Health & Wellness

Meet the Women Fighting Australia’s Ice Crisis

"It’s caused my family so much pain”

Crystal methamphetamine is ravaging parts of the country and destroying families and communities. Over a million Australians have tried it – and the epidemic is spreading.* Stephen Brook speaks to three women fighting the ice crisis.

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The Mum On A Mission

Based in Narooma on NSW’s South Coast, Michelle Preston co-founded the group ICE – Turning Family Pain Into Power to support the families of addicts. Her son Tysyn, 28, has been addicted to ice for a decade.

I can still remember the day when I thought I was doing a regular shop at the supermarket. My son Tysyn, who was 25, had texted me a few things, which I popped in the trolley. I looked at the list and thought, “Why does he need Drano, bleach, iodine and oven cleaner?”

It turned out I had sourced the ingredients for him to cook up a fresh batch of ice. With a gas cooker and a few glass dishes he was set.

He first tried ice at age 19 and has been addicted ever since. Ice is a drug like nothing we’ve ever seen – the impact can happen so fast. Other drugs take a lot longer for people to lose their way. It produces a sense of euphoria and the cravings are so strong that people quickly find they go from using once a week to every day. People fool themselves about how hard it hits them.

There was a Breaking Bad-type scenario outside our town a couple of years ago, where manufacturers set up nearby and flooded the town. Once people were hooked they could keep selling month after month. It is just insidious the way it gets into a town. Ice is being trafficked right under people’s noses and they don’t even realise it.

Tysyn is at home right now. He was released from a psychiatric unit two days ago but the damage has been done. He has schizophrenia, which is genetic, and has a cyst on his brain from his drug use.

Him being home really affects my mental health, but I am trying to work on not being triggered as easily as I have been in the past.

One time I came home to find he had stuck knives in all the walls. He has been involuntarily scheduled 10 times and it is horrific. Police walk into the house and I don’t know what will happen. Are their guns going to be drawn? Are we going to be shot? Tysyn is then walked out of the house in soft cuffs, screaming for me.

The risk of suicide increases exponentially when people leave care, because it’s a stark reminder of what they’re facing: the pull ice has on them. It makes having Tysyn home from hospital particularly hard. I worry.

One lady I met, who had been recovering from addiction for more than 10 years, told me that every day she still gets a taste of ice in her throat and every day she has to remind herself not to go there. People think “I’ll just have one bit”, but the receptors are there and then it’s full-blown addiction.

The media stigmatises ice users. We can do better than shaming users and their families. It took me two years to put my hand up for help and who knows how much better Tysyn would be if he’d had treatment earlier? Shame and guilt often stop parents from speaking up. I come from good stock and we are still reeling from it, the pain this has caused my family is unbelievable.

Tysyn’s dream is to live as he wants to live. To have a home and roof over his head. He is a simple soul.

Three-and-a-half years ago at our local courthouse, another lady and I worked out that 13 out of 15 people who were in court that day were there because of ice or domestic violence, which is very often related to ice.

We formed a group, Ice – Turning Family Pain Into Power. People come to our meetings and vent, cry, brawl, ask hard questions. We speak at Rotary and Probus meetings, gardening clubs, anywhere that people want to hear.

We are stronger together. My message to anyone who knows this pain is: don’t suffer alone.

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The Research Trailblazer

A researcher in substance abuse and mental health and director of The Matilda Centre at The University of Sydney, Professor Maree Teesson has seen firsthand the harrowing effects of ice on desperate families.

Ice is an illegal drug and because of that, it’s hidden. It is absolutely the case that people delay seeking help because of the shame associated with ice use.

The drug particularly affects young people, so we have this attitude “they’ll grow out of it”, or “they’re just experimenting”. We don’t take it seriously enough at that point to provide interventions earlier.

The impact of delaying help can be devastating. It can mean the difference between someone turning their life around in six to 12 months versus decades.

That’s why we developed Cracks In The Ice (cracksintheice.org.au) – to try to break down the stigma associated with ice use, so that we can encourage people to seek help earlier.

Six per cent of Australians would have used ice at some time in their life. What that statistic masks is that for the one person who uses ice, between 50 to 100 family and friends are devastated by it.

It has the added complexity of being treated as a crime as opposed to a health problem. It is true that the best way not to have a problem with ice is not to take it, but once you have someone using ice, criminalising them doesn’t help.

Ice use increases the neurotransmitters noradrenaline and serotonin in the brain. Users get the increase in the hit and the euphoria from the original use. Over time, their body then stops producing those neural chemicals and it creates a vicious cycle of using the drug to have those chemicals within their brain. All the fun things that we do in our life can produce those chemicals, but ice produces them at a very intense level.

