'Addiction doesn’t discriminate': I worked full time for the government while battling an ice addiction

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“There is such a stigma surrounding drug addiction that even if an educated, well-off addict decides to get help, the stigma is quite often too much to bear,” writes Tyson.

On January 28, the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug ‘Ice’ handed its final report to the Governor of NSW. The report and its findings have not yet been made public, and the government says it will consider the report before its release.

As we wait for the information to be released, one former ice user shares some insights on why it’s so urgent that we talk openly about addiction. This is Tyson’s story.

Society seems to have the impression that ice users are the homeless-looking men and women you see on the streets. The unemployed, people suffering mental health issues, the picture of someone who is ‘down and out’.

But I lived a double life. The only thing that crossed over into both was the drugs I used.

I've worked for the Department of Correctional Services, the Department of Human Services (Centrelink) and in many hotels and restaurants (some in managerial positions).

All of this, with drug addictions I’d been battling on and off for years.

Addiction doesn't discriminate. It affects people in all walks of life. I know of, and have used drugs with people of all ages, occupations, races, religions and varying levels of education.

But there is such a stigma surrounding drug addiction that even if an educated, well-off addict decides to get help, the stigma is quite often too much to bear. So they continue to suffer in their silence, and in complete secrecy.

I began using mind-altering substances at the age of 13.

It started with alcohol and marijuana. Nothing serious, a few drinks or a joint here and there.

By 15 I had tried amphetamines, ecstasy, methamphetamine and cocaine.

I was 16 when I tried ice for the first time. It was intense, powerful. My heart beat like a stampede.

The euphoria was like nothing I had ever experienced, and I wanted to feel like this every day.

This was when my drug use began to increase for the very first time.

Before ice, my drug use was recreational; now it was almost every weekend, without fail. My life began to split.

Sometimes I would go on benders for weeks at a time. Other times I wouldn't use for a month. I always counted down the days until my next use.

At the age of 18 I was working in hospitality, using almost every day. I began juggling multiple credit cards, sometimes to pay off one with the other. I would sell small amounts of drugs for dealers to cover my own habit.

This would continue as I moved through jobs over the years.

I would keep a very set structure: using before work, on my lunch break and then the time I really looked forward to every day -- straight after work.

I’d bring myself down most nights with a mix of prescription medications, so I would get some sleep before work the following day.

I would nourish the body as anyone else would; eat at every meal time, forcing myself to do so to maintain my weight. Drinking water religiously to ensure I didn't appear unusually dehydrated.

I had the opinion that if people had only ever seen me high, how would they know I'm high? This thought pattern was confirmed when I went to the office at Centrelink once, sober, and had two colleagues and my line Manager ask me if I was ok because I wasn't my usual self.

There were definitely hiccups though. The sick days, arriving late, changing work schedules, swapping shifts. I explained most of these things away, though, by using regular, everyday excuses -- family issues, tradies doing work at the house. You name the excuse, I would've used it at some point.

Did my colleagues know I was on drugs? I doubt it. They may have suspected of course.

They knew something was wrong. I had begun using considerably more than the years prior, spending more time with using friends outside of work.

For many years I managed to keep friends separate from one another. I had very distinct and separate circles of friends. Some who used drugs and were very aware of my usage. Some who never used drugs and weren't aware of my usage and others who used recreationally and thought I did the same.

Over time I saw the friends who didn't use very rarely. Some friendships died a natural death, others I destroyed with my behaviour and attitude.

My relationships with family members definitely suffered over time.

My family were all very aware that I had used many drugs over the years, my mum especially (who was a recovering addict herself and had been drug-free for over 20 years before her death in 2015).

But they weren't aware of the amounts I used or how often. I believe they saw me as a binge user, even when I was using every day and for years at a time.

My relationships with family were disjointed, to say the least. I'm sure my family also distanced themselves from me at times because they saw evidence of my addiction, which brought about a myriad of emotions, especially for my mum who could see the signs all too clearly.

My dad, however, wasn't nearly as experienced in all aspects of addiction as my mum (my mum and dad split when I was very young).

My dad was often lending me money he would never get back, paying my bills when I asked for help. He thought he was doing the best for me when, looking back, I believed it contributed to my ability to maintain an addiction in a very big way.

Around the age of 25, my addiction began to increase its control over my life.

It definitely began to affect my work -- or more importantly, my desire to go to work at all. Drugs make people selfish, it becomes almost impossible to do anything you don’t ‘want’ to do sometimes.

I basically exhausted all of my options for time off work, and though I most definitely did not want to resign from a job that I loved at one time and was sure I would at another, the state of my addiction left me without any other choice.

Following the death of my mother in November 2015, I entered a very dark place, possibly the most painful place I've ever been mentally and emotionally. I was alone and totally unable to feel pleasure of any kind -- except from ice.

