RORY Norris promised to stop using heroin when he turned 30.
He never asked to be an addict, but addiction has no social boundaries – a kid from a private school in Brisbane born to a devout Catholic mum could still get caught in a drug-abuse trap.
“I started smoking marijuana at school, and then got into harder drugs,” he said.
“And then, found heroin (at 17) and haven’t been able to put it down since.”
Like countless other heroin users, the addictive opioid cast a shadow over Rory’s worries.
“It feels like a blanket of love around you,” he said.
“Yeah, it’s so good but it’s so bad because with heroin you can’t pick it up and put it down; you need it to function.
“So it’s a curse at the same time.
“What they say about ‘the monkey on your back’? That’s heroin.
“It’s always there. You’ll always think about it.”
It’s also an expensive habit setting heroin addicts back $1000 a day, money Rory has picked up from “all different sorts”.
“But I just have to learn to hate it because it takes me away from my freedom, family, morals, and beliefs, and all that sort of thing,” he said.
The worst prison would be a closed heart.
St John Paul II
Sentenced to an addiction
RORY’S dependence on heroin grew the moment he was thrown behind bars.
It happened after a casual night of drinking and clubbing in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley.
Rory had stopped using heroin, and was earning a living, spending some of his earnings on a night out on the town.
The evening went smoothly until Rory had an altercation with a group of men and threw a punch, which he says was in self-defence.
He was charged with grievous bodily harm and sent to jail.
“Prison made (the addiction) a thousand times worse,” he said.
“And so in prison you get pretty much no help with drugs.
“Which is why I’ve been in and out.
“I’ve been to all the Brisbane prisons, basically.”
Rory has weaved in and out of prison six times over the past 10 years.
“The most I’ve been out is, I think, six months,” he said.
“Also when I get out of jail, I have a lot of nerves and fear of failure and all that.
“So I’d always turn to the heroin because it numbs everything, takes away all of the nerves and fear.”
Getting his heroin fix isn’t too hard, either.
“So usually when I would get out of jail, I’d be using heroin an hour later,” he said.
One hour of temporary relief has cost him years without his family by his side, particularly his four brothers.
“Now they’ve all got girlfriends and a life, so…”
He owes his life to his parents.
“Mum and Dad, they’re awesome,” he said.
“So if it wasn’t for them I’d probably be dead, or overdose, which is something to live for.”
I was in prison and you visited me.
A string of blessings
BRISBANE priest Fr Kevin Ryan began writing a regular column for The Catholic Leader in 1994, soon becoming one of the newspaper’s most popular writers.
Ten years later he met Rory Norris inside a Brisbane prison. Fr Ryan, who was serving as a prison chaplain, had just one message for young Rory.
“To get off the drugs,” Rory recalls.
Fr Ryan’s death in March 2011 came as shock.
“Before Fr Kevin Ryan passed away, he’s probably the best thing that happened to me in jail,” Rory said.
“I could relate to him and the guidance he used to give me.
“With the Church aspect, (Fr Ryan) didn’t try and force it on people.
“He would, if they were into it, he would be more than happy.
“But, if not, he’s just happy to talk about life, and how things are.”
Rory says religion and drugs made a strange cocktail for an active addict, but it was his own religious painting that caught the attention of the Catholic Church’s most famous leader.
Inside his cell in early 2015, Rory stared at a peaceful statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
He held a brush in one hand and turned back and forth from the statue to an empty canvas.
Stroke after stroke, she became his new muse, a distraction from useless chitter-chatter about drugs and crime.
His mum Francine Walker suggested he add elements of his struggle with heroin and jail to personalise the painting.
“So I just put tattoo style (images) and the barbed wire,” he said.
The two-week project inside a high-security prison even attracted the attention of the inmates.
“Yeah, they like it,” he said.
“Not many of them are religious in there, but they like the painting.”
Some offered to buy the painting of the Miraculous, monochromatic woman.
But Rory’s answer was no; it was a gift for his mum.
“It was mostly for Mum because she’s very religious,” he said.
“It just gave me meaning, something to do rather than sit around talking about drugs and crime.
“I’d just do my own thing and paint.”
Rory sent the finished painting to Mrs Walker while still in prison.
Moved by his beautiful gift, she called on good friend Jesuit Father Gregory Jordan, who was involved with Friends of the Prisoners organisation in the early 1980s and would meet with Rory out of jail.
They called Rory’s painting, Our Lady, Mother and Friend of Prisoners.
