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.’