Janet Balcombe’s brown eyes dance with mirth. Finally, she throws her head back and hollers with laughter at the question I’ve just posed. Seconds earlier, we’d been getting down to the nitty-gritty of what life was like as a meth addict.
“So,” I’d ventured. “Your skin. Was it a seeping pit of sores? … Or is that a bit strong?”
Balcombe stops laughing.
“You know Freddy Krueger? That’s what comes to mind with your description. So yeah, no. Not quite that bad. Thanks anyway!”
Scroll down to listen to Janet Balcombe talk about beating her meth addiction
Balcombe is smart and warm and funny and eloquent – everything you wouldn’t necessarily expect from someone who’s spent 11 years living on the fringes of Auckland’s underbelly. Sons of Anarchy, Kiwi-style.
Instead of a line of speed, she’s offering me some of her mum’s secret recipe salmon cream cheese rolls. We’re drinking grape juice and coffee, talking about her 16-year-old son getting ready for the school year.
To be fair, it’s been years since Balcombe walked away from the life she thought she’d never abandon. Fifteen years, to be exact, during which she morphed from someone who didn’t bat an eyelid at a 9mm Ruger pistol hanging on her wall to a woman who calls a journalist an hour before an interview to make sure they’re not gluten intolerant.
“You never can tell,” she giggles. “You being an Aucklander and everything.”
But when we settle down and get serious about the real reason I’m visiting – to talk about her life on the wrong side of the law and, ultimately, her redemption – she doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff.
As a 13-year-old growing up in the Kaipara, Balcombe says she suffered “mortal injuries” when a group of girls she thought were her friends left a letter in her schoolbag, outlining every single thing they hated about her. It devastated her.
In response, she developed a hard-as-nails mask – complete with goth makeup and black leathers.
“No one,” she explains, “was going to hurt me like that again”.
From then on, the mask never came off.
That was the prelude to the relationship that cemented her place in the world as an untouchable. It was 1990. Balcombe was in her early 20s and it was hate at first sight when she met Mark – the man she’d go on to spend the next 11 years of her life breaking the law, taking drugs, and standing in the dock with.
They were introduced by a mutual friend at Auckland’s Shakespeare Tavern. Balcombe can’t remember exactly what she was wearing – possibly one of her customised leather outfits, virtually glued to her skin. She remembers perfectly what Mark was wearing – a voluminous white shirt. She took him (correctly) to be an office worker and an arrogant one at that. She was an office worker herself, but there was no way she was going to date one.
“He was way too confident and I thought, ‘That’s just not happening’. I said, ‘You’re just a spoiled rich kid and you’re a pen-pusher. I hate pen-pushers’. He ripped off his shirt right there in the bar and, far out, it was picture city. He was tattooed to the max. I was actually quite impressed. I thought to myself, ‘Well, that’s better, but I still don’t like you.’”
Mark didn’t take no for an answer. He called and called until Balcombe decided, 'I’ll go out with him once and then he’ll give it a rest.’ Instead they went out for lunch, had two lines of meth for the main course, “a big, stinky joint” for dessert and enjoyed themselves until it was time for them to return to work, reeking of buds.
Balcombe had tried meth before and felt she could take it or leave it. The meth she snorted on this date was in a different league. Pure and uncut. Once it went up her nose, “it was like every happy hormone, every single positive feel-good hormone that you have in your entire body gets released all at the same time. I felt crystal clear, like the sharpest person in the world. I was seeing everything – not missing a tiny little thing. I went back to work and was the best typist in the West.”
Soon, they were meeting for lunch most days. Her colleagues covered for her when she was late back to work.
“I did my job really well. Never got fired.”
Aware that alcoholism ran in the family, Balcombe had discovered even before she met Mark that she was “a binge drinker and it would kill me in quite a short time”. She gave up alcohol and upped her marijuana intake instead. Taking meth was a casual choice. She had no sense it was a turning point in her life. No sense that her propensity for addiction wasn’t limited to alcohol.
Six months into her relationship with Mark, her antennae were up. She wondered why they were only meeting at lunchtimes and, just as keenly, “I suspected someone was ironing his shirts. I knew he wasn’t the ironing type. I asked him straight-up at lunch one day: ‘Look, I’m single, are you?’ He said, ‘No, I’m not.’”
Not only did he have a wife, they had a young child and another on the way.
“I went back to work and had a hysterical meltdown. I couldn’t be consoled. That was the point where I had a decision to make. I just couldn’t make the right one because by then, I loved him.”
Mark continued living with his family until his wife booted him out. He and Balcombe moved in together. They held down their jobs while doing meth most days. Because most of Balcombe’s money went on drugs, she expertly sewed her own clothes. Her incongruously distinctive looks were “leather-clad Westie ho” in her own time, impeccably dressed corporate PA at work.
