Friday, 1 August 2014

Is Your Neighbour a Functioning Junkie?

Meet Anna. A wonderful, well balanced professional with a bright future. You probably know of many ordinary people just like Anna and in fact, she might even be your neighbour. 

But there's something that distinguishes Anna from most other people ... a heroin addiction. 

How would you react if you knew your neighbour was shooting up heroin each day? What if your child's teacher, your local pharmacist or a social worker was using heroin? How would you react?

This is Anna's story.

My name is Anna and I’m 36 years old. I live in metropolitan Sydney after I moved from South Australia over 10 years ago. 

As soon as I came to Sydney it felt like home. It’s eclectic, big, anonymous and pretty much no one stands out if they’re a bit different. The complete opposite to suburban Adelaide.

I live with my partner in a small rental house. We’ve been in the same house for seven years. It’s just a neat little weatherboard. It’s nothing fancy but it’s clean, most things work and it’s close to everything I need. I’ve lived in some horrible places in horrible conditions over the years. Thankfully it’s not like that now. 

There is just us and the cats. No kids. This was a conscious decision. We both like kids but after much thought and discussion, we realised that while it would be great to have them, the desire to not have them is stronger. I don’t think it’s fair to bring a child into the world if it isn’t truly and wholeheartedly wanted. That’s not to say this decision hasn’t had an impact. I’m a major disappointment to my family. To them, that’s just what you do. Find a partner, get married, buy a house, have kids … die. I’m not married either. But I’ve learned to put their judgements aside and focus on what I want. Probably something a lot of users have to do.

My partner is my age. We met in our 20’s through a mutual friend. We were both with other people at the time but remained friends for the next 5 years, even writing to each other when we were in different states. Eventually we got together and have been so for nearly 10 years. He works part time in a 9 to 5 job then devotes the rest of his time to artwork. There’s not much money in it but it keeps him sane. Plus the nine to fiver solves the money issue. 

Both of us being heroin users presents challenges. During the bad times, we’ve been hopeless at supporting each other to get on top of things. I’m sure a lot of people can relate to that feeling of when you’re with someone who also uses and you’re both trying not to. But you manage to convince each other that it will be ok if you do. Or that feeling when you’re both hideously sick and feeling utterly hopeless and using seems the only reasonable response. It can be hard being with someone who is suffering as you are. 

Over the years we’ve gotten onto programs and are now on a much more even keel. We are both on the same page when it comes heroin like how much we’re prepared to spend etc. It’s a huge help having my partner with me through this. It makes it feel so much less lonely.

My work day usually begins at about 6am. I get up, feed the pets and plonk myself in front of the heater..I spend an hour drinking coffee and getting mentally prepared for another day of work. Around 7am I start getting ready.

These days, I never use before work. Being at work diminishes my experience of using. It’s also not fair on clients or colleagues as I’m not fully focussed at work when I’ve used. That’s not to say I’m out of it when I use. In fact, most people probably wouldn’t even know. That’s what having a huge tolerance and pharmacotherapy will do.

I work full time as a Social Worker. I got my degree a few years ago and have worked in the sector ever since. It took me a few years to get my four year degree but I got there eventually. It’s put me in a position to be able to do work that I actually want to do.

I’ve noticed a lot of users who work in the ‘Human Services’ tend to work in the Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD) area, but I’m not there. I work in mental health. Naturally a lot of my clients also experience issues with AOD and I can respond to that but it’s not the primary focus of my work.
Around 7.45am I’m out the door. 

A few days a week -if I don’t have a takeaway- I’ll have to go to the chemist to get my dose. You see, I’m on pharmacotherapy (methadone). This is both a blessing and a curse. I suspect I’d be dead or in jail without it and it enables me to keep stable. I am so grateful for that. However it’s restrictive, expensive and something I don’t feel is the best treatment for heroin addiction. However, my thoughts on that would take up too much space here!

There’s inevitably an unexplained wait as other customers are served before me (who arrived after me). There’s also the added unpleasantness having to go to the very edge of the chemist in a tiny box to get my dose. The box is filthy with blood, mucus, spit and other unknown substances. There is graffiti all over the walls. A gigantic sign reminds me, ‘No Pay No Dose’ just in case I‘d forgotten. It’s generally an unpleasant experience but I know there are places in Australia where people can’t get on programs and chemists are full. In comparison, I’m lucky.

Finally, I can get going to work.

