Slowly, step by step, brick by brick Maree is getting her daughter Jenna back after a decade of drug dependence. Photo: SuppliedShe first used drugs to dull the pain from a ruptured disc in her back. The doctors prescribed oxycodone, a highly addictive painkiller that she would come to know it by its multiple street names, hillbilly heroin, Oxy or simply O.
She was 15 and attending one of Brisbane’s prestigious all-girls schools. Oxycodone is similar to heroin and for Jenna Roberts, the sweetness of the ocycodone’s melodies not only lifted her, took away the pain but also made her feel whole, kept the loneliness at bay. They were sweet songs. Like those of the mythical Sirens, the muses of the lower world, whose songs lured those passing to their death.
In the next decade the songs were the same: I can make you feel alright; I can make you feel complete; I can make you feel nothing and everything. But the song did more than that. It almost took her family; destroyed her relationships; took her friends, her lovers; left her broke; took her smile and almost her life.
Her mate O not only made chronic pain bearable, but in a place where designer names defined you, opened the door to the joys of the party-drug world. A bit of weed on top of the pain killers; a bit of low-level dealing (“the day girls had the money and I had the contacts. I just skimmed a bit off the top. They had no idea”); it filled the loneliness void.
“When the girls were putting on their graduation dresses I couldn’t wait to bolt to the front gate and meet my dealer,” Jenna says. And then it was drug city party time. Even at university, studying law, there was time to feed a growing habit. Drugs to get you going in the morning, keep you going all day and drugs to paaarrrtty. Another back operation, a steady supply of prescriptions for her good mate, oxycodone. As well, there was a social cocktail of marijuana, booze, ecstasy, speed. By then she had developed an addict’s skill at deception – lifted from the doctor shopping handbook. But doctor shopping is time-intensive; you needed a different doctor; in a different suburb and someone’s Medicare card. Far easier to move to another drug.
Her mother, Maree, a professional senior bureaucrat, now says she had her suspicions for some time that there was more than pain and prescription meds to Jenna’s behaviour but, “I guess looking back I didn’t want to believe it. No one wants to believe it of their child.” There were plausible reasons for her increasingly erratic behaviour.
For the daughter, the journey through addiction to the end – recognising that she had become a full-blown, heroin injecting, ice addict took almost a decade. The needle and prostitution were the lines in the sand, places for junkies. But not her. Junkies inhabit a world of back alleys, of dirty houses, scabs, of bent spoons and dirty needles. Junkies use heroin and inject. A junkie has arrived at their destination when their faithfulness to the drug is stronger, more powerful than anything, any family, any bond. A junkie has no guilt, no shame, no morality.
In her world, in her mind, Jenna wasn’t a junkie – just someone who could stop when she wanted. But she couldn’t and she didn’t. She had crashed out of university and spent a couple of years living in Brisbane, not doing much aside from maturing her drug habit. Eventually, having alienated or pushed away friends, she moved in with her parents, now living in the comfortable central coast suburb of Terrigal in New South Wales.
“By that stage my addiction was a disaster. I went from maybe having a day or two being not being able to use a substance to doing things to myself and to other people that I can’t ever take back. I was very violent,” she said.
For Maree it was to become repeating behaviour. “For years we had always welcomed Jenna back home, no matter what she had done (or not done). We paid the price for her actions, tears after blow-ups, paying her fines, feeding her, clothing her and protecting her from the consequences of her actions wasn’t changing her behaviour. She was coming home less and less frequently and then only using our home as a place to regather her strength, resources and commitment to dive back into the underworld of drugs.
“It seemed inevitable that she would come to grief sooner rather than later and all my attempts to stop that happening had failed. Begging and pleading, crying and promising, doctors, counsellors, friends. She would go missing for days at a time. If David (my husband) didn’t know where Jenna was, he trawled the streets until he found some evidence that she was alive and brought her home and put her back together, When Jenna stole from us, abused us or trashed our house he would tell her we loved her and one day things would be good again,” Maree says.
