Our adored son and brother, Sam, died in 2000 from a heroin overdose. He was in his early twenties. Sam was a delight: tall, blond, handsome; a kind, generous, loving person with a highly-developed sense of humour. But he, like others, became trapped in an awful cycle and couldn't break free despite making continued efforts — sometimes succeeding.
He was so proud when he purchased his car, something he'd never have been able to do if he'd been using. Sam was a difficult baby — fussing and fractious — but once he could get about (he crawled at six months!) he was happy. His early childhood — kindy and preschool — was one of happiness and high energy. Everything went along smoothly until he went to school; then the shit began. He had an 'experienced' Grade 1 teacher who belittled him; she tore up his work in front of the class one day. We started a long, horrible, ultimately fruitless journey (with some small diversions) trying to find help for him.
These days I think things would have been better. I hope so. He worked in a number of jobs, none of them — except his carpentry apprenticeship — worth mentioning. He was nearly through his apprenticeship when something happened; we don't know what. Perhaps a breakup with a girl? He loved the ladies and was the ultimate chick magnet — in fact we sometimes wonder if an unknown grandchild is going to turn up on the doorstep. Wouldn't that be wonderful!
I do not wear rose-tinted glasses. When he was using, things were indescribably awful. He stole, he pawned stuff, he disappeared for days on end, he smelt bad, and he hung out with some seriously undesirable people. No doubt others viewed him as an undesirable. His efforts at cold turkey (I didn't recognise them as such then) were monumental and commendable. He must have hated himself when he lapsed...
Sam had plans to leave here to work with his brother in another city when we found him, dead, at home. He had no drug paraphernalia in his room. Someone must have been with him when he last used and must've cleared it all away. We haven't ever discovered who it was and, although we have mostly let it go, I'd still like to know who was there and why they left him. Did he plan to die? We'll never know. Things had got out of control; I am unsure he'd have seen a way out. He'd crashed his car, written off someone else's, would have had no insurance cover since he'd given a blood test… Jail might even have been an option although he didn't have a record; however, I'm sure the police knew of him.
Along this awful path we met many barriers, and some empathetic supporters. The state health department, in their wisdom, denied us access to his history. We understand why, but it would have been so much better had we been in an informed position to help him; his efforts to get clean show that he wanted to. Since his death I've been interviewed twice by the same department — they want to get it right now — with respect to families.
Change the law. Stop making criminals of our children. Have compassion and understanding. Pursue the real villains, not the victims. Thanks to Family Drug Support (FDS) and their programs, enlightened people in health departments are taking steps to support (unsure about 'assist') families. Had I know about FDS when Sam was alive I acknowledge I would have been better prepared.
- Names have been changed.
My partner and I were together for nearly three decades. In our younger, wilder days we used all sorts of drugs, including heroin. As time went on, our priorities for life changed and we made the decision to stop using, which took some effort, but we got there. We had more time and ability to travel, we bought a home and did some renos, normal stuff.
And then our next exciting chapter began with a move interstate to pursue new work challenges. We loved it. As Jamie approached his milestone birthday, he talked about wanting to get stoned just one more time. It wasn't where I was at, but I understood how nice that feeling can be. We talked more but didn't decide anything. Except that Jamie decided. And when I was out of town for work, he scored some heroin, went home and used one last time.
He had no tolerance, he didn't know how strong the drugs were, and he was alone. It was a terrible, tragic error of judgement. I was called by his work colleagues who were concerned he hadn't showed up at work. I rushed back home and was greeted at our house by the police and the coroner. I had ten minutes to hold his cold body before they took him away.
I wish he didn't have to buy drugs off the street. I wish he had more information about the strength of the drugs. I wish he had somewhere to go where he wasn't alone. I wish he was still here. I miss him.
- Names have been changed.
A number of years ago I broke my back and tore some muscles. I received excellent medical care and was prescribed a paracetamol and codeine mix, and valium. They worked very well for the pain and muscle spasms. I also have bad osteoarthritis. Since I have also had friends with addiction problems, including being addicted to doctor-prescribed meds, I was very concerned about dependency and what I would do if I built up a tolerance to those meds.
