The banging on the door in the middle of the night was the first Emer knew there was something wrong. It was drug dealers, looking for money. Owed by her son.
“My son was involved in drug use from a young age that I wouldn’t have noticed, with his friends,” Emer said.
She said the group “meddled” with drugs for a while, but that most stopped and moved on. But her son didn’t, for reasons she still doesn’t understand.
“The only time I knew something was wrong was when my door was being hammered down in the middle of the night and he owed money and these people wanted money.
The Co. Louth mother said that she has since discovered that dealers were targeting kids in the final years at primary school.
“A lot of dealers target primary school kids because they [the kids] are easy to give money to, they want to earn and be part of something. They think they are the big guys, told to deliver this or that.
"They are easy picking, and it starts from there. You find your primary school child has delivered drugs for a dealer for a few bob.”
Emer said her son started with cannabis, and then progressed, first to cocaine, and then to heroin. “That was devastating to us. He was smoking heroin, then injecting it.”
To Emer, it was a world she didn’t know: “How can I stop this? You tell them to stop, they don’t listen to you, it’s like hitting your head off the wall.”
All the while, her son’s entanglement with the drugs trade and debt grew deeper. And she, and her husband, began to pay up.
“It started with a few hundred, progressed to thousands of euro. We paid €4,000 to €5,000 and I think the biggest was up to €8,000.
“They are saying to you as a parent ‘I need to pay this bill or they are going to kill me’. Yes. He said that to me.
“To see a person with so much to offer getting deeper into addiction, it’s sad and frightening.”
The terrorism escalated: “The intimidation became worse, the night-time visits, the lack of sleep, finding drugs in the house – it was just chaos,” Emer said.
“You never really rested in your mind, day or night. You were always wondering if the person behind you is following you, is the garda siren up the road heading for your house, is the stranger on the street going to batter your door down. This went on and on.”
Threats came with it: “There were threats – your son owes me money and I want it, and I’ll be back.”
She said dealers would drive up “in a lovely, shiny car” and stop outside their house and her husband would walk out, give them the money and they would drive off.
“I sat in a car with my son and a drug dealer has got in the back and I didn’t even look behind me,” Emer said, recounting one payment.
“I gave my son an envelope of cash to give to him.
"You are absolutely rattling after that, in bits. The terror of it. I sat in the car with a drug dealer – that’s not my lifestyle.”
She was terrified about anyone approaching her other children.
She said they even intimidated her own mother when she was out: “It’s no longer inside your own four walls, I’m now trying to protect my parents.”
Emer said there was no respite: “If a pin dropped and you were in bed, you would jump out and head to the window and look out, every car that beeped you’re on the landing peeping out windows, like a lunatic."
She said the guards were at her door too: “We were on first-name terms, they kept calling. Then you get to court, but it doesn’t deter him.”
Emer said she went from a private person to suddenly having her “private life in the papers”, with everyone knowing what was going on.
“It’s mortifying and I have other children,” she said. “The shame of it is unreal.”
She added: “To sit back as a parent and not be able to do anything is the worst feeling ever.”
The torment didn’t end there and she had people calling her saying ‘I see your druggie is in the paper’ and anonymous letters.
One call had her in bits: “I got a phone call [and the person said] ‘I heard your son passed away during the night’. I spent the whole day wondering was he dead or alive. I contacted the gardaí and they tracked down all the morgues and there was nothing. Then I spot him walking up the road.
“To this day I feel like I am after going through a bereavement, when you lose your child to addiction.”
She said it got to the stage she couldn’t cope: “I was at the end of my tether, I couldn’t keep going and someone sent me to family support.
The Family Addiction Support Network (FASN) runs groups in five areas across the North East: two in Louth and one each in Meath, Cavan and Monaghan.
“I cried the whole way through the first meeting. I met people going through the same as me. They all understood I needed help.”
She gradually realised that she had to look after herself first.
“I had to be ok, I had to be strong and I had to protect the rest of my family.”
She explained: “You love this person, you are trying to help them, but they are dragging you down. As a parent it takes a terrible strain on you.
She gathered enough strength to call a halt to paying the debts.
“I learned how to say ‘No’. It was hard to say, to stand up for myself and my family.”
