Max* was savouring a cigarette in the sun when he received a phone call telling him not to pick up his seven-year-old daughter Karen* from school.
It was October 2015 and it was the head of Canberra’s Child, Youth and Protective Services on the line.
“She was saying ‘I’ve got your daughter, there’s no need to pick her up from school today’. I said ‘what? What have you got my daughter for?’ and she said they were taking her because of my substance abuse,” he said.
Max, who would hide in the laundry of his Canberra home to smoke methamphetamine and marijuana, didn’t realise his addiction could rip apart his family.
The father of five said he was open about his drug use with the case workers who visited his home because he was “in denial” that they could take his kids.
“I was in a state of mind where I was using so much I didn’t care who I told I was on it,” Max said.
“I thought because I was smoking it, I wasn’t injecting it, I don’t use needles, I thought I was doing all right, that it was an okay thing to do, it was like smoking a cigarette but you’d get a bit high off it, I didn’t see the bad side of it where it starts whittling into all of your money, your family, your attitude.
“One day, I brought a branch of marijuana out of my cupboard because I grew it and I said, ‘Look I grow this for free so I don’t have to buy it, so when I do get my money it goes on the kids so don’t say I’m doing wrong by doing drugs’.”
Shortly afterwards, Max received the phone call that would upend his life.
“The missus was in tears, she started crying. She looked at me and said this is all your fault, if you don’t give up the drugs now you can go, piss off, get out of here, because she wanted to get her daughter back.”
Hearing that made Max do something he never thought he could – quit cold turkey.
“I went inside, grabbed my bong, I grabbed my crack pipe, put it in a plastic bag, sealed it up and put it in the garbage bin. That same day I got that phone call was the same day I threw it all away. It was gone with the garbos Sunday night.The willpower to do that came from the love for my family.”
A lifetime of substance abuse is etched into Max’s face.
He started smoking marijuana when he was 15 and never went a day without it for the next 30 years.
“I think I just got in the wrong peer group back when I was younger at school and fell into a different crowd that smoked. Come Friday, Saturday nights, that’s what you did. You hung with these guys at the park drinking and smoking marijuana. By the time I was 20 I was dealing it,” he said.
Days before his 37th birthday, Max was introduced to another drug.
“A mate came around and said, ‘There’s this new drug out called ice and you can smoke it’, he knew I didn’t use needles,” he said.
“I gave him a quarter ounce of dope for him to take to his ice dealer to swap for $100 worth of ice and on my 37th birthday I sat up for three days, I’d never done that in my life. I was up climbing the walls, doing this, doing that, pulling things apart, putting them back together, just going off my brain, not really conscious of what I was doing but fully aware. I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t shut up, I couldn’t stop talking. From those first three days I was hooked right on up until last October.”
A thistle of scratchy beard mostly disguises the drug’s lasting impact on his teeth, which are cracked and yellowing.
“These two are missing because it wrecks the enamel in your teeth. The teeth cracked from eating chops at tea-time,” he said.
The drug’s impact on his family was harder to hide, particularly without seven-year-old Karen around.
“It was very sad, very dismal without her. Four hours a week, that’s all we got to see her for,” he said.
“She didn’t know what she’d done wrong, why she was at this different house. We just kept telling her it was a holiday house. I had to actually coax her back into the case worker’s car on the first couple of visits.”
Peeling himself out from the grips of an addiction that had been with him for most of his life was gruelling at times, but was largely overshadowed by the loss of his daughter.
He credits his SMART Recovery group and his Uniting case worker for keeping him on track.
*Names have been changed