I found that by smoking just a pinch of cannabis before bed, when my pain is bad and interferes greatly with my sleep, I have relief from pain and muscle spasms and am able to sleep. If it was not for cannabis I feel that I would likely be addicted to opiates and/ or valium.
Should I risk addiction to legally prescribed pain meds? Or risk continuing to buy on the black market? Or risk being stopped and drug tested and incarcerated for smoking cannabis the previous night when I am no longer under the influence the following day? I do not think that I should need to have any of these risks. I am an older woman who deals with daily pain. The government wants the pharmaceutical companies to be overly involved. This can be good for some, for example, children with seizures or other medical needs. They need a controlled, exact dose.
- Name has been changed.
Today my son tried to take his own life. He is suffering mental health issues and drug addiction. He has now hit rock bottom. He tells me he feels he is just a dirty drug user, shamed and judged, tied of the battle, no hope.
As his mum I just see a very unwell boy. I understand the outcome of his illness may very well be death. The thing I don’t understand is if my son had cancer with the same possibility of death, his friends, family and community would rally to support him and he would not have feelings of shame and being judged. I believe as a society with our views on drug use and mental health we have added to his suffering.
Let’s now start having the hard conversation about a way forward to help and not hinder people’s precious lives, because what we have at present is not working. I am so thankful his attempt to take his life was unsuccessful and he is getting help. However, it saddens me that we lose so many and it doesn’t have to be that way.
- Name has been changed.
I guess I was optimistic. I hoped for the best and I could’ve done a lot more. While I don’t punish myself for that - and I know he wouldn’t want me to punish myself - that’s kind of why the work I do now is so important for families.
At the time he was dying, I was having a conversation with Sandra about kids and the love we have for them - whether we express that, whether we do it enough, and whether you knew whether your kids loved you or not. That was an ironic conversation. Then, on the day I found out about his death... I’d gone walking with a mate of mine and we were reflecting on the happiest times of our lives. I was telling him that the happiest times in my life were when I was driving Damien around to all his sport. Then I got the phone call. It was a young constable from Surry Hills Police Station. She said, ‘Are you related to Damien Trimingham?’
‘ Yes, I am his father.’
‘ I wonder if you could come to…’ She didn’t actually say the morgue, ‘Could you come to the coroner’s in Glebe?’
‘Oh, we just want to eliminate your son from our inquiries into a death.’
As soon as I heard that I knew it was the worst, even though she was beating around the bush and really trying not to tell me. I said, ‘What’s happened?’
She said, ‘There was an overdose death in Darlinghurst the other night and we have a deceased person.’
‘There was some identification.’
Of course then I knew. I got some of the way. I just couldn’t drive. I was incapable of driving, so I rang the mate that I’d gone walking with and he came and he drove me the rest of the way. When I got in there, there’s this young police constable and she’s got a file under her arm and it’s headed “Trimingham, Deceased.” All these kind of bizarre, surreal images that stick in my memory. Then they took me to the viewing room. Of course it was Damien.
‘Yeah, that’s him.’
I discovered that the death was preventable, because I read the coroner’s report.
‘How can somebody go from being perfectly normal and functioning, no bodily stuff, and then suddenly be dead?’
Somebody introduced me to this idea of the trifecta of risk, which obviously Damien had: because he hadn’t been using on a regular basis he’d lost his tolerance. Secondly, the alcohol would’ve already slowed his system down and made it much easier to overdose with heroin. Then, because he’d gone to an isolated place because of the illegality, he was very vulnerable.
I thought, ‘Well, this is f****** stupid that people should die from something that really is quite safe if it’s done in a safe environment.’ With a drug that’s probably hard to say, but the best in terms of purity and impact. The only real negative impacts that heroin has are deaths, disease and crime. If they decriminalise and get rid of those three major risks, there’s still the dependency to deal with, but that’s manageable. My anger got diverted then to the ridiculousness of the system that we had. In the late nineties, heroin was like ice is now. It was on the front pages every day. There were some dreadful stories in the Sydney Telegraph. There were all sorts of things on television about it. It was just taking the headlines. I’m sitting there thinking, ‘F***, why do they keep doing the same old stuff?’
