Maureen and Q
I grew up in Perth and came to Sydney in 1992. If you’re a Perth person, you love Perth, if you’re not from Perth… well it’s hot and there’s lots of sand. Considering it takes longer to fly to Perth from Sydney than New Zealand, Perth people often feel isolated from the rest of Australia.
Neither of my brothers did particular well in school, so I was the only academic child in my family. My brothers are both mechanics and car-obsessed revheads. As a teenager, our lawn was covered in cars and car parts. I bought my first car before I had my licence, which I passed on my 17th birthday. Cars were a serious business in my family.
I was raised as a Catholic and my brothers and I were sent to Catholic schools. My mum converted to Catholicism to marry my father and sometimes converts can be more hardcore than those who grew up Catholic. When we were kids, the Pope said that anyone who watched the Monty Python movie The Life of Brian would go to hell. Somehow my parents found out that it wasn’t that bad and we saw it together on video. And we led other Catholic families astray by getting them to watch it too!
Growing up Catholic wasn’t all bad, but they sure teach you how to feel guilty all the time. From about age 8 you are constantly going to confession. It got to the point where I was making stuff up just so I would have something to tell the priest. I have been “making up” sins ever since, in the sense that I feel guilty about things that are usually out of my control.
I went to uni after high school and got a BA. Which in my case stood for “bugger all.” I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I grew up in the eighties and Ronald Reagan didn’t really help my world view much. I was convinced he would blow up the entire planet with his nuclear “Star Wars” craziness. I feel sorry for teenagers today because they will be feeling the same way about Donald Trump and I don’t blame them for being scared. I was convinced that wasn’t really much of a future for me or anyone so there was no point thinking about it. I actually held on to that belief until I was about 20. So I came out of uni with a degree and I didn’t even know what I majored in. Anthropology, it turned out. I had no idea what I wanted to do after university. and there was a recession — “the recession we had to have” according to Paul Keating at the time. There were just no jobs. No jobs in Perth, no jobs anywhere. That was one of the main reasons I came to Sydney. I was also in a relationship with a guy who was a bit violent towards me. I’d never experience domestic violence before. It’s funny that when you’re in that situation it can bring you self-esteem down and you feel like you deserve it.
So running away to Sydney seemed like a good idea.
When I left Perth my ex boyfriend rang me up where I was staying every day for 2 weeks and left a long series of messages on the answering machine saying, “Please come back” and “I really need you.” Then the calls stopped.
They stopped because he died from an overdose. Apparently he had taken a heap of pills and then fell down the stairs — or a bouncer kicked him down the stairs. Then he fell asleep on a lounge later that night and just didn’t wake up.
I had used drugs “recreationally” in Perth, including heroin a few times. But Sydney was something else. I had no job, no prospects, and drugs like heroin were cheap and available. Heroin makes you feel so good. Like you are wrapped up in warm cotton wool and nobody can hurt you and nothing matters. This is why a heroin user can be lying in the gutter surrounded by filth, but feel bliss. I had a new boyfriend when I got to Sydney and we started using heroin together about nine months into the relationship. He had his own ghosts to contend with. We had some problems with our drug use and a lot of our possessions ended up in the hock shop. But we also never did anything to get drugs that involved hurting other people. I think people who have had drug problems have their morals “tested”, which is something the average person doesn’t experience. I mean that we are forced to think about what will and won’t do to get drugs. Lots of drug users with problems make this ethical choice on a daily basis. And most decide that they would rather be in withdrawal than hurt somebody else.
Once a friend of ours decided to rob the corner shop because he was so desperate. He thought he could rob the shop without hurting the shopkeeper, but my partner and I had our doubts. We talked him out of it and helped him get the money to fly home to New Zealand. I have never seen him since but I am so glad we talked him out of committing that robbery. He could still be in jail today if he had done it and it went wrong.
These days I’m not using drugs the way I used to — that is, not in a “problematic” pattern. I inject about twice a week. I have also got into the habit of injecting pharmaceuticals rather than street heroin, namely my methadone. This is because I know the exact strength, so overdose is not a risk, and I know the ingredients and that there are no extra unknown adulterants in it. As long as you prepare your drugs properly before injecting, pharmaceutical use is pretty safe.
It can also be a cheaper option. When my partner and I cut down on heroin use, we all of the sudden started saving money as we didn’t go back to spending our money on other stuff. Our bank balance started to go up. And eventually, we managed to buy a house (well, get a mortgage). It’s probably the most sensible thing that I’ve done in my life. I saw the subprime mortgage crisis on the USA and the real estate market go flat in Australia and realised that we needed to jump on this ship before it sailed. To be honest, one of our families was able to help out a bit. Buying a house in Sydney is nearly impossible otherwise. But we did most of it ourselves. Being a constantly broke injecting drug user forced me to learn how to budget my money really well, and I honestly believe that is the reason I have a mortgage today!
For a long time I kept thinking “Oh I should stop injecting drugs, it’s really bad.” But is it really that bad? I think we self stigmatise a lot as injecting drug users. I am on the methadone program which I think is a great backstop that has also helped me in a big way to get my act together. I have been on methadone for about 25 years and I have been thinking about getting off it. But then, I think “Why do I have to?” It is only external pressure that makes me think this way. I think that if anything I ought to stop smoking marijuana, as smoking is what is really going to harm me! And methadone acts as a bit of an anti-depressant for me in the absence of taking proper anti-depressants.
My mum is my hero.
When she found out I was an injecting drug user, her reaction was to go out and volunteer for the local needle exchange. Which she did for six years. I am so proud that my mum decided to get informed about the issue rather than start playing some emotional blame game or buy into bigoted media commentary. I can understand why parents might react that way. Sometimes it is easier to be angry and live in fear than to take the time and effort to really understand something. Instead, my mum writes letters to the paper saying things like “how dare the government criminalise my daughter! Change the drug laws now!” Like so many Australian families, I didn’t hear the words “I love you” come out of my mum’s mouth very often, and maybe some part of me wondered if she did, but actions speak louder than words, especially brave actions.
My partner and I have been together 23 years. What have we done right? We try to respect each other. That gets harder as time goes on, as it can be easy to take someone for granted. Drugs are a just an extra element to deal with.
What I don’t understand is society’s total inability to deal with drugs. We have achieved the most amazing things in science, but then we are so behind in other ways. For example, we don’t have much of an idea about why some people have problems with drugs and what treatments are effective in helping those people.
I don’t think my story is particularly special. Drug users are just like everyone else in society. Same old stuff, different details. Some drug users are good people and some are bad people. Some people use drugs recreationally and never have a problem and other people have massive problems with drugs. I have experienced a bit of both. I might be on methadone but I don’t feel as though I have drug “problems” anymore. I don’t feel different to anyone.