Reflections – Jan Lee




Reverend Walker, Senator Humphries, Friends,

I was flattered to be asked to speak here today. We are all here because for one reason or another we are involved in one of the big issues facing our society. How do we deal with the use of drugs, especially recreational drugs, which have the potential to ruin the lives of those who experiment with them?

I decided that it was simply best to tell my story and what I have learned from the experience.

Neri grew up, always questioning, always being just a little bit naughty, always the brightest and most vocal in her school classes. She was a finalist in the Primary Schools Public Speaking competition and she represented her schools in running and athletics.

In high school things slowly changed. Her academic performance dropped as she put in less effort. She lost confidence and the downward spiral started. She still did well in some subjects. In year 12 her Physics teacher remarked to her that he thought she was a physicist by nature. She could always write with flair and an ability to acutely observe life and human nature. She was stunning to look at and she moved with the grace of a dancer.

Some of us are born with too many attributes. Family, friends and teachers expect us to excel and when we don’t, we feel that somehow we have failed them and ourselves. We lose confidence. We fail. Some turn to drug usage to blur the pain of failure.

When she was seventeen and probably already using heroin, Neri wrote in her diary that

‘There are a lot of things that would make me happy. But I think mainly I would have to really accomplish something. If I were to write a book, I couldn’t be happy with that, I’d have to write a good book, the best book, or I wouldn’t want it to be my book. I’d want to be able to say ‘This is my book and I’m proud of it’, not ‘That book made me a lot of money and now I have a big pool and a grand piano’.

To say things like this, it sounds like I expect a lot of myself, but I don’t. I expect very little from me and the one thing I can proudly say is that I never disappoint myself. There are a lot of people out there who expect more and I’m constantly disappointing them. I don’t mean to disappoint people and I don’t like to disappoint people either, I just do.

I think I’m like advertising. I can present myself in such a way that I can look like a really spectacular product but then the safety inspector comes along and says that my corners are too sharp and a small child could easily have his eye out. If I were a toy that was to be taken off the market I’d be some kind of Nerf gun that looked fantastic but then when you pulled the trigger, the little foam balls wouldn’t shoot out.

I’m afraid Neri Bubb just doesn’t perform’

Neri turned to drugs first out of a sense of dare-devilment and a wish to experiment and live a bit on the edge. She didn’t climb mountains, she didn’t drive fast cars, she didn’t sail the Southern Ocean. She used drugs to get her thrills, to make herself a more exciting person, to speak with confidence and to act with a sense of power. Then she needed them to give her back the confidence that drug usage had sapped.

Neri was eighteen when her sister, in tears, rang me from the University of Queensland to tell me that Neri was addicted to heroin and that she was worried about the extra strong batch of heroin circulating in Canberra.

I met with Neri over a beer at Olims Hotel. Of course she denied it and told me not to worry, she would never be addicted. Yes, she’d tried other party drugs, but never heroin. Of course I worried. Of course she used heroin and I knew it , but she was always very good at hiding it from me, ensuring that when she and I were together, she would appear in control, normal, happy.

It was a difficult choice. Should I attempt to force help on the child I loved so much and risk alienating her or should I stay there quietly, letting her know that I would always be there to help her when she needed it? I did the latter. Perhaps I was wrong.

The shame of drug use stopped her from seeking my help, the one person close to her who might have been able to give it. Having said that, my ability to help Neri was limited by other factors. I had two other daughters, Lisa who needed my financial and emotional support so that she could study in Brisbane and Karina who was ten years old and whose father exhibited all the symptoms of clinical depression. Karina needed me more than most children would have.

I could not devote my life to Neri. I couldn’t even offer her a permanent home with us until she could live a normal life because Karina’s father opposed that, and with good reason. Living with someone who uses drugs is difficult and even dangerous. Society would have supported his view. It becomes a social issue to remove the shame, the stigma and the dangers associated with these drugs and to treat drug usage as an illness, not a crime. These children need our help, not our condemnation.

