AT the age of 18, Jack (not his real name) has been through rehab twice, and now attends four or five meetings of Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous each week.
The Shannon teenager started taking drugs aged 15, beginning a very rapid descent, after which he admits he is lucky to be alive. Now clean and sober for well over a year, he says his hometown is awash with drugs.
Disturbingly, he believes the majority of teenagers in Shannon consume illegal substances. “If you went out and walked down the road and asked 10 people under 18 if they smoke weed or not – if they were being honest with you – I’d say at least six or seven of them would say yes.”
The drugs are available from dozens of dealers, all over the town. “There are so many (dealers), I couldn’t even name them all. Literally every estate you go into four or five people are selling drugs. Most estates anyway. There’s drugs everywhere in Shannon. It’s easier to get drugs than alcohol if you’re under 18. That’s just a fact, it’s that simple.”
“I started using before I started drinking. I started using the day after my 15th birthday, it was the first time I ever used drugs. I used weed. My birthday is in October and by Halloween night I had started taking coke and speed, so there was no progression from a soft drug to a hard drug, it happened in the space of literally 10 days. There was no working my way through it.”
The first time he got drugs was at a bonfire on Tullyglass Hill, from a friend who himself was only 17.
While he hadn’t been shy anyway, the drugs brought him to a new plane of confidence very quickly. “I was never really a quiet kid or anything, but it kind of brought me out of myself. I had a lot of mental health issues at the time and it brought me out of myself massively. I felt like I could do anything, I could do what I wanted, no one could tell me what to do. To be honest, I thought I was God, I kind of felt above everyone else.”
It was a buzz he knew he wanted more of. “I took it and I wanted it more straight away, from the start. Straight away I took it and I was like, I want more of this, I want to get as much of this as I can and as often as I can.”
The descent was fast. As a teenager he had little money and he soon burned through every cent he had. Around Christmas he tried to take his own life and it was at this point that his parents found out how serious their son’s problems were.
“They were shocked, it kind of came out of nowhere. I always got in trouble in school but it was nothing major, just being cheeky and stuff. It was never anything major like. They were shocked, they said we’ll give you the money to pay off the people you owe, but you need to stop. I got sent to CAMS then, which is for people with mental health issues under the age of 18. They said I had loads of different things wrong with me, things like ADHD, OCD, loads of things that I don’t really know what they mean, they basically said the reason I used drugs was to self-medicate,” he recalls.
A couple of years on, he believes the diagnoses he received were flawed, and he used them as a way to justify the continuing drug abuse. “Every time I got caught taking drugs after that, it was, ‘Sure the counsellor said I’m using it to self-medicate.’ To be honest it was a load of bollocks, it wasn’t real. I don’t take tablets for ADHD now, and I don’t need them. I’m back in school now and I don’t need them at all. I kind of feel like they didn’t know what was wrong with me and they just went with that. I think it was just the way I acted when I was drinking and using that they said I had these things wrong with me.”
‘Why is this happening to me?’
As soon as he was back home he was back using, and for the first time alcohol started to become a problem as well. “I started drinking around Easter, and I had been using all the way up until then. I drank and used that whole summer and I started to see a difference between me and my friends. They were owing maybe €50 to €100. I was owing five or six hundred, up to €1,000, at the time. I was asking, what’s the difference between me and them, why is this happening to me? I decided I’d do transition year in school, I’ll drink and use as much as I want for that year, then I’ll do the last two years in school, get a Leaving Cert and party again when I go to college. But it didn’t work out that way.”
Instead he checked into the Aislinn Centre in the month of May, after months of what he describes as “going mad, getting into a serious amount of debt, taking a lot of drugs”.
When he checked in, his drug debt stood at approximately €9,000, which his parents agreed to pay, on the understanding that this time their son would stay clean.
Unfortunately, he still had lessons to learn, although he did come to understand there was a problem with what he was doing. “I went into treatment, I done the six-week programme up there and I realised by the end of it that I did have a problem with drugs, that I wasn’t able to use recreationally or normally, the way most people can if they do use drugs. Maybe use on a Friday night if they’re going out and then stop. I couldn’t stop. I came out of treatment and I stopped taking drugs for a period of time and started drinking because I thought drink wasn’t a drug, and I drank myself stupid.”
