ROBYN Lewis was certain she had been ripped off. It was 1999. She had just moved to Port Stephens and was in the throes of a 15-year methamphetamine addiction when she organised for someone in her new home town to "hook" her up with the stimulant speed.
"This guy has turned up with these little bags with a couple of little shards of rock salt in it and we thought we had been ripped off and he was like 'No, no it's this new drug ice ... it's really good stuff'."
It is the day Miss Lewis describes as her "rock bottom" - the start of a 16-year addiction to ice that very nearly killed her.
"Basically it just wrecked my life. My self esteem and my self worth, it just took all that away. It took everything," she said.
"With ice (the decline) is quite quick, within a matter of months some people just completely change physically and mentally, that's how potent this drug is. It just ravages people. It takes their minds, it's crazy. What you see and what you hear in your own head when you're on that stuff is terrible."
The NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug Ice is holding three days of hearings in East Maitland next week.
The inquiry, commissioned by Premier Gladys Berejiklian in November and led by Professor Dan Howard SC, is examining the nature, prevalence and impact across the state of methamphetamines and other stimulants such as MDMA.
Ice, or crystal methamphetamine, is a stimulant drug that is stronger, more addictive and causes more harmful side effects than the powder form of methamphetamine, known as speed.
The inquiry into ice has already heard alarming evidence in Sydney, Lismore, Dubbo and Nowra about how the drug is destroying communities, causing family breakdowns, crime, violence, prostitution and even addiction in children as young as 12.
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Statistics released this month paint a harrowing picture of the drug's stronghold in the Hunter.
In the seven years between 2009 and 2016, recorded incidents of amphetamine possession across the state rose 250 per cent and the Hunter Valley, excluding Newcastle, was among the worst offenders, according to the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR).
BOCSAR acting executive director Jackie Fitzgerald told a previous ice inquiry hearing that, over the past decade, the Central Coast and Hunter Valley experienced a 400 per cent jump in amphetamine possession incidents recorded by police.
The Hunter's ice capital, Cessnock, experienced 238 amphetamine possession detections per 100,000 head of population from April 2018 to March 2019. This compares to a statewide average of 92 per 100,000. Maitland was the region's next highest area for amphetamine possession, with 193.9 detections per 100,000 people in the past 12 months, followed closely by Muswellbrook with 182.6 per 100,000 over the same period.
Ice is the most damaging drug Detective Superintendent Craig Jackson has seen in his three decades of policing.
"From my own personal point of view, and I've been a cop for 31 years ... so I've seen a lot of things come and go, and for mine anyway ice is the worst drug we've seen, the worst drug we've encountered," the Port Stephens-Hunter Police District Commander said.
Detective Superintendent Jackson said it was the highly-addictive qualities of the drug, as well as its adverse effects, including violence and mental health issues, that made it so very damaging.
"It's a driver of family dysfunction, it's a driver of certain crime types in the community ... (as well as) the mental health aspect."
Detective Superintendent Jackson said the drug was prevalent in the region and presented a challenge for police that differed from that presented by other amphetamines.
"It seems to be more potent," he said. "The addictive qualities appear to be more extreme as well ... it's clearly a completely different drug type with a completely different effect on the user.
"We go to these jobs with individuals who are often violent as a result of it and from our point of view as police it is very, very problematic interacting with someone who is suffering the adverse effect of the drug.
"They are difficult to reason with, they're often violent and it takes additional resources to try and respond to a job, quite often."
He said the drug, while certainly prevalent in lower socioeconomic communities, crossed all boundaries, and age groups.
For 54-year-old Miss Lewis, who suffered a violent upbringing, her drug experimentation began early.
"Pretty much as soon as I could, I started drinking alcohol and I started smoking marijuana when I was 15. I was introduced to amphetamines when I was 17," she said. "By the time I was 21, I was injecting on a daily basis and I had a major amphetamines problem."
She found herself in a violent relationship and soon began gambling.
"So my life just spiralled out of control and I had six concurrent addictions," she said. "I was on pot, on amphetamines, I was an alcoholic, I was a gambler, I was on antidepressants and cigarettes."
Since achieving sobriety three years ago, Miss Lewis has gained insight into the mental turmoil that was fuelling her decisions.
"I didn't understand until the last couple of years, since I've given up my addictions, what I was actually doing," she said. "I was masking the pain of my violent childhood. I had a really violent relationship as well so I didn't break the cycle."
