Excerpt from Woman of Substances: Common People

Excerpt from Woman of Substances: Common People

As Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker warned in ‘Common People’ – in which a middle-class girl seeks the novelty of working-class life – nobody likes a tourist. But having just left home I launched myself into a North London community of squatters with anthropological zeal. As a young teenager I’d loved Penelope Spheeris’ 1984 film Suburbia about a group of punk outcasts. Now I’d infiltrated such a group. My handler was called Fiona.

I’d met Fiona through the NME penpal ads. She had bleached dreads with shaved sides, and wore furry day-glo shorts with tons of hoops up her ears ... exactly like me. Her room in a dingy council flat was cheered up with bright appliques of 1960s-style flowers. The drug-taking was cheerful, too. If we were going out to a rave she’d make us both a berry-flavoured squash and then shake some speed into it, a nice little ritual in front of the telly. I’d swirl the squash around the glass to pick up all the fine powder. Even with the artificial berries working over-time, we’d have to try hard not to gag.

Speed was the drug of choice among the squatters, since it was only five quid a gram and was dealt prolifically among our number. I say ‘our’ number, but I believe I was the only person whose father was paying their rent and a weekly allowance as they studied at university.

Unlike the raggle-taggle urchins of Suburbia who stole from supermarkets, lived fast and died young, this crew was made up of seasoned employment-dodgers in their thirties who had been teen- agers when punk hit in the mid-1970s. The music of choice by then, which I couldn’t abide, was some really filthy techno: kind of punk, mark II. I’d find myself trailing Fiona and the others to illegal warehouse raves in Dalston, purely because that was where the drugs were going.

Pills didn’t make me want to dance or have sex; they just made me want to smoke. I’d stand there, puffing on the sidelines of some industrial tomb bisected by jittery green lasers. I wished they’d go to a nice cosy pub; somewhere with proper working toilets. Here, the toilet was a car park, where girls with lollipops in their mouths and pigtails stuck perpendicularly on their heads waited their turn to piss behind a van, at which point their traitorous kidneys would leave them hanging in a fruitless squat.

I scribbled notes on my fag packet, listening to the music build up to some horrible, squelching crescendo that seemed to get everybody excited. The smells come back to me now. Benson & Hedges, stale Red Stripe breath, wet German shepherds and smoke machines. I wore Body Shop white musk to mask it all and smoked my nice, clean, white menthols. 

The logistical challenge of updating AA

What would the logistics be of making changes to AA literature?

I've got a two-page feature in the new issue of The Monthly about the challenges of updating 82-year-old Alcoholics Anonymous to reflect changing times and evidence-based research. It focuses on spirituality, gender and relapse. The Monthly is available in Australian newsagents – or you can subscribe and read online.

Media tropes of female drug users

Media tropes of female drug users

When women make tabloid headlines for drug-related incidents, four female tropes rise out of the quagmire.

The Party Girl overdoses on party drugs and is is fetishised on the front page. Ideally, she’s blonde (which will be noted copiously), pretty, and has a character referee who will vouch she had never before taken a pill in her life. Besides, the Party Girl didn’t take a pill, she ‘fell victim’ to one, suffering ‘an adverse reaction’. It's a tragedy.

Professor Steve Allsop from the National Drug Research Institute tells me he thinks of this as ‘open-casket coverage’. In the case of Lorna Spinks, a ‘pretty teenager’ from the UK who died in 2001, The Mirror was so voyeuristic that it captioned a photograph her parents provided with: ‘She lies dead, her body ravaged by the super-strong ecstasy pills’. This Hammer Horror-style ghoulishness runs rife in both hemispheres: ‘Pretty blonde Anita’ (The Sun, 1999), ‘Pretty brunette’ (Daily Star), ‘Deadly ecstasy pill takes a beautiful girl’s life’ (Daily Telegraph, 2014), ‘Blonde nail technician’ (Evening Standard, 2013).

'Party Girl' is an enduring term. Twenty years after the BBC applied it to Leah Betts (‘Ecstasy Puts Party Girl in Coma’), the Daily Telegraph ran with ‘Party Girl Out of Danger After Suspected Drug Overdose’. It moved satirist Chris Lilley to write a deeply salacious song for his series Summer Heights High, about a ‘party girl with a bad habit for drugs'.

