Mitch started using ice aged 20 to impress a girl he liked. Picture: Hilary Wardhaugh
Mitch started using ice aged 20 to impress a girl he liked. Picture: Hilary Wardhaugh

The simple $40 purchase that ruined Mitch’s life

Mitch was 20 the first time he smoked crystal methamphetamine to impress a girl he liked.

"I've always hated who I am or who I thought I was," he says. "Suddenly, I had all these ridiculous things to say. I was interesting, I was funny, I was charismatic and that is something that I've never been."

And for around $40, "it felt like it made me a completely different person".

I'm fighting back tears and so is he. We're sitting in the empty chapel at the Salvation Army's Canberra Recovery Services in Fyshwick. This is a residential rehabilitation centre for people with addiction issues that's been in operation since the early 1970s.

The only other person in the room with us is award-winning photographer Hilary Wardhaugh. She's listening and quietly waiting to take Mitch's portraits.

He's one of six recovering addicts who've chosen to take part in our arts-documentary project On Thin Ice. (The participants firmly and repeatedly ask me to describe them using the word "addict" or "recovering addict" - although some people working in the sector shun this in preference for "drug dependant".)

As soon as I turn on the tape recorder, Mitch comes straight out and says: "I'm a recovering crystal meth addict … (and) I'm currently 115 days clean and sober."

Mitch was just 10 when he started drinking to escape his chaotic life. Picture: Hilary Wardhaugh
Mitch was just 10 when he started drinking to escape his chaotic life. Picture: Hilary Wardhaugh

Like so many of the people in our project, Mitch grew up in violent and chaotic home.

"I grew up in a family of addiction," he explains, "My mum was a heroin addict … and despite my best efforts, I replicated the things that I saw happening around me as a child."

His family lived in a stream of rental properties, and Mitch constantly witnessed his mother come to harm at the hands of various "very violent" boyfriends.

"She was obviously a dependent addict, so the men that she had in her life were all drug dealers," he says. "It was really disturbing, some of the states that I saw my mother in sometimes," he says.

Those same men hurt Mitch too, although he chooses to quickly move on from that topic.

Needless to say, it wasn't much of a childhood.

Each day brought a new horror: "I didn't know … whether or not mum was going to be happy, whether or not her boyfriend at the time was going to be there, shouting, screaming, smashing the place up."

Mitch reflects that until he struggled with his own addiction as an adult, he never understood his mum's behaviour; it simply felt like rejection.

"I was always under the impression that she had a choice and that she chose drugs and these horrible men over me and my little sister," he says.

"She doesn't use heroin anymore," Mitch adds, "I'm very proud of her for that."

Mitch started using ice aged 20 to impress a girl he liked. Picture: Hilary Wardhaugh
Mitch started using ice aged 20 to impress a girl he liked. Picture: Hilary Wardhaugh

The chaotic and terrifying description of Mitch's childhood reminds me of something 37-year-old Paul, another participant in our project, says to me - something that comes back to me over and over again during the months of photographing and recording at the recovery centre.

"There's always a reason beyond why people do it, you know," he says. "People don't just become drug addicts overnight because they use drugs.

"Drugs are their answer of dealing with the pain inside them that they can't deal with themselves."

During research for On Thin Ice, I discover something extraordinary. There is no so-called "ice epidemic". Or certainly not in the way the media reports it.

Citing data from the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, the Federal Government website Cracks in the Ice states " … overall rates of methamphetamine (including ice) use in the general population declined over the previous five years".

This analysis is backed up by Paul Dillon, director of Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia, who has been working in the field for more than 25 years. Although he also says we need to be careful how we interpret the statistics.

"There are specific populations, areas where there's great social disadvantage, youth unemployment, generational poverty," he says. Specifically, in some regional areas he believes " … manufacturers and dealers have (therefore) been able to go in, manipulate the market, flood a very small area with this drug. And then decimated those communities."

Approximately one in 70 Australians have used methamphetamine in the past year. In comparison, we use other drugs, such as alcohol, cocaine, heroin and ecstasy, far more. Recent media coverage of the National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program shouts "Ice still most-used illegal drug".

However, some commentators - like Professor Ann Roche from Flinders University - have pointed out that high amounts of meth in the water "could stem from a larger number of people using small amounts or a relatively small number of people using larger amounts of the drug".

The ‘ice epidemic’ is something of a misunderstanding, as active users of the drug are actually declining. Picture: Supplied
The ‘ice epidemic’ is something of a misunderstanding, as active users of the drug are actually declining. Picture: Supplied

The story isn't clear. Therefore, we need to dig deeper. The website further explains: "People who use methamphetamines are reporting higher rates of regular and dependent use, and among those who do use methamphetamine, ice is becoming a more popular form of the drug."

