I posted a rant on my chasing away salt water page earlier today, much of which I’ve included in this piece. It involves the Cystic Fibrosis community – my community, if you will – and my burning question was this: when will people start taking responsibility for their lives? Why are there GoFundMe pages being created to ask for money so that CF’ers can reap the rewards for doing nothing? You are NOT a special fucking snowflake as the late, great Stella Young would say. You can listen to her fuck off amazing TEDx talk here. Her inspiration porn and snowflake theory applies to the entire illness and disability community. No one is exempt #sorrynotsorry.
I see CF’ers who are diabetic with failing kidneys poisoning their bodies by drinking Coke and eating crap for breakfast, lunch and dinner; pumping themselves full of insulin because they’re ‘addicted to sugar’. Trust me – there are worse things to be addicted to and this is where I share my ultimate shame story for the very first time.
MY NAME IS CARLY-JAY AND I AM AN ADDICT.
As some of you may know, I’ve been addicted to opiates over the years due to the pitfalls of CF, transplant and cancer – morphine, pethidine, oxycontin and more. I mentioned my on/off struggle with being addicted to drugs in my TEDx talk, but when I gave that talk, I had been keeping a far deeper secret I’ve not had the courage to write about until now because of the deep shame that feels like burning kindling in my marrow. Seriously – that’s how it feels.
In fact, the reason I had to use a lectern during my TEDx talk was because my brain hadn’t recovered from the damage done from the previous two years of drug (ab)use and as such, I felt like an abject failure. I could not learn my eighteen minute speech in the three weeks I had been allotted, and for me this was mortifying. But once I walked out on that stage, I was fine; nerves a distant memory. I owe everlasting gratitude to the very empathetic Lisa Watts from TEDx Brisbane after crying my way through a conversation as to why my brain wouldn’t suck my speech up like the sponge it had once been.
I am well aware that I have paid my donor and her family the ultimate disrespect by getting addicted to drugs. And not just any drugs – schedule 8 controlled drugs as they’re called in Australia. I thought that because I was on prescription drugs and I wasn’t drug seeking on the streets that I was safe; that I wasn’t a drug addict. Except I was.
In fact, I remember my first hit of Omnopon in 1994 after I’d had surgery for endometriosis. It just so happens that the first love of my life was the one who injected me (in a hospital setting, of course), and that’s when the first flush of addiction bloomed. I unknowingly had sent myself to sea in a sinking ship. Marcello said I’d feel a little giddy, but the accompanying rush of ecstasy that washed over me as I sunk into my bed, yet rising into the air at the same time in one beautiful, sweeping motion is something I’ve never forgotten. In 1996, I became addicted to IV pethidine after complications with surgery, needing more and more every day until my doctors brought down my dose enough for me to get home. Funnily enough, I didn’t miss it and got on with life.
It was following my transplant when the seeds of addiction really came alive. My bones were honeycombed from osteoporosis and as such would not heal. My sternum refused to knit back together, and every time I rolled over in bed my chest bones would concertina and I would hear and feel them pop. Up until I had my cancer surgery in 2007, I had never experienced such pain as when my epidural was removed on day five post-transplant. It was as though someone had poured fuel all over my chest and set it alight. When I was discharged, I’d drink my morphine straight out of the bottle like an alcoholic would with whiskey.
After six months, my transplant doctor Scott Bell and my surgeon, Robert Tam sat me down and told me I was addicted to morphine. The first thing I felt was relief, and my first thought was, ‘no shit, Sherlock’. After agreeing to their suggested two week inpatient detox, I went home, poured my morphine down the sink and went cold turkey. I pissed the bed (and the rest), vomited, sweated like a beast in Hades, and felt like I’d been thrown from my skin. When you’re coming down, you get to a point where you feel like you’re climbing out of your own skin and so you actually try. And then, when you’re back in the world of the living, you emerge like a calf being born. Replete with an inevitably messy start, you find your feet, feeling fragile and a little lost. But as the days go on, you get stronger and a little more fearless. On day four, I began to feel human, and for now at least, the ride was over. I had my life back.
