Paul was a very creative man – a builder, plumber, electrician, furniture maker – talented in a number of areas and he was my brother. He was the eighth of ten children and the quietest one of the lot. He found it difficult to get a word in with his boisterous siblings but always had a ready smile and a heart of gold.
When he was in his late twenties, he discovered that he could be the life of the party and have a sparkling personality but only when he took heroin and sometimes, amphetamines. He could also work longer hours to build a house and support his growing young family. So many of his problems were solved by these magic solutions.
Unfortunately, he started needing more and more to get the same boost he had at the beginning. And then he needed downers so that he could sleep at night. He also needed to deal with people who, because of the current lack of regulation on drugs, were on the wrong side of the law and were profiteering on the black market. He learnt to hide the fact that he befriended those who could keep up his supply and that a great deal of his hard earned money was going their way. He hid his drug use from his children, partners, parents and siblings.
Slowly his personality began to change. He had bouts of anger and aggression followed by guilt and remorse. He also began to focus on all the ills, both real and imagined that had ever happened to him in his life. He was obsessed by injuries that he had suffered and became irrational and angry if anyone disputed his version of past events or offered a more positive explanation. He then began to manufacture more and more scenarios where he had been victimised. In short he was becoming more and more aggressive, angry and paranoid. None of his family understood what was happening to him.
After many years of telling himself that he could handle the situation and denying that he had any problem with drugs at all, he decided that his life was out of control and that he needed help. He had lurched from one sad relationship to another. He told us about his problem and his family were very supportive. They did all they could to help him but through a lack of understanding and a deep love and concern, probably did all the wrong things.
They tried to tell him that his version of events in his life weren’t real. He responded by not trusting family members as he believed that they refused to understand. They supported him financially so that he could save money and get his life back together. He responded by exploiting these situations and even destroying the free lodging given to him in fits of rage. These acts were followed by periods of remorse and guilt when he realised that this was not the way he wanted to behave. It was as if a demon had overtaken him. He went to Perth where he lived in a pub with many alcoholics. He rang every day to tell us that he wanted to kill himself. His family panicked and financially supported him to go to a detox and rehab. As soon as he was able to escape, he did so and turned to alcohol in a big way. No family member at that time had any understanding of the demands of addiction, let alone that the damage occurring was caused by his drug taking.
The combination of alcohol, speed and subsequently ice accelerated his paranoia and aggression. He turned to religion but unfortunately met a God of shame and guilt rather than one who was accepting and loving. On the 11 November 2004, unable to deal with his addiction or his behaviour, he took his own life.
This story is by no means an isolated story. It is similar in a number of ways to many stories here in the ACT and across Australia. While our authorities are congratulating themselves on having made heroin less available (a direct consequence of overseas markets – not our policies) and the lower rates of heroin overdoses and deaths, the numbers of mental health cases and suicides is escalating at an alarming rate due to the uptake of Ice – or crystal methamphetamine.
There is currently no medical substitute (like methadone or buprenorphine) for methamphetamine use. The only support services can offer is counselling, behaviour modification therapies and detox. To detox and withdraw from prolonged methamphetamine use is hugely problematic. Due to the damage done to the seratonin levels in the brain, one faces severe depression and cravings for a long period of time. Many do not survive.
Many come to the attention of the police as they engage in uncharacteristically aggressive behaviour. Because there are no facilities for magistrates and judges to send them to for help and treatment, they often do jail time, with no mental health support, most probably continuing their drug use but with contaminated needles. Most will contract Hep C as a result and, when finally released, the nightmare for the individual, their families and the broader community repeats itself. The harm caused in the first place to an individual’s life because of illicit drug use is maximised by this response. Now the person still has a problem with drug addiction, has untreated mental health problems, has a criminal record and probably Hep C, a disease which can very readily be spread throughout the community. The individual is now also stigmatised and often consigned to a life on the streets.
What a shambles. And what an indictment on a so called developed and enlightened society. This is a direct result of our war on drugs – a war waged on the most vulnerable members of our society. These are policies that have failed abysmally for decades at enormous cost. Lives lost, family breakdowns, criminal records, untreated and unsupported mental health problems, huge health and justice cost increases and, of course a consistent rise in the availability of illicit drugs and profiteering by those manufacturing and selling on the black market. What part of our current policies actually work? The only positive move by our government over the past decades, for which we have to thank brave parliamentarians like Neal Blewitt, is that we have services based on harm minimisation. But lately, that too is under threat.
Paul goes to a doctor or a clinic instead of a friend of a friend who deals on the street and gets medication – maybe it is even amphetamine based. The doctor knows how much he is taking and limits the doses. Because the medication has been regulated by the government. the doctor and Paul know exactly what his medication contains. No impurities, cut glass, dry cleaning fluid etc. If Paul presents with behaviours that require medical intervention, he is referred and supported in accessing ongoing mental health treatment. His family is assisted to deal with the issues facing Paul and how to cope with them. Paul is recognised as having a genuine health problem instead of being stigmatised as a “useless drug addict who’s lost it”.
The debate on illicit drugs has gone backwards over the past 15 years. In the 1990s politicians, medical practitioners, researchers and the media talked intelligently and openly about alternative policies – ones that may actually work and are based on evidence rather than moral judgement – such as controlled availability, safe injecting centres and specialised drug clinics. However, the politics of the day have slandered those who speak intelligently about this topic using the label _ “Soft on Drugs”. As if being “hard” – declaring war, zero tolerance and the like has not been a monumental failure over the years. Believe me, if it worked, I’d be the first to promote it as would all those engaged in assisting those with drug abuse. I have seen first hand, both as a family member and a service provider what damage and misery the current policies have created. We need to actively support movements like the Families and Friends and drug and alcohol services to raise awareness of the damage caused not only by the drugs but the policies themselves which ironically maximise harm. We need to remind those that support the war on drugs that they are actively supporting the black market profiteers at the expense of our youth.
I know that I have raised some political points and some may believe that this forum, where we remember those loved ones who we have lost to illicit drugs may not be the place to discuss these issues. But I think that maybe these forums are exactly the right places for us to stand up and speak out. If we had lost our loved ones to terrorism, or road accidents, or health negligence there would be strong statements publicly made about the need for the government of the day to deal with the problem. No other policy has used so much taxpayers’ money for so little. The money spent on “combating drugs” is disproportionately high in the areas of law enforcement and low on service delivery. Don’t get me wrong, I know that the police have been forced into the role of having to deal on a daily basis with the increasing problems of Ice use and mental health problems on the streets in Canberra, as elsewhere. They would be the first to call for increased mental health intervention and support. But with all the money spent on interdiction, drug busts, court time, jail time etc , we still have more drugs in this country than ever before. And the black market continues to make huge profits. And our loved ones die, needlessly.
Paul’s experience and subsequent death inspired me to accept the invitation to take on the role of leading a drug and alcohol service in a way that I believe was needed. A service based on professionalism and evidence based research sure, but also one that had compassion and love for our fellow human beings – our sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews and our neighbours. They deserve our understanding and our compassion and they deserve health policies that work, rather than justice policies that exacerbate their problems.
I miss Paul’s smiling face and his sense of humour along with the joy of working beside him when he was at his most creative. His children miss their very loving father even more. We all know that “if onlys” are a waste of time but I can’t help thinking “if only” things had been different – it didn’t have to end this way. However, in spite of the sadness and grief, so many positive changes have been made by Paul’s family in response to his death – and speaking up and demanding a better deal from governments is one of them.