The ice epidemic destroying families
I met Sebastian and Helen in the waiting room of a doctor’s clinic in Drouin, east of Melbourne. The place was alive with the twitching coprolalia of ice, bodies spitting and stammering in imprecise detox. Every 10 days, they take their son Peter there on a six-hour round trip from Melbourne’s western suburb Melton, hoping the doctor might fix him.
“We didn’t ever think it would come to this,” Sebastian says to me. “This makes Breaking Bad look like a cakewalk. This makes The Killing look soft. They got nothing on the kinds of lives we have. That’s just piss TV.”
Sebastian is a big man, hewn from rock. There’s nothing poetic about his form. When we meet again, it is in Melton, where he and his wife work. They sit together, but strangely apart. A gap forced by the hell in which they find themselves.
Talking about the drug that is ruining their son’s life, it is as if they are describing a civil war – whole communities stripped of hope or consequence. As they speak, they seem frequently astonished by their own stories. As though until now they hadn’t the time to realise how terrible things had become.
“Some nights when my heart’s beating like there’s bombs going off,” Sebastian says, “I look up at the ceiling. The room shakes with each explosion inside my eyes. I just wonder, ‘What the fuck did we do to deserve this?’ I stopped promising answers. I stopped saying, ‘This is what we are going to do to get out of this’, because that all dried up a few years ago.”
Nearly gone is the rage of his 20s when, as the son of Polish and Croatian Catholics, he set the world on fire. He had fear and respect for the elder men that from time to time belted it into him. “We used to make our living from stealing cars … and we were in gangs and would fight near to death … But we loved our mother and we went to church, and we looked up to our father. It was different. If my dad said, ‘Jump’, I would, and I’d shit myself that I wasn’t going to jump high enough.”
His giant hands clench together and his shoulders hunch. “Sometimes I can’t go on.” He draws his lips thin and his eyes squint with such intensity I have to look away. “The man ...” he insists, as if saying a repetitive prayer. “The man is the rock. The husband and the father. The rock. He holds up the world. He doesn’t flinch. He is the guard, he gives life, he builds men. Takes them shooting, takes them fishing. Takes them to the football and shows them how to become men. He builds them and tells them they’re gonna be alright.”
He pauses. “What does it say about me when I got nothing to give, and I don’t know I can keep going? I look at myself and see I’m no longer that rock.” He looks across at his wife, sitting opposite on a small stool that squeaks every time she moves. “I can’t tell her that some days I don’t even care anymore. About anything. It’s like I’ve been gut-shot and cut and
I just bled out.”
Death all around
Helen has translucent skin. The deepest black rings circumnavigate the sockets of her eyes. She has a few ear piercings and raven blue-black hair and some large tattoos that appear and disappear from under a black T-shirt with every breath. It reminds me of seaweed swaying with each long breath of the ocean.
“It’s different for me,” she says. “I grew up in a house with mental illnesses. I understand this. My mother was addicted to many things. Schizophrenic. My brother died. Ten years of ice. My sister’s addicted, too, and has overdosed a few times. She’s not here for long. I know this world. Yeah ... but my brother died ...”
There is silence before Sebastian resumes. “We’re in a perfect storm of the dead and the dying,” he says. “Our son looked up to his uncle. Loved him, adored the ground he walked on. They helped each other in a way. Then he died. That gutted us all. My son – he didn’t speak for weeks. And then one of his mates hung himself, and that was like a piece of the world just blew away.
“His friend hung himself in his bedroom, and his sister found him. She was 14 and she rang her own mother at work and told her she better come home really fast, and the mother panicked, and a few minutes later ran her car off the road near Ardeer and slammed into a tree. She died, too. Two of them, same family – two of them dead in less than three hours. And then my son’s best mate. Coming down the street to see us, popped a mono on his Yamaha and went under a truck. He’d smoked crystal before he left and was full of it. He wouldn’t have felt a thing.”
Between them is an understanding of parents who have given everything to their child. “We paid his house off,” Sebastian says. “We are a family … we look out for each other. We knew it was a gamble. But he lost his job, lost his wife, lost his children and we feared if he lost his house it would kill him. So we paid his drug debts and paid out his house. Cost us 50.”
There is another silence. “We don’t sleep together,” Sebastian says. “We don’t make love anymore. We’re not together. We’re both standing back to back, fighting to stay alive and keep our family alive.” He looks at his wife. “Sometimes I don’t know where she is, even when she’s right in front of me.”
