Heroin, overdoses, needle exchanges, safe injecting centres, methadone clinics… I knew they existed but they were never going to be a part of my life. Happily married with a very normal life in suburban Sydney, we were raising our child in a loving, nurturing and stable environment; no family conflict, no great financial pressures. Heroin addiction happened somewhere else but not in my family – I thought.
Reading the reports these last week of at least 13 heroin overdose deaths in Sydney alone in just one month, I am compelled to tell my family’s story.
My name is Judy Smith and I live in Katoomba NSW. My son and only child Daniel died four years ago from an accidental heroin overdose. He died alone in my car early one Sunday morning across the road from the house of a well-known dealer in a quiet street in beautiful Blackheath. He was 28. That day the sunshine died and our lives changed forever.
I realised Daniel was using hard drugs when he was about 20 though in hindsight I think it probably started when he was about 18, towards the end of his final year at school. It had become evident that he suffered from anxiety and low self-esteem, constantly worried about the world and his place in it. His behaviour was shifting and he had become quite anti-social, choosing to spend much of the time in his room when he was at home. He flatly refused to discuss his mood swings, even though we gave him many non-confrontational opportunities. He sometimes stayed out all night, coming home at dawn. Any attempt to discuss this with him usually ended in explosive arguments which achieved nothing. I remember being very relieved hearing his key in the back door knowing he was safely home. In those days I knew nothing much about hard drugs and so we preferred to think that our son was being a difficult teenager and that it would pass.
The first indication of drug use came late one night at the end of 2004 after the discovery of some unmistakable evidence of drug use in his room. It was not my usual practice to check my son’s personal possessions but on that night I recall having a very strong intuitive need to check a backpack thrown carelessly on his bed to assure myself nothing was wrong. Finding evidence in a brown paper bag was an overwhelming moment of shock and panic. Next morning we confronted him and he was very angry I had gone through his things but then brushed it off, saying he had had a very casual encounter with speed, he would dispose of the items and it wouldn’t happen again. He was convincing and we believed him.
Other incidents then started to happen over the next six months which left me feeling very uneasy, but each time I questioned him he had a plausible and quick excuse. Then one night he arrived home quite late and went straight to his room. I could hear unusual shuffling and banging noises behind the closed door and after looking into his room from an outside window, noticed his demeanour was very strange. When I entered his room and confronted him, I was left in no doubt at that moment that he had been injecting a strong drug. He said he was very sorry and he would never do it again. Once again, I believed him and gave him a chance. A few months later I found an ambulance receipt and when I asked him about it, I found myself listening to my son’s story of heroin overdose. From that time on, even though he kept assuring me that he was only a casual user, it just got worse.