At this point in my story I was on the cusp of falling into a deep opioid addiction. Though I lived at home again, I felt distant from my family and didn’t try to involve myself in family life much either. I was using oxycodone and morphine tablets, sometimes heroin, frequently enough that I found myself craving a hit most days.
I was determined not to become addicted though. I thought I was better and cleverer than that. I felt like I was in control of my drug use, not the other way around. I had managed to maintain a usage ‘schedule’ to avoid physical dependence by having a break every couple of days. As is often the story however, this wouldn’t last.
When I was 18 I found a source of fentanyl. Fentanyl is a completely synthetic opioid and very common in hospitals for pain relief and anaesthesia. It was cheap and plentiful at the time as unlike oxycodone and morphine tablets it was relatively unknown amongst other opioid users. Fentanyl is approximately 80-100x stronger than morphine, with a shorter half-life than morphine or oxycodone which means the effects don’t last as long. With such a cheap and plentiful supply I found myself using fentanyl 5-6x a day. This was the tipping point. My off day quickly vanished and for about 3 weeks I was nodding my days away. I still maintained the illusion that I was not addicted at the time.
This illusion quickly vanished when my parents found my stash of fentanyl. They had known I was using illicit drugs for a while but not enough to decisively act. Now they had what they needed. My parents took my car keys away from me. I was confined to the house. This was my first experience of withdrawal. I remember waking up at 4am the next day. I was sweating and felt cold, my joints ached and my muscles hurt. The worst was the mental pain though. I couldn’t think straight and my thoughts would loop endlessly with nonsensical thoughts. I remember thinking before the withdrawals started that I guess my parents cared and it wasn’t a bad thing to stop. This quickly changed however, after the withdrawals started however I hated them. “They did this to me”, I would think over and over. Any attempt they made to help me was quickly rebuffed. I wanted nothing from them at that point. They made my favourite meals to try to help me and cheer me up but I had no appetite. I began planning how to get high again. I had no real way until I could get my car keys again. After 3 days I was feeling better. The silver lining of fentanyl withdrawals were that they were quicker to finish, although more intense than heroin due to the shorter half-life in the body. I had done it. I had gone through withdrawals. Instead of using this opportunity to avoid opioids again I immediately used my physical recovery as a way out of the house to get high again.
I was soon back to old tricks and had a new stash of fentanyl. One thing I had not adequately taken into account was my drop in tolerance after withdrawals. One afternoon I took too much. If it weren’t for the fact that my sister had seen me acting weirdly right beforehand and my mother then coming to check on me I would be dead. I remember waking up with ambulance officers, my mum, dad and sister over me. I had been out for nearly 20 minutes but luckily had not completely stopped breathing. Despite this, as soon as they said I had to go to hospital I became angry and didn’t want to go. I just wanted to be left alone. Eventually, I gave in and reluctantly went to hospital.
After my overdose I agreed to see a counsellor. I did want to stop using by this time but not really for myself. I felt like I was letting my parents down and failing to live up to their expectations. I was already physically addicted again though. My counsellor was a huge help even though at the time I never stopped using. He was never condescending or patronising. He always called my bullshit when I was trying to rationalise something like taking heroin to see if I could do it without becoming addicted again. He also saw through my bravado and the façade I had created so the outside world couldn’t see the real me, vulnerable and hurting. It was our third session together when he finally shattered that façade. Sitting on the couch he asked the simple question, “What do you feel when you think about your drug use and your family?” I went to answer but as I did my throat closed up and tears welled in my eyes. I barely managed to say, “Shame,” as I choked on my emotions. I cried for a while as I still tried to continue the conversation. The surge of powerful emotions had been so unexpected and sudden. I had bottled up all of this emotional pain for so long and it was released in a torrent. After I was finished I felt better than I had in a long time. What he laid down in me at that time was an ability to reflect and self-analyse my actions; to see where my motivations for drowning my emotions in opioids was coming from. This skill slowly developed over the years and became especially useful later in my life.
Towards the end of this tumultuous year I enrolled to return to university. In part one I had tried and failed to begin my degree so it was time to try again. I knew I couldn’t continue the way I currently was and hope to complete my studies. I decided to go on to methadone. A friend introduced me to a doctor that could prescribe methadone privately. The doctor was not part of other public services which I despised after a previous encounter with a patronising and guilt-tripping psychologist. I know these public services do a great deal to help many affected by substance dependence issues but it also shows the absolute importance of a person’s first contact with treatment. That encounter made me wary of and reluctant to seek help sooner. The doctor I had been introduced to was completely different and made no attempt to guilt me or otherwise; he listened to me and what I had to say, and to how I wanted to go about my treatment. That small gesture of including me in the treatment process rather than dictating the terms established an instant bond of trust where I knew I could be honest with him. As part of going on the methadone program I had to take a blood test to check for Hepatitis B, C and HIV. I knew I had engaged in some risky behaviour but generally I always used clean needles so I didn’t really expect anything to be wrong. When I next saw the doctor he informed me I had Hepatitis C.
I didn’t know how to take it really. I just pushed it to the back of my mind; I didn’t want to think about it and what consequences it might have. I knew I had to tell my family though. Telling my family was difficult. I was sitting there on a cushion in the lounge room, my family were sitting around me on the couches. They were taken aback with what I was saying. They were worried about the methadone because it meant staying physically dependent on opioids. I think they still held out hope that I would be abstinent. The most surprising reaction was after I told them I had Hepatitis C. It was such a non-event in the end. I told them what it meant and they reacted only with concern for me. I had expected them to be more worried about what it meant for them. The shame I constantly carried with me always made me feel as though I was undeserving of concern or love. Although, years later one of my sisters told me her initial thoughts were, “Fuck, I think I used his toothbrush yesterday”. This was one of the many times I underestimated my family. Though I struggled to see it at the time, they only cared for my health and wellbeing in the best way they knew how.
Methadone helped but it couldn’t always save me from myself. I moved away from home and went to university again. It didn’t last though and I rarely went to class. Instead I chose to get high. I was kicked out of university after failing all but one subject the entire year. This also came with a two year bar on studying science at any university, something that would later become a saving grace. I was back at home again. Living for every second day when I would get my methadone dose and a takeaway dose. The takeaway dose was meant to provide more freedom so I didn’t have to travel to the pharmacy every day. For me it was a chance to get high as I injected it. I would then spend the entire day nodding off on the couch, often with a big glass of milo in hand. I must’ve spilled hundreds of milos on myself during this time as I fell asleep holding them. It was a rare source of amusement for my family and even myself in a life that didn’t have much happiness left.
During this time my methadone dose went up and down as I tried to wean myself off. My use of heroin followed an almost inverse trend, being the highest when my dose was lowest. A couple of times I went up onto high doses, not to stop using but to try and get a cheap high. Ironically, it was these times that I would stop using heroin and begin to think about changing my life again. One day I asked my doctor to change my prescription and to stop giving me takeaway doses to ensure I would take the methadone orally and once a day as intended. He didn’t know I was abusing the takeaway doses but was always very receptive to how I wanted to manage my treatment. My life changed at this point. I had been addicted for about 2 ½ years at this point and it was the first time I really stopped using any other opioids in conjunction with methadone. I looked at my life and what it had become. I didn’t like what I saw. I realised that this was not the life I wanted. I had lost friends, from death and just sabotaging relationships. I was so far from finishing a university degree which I had dreamed about since I was in primary school. I wanted something more. It was the final tipping point for me. For the first time ever I genuinely wanted to stop using methadone and heroin. I was done. I wanted my life back.