Miss Lewis speaks candidly and honestly about her 37 years on drugs from her Cardiff home, where she now lives an "amazing" life with a "loving and supportive" partner while working as a bartender. She has just returned from a trip to Greece. Last year she went to Hawaii and Canada.
It is a world away from where she was three years ago, but that is a hell to which she vows she will never return.
"My mantra today is: one's too many, a thousand will never be enough," she said. "I just know that if I touch anything I am just going to go straight back into it. I just can not touch it."
She believes the biggest danger of ice is its potency.
"I was absolutely addicted to ice straight away," she said.
"Once you've had it a few times your body almost craves it and if you don't have it, you just don't feel right. It's physical and mental. If I didn't have it, I just never felt right, I always felt like something was missing."
As her addiction progressed and she needed more methamphetamine, she turned to shoplifting and selling marijuana to fund her habit.
"I was pretty much (using it) every chance I got," she said.
"I became addicted to antidepressants because I was so depressed by the ice because ice has a really big comedown."
Miss Lewis said the drug had a powerful impact on the mental health of the people that became slaves to it, with side effects of ice much more intense than what she experienced with speed.
"You'd get a comedown (with other drugs) of course but with the ice it's such a big comedown because it's such a strong drug when you come down, you come down with a thud," she said.
"Sometimes I'd spend three or four days in bed recovering, just sleeping. I'd have three or four days up and then I'd have three or four days down and then I'd get up and I'd do it all over again. "
She saw "so many friends die", not due to the drug itself, but often following a battle with the mental health issues that plague its users.
"I've had so many friends die. It's not a direct result (of ice). It's not having a hit and dying, it's not overdosing.
"It's from the mental illness and stuff and the depression and the anxiety.
"No one knows what it's like, it's terrible, it's the worst feeling."
Mental health was one of the big challenges Detective Superintendent Jackson said police encountered when trying to manage drug users, especially those under the influence of ice.
"There's a certain unpredictability when it comes to calls for service (for) people suffering adverse effects of ice," Detective Superintendent Jackson said.
"There is clear evidence there that it has an adverse effect on the user's mental health, so there's an impost on resourcing when having to deal with that from a police point of view, and certainly with ambulance and health as well."
Over the past decade, as ice has widened its grip on the region, the drug's heartbreaking impacts have been felt acutely by frontline police and health professionals, as well as the services seeking to help users recover.
It is a drug that is notoriously difficult to quit. For Miss Lewis, who considers herself lucky to have escaped her "slavery", becoming clean took years.
"For probably about eight years I was really, really trying to get off it," Miss Lewis said.
During that time she tried many different programs, but her addiction proved too strong, time and again.
"What didn't work was being across the table from people that were counsellors that only had textbook experience," she said.
"I'm like, how would you know what it's like to be awake for five days on ice and not sleep and not eat and pick yourself stupid?
"I had sores all over me, my whole body. I still have some scars on my neck."
The scars are from picking at her skin, a common side effect of ice.
"You think there's worms under your skin and you're trying to pick them out," she said. "It's horrible. It's hard to believe that I did that to my skin."
She eventually had success coming off drugs thanks to a health scare, some iron willpower and a program called SMART Recovery.
"The only way I can say it is I just got sick and tired of being sick and tired," she said of her decision to become clean and sober for the last time.
"You're always tired and you're always sick. My doctor was giving me bad reports about my liver and I was just in chronic pain because it affects your kidneys because you don't eat and you don't sleep and you don't drink."
The voluntary SMART Recovery program is a weekly group support environment led by a facilitator. Miss Lewis believes it was the empathy and understanding from people who knew what she was going through that finally helped her kick her habits.
"I believe it was the program that gave me the strength to get passed it. And my decision," she said.
"But when I went into the program there were about 20 other people that were in worse situations than me.
"There were women there that were prostituting themselves, there were women there that had lost all their children, there were men there that had lost their homes and their families and their jobs. I thought you know what, my situation isn't as bad as these, I'm not to the point where I'm prostituting myself and whatever.
"So just seeing other people in a worse situation than me made me realise that I could get out of it and I could turn my life around."
We Help Ourselves (WHOS) is one of the country's largest drug and alcohol non-government treatment providers, with one of its six therapeutic communities based near Cessnock.
WHOS executive director Garth Popple told the inquiry the drug rehabiltiation program had helped more than 40,000 men and women since 1972.