The following year, “we decided, ‘This work lark is crimping our lifestyle’". They threw in their full-time jobs, although Balcombe, recognising she needed the “self-respect and substance” work afforded her, soon started office temping. She had no part to play in the marijuana-growing and meth-cooking operations that happened around her, describing herself as more of an ‘accessory’.
By then, her habit was immense. For two years, she shot meth straight into her veins. Dropping to 45kg, her face became pocked with boils.
“I’d plaster concealer on these huge craters. It looked like one of those nut-covered ice creams covered in chocolate. But the worst thing about my appearance was my eyes. They were just so dark.”
She describes sitting in a toilet cubicle at work, marvelling at the miracle of finding a vein that would accept a needle.
It wasn’t the meth high that was dangerous.
“You just feel an overwhelming love for people, every single person you meet. The dangerous, horrible part of being a meth addict is when you don’t have any. That’s when the trouble happens. There’s just this unbelievable feeling of devastation and depletion. The smallest thing will set you off.”
On one such afternoon, “having raped and pillaged all of the feel-good hormones in my body” she had to drive to Kumeu, northwest of Auckland, in torrential rain.
“We were aquaplaning. The rain was falling in sheets.”
A small “bomb of a car” was dawdling in the motorway fast lane just ahead of her and, in her depleted state, she was suddenly filled with rage. What were they doing driving slowly in the fast lane? And, on top of that, “I couldn’t believe the state of the car so I rammed them from behind. I’d become that person, that monster.”
Later that year, Mark announced they couldn’t afford their meth habits anymore and suggested they both give it up. The idea was Balcombe would give up first, then she would help Mark to kick the habit.
At the time she had an office gig in the city. She was on her last warning and didn’t want to take time off to go cold turkey. Instead, they booked a week in a hotel that was walking distance from work, to make it easier to cope.
“It wasn’t too bad the first day. The second day, I was starting to get a little bit crunchy. By the third day I was just feral. I got through it somehow and from there it was easier. Getting out of the door and getting to work was by far the worst part. The physical withdrawal didn’t take that long. The emotional and psychological withdrawal took a lot longer.”
Returning to her old life without the “emotional crutch” of her meth habit was challenging. Despite their agreement, Mark didn’t give it up and their house was “like party central. Our mates would turn up and party out. It was in my face and I became the joke, like, ‘Oh Janet. Do you still do coffee?’ But I’m quite stubborn and that really helped. I knew it was good to have given it up.”
It was still a long time though before Balcombe reached rock bottom.
“I gave up alcohol and meth and even cigarettes. But the one thing I couldn’t give up was Mark. We were hopelessly co-dependent and it was a toxic relationship. We had fun, happy times but we could also be terrible to each other and I gave as good as I got. It was very, very unhealthy. So yes, I gave up P but I stayed in the lifestyle.”
In 1998, they moved into a place on Symonds St and, needing a front for Mark’s illegal activities, they set up a graphic design business aptly called Paradox Graphics. A friend taught Balcombe the trade and before long, Paradox Graphics wasn’t just a front. She turned it into a real business, servicing well-known corporate banks. She also continued to do part-time office work.
Things were going great. Balcombe was getting a thrill and a new sense of identity out of building a real business. Meanwhile, their graphic artist friend began counter-feiting $100 notes. Guns of all descriptions hung on the walls. On the periphery, Balcombe was aware Mark’s marijuana-growing and meth-producing schemes were ticking over.
He supplied a couple of Auckland gangs. It all went pear-shaped when, out driving Mark’s BMW, a couple of young guys in a Lada ran a red and ploughed into Balcombe, doing $20,000 of damage. She’d told Mark she’d take care of the insurance but hadn’t got around to it.
Mark enlisted the help of a friend and Balcombe and that friend took the Lada driver (who Janet calls “Crash”) on a long trip around the Coromandel, looking for his parents. They wanted “Crash” to be held accountable for the damage done to the BMW. In the end, they couldn’t find the parents and he went on his way. The episode soon came back to bite her.
Not long after, Balcombe was in her best handmade Italian wool dress and high heels, brushing her teeth before heading off for a long-awaited business appointment, when two policemen appeared behind her in the bathroom mirror.
“They said, ‘You’re under arrest for kidnapping’ then went through the process of arresting me on 13 other charges as well.”
Minutes later, drug squad detectives, who had been waiting on the landing, flooded through the house with dogs, ladders and torches. They went into the ceiling and brought down cannabis, meth, guns, cash and counterfeit notes. Instead of her meeting, she ended up in the women’s remand wing at Mt Eden prison.
