Rob’s bedroom is neat. It is in a neat new house, tightly packed alongside other neat new houses, on the fringe of one of Melbourne’s outer suburbs. Sitting in this neat room, on the corner of his bed, Rob holds a syringe full of crystal meth. Rob is, like thousands of Australians, a methamphetamine addict.
For Rob, the loaded syringe is a ticket to a 12-hour all-encompassing sexual fantasy world, which he will spend the following week trying to realise. Gently, he eases the needle into his arm and dabs the blood off the entry point as he takes it back out.
His eyes sparkle, he gives a naughty grin, and the chitchat begins. He tells me about his latest sexual fantasy, pretending to be kidnapped by both a man and a woman so he can then be used at their leisure. “So,” he says, “tell me what you’ve been beating off about lately.” If you don’t answer Rob, he gets aggressive. Very aggressive. He is on meth, after all.
Australia has one of the highest rates of illicit methamphetamine use in the world, and the highest use among developed nations. And usage is increasing. In Victoria, abuse of crystal meth – also known as ice – is by all reports rampant. The number of deaths caused by the drug is increasing; the coroner’s office for the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association found that in 2010, one in every 25 drug-related deaths involved methamphetamines. Two years later, the figure had jumped to one in every 10 deaths. The Medical Journal of Australia last September published a study by Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre showing a 318 per cent increase in hospitalisations in Melbourne for ice problems from 2010-11 to 2011-12. It is unclear whether the increases were from a larger number of users or the result of greater purity of the available drug.
Nationally, some studies have shown meth use has risen by as much as 10 per cent over the past two years. A two-month research project into police detainees in key areas around the nation conducted this year by the Australian Institute of Criminology found 61 per cent of those held at Kings Cross police station in Sydney tested positive to amphetamine, as did 40 per cent of those who ended up in the Brisbane City watchhouse and 43 per cent of those in East Perth.
Statistics such as these have led to news reporting on meth use that borders on hysterical. So is the meth problem as bad as it seems?
One particular statement stuck in my head, from Paul Jevtovic, the acting CEO of the Australian Crime Commission. Jevtovic wrote in the foreword of the Illicit Drug Data Report 2012-13, released last April: “With its relative accessibility, affordability and destructive side effects, crystal methylamphetamine is emerging as a pandemic akin to the issue of ‘crack’ cocaine in the United States.”
As a journalist, I wanted to investigate the phenomenon firsthand. I knew a user, Bec, who introduced me to her ex-husband Rob, also a regular meth user. I moved in to Rob’s house, to which Bec also frequently returned. Fresh out of a mind-numbing and stuffy business law job, which I resigned from after just six weeks, I found myself in his house on the fringe of Australia’s worst meth area.
Rob is a cricket-loving unemployed labourer, a former army man, a graduate of both drug rehab and jail. He had another sort of graduation about three years ago – from pot and “truckie speed” to crystal meth. Rob dealt drugs from the house, so meth use and meth users were near constant companions. People from the local boarding house used the place to shoot up, and committed crime – mainly stealing furniture from display homes – to help support themselves and their habit. I rented a room at his bright new three-bedroom house for $130 a week and spent virtually the entirety of Melbourne’s beautiful autumn inside of it slowly losing my mind. Slowly and unwittingly, over three months I became an addict myself.
I take no comfort in knowing I am not the only person to have gone through all of this – there are 75,000 people in Australia who are dependent meth addicts, and like many before me, my descent into the meth trap was caused by dire ignorance about the drug.
For the first month in the house, I used meth just occasionally, and loved it. At one stage I called a friend and said, “I’ve worked out why so many people use this stuff – it’s a fucking amazing drug. I get so much work done, it’s so cheap, I’ve lost weight, and we have so much fun.” After a while, I began to think it was the straitjacketed “normals” who were the stupid ones for not taking it. I felt creative, confident and productive.
After a while, I started really craving it and got very impatient when waiting for it to arrive.
After a dose it is like you have just won an award, been offered sex with a very attractive person, and you are taking off in an aeroplane, all at the same time. Following the initial rush, I would become enraptured by a sense of the mystical: crystal meth can make you feel like your life is one big magical, lucid dream where anything is possible, everyone revolves around you and consequences are not binding.