Fr Jordan penned a prayer to accompany the painting, approved by the Archbishop of Brisbane.
He helped Mrs Walker send the prayer and a copy of the painting to the Holy Father on March 12 last year.
One week later, Mrs Walker broke down in tears at news from Monsignor John Kallarackal who wrote, on behalf of the apostolic nunciature of Australia, that Rory’s painting and accompanying prayer would be sent straight to the Vatican.
“I have been impressed by the quality and the care of details in the work your son painted,” Msgr Kallarackal wrote.
“Please be assured that I will forward your letter, the painting and the prayer to the Holy Father with the next diplomatic pouch.”
On May 5, 2015, Msgr Kallarackal sent a second letter.
“Holy Father wishes to assure you and your beloved son his prayers and please find enclosed herewith picture of Pope Francis and Rosaries blessed by him for both of you,” he wrote.
“Mum always tells me to sleep with them (the Rosary beads),” Rory said.
Rory believes his painting will be a sign of freedom to those who believe in the Mother of God.
Unbind him. Let him go free.
The road to freedom
ON January 12, Rory Norris walked out of jail for the sixth time, determined to throw away the drug dependency that stole 10 years of his life.
But temptation was waiting across the road.
“I met someone (a dealer) straight away,” he said.
“It was just after I’d been out of jail and it was a good thing to say I’m not using anymore, that I’m getting the implant.
“I think that was a sign, him being there.”
Rory says he never wants to go back to jail, or back to his dirty habit.
“I’m just trying to remember jail and how much I hated it this time, so I just remember that every time I think negative,” he said.
“They don’t treat you like humans. It’s pretty degrading.”
Two weeks after walking out of jail and brushing off the dealer, Rory walked into a clinic in Highgate Hill to meet Dr Stuart Reece again.
This time, he would get the controversial Naltrexone implant, designed to wean addicts off heroin, and which has also been used in Australia to treat addictions to ice and alcohol.
“It was the best I’ve ever felt because I knew I was getting the implant,” Rory said.
He and his mum held hands, waiting for a clear path on the road to freedom, which would only take one hour of his life.
“I love you, Mum,” he says as the procedure comes to an end.
Inside the surgery
THERE were a handful of addicts waiting in Dr Stuart Reece’s clinic when Rory walked through the door.
It was January 25, one week into his parole for his sixth jail sentence.
But it was not the first visit to see the famous junkie healer.
Since 2004, Dr Reece has worked with Rory on a rehabilitation program known as Subutex, which uses a drug replacement therapy to lower dependency on heroin.
The program was meant to get Rory clean but his dependency was increasing and so were his jail sentences.
Naltrexone, a controversial drug that is untested but trusted by a small number of Australian doctors including Dr Reece, would be his lifesaver.
The simple procedure would take Dr Reece less than one hour in a modest surgery room under local anaesthetic.
Dr Reece would prepare the skin with a Betadine surgical scrub and make an incision on the reddened abdominal wall, pushing through ten “little white balls the size of peas”.
These “little white balls” were designed in America in the 1960s to block any of the euphoric effects of heroin.
Getting high from a shot of heroin would no longer be on Rory’s to-do list.
“So if I was to put heroin in my system, I wouldn’t feel it at all,” Rory said.
The implant was an early birthday present from Rory’s mum and dad, who have suffered seeing their son walk in and out of jail for the past 10 years.
At $3600 a treatment, or three-days worth of heroin, it was a small price to pay for freedom and the return of their own prodigal son.
On the surgery bed, Rory breaths a sigh of relief, knowing that heroin is no longer his master.
“Oh it’s such a weight off my shoulders,” Rory exalts.
The emotions keep coming outside the surgery room.
Tears streaming down his face, the assisting nurse lends a shoulder for Rory to cry on.
His mum Fran, who stood beside the surgery bed during the entire procedure, could not have been prouder.
“Real men cry,” she said.
The junkie healer
Junkies throughout Brisbane talk about the healing powers of Dr Stuart Reece.
Word on the street is he is the man who can stop Sister Death in her tracks by getting them off deadly drugs.
Roughly 600 drug addicts walked through Dr Reece’s clinic in Highgate Hill last year.
Since starting up his healing work with drug addicts 18 years ago, the Christian doctor has helped between 2000 and 3000 drug addicts in Queensland.
That’s half the number of registered drug users in the state.