Neri eventually supported her habit by prostitution. It was better than begging or stealing. A man who loved her told me that Neri had decided if ‘she was going to be bad, she might as well be really bad’. She hid that from me too, but of course I had suspicions.

It was truly horrible for a me as a parent to confront the idea that the child I had succoured throughout her childhood was now in a perilous situation, living what to me and to most of us, would be an appalling life of the sort that we would only have to confront in times of turmoil, such as a war, when survival mattered above all else. Is this war with the drug lords any different to the bombs and guns sort?

Neri fought. Her diary, titled ‘Little Book Full of Nothing of Interest’, describes her anguish as she injected in her comfortable garden flat in Reid and saw the blood dripping down her arm ‘like some hopeless junkie’. She tried so hard, so many times, with inappropriate medical assistance where the solution was simply anti-depressants. She tried giving up her friends but they pursued her, and in despair and pain, she turned back to them and the relief that the awaiting needle offered.

When she was twenty we had a conversation and discussed the meaning of life and death. Were lives worth living at all costs? Does one owe one’s life to others? Are we islands or are we all essential parts of the continent of humankind, intertwined in an undefined way, but all dependent upon each other and all of us diminished by the death of any one of us? I knew that Neri thought she had to stay alive for me. I had to tell the daughter whom I loved so much that I believed that no one had to live solely for someone else. I had to give her permission to die if that’s what she wanted, if that was her only escape. But let us not forget that when the bell tolls, it tolls for all of us.

Neri fell in love, which would have helped had it happened earlier, but it was too late. Her mind was tattered from using all sorts of drugs in her attempts to escape the grip of heroin. She feared for her sanity and she hated her past. I think she felt she could not offer anyone a future. She held no hope for her own future.

She asphyxiated herself in her boyfriend’s car. The autopsy showed no trace of drugs in her body. Neri was twenty-one. The world lost one of it best. Her family still miss her but I still hear her voice in my head and I still listen to the comments she might have made.

If as a society we treated those caught in the web of drug use with more compassion and humanity, we would have a better society. Because you are here today, I’m sure you agree with me, but there are many who do not.

In her diary, Neri wrote of Mark and the reaction of his family to his death

‘Mark died on Tuesday From a heroin overdose. Bec, I understand is upset, remarkably so. I guess that’s fair enough. Parting with someone on undesirable terms isn’t easy. Bec says that at the funeral not one of his relatives got up and said anything nice. Apparently his Mother’s been waiting for him to die for two years. All the priest did was rant about the evils of drugs and left any means of religious consolation unsaid. No one cried. Except for Bec.


People die all the time, you hear about it all the time and I think about my own death a fair bit. But when someone you know dies, be it only a vague acquaintance, it’s rather upsetting.’

Neri’s funeral was not like Mark’s. Friends said very good and positive things about her. The celebrant was sympathetic and the chapel was overflowing with friends and family. But despite the positive aspects, there was the blackness of despair and a huge sense of loss and guilt.

People who use drugs come from all walks of life and none of us is immune. In the wrong circumstances, any one of us could become entangled. We don’t think of the girl or boy walking the street at Kings Cross as being someone that we could have been best friends with at high school. I think we react with denial instead of assistance because we don’t believe it can happen to us.

Neri needed all the encouragement we could give her and we, her family, friends and society, did not give enough. Neri was very vulnerable, suffering from uncertainty and feeling overwhelmed by lack of hope for anything but the next encounter with the drug dealer.

I want to change social attitudes towards people who are the victims of drug abuse and I ask the help of all of you. We have to understand why and how drug use becomes a problem. People who use drugs are not bad, they are suffering. We have to offer hope and compassion and positive assistance.

Neri’s words were always more powerful than mine and I’d like her to end this for me.

You again my false friend
Pallid, sleepy glucose blend
I relax with you, sleep with you
Smile with you
Hide with you. When death comes,
I die with you.

In your absence I feel pain
I think with veins and not my brain
Fly and try, lie, sigh
With shrunken eyes, you make me cry.