Special Report: Recovering crack addicts tell of drug's horrors

Paranoid spiral of getting high, selling drugs, stealing, being stolen from, going to jail, getting released, and getting high again
Special Report: Recovering crack addicts tell of drug's horrors
Clients of Teach Mhuire, Western Road, Cork which is step-down facility for recovering addicts. Picture Dan Linehan

High on crack cocaine, Aaron carried a knife and kept his shoes tied tight, constantly prepped to either fight or run.

He stabbed a dealer in the face to get a fix — knowing that the high would only last minutes while the scars could last a lifetime.

But the noose of addiction was too tight to allow any oxygen of reason through.

Life was a sickening spiral of getting high, selling drugs, stealing, being stolen from, going to jail or barricading himself into homeless hostels, too paranoid to leave his room.

Every day was a desperate pitch to feed the hungry ghosts of addiction. A €50 rock of crack would bring an intense high that evaporated almost as quickly as it came, leaving Aaron deeply paranoid and desperate to get another fix.

Aaron, not his real name, is now 26. Polite, with a warm smile and easy charm, after four months in addiction charity Cuan Mhuire’s step-down supported housing facility in Cork, Aaron is excited to start an apprenticeship and is building a new life for himself and his family.

The birth of his baby daughter made him seek help and he said that he will never return to his chaotic old life which almost killed him.

“My whole life was unmanageable,” he said. “It revolved around drink and drugs. I had a child on the way and I had to say ‘this is it.’ I was 14 when I started taking tabs and E’s [ecstasy]. It made me feel good, like I was part of something.

I was about 22 when I first tried crack. It was the best feeling I ever had. It just removes you from life.

 

"But when that gets a hold of you it’s as bad, if not worse, than the heroin. You have to keep going until you have no money left or there’s nothing left to rob.

“The high only lasts for a few minutes so you're constantly chasing it, you can never have enough.” 

Aaron said that the drug that he first tried ‘to be one of the boys” eventually lost him his home, his family, everything. And he is now speaking out to warn people of its dangers.

Crack is a free base form of cocaine. Powder cocaine (cocaine hydrochloride) is heated in a pan with baking soda to remove the hydrochloride until a solid rock is formed. An alkaline solution, like ammonia, can alternatively be used with a solvent which is evaporated to extract almost pure cocaine crystals.

This form of cocaine can be smoked or injected, hitting the bloodstream faster and with more impact than snorting it in powder form.

“It looks like a small white crystal. It’s €50 for one rock, and that’s gone in 15 - 20 minutes. You can smoke it in a pipe or a can. Or you can inject it.” 

Aaron said that the drug made him intensely paranoid. He would lock himself into his room at the homeless hostel with three rocks of crack and “two or three pipes later” he’d board up the door and block out the windows.

“It [the high from crack cocaine] is a nice feeling when you’re up, but 30 or 40 seconds later the paranoia and anxiety kicks in.

“I couldn’t talk to anyone. I’d take the gear [heroin] to try to come down, and smoke joints but all that night you’d be up in a heap. There’s no snapping out of it.

“You could definitely see people snapping and stabbing the person they’re with just over pure paranoia.” 

Crack cocaine, he said, fuels violence.

'The high only lasts for a few minutes so you're constantly chasing it, you can never have enough'. Picture Dan Linehan
'The high only lasts for a few minutes so you're constantly chasing it, you can never have enough'. Picture Dan Linehan

“I always had my shoes tied tight in case I had to run from the guards or fight. You don’t know what’s around the corner.

“I used to carry a knife every day, even going to the shop. I wouldn’t leave the house without a knife. Just to let people know that you had it, so when you were selling bags [of drugs], they’d know that you were carrying it.

“A fella selling bags would be grand one day, the next he’d be swinging blades. If I had a blade on me they’d think twice.” 

One day, stoned on crack, Aaron and two friends decided to mug a drug dealer.

“Two of the boys chased him, I pulled out a blade, ran towards him, I should have just tried to scare him but without even thinking I cut him. Just to get his money. Knowing that the money is going to be gone again any minute.

“I cut him on the face. It’s something I really regret. There was no need for it at all. It all happened so fast because I was out of it. He didn’t die but they’re the chances you take for drugs.” 

Aaron noticed increasing numbers of people turning to crack as its availability and popularity soared in Cork over the last two to three years.

He had started selling it to feed his own expensive addiction and there was a ready market.

“Sometimes I’d take the money and not bring the drugs back," he said.

“I’d rob people. I’d rob from family and people I was close to, even people in the [homeless] hostel knowing that I’d have to come back that night and face them. But you wouldn’t care once you had it [crack].” 

