Speaker by Various Artists

7

The Uncomfortable Silence

by Amberleigh Jack

The boy I lost my virginity to died shortly after. It was a motorbike accident. He was intense and pretty moody at times. But he was kind and wonderful and still one of the best people I've ever known in my life. My friends and I mourned openly. We grieved together.

People would ask, “How did he die?”

“On his bike,” we'd say.

“Oh that's so tragic. And so young. That poor family.”

My high school sweetheart was a Pike River miner. He was a charmer. He could talk his way out of anything. He got the both of us into a world of trouble when we dated. His cause of death became almost heroic. I hadn't seen him in a long time, but I grieved for him openly. People would ask about it.

“He was in the mine,” I'd respond.

“So tragic. So young. That poor family.”

When my Dad passed from cancer we sat with him in the days prior, and he had a stream of friends, visiting to say a final goodbye. We invited people to donate to the Cancer Society in leiu of flowers.

We grieved openly.

“How did he die?”

“Cancer,” I'd say.

“Oh that's awful. So tragic. Still so young. Your poor family.”

Today marks three years since my brother died. The person who'd stood by my side, and protected me from the day I was born, was gone – suddenly and unexpectedly.

And I quickly learned to dread the question.

“How did he die?”

For six months we were lucky. The autopsy report hadn't been finalised. Cause of death: unknown.

He died in his sleep. We're not sure. He was well known enough in his field of work for consiracy theories to emerge. We let them ride. We hid in a silent shame while the rest of the world created ridiculous stories. Somehow it was easier. The truth in the autopsy report changed everything.

Accidental Overdose.

There's a look that people give when you mention heroin. Eye contact disappears. Voices get quieter. People don't know where to look.

If you want to end a conversation suddenly, it's the easiest way.

“Oh,” they say.

An uncomfortable silence always follows.

Not awful. Not tragic. No death notices requesting donations to drug harm reduction. No charities set up to prevent overdoses. No open dialogue.

“Oh.”

And with that one word, somehow my grief feels less legitimate. Those two words seem to overshadow the 35 years of incredible human that came before them.

I've learned to not mention it to most people. I've learned to not talk about my brother much to strangers because the question will eventually arise. I've learned that people don't want to hear that my brother lost his life because he miscalculated the amount of drugs he took one Friday afternoon, alone in his San Francisco apartment. People don't want to hear the word heroin. Or overdose. It makes them uncomfortable. Far be it from me to cause discomfort.

In the three years since, I've become an expert at pre-emptively judging people's reaction when they ask how he died. And I base by answer on that. The cause of death ranges from the truth, to simply an “accident”. When I answer honestly, I know the response before it comes.

“Accidental overdose.”

“Oh.”

So we sweep it under the rug. We pretend it doesn't exist. Died suddenly. Accident. Cause of death unknown.

How did he die?

He died in his sleep.

Not long after he died, I told a friend that I was dreading the day the autopsy report was released.

“Why?” he asked.

“How did he die?”

“Heroin, I think.”

“Oh,” he said.

“I can see why you wouldn't want that to get out.”

And for the first time in my life, I felt like I was supposed to be ashamed of my brother. And I felt guilty for grieving as much as I did. Because heroin users die. It's what they do.

Not so awful. Not so tragic.

And that collective shame and stigma is half the problem. I knew my brother liked to party. I never knew he used heroin. For a while I felt that he didn't trust me enough to tell me. Or that maybe we weren't as close as I thought. Until a friend pointed out that I didn't know because he simply loved me enough that he didn't want us to think less of him.

The shame that exists ensures that the problem as a whole will never go away. We can sweep it under the rug. We can pretend it doesn't exist. We can consider overdose deaths and less tragic than “real” tragedies. But that thinking is a tragedy in itself.

How can we expect to solve a problem that we shun so openly? If you know that reaching out for help is going to result in shame and stigma and potential criminal charges, it's no surprise that people choose to tackle the problem alone. And in the world of opioids, tackling the problem alone can be dangerous as hell.

