you be doing?
Oh, I’d be on drugs somewhere. I would be getting high before noon. If not running around on drugs, I’d be in prison, and if not in prison, I’d probably be dead.
That’s pretty grim… how does that compare with who you are now?
Well, I’m alive and now I consider myself to be living a pretty extraordinary life. I would not consider my life now a normal life – and I say that with absolute joy, gratitude, and excitement. I feel like I’m on a really good path. I’m excited about who I am, the things that I do and I’m excited about achieving goals
Coming from where I came from, I couldn’t have dreamed this life up for myself.
This article was part of our ‘Making Good’ series. Check out our interview with Robbie and his friends and family here. If you want to read more from Rapt check out our article on ‘making a fresh start’ with ex-con turned fitness mentor Adrian ‘Eddie’ Masih here.
Still keen for more life-changing stories? Revisit our interview with Sam Shadid, Club President at Central Sydney Wolves on ‘How ‘sports ball’ can change your life’ here.