At the age of 28 I finally became known to the police and accrued a series of charges over the coming year. Some crimes I had committed. Others I hadn't. It was at this time I went to jail for the first time, and over the coming years I would go to jail a few more, mainly on remand.

I became desperate for anything but the life I was living. In hindsight, it was the pain I needed to feel so I could reach out and find something, anything that led me on a different path.

There are many times throughout my life that I've considered quitting drugs for good.

I almost entered a six month rehabilitation program at the age of 17; I tried Narcotics Anonymous a number of times, as well as counselling, and psychological treatment. I’ve seen psychiatrists, and attended many drug diversion programs.

I have nothing against any of these options, but it just wasn't for me. Narcotics Anonymous is very hope based; I needed something more concrete.

I finally caught a lucky break with Matrix. I was on home detention for some very serious charges that came about purely as a result of my ice addiction, and my Correctional Officer mentioned the Matrix program to me. I signed up immediately.

The Matrix model involves joining a small group of people, generally around 10. There's a psychologist and a Lived Experience Mentor (someone who has been there, done that) present at every session. It's small enough that it's personal but big enough that it's not too confronting.

Matrix gives you tools to better your life. One of the most basic sessions will allow you to learn what triggers you, as an individual, to use, whether it's external or internal influences.

Are you someone that uses primarily due to external triggers, such as friends popping by with drugs? Places you frequent where you've used regularly in the past? Always use on a Friday night? On payday? Or are you the type of person that's triggered by emotions?

Many addicts think they've got all the answers, that they're intelligent, logical beings. When in actual fact, we're not. We may have been prior to addiction, but we certainly aren't for a long while afterwards.

Matrix dispelled a lot of that for me. It was no Hollywood story, though. I would get some substance-free time, then I would relapse. This happened time and time again.

But eventually, when I had the full power of the South Australian Courts, the police, my lawyer, my partner and my family telling me I needed to do something or I would rot in jail, something changed in me.

I had to get recovery. I had to learn to live with my addiction without feeding it drugs. It was that, death or jail -- all very real possibilities. I needed my life back.

I'm an addict, that will never change. I've come to terms with that now.

There are difficulties in everyday life, sure. But I have done a lot of work to ensure I'm very mindful about how I feel on a minute-by-minute basis. Am I hungry, angry, lonely, tired or stressed? These are all danger zones for any addict, and I have to ensure I avoid these places as much as possible.

I've learnt to manage my emotions, to take a second and breathe before I respond to life events. In addiction, the moment I felt an emotion - whether positive or negative - I would've masked it with drugs.

That's how addicts manage everything and nothing -- with drugs. I don't have that urge anymore, I wouldn't even say I get cravings. I get thoughts, sure, for a moment or two.

Recovery is difficult. Learning who you are after addiction is slow, frustrating and it's confronting.

Actually, learning anything after addiction is challenging. But the more I push myself, just that little bit extra each day, the more I realise what I'm capable of.

It's like my mind has been absent for 15 years, and suddenly it's thrown back into my body and I'm learning who I am, what I'm about and what I want to do with my life all over again. It's a painful experience, but it's also full of so many beautiful moments as well.

The current system of throwing addicts in jail isn't working.

They go in, they come out, they go in, they come out. Jail is a short term fix. I would love to see a system that is based upon rehabilitation.

There have been countless men in the South Australian prison system that have sworn to me they would never use drugs after ending up in prison 'yet again'. I'd later come across them on Facebook or in the street, and one by one, they would be doing the same drug that put them in jail all those times before.

All the time they spent in jail was wasted when they could've been in a rehabilitation program learning about their addiction and about themselves, giving them the possibility of a different life when they were released.

In recovery we have a saying: 'if nothing changes, nothing changes'. The same can be said about the current process of throwing addicts in jail and Australia's war on drugs.

The other thing to consider about throwing addicts in jail is the damage a criminal record does to someone’s future.

Take myself for example. I’m 32 years of age, finally free of all mind-altering substances, and have learnt the skills to maintain my recovery.

But there isn’t a single day that goes by without me wondering if I’ll ever have the same feelings of career satisfaction I had prior to accruing my convictions, because the same opportunities just won’t be available to me.

I take responsibility for the crimes I’ve committed. But if we were living in a different world, in a system based upon rehabilitation, I may not have the scars of a criminal record hanging over my head for the rest of my life, preventing me from reaching my full potential.


Editor’s note: the South Australian Department for Correctional Services advises that drug rehabilitation programs and methadone replacement programs are available to support prisoners who are suffering from withdrawal symptoms and need medical help. Group therapy and information sessions are available in some prisons.

For more information about ice addiction and how to find help, visit Cracks in the Ice.

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