Saturday, 25 March 2017

My cousin, heroin and how his death shaped how I work with young people today

One of the questions I am most often asked by students, teachers and parents alike is why I got into this area and why I am so passionate about the topic. There are really two parts to the answer - the first, fairly boring and uninteresting and the second, deeply personal ... 

The boring part is simply that I fell into it - there was no grand plan and I certainly never saw myself as ending up working in the alcohol and other drug field. Ask anyone I went to school (or teachers college or university) with  and they would say I was most probably the last person they would imagine would end up in that area. I trained as a primary school teacher, taught for a number of years and then left, moving through a number of jobs until finally ending up working at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) at UNSW. Schools would occasionally call the Centre and ask for a researcher to give a presentation to students and, not surprisingly, no-one was interested. One day, someone suggested I do it ... and that's how it all started ...

For the first few years it was simply something I did - it certainly wasn't a passion. In one of my previous jobs I had developed drug education resources so I knew the literature. 'One-off' presentations by outside speakers were not effective, with the classroom teacher being the best person to deliver drug education. Don't get me wrong, I loved working with young people again, but I didn't necessarily believe that I was making much of a difference - I didn't think I could ... That all changed in the year that my family discovered that my cousin David was using heroin ...

You often read about 'troubled' young people – that definitely described David. Red-haired, freckled and slightly overweight, he had always been self-conscious and really didn't know where he fitted in the world. My extended family, including David, all lived in the UK (my parents emigrating to Australia when I was 10) and so when they discovered that he was using heroin in 2000 they immediately asked if I would travel home to try and assist him to get onto some sort of drug treatment program. At that time he was 27-years-old.

Understandably, the whole family, but particularly my aunt (his mother), was devastated when David's heroin use was discovered. She came from a generation that simply did not understand illicit drug use. Although she had heard of heroin, it was something that characters in a movie or a television soap opera used, definitely not her son. When I flew to the UK it was as much to support her as it was to assist David to find a suitable program. She had so many questions and did not know where to go for the answers. She had done all the right things – she had gone to a counsellor, she had looked for a local parent support group – but she was confused and felt terribly alone. She was living in a different world to that of David, and regardless of the phenomenal love they had for each other, the chasm that was between them in terms of drug knowledge and experience was proving extremely problematic. When I arrived, my first priority was to stop my aunt from continuing to go to David's dealer to buy the heroin for him, as she innocently believed that, if she got caught, she wouldn't get into trouble because the drug wasn't for her. She was only helping her son - how could she get into trouble for that?

David and I immediately bonded. My family had moved to Australia when I was 10 and, although I had met him a number of times on previous visits, I really didn't know him at all. He always had problems in the years that I got to know him but, regardless of the issues, I found him to be a wonderful, caring human being. He was fascinated with what I did for a living and was always asking me questions about a whole range of substances. All of us had been completely unaware of his extensive drug use history. He had been using drugs for years, had tried almost everything and had even become involved in organised crime and trafficking. Like most drug users, however, he had no desire to hurt himself as a result of his drug use and although his behaviour could be extremely self-destructive, he was keen to find out as much as he could about the 'story' behind a range of drugs so that things would not go wrong. He told me over and over again that he would have loved to have been given the opportunity to hear some of the information I was sharing with him when he was younger. When I asked him what was wrong with the drug education he did receive from school and the like, one thing he said particularly resonated with me - "They kept telling me what they thought I should know instead of what I actually wanted to know ..."

From that day on I started to change how I present to young people, particularly in terms of the messaging I developed. It's no wonder that young people don't listen to us when it comes to this area, so much of the information we provide is designed to shock and scare. Drug education is about so much more than information provision, but it is a part of it - we need to make sure what we are providing them is credible and useful. We rarely, if ever, ask teens what they want to know in this area, instead focussing on trying to ensure that they never go near drugs. When I started to go into schools and ask students what information they would like, the overwhelming response was how to look after each other. Most of them drink or take drugs to have a 'good time', they certainly don't have any desire to hurt themselves or anyone else. What did they need to do if something went wrong? If we give them information like that, it still lets them know about the risks and hopefully illustrates that 'no use' is the best and safest option, it's just provided in a way that is more palatable to young people. When I started to change the messaging, the response from students changed dramatically ...

David died from a heroin overdose in 2007. He was 34-years-old. My cousin was a great success story in so many ways. Although he had had relapses he had found real happiness in the last year or two of his life. He had met someone and the last time I saw him he told me his life had never been so together. Six months before he died he had saved enough money to travel overseas with the girl he cared so much about and his life appeared to be heading in the right direction. We will most probably never really know what went wrong but regardless of what happened I know he is in a better place.

When I wrote my book in 2009 I dedicated it to David and his mother, my Aunty Pat (who sadly passed away last year). Both had been looking for answers to a whole range of questions about drugs for a long time. I don't think my aunt ever really got the answers she so desperately wanted and needed - I don't think any parent who loses their child ever does - but I did often say to her that it was my time with David that truly shaped what I do today. It certainly didn't stop her hurting (she never recovered from his death) but she truly appreciated that David's story and even his death had resulted in something positive ... 

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