Thursday, December 23, 2010

Liberals Art part VI 112

Imogen Clark Gives Advice To the Parents of Addicts

It is unlikely that a conservative household would treat a troubled daughter as Imogen Clark treated Jessie. Instead, tools such as these would be commonplace:

Religious intervention
personal supplication
use of parental authority
the father would have led the interrogations and demands, not the mother

Imogen herself does not talk nor write like a conservative: There's no reference to a basic morality. There is no reference or appeal to God. There is no concern with justice. The reputation of the family is more important than the soul of the daughter. Parental control expresses itself as abuse through invalidation rather than as arguments from authority. Imogen uses complex intellectual constructs and polysyllabic words to distance herself from her daughter's problem. Once her daughter's problem is under control, Imogen talks to groups about it as a social issue among social scientists.

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Jessie's mother speaks publicly about the ordeal

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A Personal Story

When I first discovered that my 18 year old youngest daughter was addicted to heroin, I was consumed with misery and guilt. Guilt that I had not managed to protect her from the recklessness of her decision to experiment and use drugs freely and regularly, guilt that I had not realised what was happening earlier and somehow headed it off, guilt that I had failed her as a parent. There seemed to be few more devastating examples of getting it wrong.

There were signs that things were not going well. Her friendship group had changed, her performance at school slackened, her appearance became very alternative and she began associating with many people generally older than she was, not from her school environment. But many teenagers display similar behaviour which does not necessarily indicate drug use.

Our first indication that she was involved with drugs came when she was fifteen, after she had gone missing for a weekend, ringing me Friday evening an hour after she was to be collected by us and she had not shown up, to tell me she was staying out that night and would return in the morning. We spent the night furious at what we saw as her rebelliousness, but never imagining it was more than that. We learned, much later, that she had taken an acid trip and was still too disoriented to return home in the morning. It was Sunday evening before our family tracked her down and the police returned her.

The police informed us that as she had been smoking cannabis daily, she needed to go into a detoxification centre. Feeling they must know best and certainly knowing no better, we reluctantly agreed. Jessie agreed too, but it is true to say she would have agreed to anything, so keen to make amends for her wayward weekend. She was placed in a detox centre with middle aged, male alcoholics, advice which now even the police would say was inappropriate. She left with our support after only five days.

For the next three years her life had a semblance of normalcy. She attended school, was involved in theatre, music and worked in the local supermarket on Sundays. We felt she was probably still experimenting with drugs, but assumed (and wanted to assume) that it was cannabis and we had assured ourselves that this was a relatively harmless pursuit. However, by the time she was seventeen, she had returned to a detox centre at her instigation, assuring us that it was not for heroin, dropped out of school and temporarily, and against our wishes, left home. She was always very careful to shelter us from what she was doing, not wishing to alarm us and very careful to cover her traces. At one stage she moved briefly to Melbourne. Only later we discovered that she was terrified by recent heroin related deaths in our city and grasped at geography to solve her problem with drugs.

One evening in February 1996, when she was flat-sitting for an acquaintance, she failed to show up for an arranged dinner. She had cancelled the night before and with her recent atypical unreliability, we became concerned. I drove over to her flat, waited for her to return and confronted her. It was then that she told me the shattering news that she was addicted to heroin. We were much more fortunate than most, as she realised that her life was in complete disarray and wanted to stop using. We did not have to deal with a child who was not ready to face up to her addiction. But we had no idea of how to help her and the problem was overwhelming. Initially, we felt it was not appropriate to discuss what was happening in our lives with others, except with a few most trusted friends. Our child was doing something that was illegal and widely condemned and even while friends were kind and caring and if they were judgemental kept their judgements to themselves, they had no notion of the agony that parents of addicts live with. Had our daughter had any other illness which endangered her life, there would have been widespread understanding and support. It is not only the risk of overdose that is so distressing, but the disordered, dysfunctional lifestyle that is an addict’s lot.

We sought advice and emotional support from drug counsellors. It was this which helped us realise that it was our daughter’s choice to use drugs and that it was up to her to change her behaviour. We could not do it for her. Though we could rationalise the problem as hers, the sense of parental failure and guilt persisted. The counsellors advised us not to give her money and gently prepared us for her continued use. But at no time did anyone tell us what was advisable for her to do in order to recover, or what we could do to help her.