My brother was my hero.

He was the child that would always want me to come along on adventures when we were young. He was the kid that got kicked off a school bus for hitting a girl because she was mean to his sister. He was the teenager that looked so incredibly sad when he said something mean and made me cry once. He was the man that had tears in his eyes as he carried our father's casket at his funeral. He was the guy that would always tell me his best days were the times when I told him life was going well for me.

He wasn't perfect. He made some dumb decisions. His biggest mistake is etched permanently on his death certificate.

It doesn't make his death, or his life, worth any less. It makes him human.

He's not an overdose statistic. He's my brother. And I love him.

And there's countless like him. For every memory of my brother and for every tear that I shed, there are thousands like me. With memories and tears of their own. Isolated in our shameful grief.

For every overdose statistic there's a memory of a baby uttering his first word. There's a grainy video of a child taking his first steps towards mum. There's a photo of a childhood adventure, a recollection of heartache and tears. There's a lifetime of favourite pets, hugs, tears, adventures, mistakes and triumphs.

Those two words on the autopsy report don't make the lifetime that came before it dissapear.

Good people die in car accidents. So do bad people. Cancer doesn't discriminate based on a person's worth. Some real jerks try heroin. So do a whole lot of good people. In the time since my brother died I've come to speak to a lot of users – past and present. I've met incredible people who, after getting clean, have made it their life mission to cut the stigma and reduce the shame attached to addiction and drug use. Because we all have one thing in common – we know the damage that shame can do.

I've met people more intelligent and loyal than I could ever dream of being. They also happen to be trying to kick a dangerous habit.

No less awful. No less tragic.

Until we remove heroin and overdose from the list of dirty words, the problem will never go away.

For three years my own shame,  my own guilt has been part of the problem.

This week, on the eve of his three year anniversary, the word heroin was spoken at a family lunch for the first time. It was spoken quietly and quickly. Like the word itself would bring shame and guilt. Among some family members the word will never be spoken.

I have never been anything but proud of how my brother lived. I no longer want to feel like I'm supposed to be ashamed of him for how he died.

Three years ago my brother died.

How did he die?

Accidental overdose.

Oh.

Ask me how he lived though.

He lived with passion. With indescribable love and fierce loyalty. He was smart and generous. He lived with joy and he suffered heartache. He laughed, he cried, he loved.

He was amazing.

My brother lived a full and wonderful life for 35 years.

He died of a heroin overdose.

It is awful. It is tragic.

Today I cry for the brother I loved. I don't hide from the way he died.

My grief is real.

21

Darkness in New York

by Graeme Tuckett

I'm a New Zealander who recently moved to New York City. I really wonder if anyone who isn't here understands just how nuts this place is right now, or how close this presidential race is going to be.

The Republican convention is happening in Ohio: A state in which anyone over 21 years old can carry whatever guns they own in plain sight, in any public place. Not just your standard issue Glock pistol on the hip, but a full military style assault rifle, slung over your shoulder as you contemplate which political rally to attend that night or which shopping mall to have lunch at.

There are at least 10,000 people in Ohio tonight who have come only to protest. These include groups from what we might loosely call the far left and the far right. And all of them can carry a gun if they choose.

In Ohio, you don't need a firearms license . The State doesn't even ask for background checks of gun purchasers.

Someone organising the Republican convention thought being in Ohio was a good idea. If you were endlessly cynical of human nature – or at least that brand of human nature that manifests itself in the organising committees of the Republican party – you might even think that they are hoping someone gets shot. Trump is openly campaigning on the 'Law and Order' platform that is always the first and last refuge of the bully and the closet racist. Violence in Ohio as the convention unfolds will only increase his popularity.

The anti-gun lobby meanwhile, by which we mean pretty much the entire Democratic party and a majority of American citizens, can't even get a law passed that would prevent someone on the 'terrorist no-fly' list from buying a gun.

