24 Jun Judy Smith thought heroin addiction happened somewhere else – until it took her son
This article first appeared on Mamamia on 22 June 2016.
Heroin, overdoses, needle exchanges, safe injecting centres, methadone clinics… I knew they existed but they were never going to be a part of my life. Happily married with a very normal life in suburban Sydney, we were raising our child in a loving, nurturing and stable environment; no family conflict, no great financial pressures. Heroin addiction happened somewhere else but not in my family – I thought.
Reading the reports these last week of at least 13 heroin overdose deaths in Sydney alone in just one month, I am compelled to tell my family’s story.
My name is Judy Smith and I live in Katoomba NSW. My son and only child Daniel died four years ago from an accidental heroin overdose. He died alone in my car early one Sunday morning across the road from the house of a well-known dealer in a quiet street in beautiful Blackheath. He was 28. That day the sunshine died and our lives changed forever.
I realised Daniel was using hard drugs when he was about 20 though in hindsight I think it probably started when he was about 18, towards the end of his final year at school. It had become evident that he suffered from anxiety and low self-esteem, constantly worried about the world and his place in it. His behaviour was shifting and he had become quite anti-social, choosing to spend much of the time in his room when he was at home. He flatly refused to discuss his mood swings, even though we gave him many non-confrontational opportunities. He sometimes stayed out all night, coming home at dawn. Any attempt to discuss this with him usually ended in explosive arguments which achieved nothing. I remember being very relieved hearing his key in the back door knowing he was safely home. In those days I knew nothing much about hard drugs and so we preferred to think that our son was being a difficult teenager and that it would pass.
The first indication of drug use came late one night at the end of 2004 after the discovery of some unmistakable evidence of drug use in his room. It was not my usual practice to check my son’s personal possessions but on that night I recall having a very strong intuitive need to check a backpack thrown carelessly on his bed to assure myself nothing was wrong. Finding evidence in a brown paper bag was an overwhelming moment of shock and panic. Next morning we confronted him and he was very angry I had gone through his things but then brushed it off, saying he had had a very casual encounter with speed, he would dispose of the items and it wouldn’t happen again. He was convincing and we believed him.
Other incidents then started to happen over the next six months which left me feeling very uneasy, but each time I questioned him he had a plausible and quick excuse. Then one night he arrived home quite late and went straight to his room. I could hear unusual shuffling and banging noises behind the closed door and after looking into his room from an outside window, noticed his demeanour was very strange. When I entered his room and confronted him, I was left in no doubt at that moment that he had been injecting a strong drug. He said he was very sorry and he would never do it again. Once again, I believed him and gave him a chance. A few months later I found an ambulance receipt and when I asked him about it, I found myself listening to my son’s story of heroin overdose. From that time on, even though he kept assuring me that he was only a casual user, it just got worse.
This time in my life felt surreal, like a very bad dream and at times I thought I was going crazy. It was such a serious issue but I did not know where to start to look for help. I dared not tell friends for fear of gossip and stigma towards him. He was well liked and intelligent, by this time having completed a Bachelor degree and had held down a few good jobs. Finally, with the help of the Internet, I located a family drug support service, made the call and was relieved to be talking to someone who understood and helped. We started going to support meetings and met other people who were living the same nightmare. Through this support service, I eventually established a network of friends and we all supported each other as we walked the tenuous tightrope of heroin addiction in the family. I started to educate myself about drugs and addiction, and I learned that harm minimisation was crucial. I learned about the drug user’s stages of change and most importantly, how to set workable boundaries.
My son spent much time in the inner city and around this time, he later told me that he had decided to use the Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (MSIC) in Kings Cross. He said he had felt safe and comfortable there, in an environment that did not judge and instead offered support.
He moved in and out of home on and off over the next couple of years but would often fall apart physically and emotionally whenever his drug use increased. When that happened, we would bring him home again and look after him. Continuing the harm minimisation example as practised at MSIC, we set up a system in our own home of always having a safe, clean and non-threatening space for him, together with clean injecting equipment. If he needed clean needles, we would drive to a needle exchange to get them. When I look back now, this whole lifestyle was probably very dysfunctional, but over time it became quite normal for us. We built up trust as a family and the arguments stopped.
It took many months for us to finally face the confronting reality of heroin addiction in our family and by that time we had made the conscious decision to stand by our son and help him, always in the hope that one day he would be well enough to live an independent, peaceful and contented life. It was simply not an option to desert him, kick him out and have him try to survive on the streets – I loved him too much.
When we moved to the Blue Mountains at the end of 2008, Daniel decided to come with us. He loved living in the mountains and seemed to be improving. He was on the methadone program, found a job and had made some friends. When my husband was diagnosed with cancer in 2009, I could not have asked for a more supportive son. He was with us every step of the way as we navigated through the maze of treatment. It was he who remained supportive at that time and positively focused on his father’s recovery.
During 2011 he had spent a month in rehab mainly because his methadone use was too high. Methadone is a synthetic opiate substitute and although it brings stability, it can also sometimes become extremely addictive in itself. He came out of rehab having lowered his dose by half and took the positive step onto buprenorphine. The change was remarkable as he seemed healthier and more positive. By the end of the year he had a job he loved working with animals, an understanding boss and a new relationship – life was good he said, as the New Year arrived. We were so happy for him and thought the hard yards were behind us.
We will never know what triggered a fatal decision early on that Sunday morning to drive to Blackheath instead of his clinic at the hospital for his medication. We had had a lovely family evening the night before, after which he headed to his girlfriend’s for the night before starting work the next morning. My husband even phoned to make sure he was on his way to work. By midday the next day two policemen were in my home telling me my son had died in my car, which he had borrowed the night before.
While there is life, there is hope, but once life is gone, only the emptiness of memories remains. For us, this has been the ultimate loss and any hope of our family’s future so we now live day to day, supporting each other and being thankful for a handful of sincere friendships. Disappointingly, there has been little or no support from family or those respectable friends from Sydney. Loss through drug use is definitely stigmatized.
Heroin addiction can touch anyone in any family, living anywhere. We have not won the war on drugs and as a society we need to give a compassionate, evidence-based response. Harm minimisation works and people suffering drug addiction who receive support usually stand a good chance of recovery.
Recent criticism of Uniting MSIC angers me, especially knowing about these 13 recent deaths. Yes, the reality of visible drug users in Kings Cross is confronting but this centre saves lives. Injecting clinics are necessary and need to be conveniently located. Uniting MSIC has saved countless lives. When the centre opened in 2001, it was the first drug consumption room anywhere in the English speaking world. Despite countless reviews and assessments which prove the centre’s success, governments continue to block calls to open new services in areas where drugs are prevalent. Drugs are here to stay and despite a lack of publicity at the moment about heroin, use is high and overdoses are once again on the rise. I am in no doubt that had there been a safe injecting centre close-by, my son would have used it as he knew first-hand the importance of a clean and safe injecting environment.
The unfairness of our son’s death is that after years of struggle, he had turned a corner and was changing. He was getting better and wanted to leave this addiction behind. He was well‑educated, intelligent and handsome, he was a thoughtful and supportive son when he could be; and despite his addiction, he had a caring social network of friends who accepted him for the good person he was. He did not have a criminal record and as a result of our harm minimisation practices, he never contracted Hepatitis C. He was talking positively about the future for the first time in a long time. He just needed more time. Daniel paid the ultimate price for the black moods and indiscretions of his youth.
By Judy Smith