by Nick Kilner
For years I was on the sideline. I watched my older brother Harry struggle with heroin addiction. I watched him go from someone I admired, an attractive masculine figure
that I longed to be like, into someone who slowly lost their life skills and descended into someone I could not recognise.
Throughout his adult life, Harry longed to be an artist. In his twenties, he
dabbled in prose and poems, wrote film scripts and made short films. Harry longed to represent a gritty and romanticised version of his counter-cultural experiencesof doing drugs like ecstasy, ghb, speed, and cannabis—his escapades of being lost to the moment, to the night, to the city. Looking to find that spark that penetrates
through the clutter of just living, as it was put in his writing. Also influenced by his
country town upbringing in South Grafton NSW, he wrote a film script based on his
experiences in the small town of Lismore where he went to university. It centred
around him and his friends labouring over scoring drugs from an eccentric gay alcoholic drug dealer, who had a plaster cast of his erection in a fish tank as the
centrepiece of his house. If you bought from this dealer, the condition was that you
weren’t allowed to leave straight away. You had to stay and have a drink or smoke,
as it was deemed suspicious to have people coming and going. As a result, they all
got to know the characters who floated in and out of the dwelling.
Harry was eight years older than me, and as the younger brother, I thought he
was just the coolest guy; always surrounded by friends and pretty girlfriends who were kind to me. I tagged along with them to social gatherings, to the pub where we
played pool while they drank beers and I nursed lemonade. Harry was traditionally a sporty guy, excelling in basketball till a repeat shoulder injury curtailed his hopes
and dreams. He had a jockish vibe, attractive and fit. I think he liked presenting with a typical Australian masculine identity: someone who only drank VB, kicked back at
the TAB, and followed Rugby League—but in his spare time, wrote poems and was interested in art. In my teenage years, Harry seemed to have it worked out, pursuing
creativity, working as a nurse, and having fun with mates. I was timid, shy, suffering
from eczema, and was the definition of a late bloomer. Harry was there coaching
me through my tribulations and pushing me to grow into myself. In year twelve,
Harry physically threw me off the computer and took over an MSN conversation I was having with my high school crush. Next thing, I had my first ever date, a
trip to the movies, orchestrated through Harry’s words. He was generous with
the art that he was drawn to as well. Through Harry I was introduced into a wide
culture of books, music and film. Art, with him, was a place where an inner life
was cultivated—words, pictures, sounds—that enrich life and deepen experience.
Harry’s descent into heroin started around his mid-twenties. Initially I
didn’t have too many thoughts on his drug use. He was the same, more distant perhaps, but he hid it well. I thought of it as an extension of his creative pursuits.
He loved the Beats, Charles Bukowski, and Nick Cave—art made by heroin users and working-class underdogs. I thought of him as uncovering the depths and secrets
to euphoric spaces, like the artists before him.
Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting, said that heroin use is
always synonymous with the identity that comes along with taking the drug. It’s as if one almost adopts a persona, a lifestyle, one imbued with rebellion, a sense of subversive dissent, where the world blissfully fades away. Harry
embraced this identity as well, I saw at times he almost flaunted his use, he
was the misunderstood junky, influenced from grunge art and a cultural
milieu where heroin was the way to be cool. Until this of course wore of and the banality, routine, and difficulty of maintaining a heroin habit everyday
I grew up in Newcastle NSW with my mother and other brother William. William
and I were only two years apart, yet he presented as older—not a late bloomer like me. William hung out with Harry’s mates just as I did and witnessed Harry
writing and filmmaking when Harry moved to Newcastle after university.
But their relationship had a different dynamic, one that was often marred with clashes, rivalry, and judgements towards each other. William, on his own
journey to find himself, dropped out of high school when I was fifteen and
travelled to Katherine, Northern Territory, seemingly as far away and remote as he could muster.
At nineteen years old my childhood was over. Friends were going off to university, acquiring jobs and embracing the formative period of young
adulthood. I was lost and lacking direction, still living in the unhappy home
of my childhood. Mum was addicted with a level of vision impairment that left
her categorised as legally blind. She was deeply caring and the most resilient
person I have ever known, but was hardened from years of violence and abuse. Her rage lingered through our home and PTSD left her temperament anxious
and prone to depression—her source of comfort: Christianity.
Harry had been eking out a living in Sydney for a few years, using heroin on and off among a small inner circle of users. I was longing for a guiding figure and in my directionless state I asked Harry if I could move in with him. Harry had said he wasn’t sure about it. His use was still obscured at this point, but I knew what he meant. Harry defined his heroin use as chipping: something flirted with, but ultimately you had to want to have a habit to be an addict. Maybe true in the beginning, it was clear he was in denial. When I insisted, Harry said that he was off it, that he was getting off it, and he agreed to let me move into his vacant room. I moved to Sydney and was ushered into his fold with an edict—do as I say, not as I do. Harry lived with his girlfriend, who also used. A few close friends floated around the house as well—funny, sometimes loveable characters, all incongruously matched. During my first night, they retreated to their room to use, afterwards they came out sleepy and on the nod. It was always this way, never in front of me.