Helen answers his stare with a painful truth: “I don’t tell you everything because you can get so mad.”
I ask what led to this, although I already know. It is why they were in the doctor’s waiting room. It is the scourge that is tearing through these small communities.
“My son changed,” Helen says. “He was a quiet boy at school and somewhere around year 10 he got into a group that changed everything. And he got in with a young girl. Well, she got pregnant and we put them up in a flat – we paid for everything. But her mum deals in shit, and so whenever they went over to her place, she’d give them a smoke.
“Getting off on the gear isn’t the dangerous part – it’s the cravings and the psychosis that follows. He can take ice on Sunday and we just know that by Wednesday or Thursday it will be hell on earth. They go for days without sleep. He gets violent and a couple of times
I have moved her and the baby out and taken her to the police to get an AVO out on him.”
Your own son? I ask. “Yes. That baby. That girl, his wife. We thought the baby would be good ... But he isn’t connected, he makes promises about being a good parent. But it’s what he thinks we want to hear.”
Sebastian interjects, imitating his son. “ ‘Mum and Dad, I’m going to be a really good father to my baby.’ And I ask him, ‘Where is your daughter now, son?’ And he doesn’t even know.”
A broken father
Helen and Sebastian sit looking at each other. Sitting apart, but welded together, both numb. Sebastian shifts. Clears his throat. He remembers taking Peter hunting when he was young, fishing. They were happy. “Sit in the sun all day, catching fish and laughing,” he says. “Now that seems like life on a different planet. Sometimes I go out into the bush and sit. And I sit, and sit, and I sit. And one day I just shot all of my bullets into the ground.”
Sebastian looks into Helen’s eyes. For a moment, he ignores me entirely. “If I hadn’t, I don’t know what I would have done. Maybe shot someone. Maybe shot a lot. Maybe shot myself.”
He turns to me. “I just loaded up all my clips and emptied them. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Into the ground. Then I sat down and cried like I was full of water. I only saw my father cry when he was 87, and that was when my mother died. They were in a German camp. There wasn’t a time when they had been apart. That was the first time I saw him cry. I never saw him cry after that … even when he was dying.”
Sebastian puts his head in his hands and stares at the floor. A plastic wall clock with bent arms tocks away, punctuating the silence. I look around the room. The walls are grey-pink, the colour of an old man’s gums. The pink turned bluish the nearer it got to the single old fluorescent tube that occasionally flickered on the ceiling.
“It’s cost us thousands,” Helen says of her son’s addiction. “But what can you do?” She looks at Sebastian. “There’s a lot I haven’t told you. A lot of money I paid out... Now I say to Peter, ‘I’m going to tell your dad.’ He doesn’t like that.”
Sebastian does not move. There is no response. He had been broken by this years ago, by the chaos and the fear, the anticipation of something more horrible and inevitable yet to come. She continues. A confession. And it occurs to me in this little room with its pink-grey walls that our interview is their confession – their desperation gives them no more time for doctors or priests.
“Peter was high, running around like he was God, talking gibberish,” she says. “And a Commodore pulled up outside. I always know when it’s serious because no matter how high Peter is, it’s the only thing that stops him dead. Like he’s been shot and hasn’t fallen over. The blood just drains from his face.
“So you got this car with four or five blokes in it. Then you got another one pulls up with the same. And they all got rifles and sawnoffs and Peter starts screaming and I go out and they don’t move. I’m terrified, shaking like a tree. But I’m not going to have anyone of mine killed in my house or on my front lawn. They’re gonna have to shoot me first.”
Helen looks at Sebastian again. He takes this in, the news of his wife and the danger his son put her in, the secrets she has kept of this addiction.
“I’ve done this many times,” she says. “Just have to suck up my guts and walk out like I’m going to get a baby off the driveway. So I go right over. Some of them are watching me. Some of them look straight ahead.
“Most of them are on the gear. Last time I counted nine guns. And I go straight to the car and say, ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘We’ve come to get Peter.’ ‘Well you can’t have him. What does he owe you this time?’ ‘Two thousand. If we don’t get it, someone will get us, and that isn’t gonna happen. So, bitch, you better get out of the way, because if we don’t take him back ... we’re gone.’ ”
I ask what would have happened if she had not had the money. “Oh, they’d have shot him. If I didn’t pay they’d hurt him really bad. Shoot out his knee or his hand, or if he owed them a lot he would just disappear. Last week … last week there was a boy killed and left in the street just up the road. They beat him and ran over him a few times. We couldn’t get to work because the roads were all blocked off.”
