With the ‘Just Ice?’ Symposium less than a week away, we note the personal reflections of a family member who courageously shares their own experiences and those of their family when someone close became addicted.

Early signs

I noticed signs that something wasn’t right long before we found out about the drug use. I never noticed the highs, just the lows. As a result, I misinterpreted what I observed as depression. Our family member was working away a lot and we would only see him every few weeks. When he was home, he displayed typical signs of mental health issues. He lacked motivation, struggled to cope with everyday activities, was irritable and participated less and less in family life. We had many conversations about depression and that there’s help out there but he wasn’t open to the idea of seeking support. The highs were never obvious, I think partly because he was mostly high while working away from the family and the longer the use of ice continued the less ‘high’ he got. In the end, high just meant functioning, being able to get out of bed. In hindsight, all the signs of withdrawal symptoms after ice use were there and got gradually worse but we completely misinterpreted them.

I was convinced our family member was clinically depressed. There were many days when he wouldn’t get out of bed and at times we were concerned that he might be suicidal. Eventually, these come downs were accompanied by drug-induced psychotic episodes. It was incredibly difficult supporting someone who wasn’t open to the idea of getting help but had gotten to a point where family alone couldn’t support it anymore. In hindsight, it all made perfect sense. The type of support we recommended didn’t match the problem and the family member by then had spiralled so far into a web of lies and deceit that it was probably too hard to be forthcoming about a drug use he no longer had under control.

Impact on family members

Initially it was the strain of trying to support someone who became more and more withdrawn from family life. Once we discovered the real reason for what we thought were mental health issues, things escalated fairly quickly. Our family member went from being a functioning addict who smoked ice and held down a job to an unemployed, homeless, IV ice user within six months. One of the hardest parts was to come to terms with having to watch someone you love throw away their life and there’s nothing you can do unless the other person wants to do it themselves. The other was coming to terms with the fact that ice has the capacity to turn a kind and caring person into a highly volatile, aggressive and ugly persona that has no resemblance with the family member you knew.

I have learned a lot about addiction during this process and I now understand that addiction knows no boundaries and that manipulation and betrayal eventually just becomes part of the addict’s performance but there’s something about ice that is particularly hideous. We have experienced months of chaos, crisis and safety concerns that have had an impact on everyone involved. It impacts on children who have no concept or understanding of why a parent turns into an unpredictable stranger. It impacts on partners who have to set boundaries to protect themselves and their children while at the same time trying not to give up on the other person. It impacts on parents and siblings who constantly find themselves between wanting to support without wanting to enable and wanting to set boundaries without being at the receiving end of their child or sibling’s hatred.

Support available

One thing I noticed throughout this process is the lack of support for family and friends of people struggling with ice addiction (and I suspect most types of addiction more generally). I am a well-educated, resourceful person. I work in an area through which I know different support and service systems. I understand how different systems work, how to seek help, where to get a referral and so forth. And I struggled. I often wondered how the average family ever navigates their way through finding support for addiction – for themselves as much as for an affected family member. I started with the obvious points of information, like the family GP and ATODS. Both referred to one particular public rehab provider and a national family support hotline. I can’t recall how many times I’ve tried to ring the family support hotline – during sleepless nights, on weekend or weekdays. I’ve never been able to get through; suggesting that the demand for family support by far exceeds availability of support. I then started ringing anyone from public and private hospitals, to drug and alcohol services and mental health services. Many referred to the same public rehab service, some eventually came up with other alternatives. However, nobody had much to offer in terms of family support and the general message was clear: ‘you can’t help the addict, the addict needs to help themselves’.

Decisions of the ice user

Our family member has sought assistance. This has probably been the steepest learning curve from a family perspective. Judging by the few facilities that offer long-term, residential rehab from ice use available along with their often lengthy wait lists, there seems to be a clear shortage of suitable treatment facilities. We’ve had a variety of treatment experiences. The first one did not last because the family member left in order to use again. We’ve had other treatment experiences that did not go ahead because the family member got himself onto the waitlist at a time he was open to change but weeks later when a spot became available, that mind frame was gone.