Yep. You can be banned from boarding an aircraft in this country, but still be legally able to buy an AK 47 and a few thousand rounds of ammunition. Even an amendment watering the legislation down to 'hand-guns are allowed but not automatic rifles' was defeated by the Republicans. And this happened in a country that doesn't even have a Republican president. Yet.

Trump's choice of the ultra-conservative Mike Pence as running mate is frightening for all sorts of pragmatic reasons. It was widely believed that the multi-billionaire Koch brothers, who have raised between $700 million and $900 million to pour into this election, were not about to open up their wallets for Trump. But the appointment of Pence – a longtime Koch favourite – will probably change that.

The Trump campaign, that was looking a little under-resourced, should now have access to the single largest political war-chest in US history.

A CBS news poll put Trump and Clinton at a level 40% each earlier this week. And that was before the Republican convention, where, unless Trump embarrasses himself even more catastrophically than he already has – which doesn't seem possible – he will get another rating bump.

The very real possibility is that Trump will ease ahead in some polls this week or next. And that will put him in the debating position that he is most comfortable in: that of the mocker and the bully.

Clinton seems subdued, nervous and kind of joyless. Her appeals to common sense and our better angels are the only tactic she really has open to her – beyond her own version of 'getting tough on crime', which everyone knows is a card Trump basically owns – but appeals to American common sense haven't really worked for a generation or more.

Even here in the heart of liberal/democratic New York City, I see just as many 'Hillary for Jail 2016' teeshirts as I do 'Dump Trump'.

As HL Mencken wrote in 1926, in what must be the most misquoted 'quote' of all time:

No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.

Even a single month of trudging and training around this place, watching the news, listening in on bar-arguments, talking to neighbours on the subway and in the queue at the pizza joint has taught me one thing. My cosy liberal assumption back in New Zealand – that even if Trump won the nomination, he would still get toasted in the actual election – I don't subscribe to it any more.

This race is going to be close. And the tenser, uglier and – god forbid, but you know it's coming – more violent this world, country and campaign get between now and November, the more it will play into Trump's tiny little hands.

9

Housing for the disabled is a collective responsibility

by Tom Adson

I have a very good and dear friend who the New Zealand government recognises as having a disability.

He is 41 years old and lives with his ageing parents. The primary carers are transitioning from a supporting and role to one where they will in all probability become consumers, no longer ‘free of cost’ providers.

My friend's dream is to live independently in a place he can call his own in a community where he feels safe and is accepted for who he is. He is gentle. He is kind. He would love to have a job, but the disability acts as a brick wall that prevents him from getting one because of discrimination and ignorance, or the inability to add value to an employer in the short term. Or he would love to use his skill set effectively to run a competitive business and make money in the manner that the government expects.

My friend is one of many in New Zealand – so who becomes “loco parentis” (a legal term for “in place of the parent”)? Government is the maker of law and as such is responsible to ensure that just laws are in place and adhered to, including adherence to the Human Rights Act.  

A situation under the law has developed where IHC (formerly the Intellectually Handicapped Children’s charity) is being encouraged to purchase ex-state housing, and presumably the land that goes with it. IHC is a ‘not for profit’ entity, but somehow it is expected to generate income in order to provide a worthwhile and essential service.

This strategy makes sense if you are out to make a profit from those who have disabilities. Has the government got shoulders like a Coke bottle, where the accumulated wealth trickles down and around into the pockets of property developers – or square shoulders that are prepared to carry and share the load?

Disabilities are not confined to the intellect and to children alone. They cover a very broad base among (and within an even broader base within) communities, so there is a collective responsibility that must not focus on profit alone – which current policies appear to do.

In any case, the provision of money is not enough. A workforce across a broad spectrum will be required. Building standards must be complied with, and spaces made healthy and energy-efficient.

Smarter systems can become our best resource, to marshal great ideas, material resources and skills, including the skills that many people with disabilities have now or may discover.

The best societies are those that are prepared to generate a positive attitude towards the challenges of the day and overcome them. As Abraham Lincoln said at the Gettysburg address, “The methods and policies of the past are no longer appropriate for the future. We must think anew. We must act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves.”

