Introduction by Croakey: At the recent Rethink Addiction conference in Canberra, many people with lived experience of addictions were generous in sharing their stories in order to advocate for changes to policy and community attitudes.
Among them was Jasmin Wilson, 36, a proud Aboriginal woman living in South Australia with cultural ties to the Northern Territory, who has worked in the Alcohol and other Drugs sector.
She described her personal experiences of the addiction treatment system, including long delays in gaining access to care, the risk that seeking help might spark the removal of her children, a lack of culturally safe wrap-around care, and the harms arising from policing rather than health approaches to addiction.
Based on that presentation, Wilson writes below about her experiences with addiction, highlighting an urgent need for law reform and change across many systems.
This article contains discussions around the topic of suicide.
Jasmin Wilson writes:
My husband and I had two children, we had bought a house, an investment property, had a couple of cars: it was like the dream, what you’re meant to do.
Up until then, I had functionally used alcohol and drugs: I drank on weekends, would smoke a few cones, smoked cigarettes.
Then I started to drink a lot at home on my own when my husband was on night shift and things started to spiral out of control. He lost his job, we had a few marital struggles and I found out that when life problems cropped up, I reverted back to using drugs and alcohol in order to cope with overwhelming feelings.
I actually hated meth before I started using it. I was a loved one of someone who had been struggling with a meth addiction for about 10 years. But I got to a point in my life where I wanted to escape my reality. And so I smoked a bit of meth one day. And from that day, I used for two- and a-bit years.
It was hell. I felt the entire time like all I was trying to do was get high, my priorities changed and it felt like all anyone else was trying to do was steal my drugs, steal my money, accuse me of everything.
It was a really confronting experience in other ways because my dad, Scott Wilson, is CEO of the Aboriginal Drug and Alcohol Council South Australia (ADAC) and I was employed in the drug and alcohol sector (AOD), working on starting up a rehab facility in Adelaide.
Yet there I was struggling with drug addiction while I was trying to help other people with their drug addiction. That was compounded by the shame and stigma attached not just to addiction but to meth itself. To admit I had a problem with it was extremely hard due to working in AOD and all of the negative connotations that came along with a meth addiction, as well all the media hype at the time.
I got to a point where I didn’t want to be alive, living the life that I was living.
One night I had been out all night in a borrowed car trying to score and got searched by police under South Australia’s Substance Misuse Act, where they can randomly search you or your belongings if they suspect that you’re using drugs. I was really lucky that this night I had a chat with one of the officers. I can’t for the life of me remember what he said, but I left there and drove to the River Torrens. I contemplated driving into the river, but apart from it not being very deep, if it wasn’t for my kids, I would have been gone. But I couldn’t do it. So I rang detox.
I had to wait a month to get in, I had to ring them 50 or 100 times, but I finally stopped using meth.
But I was really lonely. I had to end my marriage and I didn’t have any of my old friends, I thought everyone was a risk to me and my sobriety. I couldn’t meet new people because of the perceived judgements. I just kept to myself, looked after the kids but after that, I just substituted one addiction for another, then I became addicted to alcohol for a couple of years.
Barriers to getting help
The shame and stigma are still there surrounding any addiction – it makes you hide, yet alcohol is so celebrated. When I stopped drinking, I had to convince people that I had a drinking problem. They were all like ‘you’re fine’. I wasn’t, I had no way of stopping by myself, but even so I had to wait six weeks to get into detox.
That wasn’t the only barrier to seeking help. It wasn’t until I went to detox the first time for meth that I really learnt about child protection and the threats of losing my kids. In Adelaide, once you get investigated by child protection and are on their radar because of addiction, if you are caught with drugs in your system, you could lose your kids for 12 months. If you then get caught again in that 12-month period, you lose them ‘til they’re 18. This shocked and scared me.
It was a looming threat the whole time I used, yet I had foolishly thought that if they got involved, they would help to get me out of the environment I was in and help me with my kids.
Once I learnt about the minimal support and very strict parameters child protection worked within, I was extremely reluctant to ask for help and went to extensive efforts to hide my drinking from my family and anyone who could help me, as I was so worried I would lose my girls.
I believe parents should be able to seek support for their addictions without the threat of losing their children, they should be commended and celebrated for trying to improve their children’s lives and break cycles of addiction, usually generational.
Addiction is the inability to stop without help. But because of the possibility of losing my kids if I had have reached out for help, I didn’t reach out. I struggled alone.
I do believe my education about drug and alcohol harm is possibly the reason I was able to stop, yet a lot of my friends or family are still caught in the cycle of addiction.
Education alone isn’t enough to stop addiction. I was probably as educated as you could be about the problems that could arise from drug use, from lived experience and written text, yet I still suffered with multiple addictions.
Without other measures or access to proper evidence-based treatments, being educated made my experience with meth kind of like torture, as I knew enough to know what I was doing was harmful and could see and feel myself slipping with my addictions. Yet without access to treatment options, it took me two years before I went to detox.
