A look into new documentary, 'My war on drugs'

A new documentary looks at the degradation of deprived communities and what drug addicts have suffered because of stigma during the Celtic Tiger era. It’s about how many families buried so many of their children because of drug addiction, writes Ann Buckley. 

A look into new documentary, 'My war on drugs'

A new documentary looks at the degradation of deprived communities and what drug addicts have suffered because of stigma during the Celtic Tiger era. It’s about how many families buried so many of their children because of drug addiction, writes Ann Buckley. 

In January 2016 I was approached by a documentary maker, Kim Bartley from Frontline Films, after I spoke from the audience of Claire Byrne Live on RTÉ One. Kim was interested in making a documentary with me. I was studying print journalism at Ballyfermot College at the time, and it sounded like a great opportunity.

I was nervous about sharing my own story though. As we began to map out how the documentary would look and feel, I knew it would mean revisiting a lot of old memories, a lot of painful memories. We decided I would go back to my old community, speak to people from my past, and try to build a picture of what I had gone through during my 17 long years of heroin and methadone addiction. I was excited about the project, but my heart was full of joy and sadness, all at the same time.

I remember the first few interviews we did for the documentary; I remember I slept a lot in the days after those interviews due to revisiting my past. But my motivation to do the documentary was strong. Having been through what I’d been through I felt I had a powerful message to deliver — by sharing my experience I wanted people to understand that the current perception of addiction in society is actually harming the person in addiction.

The stigma associated with addiction prevents people from reaching out for help. It criminalises and punishes very vulnerable, very sick drug addicts. The State is at last beginning to change its approach to addiction from a criminal one to a health-led approach and I want to highlight what an important shift this is.

My private prison

I grew up in a deprived inner-city block of flats known as Fatima Mansions during the 1980s and 1990s. There were eight children in our family, I am the second oldest. I have great memories of Fatima. Families shared what they had and were there for each other. For me, the soundtrack from that time is lots of children playing with each other, the sound you’d hear passing a national school at lunchtime. There was lots of laughing and crying, especially between the women. Laughter was regarded as very important, as it was a way of dealing with and accepting what couldn’t be changed, but it was also a sign of strength. Most of all, I remember that I was loved by everybody who lived there.

There were about 500 families who lived in Fatima Mansions during the 1980s. It was a vivacious, vibrant community. However, the drug epidemic was on the rise during that time. I witnessed very little drug taking during my childhood other then people smoking hash at the pram — sheds (as they were called back then). I was an ill child growing up.

I had a congenital heart defect, and physically, I was weak. Because of that I was very protected and I could only play where my mother could see me, and that was mostly on the step of our own front door. I found it difficult at times to keep up with the other children from the flats, running around, playing or skipping. Eventually, when I was 10, I received much needed and long-awaited open-heart surgery, which finally allowed me to be a normal child and run around with the others, joining in all the games and being one of the gang. It was a big change and a big relief for me.

My mother worked as a cleaner in St James’s Hospital where she took a lot of pride in her work. Because she worked there, she needed my help to take care of my brothers and sisters. We made a great team for many years. However, the responsibility of all of that definitely took its toll on my mental development. As a teenager, I began drifting away from my mother. I began to rebel, and to be honest I wanted to be miles away from Fatima Mansions.

The only problem was, I didn’t know how to get away.

I do remember my dreams though; I remember them so vividly. They were to go to college, to learn how to write, to learn about music and art, and all of those things. But my self-esteem was very low by then and these dreams of mine were not seen as reality; they certainly wouldn’t put food on the table — or at least so I believed at the time.

Fast-forward to the early 1990s, and the explosion of Dublin’s inner-city heroin epidemic. By then I was a young teenager, just 14, and the heroin epidemic was escalating. In fact, it was fast running out of control in deprived communities like Fatima. The Concerned Parents Against Drugs Movement (CPAD) took hold. Inner-city parents became active in trying to prevent drug-dealing in their communities. It was a frightening time for drug users and small-time dealers. Regular beatings occurred of drug addicts who sold drugs to support their habit, but who were far removed from the kingpins making millions off the misery of Fatima’s children.

School ended for me when I was 16. Just one girl out of my class of 32 children managed to sit her Leaving Cert. I wanted to stay in school but communication wasn’t great between the school and my parents. I was misbehaving and I got suspended, I guess I fell through the cracks. After school was gone I got my first job in a sewing factory. This certainly wasn’t for me, so I left after getting sick due to the conditions of the factory; there was no ventilation and it was very cramped.

There was a part of me that could always see injustice around me. I began to sleep a lot and found my energy levels where low. I now know I was crippled with anxiety. My little brother Marc had died in a drowning accident when he was only eight and now I know that I was suffering from teenage depression partly because of that. There were other things bringing it on too, a lack of intellectual stimulation, very little guidance or a view of a future.

During my late teens, my friends became very important to me. I spent a lot of time standing on the stairwells of the flats while my friends smoked cannabis.

‘It’ll get rid of the pain…’

I remember the first time I tasted heroin — it was called China white.

I was 19. I smoked it after my friend said, “It will get rid of the pain”. For me, this meant getting rid of my emotional pain and lack of purpose or joy, or of any real future.

I vomited the first time I tried heroin but after getting sick I felt at ease. I wasn’t sad or afraid anymore. My chest rested and I didn’t need to think of my future — or lack of one. This dependence on heroin lasted for 10 years, with seven more on methadone until I tried committing suicide. Eventually, I got into a recovery programme, beginning with a bed in a six-week detox unit at the Cuan Dara Cherry Orchard Hospital in Ballyfermot. After that, I went onto the HSE-run Keltoi residential rehab centre in the Phoenix Park for a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) programme.

The documentary that I’ve made with Kim is about the degradation of deprived communities and what drug addicts

have suffered because of stigma during the Celtic Tiger era. It’s about how many families buried so many of their children because of drug addiction.

I hope that communities like mine will never again suffer State abandonment, neglect, and stigmatisation due to an economic class system that doesn’t have its origins in Ireland’s roots. The hope is that this will never happen again.

I hope the documentary will open people’s eyes that most, if not all, of those suffering from the illness of addiction are most likely suffering from deeper traumas due to poverty, inequality, or family-related traumas. I really believe that if you open up opportunities for equal access of participation to people across all demographics this will heal and save lives. It will be better for all our communities, and better for Ireland.

My War On Drugs: True Lives airs on TV3 on Wednesday, January 31, at 9pm.

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