Initially, people do take drugs because of the positive effects that they have. The trouble is it can flip into a spiral of negative effects very quickly.

Ice use happens across the community. I can point to a young person who seems to have everything in their life and whether it’s peer pressure, anxiety or depression, something leads them to use ice.

By the same token, I can talk to you about someone who is living in a country area who is isolated and bored, who tries it.

The third group we see are people who’ve experienced early childhood trauma, like sexual abuse or witnessing violence in the home. With trauma, there is a high rate of self-medication, using drugs to regulate the numbness.

Comorbidity is when people experience both the anxiety or depression, and the drug use. Or it may be that drug use then leads them to experience higher rates of anxiety and depression. So it’s the double whammy, it’s having more than one disorder.

The reason this matters is that if someone’s using ice and they’ve got underlying depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, then we’ve either got a drug system or a mental health system, but we haven’t got a system that deals with both of them. People fall through the gaps.

The medical system is very binary and it prevents people getting decent care. What we need is rapid wraparound care, where specific interventions are provided to an individual and support is offered to the family.

We’ve developed packages for families about how to stay safe, provide care, and be an anchor for a loved one, without being sucked into the storm.

Ice use is very confronting and I say that as someone who has been in this field a long time. I hear the frustration from family members because we don’t have enough services. Often they end up going to emergency departments, but they’re not set up to deal with methamphetamine use or mental health.

One of the most devastating things for families can be having their 18 or 20-year-old very quickly become involved in the criminal justice system. Families can see the need for a caring health response but so often the societal response is punitive.

There absolutely are people who have had significant and destructive ice use who have come out the other side to become functioning, contributing citizens.

As humans, we seek joy and euphoria, and ice is a source of both. That is a basic human condition. And drugs and alcohol have always been within civilisation. It is not a new phenomenon.

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The Compassionate Carer

Kamira is a residential drug and alcohol treatment centre on the NSW Central Coast run by chief executive Catherine Hewett. It’s one of Australia’s few facilities that accepts mothers with children and also pregnant women, who are shunned by the rest of the system.

Women with children are not embraced by our health system very well. Often there’s no accommodation for children when a mother is in care.

At Kamira, we accept women post drug detox with their children. We are not a medical facility and our patients represent a varying social demographic. But with ice users, trauma is a common thread. It can stem from child sexual abuse or neglect that takes many forms.

As a result, many of our patients are unable to build healthy relationships as an adult, and find it very difficult to regulate their mood.

When they are unable to regulate their mood, they can have a high level of anxiety or depression and may use drugs and alcohol to provide stability. That’s what’s so attractive for ice users: it regularly brings them joy.

But afterwards, when they have flooded their neural pathways so often, the return of a sense of joy takes a considerably long time. The temptation to return and use ice is very strong.

The difference in attitudes towards Indigenous and non-Indigenous patients is a bit of a taboo subject that needs to be given a voice too.

Every woman who comes into Kamira with children in their care is supported by FACS (the Department of Family & Community Services). We recently had an Indigenous client from a remote Aboriginal community, and after a long time she came to trust the therapists,  all of whom are non-Indigenous, and we saw a commitment that she wanted to do well.

Then her partner was released from prison. She attended a meeting with FACS with her partner present and FACS were worried she would be a flight risk. Not only did they remove her six-week-old baby from her, but they set her up to fail.

She couldn’t stay in a facility full of women and children. The effect on her was horrific, and on the other mothers. We had never seen this happen before and it just felt wrong. We lodged a complaint but nothing was done.

Australia’s health system is set up to look after a baby but not the mother and baby as a unit together.

Pregnant women with a drug and alcohol history can fly under the radar of health authorities and FACS, because they fear they’re at risk of their children being removed. Normally a pregnant patient might first present at 12 weeks to have a check up in the hospital. Our clients might not present until 30 weeks and during that time they have been using the drug and/ or alcohol of their choice.

It’s a ticking time bomb because the longer they are using during pregnancy, the more significant the impact is on the developing baby.

These babies are at higher risk of longer-term adverse impacts including increased rates of intrauterine death, foetal distress, prematurity, foetal growth restriction and abnormal neural behaviour. It’s been proven that the adverse effects on the central nervous system will have a life-long impact on the child.

We know the sooner we get these pregnant women into treatment, the less risk there is of this happening, but we can’t always get them into treatment – we are turning away that many women.

These aren’t just theories, these are life experiences. And for society not to act on evidence that is being produced is shameful.

*cracksIntheice.org.au (includes other forms of methamphetamine, including speed and base).

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of marie claire. 

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