Lukas Rychvalsky

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What it Takes to Recover from Ice in Australia

While the dominant narrative around ice locates those who use the drug on the scrap heap of society, the medical establishment sees it very differently.

This article is created in partnership with Queensland Health’s Ice Help campaign. Recovery is possible and help is available. To find anonymous and confidential help for you or a loved one, visit qld.gov.au/icehelp  

This article discusses mental health issues. If you or a loved one need help, call the 24-hour Lifeline Australia crisis hotline on 13 11 14 or reach out to Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636. 

Growing up in Toowoomba playing footy with his brothers, Nick Curley never thought he would become someone with a drug addiction. 

“I had everything going for me… at the end of the day, I’m a pretty average sort of person.”

It started out as a social thing. Nick and his group of friends would use speed on the weekends at University to have fun and party. 

“We’d go and get jarred up and go out on the town,” he explains. “Normally she was a Friday to Sunday bender. That was just part and parcel of me from 18 to 21.”

As he got older, Nick found himself using speed when others weren’t. It no longer became something to do with his mates but, he says, a mask for his emotions.

“I started to get very ashamed of my use to the point I’d start hiding that I was doing it.”

As his usage increased, speed got increasingly hard to get hold of. Ice took its place in Toowoomba and, being another form of methamphetamine, Nick wasn’t overly concerned about the difference. 

His childhood friend first introduced him to the drug by saying, “You’ve got to treat this shit with respect. Don’t go getting stupid on it.”

“Yeah,” Nick says with a pause. “I probably should have paid a bit more attention to him when he said that.”

Nick Curley

Nick Curley

An Epidemic of Stigma

Nick spent the following 12 years dependent on methamphetamine, attempting to keep his use a secret from friends, family, and work. 

“I was very good at what I do when it comes to earth moving and I’m willing to work hard so I always had a good reputation as a worker,” Nick explains. “I was very good at either hiding it or using it to my advantage.”

High doses or frequent use of ice can cause psychosis, including hallucinations and paranoia, along with a broad range of health concerns. People who use ice tend to experience problems sooner than people who use other forms of methamphetamine.  .

Nick experienced a breakup followed by the loss of a job through a failed drug test and then subsequent loss of his heavy machinery licence. This led him to use methamphetamine more often than not, spending night shifts driving trucks and his days in a motel doing ice. 

Eventually he wound up losing his grip on reality and experienced psychosis. Nick found himself crying by the side of the road, surrounded by police who directed him to an acute mental health service under the Mental Health Act. 

Dr Nicole Lee, an adjunct associate professor at Curtin University’s National Drug Research Institute and director of AOD health consultancy 360Edge, has found that it takes the average ice user five years to seek treatment

She argues that the continued stigmatisation of people who use ice only serves to delay treatment by making it less likely those who need help will ask for it. Frequent reference to people who use ice as “monsters”, “junkies”, “addicts”, or “zombies” is not only unhelpful but actually harmful.  

“Fear drives good people to lock their doors and close their hearts. Families and individuals become isolated as a result, and communities outcast those who need to be pulled closer,” Dr Lee writes.

“Fear and stigma also make it hard for families to have an open discussion about drugs, which is crucial in prevention efforts”.

Treatment and Recovery

Thankfully, there is help available to those who find themselves in trouble with their use. 

“I don’t think anyone goes into using substances because they want to become dependent,” Dr Jeremy Hayllar, Clinical Director of Brisbane’s Metro North Hospital and Health’s Alcohol and Drug Service says. “I think we would be naive if we didn’t recognise that people, initially at least, get a lot out of using drugs.”

While some people may be able to use drugs casually without feeling a need to do them again, for others they provide a new reality, one that relieves them, if temporarily, of whatever problems or issues they might be facing. For these people, the risk of becoming dependent on a drug is much greater. 

“Many people who use drugs will be trying to forget or bury or change their thinking around past trauma,” Dr Hayllar explains. “Recognising that and trying to help them address that trauma so they get a different perspective, is going to be of major assistance in helping them to move on. They no longer need the substances to achieve some sort of peace with that past trauma, they can lay it to rest as it were, rather than trying to keep it hidden or buried or under the surface”.

Throughout our conversation, Nick repeatedly says he doesn’t deal well with emotion. Growing up in a typical conservative household where “boys don’t cry”, he was taught from a young age to suppress his emotions.

“I didn’t have enough self-worth,” he says. “I allowed people to treat me the way they did, and I just accepted that I deserved that. From the ages of 18 to 30, I never emotionally or mentally matured and because I was always using to escape anything that was uncomfortable.”

Nick Curley

Nick Curley

Fortunately for Nick, he found himself an “amazing” treatment facilitator, someone who could help him work through the issues that led to his use. 

That facilitator was psychologist Bec Bateman, who explains that there is a big difference between abstinence from drug use and recovery and that one without the other is simply unsustainable.   

“Abstinence is just stopping the substance that you’re addicted to but still doing all the same behaviours, still associating with the same people, and not having any kind of joy or fulfilment in your life. Recovery is living that value driven life with meaning and purpose and really enjoying your life.” Finding these values and living by them was a key strategy towards aiding recovery. That, and Nick taking the time to work on his inner-self –– identifying underlying issues and working towards reconciling them. 