Then there is the flip side, when the magic potion wears off and the dreams become nightmares. Crystal meth is a bit like the “old religion” spells in the TV show Merlin – you end up feeling as if nature is punishing you for messing with equilibrium.
By about my two-month mark, Rob had developed “meth scabs”. These scabs are caused by pointlessly and endlessly rubbing one’s own face. He also developed a large meth boil, which grew over his eye from underneath, leaving him looking like a zombie-version of Popeye. I imagine Rob’s brain did not look much better at the time and, frankly, he turned a little scary.
Here is how it went. Rob got angry after I suggested to him that a woman was flirting with him just to get free drugs. A short time later he threatened to punch me in the face because he was convinced I was smoking all his pot behind his back. He then told me he was sick of me and didn’t want me living there, suggesting I would be better off killing myself. I was scared and suicide did start to seem like a good idea, so I went to Dandenong Hospital. The staff there seemed very unsympathetic and a doctor told me I should leave and get drug counselling. I was in turn so nasty to her that she welled up in tears and left the room.
I left the hospital feeling even worse.
I rang my parents and asked for help, in an ill-mannered way. My Harley-Davidson riding ex-slaughterman father yelled at me to “get off the bloody drugs”. I responded by saying I was far bigger than him and would be making a special trip to their Queensland home to “kill him with my own bare hands”. My wildness was dismissed as the symptom of yet another raving mad ice-head who had lost their mind.
I had nowhere to go. I was scared to go back to Rob’s house, and too embarrassed to ask my “normal” friends for help. I slept rough that night – in the doorway of a high-school classroom.
I plucked up the courage to ask my estranged ex if I could stay with him in his dilapidated terrace house in Footscray. Much to my surprise, he agreed and was now a chronic meth-head himself. He lived with a guy named Sammy, or Mr Sheen. It would have been very hard to conceive of a more terrifying human being than Mr Sheen – 45, big-time steroid user, old-school intravenous ice user, built like a brick shithouse, with a face full of enough lines and scars that it wasn’t really a surprise when he told me he had spent time in both jail and a psych ward.
One night Mr Sheen cracked, like, really cracked. He was cleaning when he told me I was not allowed to leave my ex’s room. “You’re dirty,” he told me. “You’re spreading germs around the house.” When he caught me going to the toilet at 5am, he lit up an angry red and started screaming in my face: “Get the fuck out now, you dirty fucking cunt – I’ll fucking bash the fuck out of you.”
I darted out of the house, petrified, not knowing whether I should call the police. I wondered where I would sleep the next night. When I got my head together I rang my parents, apologised, and they paid for my airfares to Queensland.
Back in the family home I realised I had lost 12 kilograms. I had started to get the scabs, had no money, few friendships, nowhere to live, and while the psychotic fog lifted, I struggled to shake off the residual, though more subtle and less dramatic, paranoia. Long after I stopped using I thought people were plotting against me.
My three-month descent into addiction was the result of a combination of naivety and a lack of insight into my degrading mental condition. I used meth bit by bit, here and there. I’d feel so tired I’d take a bit more, until my mind got so twisted I lost track of how much I was actually using and how much my behaviour had changed.
The thing that I really didn’t understand about meth addiction is what is meant by “psychologically addictive”. Ice addiction is very much about this gradual grinding down of the border between fantasy and reality. Many users then become psychotic or so deluded they lose all self-awareness, not realising that they have become hooked on this insidious drug.
Let me take you back to the day, back at Rob’s house, when I finally realised everyone had been trying to kill me. I looked into a mirror. Peering closer I saw that my teeth were covered in some kind of dark black grime. It looked as though I had been using dog shit as chewing gum. The longer I stared, the more I realised my teeth were not only inexplicably black but that I had dark rings around my eyes, spots on my face and my cheeks were drawn.
I looked like a corpse. In a few quick moments, I concluded that my flatmates were colluding with my parents to slowly poison me over time – just as I’d seen once in a Midsomer Murders episode. These thoughts went on for hours until I eventually confronted Rob and told him I knew he had been trying to kill me, and I was “ready for the attack”.