Over the next three years we watched, cared, supported, suffered as she did, made mistakes and bumbled along as best we could, as she struggled to become and remain clean. Initially, our reaction was for me to take her away to a friend’s isolated farm to look after her as she detoxed. We naively assumed that she would detox and then resume a normal lifestyle. We knew no more than the average person who has not been confronted with this problem. We certainly did not realise that addiction was a chronic, relapsing condition. Gradually we came to understand. She went to live interstate with her older brother, to try and break the ties with her using friends. She tried several rehabilitation centres, at one stage working and staying clean for nine months before relapsing once again. Finally, in January 1998, she completed a three month program at a women only rehabilitation centre in Sydney. She moved into supported housing run by the Salvation Army, living on her own in a bedsit, completed another course in relapse prevention and very slowly, not without significant setbacks, began to rebuild her life.

She has now been clean for almost three years. She still lives in Sydney, works as a waitress, has completed a course in acting, has many friends and a busy, happy life. On the surface her life appears like many other young women. But the reality is nothing the same. Each morning, she tells me, when she wakes, she resolves not to use ‘just for today’ and several times a week she spends an hour and a half at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. She is not ‘better’ or ‘over’ it. She is in recovery.

Several months after we discovered Jessie’s addiction I began to write about our experiences. I had searched constantly in book shops, eager to read about other families facing heroin addiction so that I could learn from their experience and validate the devastation and overwhelming despair I felt. I was sure that someone else would have written something. No one had. Then, just as I had assumed that it would be some-one else’s child who became the addict and it was mine, I became the some-one else who wrote about it. In March 1999, Random House published Saving Jessie, a mother’s story of her daughter’s battle with heroin, written by me.

Saving Jessie was not written in order for me to come to terms with what had happened, to understand it better, or to explain it. But I guess it has had that effect. The rest of the family found reading the manuscript and then the book extremely painful. Only recently my son lent his copy (something he never does) to a close friend to read, telling her only on condition that she not ask him anything or expect him to talk about it with her. Instead she wrote him a lovely letter. It is still, and probably always will be, too raw and painful for them.

My sense of guilt has now largely dissipated. But, of course, I am now seeing it from the perspective of a parent who has a child in recovery. We are always conscious that if our story is over we have been some of the very lucky ones. Only time, indefinite time, will tell. When I reflect on those years of constant dread when returning home to see the red light flashing on the answering machine, of always expecting a phone call from Jessie in distress, or even worse, no phone call at all, of our great need to talk to each other daily, for me to know that she was still all right and for her to reassure me and be reassured, and compare it with now, a couple of phone calls a week and ‘I’ll catch up properly tomorrow, mum. I’m on my way out now’, I know we have come a long way.

There are some lessons which may be learnt by reflecting on Jessie’s and our journey. What was it that has enabled Jessie to turn her life around? Why has she succeeded so far where others have failed?

In the months before Saving Jessie was published I began waking in the night with panic attacks and was quite unable to sleep. My doctor sent me to a psychologist who listened to my story about Jessie and her struggle to recover and gain control of her addiction and said something that was a revelation to me: “You must have raised a very strong daughter.”

Until that moment I had assumed I had raised a weak one, weak enough to succumb to drugs. So where did Jessie get her strength and resilience? I am sure there are many other users who simply do not live long enough to exercise that same resilience and strength. Whilst ever we have a government determined to see drug addiction as a law and order matter, rather than as a health issue, young lives will continue to be lost. I have never asked Jessie if she has overdosed. She told me once of being present when someone else did, which may well have been her way of testing my level of readiness for her answer. We desperately need easily accessible supervised injecting rooms. Our family takes no credit for Jessie’s continued recovery. She has done it herself. But several things helped and hindered her along the way.

We were and still are a close family. Our obvious distress at what was happening to her upset her and she tells me was a great consideration. Had we not known about her addiction she would have continued to use for much longer.

She tells me she always had the expectation that she would have a good life and achieve something. Her disordered, dysfunctional lifestyle as a user was not what she had envisaged. While by conventional standards she has achieved virtually nothing compared with young women her age, I think she has shown courage, persistence and determination in the face of sometimes overwhelming odds, and enormous resilience. Quite an achievement.

These are attributes that she was fortunate to have. But external factors helped her too and from
these we can learn and apply when helping others. Detour House allowed her to finish her rehabilitation program as an out-patient after she had been asked to leave for resuming a sexual relationship with her long term boyfriend, when he came to visit. While recognising that rehabilitation centres must have rules, their inflexible adherence to and application of penalties when rules are broken are not always in the interests of those they are trying to help. Insisting that clients leave for infringements of no real relevance to their commitment to recover has sometimes had disastrous effects.