We’ve had treatment experiences with a service provider with a strict ‘no second chances’ policy where rescheduling a missed appointment wasn’t an option after the original intake appointment had not been attended. We’ve had treatment experiences where the service provider eventually had a detox bed but no rehab bed to transition straight into after detox. After being sent ‘home’ (a home he no longer had) our family member lasted three days before relapsing. At the moment he’s in long-term residential rehab again with a service provider we only found by chance. Neither the GP, the hospitals, the mental health services nor other drug and alcohol services I had contacted and asked about other options of support in the Southeast Qld area mentioned this service provider. It was only by chance in a work context that someone mentioned this particular facility and we looked it up and they had a bed available a couple of weeks later. It is early days and based on everything I have seen in our family and read in terms of clinical research and recovery accounts I realise that ice is a hideous and highly addictive drug and only few chronic addicts ever recover permanently.

Advice for other families

It’s been the steepest learning curve so far. I knew next to nothing about addiction prior to this experience. It’s been challenging supporting a loved one without enabling their behaviour. In my experience this is where support and information is crucial for family members. Family members are informal sources of support, not professionals. A few things that I have found surprising as much as concerning include the apparent lack of interest among service providers in working with families and the often nonchalant attitude of some service providers. During my early weeks of help-seeking I remember speaking to service providers who would say it wasn’t as bad as everyone said, that ice addicts recover, that it may take their brain 12 months to readjust but that overall most people will get off it again. Nobody mentioned that things were likely going to get quite ugly before they’d get anywhere near a pathway of recovery.

The other thing that struck me a few times is that drug and alcohol services would assure the addict that it’s absolutely safe to detox at home because withdrawal from ice has no physical side effects that require medication. Even in information or intake appointments with family members present. While this may be true, withdrawal from chronic ice use has various other side effects, including aggression, suicidal ideation and drug induced psychosis. Most families are not equipped or trained to monitor and support this process. These service providers seem to believe that no health risk to the addict equals no safety concerns for family offering a place to stay during the come down phase. In our experience I have to say it has always been the come down that brought out the ugly side. The highs may impact on the users’ judgement and may make them careless in certain ways but it seems to be the come down that makes the user angry and volatile. I’d therefore like to see a more differentiated response to ice addicts and their families. My concern is that when service providers tell the addict it is perfectly safe to detox at home, all the addict hears is that parents, partners or other family members are overreacting when telling him or her they can no longer offer a place to stay. Because in many cases this seems to be the only ‘home’ chronic ice users have left.

Unfortunately, I have little advice for family and friends. Dealing with the drug addiction of a loved one and having to watch what ice addiction does to a person has been one of the hardest experiences because family members are constantly torn between wanting to help, not wanting to be an enabler and having to protect themselves (and often dependent children) when things continue to escalate. I think more support is needed for families affected by someone’s ice addiction and with that comes the need for more funding into this area of support. One thing I would say to families is that it’s important to know that it’s ok to set boundaries but also ok to fail in that aim. I don’t think any family is comfortable watching a loved one heading towards hitting rock bottom.

The other thing I would like to raise is that there is no such things as the ‘typical ice user’ and that ice use affects not only the young and disenfranchised or the older ones with a life of trauma and dysfunction. In our example, our family member was a well-educated, employed father of two who owned his home and had a prosocial support network. When we started seeking help there was very little out there because most residential treatment is tailored towards high risk populations who are homeless and unemployed and most outpatient treatment does not address the needs of chronic users. It almost seems as if (ice) addiction isn’t taken seriously unless people hit rock bottom, which I personally found challenging but it may be the philosophy or evidence of drug and alcohol services that the addict isn’t ready to change until he or she has hit rock bottom. I wonder if addicts and their families really have to lose it all before they can be helped on their way towards recovery.

I probably have one last comment for potential users – DON’T. If the fact that ice is produced with ingredients we would usually not touch, let alone inhale or inject, isn’t a good enough reason to steer clear of this drug, the devastating impact it has on people’s lives needs to be. And that impact doesn’t just affect the users themselves. It affects everyone around them. Children lose their parent – either because they become emotionally unavailable or they pose too much of a risk. Parents lose their children – because once they start setting boundaries they also risk severing their relationship with the addicted child; at least temporarily. Friends and partners lose people close to them – because eventually the come downs become too exhausting and unpredictable to deal with. No matter how many drugs people have tried and no matter how many of them they had under control as a recreational user, ice seems to be different. The Australian government campaign saying ‘Ice destroys lives’ used to sound like a catchy phrase to me. Until we became one of many families where ice not only destroyed the life of the addict but also that of many around them.