- Tony Trimingham is the founder and CEO of Family Drug Support
The Nuances of Addiction
My grandson is totally addicted. He’s a two-and-a-half-year-old excavator addict. He sits on my shoulders at construction sites. He can sit there for hours. He doesn’t get hungry. He doesn’t get cold. He just sits there and watches the excavators. After a while, the guy driving the excavator just feels these two little eyes burning into him.
He’s addicted to excavators.
This is just normal and perfectly healthy. Kids do this just by way of growing up. Kids go through phases of childish addiction to dinosaurs or excavators, or dollies.
There’s such a thing as addiction. It’s a totally normal process, but the reason we’re talking about it right now in this psychological context is that sometimes it goes off the rails to the point where it may even become fatal. The way I understand it is that addiction is part of our adaptive toolkit. It’s like anger, for example. It’s part of our adaptive toolkit, and it’s no big deal. If you and I get angry at each other, we’ll be OK tomorrow. Sometimes, though, people go off the rails and become terrifyingly, dangerously angry. Addiction’s like that.
Is there such a thing as addiction in the sense that there’s a fatal, irreversible disease which strikes people and is caused by demon drugs? Of course not. That doesn’t exist. I love the Oxford English Dictionary. If you look up addiction, they tell you how Shakespeare used the word, and how the philosopher David Hume used it. Addiction is the fact that human beings get really centred on something to the point where other things are excluded, and their lives become very, very focused. For example, people fall in love. Is that addiction? Yeah, by the dictionary definition it is, but it doesn’t mean they have a disease or they’re going to go mad and kill each other out of jealousy. There is such a thing as seriously dangerous love addiction. But everyday addictions are just part of life.
Think about falling in love. That’s an important transitional moment in human life. Think about Max and his excavator addiction. What happens when you gut-check and you think, ‘Well, what do I know how to do? I’m too old for excavators, and nobody loves me. What can I get addicted to? I can get addicted to the social media, or I can get addicted to pornography, or I can get addicted to gambling machines.’ But it’s not going to work. That’s when it goes wrong. It’s when all you’ve got, it’s not enough. What can you do? You just keep trying. You haven’t got an alternative.
That’s the people I work with as a psychologist. I’ve been working with gambling addicts, slot-machine addicts. These guys, they’ve got so little going for them. They have these love affairs with the slot machine. They zone out, and they become part of a man-machine system, and they’re working away. They’ve got nothing. They’ve got no alternative. That’s when I think addiction becomes dangerous, and I think it is dangerous now at this stage of history for us, because you’ve got so many people who don’t really have adequate lives, and they’re grabbing onto the best addiction they can find, and they’re working it for all it’s worth, but it’s not working.
On the other hand, we’ve got people who are still falling in love with each other, children falling in love with excavators, or whatever it is, and people like you writing books. In that sense, addiction is still essential. We can’t do without it.
- Bruce K Alexander is a psychologist and professor emeritus from Vancouver.
The war on drugs.... I'm never exactly sure how to write these things up so let's give this a go. I think it's important to start with me; for me at least, I used to be one of those guys that just thought "why would anybody do drugs?" Or "people should just say no". That all changed however when I fell into my own addiction. My drug of choice, ice.
I've gone through two big stages of my addiction, both times I've managed to quit without the help of or telling anyone. I guess the law has a lot to blame for that part. You see, the problem with the law is, no matter what light you look at it in, at the end of the day people like me are nothing more than 'addicts' or 'junkies'. Throughout my addiction I've managed to keep a job, somehow managed to balance what seemed like a normal life to everyone else, I'm nothing more than a 'junkie' or 'criminal' under the law.
For me, that's been one of the biggest battles. You simply don't know who to turn to, who to trust. What if the people you think are your friends or family look at you in a different way after it? It's hard. Then you go online. Read the comments people say after a tragic overdose. 'he deserved it' or 'he shouldn't have taken it'. In a perfect world, yes. But we don't live in a perfect world and people take drugs for any number of reasons, and those attitudes, mostly made by our failed government laws and campaigns such as the lies in "ice destroys lives", continue to shape public option about us.