Dr Reece (pictured) became enamoured with drug addicts the moment when he met a young woman junkie while studying medicine at the University of Sydney.
“I thought, this woman has a drug problem, so I’ll take you home to mum … because mum’s fix everything,” he said.
In 2000 Dr Reece began treating heroin users with the controversial naltrexone implant, which gained media attention because medical authorities had not approved it.
Methadone was, and still is, the preferred prescription for treating heroin users, despite it being an opiate that increases a dependency on the drug.
Dr Reece said the “methadone people got jealous” and plotted against him.
Their plots earned fruit, and soon medical authorities banned Dr Reece from practice for 18 months, after which the High Court of Australia overturned the decision and allowed the doctor to continue prescribing naltrexone.
The implant was also in the limelight in 2010 after three patients died after their prescription by Sydney psychologist Dr Ross Colquhoun died.
But Dr Reece, who is revered among fellow naltrexone-prescribing medicos as the leading expert on opioid addictions, attributes any deaths associated with naltrexone to medical ignorance.
He also doesn’t believe methadone is the answer because it increases tolerance on heroin.
“They say the standard treatment for heroin is methadone, but if you arrive in Brisbane and you don’t know where to get heroin, where they go is the methadone clinic because they know all the dealers there, so it puts the tolerance up,” he said.
“When the urine tests we’ve got so far on these patients show the urine is getting cleaner, they’re using less and less drugs, and the urine cells they get on methadone patients show the urine is getting dirtier and dirtier, they’re using more and more drugs.”
He is also against a Sydney facility he calls “a shooting gallery”, designed to supervise drug injections.
Despite the setbacks from medical authorities and even a near-fatal accident where a patient pushed him down a set of stairs at his clinic, Dr Reece continues to help addicts.
He feels it’s a calling from God.
A devout Christian and honorary member of the Catholic St Luke’s Medical Guild, Dr Reece believes the power of prayer is what really transforms his patients.
“Spirituality breaks the spell,” he says.
“If my patients give me half a chance, I’ll start preaching to them.”
Dr Reece treats addiction like a bewitching spell, a mortal sin of sorts, bringing spiritual death to the soul.
It’s a sin, but also an iniquity, an habitual sin that “trashes our life”.
Iniquities need healing, which for Dr Reece is the medical profession’s ultimate responsibility.
But the lack of funding and scepticism he receives for staying true to procedures like the naltrexone implant are a heavy burden for the junkie healer.
“Why is the government not getting behind us?” he said.
His plan for cleaning up addicts was also encouraged by the late Jesuit Father Greg Jordan, who played a role in Rory’s blessing from Pope Francis, and the Holy Father himself.
After Pope Francis condemned the “evil” of drug use, Dr Reece sent the Vicar of Christ a small letter, requesting the Holy Father help Australian doctors in their plight to wipe out addictions.
“He wrote back and said he would say a Mass and pray for me,” Dr Reece said.
“But he is so right, so right.”
Dr Reece, commended the Church for being “the only church sensible enough to have a teaching about drugs”.
Heroin is the heroine
ADDICTION doesn’t make much sense to those who aren’t addicts.
The closest analogy that makes sense to non-addicts is the crazy little thing called love.
“If you’ve ever fallen in love and all you can think about is that magical person, and it literally takes over your brain and we understand there is a reward pathway in the brain that’s normally connected with relationships but the addictive drugs take it over,” Dr Reece said.
“And there’s something about thinking, the thinking that doesn’t make sense.
“You can actually understand how that could work because a lot of people have that romantic experience.”
It makes a lot of sense for Rory.
“Heroin is my girlfriend,” he said.
But the love triangle between freedom, heroin and Rory is now broken, thanks to naltrexone.
Three weeks after walking into Dr Reece’s clinic, and almost one month since qualifying for parole, Rory finally has plans that don’t involve heroin.
He says he will soon start driving an excavator for his dad’s commercial plumbing business owner, and with naltrexone and the weight of many prayers, he hopes he won’t walk away from this job before six months.
“I’ve let him down so much because of the heroin,” he said.
“He gets work for me and then within two weeks I’m back in jail and he has to find new drivers and all sorts of stuff.”
Rory knows the sceptics are out there, including some of his family members.
But he is also convinced that heroin is life threatening, and without naltrexone, Fr Kevin Ryan, his family and the prayers of Pope Francis, he would be trapped forever.
“I’ve never felt so free in my life.”
By Emilie Ng.