Ice or crystal meth is stronger than other forms of the drug (such as speed). And current users, while declining in number overall, are more dependent on it. So this may explain why there's " … an increase in methamphetamine-related helpline calls, drug and alcohol treatment episodes and hospital admissions for methamphetamine use, dependence, psychosis and other mental health problems as well as methamphetamine-related deaths."

Back with Mitch, he tells me that from 12 years old, he started to drink "obsessively".

"What that did for me was it took me out of myself, and it give me that small window where I didn't have to think about everything that was going on at home," he says.

"My drinking eventually progressed to a really bad level. It was making me sick. I was drinking every day by the time I was 18. And I was throwing up blood, and I was getting the shakes and DTs (delirium tremens).

"So, instead of drinking, I switched to drugs. I started using ecstasy on the weekends and that progressed from ecstasy to speed to cocaine, eventually to smoking ice."

Myalla, 24, is another participant in the project. She tells us she loves God and music - these are the things that have kept her alive.

"I've never cried so much in my life in this recovery," Myalla says. "It's been definitely the most heartbreaking."

Myalla, aged six months, with her older brother in Queensland in 1997. Picture: Supplied
Myalla, aged six months, with her older brother in Queensland in 1997. Picture: Supplied

Myalla's mother was an alcoholic. She was removed as a baby and put into the care of her grandmother. As a member of the Stolen Generation, her grandmother carried her own burden and was an abusive and violent carer.

"I had to clean the house all the time, do gardening every Saturday, she called me black, fat, ugly, not enough," Myalla says. "It just was quite an awful environment.

"She would say that her son wasn't my dad. She'd say that I looked evil all the time and that I was going to murder someone one day."

There's clear emotion in Myalla's voice as she explains that before being kicked out of home at 16 and becoming addicted to pot and then ice, she loved learning: "I excelled in school. I was an A student in English, B student in dance and drama and I just always wanted to be at school and away from home, and that's kind of how I spent my school years," she says.

"It was really rough, couch-surfing all the time, being unstable mentally and emotionally, you know, kind of having that feeling of being unwanted and unloved and rejected.

"All that childhood trauma (and) having a lot of deaths in the family and having friends pass away … it was constant pain and grief, and it was always one on top of the other. And it just was never-ending funerals. I just had to get out of myself."

Myalla used ice to escape her own troubled childhood. Picture: Hilary Wardhaugh
Myalla used ice to escape her own troubled childhood. Picture: Hilary Wardhaugh

Although Myalla has struggled for years with addiction - and subsequently having both of her own children removed - she still has "a bright hope".

"You know, I want to be an influential person in the (indigenous) community. I want to go back home and talk to the youth at risk back there and say, 'You know, addiction's hard, but not getting into recovery is harder'."

As Captain Daniel Ross, who heads up the Canberra Recovery Services with his wife Amanda, tells me: "This is a relapsing condition." Many people go through rehabilitation programs multiple times before they're able reduce or break their addiction.

"Sometimes people need to learn various lessons - they can take time," he says. "It might take a few journeys with us, or other organisations like us, for them to really start to see themselves for their true worth."

This was the case for Mitch. He got clean for a while and then relapsed - and lost his partner, job and car.

"Up until last year, I was the only bloke in my family that could say that I'd never been to jail, and I was really proud of that," he says, shaking his head and going on to describe how he got drunk and high and rolled his car on the Monaro Highway. That landed him in jail for a month.

"I didn't have a licence, the car was unregistered, I blew 0.64 and I had an illegal drug in my system," he says. "So, that was it. And that wasn't the first drink or drug driving."

Mitch has been in rehab three times. But he hopes it'll be his last. And in this game, hope is important.

"It's the hardest rehab that I've been in yet," he says. "Coming here and actually doing what's asked of me and putting in the work and taking a look at my own sh*t - really horrible and really uncomfortable, but it's so worth it. I'm making the choice to make a change. And I've never done that before.

"Society as a whole has a really warped idea of what an ice addict is. And it's really upsetting because, you know, I'm an ice addict and I'm discovering that I'm not all that bad."

On Thin Ice is showing from November 7-30 at the Tuggeranong Arts Centre in Canberra. Alongside me, creatives Hilary Wardhaugh, Martin Ollman, Jess Higgins and Tom Buckland are using audio, text, photographs, sculpture and print to document and interpret the complex real-life stories of recovering meth users Mitch, Paul, Ann, Myalla, Linda and Nicole.

Tuggeranong Arts Centre has developed the On Thin Ice exhibition with a view to tour the work nationally and give other regions and towns the opportunity to add their stories. If you are interested in this project please contact the Arts Centre CEO Rauny Worm by email: Rauny.Worm@tuggeranongarts.com

Our deep thanks to Captain Amanda and Daniel Ross from the Salvation Army who run Canberra Recovery Services.

If you're looking for factual information about methamphetamine or working out where to get help, please start here.

In an emergency, call 000.

Ginger Gorman is an award-winning social justice journalist and author of Troll Hunting: Inside the world of online hate and its human fallout.


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