September 16, 2016

Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical: Substance

A weekly newsletter exploring odd corners of Queensland life. Check out the archive here.

"Here. Yorkshire Tea." My guest has brought her own teabags for us both. Yorkshire's the kind where one bag makes two cups, but of course I'll use one for each of us. Strong tea is about my limit where substances are involved.

I let her choose a pseudonym for the interview and after some thought she says, "Shanaynay."

"When I used to go to bars and people tried to pick me up, if they asked my name, that's what I'd tell them - Shanaynay. It's a gentler way just to say,' I'm not interested', and weed people out."

Fifteen years ago she was a drug support worker in inner city Brisbane. And she might not have been doing that but for getting blind drunk at a party.

"You can probably tell, no makeup, ponytail, I'm kind of a tomboy. One night we're all waiting to go to the pub, we've been drinking all day, the girly-girls are all inside getting ready, and I'm outside with the guys who are drunk, riding a kids' scooter around the yard."

"I want my turn, so I take the scooter and zoom straight down the driveway, and the guys start shouting to warn me, but I'm not listening: the front wheel goes straight into the gutter, my face goes straight into the asphalt, and I've smashed my front teeth."

"My partner still feels sick when he remembers the flap of skin on my chin, open down to the bone. But I was drunk: I didn't feel a thing. I wouldn't let them call an ambulance, so my friend drove me to hospital, with my tooth in a milk jug."

The doctors told her to thank her quick-thinking friend for saving the tooth. They also told her she'd have to wait until morning for a plastic surgeon to come on shift and stitch up her face.

"I told them, you think I'm that kind of girl, that I'm vain? Just get a regular doctor to stitch it up!"

At this point, they put a needle in her arm, gave her what they called "the twilight drug", and she fell asleep. The next morning, the plastic surgeon came and tidied her up: these days, you wouldn't even notice the scar which runs horizontally above the point of her chin.

"It took a few dental visits to sort out the broken tooth," she explains, "When I went for my job interview with a drug support agency, I wore my pinstripe suit, but I still had a bandaged hand from the accident and my front tooth half missing - my friends called it 'the dagger'."

"The agency rang me afterwards to say 'We think you're a bit green' - I was so green I didn't even know what that meant - 'but there's something about you, we think you'd fit right in.'"

She started work and the drug users warmed to her from first sight. "They saw I had the same f*cked-up teeth that they did, and they wanted to swap stories with me."

*

Drug support work in early 2000s Brisbane had its own rhythms and routines. Morning trips to the Hare Krishnas to collect free buckets of dhal, rice, and halva for the users. Needle sweeps walking around Fortitude Valley to pick up discarded sharps; visits to squats around the city; hanging out near the get-on chairs at the train station.

"They were where you went to get on - to score; they were where you'd go if you got ripped off, because every dealer would eventually turn up there. They were right by the payphones, the hub for the whole community. The payphones went first, now we have mobiles; the chairs have probably gone too by now."

She had taken a few anthropology classes at college, and saw drug work as a challenge. "It was this dirty, grotty underworld that I knew nothing of, this naive little twentysomething. My challenge was how to infiltrate that culture, get them to give a sh*t about HIV or hepatitis when all they wanted was the drug."

She would make a game of it. Questions of the Month or "Did You Know?" Like: "Can you name one way Hep C spreads?"

"I'd get them to give me the info about blood-borne diseases. Nobody wants to hear a lecture, but drug users aren't stupid either: they want to keep safe."

She had a false arm you could pump full of red food colouring to practice shooting up. They called it Bruno: "God knows who they cast it from - apparently it was a real guy somewhere way back - but he must have been a bodybuilder or something."

Bruno was one of the tools she used to teach users how to keep themselves safe. She'd teach girls to ask for different gauge needles to suit their smaller veins - drug using women, she tells me, were often dominated by male users and dealers. "It was about knowing your body and speaking up. You control what goes into your body - and it's usually safer to inject yourself than let someone else do it."

New technology would also require education for users. She gives an example: pill filters.

"When they came out, they were a novelty, and a little technical: these little plastic disks you'd use when crushing the pill form of an opiate. You'd mix the resulting powder with water, put the pill filter on your syringe, suck up the drug, and then fit the needle."

