Public duty to share terror of meth addiction

Sir Paul Holmes was best known for his radio and TV work. But he was a great columnist for the Herald on Sunday. Here is one of his most moving pieces, written the year he was named best columnist at the print media awards.

Sir Paul Holmes supported daughter Millie through her addiction and knows firsthand the trauma that meth brought to a family. Photo / Richard Robinson.
Sir Paul Holmes supported daughter Millie through her addiction and knows firsthand the trauma that meth brought to a family. Photo / Richard Robinson.

Not the best week, but we were ready for it at least. My daughter faced it bravely and the outcome could have been a lot worse. I find it hard to write about the evils of pure methamphetamine, because of the heartbreak it has caused us all. And I have a dilemma.

Every time I mention meth, as I have vowed to do because I feel an obligation to play a part in the struggle against it, you will form a picture in your mind of my daughter.

She is not a circus, yet every time I mention the drug you will be reminded of her mistakes. But meth must be spoken of because it is a pernicious, insidious invader of the soul.

It is insanely powerful. The men who make it are sending our children mad. There might be hundreds of addicts in New Zealand but its victims number in the thousands. It is everywhere, and it seems everyone I meet has a meth story.

Here is some of what we know about methamphetamine. It is the most addictive drug any generation has had to deal with. Mike Sabin, the ex-cop whose company educates people about meth, says those who make it and distribute it are waging biological warfare against our community.

He quotes Dr Alex Stalcup from California's New Leaf Treatment Centre, who says he has never encountered a drug that can take over the lives of eight or nine people out of every 10 who take it. In the United States the average purity of meth is 30 per cent. In New Zealand it is 60 per cent. The greater the purity, the more likely addiction will occur.

Sabin says despite restrictions on the sale of pseudoephedrine, the purity of meth has increased. At our ports there are still daily seizures of Chinese-manufactured versions of the pills.

In the US, 1g of meth sells for about $90. In New Zealand it will fetch between $600 and $1000, Sabin says, which is why the international boys are attracted to the New Zealand market.

If you use pure meth regularly, in five years you are either sobered up, locked up or covered up, he says.

Methamphetamine makes people feel marvellous, invincible, 10-feet tall and bullet-proof, which is why it preys so easily on the young and vulnerable.

P is thought to make you feel up to 12 times better. An addict going off the drug feels bad by the same factor. The craving for pure meth is akin to someone going without fluid for three days, and our wanting the addict not to use is like wanting that thirsty person to refuse a glass of water, says Sabin.

It is incredibly hard to get off this drug. Recovery rates are low. Meth keeps you up - literally. Users lose all rationality from staying awake for days or weeks. They become paranoid and compulsive and secretive. They can lie like railway sleepers and all trust is destroyed in the people who love them. Mood swings are extreme and sometimes terrifying. Tempers can be awful, with screaming and shouting and the slamming of doors.

The behaviour caused by meth addiction creeps up on a family until one day they realise they are living in an abusive home.

Some people call meth the Great Deceiver because the user thinks the drug is marvellous, but it is out to destroy their mind. I call it the drug of invisibility. The eyes don't go red, the person doesn't become mellow and vague, you cannot smell it on clothing or in a room. You cannot tell if someone is using meth until it is too late, until a life is spiralling out of control. If the user is a teenager you might write it off as the tempestuous behaviour of adolescence.

Despite all the evidence in front of you, you choose not to believe what is happening. We are like that, parents. We don't bring kids up for this. We cannot bear to believe this. At least, that is how I was. Things had been difficult for a long time, really, but we started to get bad feelings towards the middle of last year. Things were getting weird.

I was powerless. The mysterious absences got longer. The people coming to the house were wrong. Things disappeared and were stolen. Doors were slamming shut in more ways than one.

The call from the police came on a Sunday in June, and the phone fell out of my hand. I called Millie's mother. TV3 called an hour later. I felt nothing but sadness and fear for my girl, and we dreaded the storm that was about to hit.

We switched on the TV at 6pm for the news, with the sound muted because I thought it would come about 10 minutes in. But there, right at the top, was the reporter - under lights, all lit up, outside the Auckland City police station telling the world my daughter was being held, facing serious drugs charges.

I stood reeling quietly in the kitchen. My daughter, our clever, kind and witty girl, was on her own in a police cell in God knows what state. My friend Paul said, "At least you know she's safe tonight". And that, in a sad, simple way, was true.

Suddenly, an immediate problem: where to place her after bail next morning? Where to keep her safe, somewhere secure, somewhere she could be kept under guard and away from the low people she had come to know? It was Sunday night and we knew nothing of detox facilities.

In the end, Deborah's sister Janine, at home during the day with her toddler, agreed to take Millie and there she stayed for six weeks - sleeping through days and nights, sleeping and eating, sleeping and eating, until she was well enough to go willingly to rehabilitation, which she did.

Thank goodness we did not need to seek help from the public system. Can you believe this? With meth running riot, there are only 16 secure detoxification beds in Auckland. To get in you have to be assessed. There is a waiting list, of course. If you are an addict in trouble, you wait in jail.

Michelle Kidd, a Methodist missionary - a kind, wise and dedicated woman I met at the Auckland District Court - speaks passionately about the need for secure 24-bed detoxification centres around Auckland. She wants them to be medical as well, because people with rampant addictions are likely to have long-standing mental vulnerabilities.

She speaks of the growing crisis of P addicts with nowhere to go. We were lucky: we had family. And we were lucky that we could afford the residential rehab. It is not cheap. But while we can write the cheques for that, we also face unique pressures.

I found out this week that Woman's Day magazine was in a bidding war for my daughter's story, and was offering her $20,000. I was appalled. That money would be a terrible temptation. I rang Sarah Henry, the editor, and told her that if payment occurred I would hold her personally responsible for how Millie spent it.

The Woman's Day offer was heartless, brainless and irresponsible. I have taken money from women's magazines on special occasions over the years. But I was not profiting from criminal offending. Perhaps I set a bad example, but a dad can blame himself for everything and it gets you nowhere.

I will tell you about the worst day, when we bundled a terribly thin, unkempt, irrational and angry Millie into my brother's car outside the court. My brother and I were stunned by her state and our minds flashed back through the years.

Long ago, my father brought home a man with whom he served at war for a long time, a man he had not seen for 20 years. The man's marriage was in chaos and he needed somewhere to stay. Mum and Dad, kind people trying to help, invited him to live with us for a while. He stayed for about two years.

He could be charming but he was a chronic, manipulative alcoholic, a man of wild mood swings, a ghastly, ruined man. Towards the end, he spent nights ranting outside, staggering in the gravel all round the house shouting: "Bastards of hell! Bastards of hell!" One afternoon I found him standing in the toilet, guzzling a bottle of cheap brandy, muttering insanely, a fag in one hand. That day, aged 15 and without a driver's licence, I drove him into town to the doctor and sat in the car until it was dark and Mum and Dad came to get me.

He came home for a while, until the men in white came and took him and we never saw him again.

As Ken and I drove my daughter north to Deborah's sister we felt he was back again, so strong was the cruel presence of rock-bottom addiction. My poor girl had not slept for a long time. We stared through the windscreen, hardly blinking, stunned at the power of the demon in the car. My daughter had flown out of her skin and something from hell had moved in.

That was then, of course. Things are so different now and Millie has made huge progress. Her letter to the judge was moving and insightful. But I would never wish that day on anyone.

Sabin says the meth epidemic should be given the same health priority as any other contagion. If it were meningitis, the place would be crawling with intervention. The social consequences of ignoring meth could be with us for generations.

You can contact Mike Sabin at

- Herald on Sunday

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