Everybody has a story: Abel Max, 36

As told to Chloe Walker, published in frankie 26 (November/December 2008)

The night of my 30th birthday I thought, I’ve had a rough 29 years, I’m just going to do something for myself. This will be a new beginning. It was like saying goodbye to those years, and good riddance. I went to a bar, enjoyed my smoking and drinking. It was me time.

The next night I went out to celebrate with friends. We went to a place called Virgona’s for old time’s sake. It was the only place in Brunswick Street that was open to 5.30am. The place was buzzing, it had a nice vibe, the music was pumping – '70s and '80s retro. At about 3.30am I was talking to a girl in an armchair by the window. I was standing over her and she wanted to tell me something. The music was too loud and I couldn’t hear, so I leant over. And then this bang happened.

I thought someone had thrown a pool table on my back, and that the pool table was on fire. I turned around and saw this hole in the window and the girl in absolute shock, glass in her hair, motionless, eyes bulging. Then some dude started yelling, "Get down! Get down!" And that’s when pandemonium hit.

I realised I was shot. I was the calmest person in the place. Stupid things were going through my head. I didn’t want to get on the floor and dirty my jeans – they were my birthday jeans and they’d been around the world with me. People started running out of the joint. A small handful stuck around until the ambulance arrived. Channel 10 were the first on the scene, even before the police.

The aftermath was way worse than anything that happened that day. That first month was the worst pain ever. I couldn’t sleep. About two years later I had a breakdown. I started having flashbacks and they brought up stuff that I’d forgotten about completely, that I couldn’t deal with as a child. I became agoraphobic and would only go out to get three months’ supplies of canned food. At one stage I went to the checkout and the guy said, ‘Hi, how are you?’, and this croak came out of my mouth – I hadn’t used my voice for so long that I couldn’t get a sound out.

I was traumatised by any big sounds, guns in movies and stuff. I had to do what the kids today do, and desensitise myself. I got myself a video game, a shoot ‘em up one. It was like therapy. I figured I had to use logic to fight fear. I still don’t watch the news, though.

After two years I thought, there’s only one way out of this, and that’s to get the hell out, even if it’s just around the block for the first time. No matter how much I hated doing it, every single time I walked back into the house I always felt a little bit better than before I had gone. Then I thought okay, I’m going to pick up the guitar.

Playing music saved my arse. I’d been in a bad relationship for seven years that ended after the shooting. I didn’t touch a guitar for the entire time I was with her. But then I started writing songs. When summer came I took a big blanket and went down to the beach to play out to the ocean. People respect your space on the beach so I still felt safe. Occasionally people would come and sit nearby and I’d get applause. That actually helped me to get closer to people again. Eventually I found the courage to play in at an open mic venue and met some amazing musicians. I think that was the biggest part of my therapy in the end.

I don’t like doing conventional work anymore. I had to do it for a long time and it suffocated me. Since the shooting I decided I’m just going to do what I love for however long it lasts, because life is really bloody short.