WATCHING a child being torn by addiction may be the most excruciating experience a parent can go through. That’s the view of a Kilrush mother who has lost a child who went through that struggle, and she has some very strong and informed opinions on the drug problem.
“As a parent I think one of the hardest things you’ll ever see is your child being in a place where you can’t take that demon from them. You can do your best to help them as much as you can and let them know you’re there for them, but it’s probably the hardest thing you’ll ever watch,” she says.
As well as losing her child, she has eight siblings who are addicted to drink and/or drugs, so substance abuse has really wreaked havoc on those around her and affected her own life. In recent years she has taken courses in addiction studies, allowing her understand the issues more fully.
She believes addiction doesn’t completely define a person, as they still have potential for decency and positively, even if it is completely eclipsed. “If it’s going on in your own family, I know the only way I dealt with it was to look at the addict and I also had to look at the child. You have to separate the two. There’s an addict but there’s also the person. There’s a big difference when they’re sober.
“In addiction there is chaos, there is mayhem, there is violence. It’s a different world. And then, when all that is gone, take that away, take that stuff out of their system, you have probably the nicest person that you’ll ever meet standing in front of you.
“That’s the contrast, it’s a Jekyll and Hyde. You have a substance that does something to somebody’s brain. That’s not just drugs, alcohol does the same thing. You could meet the nicest person sober and if you go to the pub with them they’ll turn into a demon.”
Heroin in town
As the years go by the drug problem is growing worse, she believes. In her own teenage years she says heroin was not really part of the Kilrush drug scene, although ecstasy and LSD were there, and fairly widely consumed.
Very often drug abuse is seen a problem that can emerge in the teenage years, but she says it often begins far younger these days. “That’s the sad part of it, they’re not starting in their teenage years, they’re starting younger. There’s no point in saying otherwise, they are starting at eight, nine, 10, onwards.”
She once encountered an eight-year-old in a treatment centre, who was coming off heroin. “He started as a runner at the age of six. He was running for a couple of lads. You know yourself, if they get kids to run and they get caught they can’t be prosecuted if they’re caught with the drugs.
“The younger they are the better, once they’re under the age. He started at six running, he started smoking a bit of weed, by the time he was eight he was onto the heroin. He hadn’t even made his communion and he was detoxing in that centre. It’s scary.”
When her child was struggling with addiction she found it very difficult to comprehend, and it was only after spending time close to people in rehabilitation that she realised addiction is a problem that can hit any family. “I asked my own child, if I gave you a bottle of poison and sat it in front of you, and said to you, drink it, would you drink it? The answer was no. I couldn’t understand then why would you put stuff that you know is going to kill you.
“I couldn’t get my head around it and it took me a few years to get to the point where I realised that it didn’t discriminate, its not just broken homes, its not one-parent families, its not somebody that’s had a bad upbringing. You see this in the rehab centres, you have all dynamics, you have the richest of the richest to the poorest of the poorest, who were in there. That opened my eyes to addiction.”
The roots of addiction are very complex, with differing theories about why some people fall into it and others don’t. While nearly all of her brothers and sister are addicts, after being around alcohol in their early years, she did not succumb, for whatever reason. “Growing up we went to the pub with our parents. We saw drink, we saw alcohol and we saw the arguments and we saw the fights. Did it affect us? Probably. ”
She feels that once people get the name for being an alcoholic or a drug addict, it is somewhat self-fulfilling, because the wider community turns its face away.
“I think society plays a big part as well. Once somebody becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol or whatever, they get pushed out of the community. They’re outsiders. The drugs become their friend. That’s the only life they know. If you’re hanging with a group of drug addicts they become your friends and the drugs become your friends, because the community no longer wants you.
“I suppose that’s the hardest part, people are afraid of drug addicts. They’re afraid of drugs. They’re afraid of what it does. It’s chaos, it’s mayhem, it’s madness, its crazy. The lifestyle that goes with it is just total madness and you don’t want to be in that.”
In the popular imagination, illegal drugs are the ones to be feared, heroin in particular, as well as amphetamines and pills. However, she says alcohol is going to do more damage. “If you ask people what the most dangerous drug is the majority will say heroin. The most dangerous drug is alcohol. It’s legal, you can get it anywhere, someone will buy it for you from the age of eight or nine. It starts you on a road and where will you end up?”
She also feels it’s a type of gateway drug for youngsters. “If you’re game to take alcohol at 11 or 12 you’re going to be game to take anything when you’re drunk, aren’t you?”
While cannabis isn’t legal in Ireland, there is a certain amount of tolerance, and it is certainly more widely accepted than it once was.
She feels this acceptance is misguided, and that smoking it is going to lead to serious mental health problems for many of the young people who start on it, with no comprehension of the risks they are taking. “I’ve talked to young people, they will tell you they smoked weed at the age of 11 or 12 up to their teens or their 20s and ended up with mental health problems later in life. Paranoid schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, you name it, they’ve had it. Go back to when they were 11 or 12 and they were having their few spliffs here and there, then it went on and became a regular thing, went on to the 20s and it was the norm. By the time they hit into their late 20s or early 30s they have serious mental health problems. Is there a connection? I believe so, I think there’s a big connection between cannabis and mental health.”
There are calls for the legalisation of drugs, but she has no doubt that doing so would quickly lead to more chaos, misery and premature death in the real world.
Indeed she feels the fact that alcohol is legal and widely abused shows the problems that would emerge. “You’re basically giving a licence and saying it’s okay, off you go. There’s a restriction on prescription tablets, but they want to legalise a substance that causes total havoc, chaos and death. It’s a contradiction.
“Will it stop addicts overtaking? No, it’ll make it more accessible for them.”
She feels the legal and judicial system focuses too much on punishment for addicts, without really looking at getting people clean. She also feels too few resources are given to tackling those at the top of the drug chain, who make fortunes by flooding communities with poison.
While drugs are easily available, and she says young people from all backgrounds end up in addiction, parents have a big role to play. “I believe that as a parent you need to sit down with your children. I’m not talking about at ten or 11. I have a six-year-old and I will be talking to her about alcohol and drugs.
“I think as a parent you need to be very open with your children. They need to be able to come to you and talk to you. I’m not saying that’s going to stop them, but that’s the best chance you have.”
Providing a positive personal example will also stand children in good stead. “It’s how we deal with our feelings in front of children. Teaching them how to deal with feelings, that it’s okay to be angry, it’s okay to be happy, it’s okay to be sad, not hiding feelings. I think as Irish people we are great at hiding our feelings and not showing our feelings.
“If my mother and father are feeling sad how do I watch them deal with it. Do I see my mother having a glass of wine or popping a few pills? Do I see my father having a beer or going to the pub? … If they see it done in natural way rather than using a substance, then as parents we’re doing our job.”
Depressingly, despite various campaigns around education, she feels the battle to keep young people away from toxic substances that will ultimately claim some of their lives, is being lost. “I don’t think it’s getting any better. Especially this town, if I go back to when I was 15 or 16, there were drugs there, but was it as bad as it is now? No.”