The overriding message of Party Girl coverage is that the victim didn’t deserve it. Which is quite correct – nobody deserves to die from a drug overdose. What’s up for consideration is that this isn’t the overriding message when it comes to coverage of the other tropes of women.

The Disgraced Middle-Classer has been a hit with readers ever since pulp fiction novels depicted nice girls in torn blouses being corrupted by jazz dopefiends. In media terms, she’s older than the Party Girl, less pervable, and smug enough to be taken down a peg or two by a headline that can barely contain its glee. 'From Daddy's Little Girl to Ice Junkie' was one summary of Harriet Wran, the daughter of former NSW Premier Neville Wran. ‘Ha ha,’ it might have added.

When London novelist Tania Glyde wrote the addiction memoir Cleaning Up, the Daily Mail summarised her thus: ‘Born into middle-class comfort, she was the only child of an industry manager and a former advertising executive turned stay-at-home mum.’ Renowned British journalist Rosie Boycott did the job herself, calling her booze memoir A Nice Girl Like Me.

But the Disgraced Middle-Classer is unlikely to fall as far as the next trope, the Slovenly Mum. She’s public enemy number one. She’s poor, she lives in a shit suburb, she doesn’t have honeyed skin or lustrous blonde hair, and she’s apparently sucking the life out of tax payers. This woman doesn’t suffer an ‘adverse reaction’ to drugs, she’s a ‘junkie’, a ‘zombie’, an ‘addict’. If she’s one of a couple who stands accused of negligence or abuse while in the throes of ice or alcohol, it will be her Facebook page that the tabloids raid for photographs.

The Slovenly Mum doesn’t feature kindly in popular culture, either. In song, she’s Marianne Faithfull’s pathetic, pill-gobbling tragedy in ‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’; the gin-soaked divorcee haunting bars for cock in The Rolling Stones’ ‘Honky-Tonk Woman’. In film, she’s mean-drunk Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; and Kirsten, in Days of Wine and Roses, who drunkenly sets fire to her apartment and almost kills her child.

In essence, she is a dumping ground for disgust.

Lastly there’s the Fallen Starlet. In the early 20th century, practically all young female talent in Hollywood were encouraged to winsomely wither, by being medicated by studios for weight loss. After being cast as forever-young Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland’s constant diet of amphetamines and barbiturates led to her overdose at the age of 47. Marilyn Monroe, who overdosed on barbiturates, was a candle in the wind. Modern-day Ophelia Whitney Houston slipped quietly under the water of her bath, her heart giving out through cocaine use. Countless movie characters, from Anna in Dogs in Space, to Lynne in 1967’s Point Blank, Nadine in Drugstore Cowboy, Rosie in Another Day in Paradise and Michelle in Jesus’ Son have also quietly succumbed to overdose, inducing much pathos in the male lover left behind.

The drug-afflicted celebrities who don’t disappear delicately need to be frogmarched to the bitter end. Amy Winehouse, Peaches Geldof and – very nearly – Britney Spears were hounded aggressively to their downfalls. In Amy’s case, the punishment verged on assault. Headlines in the lead-up to her death in 2011 included ‘Amy on Crack’, ‘Amy and New Hubby Copycat Cuts Shock’, ‘Amy Winehouse gets Dodgy Boob Job’, ‘My Bizarre Night in the Disturbing World of Amy Winehouse’, ‘Tearful Amy Winehouse Spends the Night in Jail After Her Arrest Over Pub Assault’ and ‘Amy Winehouse Stumbles Out of Restaurant Exposing Her Pot Belly’. These prompted satirical news site The Onion to come up with their own headline that blends in seamlessly: ‘Things Amy Winehouse Mumbled Before She Stole Our Coffee Maker’.

Keeping mum

Keeping mum

Journalist Rosie Waterland has followed up her best-selling memoir, The Anti-Cool Girl, with an article for The Guardian. In her book she recounted a chaotic childhood with two substance-dependent parents. Now she writes about allowing her now-sober mother to take care of her for the first time. 

As ever, it's an affecting read (please read it!), and references her mother's mood disorder, as well as the drinking. It's probably fair to say that Waterland and her sister would have really benefited from a charity such as The Mirabel Foundation in Victoria. I interviewed its CEO, Jane Rowe, in Woman of Substances...


