The Complications of Writing a Heroin Addict from Prison

By Robert Rosso 03/29/17

By April of 2012 Sharna disappeared altogether. It would be six months before she resurfaced.

black and white image of back of woman with long hair, facing trees.
The story of Sharna has sadly become an all too familiar one.

Back in May of 2011, I began corresponding with a 37-year-old woman from Australia named Sharna. Very early on, Sharna informed me that she was an ex-con, a former sex-worker and a heroin addict who’d been "clean" for over a year, but was still on the methadone treatment program, a program she said that she intended to stay on "for life." As an addict myself, one who spent nearly four years clean then relapsed, future emails between us gave me reason to believe that she wasn't done using just yet. 

In an email that she sent me in September of that year, Sharna admitted that she "did a little taste" (of heroin) every now and then, but assured me that she was fine and focused on living a normal life. In fact, she was very proud that she’d accomplished one of her short-term goals, which was saving up enough money to buy a used car. Also, she felt really good about volunteering at an organization that helped prostitutes get off the street.

The first time Sharna and I spoke on the telephone was January 4, 2012. She was temporarily staying with her father and daughter outside of Melbourne and was trying to figure out her next move. She told me that if she stayed in or around Melbourne she was worried that she would go back to being a junkie; but on the other hand, if she moved to the state of Queensland (where she had employment options) she would be far from her daughter.

With federal prison phone rates calls costing me 99 cents a minute for a long distance call, Sharna got a U.S. number so we could talk more often for a lot less. In all, we would use that number only five times over a three month period and during each call I could tell she was slipping further and further into her disease. During our last call, she was so high that she nodded out and had to apologize later in an email. And when it came to our emails, they became fewer and fewer.

By April of 2012 Sharna disappeared altogether. It would be six months before she resurfaced.

According to an email I received from Sharna in early October, after we stopped corresponding she got really strung out, spent a few days in jail for driving without a license and wrecked her car. Knowing that she needed to get out of Melbourne, she moved to a resort town in Queensland called Tewantin, where she went to work in a cafe and shared a flat with a girl that she knew from her working days, a girl named Leigh who’d been off of heroin for five years and hadn't worked as a prostitute for nearly a decade.

One day while at the methadone clinic, Sharna told me that she met a local guy who sold heroin and she began using every other weekend. Because the price of drugs in Tewantin was so high, and the quality "shit," the two of them began taking the three hour trip to Brisbane where she had old contacts. Inevitably, the trips to Brisbane became more frequent and there came a week when she went and didn't return in time to pay the rent, forcing her roommate Leigh to evict her.

After a temporary stay with her sister in the nearby town of Noose Heads, Sharna got herself together and found another flat in Tewantin. This time her roommate was her soon-to-be 14-year-old daughter, a spirited child with behavioral problems who had no respect for her “mum” and didn't want to go to school. Living on welfare and unemployed, Sharna began making a little side money and getting high for free by making trips to Brisbane a couple times a month and scoring some dope that she would then turn around and resell back in Tewantin.

Then one weekend she left for Brisbane and didn't return, leaving her daughter home alone in a flat full of kids who were having the time of their young lives until the neighbors called the cops. Social workers were called in, and her daughter ended up with her aunt until Sharna could be found.

After the second Brisbane binge, Sharna began to pick up the pieces of her life, but something inside of her changed. One of the first things she did when we spoke on the phone was tell me that she was sending me her sister's telephone number and email address. She said that if something ever happened to her, she wanted me to have her information so I wouldn't be left in the dark. And just in case I had any doubts about what she meant, she said: "The one thing I don't want to ever happen is for Jo (her daughter) to find me blue. I'd rather it be in Brisbane in a junkie's flat where I know they'd rob me of all of my belongings and toss me in a dumpster.”

And there were other changes in her as well. Although she didn't stop using, Sharna did stop making those frequent trips to Brisbane and she began dreaming of a real future. An avid reader and true crime aficionado, she talked about working in the field of criminology in some sort of position that would allow her, as an ex-con, to fill, and even began taking on-line courses with that field in mind. She once told me that she wanted to make a difference by helping those who didn't deserve to be incarcerated and help put away those who did. Little did she know at the time that she would soon get her wish.

In January of 2015, Sharna was subpoenaed to court in Melbourne to testify for the prosecution in the sentencing hearing of a convicted serial rapist. Over a decade earlier, when Sharna was working the streets, two men drove her to a remote location where she was raped by the defendant. Twice. In court, she addressed her rapist:

“When we finally got back to St. Kilda more than five hours after you kidnapped and raped me, you instructed me not to go to the police. You said no one would believe a junkie whore like me and I believed you. I didn't look back. For over a decade. But I did think of you and what you'd done to me, but lots of heroin has helped keep those thoughts at bay.”

When she returned home to Queensland, things for Sharna seemed to be going pretty well. She told me that she and her daughter were getting along better than they ever had, she was back to her witty self, and she seemed genuinely happy.

Then came September. The first sign that something was wrong was that she stopped answering her phone. Then her emails stopped. On October 5, I received a short email confirming what I already knew. She wrote: "Sorry. Been using too much." And nothing more.

In November, we corresponded twice and in December I received a single email from her telling me that her ex-roommate Leigh was now on ice, homeless and living with her. The next email from her didn't come until February 22, 2016. It read: "What's new? I think of you often, I've just been….”

I replied but there was no response.

On March 2, I received one short email from Sharna that read: "I can't deal with Ice Head any longer. We are moving to Melbourne on the 22nd.”

And then, at exactly 4:30pm on March 28, 2016, I called my fiancee Marta like I do most days. Right away, I could tell by the tone of her voice that something was wrong.

"Babe," she said. "I've got bad news...Sharna is dead.”

Days later, I would learn the details surrounding Sharna's death. According to her sister, her daughter Jo went in to check on her and noticed that she was "breathing weird." Fully aware of her mum's addiction, Jo then called her father's girlfriend (also a heroin addict) and asked her what to do. She told her to just roll her on her side and go out and have fun. Later that morning, when Jo returned she found Sharna…blue.

The story of Sharna has sadly become an all too familiar one: opioid addict attempts to get sober, does well for a while, relapses, then finds themselves in this weird place where they live as functioning addicts and start having all of these hopes and dreams, only to die of an accidental overdose leaving behind family, friends, and yes, even prison pen pals, to wonder if there was something we could have done or said that may have saved their lives.

When Sharna stood before her rapist, she told me she read him these words: "People have cliches when atrocities like this happen. 'Something good will come of it' or 'Every cloud has a silver lining' or 'Every thing happens for a reason.’ I've heard them all. Nothing good can come from my kidnapping, imprisonment, rape, degradation, humiliation, intimidation and fear of a violent death. I only hope that one day I can fully heal. That one day I'll truly be free of the anger, guilt, self-loathing and the nightmares."

I do find a little comfort that Sharna is now at peace.

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Robert J. Rosso is a journalist serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense. He writes for VICE and TheFix. You can follow Robert on Twitter.