During my meth addiction, I went from having zero dealings with the police to 50 or 60 different interactions. Being light-skinned, ‘seemingly white’, I had been lucky with the justice system up until then, so I had a very different view of police to my brothers, sisters, cousins. Being a meth user was the first time I experienced what my family members go through daily, and that’s being judged, and it was a very confronting experience.
The main thing I learnt from my struggles with addiction are that people need support and understanding, non-judgemental access to information, and a soft place to land. They need understanding that, although someone’s addictions may be causing them harm, they are helping the person function and cope with life struggles. It’s about finding other options and outlets in order to achieve the same intended results.
It’s about understanding that there are usually very valid reasons driving an addiction and the need to address them, instead of just solely focusing on the addiction as someone’s problem.
I was told for over a year that meth was my problem and if I stopped using the problems would all go away. Yet this was untrue and when I finally stopped, I still had a mountain of issues I needed to work through, without the coping mechanisms I had used in the past. This realisation alone was a shock and almost lead me to relapse.
There was no culturally safe treatment option available to me at the time in Adelaide.
I had Aboriginal workers meet me to drop me off to detox but that was the only support and there was little to no aftercare, there was no wrap around service when people reach out for help.
There was just a minefield of different services that have specific criteria to access services due to their own funding constraints, so you never know what service helps who. It is extremely deflating ringing multiple services to be told you don’t fit their funding criteria for help. I don’t think without the support of my family and workplace I would have been able to overcome my addictions.
Law reform needed
Making addiction a health issue by legalising drugs is an unpopular view, yet I believe it is the only way to address the negative treatments people struggling with addiction deal with.
Criminalising drugs not only stops people seeking help, in my case it prevented the police from really helping me in the 50-plus times they had an interaction with me during my active addiction. The only tools they were given to help was discretion and their own advice and patience, which obviously differs with an officer’s life experience and view of addiction.
I genuinely believe the police could see me struggling with my addiction, wanted to get me help instead of locking me up, yet they weren’t given any tools to help me. I’m just lucky they didn’t catch me with my own personal supply of drugs, as that would have been considered a trafficking amount under the current laws around drugs and I would be talking to you from a jail cell.
Legalisation would also lead to proper access to treatments. In Adelaide there are very limited rehab options – just 20 residential beds, and even services like psychology to help heal from past experiences are under the pump.
Most of the skilled workforce is working privately, yet I still had to wait over two months to get both of my children into psychology appointments that came through a private provider, as most places have their booked closed or months long waiting lists.
The funding of this help is another issue. There is a myth that with mental health care plans you get 10 free mental health session, but this is only subsidised at $130 per session: where my kids go it is $250 for a 50-minute session.
So for all three of us to attend one counselling session a month, under Medicare’s so-called free option, it costs me $350, for two sessions it would be $700. That’s on top of the $250 a month I pay for private health insurance, that I don’t use to claim for mental health sessions as they only give me $80 back from the $250.
Access to actual treatment is still a very real issue that needs to be addressed if we want better outcomes. Mental health, counselling, drug and alcohol issues should just be funded under the same umbrella that accessing a doctor is.
I am a single parent trying to rebuild my life and my children’s lives after losing most of my material wealth to addiction, and it is still almost outside of my budget to get the evidence-based treatment we need at any sort of meaningful intervals to make true progress on our journey.
There is no way during active addiction I would have been able to navigate the cost and hurdles I’ve needed to go through to access privately funded help now, let alone rely on government funded options that don’t exist or are so over-stretched that they can’t keep up with demand.
Allowing counsellors to be able to also deliver the subsidised mental health sessions would instantly mobilise a skilled workforce to help fill the gaps between no service and waiting months to speak to a psychologist.
We need to address the underlying issues of social determinants of health for the Indigenous community and people from low socio-economic backgrounds and dealing with the housing crisis, equitable access to education and health care.
But apart from those issues, if Australians really want to help the many people struggling with addiction, then like other western nations we need to have real conversations about drug law reform – which would include legalisation and/or regulation of drugs of addiction.
Lifeline 13 11 14 www.lifeline.org.au
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au
Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 www.kidshelpline.com.au
MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78 www.mensline.org.au
Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service 1800 512 348
Head to Health National Phone Service (1800 595 212, www.headtohealth.gov.au)
Head to Health Adult Mental Health Centres (www.headtohealth.gov.au/supporting-yourself/adult-mental-health-centres)
QLife – phone peer support service by LGBTIQ+ peers for all ages. 3pm-midnight. 1800 184 527 or webchat www.qlife.org.au
If you are concerned about suicide, living with someone who is considering suicide or bereaved by suicide – the Suicide Call Back Service is available at 1300 659 467 or www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au.
Gambling help: For free 24/7 gambling support, call 1800 858 858 or contact www.gamblinghelponline.org.au
Help with alcohol and other drugs: For 24/7 free, confidential alcohol or other drug support, contact www.counsellingonline.org.au or call the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline 1800 250 015 to speak to someone in your state. Click here to find out more.