There is a thing which I’ve been holding in. A thing that, when I found it out, made me laugh with horror at the completely unbearable reality; that my life is so much more comically unbelievable than what any naysayer or baffled idiot or armchair psychiatrist could ever tweet or post or feign to even think.
I have Hepatitis C.
For those new to diseases, that’s one of “the big ones”.
In terms of stigma, it’s HIV without any of the relatively meagre acceptance. It attacks the liver, a role which until now was exclusively held by booze.
And it’s acquired almost exclusively from blood-to-blood transmission.
Which is to say, it’s a cold stare in a dark room. It’s a weary look kept askance on Grey Street. It’s a barbed crown on a medical chart that says, “Yeah, I’m a junkie. How could you tell?
In fact, I’m such a big fat fucking junkie, that one time I outdid my fellow junkies — by sharing a needle with someone.
You think you’re miserable? Try copping a serious disease with no-one to blame but the worst and most despicable version of yourself — only he’s more you than anyone will ever know, and he’s the only one they’ll remember.
So count the track-marks and sing hopscotch songs, motherfucker, because I’m such a big fat fucked-up fucking junkie that I wouldn’t let a little thing like common sense, logic and healthcare get in my way. I’m not that person. I’m this person. Kumbay-fucking-yah.”
Getting the phone-call was a cinematic experience, only instead of becoming what I’d always hoped for: Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman, or a supernatural entity with the power to torment my enemies at will, I became the unlovable, woefully unsexy, clinically tragic poster girl for bad decisions. It became glaringly apparent that the reality of my life — the truth unimpeded by flowery prose in some feel-good-about-you opinion piece — will always be more go-fuck-yourself, and a lot less look-at-me, than what any naysayer or amateur cultural critic could even imagine.
I remember thinking “Okay, that’s enough. Yep. We’re done now. Best fuck off into the mist for a while”. Because I’m the story not even I can adequately write.
Once Upon A Weekend Morning, I was offered free drugs under the condition that one: I gave needle-sharing a go — and two: That the other guy “went first”.
I must have been particularly out of my mind that morning — because I said “Sure, sounds reasonable”. We even had an audience of one.
— — — —
You’re probably thinking, “Holy shit. That is the most moronic thing I have ever heard of another person doing. Why are you even bothering to talk about this, when you so clearly and transparently brought it on yourself?”
To which I say, one: You’re preaching to the choir, sister. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes? Don’t you worry, because I’m all over it.
I’ve spent years dodging the lingering spectre of the word “junkie”, because I knew what it meant. I’ve tried to broadcast “functional addict”, “worth listening to” and “not like other girls”, as though they were medals which automatically made my experience somehow worth listening to over others.
The truth is, they’re not. In fact, I’ve found that talking about my journey — no matter how despicable — can be just as liberating, and just as important, as painting a portrait of where I want to end up.
Because I’ve never been any of those labels. I don’t think any of us are — whether addicted or otherwise. I’ve been liable to collapse in secrecy and then smile for the lens held close to my life; the one that, in this social media age, so many of us are familiar with.
And every once in a while — more often than I previously could admit — I’ve succumbed to the pressure placed on me by society; the one which screams shut the fuck up and slink back into your filthy crevasse, you whining mess, you stupid self-inflicted idiot, you absolute junkie.
With an ex-lover dead and uncertainty around whether or not I’d ever be able to lead an unrestrained existence, I felt an uglier version of myself haul itself out of the ground, gaze longingly into the mirror, and rub salt into its wounds.
If I do good, I’m trash masquerading as treasure. If I do bad, I’m what they always knew I was. I invoke wroth no matter how I choose to live — what’s the fucking point?
So for a brief minute, I let myself be junkie.
— — — —
A day after I got the call, I was with my “audience of one” — the surprisingly friendly but extremely troubled man who was there and witnessed my depravity that night — and at one point he turned to me and said, “Did you know he had hepatitis before he did that to you?”
This would have been a stupid question from any other person. Except I hadn’t even told him about my diagnosis yet.
He already knew, because the man already knew. The man already knew and yet he still did it. I am HCV+ by virtue of both my own poor choices and someone else’s will. Because people are as much monsters as they are self-destructing lost causes.
Apparently this is an issue in injecting drug use circles: people with hepatitis sharing needles, because “We’re already positive. So fuck it”. Maybe he didn’t say anything because he thought I’d already gotten it. He was wrong, and agreed to give a statement before I even asked.
Despite any trend in injecting use circles, myself, my doctor, and far too many people I’ve spoken to in-private about this issue all agree, that further and far more sinister problems arise when someone is out there transmitting their strain of a virus without the other persons’ knowledge or consent.
If you were waiting for the dramatic twist that has me feeling so violated, welcome to the party, because that was it.
— — — —
Two weeks after that revelation, I was with another friend — someone who also at one point dealt with hepatitis, because we’re basically a support group now. I talked to him about what happened, about what my “audience of one” had told me, and about the man I’d shared a needle with.
Turns out my friend already knew of him.
That was when I learned that not only was this not an isolated incident, but there were about five other young men just like me who he’d coerced into something they would regret choosing with the promise of free drugs.
There are about five other young men out there who at one point were given the choice — “Do this with me for free drugs” — and followed the cloaked ghoul into the abyss.
There are about five other young men out there who at one point received a call from their clinic telling them their results weren’t good, who went on to sit in horrified silence as they realised their mistake would haunt them not just in the spiritual sense, but the biological sense too.
And there are about five other men who at one stage tossed up between murder and suicide; unbearable seething rage at the man who assaulted them, punctuated by the purest, most sinister form of self-hatred and guilt.
At the very least, though, there are about five other young men who at one point said out loud, “Holy shit. Am I in a sequel to that documentary, The Gift?”
Okay, bad joke.
— — — —
In spite of this diagnosis and the subsequent self-indulgent melancholy, I want you to know that I’ll be fine. Though if you’re looking for a drinking buddy, I need you to know that my liver has other problems right now.
I was off the rails for a little while, coping with my personal brand of hot mess, but I’m coming back to reality now.
Turns out, according to my doctor and friends-who-once-had-HCV, this is the best time to have hepatitis, in the best country in the world. A majority of patients are successful in treatment, with some not needing treatment at all, because the virus resolves all on its own. And Australia is apparently one of the only nations where our treatment and healthcare is subsidised. I might be wrong: I’ve only just abandoned rage and shame in favour of actually learning about my illness.
That, and people are coming around to the idea of being cool with drug users now, for a lot of reasons that I’ve tried to do my part to disseminate. Sure, most of those people are probably in it for “Stop government intervention!” reasons, but they’re nicer than the rest of the world — you know, who hate us. We’re doing better than we would in the Phillipines.
Yet that notion doesn’t really quell the shame.
I was raised right. Or at the very least, in a comfortable home environment. It might shock you to learn that I mostly know right from wrong.
So why the fuck would someone who isn’t monstrous or being held at gunpoint do something so destructive and pathetic? Why would I let someone do that to me? Why would I consent — no matter my stupid cravings — to something like that being done to me?
For more questions posed by addicts to themselves, tune in right now!
And every day for the rest of my life.
— — — —
When I was seventeen, a bully drew up a demeaning photo of me and spread it around online. Specifically, it was a Photoshop of my face, slapped onto the image of a rat surrounded by used injecting needles. It was among tens of pieces of denigrating content that I’d taken to a police station.
The cops I dealt with said it was horrifying. At least a small part of me was surprised at how well they got the face to fit.
Either way, that person will be thrilled to know that their prophecy came true.