‘Rural Addiction’ is a powerful and penetrating look at drug addiction and the support services available in rural Ireland today, says documentary maker Geoff Power
Persuading someone to discuss their past, present, and future on camera is a delicate process. You urge deliberation; you advise them of the repercussions; and you warn that a television audience will ultimately judge, condemn and maybe applaud.
For the average, well-adjusted person it is a difficult decision but for an addict, already vulnerable and an outcast of society, it signifies a huge step.
In the new two-part documentary, Rural Addiction, which airs on RTÉ2 on October 25 and 26, at 9.30pm, we explored sensitivities such as family and local community with potential contributors.
We emphasised that our presence might provide the motivation to push on with their treatment.
Also, many of those willing to contribute wanted to tell their story in order to rid themselves of the tag “junkie”, to proclaim to local communities how they had “got clean”.
In a metropolitan area, it is easy to distance yourself from those afflicted by addiction, from those in turmoil, whose lives have been shredded by drugs. In cities, people with addiction disappear more easily into the urban fabric; they waste away, anonymously.
Our focus was rural Ireland. In small towns community is stronger. People know people.
Many people offered to appear on camera without revealing their identities.
We explained, however, that we could not blur faces; that the story of addiction needed people to engage fully with a TV audience, to explain openly the process they were going through and what they had overcome.
Potential contributors we spoke to had already engaged with support services such as the Ana Liffey Drug Project or the HSE, at one of their four treatment centres in the midlands: Portlaoise, Tullamore, Mullingar or Athlone.
We began filming at the end of May; slowly the number of contributors grew.
We were in Nenagh one day to record a piece with a woman called Ali, who had a court appearance that morning. It was 10am. We had already spoken on the phone three times, but still there was no sign of her.
The director, Martin, and I were anxious because we had arranged to meet a willing contributor named Yvonne*, at 12.30pm, in Longford.
I had spoken to Yvonne the day before. Yvonne had told me she was 32 and she had begun taking heroin in her late teens. “I’ve been on methadone for two or three years,” she added.
We needed more female participants, so we agreed to meet to talk it through. I told her she would recognise us because we would be the two men wandering aimlessly around the hotel. She laughed.
It didn’t sound like the laugh of a young woman who had spent nearly half her life on heroin.
Back in Nenagh, Ali finally arrived. We recorded the piece with her at 10.45am and left 20 minutes later.
We arrived in Longford 10 minutes late but there was nobody in the hotel lobby. Nobody in the bar and nobody in the restaurant. We waited.
People began arriving for lunch; we scanned the various shapes that poured out of each car but none fitted Yvonne’s description.
The sun appeared, the air was heavy, and the hedgerows and trees that fringed the car park seemed to lean upon the wall, panting. We chose a table close to the hotel entrance. One woman looked promising but she was overweight, which tends not to be a good fit for an addict.
We ordered lunch and ate slowly. It was half past two when we finished so, although reluctant to leave, we made our way back to the car. Had we travelled from Nenagh for nothing? Martin pulled a fag from his cigarette pack, and I checked my phone — again.
A small car glazed in grime appeared. The single occupant behind the wheel drove erratically. Martin and I exchanged a hopeful glance, but the Nissan disappeared around the side of the hotel. A minute later, though, it reappeared.
This time it made a dash for another corner, a more isolated parking space. We waited for someone to get out. Nobody did.
“I’ll go see.” “And do what?” Martin asked.
I shrugged and then approached the car, stopping 20 metres from the driver’s door. Yes, it was a woman, and yes, she was the right age.
Her jet-black hair was pulled into a loose pony tail. Her head was down, perhaps checking her phone. She became aware of my presence and turned. In her mouth was a silver tube about the length of my forefinger. It was a toot. She was about to smoke heroin.
I put a conciliatory hand up and took two steps back. As I watched, she smoked. Seconds later, she started the motor. I tried to protest — to calm her, to stop her. “Yvonne?” She didn’t wait. She spun away, aiming for freedom, for the safety of the front gate. Within seconds she was gone and with that any chance of securing her participation.
All I could think of was that I had messed up; if I hadn’t sought her out, she would have come to meet us. As I reproached myself, another thought crossed my mind: perhaps it wasn’t even Yvonne.
But thankfully other participants did come on board. The resulting two-part documentary features a collection of brave and honest contributions.
It is a powerful, penetrating look at drug addiction and the support services available in rural Ireland today.
Yvonne’s name and details have been changed in order to protect her identity.
Rural Addiction will be broadcast on October 25 and 26, on RTÉ2 at 9.30pm.
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