‘What I Want to Tell You About Heroin’ is a new series from VICE friend and contributor Hannah Brooks. Hannah is a Melbourne-based writer and musician, who has spent the past several years battling a heroin addiction. These articles were written while she was a guest of Hope Rehab in Thailand.
Steph does not want a massage.
“I don’t like random people touching me,” she says. “I had enough of that escorting.”
Steph is 20, the baby of the Hope Rehab community. She’s from Vancouver and is addicted to meth. She plays piano and is learning guitar. She is mellifluous, and she loves animals.
“I really like owls,” she says.
One night, she finds a frog and cradles it in her palms for hours. She names it Egg.
Steph has dark hair and is beautiful, with rosy lips that smile easily. The skin on her arms, shoulders, calves and thighs is covered in raised, white scars, that are one, two, three inches long.
Her scars are from cutting, which she started doing when she was 13.
“You make a cut and it’s an adrenaline rush. You don’t feel the internal pain, you only feel that. It’s very addictive”. She sighs, giggles, and draws back on her vape.
“I had to stop when I became an escort because no client wants a girl that has fresh cuts all over her.”
Steph is one of the eight women currently at Hope. There are 23 men. This does not necessarily mean that women use drugs less than men. Rather, that women are less likely to receive treatment for their addiction.
I look at the statistics, I read the research. Simon, Hope’s founder, sends me an article titled: The Barriers Facing Women Seeking Addiction Treatment. It correlates with what I have observed and learned about women and addiction from my 19 admissions to detoxes, clinics, and rehabs over the past three years.
It begins: “Substance abuse historically has been considered mainly a male problem”. Research and treatment remain “geared towards men”.
Addiction is at odds with what is expected of us. It is not womanly.
“In order to avoid harsh judgement by loved ones and society at large, women may be very much inclined to downplay their use.”
We are “taking the edge off”. We are “coping with stress”.
“The number of female drug abusers is increasing, as is the number of pregnant users and mothers,” says the report. “Leaving the children in order to attend to her addiction may not be an option at all.”
Often, the women who do make it to rehab have already lost their kids: “Losing custody is the biggest motivation for treatment”.
It continues: “…women’s addiction may become only known when they no longer can fulfil the role society prescribes to them: that of caregivers…”.
Only two out of the eight women at Hope have kids. Charlotte’s in her 60s, her children are adults. Ellie’s boy is 11 and staying with her ex while she’s away. She cries a lot – sometimes her son is out, too busy playing with friends to talk on the phone to his mother who is in rehab; other times she ends up arguing bitterly with her ex who does not like her drinking.
We are a group of women in our 20s to 60s, with a crippling disease that is determined to kill us, but we are in treatment and that makes us lucky. We meet every Wednesday at four PM for Women’s Group, where we laugh about the darkness we’ve lived in; our tours of toilet cubicles; about the Vitamin E, Rosehip and Bio Oil we’ve tried on our track marks, and how none of them ever work.
Over the weeks, I ask questions and I am sad but not shocked that we all have been physically or sexually abused in some way.
I don’t remember his face but I remember his voice like it was yesterday, she tells me.
I knew something bad happened, but I didn’t know how bad, says another.
Akiko feels bad.
She was at Hope a year ago, for twelve weeks, and now she’s back. She stayed clean for nine months but relapsed in Chiang Mai and has been living there and shooting dope since. She is 22; small, blonde and pretty, with a silver nose ring. She has a large, red lump on her left wrist from where she shot up Subutex, a sublingual opioid replacement that is risky to administer intravenously, although everyone does it. The lump has been there over a week and she is worried about it.
Akiko and I are similar. We crave something outside ourselves. We are addicted to drugs and sugar and men. We try to not buy chocolate bars on our nightly trips to Thai Oil, sending the guys inside to get our cigarettes because we don’t trust ourselves at the counter. Often though, we crumble and then we binge. I wake up covered in wrappers with a headache and vow to never eat sugar again.
“When I get clean, I have a void,” Akiko explains. “I feel empty, lost, and confused. I’m still sick and I attract sick men. They have something I want, I have something they want, and we use each other. Every time it takes me back to drugs. I keep thinking that a man will save me. The last guy couldn’t but this new guy will.”
In her first rehab, she slept with two men. She left with the last one and they relapsed, on heroin, together.
Steph smiles, dips her candy pacifier into a bag of sherbet, sucks it and beams. Steph has two boyfriends and although they have a “gentleman’s agreement” she’s having problems with both. Boyfriend Number One, who’s 43, keeps her on “a short leash”. He’s paid for her to be at Hope for two months but got angry and wanted her to leave when she said she couldn’t talk to him for a week to focus on her treatment.
She loves him, but she loves her other boyfriend too. Number One encouraged Steph to get a second boyfriend because he didn’t want her to be lonely on Christmas or her birthday or when he was home four days a week with his wife, until he realised that perhaps Steph liked Number Two too much.
Number Two is 26, much closer to her own age, but Steph cannot be with him exclusively because he’s not rich like Number One. How would she support herself? If she leaves Number One, she’ll have no financial support, which means going back to escorting, which means using meth.
“I couldn’t see clients without being on something,” she says.
Rose is a successful 43-year-old British creative director who is addicted to cocaine, benzos and “puff”. I’m sunbaking by the pool and she’s wearing a strapless bikini, dancing with her hands in the air, as though she’s in Ibiza, which is where she’s flying to straight after rehab.
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Rose has three children and she snorted cocaine while pregnant with all of them. She had a significant coke problem when she found out she was four months pregnant with her first child. Her husband continued to take coke in front of her, as did her friends and so she kept using it too. No one questioned it or openly judged her.
She spent months worrying that something might be wrong with her baby. She’d had an abortion when she was 18, which resulted in Placenta Praevia, a potentially catastrophic condition where the placenta becomes implanted abnormally low in the uterine cavity.
“There was no way I was going to give the child up,” says Rose. “I wanted it.”
Her first baby was healthy, which gave her confidence to use more cocaine, which she did, before becoming pregnant again.
“When I had my second child, I found a gram in my bag while I was in the maternity unit of the hospital,” she says. “Within an hour of him being born I was like ‘Fuck this, I want a line’.”
“So, I snorted one while I was breastfeeding. He must have been five hours old and had coke in his system, through the milk. No wonder he’s a crazy kid now.”
“It’s sick,” she says. “It’s fucking sick, man.”
“Using is my way of dealing with the guilt.”
I put myself down for an afternoon outing to a place called Hell Garden. I don’t know what it is, but I sign up because I like the name. It turns out to be part monastery, part amusement park, filled with statues, built by monks, that depict Buddhist visions of hell.
There is a figure that is half man, half crustacean. Its sign says: “Ones who get involved with the habit performing drugs and the intoxicants are punished in the Hell. They are named as the crustaceans”. None of us addicts visiting Hell Garden can identify the link between crustaceans and drug abuse.
Others are more specific. “The penalty for killing baby in Ovum” is depicted by two men on either side of a topless woman. The men are driving a large corkscrew through the centre of her belly. Another scene shows a man driving a large, black stake into a reclining woman’s vagina as blood drips down her cheek, matting her dark hair: “The penalty for injection, aborticide, birth control”.
Hell Garden gets us talking. I walk away when a white, 23-year-old man who is an addict, begins telling me only women under the age of 18 should be allowed to have abortions.
Make way for me in Hades.