My work is extremely varied. It can go from helping a client manage their mental illness to supporting clients to access dental services. From testifying in Court on behalf of clients, visiting clients in hospital or prison to writing reports for Government departments. The work keeps me on my toes and every day I feel honoured to be a part of people lives, hopefully making a difference.

Depending of the day of the week e.g. if it’s a pay day for either my partner or I, scoring will be on my mind. It always amazes me the way I can be so focussed on my work but also working out how to score. I think that‘s a skill that functioning heroin addicts have. The ability to compartmentalise, to bring one area of the brain to the forefront and work on the task at hand while also working on something else in your head. It’s probably a skill a lot of people have but I can use this skill to buck society’s general view. That view that every user is a walking disaster; stealing, hocking and unable to do anything except using and scoring.

Another skill I’ve developed is the ability to wait and to endure. I can’t fast forward my day and I can’t 'go home sick’. My job’s too important to me and I want to keep it. It wasn’t always like this. There have been many jobs prior to my degree, that I essentially lost due to unexplained absences and erratic behaviour.

Cravings are part of every day but most of the time I can now manage them. Distraction and keeping busy are the best tools I have but it is still a constant challenge.

When it’s one of those joyous days that I can use, I have to wait for work to finish. If all goes to plan, my partner -whose works much more flexible and autonomous- will have scored late afternoon and he’ll wait for me to get home so we can use together. But thanks to most dealers being unable to actually do the deal within the time frame discussed and that they seem to be operating in an alternate version of time, I often have to score once I’m home. This involves calling the dealer (who hopefully is on) and having him come around. Occasionally it involves one of us doing some horrible mission but that’s rare these days. In the past I’d go pretty much anywhere for what I needed and tolerate all sorts of crap but now that I’m a regular customer and have a couple of reasonably solid dealers, home delivery is usually the go.

Once he comes I can finally truly relax. I treasure this time. We mix up, have the shot and kick back. It’s soft time. It feels gentle and calm. Other worries slip away, my constant aches and pains minimise to insignificance and the world is good. Of course there’s variation in quality but essentially I get what I need every time. I’ve worked hard to lower my pharmacotherapy dose to the point that I can stay well when I dose but don’t use, but when I do use, it's worth it. Depending on finances, I’ll generally do this once or twice during the week and then perhaps once or twice on the weekend too.

With finances, it’s a constant balancing act. I’ve been an addict for about 15 years and for the first 6 – 8 years, rent, bills, food and other essentials were secondary to heroin. Naturally this had a destructive impact. It’s hard living like that and I just can’t do it anymore. It’s certainly not easy for me to not spend all my money on junk but it’s also not easy to be homeless, hungry and broke. I’ve learned how to wait and endure much more. I can put off using so my rent is paid and I know I’ll be better off. That’s not to say there aren’t occasional slips ups and it will always be a challenge. But the majority of the time, I manage this juggling act.

Using is what keeps my on an even keel. It gives me such joy and pleasure that I imagine I’ll do it for the rest of my life. It probably sounds odd but it's really what kept me going all these years. There’s a background history of trauma in my life which may be a reason why I started using but in no way do I put the blame completely on that. I take responsibility for what I do.

Heroin has taken a lot from me but not the actual use itself. It’s more about what I’ve needed to do to be able to use when things weren’t stable. I won’t bore you with all that, but don’t worry, I’m not naive. I know what’s been taken from me because of my use. There are people who to this day want nothing to do with me. I’ve never been and never will be rich, my arms are scarred and there have been some very hard and demoralising times. I wish I didn’t have to spend what I do on junk and that I could be truly honest about the things that are important to me. But I cant and that’s that.

I suppose most people think I lead an awful life but I’m actually ok with it all. I’ve worked hard to get to where I am and even though part of my life is not socially acceptable, I’m happy and proud to be who I am.

I have people I love and who love me. I have a great house. I have a job I love and a university education. I have happy and healthy pets. I participate in the community and have a range of interests in life. I’m respected by my colleagues, friends and family.

I’ve heard other people say you can’t be a functioning heroin addict and dream big … I disagree. Really it just depends on your interpretation of a big dream, doesn’t it? Society’s interpretation of big (and acceptable) dreams include things like buying a house, having children, gaining seniority in your work, consuming-consuming, buying-buying-buying etc. But these aren’t my dreams at all. My dreams include a decent place to live, the love of my partner, work I enjoy and a meaningful life. They may not be big dreams but they’re mine and I’m making them a reality every day.