"Users thought they were losing the drug to the filter, but what they were losing was the chalk. You'd have to explain: using this will stop chalk getting to your heart and brain, it'll protect you from seizures."

The trick was to find a veteran drug user who others would listen to. The pill filters were a hard sell at a dollar apiece. She would give them away to senior users, respected in the community, to try to get others on board.

*

Sometimes it worked: more than anything, she was surprised by the sense of community she felt during her time in Fortitude Valley, especially among jobless drug users who looked out for each other. 

She also discovered the permeability of the line between her institution and the hidden world she'd been drawn to. 

"Our volunteers were mostly users, and I joined after a period where things had been a little out of control. My first desk had the stapler chained to it, because so many assets had been stolen and sold at the pawnshop by people working there."

"That same office was next door to a sex-on-premises venue. Our office had once been part of it. There were hooks on the ceiling above my desk, which had been used for a sling chair: a gay colleague told me he used to have amazing sex in that room."

She quickly learned to stand up to police officers when necessary. "I had the relevant piece of Queensland law memorised, which kept uniformed cops at least fifty metres clear of any needle and syringe programme. New police recruits would turn up, stand in the doorway, throwing their weight around. Staff knew I liked dealing with this, so they'd get me to kick them out. It was like reading them their Miranda rights. Even the undercover cops had to phone ahead and notify us."

Most of the people she dealt with proved fairly responsible, and had short careers as injecting drug users. A significant number worked in the medical profession, where there was easy access to pharmaceuticals, and the systems designed to control that access could be circumvented.

"We just wanted people to be aware and take care of their bodies, taking common sense precautions about blood-borne diseases, learning CPR. Some of them would have really strong medical knowledge: they were intelligent people, testing the limits of their own body, and they would teach me more than I was able to teach them."

"Heroin users might seem like they're out of it, on the nod, but compared to heavy drinkers, they were alert. They'd be lying there, burn marks on their fingers from cigarettes, but they'd hear everything - and be able to rattle off what you'd told them straight back to you after a session."

It was hard to know if she helped keep anyone safe from viruses, but she also ran weekly CPR training in ten-minute bursts. Users would thank her for those, sometimes years after training.

"Users were deadly serious about resuscitation. They saw the value in learning that skill. They'd come back to you, much later, with stories about how they'd had to do CPR, in difficult situations like sitting upright in the back of the car. Those weekly sessions paid off when the users were able to save each other's lives."

With the younger users, addressing longer term problems, she started doing something akin to art therapy.

"I'm no artist, but we'd just paint together. I'd ask them: how's life? Do you have food? Do you have a safe place to stay? I'd paint something, and say, 'This is what I think a blood-borne virus would look like going through your veins.' Just so they started to think about this invisible threat."

"Young users can think they know it all, they have their whole life ahead of them and they've not made too many mistakes yet. They hide their drug use because they don't want the shame, and they're too confident they'll be okay in the end. All you want is to teach them how to use safely from the start."

"One of our older users died alone, OD'ing in public toilets in the Valley. He was the one who'd done CPR on someone else sitting in the back seat of a car. He'd saved other people with CPR, he knew better than to inject alone, but he died simply because no-one was there to save him."

She never offered formal counselling - for that you'd need the users' names, and they didn't want to put them on a form - but she would do what she called "brief interventions": setting broad goals, not formally written in case plans but tracked so that there was a sense of the future.

"Pretty much all of them who had kids focussed on getting them back. Heavy users were never ready for that, but our job was to keep the dream alive until they were ready, until being a parent was something they could address as a practicality."

Eventually she became a parent herself, and moved away from frontline work. Sometimes she sees former clients in her neighbourhood, but she's never sure if they recognise her - and is quite happy for them not to become part of her family life.

We finish our tea and it's time for her to go back to her desk. She's in a new line of work now, less chaotic and challenging. When she walks away, back into the crowds of office workers, she's just a regular Brisbanite who cycles to work, answers emails all day, and then goes home to her kids. Those other times are just stories now - she has so many stories - and in some other part of the city, someone else has taken up that hard, endless job.

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