He said that data for WHOS in 2017-18 showed that the number of residents nominating crystal methamphetamine and other amphetamine type stimulants (ATS) as their primary drug of concern was 53 per cent.
"Obviously not all clients listed ATS as their primary drug of concern which means the use of ATS is far greater than 53 per cent collectively," he said.
My mantra today is: one's too many, a thousand will never be enough.- Former ice user Robyn Lewis
"The increases over the past decade are not unexpected given the increase in the number of people using crystal methamphetamine form of the drug and the subsequent more rapid progress to problematic behaviour for a cohort of this group."
He said governments were failing by not adequately resourcing to help drug users with severe dependencies.
"People with severe dependence issues and complex needs also have limited options for methamphetamine treatment," he said.
Sometimes Miss Lewis cannot believe she came out the other side of her nearly 40-year addiction alive.
"It's a wonderful feeling, seriously. I still, sometimes I still tear up and I can't believe that after 37 years of addiction, like being a slave, it's still hard to believe that I am actually sober and that I have my life back," she said..
"But I don't look at is as 37 years in addiction, I look at it as 37 years in training so that I can help other people.
"I believe it's people like me that can say it how it is, and that's what people need to hear. They need to hear from someone who has been through it who can give them a raw account of what's going to happen to you if you take these drugs, if you go down this path."
Now, Miss Lewis spends her free time trying to help people addicted to ice, and their families. She has toured regional NSW, sharing her escape from ice with communities being consumed by the drug. She is now being contacted by people, locally and across the globe, seeking her advice, often about someone they know who is using drugs.
"They contact me because of the change in their loved one," she said.
"They're losing everything. They're losing their jobs they're losing their families they're just irrational, some are becoming aggressive and then you see someone you've known all their life slipping and you can't do anything about it because most people, until it's too late almost, most people don't get help."
She believes the country desperately needs a 24-hour ice hotline, manned by people with lived experience, and more rehabilitation facilities that can take people immediately.
"What I found when I was trying to get sober was that there is a long process with getting help," she said. "You ring up (for mental health help) and then they may take a week, two weeks, three weeks to get back to you. It's crazy. People need help straight away.
"I would ring those hotlines in the middle of the night, I'd be that desperate person crying and saying I want to kill myself, I need to go somewhere now, and there would be a process of weeks and months before you would even look like getting anywhere near a rehab or a detox, and by that time people either kill themselves or they just continue to use.
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"They need to get them in that window. When someone cries out for help, they need it."
Detective Superintendent Jackson said there was one clear message for the community regarding drugs, and ice in particular.
"There is simply no safe way to take any illicit drugs, but certainly not this one. It is having a huge adverse impact on families and the community," he said.
"A lot of this is education. A lot of this is the community actually knowing that this is just an absolutely appalling drug. It's a driver of certain crime types. There is no safe way to take it. We as police continue to work with the community, we continue to work with health and other agencies to combat this drug.
"We really need the community behind us because it is a community issue. We have people coming forward all the time reporting drug dealing, which we really like to see. If you think there is someone out there that is dealing then pick up the phone and report in anonymously."
On July 9, Miss Lewis will have been clean for exactly three years. She plans to quietly mark the occasion and "maybe go out to dinner" after work. She is reflective on what she has gained and adamant she will never return to drugs.
"I sometimes think about it, and just the thought of it makes me sick," she said. "I just feel so sorry for anyone that has to go through it, like seriously, it is the worst thing.
"Imagine this: I'm still covered in sores from the last round of ice and my mind is telling me that I want ice and here I am, I've got scabs all over me and I'm hurting and your body is just craving for this drug. It's a terrible feeling and you know darn well that as soon as you have it, you're going to start picking yourself again. It's just a vicious cycle."
Her message for those thinking of taking drugs is unsurprisingly simple: "Don't. Don't even go there because it is just too addictive it will take your soul, it will take everything.
"And to the people that are on it, just never give up. Never give up wanting to get sober because it will happen. You can do it. You know I had six addictions and I gave it up, I mean if I can, anyone can."
To report crime: Crime Stoppers, 1800 333 000.
National 24/7 alcohol and drugs hotline: 1800 250 015; Counselling: counsellingonline.org.au; Hunter Primary Care Drug and Alcohol Services: (02) 4925 2259; East Maitland Community Health Centre: (02) 4931 2003; Lifeline: 131114.
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