Significantly, he wouldn’t accept that alcohol was a major problem. “I started to go to NA meetings and trying to stay clean, but I wouldn’t accept the fact that drink is a drug, which is what they’d say at the meetings. I drank and I went back to drugs, I drank and used on and off for a year. I ended up back in the exact same place, owing a couple of thousand euro.”
Around this time there were suicide attempts, and he finally reached a position where he knew he wanted to change for himself. “I decided I can’t do this no more, couldn’t keep going the way I was. I decided to ask my parents could I go back to treatment for a second time and try. I wanted it this time, this time I wanted to change it because I knew I couldn’t keep doing it no more, I knew I’d die or end up in jail.”
A second stint in rehab did have the desired effect, and he has avoided drugs since. “At the moment I’ve just gone 15 months clean and I’m coming up to 16 months sober. When I came out I started going to Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and ever since I haven’t picked up a drink or a drug. It worked when I wanted it, it didn’t work the first time because I didn’t want it.”
Now he feels like a different young man, more comfortable in his own skin, without needing chemicals to cope. “I feel good in myself, I’m happy for the first time in my life that I can remember, do you know what I mean? I don’t want to be someone else, I don’t need something to make me feel better. I can deal with life on life’s terms, I suppose, and be who I want to be, not be somebody I think I have to be.”
He has gone back into education, but he needed to get away from where he had been taught, to a place where he didn’t have expectations to live down to. “When it comes to addiction it’s not just all about the drugs, it’s attitudes, behaviours, everything that comes with it. I found that when I went back to school around all my old friends and stuff, I still was trying to be the person they wanted me to be, the kind of loudmouth, hard man, acting the bollocks. I knew what I was doing was wrong, I knew I shouldn’t treat other people the way I was, but I still felt I had to do it, I have to impress my friends, I have to be the big man, I couldn’t act normal. I decided to get a change of scenery, where no one knows me or my past so I can just go out there and be me and don’t have to hide who I am.”
Jack has rebuilt trust with his family, including a younger sibling who was nervous of him. “He’s seen a lot of stuff he shouldn’t have seen at a young age, me using and drinking in front of him, all that kind of stuff.”
While he consumed multiple substances that are prohibited, there was no real concern about the law.
Although Jack didn’t sell drugs himself, he did errands for the dealers and got away with it entirely. “I never sold drugs but I don’t pretend to be any better than people who do, but when I had drugs I had to take them, I couldn’t give them away, even if it was for money. I couldn’t do it, I needed them. But there were often times when I’d move drugs for people, serious quantities of drugs, and I’d move them from one place to another. I never ran into the Guards. The only time I did run into them they asked me if I had anything, they patted me down for literally two seconds.”
Although he was beaten up only once as a result of his debts, those close to him were threatened and he says drug dealers are totally ruthless. “My father had someone call to the door and threaten to slit his whole face open if the money wasn’t there by the next day. My sister was threatened, that if her brother didn’t pay the money she would be paying it. A grown man called to the house and threatened my mother while I was in treatment. Often my house was threatened, I’ve been threatened a million and one times. They don’t care, they’ll get money however they have to do it.”
While his debts to dealers are cleared now, he is still paying back a business from which he robbed what he describes as “a serious amount of money”, as the drive to make amends continues.
Jack feels he needs the support of people who can understand his experience, meaning attending several meetings of NA and AA each week is vital to him. “Each to their own, but for me I can’t do it by myself. I need people who are in the same situation as me, who think the same, feel the same, act the same, to get well. It’s more than just not using or drinking, it’s about changing the person you are, the way you live. There’s a lot of different things to it, it’s not as simple as putting down the drink and drugs and everything will be fine.”
His education has been stunted by the extremity of his substance abuse, but now that he is back on a proper course, he feels he can deliver something positive from his experience and wants to move into addiction therapy. “I’ve found from my own experience that people who have been through it are more equipped to deal with it, rather than people who sound more like they’re talking for a text book than experience.”
Ultimately he believes that he, and others with a similar make-up, just can’t take certain substances. “A lot of people I know might on a Friday night or Saturday night use coke and go to the [well-known nightspot]. They’d be hanging on a Sunday, go to work on a Monday and work through the week. If people can use drugs normally that’s fine, but if you use them the way I do or anyone who has an addictive personality does, I’d just say stop as soon as you can because it’s not a life. It’s just living in misery, you’re just existing, floating through the days, you’re not enjoying life, I didn’t want to live no more, I’m just lucky I never did die.”
Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.