This is something the government of New Zealand, which means all of us in a true democracy, must take heed. 

32

Sprawled out

by Awkward Orchid

I had heard about gentrification, but I never thought that it would happen to the sleepy towns I grew up in.  It was this thing that had happened in the central city suburbs. But of course it would happen there, it made sense that the houses closest to the city – all those beautiful old villas on leafy streets – were expensive. That those neighbourhoods had changed.

Of course apartments and terraced housing would go in closer to the city. But for it to happen 40 minutes out of Auckland, in the places I grew up in, was horrifying. Everything that is going up in Franklin and Rodney breaks my heart. How far must the sprawl go?

I have always lived in the 09 – I call the Rodney and Franklin Districts home.  We moved out south after my parents' separation. Living in south-South Auckland, going to Manukau was a trip to "the city" when I was a kid. My memories of creepy Santa are from when he resided in Manukau.

I grew up in what was a southside semi-rural town and the family (rented) home is in the part of town known locally as the "dark side", because Maori live there. I’ve always been disgusted by racism in this town because it was the white kids who picked on me for being poor and the brown kids who walked home with me.

I didn’t know I was poor until I was teased at a school in this town for wearing hand-me-downs and not having duraseal on my books. The kids I walked home from school with, most didn’t escape the traps of poverty, debt, gangs, and suicide.  The things that broke families when I was a kid are still breaking families today. And comparing government policies of today against those of yesteryear, it feels like the trap is harder to escape.

When John Key told us to google on Trade Me for houses in great Auckland under $500,000, there were houses in the "dark side" of this town I grew up in. And it really fucking bothers me that despite all of our hard work we can’t even afford to buy a house in the part of town that people actively avoided before this housing shit got out of control.   Do these commuters moving to this town even know they’re buying houses a family rented for 20+ years? And kicking them out as a result?

In the current market, we cannot afford to buy, but if prices dropped by 40% [we] would be able to.  Unfortunately, the city is where the work is. It is a depressing reality that outside of the main cities regional New Zealand does not have the infrastructure to support job growth (especially in high tech, or work-from-home situations enabled through IT) to encourage people to live there.

Sometimes I google houses on trade me in places I can afford (all over the country) and I think, "Yes! I could live there", so I look for jobs in that community and there is nothing for my skill set.  And yes, I could work at The Warehouse or even McDonalds.  But there is no work in the field that I have spent the last decade building a career in.  The career that I am now studying to further myself in because that bit of paper will give me options instead of plateauing.

I lived in Grey Lynn for four years up until recently but we had to move from the isthmus because we were priced out of the one-bedroom-unit-with-no-lawn-or-private-space rental market.  I hear all these stories about how Grey Lynn used to be and now I’m witnessing that change happen where I grew up and it’s fucking heartbreaking.

I’d happily move to regional, rural NZ if you could guarantee me a job and financial security but there’s nothing out there.  There is no infrastructure to support growth in these small towns.

I recently read a piece by Greg Pritchard and Stephen Jennings quotes and found myself agreeing with what I thought was common sense.  This requires work from all political parties, but instead it will become a messy and ugly election issue (and looking at Brexit and Trump, I am scared of how ugly NZ has the potential to get).

Gentrification sucks, we need to empower and lift people so they can afford to stay in their communities. That's what I’m about.

91

The Government you Deserve

by Adam Hunt

From the age of eight when I landed in my brown corduroy shorts and walked off the plane into horizontal sleet, England was my home. I was there for 18 years, joking that you don’t get that for murder . We went to live in rural England in a traditional farming community. I had some time off school while the English kids caught up with my superior Kiwi schooling, then got an education, a job and a wife.

I was granted release in the mid-nineties, and after a brief sojourn in Sydney (where we should all spend a year in our twenties) got back home. It was a bit of an accident – my wife wanted to go back to England, and I suggested we go via Auckland. People who have seen me tell this story 20 years later smile when I choke up describing sitting in the shuttle bus and smelling New Zealand blowing in the window. I cried with relief, and stayed.

