Choose Life

2017-08-26 - The Australian, My Story.jpg

I was 14 the first time I injected ice. It was a sticky summer’s afternoon in a dingy block of East Perth flats. Stale sweat and tobacco smoke lingered in the clammy room; my veins bulged in the heat. The man crouching before me with the syringe drew blood and pushed the plunger to the bottom of the barrel. Hot liquid burst up my throat; then a searing cough, gasping for air, eyes wide and wobbling; brain pulsing with pure sensation and a cool creek of ice rushing beneath my skin. I spent the next five years chasing that feeling.

I came from a good family home. We spent the first eight years of my life in London where my father earned excellent money as a foreign currency trader. I was the eldest of four privileged kids; a bright but unsettled child. I was gifted in many facets of life – music, sports, academia – and my brilliance was nurtured by a caring family. I remember it as a happy time. Then we moved to Perth. My Australian parents wanted to come home.

Dad struggled to find work and my mother became the breadwinner while he sought opportunity elsewhere. In his absence, our tight-knit family unit began to drift apart. I struggled to fit the mould of the Australian schooling system. Feelings of angst and discomfort were aggravated by the onset of adolescence. I was a raging outcast and turned to pot, alcohol and graffiti.

My parents had no control, no answers. My defiance began to infect their marriage. Their relationship already had problems but as they devoted most of their time, energy and money to dealing with me, it became doomed. They divorced. It was a torturous affair. A poisonous atmosphere enveloped the household and I expressed my anguish in violent fits of rage. My younger siblings were caught in the crossfire of three warring parties.

One day, my mother discovered a large bag of white powder and a bundle of cash in my room. I’d stolen the cash from my parents and the powder was a faux bag of crushed cold-and-flu tablets from their medicine cabinet, but she believed her worst nightmares had materialised and she called the cops. I refused to co-operate. Bail was denied. I was sent to the Rangeview Remand Centre – short term juvenile detention for kids awaiting

trial – to face the magistrate the following morning on a charge of possession of methamphetamine with intent to supply. I was 13. I was stripped, showered, searched and locked in a concrete cell with 10 other boys. Most were charged with car thefts, burglaries and violent crimes. I cut an odd figure in the crowd; a middle-class white kid locked away beside society’s forgotten children.

After a few days inside, I was bailed to live with my aunt on a strict 24-hour curfew. My embattled parents were incapable of caring for me. I was alone and exiled. After two weeks imprisoned in a strange house, I absconded. I spent a few days roaming the streets, stealing to fund my freedom. When the cops caught up with me I’d earned two new charges after stealing a tourist’s backpack.

The court decided I would be placed on a strict supervision order and sent to a residential rehab for young offenders. It was a grave mistake. I had only begun a brief foray into the drug world, and real issues of anger and self-loathing went unaddressed while I entered into a school of crime. I spent three months under the guidance of counsellors, youth workers, and experienced users. I graduated far shrewder than I’d entered.

My father had moved out of the family home, and I was sent to live with him. For the first few months we hardly spoke and I relished every opportunity to defy him. At the local high school I quickly establishing myself as a truant and a thief. One afternoon, a mob of us still in school uniform robbed an innocent by passer. We were swiftly caught and charged. My schoolmates were sent home in disgrace, but I was sent back to Rangeview. I was becoming a serial offender.

My father bailed me out and sent me 600km from home to work on the furniture trucks. I needed a circuit breaker, he thought. There were depots in Albany and Esperance, and I’d spend the working week shifting furniture between country towns. I came home after a few weeks. I’d been inducted into working life by ruthless truckies and

I vowed never to return. Instead, I used my hard earned wages to invest in an ounce of pot. My quest led me to the East Perth train station, where I met Mado, a veteran junkie in his late thirties. His shaved head was emblazoned with tattoos of skulls, and he had an erratic demeanour from years of meth abuse. Up in his flat he marched around wide-eyed, fists clenched, preaching drug wisdom to anyone who’d listen. I was intrigued.

Young and pliable, I grew to admire Mado. He taught me the specifics of selling pot, reducing the extortionate prices in exchange for stolen goods. I learned the drug world was bound by a strict code of ethics. Inexpiable violations included interfering with children, infecting another with a bloodborne virus, and injecting someone for the first time. Even the most morally corrupt had boundaries; but there were plenty of less readily enforced taboos, such as injecting in the company of non-addicts. Strangely, selling ice to kids was permissible, but witnessing the vile act of Mado’s habit was forbidden. As an apprentice, I held special privilege. Mado openly advertised the rush. I soon built a prosperous pot trade under his tuition. School was full of potential customers and I’d wander in at recess or lunch to peddle my wares. A good day yielded $300.