My addiction was most out of control when I wasn’t living with my parents. When you have nobody to be accountable to, you can just shoot up and flake out. The second you see that flash of blood in the syringe, you know you’re about to enter heaven, yet you go nowhere. It is like taking the deepest of breaths. That flash of red, so ironically the same colour as the flower it comes from. You feel totally dissociated and disconnected from everything and everyone, but when you’re high you’re hyper-sensitive to other people’s emotions. You laugh and you cry with people and then suddenly, the high has gone and you’re not sure where to go or what to do apart from wanting another hit, although for a few years I went without pain killers altogether. Why? Because I can.
But then 2003 came reeling into me, and sometimes restless rivers run deep. By 2004 I was back in the throes of addiction and I did ridiculous things like inject pethidine and morphine directly into my port-a-cath. That shit was going straight to my heart. Colour me surprised, but I’m lucky that I didn’t stop breathing. Because I’d built up such a tolerance to these kinds of drugs over the years, I reason that that is the only way I’ve survived such reckless behaviour. I have punished myself enough now knowing that I risked my life every day.
2004 came and went and I stayed clean until I was diagnosed with my pre-cancer on my vulva. Yes, my vulva. In order to get the pre-cancer under control, I had to use a drug called Efudix – a topical chemotherapy ointment which is supposed to burn the cancer away. I was on a potent mix of narcotics, but for good reason. My gynaecological oncologist (broken cunt doctor) couldn’t quite believe the doses I could tolerate, but when you have strips of skin hanging off and peeling away from your vulva, you need ALL THE DRUGS.
When Efudix was off the menu as a treatment, I underwent a radical vulvectomy which very nearly killed me. For pain relief, I had an epidural and was on ketamine and morphine, yet the pain team still could not get my pain under control. As I speak about in my TEDx talk, my Dad arrived at the hospital one morning to find me drooling like a vegetable and essentially non-responsive. Not long after I began have tonic clonic (grand mal) seizures and was rushed to ICU. If it were not for my father calling my lung transplant consultant Peter Hopkins, I’d be dead.
Pete told the doctors to rip me off all of the pain medication, which they did. As a result, I went into acute narcotic withdrawal where my body would thrash around the bed – and despite being in a coma – my system was fighting that sudden absence of opiates. To cut a long story short, I survived, had to learn to walk, talk, feed myself and had to deal with a poo bag. I was drug free and wasn’t even taking paracetamol, despite having a few ‘oxies’ left over from before my surgery which I made quick work of in 2008 when I was in the relationship from hell. The ex in question also happened to have a penchant for drugs and ran me dry, which was fine. I didn’t want to be on anything and was happily clean.
In 2013, I’d been back on narcotics for maybe two years. I was going nowhere fast and like any addict, I was always needing more. I would take drugs when I was happy, I would take them when I was sad and I would take them when I was indifferent. I doctor shopped, lied, and had no one else to blame except myself.
There were times when I was using where I had taken far too much because I hadn’t hit that high fast enough. My breathing would become laboured and just to get some perspective, after my cancer surgery I recall having such massive quantities of ketamine, morphine and other drugs that I would often get down to four to six breaths a minute. I remember waking up with a group of doctors and nurses surrounding my bed saying that I’d had ‘a little trouble with my breathing’. They had in fact pulled me back from the brink with a drug called Narcan which is what you see paramedics using on television with people who have needles stuck in their arms (or in Pulp Fiction. That big breath that Uma takes once she’s stabbed through the chest? Bullshit. Sorry to ruin the illusion).
In 2013, I was shaking the hand of death far too often, yet I still persevered with taking as many drugs as I could. I was in Barcaldine when I realised I was in trouble. I was in the middle of nowhere and only had a minute supply of drugs left for the duration of my stay, so I did what any self-serving addict would do and began rationing them out in the hope that my restless legs, vomiting and night sweats would settle down long enough for me to get back to Brisbane to replenish my supply . One of my closest friends and her husband spent some time at my friend’s cattle station with me and while I knew that Nic knew, I said nothing because I wasn’t ready to get clean and as is typical, I refused to ask for help. Nic said later she knew I was in the throes of addiction, but there was nothing she could do until I was ready. I had to be ready, but I needed help like it was yesterday.
A few weeks after I returned to Brisbane, I was having a very casual conversation with my Mum and for some reason I broke down. She asked what was wrong and while she was in the spices section of Coles, I told her that I was addicted again. She lovingly said that she would get me help and that we would get through it. Why we? Because my family and I are a formidable team – my Mum, my Dad, and my sister always offer me a soft place to land.
