From taking diet pills at 15 to an out-of-control ice addiction at 44, Virginia Perkins had a long history of swapping one bad habit for another, like a lot of addicts in denial.
This story, my story, is a very personal account of a lifetime of addiction. It is my one-sided account of how an otherwise regular life, characterized by drinking and recreational drug taking, disintegrated to the point where my sister threw me an intervention for my 44th birthday and I ended up in Odyssey House.
I grew up in the leafy northern beaches area of Sydney. I had a loving mum and dad and two younger sisters. We were a happy middle class Australian family. I had a difficult adolescence and spent it pushing my parents’ boundaries.
I got my first job when I was nearly 15 years old and that’s when I started buying recreational drugs. In those days you could buy high doses of pseudoephedrine over-the-counter in diet pills and I used to skip school at least two mornings a week to go to Manly or Dee Why and buy packets of 100 tablets. With a pocketful of disposable income, the pharmacy became my lolly shop for the next 20 years.
When I was nearly 16, in a fit of rebellion and much to the distress of my family, I left home. I met an 18-year-old man with a flat in the city and he taught me about illicit drugs, working hard, playing hard and living on the edge.
Even at that young age, I played the role of middle class, functional “recreational” user. I got work as a junior clerk for a stockbroker in those heady days of the late 1980s where I took my drug habit to a whole new level. I learnt to take cocaine before the market opened and relax with scotch and soda in the trendy bars of Oxford Street at night.
When my relationship ended, it was the wake-up call I needed to get out of the Sydney scene and I move to Canberra, where I was welcomed by my family, got a job in a bank and didn’t touch illicit drugs for another 15 years.
I worked in Europe in the early 1990s, including for a British charity in Romania. While I was there, and despite intense homesickness, I came to know myself in a way that I hadn’t before and realized that I liked working in challenging environments. I returned to Australia and quickly took up work in Pakistan where I worked with women and young people in minority religious communities.
It’s fair to say that during those years I became a confident and assertive woman. I was proud of the work I was doing and the lifestyle I was living.
I still misused drugs and alcohol – binge drinking in Romania and being poured into a horse and cart to be taken home was an amusing dinner party anecdote. And the pharmacies in Lahore and Islamabad didn’t need a prescription – amphetamines, opiates, benzodiazepines – they provided a cornucopia of delights for the informed 20-something expatriate.
Before I left Australia for Pakistan, I started seeing the man I subsequently married, a successful businessman 16 years my senior. He was also a functional alcoholic.
I was a seasoned user of drugs and alcohol before I met him, but with him, I drowned myself in alcohol. On the surface I was a successful, adventurous, functional, young professional woman. Behind closed doors, I was little more than a barely functional, emotionally crippled, alcoholic and drug addict.
I returned to Australia, got married, established a home and family and built a successful career in the Commonwealth Public Service in Canberra. I worked hard and successfully led national policy and program teams.
Isolated in suburbia
Twelve years slipped by in a blur of chardonnay and over-the-counter pseudoephedrine until I hit my early 30s and despite the beautiful home, established career, busy social and family networks, I had lost myself.
My life had completely evaporated into a shadow known as my husband’s wife or my step-children’s mother, or my job title. I had a deep sense of unfulfillment. I could no longer picture living the rest of my life in comfortable suburbia, drinking a couple of bottles of wine every night and making a daily lunch run to the chemist for cold tablets. I left the marriage.
I was devastated at the reality of a separation. So I did what I always did when life got hard – I drank, passed out, woke up, popped pills, went to work, popped pills, drank, passed out. I was isolated, stopped returning calls from friends, saw my family a bit but lost contact with my extended network.
I eventually realized I couldn’t go on living in Canberra so I did the other thing I’d done all my life, and ran away.
I took a lucrative job opportunity in the Northern Territory. The Northern Territory Emergency Response had just been announced and the government was seconding senior bureaucrats to remote communities to effectively take over their administration. I had extensive experience in public policy, but I’d never worked in Aboriginal affairs. The response had introduced alcohol bans in those communities, so I respected those arrangements and for the first time in my life, stopped drinking. Instead, I developed a secret over-the-counter codeine habit.
Like a lot of addicts in denial, I have a long history of swapping one habit for another.
