Kickham, who performs as the mother in the play, kept a journal throughout that troubled time, recording what John (not his real name) and the family experienced before he went to rehab.
“The journal was my way of writing down all the pain and suffering that was going on,” says Kickham. “I approached Laura Daly, a director, and told her I was thinking of getting someone to write a play and asked her if she would direct it. Laura knew the ins and outs of the story. She got some actors together and we started to workshop the play.”
Kickham says Cracking Lives is not meant to be finger-pointing or didactic. “What I wanted was a black comedy because there are actually some funny sides to the story. For example, at one stage, my son came into the kitchen coughing. I opened a press and took out a cough bottle. I was carefully checking the dosage. I looked at my son and the two of us burst out laughing.” John wanted the cough mixture for reasons that had nothing to do with medicine.
Humour aside, the main thrust of the play is to reveal the damage addiction can wreak on a family. “If someone had said to me years ago that this would be my life, I’d have asked them if they were for real. I went by the book in rearing my child. When he was in my womb, I wrote to him about how much I wanted him. When he was taking drugs, I felt completely cheated. It was as if someone had stolen my child. The pain was unbelievable. That’s what we’re trying to get across in the play. Also, I want to show that there is a little boy behind the hoodie.”
Kickham says that John was an over-achiever at school and was a very sensitive boy. “My husband and I kept an eye on him. He was a lovely guy. But then the drugs began to take over when he was 14. He was using cannabis and became lethargic. At other times, he would be hyper. We confronted him and he admitted to what he was doing. We sought help.”
John progressed to every illegal drug apart from heroin. “The days and months ran into years. It was like Groundhog Day.”
Cracking Lives is set at Christmas time because that was always the worst time. “One Christmas Eve, he was missing. Eventually, a friend of my son found him in a shop with a Christmas card and a tenner. It was the only money he had and he wanted to buy a present for the family. That showed that bits of the boy I loved were still there.”
Kickham is adamant that she and her husband never enabled John in his addiction. “We had to do terrible things that no parent should have to do. Our son would be begging to come into the house and I wouldn’t allow him in. It broke my heart. I used to wake up every Monday morning praying my son was alive.”
What Kickham wants the play to reveal is the ‘sickness’ of the family of the addicted member. “We’re addicted to the addict. But we have no anaesthetic. We’re in our full senses watching everything.”
One day when Kickham and the cast were rehearsing in her garden, John came in and told her that he wanted to go to rehab. “I was cynical and said I didn’t believe him. But my son started to make enquiries about where to go and I eventually helped him.”
John went to a rehab centre called Aiséirí in Cahir where there are also facilities for families. Kickham spoke in group sessions about her worries concerning her son, learning to live in the day.
John, now aged 20, has been clean for eight months and is doing a course, having left school early when the drugs took over. Kickham is very proud of her son. She says that the play is cathartic. “It includes a therapy session which is an important part of the play. It shows what is going on inside each character.” Kickham describes addiction as being like “a cancerous growth that eats away at the innocence of youth.” But she is delighted to say that her son’s turnaround “is like Lazarus rising from the dead.”