This confessional does not make me brave. I am not inspiring. I am not that snowflake that so many people wish to be or use as as excuse to be an asshole. I am human and humans are not infallible. I had to earn back the trust and respect of my family which is what hurt the most. My Dad could not believe that I had gambled so thoughtlessly with my life. He said he was disappointed – possibly the most most biting thing anyone has ever said to me. He wasn’t upset, he was disappointed. I cried, said I was sorry, but that wasn’t enough. I am still so, so sorry and am in tears as I write this. You should never have to earn back the trust of your family, but that was something I was so resolute about doing. My sister was incredibly supportive as were the literal handful of friends I told. They let me get on with my recovery, but were there to back me and I can’t thank them enough.
I’ve been clean for two years and while I’ve always maintained I’ve been compliant with my treatment (taking medication, regular check ups, eating well, exercise) I did the unthinkable – I gambled with my life that I’ve nearly lost so many times through no fault of my own, yet here I was throwing it away with every pill I swallowed and every (clean, single use) needle I was shoving into my skin. I only ever took drugs when I was alone.
In regards to the illness and disability community, I see people who are non-compliant with treatment and medication after transplant and other life preserving procedures. Over the years, I’ve seen transplant recipients start smoking again after their lives have been saved and hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent to keep them alive. Just like my drug addiction, how disrespectful is that to your donor, their family and your medical team? The thing is, I got help because I asked for it. I went to an addiction specialist who put me on opiate antagonist treatment and I’m happy to say that I’m going to be off it for good before Christmas. I saw a great therapist, but after about three sessions my psychologist said I was too well adjusted to keep seeing him. We both believed that I was in a safe space and would not use again. And I haven’t. The only narcotics I’ve had have been when I’ve needed a central line placed in my jugular for IV antibiotics (they
can sting and bruise a little like a motherfucker).
So what brought on this confession? This morning as I wrote about Cystic Fibrosis and suffering in general not being a competition, and about the ‘hierarchy of illness’ that has been created over the years, I sensed that I needed to own my shit because I was telling other people to do just that. You have a choice. It’s called being pro-active instead of being a victim. Whether you’ve had a hard life or not, there are many who have had it far tougher than you, but again – it’s not a competition of who is sicker than who, who is suffering more, or who is the most hard done by. If you can get out of your own head and ego, you’ll see that we are surrounded by suffering and we (you) have it relatively easy when it comes to illness. We live in a first world country, have world class medical services and welfare. For fuck’s sake, our transplants are FREE. In the United States, you have to basically crowd fund and hope for the best if your health takes a turn for the worse.
Having an illness or a disability doesn’t entitle you to have a Facebook or GoFundMe page where you’re essentially begging for money, ‘stuff’ and ‘experiences’ like hot laps and swimming with dolphins being given to you for just existing (and shame on you for going to Seaworld. Animals in captivity is cruel. Go and watch Blackfish).
So you – yeah you. Do you actually believe that the world owes you? Because it doesn’t. Life owes you nothing. But you owe life EVERYTHING, so stop being a self-entitled twat. Get a job, get your shit together, get an education or better your skills, get help if you need it like I did (all you have to do is ask), stop the victim blaming, lose the ego and get real. Be accountable and set a good example.
Drugs are a scourge and I know that I will never use again. But how can I be certain? The proof is in the pudding. I’ve achieved so much since being clean. I’ve found my purpose and I am bloody good at what I do. I’ve worked for the first time in years, spoken at TEDx and other events, my writing has been published widely, I’ve been churning out my memoir, poetry and I’m close to having a first draft of a novel I am thrilled with. I’ve made new and lasting friendships with my involvement in palliative care, my death midwifery and the death cafes I host, I started a Masters degree in Spiritual Care and have done my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education so I could become a secular hospital chaplain. Maybe we’re all wounded healers to some degree.
So many opportunities have presented themselves and I’ve been in the right head space to take full advantage of that. Most importantly, I’ve had no cravings for drugs over the last two years because life is enough. I am enough. To be able to write and say that to people is something I’m proud of. Again, it is not so much that I am brave or inspiring. I’m just a human who wants to be a good person – to love and be there for my family and friends, to write like a motherfucker, to care for the sick and dying and to love and be loved. Life really can be that beautifully simple.