Sebastian looks up. He looks at Helen and clears his throat. “This is where I start to wonder why a group of us don’t go and get some semi-automatics and shoot out the lot. But the cops tell us there’s too many. So we’d have to get thousands of rounds and go to them. We might die, but we’d hurt some people really bad.
“And then I wonder, what have I become? Everyone knows – including the government – that we should be hitting the source. But no one wants a civil war.”
I ask about police. It’s a reasonable question, and yet in the face of their trauma it feels almost naive. “It’s just a job. They don’t want to engage,” Sebastian says. “It’s too hard. They got families, too. Too dangerous. We get warned – they come here and say, ‘There is nothing we can do, and nothing you can do.’ ”
When I speak to police about the ice epidemic in Melton, their response is simple: “I’d say we are at absolute best treading water.”
Sebastian tells me about the hunting rifles he planned to give Peter, how he wanted to pass them to his son. He says Peter’s addicted friends cut into his gun safe with an oxywelder and stole them. Soon after, Peter moved out.
“A mate of mine is a plumber,” Sebastian says. “Got his own problems and can be a bit weird, but he’s older than Peter and these other punks. And he got a place. So I asked if Peter could go and live with him. We needed a rest. We were exhausted. And we thought it might do Peter good – start following someone else. So he started living there.
“Now, my mate, he put web cameras on the walls. Because he told the boys staying there, if he recorded them with any gear he’d throw them out. Anyway, second night in, the cameras filmed Peter stealing money from the other boys’ clothes.
“My mate come to me and he said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ I told him he better do whatever he thought best. So he told me he was gonna hurt Peter real bad. Make an example of him. Teach him a lesson. Peter came home and started hiding in a cupboard. Like he was running from hell.
“My mate and some of his mates came to get Peter. Now, they are tough as a brick wall, these guys. They came into the house, found Peter and dragged him out. He was kicking and screaming and asking for me to help. Clawed the carpet like he was being dragged over a cliff. I went to my mate and told him, ‘You rough him up and scare him bad. Don’t break anything, don’t cut him – but you hurt him and frighten him as much as you like.’ I even offered him some money.”
Sebastian is crying as he tells me this, a man wrecked by desperation, amazed by what ice has done to his son – and what his son’s addiction has done to him. Incredibly, all this has happened in just two years. “I ran out of … of gas. Nothing else had worked.”
He holds his head forward. A giant tear collects at the end of his nose, reflecting light before it falls. “So they took him back,” he says, struggling, “tied him to a chair, and any time my mate or one of his mates went past that chair they’d belt him, telling him they might take a trip and waste him in a gravel pit. He was terrified.
“A few days later they dropped him home. He was settled. He was really good. And so I asked a mate to find me an engine that needed some work. I wanted to work on it with Peter. Settle him. Do something together. Next day my mate turns up with the engine and we spent all day on it. Peter mostly standing around texting his mates. At the end of the day he looked at us and said, ‘I could sell this and buy some smack.’ ”
Sebastian speaks of another friend, another person who offered to help. “He tell me, ‘If I find out who’s selling ice to your boy, I’ll belt them within an inch of their lives.’ ” His voice goes grey and dark. “Turned out my mate was selling it to Peter,” Sebastian says. “So I did to him what he promised he would do.”
I ask Sebastian and Helen what might change. They talk about accountability, about how whenever there was a crisis for Peter they were there to help, to buffer and to take on the load.
“If we stepped back and let him deal with the consequences, he’d be in the ground already,” Sebastian says, quietly. “We know that. If we step away now, we sign his death warrant … And it will all be over in a few days.”
Helen swallows, looking at her husband. “This is where we are different. He wants to go to war, a bloody battle, over in a week. I think this has got 10 years or more yet to come. And our son used to be real gone on us every day. Then it was every second day. Then it was every third and then perhaps once a week. Then we relapse.
“If we can just keep it going this way, the weeks might become fortnights and then months. The trouble is, as he has told us many times, ‘Mum, the ice – I just love it.’ ”
They look at each other. They have not looked at each other for a while, but now they stare in silence. I don’t know what they see.
Names have been changed.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 14, 2015 as "‘Mum, the ice - I just love it’". Subscribe here.