Our unit was just across from Coogee beach and the busy city was full of activity. In the first couple weeks I explored a little, but I mostly spent my time playing Pokémon in my bedroom. After work one day Harry came in to chat, sitting on my bed, taking an interest and having a turn of my Game Boy, changing the name of my Bulbasaur to ‘ Binky ’. There was an understanding without speaking. With a calmness in his voice he told me to not be so hard on myself, coaxing me to get out there and have a go. “We’re sensitive depressive types,” he said. “We need to be around people and prioritise positive outlets, outlets like playing basketball.” There were often moments like these in our relationship: Harry offering advice, reflecting it back on himself, showing a sensitivity. He told me he wished he hadn’t hit recreational drugs like ecstasy so hard when he wasyoung. “The drugs were never that good. It was always about being around your friends, feeling a belonging that made it worthwhile,” he said.
For a time there was something rebellious and communal about living amongs addicts and coming of age alongside them. I landed a minimum wage job. We went out for drinks, had friends over. Harry and his girlfriend had their work routine. It didn’t feel that abnormal. We were always poor though. Close to payday Harry always asked me for money and I struggled to say no.
The first time Harry asked for the remainder of my account, he said, “Don’t worry, you just have to learn to steal.” Stealing became essential, a safety net to fall back on. I think it was the age, and something could be said of youth and their desire to take risks and test themselves, because when I started thieving, I found it thrilling. Quiet and innocent, not long ago I was still attending church every Sunday with my mother. It was uncharacteristic of me, but I enthusiastically took to it, forging my place among them. The risk and reward, like a chemical rush. In a little metro supermarket, we must have stolen thousands of dollars’ worth of food. The workers there looked unappreciated and complacent. As a result we could spend our last dollar on a chocolate bar and come out with our backpacks full of everything else.
After some time, Harry and his friends’ tolerance grew and their habits became too expensive. It was chaos when heroin’s soothing quality was not there to ease their anxieties—when they couldn’t use. A sinister quality surfaced from their depths, and it brought out the worst in them. I tried to voice my concern to Harry on occasion, but what did I know? I was like a puppy barking and Harry merely told me to get thicker skin. Eventually they stopped paying the rent and our mother, distressed to the point of madness and mania, had to come salvage the situation.
Harry, unwilling to look towards a path out of his situation moved to a derelict unit minutes from Kings Cross. His living space was a tiny bedroom, with festering toilets shared with an assortment of addicts, sex workers, and dealers. I moved back to my mother’s house. I had already turned to the dole at this point, retreating from work into safety, unable to handle the sharp edges of the workplace—the normalised exploitation, the unnatural hierarchy of mean-spirited bosses. Maybe Harry was right about getting thicker skin, but I don’t think the buffer that opiates offered was the path to resilience.
A year later Harry was caught shoplifting too many times and sentenced to go to either jail or rehab. In rehab, friends and family rallied around him, visiting him often, getting behind his plans and positive energy towards a renewed life. I spent a whole day at rehab, having lunch and chatting, playing volleyball and ping pong. The air was light. It seemed like the past few years were just a blip on the road, an experiment, and Harry, an intelligent uni graduate, was back on his way. He stayed for 10 months, longer than he was mandated for, only leaving to join a family reunion and our Nana’s seventieth in the Philippines. He used the first day out of rehab. William found him on the toilet drooped over, going blue with a needle hanging out of his arm. After some slaps to the face—“I just wanted a taste,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I have a habit.”
In the Philippines we toured the provincial town of our mother. The landscape was full of sugar cane farms and Spanish architecture. Our great uncle showed us fighting roosters and the ring where locals would
gather to gamble. The town lit up the stories that I had heard over the years. This
was the place where Nana gave Mum to a mean aunt at four years old when she
was unable to care for her. The place where in her teenage years, Mum took over
the role of raising her younger siblings as her father drank and abused his wife.
Harry made big declarations at Nana’s birthday about how he was
going to get his life on track, doing it for Nana who wanted to see him succeed. Shortly after, he met a girl at a mestizo bar—a trendy place that mixed race
Filipinos had designated as a place to gather. The girl, an artist who also liked
her drugs, took to Harry and he was off into the night again. Again, justified by
the fact that he was on holiday and it was a last hurrah. I was with him on one of
these nights, as he was coming down off amphetamines, the night winding down,
dawn surfacing, but he couldn’t stop. Our phones dead, lost in metro Manila, a
city so large it intimidated. Harry was inconsolable in his pursuit for an endless
night. I tailed after him not knowing what to do, sad and frustrated, not able to understand why Harry was seeking oblivion.