After a long discussion with my mother over the phone, I snapped out it and realised I was experiencing my first psychotic episode, which itself masked another problem – I looked and behaved so terribly because I was now a meth addict.
My teeth were in fact so disgusting because I had stopped brushing them. Rob eventually told me that what I needed to do was settle down and go to bed – and before that, what I really, really needed to do was use some Listerine.
Scrambling to regather my original journalistic purpose, I called Dr Rebecca McKetin, a fellow at ANU’s College of Medicine, Biology and Environment. She has more than 15 years’ experience researching the impact of amphetamines on mental health, so I was keen to discuss my experience, hoping to get an explanation for what had gone wrong.
McKetin was calm, sobering and soft-spoken on the phone. She explained that meth’s impact on the brain’s dopamine levels gave many users symptoms like those of paranoid schizophrenia. Dopamine regulates the brain’s reward and pleasure centre, but too much of it results in psychosis.
“We know that people with schizophrenia have too much dopamine in their brain,” McKetin told me. “Meth increases dopamine and this causes an imbalance – resulting in too little serotonin, our mood regulator, and too much noradrenaline, our ‘fight or flight’ chemical.
“Meth has a clear correlative to very violent behaviour. Part of the reason people act violently when they are on the drug is the chemical interaction it causes: low serotonin levels are associated with aggressive behaviour. So, in the end, people are paranoid from too much dopamine, irritable from low serotonin and overhyped – all at once.”
And why do people’s fantasies get so dark when they’re withdrawing? “That’s the million-dollar question,” she said. “No one really knows that yet.”
I was plainly ignorant about the drug before I succumbed. I’d considered myself a drug-savvy streetwise person before the autumn of 2014. However, my quick and doe-eyed plunge into addiction suggested otherwise. I had a number of key misconceptions about the drug: that meth didn’t kill you, that there was a safe level of use, and that meth didn’t do permanent damage.
The Victorian parliament’s Law Reform, Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee is currently conducting an “Inquiry into the supply and use of methamphetamines, particularly ‘ice’ ”, which is focused on the drugs’ links with crime and how to reduce supply.
The Australian Crime Commission says the biggest contributor to the rise in meth use and the drop in price is in the increase of “backyard labs”. Up to 60 per cent of the meth used in Australia is manufactured here, with the rest coming from south-east Asia. Indeed, many of the submissions to the Victorian inquiry called for greater restrictions on the sale of precursor products from pharmacies. The others all had consistent themes of increased awareness and education around the drug, as well as more specialised services for meth addicts.
Less than a dozen stakeholder submissions are publicly available, but when I started reading, I noticed just how poorly informed I was.
Anex, a group that works principally as a needle exchange for drug users, wrote in their submission: “Casual users quickly progress to harmful use” and “long-term adverse effects of the consumption of methamphetamine are well documented and include dependence, cardiovascular complications, neurotoxic effects associated with the development of psychomotor disturbances similar to Parkinson’s disease and psychosis”.
Melbourne City Mission submitted that homeless meth-using clients “typically present to the service paranoid and aggressive – they can often be violent and threatening and display poor emotional self-regulation – including a reduced capacity or willingness to take responsibility for actions”.
The mission reports that in their early intervention programs workers have identified meth use in “clients as young as 12 years of age” and “that 70 per cent of [their clients] between the ages of 14 and 15 years of age have had some experience or use of ice”.
The Victorian branch of the Australian Medical Association also told the inquiry that the drug is exceptionally cheap and easy to obtain. Indeed, the users I know had multiple dealers to choose from and were often injecting the drug several times a day. Others used less, as a dose that can last many users up to 24 hours costs somewhere between $30 and $50.
The Jesuit Social Services’ submission quoted a recent study into meth use in Melbourne by a group of University of Melbourne researchers, which “found that 72 per cent of participants reported that methamphetamine use preceded the onset of mental health problems”. Indeed, many of the submissions showed that health workers continue to tackle the problem at the coalface. The AMA noted their practitioners have seen meth psychosis “occur in people who are psychologically robust”. Other research has shown those who experience meth-psychosis rarely have any personal or family history of schizophrenia.
