My path in life has always been full of twists and turns. This is just as true if I’m walking to the shops as for my major life decisions, I always want to explore the alternative, try something new. I often get lost. I had a normal-ish upbringing in Buffalo, New York with my three brothers and mother and father. We lived in a detached house, both my parents were doctors and we always had a German Shepard and at least one cat. My mother had gone to Harvard Medical school and worked in public health – I am very much like her in many ways and my choices have been similar in ways.
My life was pretty typical – high school, college – I didn’t consider myself that different from my friends, we all drank to excess and dabbled. I was a teenager in the late 70s and took the anti-disco, pro-punk stance (I’m a lot more open minded these days). My early favourites were the Velvet Underground, the Modern Lovers, Television, The Ramones, Richard Hell and the Voidoids – I still identify as belonging to the Blank Generation.
After college I moved to New York City with my boyfriend – that was where I started down the road I’m on today. I eventually wound up living on the Lower East Side and working for the Strand Bookstore. It was an incredible place with 100+ creative, alternative employees – one of my supervisors had been the first drummer for the Cramps and published a fanzine with her partner and the other was a filmmaker. They were two of the wonderful diverse people I became friends with, many of whom I am still feel close to today (in a long-distance way).
I felt at home for the first time. Most of us loved drugs. There’s a Village Voice piece on the Strand from those days that describes the Strand as the whole store being “hopped up on meth” and that was true – it was essentially a shitty low paid job that was worth it because of the people and we tolerated it by getting high. I wasn’t there for that long – a couple of years – but it was a formative experience. So many of the creative, wonderful men I worked with at the Strand died shortly after I left New York. I remember and love them still – Joey, Joel, Miguel, Charles, Doug, Martin, Billy… HIV took a terrible toll on my friends and community and it’s one of the reasons I am motivated to work in the sector I work in.
I happily carried on dancing, drinking and doing meth until started doing heroin. It was an amazing experience at first, and I loved it, it filled a part of me that I was missing. On the Lower East Side you’d go down to Avenue C, Tompkins Square Park, sometimes the corner to score. The cops were everywhere and you had to be careful. It was the very early days of the HIV epidemic and while I didn’t know much about it, I knew you could get it from injecting. Hepatitis B was just one of those things you got. In those days no one had heard of hepatitis C but I’m pretty sure we all got it. Sterile equipment was non-existent, you’d get a fit from your dealer or wherever you could, often they had blood in them. You’d use whatever you could to clean them. Often they were so blunt you were just pushing them into your arm, waiting for it to pop through your skin and hit the vein.
Along the way I became pregnant. The advice you get when you are in that situation – pregnant and injecting heroin – is that withdrawal may cause you to lose the baby. When I went to ask about treatment I was bluntly advised that pretty much any alternative would result in my child being taken away when he was born (I knew he was a he by then) with the other alternative was unassisted withdrawal and possible miscarriage. I finally did get medical care and kept my child. I know how lucky I was and that is the direct result of my nice, white, middle class background. I underwent an assisted withdrawal, gave birth and then moved to Sydney as my son’s father is Australian.
I’ve done a lot of things in my life – stopped using, stopped stopped using, went to uni, got a phd, held down various jobs, had two kids, two marriages, a few cats and dogs, for many years I did not talk much about myself or who I really was, I think there was one person in the years after I left NA meetings and entered the world of work and study that I had told much about my past. I spent a fair few years working in clinical research, being a mother, the usual stuff. Eventually I found myself working in an Aboriginal Health Research job that led to where I am now.
A NUAA Board Member, Julie Bates, encouraged me to apply for the role of CEO. I had first met Julie when I came to Australia in 1986, she was a friend of my first husband. Julie is a legend – her long-term activism led her to consort with academics and I met her at the launch of a research report where we bonded over our shared past. I mentioned that the project I was working on was finishing and I was looking for a job and here I am.
Working at NUAA is great – a huge challenge, hugely rewarding. I have mostly worked in jobs where I felt like I was doing something useful – if I don’t I quickly lose motivation. But the health and human rights of people who use drugs is very personal for me. Many of my relationships are within this community. I’ve been lucky, the impact of the war on drugs on me has not been outwardly huge – I had hepatitis but cleared it, haven’t been jailed for years, haven’t died. The main effect on me was hiding who I am – I still do to some extent but my work has let my inner and outer selves come much closer together.
Yoga has been really essential to me and that process of “not hiding” over the past six years. I started because I thought it was varied enough and challenging enough that I’d never get bored. But the real challenge is that it demands a level of honesty that then starts to infiltrate the rest of your life. I love standing on my head. It kind of brings up and then forces me to clear out every irrelevant thing from my mind and just focus totally on what I’m doing, it gives you freedom, and I need that. I have never been much for identifying with any one thing but today I can say that I’m a yogi, or trying to be, and drug user, these are my people and where I’m at home.