Jessie lived in supported housing run by the Salvation Army for almost a year. This period was of inestimable value to her and once again she benefited from the flexible interpretation of the rules. She was only two months clean and therefore ineligible for assistance as their rules required three months. Their worker took a punt, impressed by her expressed commitment. She moved into a clean bedsit, supplied with everything a recovering addict, who has nothing, may need. Even a wettex [a trademarked household cleaning sponge].

During her time there she paid a proportion of what she earned as rent and had daily access, if necessary, to the support worker. This time, I believe, was crucial to her recovery. She had to learn what others take for ranted, how to shop on a tight budget, how to pay bills on time, how to live responsibly. She tells me now, how hard it was to do all this with all her energy directed towards staying clean, sometimes going to two NA meetings a day. To put money into rehabilitation programs and not to address the dire needs of those in early recovery when leaving a centre, is dooming many to failure.

The key factor for Jessie was, and still is, her involvement in NA. NA works for her. It does not work for everyone. She chose a wonderful sponsor, a magazine editor, mother of two, eight years clean. Once she arrived on Jessie’s doorstep within 10 minutes of her phone call, judging that a phone call was not sufficient. For months they had dinner together every second Sunday evening and still meet regularly for coffee, even though Jessie has now assumed the role of sponsor to someone else. This support base is still very important to Jessie and I know she would be reluctant to leave it for any reason, even though NA is to be found just about everywhere. She was not faced with leaving a rehab and establishing herself somewhere in a different town. Her support base was in place already.

Jessie was turned away from some rehabs because she was too young. Not because they were concerned they could not meet her needs because of her youth, but because her dole cheque was not sufficient to cover her costs. Surely false economy in the big picture. Government-funded rehabs for our young drug users are essential. I sometimes wonder what the outcome might have been had we been given different advice from the police when she was fifteen. I certainly don’t blame the police for her addiction, but I wonder if it might have been averted. If we had been put in touch with good drug counselling for her, rather than sending her to a detox centre with middle aged male alcoholics, perhaps we may have accessed support that was appropriate.

It is vital that police are well trained, restrained and wise in their treatment of young people and drugs. It may be a lost opportunity to intervene in a positive way.

And, as in much in life, circumstance and a bit of good luck played their part. She was fortunate that she did not have to wait for long periods to get into a detox centre or a rehab, once she had made the commitment, unlike so many I hear about who have to wait for three months to access help. Several times, detox centres took her the next day. Of the three rehabilitation centres she was at, all could take her within two or three weeks. This really was good fortune and unusual. It is agony for parents to watch their child wait, or give up in despair.

She found part time work nearby when she felt ready. She has around her a wonderful group of friends who are all in NA and support each other in a way that is heart-warming. On moving out of supported housing and into a house with friends, the estate agent saw her NA one year clean tag on her key ring, Sure it would mean forfeiting the house, she was touched when he handed it back to her quietly and said, “Eight years clean. AA.”. They got the house. Knockbacks and difficulties are hard to bear in early recovery. After some time she found an acting course she wanted to do which went a long way to restoring her confidence and self esteem and gave her a sense of purpose. The royalties from Saving Jessie funded it, which seemed appropriate.

All this has played a part in her efforts to rebuild her life. Others, in very different circumstances and against seemingly insurmountable odds, will also turn their lives around. As Jessie’s drug counsellor once said to me: “My job is to keep young addicts alive long enough to help them.” That’s the real challenge for our community.

Imogen Clark

Author Biography

Imogen Clark is a writer and primary school teacher living in Canberra. She is married, mother of three and grandmother of one. She is the author of ‘Saving Jessie’, a mother’s moving story of her daughter’s battle with heroin. (Random House, 1999). Since publication of ‘Saving Jessie’ she has spoken to parent groups and at public forums and conferences. She is a member of Families and
Friends for Drug Law Reform and represents the ACT on ADCA’s (Alcohol and other Drugs
Council of Australia) Treatment and Rehabilitation Reference Group. ‘Saving Jessie’ has been nominated for several awards and was short listed for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards in the ‘Works Advancing Public Debate’ section. Her other publications include a chapter in ‘The Heroin
Crisis’ (Bookman Press, 1999).

  • pdf file ppg. 80-84 [pages 74-78 as printed on pages themselves] from National Families and Community Conference on Drugs: “Voices to Be Heard,” Homebush Bay, Australia, 10-11 of November, 2000, available on line at

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Summary: Imogen Clark is an unintended example of the Liberal civil religion. She's cruel to her daughter, writes about it and gets nominated for awards. Her publishers do not spot and do not edit her subjective descriptions of herself. Of central importance, Imogen does not know who she is.

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