Darien Fenton is standing down at the next election after nine years in Parliament. The outgoing Labour MP recently opened up in The New Zealand Herald about her addiction to heroin in the 70s and subsequent recovery thanks to the methadone programme. Matters of Substance asked her what it was like to be the first sitting New Zealand MP to openly talk about their addiction.
Q When did you realise you might have had a problem with drugs?
A I was in Penang, and I didn’t see it as a problem. I saw it as doing something other people were doing and fitting in with them. I think I realised after I’d been in India for about a year, and I was getting very sick, lost a lot of weight and had no money, so I decided to come home. Of course, coming home meant I was in a completely different environment. I had to talk to my parents about it, and I had to get some help. I couldn’t just go down the road and score some smack, so I went to the methadone clinic.
Q You’ve said the methadone programme saved your life. How so?
A I didn’t have to go and look for drugs elsewhere, so that removed me from the scene. I also moved to Whangarei with my husband, and so we further removed ourselves from the scene. I think doing those two things meant I stopped being with people who were injecting. Going on methadone helped me normalise my life, so we were both able to work, and eventually I gave up when I had a child.
Q To our knowledge, you’re the first sitting New Zealand MP who’s talked openly about their addiction. Do you think there can be a conversation about addiction when the subject is so hidden?
A I think it is a taboo subject, and there are still people who are judgemental about it. A former MP has talked openly about his alcohol addiction at one stage. People feel a bit easier talking about alcoholism than they do about drug addiction. I was scared because of the couple of different things arising from the Herald article. I was called a smack head and a few other things. I was scared about how I’d be treated. But you’re right it is taboo, it is not understood, it’s seen as this kind of weakness, and people don’t talk about it for those reasons.
Q Have you received any negative response from other MPs?
A No, they were great, and a lot of them were extremely supportive. I was comfortable because I’d done it the right way. This wasn’t some brave move that I decided to make on my own. I did it with other people.
Q What do you think Parliament can do to reduce the stigma faced by people who use or have used drugs?
A It would be good if people could talk a little bit more openly about it. Most MPs won’t even admit they’ve smoked a joint. They’re really nervous about it. Every now and then, there’s a frenzy around here. One of the media pack will ask every politician if they’ve smoked dope or not, so we all get asked. Because we’re very loyal and supportive of our party, we try not to do anything we think will have a negative influence or negative result for the party publicly. It would be really good if Parliament could have an honest discussion about it, but I don’t believe we can. Maybe one day we will get to the point, like we’ve been able to with same sex marriage, where people are actually able to say what they think, but it is such a taboo subject, and there’s probably not an awful lot of agreement about what needs to happen.
Q You’ve said the methadone programme saved your life. In a recent Matters of Substance, we showed there were waiting lists to get on the programme.
A It comes down to having enough funding available to treat all people that need it. If they’ve got a waiting list for two months, an awful lot can happen to a drug addict in that time. It means they’re still out on the street scoring and using drugs illegally with all the risks that go with that. It’s probably far better for the public that we treat them early rather than leave them sitting out there. I don’t know much about it. I’m looking forward to understanding a little bit more about where we’re at with that.
Q What would you say or what advice would you give to young people or their parents who are going through a situation similar to what you went through?
A Get advice. Get help. For parents, from my own experience, I’d say just love your kids, because you’re not going to get a lot of love back for a while. Addiction is a very selfish thing – my drug addiction was. I didn’t care about anyone else until I cared enough about myself to do something about it. Hang on to hope, because you can get through it, and don’t give up on your kids.
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