After the Philippines Harry moved to South Grafton in northern NSW, where he grew up, to work and live alongside our father. Dad was affectionate and loving when it suited him. But he was a bitter man, didactic and hyper-critical, with a ferocious temper, not dissimilar to his father before him. Dad had a makeshift one-bedroom shack, with outdoor kitchen and toilet, thrown together next to the horse stables on a small plot of land in the centre of South Grafton. When we were children, William and I would visit Dad and Harry for school holidays here. We would all bunk in the small room like little army men.
Dad was a racehorse trainer by trade but had also spent time shearing and
droving cattle on horseback. He was a man etched from the mythos of ‘Australia’. An Australia that built up the battler, the bushranger, the pioneering patriarch. An
Australia that functionally denied its violent past, the same way Dad functionally
denied his violence and abuse perpetrated in his marriage. Functionable, because
to admit is to stop—to admit and be honest about what has been done is to change
the idea of oneself.
Before Harry arrived, after our trip to the Philippines, I had already
been living in South Grafton. I was there under the guise of working at
the stables but was really trying to build a relationship with my father.
I was twenty-two and had been forever retreating, my idle days filled with unemployment, video games, and reading about eastern philosophy. I was yearning
for my own spark, one that would penetrate through my feeling that the world
was broken and jolt me out of the malaise I felt. My mother had yelled at me till I
left, telling me to go work and be a nuisance at Dad’s place—her only markers for wellbeing were employment or enrolling in a business course.
Everyone encouraged Harry to go to Brisbane where he had a lot of friends. He
said he owed it to Dad to come work, but maybe deep down he knew it was a place
where he could hide, where he would be unchallenged. He began using heroin
The stables were a place where work and drinking meshed. Characters came to
pick up manure, and take horses for walks, pay in dribs and drabs and endless beer.
I’ve often thought there was a documentary to be made, but death due to alcoholism
and old age has left their stories mute. Harry reflected on his upbringing here,
when he was young, he thought the men had it all figured out, jolly and carefree,
drinking everyday among mates.
Within close walking distance to Dad’s property there is a small row of pubs,
each one with its own culture. At nine am, people gather out the front of the Post Office Hotel, waiting for it to open, ready to begin drinking for the day. When I first arrived, I walked down the main street, taking in the places of my childhood.
The corner shop, the Great Northern where we played pool, darts, and drank post-mix, and the second-hand bookshop where I would buy two-dollar Goosebumps.
As I continued on towards the nearby river where I swam as a child, screams and shouts echoed from the end of the street just across from the Walkers Hotel. Drawn
to the incident, I watched from a distance trying to uncover the story between
deafening wails and screeches: a teenage daughter raped by a friend. Later on, back at the stables, amongst the gossip, I heard the rapist was stabbed.
I left South Grafton after a year to study at Lismore uni, where I dropped
out after a couple years and my first serious relationship came to a difficult
end—not mature and equipped enough to handle the complexity of intimacy, despite my overwhelming desire for it. I left for Melbourne, heartbroken, but
determined to start afresh and to begin something new for me, therapy. The
word trauma was not in my vocabulary before Melbourne and in therapy a story
began to form.
In Melbourne I remained connected to Harry. We would catch up over the
phone—sometimes he would call to give me a horse tip and I would talk about recent art that I liked. We never talked about his substance use. I think he appreciated
respite from the interminable judgement and shame that addicts are accustomed to. After two years, Harry and our mother came to visit my vacant share-house
for Christmas. Harry had been grinding out the gruelling stable work and using
drugs continuously. Heroin, the popular drug of the last few decades, was now superseded by methamphetamine. Heroin is pain relief, calming, and doesn’t rip
through the brain. Ice is ego, aggressive confidence, the user feeling ten feet tall. Its toll showed and there was a change. A sour belligerence similar to our father’s
seemed to protrude from him. I wanted to show him around Melbourne, to have
quality time, to share my growth. But he was drinking constantly and the days seemed to get away.
It was a simple thing really.
He knocked over my plant.
When I found it, he had half-heartedly put it back into the pot, but dirt littered my floor. When confronted if it was my fault for resting it on the windowsill which he tried
to open, a flight brewed. Having grown up with parents whose petty arguments escalated to a point of winning at all costs, we both knew what to say to hurt, where to dig it in. Anger enveloped us and back and forth we went, escalating till my loaded words formed a tipping point. “What the fuck are you doing? Get your shit together. You’re too much of a coward to get off the drugs. You’re not who you used to be!” Harry exploded in rage. I saw a beast, I saw desperation, I saw a deep pain. I saw that he was acutely aware of what was happening, what was overtaking him,
and didn’t need his little brother pointing it out.
