‘Reflections’ by Anne Deveson

Mr. Brendan Smyth, the Revd Gray Birch, members and friends…

We have come together by this plaque and stone, and under the blossoms of this locust tree to honour the memory of those who lost their lives to illicit drugs.

Even as I use that word illicit, I find I stop. I think. And I wonder what it really means. There’s the strict legal interpretation, with its criminal connotations. But for me there is also the wider and more humane understanding that people died simply because they took substances in a quantity or in a manner which was harmful, licit or illicit.

I say that because there is still a punitive attitude towards people who use illicit drugs. It’s seen as a crime, rather than as a health issue, and as a result people are often frightened to seek help. Even after someone has died, families can be silenced and isolated by shame.

How do I know this? Because, like you, I’ve been there. My elder son Jonathan had schizophrenia and also took drugs, licit and illicit. Mainly marijuana, as well as anything else that was cheap and would help deaden the torment in his head. People living with a long term psychotic illness are ten times more likely to abuse street drugs, four times more likely to abuse alcohol, and three times more likely to be heavy smokers.

Of course, not all people with a mental illness use illicit drugs, and not all illicit drug users have a mental illness.

But I can still remember one time after Jonathan had overdosed and I went rushing to one of Sydney’s largest hospitals because I heard they were releasing him only twelve hours after he had been admitted. The doctor on duty told me sternly that although my son was mentally ill, he couldn’t help him because he was also a drug addict. He also told me that Jonathan was looking after forty prostitutes. As Jonathan couldn’t even look after himself, I wondered for a moment who was mad, my son or the doctor.

I think that this kind of refusal or inability to help people with a dual diagnosis is changing. There are now major moves by the NSW Government to deal with dual diagnosis problems, to recognise both sets of needs. It’s early days, but there are outstanding people working on this issue. And on stigma, but theres still a long way to go.

Every one of us here has a story, and behind that story there is a person, someone we loved and still love. My story is that one day, Jonathan did die, and the media pursued me. And because of that punitive medical and public attitude, and because I was protecting the memory of my son, I kept stressing that he was mentally ill, and afterwards I felt ashamed of myself for saying that – because, as with licit and illicit drugs, the distinction, except in a clinical sense is irrelevant.

We are talking about people, often young people who need help not condemnation. Yet 70 to 80% of our prisons are filled with drug abuse cases. Why do we do this? I think from ignorance and fear. It’s not for economic reasons. For every dollar spent on a health response, 7 times that amount is spent on a criminal response. It doesn’t make sense.

So let us for a moment think of those who are still at risk, let us continue to speak out, let us use the knowledge and wisdom we have so painfully learned.

I want us then to look at this tree, which I am told is bare and covered with thorns in winter, and in spring has such beautiful white flowers. For this is the nature of all our lives. Some people have more winter than others. Some have more thorns. But the whole still has its exquisite beauty. And even when it is old and scarred, its wounds are also part of the miracle of life. Now let us think for a moment of those people who are no longer with us, who have died. The joys they brought us, the heartache, their struggles and ours, their presence that still fills our lives.

I am writing a book on resilience. Resilience is all about rising above adversity. Facing it, and still finding hope and meaning in life. And that’s what our presence today is all about. A joining together, a willingness to be vulnerable, an awareness of our strength, a sharing of our love. And our thanks to those who taught us so much.

4th November 2002