Inside the Darwin rehab centre 'doing more with less' as NT health providers struggle with ice

Inside the Darwin rehab centre 'doing more with less' as NT health providers struggle with ice

Inside the Darwin rehab centre 'doing more with less' as NT health providers struggle with ice

Updated 20 April 2015, 19:25 AEST

A Darwin rehabilitation centre is struggling to respond to a spike in methamphetamine-related patients.

Banyan House was founded to treat alcoholics, but these days the Darwin rehabilitation centre is a place for minds unravelled and rewired by methamphetamine.

When Paige (not her real name) arrived at the suburban centre in January, she was met with cleaning rosters, a chicken coop, and the reality of life without a drug commonly known as ice.

"I was ringing my lawyer for the first two weeks asking her to get me out," she said.

Her only other option: "just take me back to jail".

Banyan House has seen a surge in cases like Paige's since 2010 and is struggling to respond to demand.

The centre is one of the Northern Territory's only residential rehabs and accepts voluntary patients through to court-ordered criminals for a minimum of a 12-week stay.

People who end up at the facility have generally exhausted all other treatment options, meaning they have abandoned society for a calculated dysfunction.

When the ABC visited in March, staff had just removed every bottle of hand sanitizer from the facility because one patient was mixing it with water and secretly drinking it.

These days, management views this sort of desperate alcoholism as less concerning than the use of ice.

Back in 2010, one in 10 of the centre's patients were ice addicts. That number is now at 65 per cent, with this admittance rate rising significantly in the past year.

In April, Banyan House reached capacity for the first time in five years following a string of ice-related admissions.

This increase corresponds with national fears about ice and, while it is unclear if the word "epidemic" is justifiable, the crystalline drug's broadening reach is worrying some NT health workers.

Banyan House's recent ice patients encompass former drug dealers through to teachers, engineers, lawyers and youth from affluent backgrounds, such as Paige.

Her parents divorced when she was a child, leaving her mother addicted to heroin and Paige unattended, sometimes taking ecstasy pills and LSD on the weekends.

By the age of 14, Paige had swallowed a clear crystal rock the size of a grain of salt. It turned the sky pink, raised her face in goosebumps, and kept her awake for days.

In the following years, she went from smoking ice to injecting; euphoric laughter to aggression; a semblance of control to trafficking charges.

Last year, sleep deprivation and a drug-induced psychosis made her jump out of a moving car and head to the foyer of Darwin's main casino.

"I ran through the casino naked in a g-string. I wasn't being funny. I was scared to death of nothing," Paige said.

Rehab: 'we don't have the capacity to respond'

Treating such visceral addiction has given Banyan House new challenges, such as detoxification periods spanning up to 70 days and extensive psychiatric damage.

Its executive director, Chris Franck, would like to tailor programs for ice addicts but said the centre was already "doing more with less".

Banyan House is located in an abandoned detention centre, has had to reduce the number of staff over the years, and has seen its occupancy rate double since 2012.

Centrelink covers direct patient costs but a $1.2 million annual government budget covers the rest: wages, power bills, transport and outings aimed at socialising addicts back into society.

A quarter of the budget is federally dependent and currently guaranteed for 12 months.

Mr Franck welcomed the federal government's "taskforce" on ice announced in April, but said mental health funding was losing out to legal and crime initiatives.

"We are running behind schedule if you want to be contemporary and respond to the growing need [from ice addicts]," he said.

"I don't think we have the capacity to respond."

For now, Banyan House treats everyone from sex addicts to heroin users with one version of cognitive therapy: exercise, group therapy, cooking and cleaning rosters, and aversion education.

When Dean (not his real name) arrived at the centre in March, he struggled with these rules, but after a while things started to make sense and his appetite returned.

He gained 20kg in the space of two weeks.

The 19-year-old almost starved for his ice addiction. He also went to jail for it, ultimately ending up at Banyan House on court orders with a tracking device around his ankle.

His lowest points were when psychosis fused with paranoia about police investigations, sending him further into a sleepless sentry fuelled by ice.

Sometimes, when he was alone suffering withdrawals and waiting for other ice addicts out the back of a dodgy Darwin shopping centre, Dean would ask himself: "how did I end up like this?"

