When I was in high school we were given an assignment in English; name one thing you can’t live without in life. The options were things like economic security, health, family, accommodation etc. I was the only person in the class who chose ‘love’ – and that’s how I’ve led my life, following my heart, not my head.
I grew up in the housing commission built after WWII, my parents had migrated from Holland with their first three boys, with another boy and myself (the youngest and the only girl) born here in Australia. Dad came to Australia with 5 languages under his belt but no formal qualifications and a Dutch accent so heavy it was hard for him to find a job that paid well. Mum looked after us full time and things didn’t get better financially until the oldest boys had left home and she started working.
I fell into drug use — my group of school friends started using drugs and I was curious, tried it and liked it. I didn’t have a rotten childhood, there was no drug or alcohol use around while I was growing up, no abuse, in fact quite the opposite; I was treasured, my parent’s favourite.
Once when I was 14 or 15, my Mum was hanging out for cigarettes in the morning. She found a cigarette packet with three items in it on the top of my wardrobe; a spike about 5cm long, a bit of powder in a foil and a bit of grass. When I came home from school she was waiting at the bus stop — not a happy chappie. Turned out she’d been looking for cigarettes in my bedroom and had found this packet. She asked: “What is this” – holding a small packet of powder: “It’s a magic trick; you put the powder on the end of a cigarette and it makes it taste bad”. Then she asked “What’s this then”? holding a thin metal spike. My reply: “You stick it down the guts of a cigarette and it won’t ash”. Finally she asked; “And this?” “Looks like grass to me”, as she crumbled my stash into the bin.
I figured out pretty early on that people only see what they want to see — even when my parents were told about my injecting and then asked to see my arms for any sign of track marks, even though I showed them my track marks, they didn’t ‘see’ them. This was not the case with other people though, and I knew very, very early on that drug use — especially injecting drug use —was not the ‘done thing’ in polite society.
I was married at the tender age of 19 – during the reception there were 2 queues; one for the bathroom and one on the side of the house – that’s where everyone was lined up for their turn at having a shot. However I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to have a shot until later, as my new husband decided it certainly wasn’t OK for the bride to be stoned. Things were getting hot in Sydney and we both had habits so when we were married we asked for money as a wedding gift to start our new life in Perth our parents had given us one way bus tickets to Perth as a wedding gift. Probably half the money we were gifted was ‘misplaced’ during the reception and the rest was gone in a couple of days.
That bus trip was torture; before we got on the bus ‘friends’ who we owed money to were waiting to collect. There were ‘fisticuffs’ and the bus driver was told that we had drugs on us. Eventually we got out of Sydney with a $20 shot between us and 60 hours of hanging out in a bus seat ahead – like I said, torture. From the very first day we arrived in Perth, we tried to score, but it didn’t happen for some months.
My husband turned out to be something other than what I’d thought. There were a series of breakups and get together again and in retrospect, I believe abuse. Eventually it became too much and my first daughter and I returned to Sydney. While my husband followed it became very much a merry go round of a relationship: up, down, off and on. I decided to go back to study and even though I hadn’t finished year twelve I became a mature aged student. Studying sociology, being a full-time mum, nursing for the money and using drugs – a full time career or two, three or four.
This was also a time when working mums were being put under the microscope, so for me I felt the pressure coming from a number of sources. I was trying my best to be the best mum I could be, the best worker I could be, the best student I could be and of course, trying to fulfil my drug needs at the same time. There was a lot of guilt and shame associated with parenting and drug use for me which I still feel in various ways today. I couldn’t risk being ‘found out’ and I went out of my way not to be. I know in retrospect (for myself and others at that time) we overcompensated when it came to our kids: There were never too many presents under the Christmas tree, every kid in the class was invited to the birthday party and ‘pay day’ was always a ‘treat day’. While I’m not a patient person at the best of times I’d walk my eldest girl and she climbed every fence, and every evening we fantasised about ‘She-Ra – Princess of Power. Unfortunately, being on methadone treatment meant we spent a lot of time travelling between home and the chemist, but it was time well spent honing imaginations and reading our endless supply of fantasy.