When I began using ice I was convinced I had a handle on it. It filled me with fake courage and appeased my insecurities. Then it began keeping me awake. The longer I went without sleep, the worse the comedown would be, and the only thing that could ward away my demons was more ice. I began to stay awake on ice binges for days at a time. My father despaired at his helplessness. The ice was corroding my soul. He had a great deal of resources available to him but I was impervious to any assistance. There was nothing he could do, except keep me close. If he could guide me down to rock bottom, he thought, he’d be there to help push me back up. But he was treacherously close to the shrapnel of my addiction, and the ice began corroding his soul too.

My granny was the only one I confided in. She lived on the other side of the continent, but we spoke regularly on the phone. Like the ice, our conversations were a warm emotional sanctum where I could retreat from a turbulent reality. Often, she was all I relied upon to keep me sane. Meanwhile, my father revelled in novel freedom as a single man. A new mistress offered release, and her supportive shoulder obscured dangerous warnings signs. I knew she was bad news. It was palpable. One day, I was rifling through their room when I discovered a box of fresh syringes. A few weeks later, when I stole in there again, they’d been used. I confronted my father. He blamed me. I felt faith slipping away.

Those watching my demise from afar wrongly assumed I’d been led astray by a bad crowd. I was the crowd, until one night everything changed. I was on an empty bus, coming home from a late night mission to Mado’s. Two boys boarded and joined me at the back. Initial wariness eased once we established we shared a mutual friend. I invited them back to my house.

Buska and Crops were cousins. Buska was 23; the eldest and more imposing of the two. He’d recently been released from prison and he was shrewd, hawk-eyed and calculating. He respected the same qualities in me. Crops was 19, shy and wistful. When his mother had passed away a few years earlier, Buska assumed the unofficial role of guardian. We were united by personal hardship, and a lust for drugs and crime. Once I got to know them, I introduced Buska and Crops to Don. I’d been mates with Don for a few years. At 25, he was 10 years my senior. He and I connected on level deeper than drug culture. He was the only positive role model I was open to, but as the four of us grew close, he often succumbed to our influence.

I assembled my new band of brothers and introduced them to Mado, who by now had moved into a flat in a grotty West Perth block. Parliament House was directly across the street. It was thrilling. We were right on the back veranda of The System’s very control centre! As our association and drug use became more frequent, we came to know our lives as The Game. Daily missions comprised three levels: hustling the cash, sourcing the gear, and finding a way to collect it. Actually injecting the drugs was a fleeting anti-climax, a short breather at the finish line of an exhilarating chase. It was The Game we were addicted to. The drugs just kept us playing.

My bedroom at dad’s house became our headquarters. It was small and often crowded in there with all of our big egos jostling for space. I was the youngest and most instigative user. Paradoxically, our association influenced each other’s ice use but helped regulate our habits. We were brothers, and we looked out for each other. It wasn’t until we were disbanded that I realised the true loneliness of drug addiction.

Buska was due in court on an assault charge, and when I didn’t hear from him for a few days I presumed he’d gone back to jail. He confirmed via phone call from Hakea Prison. Around the same time, Don decided to go on an adventure course in New Zealand. He wanted a fresh start. My ice use spiralled out of control away from the watchful eye of my older mates.

Twelve days. No sleep. Convulsing, twitching, foaming at the mouth. Coming down; living hell. Psychosis. No state for interaction with the outside world, or to be left alone in my room. Crops’ company was slight consolation. Valium and pot took the edge off. Suicidal delirium. Eventually I looped out, grabbing a meat cleaver and sprinting up the street in search of an illusory figure. Next thing I knew, a red dot beamed onto my chest. I was cornered in a shopping centre carpark by four policemen. Two were wielding Tasers; another had a ferocious German Shepherd on a leash. I brandished the weapon in a quivering hand. The dog handler was screaming at me, “DROP THE WEAPON OR I’LL LET THE DOG GO!” Once handcuffed and in the back of the paddy wagon, I jolted back to reality.

The next morning I was dragged up from the cells to face the magistrate. I’d been on bail –awaiting sentencing for a long string of offences – when I was arrested during the psychotic episode. Now, a new serious charge was added to the list. My father was in the courtroom. He refused to sign bail. Throughout years of pandemonium he’d always believed I’d be OK, but a few days prior he’d envisioned himself standing over my grave. He had to cut me loose. I was a runaway freight train intent on derailment, and he wasn’t about to jump in front of the tracks. He later told me it was the hardest decision he ever had to make.