During my time in Rob’s house, I met a sweet-natured, raven-haired Anglican high school teacher who used to come to buy pot but who graduated eventually to meth. She was always taking her kids to athletics or football and went to church nearly every Sunday. Over the space of six weeks, I watched her degenerate into someone who was convinced everyone was stealing from her – in particular, her sister. She soon took long-service leave from her job. While she didn’t say this, her level of use indicated she must have been on meth while at church and teaching in the classroom. As far as I could tell, she had absolutely no history of mental illness and appeared genuinely happy before she slipped into addiction.
In the past two years, Rob lost his jobs, broke his marriage with Bec and at one stage was denied access to some of his stepchildren. He went into Centrelink recently and they suggested he apply for the Disability Support Pension.
He would sit on his bed, rubbing his cock for hours on end to repeats of the same bland old-fashioned porn, taking comfort in losing himself, and everyone else, in his dreams. Empathy is one of the first qualities to go in an ice addict, followed by the ability to distinguish what is true and what is not.
In Rob’s case, his fantasies about Bec having sex with other men soon became so real he would begin to think it had actually happened, which usually resulted in her getting kicked out of the house and the accused getting a permanent ban. She would sit outside in the car sobbing, too scared to come back in.
I saw many men act abusively towards women they were convinced had done something wrong. When I spoke to the female partners of meth users, nearly all shared similar stories.
Another woman, no older than 19, took me aside to show me photos on her iPhone of when her ex-boyfriend used to beat her when he was high. He targeted areas that weren’t visible to the public, leaving bruises all over her back and upper chest. She told me she was “rescued” from this relationship by her current boyfriend – another meth dealer.
During my two days at the house in Footscray, Mr Sheen’s girlfriend left their room one evening and sat next to me on the couch. She told me she had left the room because he had been slamming her mouth repeatedly on his penis. “I never asked him to move in, he just did and I am scared shitless of him. This is my house and now he’s constantly threatening to throw me out.”
The woman had nowhere else to go and said that if she called the police he would simply be back in a couple of days with the willingness and capacity to kill.
The link between ice use and domestic violence became disturbingly obvious during those autumn months. The kids aren’t faring terribly well, either – I saw many cases of children neglected by meth addict parents, and many men talking of their fantasies about underage girls when they were high.
For me, my foray into this sordid world showed that liberalism has its limits. I learnt that meth use is not merely a transgressive and misunderstood rebellion against the pressures of working life and the banality of Australian suburbia. It does kill, and when it doesn’t it can be almost Faustian when taken in large doses.
I say almost because meth doesn’t take away people’s “souls” – the drug delivers self-centred hedonism. Many addicts have often told me life can’t compare to the pleasure the drug provides. But meth can never deliver the things that make us tick.
Two months since my time in the Footscray house I have concluded that Queensland’s Bundaberg is Australia’s most underrated town – it has been nearly 25 degrees every day for the entire winter. I live with my patient parents, who have fed me many times over – and I can’t detect a trace of arsenic in the food. I haven’t rediscovered the same levels of excitement I experienced on the meth bender and I don’t think I ever will – even the prospect of sex seems dull. I am alone and lonely, but determined to build a new group of non-using friends. I am no longer acting like a self-absorbed fuckwit; I am not inventing problems that I do not have. I’m working on a few pro bono cases that could really change a few lives. I’m exercising every day, reading all the time, and experience feels gloriously authentic. The realisation that the entire world does not revolve around me has been soul-reviving.
I’ve not spoken with Rob since I left his house when he threatened to bash my head in. Last I heard he had been arrested for trafficking. He also punched Bec in the mouth, but she didn’t want to press charges because she said she attacked him when she was coming down.
I had become very close to Bec over the past few years. The last Facebook message I sent her recently went unanswered:
Hey Bec, I know I was an idiot for living there and taking all those drugs. But you really have lost your head and Rob is getting just plain scary. Meth at the dosages you and Rob are taking can and I think will kill both of you. Your kids will be left with no parents … Please go to rehab, you are fucked in the head and you do not realise it. I know you studied nursing – but did you know meth causes cardio-toxicity? High levels of dopamine lead to psychosis. You have sores all over you. You look like a junkie. Please mate. Your kids REALLY deserve better. Sort it out. You and Rob really, really need to go to a rehab.
Facebook reports the message as having been “Seen Monday, 14 July”.