"Most of the time my getaway was to smoke it [and] not worry about those things," he said.

The NT and federal governments have announced a joint law enforcement 'strike force' in response to escalating ice use in the Territory.

Dean said the drug was readily available in Darwin for those who knew where to look: in suburban homes, out the back of shops, and in the faces of scattered people walking down the street.

There was a time when this was not the case.

When ice came to the Northern Territory

For 20 years Alberto (not his real name) balanced a middle-management job at the NT government with drug use, mostly daily marijuana and ecstasy pills at nightclubs.

He remembers ice appearing in the Territory after 2005. It was mostly ferried up to the Territory from down south, including by a man that once showed Alberto two rocks in a Melbourne pub.

"I said 'wow, you could take that to Darwin and make a killing'. I wish I'd never said those words, because he did come to Darwin, and he brought it up," Alberto said.

Alberto experimented with smoking ice in those early days but it was injecting that changed his life.

As soon as the first needle went into his arm, Alberto looked at the ground and repeated a cheesy line from a 90s film: "Houston, we have a problem".

"I called it Mr Crystal Clear. It gave me the clarity I needed. Like any drug you misuse, at first it's good, but sooner it later it comes and bites you where it hurts," he said.

"You're a slave to a master you'll never understand."

Alberto is now in his fifties and has a large pothole in his armpit: a misfired injection made worse by an ice addict's tendency towards self-destruction.

He picked at the scab for a year and a half, only stopping when he arrived at Banyan House.

"None of us wake up and say: I'm going to be a drug addict today," he said.

The next generation of ice users

Alberto is hopeful about recovery but holds many concerns for today's younger drug users, especially those in remote places.

"What I fear the most is when [ice] gets out to the communities. It will make marijuana and alcohol look like a bad case of the flu," he said.

It is unclear whether ice is seeping into the Territory's remote Indigenous communities with reports of an ice crisis in Central Australia being contested as overblown.

Lamar (not his real name) grew up in the town of Tennant Creek, about 1,000 kilometres south of Darwin, but moved around Australia before coming back to his hometown in 2012.

"That's when I realised that my friends were doing a different drug [and] I was highly against it," he said.

Things changed in 2014. Lamar broke up with his girlfriend and tried ice for the first time. He did it with a needle and felt like a hypocrite.

Lamar then progressed through petty dealing, hallucinating, stints at drying up, relapsing, confessing to his mother and finally checking himself into rehab at the age of 19.

"I'm very proud of myself. I thought I'd keep doing drugs until I was brain dead. Until I had no brain at all," he said.

Lamar hopes to be a role model for youth in Tennant Creek but every night, when he tries to sleep in a single bed at Banyan House, he still thinks about syringes.

"I feel a bit annoyed about that: there's a chance that I will relapse," he said.

Banyan House judges its relapse rate on how many patients seek re-admittance within a year. This rate is sitting at 10 per cent, but not everybody stays in touch after being discharged.

Mr Franck, who is also a clinical psychologist, said most patients have an epiphany after two months in rehabilitation, but this "honeymoon phase" can easily end within weeks of discharge.

"The reality is the supply chain out there is very well oiled. The people who want [them] seek them out," he said.

Mr Franck said this reality demonstrated a need for considered outpatient and outreach services in the Territory to help people stay healthy, hold down jobs, and repair their lives.

He is especially concerned about the Territory's ability to treat young ice addicts: there are few specialised rehabilitation options for minors and many programs focus on alcohol.

Last financial year the NT government spent $48 million on alcohol and drug initiatives, including 28 services ranging from residential rehab to outreach programs.

There are now reports of Darwin ice addicts leaving the country for international rehabilitation programs as domestic options fail their needs.

After a standard 12-week program, Paige was discharged from Banyan House this month.

It was not her first attempt at living without ice. The first time she went to rehab Paige "jumped the fence" after 30 hours in a facility, so staying for a whole term was progress.

Paige cooked her first proper meal in rehab (vegetable lasagne) and now hopes to do things that many others take for granted: finish high school, hold down a job and sign a rental lease.

"I feel better than I have ever in my whole life. I'm straight but I don't know what it'll be like when I get out into the real world."