We should never judge a book by its cover but, with her Anita Pallenberg fringe and her arms ringed to the elbows with bangles, Rowe’s cover is virtually embossed with ‘Interesting Story’. As a teenager in the early 1970s, she began her career working at Richard Branson’s new Virgin Records and immersed herself in the London punk scene. Heroin and speed were the drugs du jour, and many of her peers overdosed or succumbed to hepatitis C because of a lack of basic harm-minimisation knowledge.

Upon moving to Australia, Rowe started volunteering at a St Kilda rehab, Windana, and trained to be a counsellor. In 1998, she founded the Mirabel Foundation, which now supports more than 1500 kids around Victoria who are in kinship care – such as the care of their grandparents – because of parental drug use.

Mirabel’s staff of twenty-five includes youth and childcare workers, grief and loss counsellors, social workers and educational workers. Through the foundation’s support groups, kinship carers can connect with one another, as well as receive counselling themselves. There are also homework clubs, rural camps, and the capacity for overnight stays in Melbourne. Sadly, the role of Mirabel in a kid’s life often needs to be long term.

Back in the 1990s, the main problem Rowe was encountering was heroin. ‘Time and time again I was seeing mums needing a bed and overdosing because there wasn’t one available, which left these orphaned kids,’ she says. Now Australia has the highest rate of methamphetamine consumption of any developed country, which brings with it a very different set of issues. ‘What we’re getting these days,’ says Rowe, ‘is a child witnessing a younger sibling being murdered by Mum’s mad boyfriend.’

To avoid the inevitable carnage, Rowe believes passionately that drug use needs to be a health issue, not a criminal issue. ‘There are so many young women who are too frightened to put their hand up because they’re worried that their children will be taken,’ she says. ‘The great thing about, say, medically supervised injecting rooms is that they could also offer some support and make sure the kids are getting health checks. It’s all about drawing people in so that other services can support them.’

Rowe hears enough success stories to know the eternal fight for funding is worth having. She describes one of the Mirabel children, Heaven Lee, who is now an adult and a regular public speaker for the cause. ‘People say to her, “What a beautiful name your mother gave you.” She laughs and says, “Actually, my mother named me after her favourite character in a book by the author of Flowers in the Attic.”’

Rowe continues, ‘We recently went out to dinner and she said, “You know what, I don’t think I’m angry with Mum anymore.” She’s managed to join the dots that her mother suffered from depression and then her self-medication got out of control. It’s great when kids make those links, because that’s what it’s often really about. It’s about mental health issues.’

You can DONATE TO THE MIRABEL FOUNDATION HERE

 

 

Women and welfare drug testing

Greens leader Richard di Natale writes in The Guardian, using the case of one of his former female patients back when he was an addiction doctor to comment on welfare drug testing. Even the introduction says so much...
 

"Many other countries understand that addiction is a health issue, not a criminal one. This government wants to take us down an Orwellian road"

Read the feature here.

Drug research and lived experience

Standing at the lectern at the 2009 Anex Australian Drugs Conference, Dr James Rowe came out to his peers in style. “I’d like to thank the sponsors,” he said, “for keeping me in buprenorphine.”

The premise of this feature for The Saturday Paper came from what started as a casual conversation on the train with one of the interviewees. It went deep and really fascinated me. A respected drug and alcohol researcher, she worried that by not being open about her own lived experience with drugs, she was forsaking some kind of moral obligation. After all, she supports decriminalisation and has a desire to attack the stereotypes and stigma around drug use.

Ultimately she decided not to out herself – yet – but in my article she thrashed out that dilemma, along with two other researchers in the same boat.

Incidentally, I could relate. After considering it long and hard, I decided to end my book, Woman of Substances, with the admission that I have quit alcohol, but not drugs (though it's more accurate that I give myself licence to use drugs than regularly do so). 

I felt this was important, because when I stopped drinking I read as many 'addiction memoirs' as I could get my hands on, and all but one of them wound up with the author in AA or NA. At this point the language would abruptly change and become more ... you know ... rhymey.

