“You need to trust us to be able to deliver a service to our own people linked in with culture. Who are the right people to deliver that? Our people.
I have seen it a thousand times over. Once they are addicted to ice, culture’s gone, you don’t care about your kids, your primary focus is ‘I need this drug.’ It is worse than heroin.
Ice has a terrible impact on the family. Yet there was nothing to explain to families “why all your stuff is being sold at the pawn shop” and how to get help “
Tanya Bloxsome, a Waddi Waddi woman of the Yuin, who is chief executive of a residential rehabilitation service for men, Oolong House
It makes Nowra grandmother Janelle Burnes’ day when her grandson Lucas* says, “Nanny, you’ve got a beautiful smile. I love you.”
The Wiradjuri woman has been punched and kicked by eight-year-old Lucas, who hears voices and suffers psychosis.
Janelle Burnes had to give up work to care for her eight-year-old grandson. He suffers from a range of mental illnesses, including psychosis, attributed to his parents’ ice addictions.
Abandoned by his mother as a baby, Lucas has fetal alcohol and drug syndrome attributed to his parents’ ice use when he was conceived.
Experts told the NSW special commission of inquiry into ice in Nowra last week that they were increasingly seeing multiple generations of users living together, exposing children to violence, neglect, abuse and witnessing sex and drug use by intoxicated adults.
Some call it an epidemic, others call it the “Ice Age”.
When Lucas hit his grandmother over the head with a guitar, she didn’t yell at him. Determined to stop the boy from becoming part of another generation broken by ice, Ms Burnes ignored the blood running down her face and the waiting ambulance.
“I walked back to him, I hugged him, I cuddled him, I told him, ‘You are going to hurt Nanny if you do stuff like that.’ And I gave him a kiss and I told him I still loved him.”
Ice is a stronger and more addictive stimulant than speed, the powder form of methamphetamine, the Alcohol and Drug Foundation says. It causes aggression, psychosis, stroke, heart attacks and death. It causes confusion, making it nearly impossible to get a rational response from someone under the drug’s influence.
Tanya Bloxsome, chief executive of Oolong House, a residential rehabilitation service where more than 90 per cent of its male residents have been addicted to ice. CREDIT:LOUISE KENNERLEY
Ms Burnes doesn’t blame Lucas for his behaviour, but ice. It is destroying Indigenous and non-Indigenous families across the Shoalhaven region. It is also destroying Indigenous culture.
To recover, Indigenous leaders say they have to develop role models and restore pride in their identity.
“You need to trust us to be able to deliver a service to our own people linked in with culture. Who are the right people to deliver that? Our people,” said Tanya Bloxsome, a Waddi Waddi woman of the Yuin, who is chief executive of a residential rehabilitation service for men, Oolong House.
“I have seen it a thousand times over. Once they are addicted to ice, culture’s gone, you don’t care about your kids, your primary focus is ‘I need this drug.’ It is worse than heroin.
“Ice has a terrible impact on the family,” she said. Yet there was nothing to explain to families “why all your stuff is being sold at the pawn shop” and how to get help.
Nearly two-thirds of 52 Indigenous and non-Indigenous children placed in out-of-home care in the Nowra region in the past year were removed because of ice use by their parents. It was also a “risk factor” in about 40 per cent of the 124 families working with Family and Community Services’ case managers.
When Indigenous groups met the commission last week, they said they needed more culturally appropriate programs, rehabilitation places and detoxification units (the closest are in Sydney, Canberra and Dubbo).
Indigenous Australians are more than 2.2 times as likely to take meth/amphetamine than other Australians.
In the opening address to the commission, Sally Dowling, SC, said the impacts of colonisation and dispossession, intergenerational trauma and socio-economic disadvantage had continued to contribute to high levels of amphetamine use in Indigenous communities.
Ice use in Nowra is not as bad as out west. But the region has seen the biggest year-on-year growth in arrests for possession and use since 2014, with a 31 per cent increase compared with 6 per cent across the state.
Cheaper than Maccas
Getting high on ice was “cheaper than going for Maccas”, said Nowra’s Aboriginal Medical Corporation’s substance abuse counsellor Warren Field, who runs a weekly men’s group for recovering addicts.
Ice had also become a “rite of passage” for some young people after they had received their first Centrelink payment or wage.
Mr Field said “99 per cent” of ice users had suffered some form of trauma. Nearly all had other mental health problems, including anxiety and depression.
“Everyone says there is nothing [like it] that will numb the pain and take the grief and loss away,” he said. It also makes women lose weight and gives men incredible sexual prowess.
“Most people are vulnerable when they go through a traumatic event and the Aboriginal community has had more than its fair share of that,” he said.
He argues they know what works – culturally appropriate rehabilitation which develops strong role models and a sense of identity. But there had to be more support when people came out of rehabilitation to stop them from relapsing.
The first year of rehabilitation was particularly hard. People in recovery were often depressed and their ability to feel happiness or pleasure without the drug was dulled.
Mr Field said “black fellas” were also unfairly targeted by police who, he argued, should spend more time closing the crack houses that “everyone” knew about.
At Oolong House, 21 men – 18 of whom were Indigenous – were getting themselves breakfast while 42-year-old Bobby McLeod jnr played guitar and a mate accompanied him on the didgeridoo.
More than 90 per cent of men in the program had been using ice, very often with other drugs, and increasingly with heroin, Ms Bloxsome said.
“Every addicted person who comes in here has a mental health issue,” she said. And residents addicted to ice were more psychotic than those addicted to other drugs.
Most residential programs are 12 weeks, but Oolong offers 16 weeks, and Ms Bloxsome believes even longer programs would be better. But like services up and down the South Coast, it can’t keep up with demand.
The program offered cognitive behavioural therapy, addressed mental and physical health, and encouraged the men to undertake training that would help them get work. Nearly all the men arrived with hepatitis C and those released from jail were, with few exceptions, addicted to the drug, bupe (buprenorphine).
The most powerful medicine, though, was getting back to culture by doing traditional dance, learning language and going on bush walks. After a lifetime in prison, Mr McLeod said painting and writing songs about his life had helped his recovery.
When everything else was bad, ice had made him “feel invincible”. But it cost him his family and caused anxiety and depression, which made him feel suicidal.
His old man was a successful singer, his brother had travelled around the world with an Indigenous dance group, but he was the one who “went to jail”, Mr McLeod said.
Raising money for a funeral
Ms Burnes lives in fear of a phone call telling her that Lucas’ 39-year-old mother is dead.
In anticipation of the inevitable – her nephew died earlier this year from a heart attack caused by his ice addiction – she is raising money for anticipated funeral costs.
Lucas’ mother has had three heart attacks caused by decades of addiction.
Janelle Byrnes is planning a funeral for her ice-addicted daughter. In a Facebook post, her 39-year-old daughter asks others to stop using ice. CREDIT:FACEBOOK
In a Facebook post, her daughter wrote about how her “huge addiction” had caused two heart attacks in two weeks.
“Now I’ve got to plan my funeral just in case I don’t make the next,” she wrote. “That’s not the saddest thing. It is listening to my mum cry and plan it with me. ”
“If U love your family reconsider having that pipe or putting that needle in your arm,” Ms Burnes’ daughter said.
In the meantime, Ms Burnes does everything she can to provide a stable home for Lucas.
She quit her job of 22 years as an Aboriginal education officer to care for her grandson, to ensure he gets to doctors’ appointments and maintain his schooling.
She’s been working with him to maintain his good results in reading and spelling, despite frequent suspensions for getting into fights, so he has a chance of fulfilling his dream of becoming a police officer.
* name changed
With additional reporting by Louise Kennerley.