As I said at the start, I'm never really good at writing these up and I'm not exactly sure where to go from here. I could probably write about this all day, sadly, so I'll just finish this up here for now. Anyway, thanks for the work you guys do, I hope this bit of my story helps. Regards, Christian
- Name has been changed.
My name is Connor and I am a student of pharmacology and neuroscience. I am a kind loving person who has never brought harm to another human being in my life. However I have been suffering from depression, anxiety and ADHD almost my whole life.
During my late teens and early twenties my mental conditions reached a level of severity that made it unbearable to live and I contemplated suicide nearly every day. I would have severe panic attacks almost daily and would have been completely unable to function if not for my use of cannabis which managed my symptoms far more effectively than any antidepressant medication and without harsh side effects. I also used psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin mushrooms and LSD which could have honestly saved my life. Psychedelics opened my mind and allowed me to love myself for the first time in my life and basically cured me of my depression overnight which I had battled my whole life.
Last year I was caught by police with a relatively small amount of drugs that were for my personal use. I no longer felt the need to use drugs so often to manage symptoms and I was on my way to quitting altogether. However the police and the government believed me to be an awful person and threw me in jail, taking away a significant portion of my life which I could have spent improving myself and completing my degree. Even after I was released from prison I had a very strict curfew and was subject to weekly appointments and drug testing.
I have seen what prison does to people and it does not make them better people, it makes them worse. Prison was a traumatic time for me and it set me back a great deal of progress in my journey of healing.
There is no purpose in incarcerating and punishing people who use drugs. This is simply another way the government interferes with people's personal lives similar to the prohibition of gay marriage. It is ludicrous to think that people with no background in pharmacology, neuroscience, psychology, medicine or biochemistry are making laws in fields they are completely uneducated in. Evidence shows that alcohol and tobacco are two of the most dangerous drugs out there exceeding even the dangers of methamphetamine but they are viewed to be safe and your morality is not questioned for using these substances.
I could go on for hours on this topic but I will leave it there. It is time for the government to start looking at creating a fairer, safer and less moronic system of drug policy. It is time to end the era of victimless crimes and nonsensically ruining people's lives. Thank you
- Name has been changed.
As one who started in pharmacy in 1947 I have seen the operation of drug laws under both regulated supply and today's out of control market for now illegal drugs such as heroin, amphetamines and cocaine. Harm reduction strategies, although reliant upon doctor-patient cooperation, worked better then - even though there were no legal guidelines.
Today we have the technologies and medical science to do far more. 60 years of zero tolerance led to more tragic deaths, ruined lives, worry and burglary. They have created a world-wide multi-million dollar industry that does not pay taxes. As a federal parliamentarian in the 1980s and 1990s I moved for drug law reform, with Ric Charlesworth seconding the motion. The motion was never voted on and the tragedies continue.
- Jim Snow is a former Australian politician.
Sometimes it's hard to remember what it was like to be young now that i'm in my fifties.
I used to smoke a lot of cannabis in my youth and occasionally take other mind altering substances such as Ecstasy (or at least what I hoped was Ecstasy) and rarely some other drugs. I wanted to experiment with my friends.
The war on drugs made this extremely expensive and even though I worked very hard all my life I never had the money to purchase a house because I was giving my Cannabis dealer about $200 per week instead of growing my own for free. I know this was a personal choice I made and I take full responsibility for my actions. I did try to grow my own cannabis as I preferred it to alcohol after growing up with an alcoholic father. Unfortunately I was arrested and charged for cultivating a prohibited plant and received a fine and a criminal record. that criminal record has prevented me getting jobs. I don't use any drugs including alcohol since I had children. I do find the "war on drugs" counter productive and actually makes a health issue into a law and order issue. This has many downsides including making some people (like drug dealers) very rich.
Young people will always want to experiment with drugs and we should use science to work out the best harm minimisation strategies, not anecdotes and political ideologies.
We are doing our youth a great disservice.
- Name has been changed.