Strong from his stable work, he grabbed me by the neck, smashing
me hard against the stovetop multiple times. Then he disappeared. I cried and cried lying on my bedroom floor like a child, the energy of my words lingering through me. Harry was missing for 24 hours in Melbourne, a
city where he knew no one. He surfaced just hours before his flight with
our mother, looking frazzled and high, the hurt still showing on his face. We hugged and never spoke of the incident.
I was distant after Harry’s visit to Melbourne. I didn’t visit South Grafton for four
years and only saw him a handful of times. We didn’t speak on the phone like we used to. At this point his addiction was like an ouroboros. His polydrug use was
now a mainstay and the updates from my mother were too much at times. Just
as Harry seemed to be at his lowest point, he kept spiralling. Harry pawned his friend’s bike and our TV at home. Harry had Hep C. Harry was breaking in a horse
and was trampled. Harry is in hospital, he was assaulted. Harry was attacked with
a hammer by a burglar. Harry crying, he thought he was going to kill the man when he overpowered him. Harry was in the prison psych ward, there was a bad
batch of ice going around and he went into psychosis. Harry tormented the streets
screaming at people and in the psych unit he was eating his bed sheets.
I wanted to look away.
I wanted to look away from my whole family.
It wasn’t until I became an uncle at thirty, when Harry had a child with Erin,
another lost soul, that I travelled back to the stables, back to South Grafton, in
the temporary solace and sanctuary that a newborn offered. I’m thankful for that
time. Harry and I went to the movies; I shared a poem I had written; we led the
horses to the river again. Grafton felt distant, but family is family and the love and influence, no matter how hard, can’t be forgotten, only appreciated. I looked over
Harry’s bookshelf pointing to a copy of Hot Water Music by Charles Bukowski. “Can I borrow this?” I asked Harry.
When Harry visited me in Melbourne, it was at a time when I was assertively trying
to overcome the past. I came from a naïve place, a place where I thought that healing was to be rid of, to purge and remove. To form a new self and feel like the past never
existed in the first place. I pushed that idea onto Harry when I challenged him. I wanted him to heal. I wanted him to start that journey. I was naïve. No one can erase
the past, only accept it, accept themselves and their place—a difficult reckoning.
Early in 2018 I received a phone call from my mother. Harry and Erin had a drug-fuelled fight and she left for her sister’s house in anger. On the back roads
to the town of Casino she crashed into a guard rail and was killed instantly. Harry was destroyed after Erin’s death, he blamed himself. Their child, Iggy, was already
living in kinship care with our mother. He joined them and existed in a limbo
state, using heavily, ruminating the whole thing, having a nervous breakdown. He sought respite in rehab. But it wasn’t like the first time, people didn’t rally behind
him. After five months he left despite his worker saying he wasn’t ready. I only got around to calling him the day he exited. He sounded lonely, but surprisingly clear
and articulate. There was an old familiarity to him. It was the first time no drugs
were in his body for nine years. A few days later he caught up with an old Sydney friend. His tolerance low, Harry overdosed on an injection of heroin, cocaine, ice and seroquel, it was too much for his heart and he died.
When I heard the news, all I could see was an image. Closing my eyes full
of tears, I kept seeing Harry in his final moment. Like a dream, there he
was, immersed in soft light, everything else dark and obscure, sprawling
back on a couch, the drugs kicking in. When did life stop, where did he
go, where does anyone go? The image stayed with me for days. It wasn’t till I
saw his cold body, with my mother wailing, that it finally felt real.
The word trauma often falls short when describing the complex interplay
of psycho-social forces. Despite this I have found the word comforting, helping me to develop compassion for the struggles running through my family. Trauma often
feels as if it moves between the spaces of real and unreal, existing as dream. Vivid, faint, and forgotten dreams. Dreams that sit in limbs and veins, that find their way
into cracks and crevices of the body and into the cells that form the inner voice.
I’m often surprised by what people can endure and what defeats
them. Cataclysmic events, violence, abuse, people find a way to survive, to
keep going. It’s in the day-to-day: a sad injustice, a disparaging remark, a
derisive judgement, the weight of other people’s eyes, a long day grinding
nowhere. These will be the moments that get a person, that burrow under
skin, when it feels like there is no love to be found—when the dreams feel
all too real. This is when a person falls to their vice, when they reach for
the powder, retreating and hiding from the world and themselves.
In my last conversation with Harry he talked of studying child
psychology. He wanted to understand, he wanted a way forward, a way out.
He wanted healing. Harry tread the path unbeknownst, navigating the best
he could through a sea of hurt. My own inner work, my own way forward,
was made on the same path Harry had tread, as I walked behind him,
as I witnessed and learnt from his struggles, and as I gravitated to all
that I admired. Memories and qualities that I now hold close.
Love and thanks, from your little brother.