Emer said there “isn’t any end” to paying off debts: “The more you are paying the more you are telling your son it’s okay to keep going, to keep doing the deals and it can’t come to an end – and we had to say we can’t do this any longer.”
Emer added: “I loved him, but he wasn’t the person I raised any more. I can say it now: he was a thug, a dealer and a user, but he was my son and I loved him. You know they are there somewhere. You never lose sight of that. But he’s lost in addiction and you as a parent want to find them, but you can’t help them unless they want to get help.”
And her son, now? “He’s out of addiction, but still struggling. It’s better, we are getting there.”
She said she would never have got her strength or changed her perspective without FASN.
“I can honestly say, it saved my life and probably that of my family as well.”
This is why she is so angry at the funding crisis facing FASN and the prospect of sisters Jackie and Gwen McKenna having to close its doors after more than 20 years in operation.
“I can’t get my head around it,” Emer said. “I can’t understand why the government is sitting back and letting this happen, when we have a therapy model here to run with.
“Families are traumatised, they have to recover too, but are left to the side – they have been hit by a bus. This group is not going strong for 20 years for nothing, but they can’t do what they do on a shoestring. It’s a health crisis.”
She said the dismemberment and murder of 17-year-old Drogheda youth Keane Mulready-Woods in January 2020 was supposed to change things, with the subsequent reports and government implementation plans.
“It makes me feel quite angry,” she said. “That’s a blatant red flag. What about that family and other families, that’s at the upper end of the scale for someone to be murdered.”
She said intimidation was a regular thing. She said she knew someone who, when asked about lockdown, said she had been in lockdown for “three years” and hadn’t been outside her door because of intimidation.
Michelle faced many years in her own prison, living with a violent husband, with an addiction to alcohol, followed by her son also developing an addiction to drink. “With my son, he was drinking all day, for days and days. He’d go off it, then binge drink.”
She said her son was “badly affected” by what went on in the home when he was a child.
“It was a violent, very violent house,” she said. “I went through my life not feeling. It was one crisis after another.”
She said that even the separation with her husband and eventually securing the family home for herself and her kids didn’t turn things around.
“You are thinking you should be grand, but the effect it leaves on the whole family, which I didn’t know at the time. You don’t know the family is traumatised, your confidence out the window, and my son growing up with that, all through his childhood.”
She said she didn’t get much help from other people and experienced a lot of judgement.
“You’d tell people how up the walls you are. People will tell you ‘what you should do’ and ‘what you shouldn’t do’ and ‘if I were you’, that’s just demoralising because it just makes you feel worse. You’re thinking, ‘oh god they would make a better job of it’ or ‘what I am doing is wrong’.
She said it all changed for her when she went to FASN meetings.
“It was an absolute lifesaver. After finding it, I wouldn’t miss a week.”
She said that while she wouldn’t talk much, she was listening and got great support from that. Michelle said that the facilitator said that she came into the meetings sitting all hunched over on the seat to gradually sitting up and holding her head up.
“I learned a whole different way of dealing with stuff,” she said.
“Anger went out the window, understanding came in.
"That has to have a huge effect.”
She said she learned not to take her son’s actions personally: “When you don’t take it personally it doesn’t hurt as much, the person in addiction is lashing out. It’s how they are feeling. It’s nearly like learning a new language when finding help. You see the hurt and pain behind it [son’s addiction].”
Michelle said her son is fine now: “All is good. He remembers what he was like. We have a very open relationship. You are learning life-saving skills when you go to family support. When you join family support, you change and they change, you lead by example."
This is why she, too, is so angry at what is happening to FASN: “It’s absolutely disgraceful, it’s such a vital service. I can’t see why people can’t see the worth of it. Volunteers put their heart and soul into it.”
She said all the services that were there were geared towards the person in addiction.
“The families are living it, they can become as sick as the person in addiction, because they can become addicted to the person in addiction. Every thought they have is on the person in addiction, that’s what happens in a house with addiction in it.
She said FASN was run by people who know addiction and experienced it: “That is the key to its success.”
www.fasn.ie or 087 9046405;
www.garda.ie for information on Drug Related Intimidation Reporting Programme
www.womensaid.ie or 1800 341 900