Those eighteen years in Britain were something I cherish. I was educated, I got married, I learned about the origins of our democratic system. I marched and rioted, got rid of a Prime Minister and drank significant quantities of brown water. 

But I always felt like an outsider, because I could never quite understand why the British seemed to take such delight in division: the class system just completely baffled me.

I lived in Suffolk, a postcard county with a history of being bolshy. The main town, Ipswich, was a fairly safe Labour seat. But it was surrounded by an ocean of blue. My thinking about the paradox of this English division began trying to figure out why the poorest members of British society (farm labourers, meat workers etc.) for which working conditions have historically been appalling, clearly thought it was in their interest to vote for the people who owned the land.

Sitting in my local looking at men with bodies broken by 50 years of hard labour and listening to them explaining why the guy in the Range Rover was such a decent chap (and lovely children - the nanny doing such a great job, what tykes they are when they come home from boarding school in the summer) would leave me open mouthed (and in need of more brown water).

I went to a solid state school of about 1200 kids 13+. We didn’t get a huge variety of subjects (no Latin on the menu) but I had a good education. Later on I discovered that on Wednesday afternoons (sports: a time when I could generally be found somewhere other than school premises) some of my cohort went to play golf. My mate shyly shared this years later, explaining how his parents had been careful to stress the importance of discretion - keep it quiet or the wrong sort of boys might want to go, and where would that end?

By the time we got to the nineties I had spent two years receiving final demands from the council for refusing to pay the poll tax and been on a trip to Trafalgar Square for a peaceful protest. We got rid of Thatcher (at the price of a VAT rise so those who could least afford still ended up paying - but a partial win). But when John Major was elected (he was anointed initially, as will happen shortly for Cameron's replacement) I couldn’t cope with the dissonance of it any more. We left.

From overseas it has been less frustrating, but still just as baffling. In the UK today they have a principled, thoughtful leader who has never been embroiled in expense or offshore trust issues, who has a long track record of working hard at the coal face for ordinary people. Who has a support base that spans the young and old, the black and the white, Muslims and Atheists. He isn’t afraid to call out the batshit inherited decisions of the establishment. But his name is Corbyn, and he doesn’t sit well with, well, some constituency that deems him inappropriate - we saw it in New Zealand with Shearer, there is something in our psyche that distrusts authenticity.

Pundits are describing the swing to Trump and UKIP (for they share the same DNA: cynical fascist thinking that appeals to the most basic of our instincts) as a call to reject the establishment. But for some reason this hasn’t quite managed to find its target. In our world have been embroiled in an experiment over the last 35 years that is just as ideologically flawed at that which it pretends to oppose.

We will one day view neo-liberal dogma as a fantasy invented by social scientists masquerading as mathematicians. Marx was an economist, and it is another bunch who have invented their own nonsense. This is at the root of our problems, because it fundamentally fails to consider us as a social species. It is an ideology that assumes everyone is a sociopath (which is why it tends to be sociopaths who float to the top of it).

So somehow in the UK (and to a certain extent the US and NZ) a well founded instinct that we are being screwed has been redirected. I can only admire the brilliance with which this desire for change has been directed away from the real cause of our problems. Somehow in the last 30 years it has become acceptable to promote the interests of the few over the needs of the many.

Instead of doing something simple that would have worked (e.g. voting Labour, or even better adopting proportional representation) the British have been carefully shepherded to an outcome that will do nothing but reinforce the position of the elite, promoting more fear and infighting among the people who it will hurt the most.

And that includes the British Labour party. At a time when they could have risen triumphant over a divided Tory party, they have chosen instead to sacrifice the good of their country and the needs of the many on the alter of egos and sense of entitlement*.

Nice work fellas. As Churchill said, in a democracy you get the government you deserve.

 

*Yes you Benn: this was no time for Daddy issues.