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Saturday, 13 August 2016

Strange, Unhappy People

Names have been changed to protect the guilty.
Barry is a poet. He used to be a bare knuckle street fighter, slugging it out for a pittance in the car parks of pubs, most of which were shut down long ago as raucously violent blots on the community. The world in which he grew up is long, long gone - the robust, optimistic, mono-cultural blur of the eighties. It seems he hasn't really noticed, though, because his focus has turned almost entirely inward, as it always will when your whole life becomes a process of getting, using and then getting more drugs.

For the past few years now his drug of choice has been methyl amphetamine, otherwise known as 'meth', 'cold' or 'ice'. This isn't something altogether new, though - no victim of the so called 'ice epidemic' is Barry. He's been shooting up heroin, methadone, dextro amphetamine and cocaine for decades. The thing about ice is that it's relatively cheap, in plentiful supply and, taken in toxic psychosis doses, will last for days and days. The other thing about ice, I'm told, is that it appears to have the property of staving off heroin withdrawal sickness. I can't personally verify this, but I have noticed that other background addictions like nicotine simply fade from notice while the ice buzz is on.

In drug-taking circles, Barry's a lifer. He's been around forever, and everyone knows him, so he's plugged into all the little communities of the more serious end of drug subculture. These are many and varied, and on any given day Barry could be hanging out with twenty something homies, ageing hippies, bikies, homeless buskers or middle-class underbelly tourists. It doesn't really matter much who he's with - it's all the same. The community of pipe, and especially of needle, is a strangely unifying one. The distinctions of culture and 'tribe' are all wiped out by the over-riding sense of otherness which comes from the sustained and serious use of any drug, and especially one so heavily stigmatised as ice.

The last time I saw Barry, it was in a drug house in Manly. This house has been raided and shut down for a while now, so I can safely talk about it without compromising or endangering anyone. It was pretty typical of such places - filthy carpets, perpetually blinded windows, walls yellow from tobacco smoke and an absolute bare minimum of battered, donated furniture. At any given time there'll be a handful of men, and maybe one woman, sprawled, hunched, squatting or pacing in various attitudes around the room. Every face is a study in constrained patience, or absent bliss, because it doesn't matter when you rock up at a house like this, everyone has either just received a delivery, or is holding onto themselves as they wait for another one.

In either case, obsessive, repetitive activity becomes deeply satisfying to minds flying on ice. Mobile phone games, assembling or disassembling stolen bike parts, folding paper, flicking through television channels or browsing for porn - it's not important what the activity is, it suddenly becomes the most important thing on the planet. From a distance, if you squint, a room full of ice users can look a bit like a meeting of twitchy mad scientists who have forgotten that they're not alone.

All this tends to change when a new person arrives, assuming that new person brings a fresh element of some kind with them. In Barry's case, he normally sweeps into a house in a hectic wave of energy, beat poetry and beers in brown paper bags which he will share with the house. This is usually guaranteed to start a general conversation. Sure, not everyone will be able to look up from what they're doing, but they'll be listening and contributing. And that's probably the most surprising thing about ice addicts and users. If we're to go with the received image, we could be forgiven for thinking their days are filled with random nihilistic violence, robbery and beating up on their mothers. The reality is, though, that these people spend the vast majority of their time sitting around talking to each other.

One favourite topic for conversation is personal history. A staggering proportion of these people have suffered serious sexual or physical abuse at some point in their lives. As a result, they often have an air of disassociated numbness when it comes to their own selves, and their accounts of their past lives are intricately woven tapestries of fantasy and fact, by turns funny, pathetic, bitter and manic. Like the story Stevo used to tell about the first time he went to jail. He'd been driving a stolen car and had been stopped by the police for some innocuous reason. All was well, and they were about to drive on when his mother, drunk out of her skull, pulled up. While she was in the process of being breathalysed and arrested, she turned to Stevo and loudly pointed out that he did not own the car he was driving.

Conspiracy theories are also practically ubiquitous amongst this set. Weirdly intricate frameworks of power and interest are constructed into a sort of murky, confused world view. The CIA, NSA, Homeland Security, various police forces, banks and governments are co-opted into a narrative whose burden is that the whole world has connived to block them from attaining personal success. Often, their knowledge of the organisations they suspect doesn't go much beyond knowing their names, but that's not really important. The point is that the game is rigged, the power sits with others from whom it cannot be taken, and it makes perfect sense, therefore, that they have opted out of life.

Other than that, they tell funny stories about themselves and each other, bitch and gossip, share Youtube videos and Facebook memes - yes, just like normal people. Because essentially, that's what most of these people are: perfectly normal, damaged and discouraged people. Of course, it can be said that their existence is entirely without meaning. Their whole lives are taken up with nothing beyond the acquisition of money in service of the acquisition of drugs, and they can spend days and days sitting in one stinking room talking nonsense to people they don't really know or like.

But when you think about it, you can't help but wonder just how different that is from any other person's life. We work, save and spend on furniture, holidays, alcohol, over-priced meals, all of which are consumed in the company of people we may not particularly care for, but to whom we hold on because a person is supposed to have friends. While many of us are happy, some of us sublimate our despair with these frivolities, and I simply don't see the difference between that and what a meth junkie does. Except, of course, that the acquisition and consumption of ice is by its very nature criminal, and the people who do it criminals by extension. And then there's also the fact that constant drug use is a much quicker and more visible way to kill oneself than, say, sugar.

Sometimes, when I see an addict twitching down the street shouting at himself, or searching frantically through a bin, I'll recognise someone I've seen in my travels. This forces me to reconcile the insane hobo image I see with the thoughtful, gentle and tortured person I may have spoken to, years ago, when I was on the same trajectory. I think that if everyone had to do this - had to see beyond the dirt and strangeness and into the actual person, they might be less quick with their judgements, and with their dismissal of these people as people. In the words of Palahniuk, "We are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world," so who are we, really, to decide which of us is more or less crap than another?

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