I think there’s more issues for women as drug users, especially if you’re pregnant and/or have children. As a woman using drugs you have to be beyond reproach, you need to be infallible – more of a mother and more of a saint than other women. If you can’t do it you’re an outcast who is undeserving of her children. I recently read a case wherein a pregnant woman on methadone was told by a health care worker that her child would be better off dead than being brought up by her and her partner.
In fact, on reflection there’s a gamut of things that I’ve done that have put myself at greater risk of harm rather than having people know about my drug use: I was working in a nursing home and my uniform had short sleeves so I burnt a track mark out of my arm with an iron – the track mark was still visible so I did it again: it’s easier to explain a burn than it is a track mark. I’ve definitely done my share of sharing equipment because going to a chemist for equipment was such a painful experience; worn long sleeves in the heat of summer, lied about or omitted my illicit drug use to doctors, service providers, family and friends. I’ve even allowed myself to be arrested for ‘Self Administration of an Illicit Drug’ rather than have police know that I was a parent and potentially take my child from me.
The day I was told by a ‘Drugs in Pregnancy Unit’ that there was such a thing as needle and syringe programs (NSP) was a revelation. Great, a place where we could get new, sterile equipment rather than being embarrassed and belittled by staff at pharmacies. However, when I got there I was in for a bigger surprise, I picked up a copy of Users News, and from that moment it all came together for me. Here was a group of people who rejected the moralism that illicit drug use is inherently bad and makes you a bad person. They realised that it was more important to keep people safe and healthy than to lay judgement.
I like to think that mine is a story of resilience, a story of finding a path and a way though, a story about being okay with oneself. So, now, I’ve been a drug user for over thirty years and I’ve been working in harm reduction and the Australian drug user movement for over 23 years, and it’s a privilege. I’d always thought I had a purpose in life – not to be a super star, nor to have my history tattooed on my forehead; but to do something important – to utilise my own experiences in making the lives of others better. To address and challenge stigma and discrimination, to work with families to keep them together, to work with drug users themselves to keep their families together. I’m privileged in doing what I’ve been able to do and working with the drug users I’ve worked with.
At the time of writing I found out that I’ve cleared the hep C virus – when I finished the treatment the blood tests showed that I hadn’t – I was devastated, I’d been on 24 weeks of the new hep C treatments – I had bad veins so testing was a nightmare, and I had other health issues which meant I couldn’t go the usual 12 week treatment regime. When I made the decision to go on treatment I was caught in the middle of the old Interferon treatments and the new DAAs, I was only partially covered under an access program so I ended up importing half of the treatment from overseas. I feel happy, lucky and freer than I have in a long, long time.
My daughters are the light of my life. I’m so proud of them – both them and my gorgeous grandson. When the oldest girl was married she amazed me by telling those assembled how proud she was of me! How could that be? As she went on in her speech she stated how I’d taught her to be strong and independent – they are making their own strong independent lives. They are the only people I know that will argue with me, tell me honestly what they think and feel, hang up on me because the debate has gotten too loud and then call me back the next day without remorse, shame or rancour and tell me they love me. When their Dad died not too long ago I ached for them, they’ll make their own way in life and sometimes it won’t be easy, but they’ll make it.
Personally, I’ve become a ‘collector’. It started about 5 or 6 years ago, my partner became intrigued with Ebay and started collecting pocket watches; collecting, fixing and selling. Then he moved on to clocks and I started getting the shits; that’s my money he’s spending! I started looking into silver and decided it would be my kid’s inheritance. I finally realised that the girls wouldn’t keep the silver; they’d sell it instead so I became more circumspect with what I bought. Lately I’ve gotten into items that I like: antique dolls, ventriloquist dolls and other bits and pieces.
If you would like to know more about my story, please don’t hesitate to get in contact. Thank you for reading.