Using heroin is like falling in love. It’s like that. Soft. It’s like something that wraps around you. Comforts you. Makes you feel calm, peaceful. Like everything about the world is right, you’re right. Everything is peaceful.
‘Such a relief! This is what I’ve been searching for!’ But I didn’t know what I was searching for.
‘I finally feel OK. I don’t need anything else. This is all I need. Nothing can touch me. Everything is OK. I’m bulletproof. I’m removed, I’m of the world but I’m removed.’
1979. North Island, New Zealand. ‘Ellen’ is a teenager, living on a farm just outside a small meatworks town. A hectic little town. And her life is complete.
Dad, the dairy farmer. Mum, busy around the house. And six girls. Ellen is somewhere in the middle.
They have a stable with horses. They hunt. They jump fences and chase rabbits.
Dad gets a speedboat. And then there’s the moment that changed Ellen’s life…
One morning, she and her dad are out in the boat on a small lake. Green peaks stand proudly but dauntingly in the distance. The sky is blue. It’s cold, but still and clear. Ellen is in a wetsuit. On water skis. About to jump.
The boat starts. Explodes with noise. The smell of petrol hangs in the air. She takes off. She’s skiing.
Now she’s heading towards the ramp. ‘You’ve got to cut hard!’ she tells herself.
Her skis are running parallel to the boat. She has to calculate when to turn by cutting across the wake.
‘You’ve got to cut!’
She’s waiting and waiting for that moment. She cuts right out. She’s just going to hit the bottom of the ramp at the corner. Right at the corner. She leans over and she’s on her way. She doesn’t know what speed she’s doing but she’s going fast.
She hits the bottom of the ramp and keeps going. At the top of the ramp she jumps. Her body is a spring. She’s flying through the air.
I loved it! I felt amazing. Incredible.
It was more than flying. It was knowing. Knowing that I nailed it.
She’s doing the teenage thing. She loves the adrenaline rush of skiing. Feeling free but controlled. All of that. Rebelling.
Still a teenager, she enters the New Zealand women’s competition.
She’s up against all the really good, established skiers.
And then she wins a major comp.
A big bloke comes over to measure her rope; it’s standard practice. Somehow she knows what they’re going to say.
And sure enough: ‘You have to do it again - the rope has stretched. Sorry, darling.
Her heart sinks. She heads out to do it again, the sky somehow heavier than it was a minute ago.
‘No way am I going to win two times in a row. As if! Fuckwits, all of them!’
She doesn’t win. She’s devastated.
My life just started to change, I guess. My belief in myself. Somewhere along the line I really had the sense that I just wasn’t good enough. That I had no worth. I don’t know where it came from. I couldn’t put it into words then. It’s just something strong that I still remember. That really did affect me.
It was also like, by that stage, the seventies, and I was getting older, starting to feel different about the patriarchal sort of family scene and the Church. Society was changing. It was a time when inequality and racism and those sorts of things were being challenged.
The waterskiing walks out the door. And it’s replaced. The thrill is replaced. The blue sky, the hills, the clear lake, the speed and the heights - replaced with other thrills. She starts sneaking out.
One of her sisters falls pregnant: a teenage pregnancy. A quick marriage follows.
Then a second sister falls pregnant too. Two pregnant teenagers in a religious family. This is scandal. This is sin.
The tears first come on the second sister’s wedding day. Something inside Ellen tells her that everything in her family is about to change. Something is breaking. She starts to understand what ‘broken’ feels like.
Her first instinct is to apply herself to her studies at school. She’s not going to become like her sisters. She’s not going to be like that. From her jumping days, she knows what succeeding feels like. That’s what she’s going to do. Succeed.
And she does. She succeeds in her final year of school.
Then she leaves her small town.
She comes in to tell her parents. Their hearts are already darker. The family smaller. Changing. Shrinking.
She comes in to tell them, ‘I’m leaving.’ And they’ve been expecting that.
By high school I was starting to experiment. So when I left home all bets were off. I could use a lot of weed and a lot of alcohol.
The way I drank and smoked weed was… I just wasn’t feeling a lot then. A lot of parties. By that time, though, it was the late seventies, when there were a lot of drugs coming into use as well.
Which included heroin.
When Ellen turns nineteen she gets an opportunity to move to Sydney. She comes home to tell her parents she’s going to live in Australia.
She’s so desperately sad, and she wants them to know it, but they can’t possibly comprehend it. She takes a photo of herself. It’s obvious how depressed she is in the image. She goes out of her way to show them, to remind them, but they can’t see. Her pain is invisible to them. She is invisible to them.
Her dad tells her, ‘Don’t take drugs,’ and she says, ‘Of course not.’
But she had tried heroin and liked it. And it’s on the plane, at the very moment when she’s suspended in the air, between two worlds, that she knows she’s going to use heroin again. She knows more than that - she knows she’s going to love heroin.
I wanted to let go, no controls. There was nothing holding me back. I could do whatever I wanted to.
I kept looking back. I’ve always been a bit of a rebel. You know what I mean? I’m a risk-taker. I was a massive risk-taker. Just like in my skiing. Jumping. Pushing. I love pushing the limits, excitement - you know?
For me, drugs and that world were it. The thought was, ‘I’m going to get into a lot of heroin.’ I knew. I knew I was going to use a lot of heroin over here. Because Sydney was known for easier access to heroin than New Zealand.
A new friend guides Ellen into the darkness and light that exist before the first injection. The spoon. The powder that melts. The hot liquid. The needle that draws. The belt that tightens. The vein that pops.
It was just euphoric. It was like I’d found what I was always looking for. It was like I had found something that was right for me.
I was calm. I was relaxed. The feeling was amazing. It was incredible. It was just like a knowing inside of me.
A different world. Another space and time, away from the ones most people know. In this world, her new world, it’s hard to know the difference between cops and criminals. It’s becoming ugly. It’s becoming dangerous.
So she turns back to the world she’s just left and tries to go back through the door. But it’s shut. It slammed shut a long time ago.
She looks for other ways to leave this new world. But she can’t get out.
It was like one of those hourglasses, but it went for six or eight hours. You had that, in the back of your mind, that you only had the six or eight hours with the sand going through before you were sick again. So you were living with that every day: ‘I’ve gotta get my next shot… within the next six or eight hours.’
So you were living with that fear and that dread of getting sick again.
And so every day, every waking hour, was all about getting your next drug. Soon as you had it, then you were thinking about where you were gonna get the next one. ‘I’ll just have a little bit and try to cut down. Just a little, just a tiny bit. It’ll be fine. I can stop for five days. I’ll be fine.’
Yeah, so… so, you know, I knew I was in trouble.
She wakes up in police cells. She’s terrified all the time now. She’ll use anything on top of the heroin. There are big binges. Binges of shooting up coke. The highs have to be higher and higher.
For stints of time she can get away. Maybe her family could give her respite? But her parents’ life at home has only become darker too.
‘But if I don’t face it now,’ I thought, ‘I’ll never see my family again.’
Because I had been in full-blown addiction for so many years, I hadn’t even properly comprehended what had been going on with my sisters. Not until I went back to New Zealand.
Up until that point I had this rose-coloured view of my family. Perfect family. Religious. Perfect upbringing. Everything’s great. And then, it was like my whole family had fallen apart.
I had got clean in Sydney before returning to New Zealand. I stayed in New Zealand for seven years.
I had a lot of support around me… in recovery.
I was totally a different person. Life just made sense to me all of a sudden. It just made sense.
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