Hope Street Cards Book Club - June

This month for Book Club I read the recently released memoir/research compendium ‘The Ice Age’ by Australian journalist Luke Williams.

This book is about the illicit drug crystal methamphetamine (also known as ‘ice’). As a warning, I know a fair bit about this drug. It’s a significant component of my 9-5 job. To the extent that when I was preparing to give a speech at a friend’s wedding recently, my helpful housemate suggested I just give one of my crystal meth talks. Because “they are very good”.

Right off the cuff, I found the premise for this report/book/memoir somewhat confronting. Luke decides to investigate the allure and popularity of crystal methamphetamine by moving in with some crystal meth users. Over the next three months, he becomes embedded in this subculture, begins using crystal methamphetamine intravenously and experiences psychotic episodes as a result.

“I cooked my brain so badly on meth that, after a few months, I genuinely lost track of the fact I was writing a story. I stopped taking notes, and became fixated on a series of non-existent events with myself at the centre. So, yes – as you may have gathered – I got a story, a very good story. Only it wasn’t the one I was expecting; I didn’t bank on becoming a psychotic meth addict myself.”

It’s not the classic ‘gonzo’ journalism style that disturbed me. It’s that the author already had a significant history of drug abuse, mental illness and had been through – naturally – challenging experiences with residential rehabilitation and recovery before.

And I think it’s important have to keep this in mind when reading his story.

Prior to embarking on this journalistic adventure into illicit drug use, Luke had already experienced significant episodes of anxiety and depression. He had periods of using ecstasy, speed and methamphetamine. At the age of about 20 he had already experienced an episode of psychosis that had prompted him to cease using substances and undertake treatment in a residential rehabilitation centre.

My point is that when these experiences are part of our story, the likelihood of these things happening again are increased. It’s shit, but these are the facts. So, whilst I am not under-estimating the power of this substance to cause significant harm and damage to individuals, families and communities we need to be careful that we don’t buy into too great a level of fear here. This is not the story of a non-using male who had never experienced mental health symptoms taking a drug for the first time and experiencing a psychotic episode as a result. It is the story of a man who had a history of alcohol and drug related issues and mental health issues, including psychosis which unfortunately puts him at risk of experiencing further substance abuse, mental health issues and psychosis.

I don’t want to be too cynical here either, but Williams reports “my descent into the meth trap was caused by dire ignorance about the drug”.

I can’t really buy into that. This is a really, really intelligent man. A man who prior to taking meth has worked as a journalist and a lawyer. Had been involved in therapy for mental health issues and substance-related disorders. And he wasn’t aware of the possible risk associated with injecting a really pure synthetic substance? It’s not just a risky idea, for a newspaper article. It’s a really f&%king dangerous idea.

Bearing that in mind, this book has many strengths; the author makes careful (and accurate) distinctions between powdered amphetamine sulphate (which we saw mostly in the 1990s and was commonly referred to as ‘speed’), powdered methamphetamine (what we see a lot of today and is still referred to as ‘speed’ or just ‘meth’) and crystal methamphetamine (commonly referred to as ‘ice’) and describes the very probable factors that saw the latter form of this drug having visible impacts on the community in recent years.

Another narrative thread is the author’s analysis of the factors in his youth that may have predisposed him to substance use in later years. Chief among them is the degree of isolation he felt as he discovered his sexuality:

“This was the dawn of a new era in my life – I would know now what it was like to be the lowest-ranking male. To use the metaphor of a diseases tree, the problem was that I was blossoming into an adult that some considered to be threatening to the population; an adult that needed to be cut down, turned into sawdust and buried in a hole to ensure it didn’t spread weakness, perversion, and infection. I am, in fact, talking here about the life of a gay teenager in post-AIDS 1990s country Australia.”

The personal narrative is insightful, but what is really fascinating is the exploration or the social, political, scientific and economic factors that have led to the increased harms caused by the crystallised form of methamphetamine . And it’s so well researched. There was research I hadn’t heard of before. And I love reading crystal meth research.

So, here’s my official take on Luke Williams’ The Ice Age

The Good Things:

  • The complexities around the historical, social, political, scientific and economic factors that surround illicit substance use in Australia are explored in this book in such great detail and with great research. For anyone who has ever thought that taking or not taking a substance was as simple as making a “choice”, this book is worthy of a read. Whilst I found the border detection and clandestine laboratory bits a bit dull, the stats, figures and policies were great. And as an FYI here are some good ones:
    • In 2013, 2.1% of the Australian population had used some form of methamphetamine (powder, base or crystal)
    • In 2013, 1% of the Australian population had used crystal methamphetamine (‘ice’)
    • 65% of people using crystal methamphetamine in 2013 were irregular users (<1 per month) and 25% were regular/dependent users (1+ per week)
    • In 2011-12, federal and state governments spent a total of $1.7 billion in direct response to illicit drug use including:
      • 66% ($1.12 billion) on law enforcement
      • 21% ($361 million) on treatment
      • 9% ($157 million) on prevention
      • 2% ($36 million) on harm reduction
  • He is a very good writer. And as someone who hasn’t tried crystal meth, this description of the effects of the drugs is one of the best that I’ve come across:

After a dose it is like you have just won an award, been offered sex with a very attractive person, and you are taking off in an aeroplane, all at the same time. Following the initial rush, I would become enraptured by a sense of the mystical: crystal meth can make you feel like your life is one big magical, lucid dream where anything is possible, everyone revolves around you and consequences are not binding.

And just as well put is the ‘crash’:

Then there is the flip side, when the magic potion wears off and the dreams become nightmares. Crystal meth is a bit like the “old religion” spells ion the TV show Merlin – you end up feeling as if nature is punishing you for messing with equilibrium.

  • I also like that he doesn’t call it ‘ice’ throughout the book. Unfortunately due to the epidemic of negative media headlines surrounding this drug over the past few years, the word elicits incredible fear, so I was happy it wasn’t peppered throughout the pages. It was though a pretty big part of the title. But books need to sell I guess.

The less good things:

  • I really liked the exploration of all the factors surrounding this issue that were so intricately researched in this book. At times though I found the seesawing between the distant-historical and the present-personal narrative was a bit hard to follow and disrupted the flow of the book somewhat.
  • Despite the amount of detail and research that goes into this book, I was disappointed at it's heart it was based in fear. And I think to some degree that is a result of the author’s traumatic experiences. Throughout the book he interviews a range of crystal meth users, however I didn’t feel like the full spectrum of people who might be using meth were incorporated. Whilst Williams acknowledges that 70% of meth users are employed and 65% use less than once a month or more irregularly, this population doesn’t get much of a narrative in this voice. Instead we are told five horrific events where crystal meth was involved in murders. I believe such horrors need to be acknowledged, but also need to be reflected in the greater reality. I read this book with a very objective/cynical brain and I got a bit scared. I’d hate to think of the fear it could generate in the parent of an adolescent.
  • Probably the strongest voice that was missing was from those in recovery. People who have stopped using meth and have been doing so for quite some time. I always think these people are important and powerful in these stories. They bring us the hope.
  • When are we going to stop using the label “addict” to describe other people? Will it be in my lifetime? I won’t bang on about this stigmatising language here because you all know how I feel about it.

As always, we welcome your thoughts, feelings, feedback and love.

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