Mum’s heartbreak as meth turns sons into strangers
It’s like a stranger has taken over your son’s body — an angry, violent, aggressive and depressive stranger who could take their own life at any moment.
That’s how Julie Kent describes the way WA’s meth epidemic tore apart her Bunbury family, with her three sons all addicted to the drug.
“They become irrational, they become violent, they can’t work, they don’t sleep, they don’t eat, they go from being a healthy person to a dysfunctional person very quickly,” she said.
“You don’t recognise your own children anymore and it’s really hard to watch someone you love just disappear in front of your eyes.
“I’d accepted that one or more of my children could die. My biggest fear for my boys was suicide, always, because they see no hope and they don’t know how to change.”
Now aged 31, 25 and 23, her sons are clean but their struggle not to slip back into the clutches of methamphetamine use is daily and constant.
On the streets of Bunbury — like virtually every other city and town in WA — the corrosive impact of meth has fuelled surges in burglaries, thefts, violence and stolen cars, as well as mental and physical health problems, neighbourhood unrest and homelessness.
A series of police operations have cracked down on dealers in Bunbury but even the region’s top cop admits it has barely dented the drug trade.
In the city centre, every movement is recorded by an upgraded network of more than 40 CCTV cameras but Jimmy Alhelou, who works at Orfa Kebabs in Bunbury’s Victoria Street, says that doesn’t stop windows, tables and chairs in his shop being broken every week by aggressive people affected by drugs.
“Every weekend at night there is fighting in Victoria Street,” he said. “We need a police car just in this street. Some windows I don’t fix any more. If there is no damage one weekend, then I am very lucky.”
At Bunbury Hospital, security guards are on stand-by to help restrain meth-affected patients and in schools, meth education programs have begun to try to combat dealers exploiting teenagers.
Meth even dominated the State election campaign in Bunbury, with Labor victor Don Punch vowing to boost jobs and the economy because “unless you have jobs you get problems like meth addiction”.
Real-life stories of meth’s impact on the community are easy to come by in Bunbury, partly thanks to another desperate mother, Lina Pugh, who started a Facebook page, Ice in Bunbury — A Mother’s Nightmare, to put the spotlight on the crisis.
“My son almost died, his body and organs had all but shut down due to his use of ‘ice’ over the last three years. It’s time to speak out, get heard and get help to our community,” Mrs Pugh wrote when starting the page.
She has since teamed up with Mrs Kent and the women have raised $160,000 to start a crisis centre, called Doors Wide Open scheduled to open in May, for one-on-one support and advocacy for meth addicts and their families.
Already the women are getting about 200 phone calls and messages a week from desperate parents and family members, as well as meth addicts trying to turn their lives around.
Among them is 23-year-old Bunbury woman Nikitta Whittaker, whose younger sister has been in and out of rehab clinics for several years, but continually slips back into addiction. Now, she’s been clean for 17 weeks, but Ms Whittaker lives in constant fear of the next relapse. “A normal person will wake up and go for a coffee every morning,” she said.
“She wakes up every morning and wants to inject herself with methamphetamine.
“Everyone thinks the drug’s associated with people in State housing or on Centrelink, but it’s everywhere and in every class.
“It makes you numb knowing that someone you love is doing that sort of stuff to themselves.
“The hold that it has on a family, I would never, ever believe it until I was in that situation. It’s almost as if it’s an embarrassment to speak up and get help because you’ve let your family member into that situation and you can’t do anything to help them. You feel like it’s your fault, but it will tear you down the longer you keep it quiet.”
Others have shared their stories on the Doors Wide Open Facebook page. Each makes for harrowing reading.
“My son is presently in prison due to meth. Breaks my heart, but I know deep down he will smoke it again. They manipulate, lie, steal and break your heart and soul,” one parent wrote.
Another said: “I too am scared s---less. My son is also a shadow of his old self. He has lost everything and is ashamed of himself for letting it get out of control.”
Bunbury Mayor Gary Brennan said there was “no doubt” meth remained a huge issue for the community and “one that I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of”.
“Meth takes a whole community to find solutions to it,” Mr Brennan said. “It’s such a highly addictive, dangerous chemical. This is a scourge.”
South West police Superintendent Mick Sutherland said tackling meth was a three-pronged approach involving education, support and treatment, and disrupting supply.
While many mid-level and high-level dealers had been arrested, he conceded there had not been “any improvement” in combatting meth in the region.
“It is rife. We’re swimming against the tide and there is a very long road ahead,” Supt Sutherland said.
Jonathan Farr, manager of the Southwest Community Drug Service Team, said his team was supporting a growing number of people battling methamphetamine.
That was echoed by Mrs Kent, who said the cries of help from the community were only growing.
“There is a long way to go,” she said.
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