It finally came to a head. Maree was taking anti-depressants just to get through the day. “Jenna could reduce me to tears with one of her outrages and leave me feeling worthless. David and I were in counselling. Jenna’s addiction and her behaviour at home was driving us apart. At yet another counselling session I made it clear that I couldn’t go on like this. I felt as though I couldn’t make anyone happy – not even myself. I admitted my failure as a parent and as a wife. I felt I had been a better mother to my stepchildren than I had been to my biological child and blamed my genetics for bearing a child with these problems. I was in abject misery about walking away from both my daughter and my husband but I just couldn’t conceive any other option,” she says.
So together Maree and David decided to cut the safety net. “We had decided that the only option was to ban her from the house. It was a hugely painful decision. The fears and dark horrors swirled around us. The ‘what ifs’ seemed to have devils horns. She stormed off and we went into that place where a phone call from a private number was terrifying. A police car in the street made me feel violently ill,” she says.
A bit earlier she had been confronted by her brother on the suburban lawn at Christmas. “We know what you are – you are a junkie.” It wasn’t judgmental, just matter of fact and a signal that she wasn’t fooling anyone any more. She had crossed the lines – moving on from stealing from her parents and siblings, to injecting and prostitution. Being thrown out of home sent her onto the streets, sleeping rough, back to an abusive, toxic relationship, swapping sex for somewhere to sleep, for drugs.
Some can describe the time of their first injection, the veins bulging, inserting the needle, blood rushing before slowly pushing in the plunger and the overwhelming hit. Not Jenna. “I don’t remember the timing of when I first injected. It happened with an acquaintance. I remember I was quite desperate at the time so it just kind of happened. It wasn’t some huge event or anything. I just needed my fix and that is how I got it,” she says.
But severe addiction and life on the streets took its toll. Her weight crashed to about 40 kilos. “I tried to overdose myself and when I woke up I was devastated that I couldn’t even kill myself. I felt worthless. I remember hating the daylight. I never wanted to go out in it. I loved the night. You could hide in the night. There were less people around and I felt much safer. There was a 24-hour Kmart near where I was living, it was the only shop I would go to. For a long time in the end, all I ate was tinned corn. It was the only thing I could stomach. I lived on canned corn and Coca-Cola,” she says.
Eventually she contacted her parents. “I begged them to come home for a meal and once I got in that door I said to my parents, ‘You can’t kick me out,’ and they said, ‘Yeah, we can, we’ll just call the police.’ At that stage I said, ‘I’ll do whatever, I’ll do whatever,’ and mum said, ‘You need to go to rehab,’ and I said ‘OK.’ So mum started dialling numbers and putting the phone up to my ear because she said, ‘I don’t want you to ever turn around and say I made you do this.’
“By the time I got to detox I couldn’t read a line in a book. If friends hadn’t fallen away, I had done my best to push them. I didn’t want anyone around who might call me on my behaviour and I didn’t want to bring anyone down with me either.
It took 45 days in a 30-day program.
“Rehab was everything that you see in the movies, the sweating, wetting the bed, that all happened for me. There were days when I thought death would have been a kind option for me. Then my brother, the one who had called me out, visited with his newborn son. ‘Look what you are missing out on.’ It was a trigger, a motivator to deal with the demons. I call my little nephew my recovery baby,” she says.
She stuck rehab out. After that there were constant Narcotics Anonymous meetings and a growing understanding of residual mental health issues that come from frying your brain for a decade. Then there were four or five “refresher sessions” – some pre-emptive moves before she reached crisis point, spun out of control again. There is a constant battle with depression and feelings of immense guilt. “I still have a couple of friends left from pre-drugs but not many at all. I damaged most things I came into contact with, especially people,” she says.
Now she is five years clean and working in the mental health, drug and alcohol field. It’s exhausting, fighting to get better every day, dealing with mental health issues every day. It can be hard resisting the call of the Sirens. Family helps. They gathered around Jenna and helped her on her way back. And it’s been one step at a time; better health, a job, friends and a new relationship. Now she is working to make up for the lost decade.
It’s been a tough decade with more disappointments than achievements but slowly, step by step, brick by brick Maree is getting her daughter back. There is the fear that something will happen, that it will all get too much and Jenna will slide back to using again.
“Its hard to reconcile the girl I know now with the lost soul before. Nothing will ever be the same. But I am grateful we have the chance to repair this relationship,” she says.
If you or somebody you know is distressed phone Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.
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