It was a difficult and depressing job, listening day in and day out to the experiences of Aboriginal women and young people in remote communities
Finally, I had had enough. Burnt out, I left the Australian public service and moved to the private sector. In hindsight, I jumped straight out of the frying pan and into the fire.
I got work with the world’s largest gold mining company as the manager of community planning and development at their mine in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. I told myself it was a lifestyle choice. Sixteen days on, 12 days off, flying in and out of Cairns. I sold my house in Canberra and bought one in a tropical paradise hidden in the rainforest between Cairns and Port Douglas.
Drugs are rife in regional Australia and they saturate the mining and resource sectors. I’d become friends with the wife of a man I worked with in the mines and she introduced me to ice [crystal methamphetamine]. She used the drug to maintain her figure. It started harmlessly, a few women sharing recreational drugs a couple of nights a week. No big deal for me, a woman who had used everything and anything all her life without too much of a dent and thought herself a savvy navigator of the world of substance use.
At work I responded on behalf of the company to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International concerns about serious human rights concerns. I established the first women’s centre in the province and engaged with the World Health Organization to deliver HIV treatment to a population where the virus was endemic. I established local teams to develop food security projects and implemented a fresh water strategy.
In my 12 days off, I continued to use ice to relax and socialize with miners’ wives.
In 2013 the bottom fell out of the gold market and the community programs were the first to go.
I was made redundant and for the first time in my life, I was unemployed.
In my tropical paradise, secluded from friends and family, unemployed and lost, I developed a methamphetamine addiction that quickly escalated to costing several thousand dollars a week, saw me mixing with criminals, admitted to hospital with drug-induced psychosis and literally sent me spiritually, emotionally and finally financially bankrupt within a matter of less than 12 months.
I take no comfort in knowing I’m not the only person to have gone through this. There are 75,000 people in Australia who are dependent meth addicts and like many before me my descent into the meth trap was caused by dire ignorance about the drug.
My descent into debilitating addition was the result of a combination of naivety and a lack of insight into my degrading mental condition. I used bit by bit, here and there. I’d feel tired or sad so I’d take a bit more, until my mind got so twisted I lost track of how much I was using and how much my behavior had changed.
The thing that I really didn’t understand about meth addiction is what is meant by “psychologically addictive”. Ice addiction is very much about the gradual grinding down of the border between fantasy and reality. Many users, myself included, then become psychotic or so deluded they lose all self awareness, not realizing they have become hooked on this insidious drug.
When I ran out of money and had to come clean with my family and turn to them for help and support my sisters confronted me and with their support and encouragement I contacted Odyssey House to seek treatment and rehabilitation.
I think it’s important to note that by the stage my sisters stepped in, I wasn’t in much of a state to do anything really for myself. I was paralyzed with addiction. Methamphetamines are like that. Affected by ice, you live in a fantasy land, where the drug creates a false reality where nothing matters except staying high and maintaining the sense of happiness and contentment you feel from the effects of the drug.
They gave me the references for a few rehab centers in Sydney and Canberra and I spoke to a couple I found through the Queensland alcohol and drug information lines, however it’s true to say that there were very few long-term residential treatment centers I could have accessed. Fortunately it did sink in to me when the girls told me that the research and people they’d spoken to suggested that I needed long-term treatment and the reality was that there is a direct correlation between the length of time one stays in treatment and the likelihood of relapse.
I’ve come to understand that I am an addict and I will always be at risk of addiction. I will spend my life using the tools and strategies I’ve learnt during my time in intensive rehabilitation at Odyssey House ensuring when I do face disappointment or feel sad or lonely that I put strategies in place to deal with them by making choices that are good for me rather than destructive.
Addiction brought me to my knees and cost me so, so much. I’ve come to terms with that and no longer carry romantic notions of harmless recreational drug use. It nearly destroyed me.
Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to express my most sincere gratitude to my incredible parents, sisters and their families without whose support I could not have made it through this difficult period.
I would also like to express my gratitude and thanks to the remarkable and dedicated professional staff and executive of Odyssey House. My ability to access this service literally saved my life and has enabled me to heal from the depths of serious addiction and be in a position to rebuild a life I destroyed. I could not have done it on my own and I will be forever grateful.
This is an edited extract of a speech given by Virginia Perkins, a recovering addict, to the Odyssey House Business Women’s Lunch on Tuesday.