A methadone program brought this recovering heroin addict and pharmacist together
Fabian, from Victoria, was 16 years old when he first started using heroin. And it was only when a significant and life-threatening incident occurred that he realised it was time to make a change.
On 6 July 2000, Fabian commenced the methadone program with Tambassis Pharmacy in Brunswick, led by pharmacist and harm minimisation advocate Angelo Pricolo, and continues on the program to this day.
This is their story.
“It all started for me as a curiosity thing. In these little hangouts at the local milk bar, there was the older group of guys there, they were the guys out there protecting the gang, making a name for the gang – there was this thing about them. The curiosity started when you would hear about them going to score. Back in those days it was all slang related, and it was all, ‘let’s go get our hit’ or our ‘fix’ or ‘smack’ or ‘hammer’. And in time you realise it’s heroin they’re scoring. As a kid, not just myself but all three of my mates, we all ended up heroin addicts.
“[On this particular day] I was working and, just like every other time, the whole thought of heroin came within seconds. At the time, I was working in a restaurant and one of the partners had a brand new Saab turbo. And I took his car and said, ‘I’ll be back in an hour’, went back down to the inner suburbs and I scored the same amount as I did the last time. And I remember I was pressed for time, I quickly went around the corner to have it and I kept the engine running. I had it and it was obviously too strong, it was a quality that was way too strong for me to handle so I overdosed and went into unconsciousness.
“But what happened was, the fact that I left the car running meant that when I fell unconscious, I laid my head on the steering wheel and my foot pressed against the accelerator. And with the car being a turbo, the engine revved like crazy. One of the neighbours immediately called the police. So I’ve got everything locked, the car revving to maximum – the turbo has blown, and flames have come through under the dash and the bottom section of the car, the car caught on fire from the inside. So as I was rested there, the detectives came in that split time where I would have died almost and they smashed the window. I suffered enough burns down the right side of my body from the flames that had come through. Then I fully awoke in the burns unit of the Alfred Hospital.
“And that’s when I realised to myself: you use heroin and you will continue to use heroin until you lose everything and you won’t stop using it until you lose enough. Not only did I lose almost my life, I’d already lost a house, I’d already lost cars, I’d already lost fantastic partners. Family was broken down because of what I’d caused. I’d lost respect and I’d lost the opportunity to become godfather to my nephew. I’d lost the opportunity to have any job I wanted. I lost the opportunity to become a professional, elite athlete. I lost every single opportunity that life once upon a time would have happily given to me.
“So I think in the burns unit, that’s when it hit me. That was probably the first time that I addressed the methadone program seriously.
“Tambassis pharmacy is the pharmacy where I am part of the methadone program. Walking in and getting my dose is part of a ritual I do every day. Eventually what I did was actually move closer to the pharmacy. It made it a walk away or even just a couple of train stops away. The journey is just like going to the milk bar, same thing.
“When you do actually take the dose, you feel all the eyes on you. It can get to some people, but I’ve learnt this is something I have to do every day, it’s something I have to accept. Hopefully they can understand that these guys are helping me, I’m doing good. If they took the methadone program away from me today, tomorrow I’d be looking at any which way to get heroin, so don’t take it away!
“It’s nice coming here because of the people; the people make me feel good. They’re very supportive of the methadone program. And when you’re doing good you like to come in, because they know you’re doing good. It’s a happy visit that might start the day off in a good way.
“Life’s good. Any day without heroin – life is fantastic.”
“A lot of people are negative towards the methadone program, and argue against it because it can be a long-term program. They’ll say that it can take 10-15 years and they’re still on this drug and you haven’t achieved anything. But we really need to explore what the options are if they’ve been on the program that long compared to what road they may have gone down otherwise. The possibilities for them would be either continuing to use heroin – and there aren’t a lot of really old heroin addicts because most of them are dead – and the other option would be to try and detox.
“Detox is a short-term program and the reality is it doesn’t really work, because it’s only addressing the physical aspect of the addiction. And it doesn’t give the client time to actually look at the whole psychological warfare that’s going on in their brain with their addiction to heroin.
“[Critics] can really be discouraging towards the client about staying long term on a program. But at least they’re staying long term on a program alive rather than short-term dead – because that’s really what’s facing them. When you’re buying heroin off a dealer you don’t really know what you’re buying. I have a lot of regulation that forces me to correctly label and correctly supply. But when you’re buying on the street you really don’t know what you’re buying. The fact is they’re one hit away from an episode that might be your last one.
“If you weight up the options, and you look at what the possibilities are when someone walks through that door and they’re making that decision, you’ve got the methadone program, you’ve got the detox program, or you have continuing to use heroin, then it’s really clear that staying on a long-term maintenance program – until other parts of their life come together and until they feel like it’s time to get off the drug – is really their best option.
“There are so many occasions where we’ve seen lives turned around in seven to 10 days – people going from looking like they’re really down and out to re-establishing contact with their family, to being back in a stable employment situation. These things can turn really quickly.
“If we could just open up [subsidisation] to include methadone and suboxone, the two drugs that have been seen to be so successful where everything else has failed, we’d have a real opportunity to take advantage of that little period in time where a client comes into the pharmacy and puts everything else on the line and stands in front of you and says, ‘I want to start the program’.
“If we can take advantage of that situation, if we can grab it and say, ‘yep we’ll help you out, we’re going to give you what you need’, then we’d have so many more fruitful outcomes and success stories.”
The above quotes were transcribed from Mr Pricolo’s documentary entitled “Fighting the Dragon with Luck“, and published by AJP with permission of the producer.