I was taken back to Rangeview, where I spent a month waiting to reappear in court on six separate drug, weapon and stealing charges. With no prospect of bail, I felt hope ebbing away. My father had given up on me, my granny was powerless on the other side of the continent, and my mother had three other kids to protect. Still, I pleaded with my mum for a final chance. She was all I had to grasp onto. Our relationship was severely strained but she agreed to help, with strict supervision from the Drug Court program.

Relatively speaking, quitting drugs is easy. The most difficult part of rehabilitation is learning how to live again. After a violently emotional rollercoaster ride through total ecstasy and living hell, it takes years of relearning before you can appreciate life’s simple pleasures again.  At the beginning I substituted ice for furious physical activity. I joined the local football team and began to rediscover surfing, but boxing was my preferred outlet. I didn’t have to wait for the waves to show up or my team mates to pass the ball; I could box five, six, seven times a week! Exercise became an imbalanced obsession; the rush of ice replaced with a daily dose of endorphins.

Aged 16 and back at the local high school, I confronted the same social disharmony that had triggered my initial angst. Despite strict supervision, I was still heavily involved in the business side of The Game. It was a bridge between the two worlds, and a substitute for the thrills of ice use. A few months in, Don returned from New Zealand and Buska was released from jail. The brothers were reunited, but life was different. A year had passed. We no longer had headquarters to convene in. Don was determined to stay on the straight and narrow and Crops had slipped into opiate addiction. Buska had emerged from prison with a new, callous resolve.

When he and I were subject to urine tests, we delighted in cheating The System. Soon, we scheduled a getaway. My school mates were headed to a folk festival for three days of fun and I brought Buska, a few grams of high grade ice and a sheet of acid. I returned home a suicidal wreck. I strung up a noose on a metal beam in the garage and kicked the chair. Suddenly, I found myself slumped on the floor. The beam had snapped.

This encounter with death was a terrifying awakening, and the catalyst for change. My mother told the Drug Court of my suicide attempt and I failed my next drug test. I was sent to Rangeview for two weeks, but the real lesson had already been learnt – life is too precious to waste. Midway through Year 11, I graduated from the Drug Court program. Life was looking up; I had rekindled a relationship with my mother and younger siblings, and was showing promise in re-engaging with my peers.

School finished for the year and my granny decided I should join her overseas for the summer holidays. We spent two months in Europe, exploring the cities and staying with extended family. My granny introduced me to a different way of life and I began to discover freedom. It was a major turning point. Away from emotional distractions at home, I began to reflect deeply on my past and reconsider my future. When I returned home, though, I found little had changed there.

Late one night, I received a phone call from Don. “Bro, we need your help,” he said. He was with Buska, his tone hushed and desperate. “Can’t talk about it on the phone, but it’s serious. You ever seen the movie The Italian Job? This is the real deal. We’re coming to get you now. Keep your phone on you.”

I waited up until 4am, but when they hadn’t arrived I went to sleep. Two weeks later, I saw their mugshots plastered across the news. They were wanted for murder. Both were later convicted and sentenced to life in prison. For me, it was a Rubicon moment. I decided to leave this life behind for good, knuckle down and finish schooling. I made an effort to reconnect with my father. We hadn’t spoken for two years; his mistress was now out of the picture. As our visits became more regular, our relationship gradually improved.

Nearing the end of Year 12, I began to spend hours after school with my grandfather. He was teaching me to drive, but over time it developed into something greater. My grandfather was an artist and a man with a deep spiritual aura. He imparted his philosophies to me, and taught me to cook, create, and live life on my own terms.

Almost 18, I acquired a driver’s licence and a car. I began to make the pilgrimage to Margaret River every weekend, where I fell in love with surfing, the outdoors, and the open road. Just before my birthday, I cashed out of The Game and booked an extended trip overseas. Travelling alone, I spent three months in Switzerland, Holland, and Morocco. I became comfortable with who I am, and discovered writing and photography as a means of cultivating my difference.

August, 2017. I’m 22 now. It’s been three years since I’ve touched ice. At the end of last year I completed a journalism degree, and now I work to optimise my freedom though a career as a freelance journalist. Storytelling has the power to change the world, and I hope to redeem myself by sparking positive change through my stories.

I still deal with the consequences of addiction on a daily basis. Drugs have robbed me of joy. After a long period above the clouds, I struggle to appreciate life’s simple pleasures back down on Earth. Rebuilding relationships with loved ones is a lengthy process. But I’m alive and free, mostly thanks to the love, support and understanding of those who fought a terrible addiction alongside me. Without them, I wouldn’t be here to tell this story. This experience has chiselled the strength and endurance of my spirit, and awakened me to the vitality of life. The blessing is in the struggle.