Why did I want to highlight an alternative to AA? Not because I believe my way is the right way, but because I want to demonstrate that other ways do exist, and that different people have different needs. We're very lucky in Australia in that most outpatient drug and alcohol services follow a policy of harm-minimisation, with abstinence at one end and a tailor-made harm-reduction plan for the individual at the other. An example? Well, you may want to quit speed but just monitor your pot use.

Only a small percentage of people who use drugs become dependent. And of those who do, that danger of dependence may well be linked to just type of drug. Plenty of people who quit heroin, for example, still enjoy a glass of wine years later.

Shouldn't someone considering the huge step of becoming completely abstinent know these things, too?

Read the Saturday Paper story here.

A note on the language used in woman of substances

If you’re interested in the language we use to describe drug and alcohol use, join me on this overthink.

It’s a bit of a dilemma, being interviewed about Woman of Substances and hearing ‘alcoholic’, ‘addict’, ‘addiction’ and ‘abuse’ used freely by the journalist. In the introduction of the book, there’s a note on language:

The language of drug and alcohol use depends on what school of thought you align with. In the US, where treatment is predominantly based around abstinence, terms such as ‘alcoholic’, ‘addiction’, ‘substance abuse’, ‘sober’ and ‘recovery’ are used, and have infiltrated the policy of many other countries.

In Australia, where drug strategy is based around harm minimisation, the preferred language is: ‘person affected by drug use’, ‘drug-related harm’, ‘giving up’, and ‘level of dependence’. These are terms that don’t create an us-versus-them divide.

I personally don’t call myself an ‘alcoholic’ or – to coin an increasingly popular phrase in the US – ‘identify as an addict’, because surely accepting a label disregards every other part of our multifaceted selves and keeps us forever in a box. I’m also far too English to use a dramatic term such as ‘in recovery’. However, on the cover of this book I use the term ‘addiction’ because it is less laboured than the alternatives. 

The thing is, of all the words under debate, ‘addiction’ is perhaps the trickiest one, since it doesn’t necessarily stigmatise the subject. It’s just a bit… vague.

Many of my academic interviewees coached me on language during the writing of this book, including Professor Steve Allsop, the director of the National Drug Research Institute. He said:

“I’m uncomfortable about the term ‘addiction’ because it means different things to different people. One of my colleagues has just given me a report they’ve written and I’ve struck out ‘addiction’ all the way through because it’s ill-defined. Instead I inserted ‘severity of dependence’, which has a clinical meaning.”

And here’s Kristen Gwynne, a founding editor of The Influence (a site about our relationship with drugs), on why she bucks the US trend of using labels.

“Like all psychological diagnoses, ‘addiction’ represents clusters of symptoms that are extensions of our personalities. There are factors like repeated and unsuccessful attempts to quit; hurting relationships; jobs; withdrawal, etc, that are used in research to identify patterns and avoid a wide net. Drug use is a spectrum, and the black-and-white rhetoric about ‘addicts’ doesn't represent that. Understanding that there are differences in drug use, even if it's just tolerance/dependence/addiction/abstinence, teaches us about mitigating and risk factors that can help (or hurt) people. Not everyone who uses drugs or alcohol to their detriment experiences addiction, and not all people who experience the most extreme consequences of addiction require abstinence to prevent relapse – but all we say is ‘addict’ or if you're lucky ‘recovering addict’." 

I’m a core member of AOD Media Watch, a group that makes a point of highlighting stigmatising language (such as 'addict', 'junkie', 'alcoholic') in the news. But there’s still no hardline consensus on ‘addiction’ in the Australian treatment industry. For example, I recently attended the Australian and New Zealand Addiction Conference. And one academic who’s very pro not using ‘addiction’ is head of an ‘Addiction’ department – much to his annoyance.

Back to publicising Woman of Substances, and I’m wondering when to be pedantic and when to hold back. Can I accept journalists calling my alcohol use ‘addiction’ when I managed to quit without medical supervision? If I insist on an alternative, will readers fall asleep before they even get to the end of the phrase ‘problematic substance use’? Should I point out that, as Allsop says, the only way I could have ‘misused’ alcohol would have been to clean my car with it? Isn't 'abuse' something perpetrators do?

I’ll probably take it one interview at a time.

UPDATED June 09