For instance, Nick understood that his emotional avoidance issues and learned ability to shy away from the problem at hand meant that he would try and “get around” certain questions.

“[Bec] was smart enough to see through it and bring what was needed to come out of me out,” he says. “I don’t say that I would still be using, although I wouldn’t be in a maintained recovery without her. She was a very vital part of me getting to where I am.”

Addiction is Complex

Dr Hayllar describes problematic ice use as something that’s perceived as a “self-made condition” that “many would frown upon and see as blameworthy”. 

While the dominant narrative around ice locates those who use the drug on the scrap heap of society, designating them as public nuisances who deserve our scorn and lengthy jail sentences, the medical establishment sees it very differently. 

The reframing of addiction as a complex issue, and not one best dealt with by the criminal justice system, has been an ongoing challenge in the public health and reform space for some time. It’s one thing to hear the phrase and understand the arguments, but another entirely to see those whose work is already entirely predicated upon that concept. 

“What society might see as a moral or a legal issue, we see as a health issue”, Psychologist Cassandra Davies of Brisbane’s Metro North Hospital and Health’s Alcohol and Drug Service says. 

“If someone has diabetes, they need health intervention, they might need medical support. We would never deny or delay or stigmatise them for that. With the world of drugs, you’re competing with these moralistic ideas and the legal component that is adding that layer of stigma. If you strip all that away, it really is just fundamentally a health problem”.

For the past 13 years, Davies has been providing young people the help that they need to overcome their addictions to alcohol and other drugs. She says people can take first steps to get help by utilising multiple options: via their GP, through the Ice Help website or by contacting the Adis phone number.

Once an appointment is set up, an initial assessment can be made and a treatment plan is established based on the type of help that the person needs. 

“There’s so much fear and so much anxiety that often it takes people a number of tries. They’ll make an appointment just not show up or lose their nerve or change their mind or whatever. People get as many chances as they need.”

That patience and understanding is essential in allowing people the space and time they need in order to deal with the issues they have. For Nick, overcoming the stigma of living under the “banner” of a “drug addict” was one of the hardest parts of his recovery. 

“Once you get addicted to drugs and once you start feeling that you’re an addict, your self-worth plummets, your self-esteem plummets because of the way the media portray addicts and treat addicts. 

“All of a sudden you fall into the category of scum. And that’s a very hard thing to come to terms with and to have the self-confidence to disagree with. It took me ages”.

Failure and Success

Nick personally knows a number of people who never managed to overcome the shame of what they had done in becoming addicted to drugs and ended up taking their own lives as a result before they could face seeking treatment. Thankfully for him, he was able to find help and support from non-judgmental sources and is now 20 months into his recovery, having last used ice in October 2019.

He’s left behind the trucking and earth moving and is now into breeding and training thoroughbred horses. Music played a big part of his journey and he cites ‘Recovery’ by James Arthur as a song that really spoke to him in the early days, along with 360, Pez, and The Eagles. 

“I’m always excited now,” Nick says. “I get up in the morning and I get to go and have a look at foals and muck around with mares and all that sort of stuff.”

He says for anyone going through something similar, the path to recovery starts with small goals and a desire to change like wanting to breathe. 

Finding a doctor or psychologist with a drug and alcohol rehabilitation background was Nick’s first step. Once his initial treatment was underway, with rehab being his first stage to help come off of drugs and get the psychological support needed to change, the long journey of self-discovery and change began. 

For others seeking help, a journey towards recovery can begin by looking at information online via sites like ICE Help, calling help 24-hour help services like Adis, or talking to your GP. Then there are also treatment types like counselling, residential and non-residential rehabilitation. As Nick says, these services are key to recovery. 

“There were two sayings that always rang very true with me that I came across during rehab. One was ‘assess, adapt and overcome’ and the other one was ‘change the way you look at things and the things you look at change’. Those two things are like my mantras now”. 

Setting small, achievable goals, such as not using for one day, then not using for two days, was the day-by-day attitude Nick needed to ensure his recovery. Failure, he says, is not something to be afraid of but a necessary part of the journey too. 

“I used to absolutely hate it when I failed. When the wheels fall off, I’d fall back into addiction and I would use more heavily. Now I don’t fear failure, I actually accept it. With every failure, I get to learn, I get to adapt, and I get to change things.”

Taking ice is a choice, but no one chooses to be an addict, Nick says. There are any number of reasons as to why drugs seem more appealing, more necessary, to some than others. Treating those people with the kindness and compassion they need is the only way to help them overcome their issues and for Nick, it was the only path that worked.

This article is created in partnership with Queensland Health’s Ice Help campaign. To find anonymous and confidential help for you or a loved one, visit qld.gov.au/icehelp.

People who use ice can and do recover. If you are concerned about your own or someone else’s drug use, contact the Alcohol and Drug Information Service (Adis), a free 24-hour 7-day anonymous and confidential service on 1800 177 833 to speak to one of their counsellors.