Her cellmates included an arsonist and a heroin addict. “I said, ‘Hi, I’m Janet’ and they just ignored me. I kept to myself until one of them said, 'Do you know how to cast on?’ This nun had come in with some wool and they were knitting. I was like, ‘What? You tough girls, you’re knitting?’”
Balcombe’s relationship with her parents had been strained by years of her living on the wild side. When the nun asked if her mum knew where she was she replied, “‘No, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell her’. She said, ‘Oh no, dear, I won’t.’” After three days, Mark’s parents mortgaged their house for the $100,000 bail.
Charged with everything from possession of cannabis and methamphetamine for supply to unlawful possession of firearms, counterfeiting and kidnapping, a court report soon appeared in the newspaper.
Balcombe was at her office job when a colleague approached her.
“The conversation went something like, ‘Have you seen the paper today?’ ‘No, can’t you see I’m working?’. ‘Oh, well, maybe you should take a look….’ My fingers slowly came to a halt on the keyboard as I read the charges.” Seconds later, she was summoned to the boss’s office where she maintained it was all a misunderstanding and was given the benefit of the doubt.
While Mark served two years in prison, Balcombe ended up with just one charge – detaining with consent under duress – and served 100 hours of community service. (Years later, she discovered her criminal record did not reflect the reduced charge. It still reads, ‘Kidnaps for gain’.)
Soon after Mark was released from prison, Balcombe “had a split-second moment when I thought I would have a baby and missed one contraceptive pill”. When a home pregnancy test confirmed she was expecting, “I went, ‘Holy crap! I can’t even look after myself. What was I thinking?’”
She fastidiously ignored the pregnancy for months. Then, she had a dream.
“I saw my baby’s face, right in front of my face. His eyes were the gorgeous aquamarine of the most tropical lake. And his laughter was a melody. It was a baby’s belly laugh. It hit me in the heart. I understood I’d just met my baby and I woke up with this big question, ‘How long has it been since I’ve laughed like that?’
“When I gave birth a few weeks later he was beautiful. The midwife put him on my chest and we just stared at each other. He seemed to be saying ‘So, you’re it?’ and I went ‘So, you’re it?’ And we went ‘Yeah’. It was so precious.” Mark named him Roq.
Balcombe didn’t know it – she’d told everyone having a baby wasn’t going to change a thing – but Roq was the pathway for leaving her dangerous lifestyle behind. In 2001, they’d been busted again and Mark was preparing for another stint in prison.
One-year-old Roq became severely ill with campylobacter. Soon, Balcombe had it too and “after two weeks it got to the point where I became so ill I could not get up off the floor. I think I was in the early stages of organ failure through dehydration.
“Mark was stepping over me like I was a log on the ground. I said to him, ‘Why don’t you look after us?’ Because I realised I couldn’t make one more bottle for my boy, I couldn’t actually do one more. He said, ‘Why don’t you ring your parents?’ I thought, ‘Man, I’d never have thought of that in a million years’. I would have just died on the floor. That’s where I’d got to.”
Her parents lived in the small town of Ruawai, two hours north of Auckland. Despite having infrequent contact with them, Balcombe picked up the phone.
“Dad said, ‘I’m coming to get you. Pack your bags and I’ll be there in two hours’. I couldn’t even pack a bag. By the time he arrived I’d managed to pull myself onto the couch because I didn’t want him to find me on the floor.” She thought she and baby Roq would be gone for a couple of days. Instead, she never went back.
Balcombe, who turns 50 this year, found the answers she needed in Christianity.She’s maintained a friendship with Mark and continues to live in Ruawai, where she works as a graphic artist and book writer. Her book, The Wild Side, about life on the wrong side of the law and her recovery, was released in February.
While she says she wouldn’t change much, she will always regret the hurt she caused to others. Devastated about the damage she did to Mark’s wife and two children, she wrote them letters, called at least three times and visited to apologise face-to-face.
“I was just so ashamed and I can’t describe how grateful I was that they forgave me. They’re amazing people and now we’re family. I love them dearly.”
She apologised, too, to her family “for the pain, agony and heartbreak I caused them. They’re unbelievably brilliant”.
In 2014 Balcombe met media executive Ray Curle, 67, at a book convention. For the following three weeks, “we communicated over the keyboard and fell in love. It was just like a chick-flick and I hate chick-flicks! We married six weeks later. It’s more than I could ever have hoped for or imagined.”
She wrote The Wild Side, she says, to let anyone experiencing the horrors of meth addiction – addicts and their loved ones – know all is not lost. “There is a way, and there is always, always hope.”
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