Aaron was jailed for three years with one year suspended for two burglaries and one robbery.

For six years, his life was a constant circle of going to prison for a few months, getting out, “going mad” on drugs and getting imprisoned again.

“I often cried and said to myself, ‘I can’t do this.’ But the next day I’d do it again. It was impossible to just stop. I had to go into a detox place.” Aaron said that it took him four months to get a place in treatment but once in, he was determined to succeed.

“It was my first time in treatment. I said to myself, ‘no matter how hard it gets I’m staying here, I’m not leaving. I want to make something of myself.’ 

“This [treatment] is the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s opened my eyes, making me live in the real world. When you’re on drugs you’re living in your own bubble, going from day to day, just thinking about how you’ll get the next fix. Nothing else matters.

I do not want to go back there. Losing everything, having to rob for money. I have no desire to use now at all.

"I think that easier access to detox facilities and to step-down housing like this would help a lot of people get clean."

James, 29, also from Cork, has been in Teach Mhuire, Cuan Mhuire’s step-down facility for recovering addicts for five weeks.

James, not his real name, said that when he first started using crack cocaine about four years ago, it was very rare in Cork.

“You’d nearly have to go to Dublin for it,” he said. “But now it’s everywhere. Cork is riddled in crack. You go up to buy a bag of heroin and it’s standard to have a bag of crack with it.

“Every drug dealer in Cork is selling it. It’s like a new thing in Cork.” 

James, who had been using heroin for years before he tried crack, said that he found this new lethal vice “very addictive”.

“Crack gets hold of you straight away. It’s so instant," he said. 

It’s that euphoric feeling multiplied by 100 compared to heroin.

“But it’s gone like that. In a minute. So you could easily spend €1,000 a night on it if you had the money.” James started selling heroin and crack cocaine to feed his own habit.

“I was selling a lot of drugs so I could use myself for free. I took nearly an eighth of gear a day and six or seven €50 rocks of crack a day for four years.

“I’d need it just to get out of bed in the morning. Even to go to bed. Although I couldn’t sleep. You wouldn’t sleep for three or four days in a row. Your head would be fucked up from that alone. You would be seeing things, talking to people who aren’t there. To do anything I had to smoke a bit of crack.” 

He was arrested at the house he rented and his landlord evicted him. 

suddenly, he was living a “horrible” life on the streets, taking shelter in homeless hostels at night and chasing drugs or stealing all day.

“From the moment you open your eyes and walk out of that Simon or Vincent's [homeless hostel], it starts there. It’s a constant circle all day, every day. Of robbing, getting robbed. It’s horrible.” James has served time in jail for robberies and assaults. He said that he would steal and attack people to get drugs.

And he’s been hospitalised in a crack-induced psychosis, with no memory of anything for three or four days in a row.

“The psychosis from crack could last for days," he said.

“You end up in a mental hospital or in a hospital with your heart beating out of your chest about to have a heart attack. You could do anything and not know you’re after doing it when you’re off your head on that stuff.

“You could be doing serious shit and you wouldn’t know.” 

Picture Dan Linehan
Picture Dan Linehan

Suicidal ideation is also common with crack, James said, and both he and Aaron have lost “countless” friends and acquaintances to overdoses and suicide.

“You just don’t want to live,” James said. “If you can’t get drugs you literally don’t want to be on this planet. You have suicidal thoughts. You’re trying to block out your past, and look after your sickness. Life is not good.

A lot of people kill themselves from it. And there are a lot of overdoses.

Sitting in the rain outside the Cork Simon Community’s homeless hostel, James hit rock bottom.

He was so ‘strung out” that when his partner called to ask him to see their children, he didn’t want to go.

“I remember thinking, ‘you don’t even want to go see your kids or your partner.’ Sitting on the curb in the pissing rain outside Simon, thinking this life is no good. You’re after losing your house, everything you had is gone through addiction.

“But thinking about my two kids and my partner got me through. I thought ‘there must be a way out.’ Then I got into Bruree [Cuan Mhuire’s drug rehabilitation centre in Limerick].” 

Both James and Aaron credit Cuan Mhuire with changing their lives for the better and believe that more supports like it should be available to help addicts recover and turn their lives around.

James also believes that earlier intervention at school would teach children, who perhaps are exposed to drug use at home, that drugs are dangerous and can destroy your life.

“Drug awareness needs to start in primary school before you go into secondary school,” James said. 

I was dabbling with weed in primary school. I know they do drug awareness in secondary schools but there’s not enough of it and it’s too late.

“For a long time I believed there was no help for me. That there was no way out of this. But then you come into treatment and you realise that there is another life. This place gives you really good support.”

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