Tackling drug abuse one generation at a time
Inner-city families broken by addiction find refuge at the Talbot Centre
The memorial to those who died as a result of drug abuse, at Upper Buckingham Street, Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke
Liam Roe and Mary Cotter at the Talbot Centre, Upper Buckingham Street, Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke
Edel is a child of her time and place – growing up in Dublin’s north inner city during the late 1970s and 1980s when a heroin epidemic hijacked a whole generation.
She started drinking at 15, got into heroin at 17 and, although she stopped smoking it during her first two pregnancies, she wasn’t stabilised on methadone until her eldest child was three and she had a second baby to care for.
However, unlike many of her neighbours and two of her siblings, the 43-year-old mother has survived to raise the next generation, with four children ranging in age from 24 to four.
“Every second door where I lived had lost somebody through drink and drugs,” she says. “The total area was destroyed over the drugs.
“When I look back on what I was doing – it’s horrible. I didn’t want drugs; I think I was killing the pain more than enjoying the buzz.” The pain was of losing two brothers and many friends through addiction.
“I didn’t realise what I was doing to myself and my children,” she says. Like most addicts, a chaotic and criminal lifestyle went hand in hand with her physical addiction.
“I had to put money on the table for the food, the bills, for my kids and for my addiction.” She was serving a two-year sentence at the Dochas Centre in Mountjoy when she was told that her mother, who “was a great support for me and my children”, was seriously ill.
Initially allowed out on day release to see her, Edel did get a full week out for her mother’s final days at home seven years ago.
“She died beside me at five o’clock in the morning” – just six weeks after being diagnosed with cancer. She had been heartbroken, says Edel, over losing two sons and seeing the troubles of her only daughter.
Edel is still on methadone, but waiting for treatment to come off that, and she attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. She is glad to say that none of her children has gone down the same road – two are working, one is in school and the youngest is in a creche.
Breaking the cycle
Looking well, with clear skin and bright brown eyes, she is sitting in the Talbot Centre – a place she credits as playing a vital role in breaking the cycle of addiction for families like hers. Housed in a small, two-storey-over-basement brick building on Upper Buckingham Street, off Amiens Street, it is the Republic’s oldest drug education and prevention project for young people.
An hour earlier, Edel was one of the centre’s clients, past and present, who had crowded into a community hall across the road for the launch by HSE director general Tony O’Brien of a booklet marking the Talbot Centre’s 30th anniversary.
Anti-drugs artwork from the area’s upcoming generation covered one wall proclaiming messages such as “Hugs not drugs”, “Drugs destroy you, your life, your family and even your friends” and “Leave the weed, it will be better indeed.”
Yet, as a choir from St Laurence O’Toole’s Boys Primary School belted out the Rihanna hit “We found love in a hopeless place . . .” it was hard not to wonder if any of those 29 children dressed in uniform green tracksuits were destined to be sucked into a drug culture that may have changed over 30 years, but certainly hasn’t gone away.
On the positive side, the hall in which they were performing was on the site of the once notorious “Joey’s Mansions”, where drug use was rife.
At the turn of the century the run-down flats were renovated into the Killarney Court apartment complex, incorporating a community centre, while just down the road a memorial – a bronze flame set into a limestone doorway – was erected as a permanent reminder of all the local residents who died as a direct or indirect result of heroin.
Although this part of the city has improved through physical regeneration, not to mention the construction of the Irish Financial Services Centre nearby, “some of the boats have leaks”, remarks Talbot Centre project leader Liam Roe. While there is a sense of hope and pride in the area, there is still an underworld of drugs, violence and fear.
Open drug dealing
He has worked here for 25 years and remembers when open drug-dealing on the streets was a common sight – “although I am not saying it doesn’t happen now”. However, as his job-sharing colleague Mary Cotter points out, mobile phones have changed the dealing scene.
The substances of choice are also different, although abuse of alcohol remains a constant.
“Prescription drugs are a real, real problem,” says Cotter. They are traded on the streets – many of them counterfeits smuggled in from abroad.
A genetically modified version of hash – the “new weed” as it is known – is also hitting young people hard. It is more potent, containing other chemical elements that have different effects on the brain.
Youngsters think it is more socially acceptable to use hash and that they could stop at any time, says Cotter. “It is a real shock to them when they run into trouble with it.”
Most young people coming in their door “are not in a place in their life where they thought they were going to be”, she explains. “Sometimes there is a perception that these young people don’t have dreams – they do.”
Cotter and Roe work with people to whom middle Ireland likes to give a wide berth on the street. But you are lucky if addiction hasn’t touched your family – no matter what social class you are in, she points out.
The difference in the inner city is that families haven’t had the same opportunities and resources. Yet there are people in this area who have done amazingly well in circumstances that “most of the readers of The Irish Times wouldn’t have survived”, she suggests.
“It is very easy to generalise – and groups on the streets are intimidating, there’s no question – but it is very safe to stay with that and not question yourself more about it.”
Established by what was then the Eastern Health Board in 1983 and now funded by its sucessor, the HSE, the Talbot Centre was ahead of its time in realising that working with an individual drug user was not enough, and that family and the wider community needed to be involved and supported if it was really going to make a difference.
At high risk
It focuses on the under-16s living in the immediate area, some of whom may be already using drugs while others have been identified as high-risk because somebody in their family is using.
The six staff members prioritise the building of relationships, which may be done over a cup of tea in the kitchen, playing pool in the basement or kicking a ball in the back yard.
“They don’t feel you are trying to fix their heads in some way,” says Cotter. “They relax and things come out.” There is also more formal counselling, home visits and the centre helps clients navigate other agencies.
It is a simple idea and common sense that the relationship with the client is paramount, says Roe – “ultimately that’s what works”.
“There is a lot of kudos given to ‘hanging in’ with somebody,” says Cotter. Their work includes visiting young offenders in detention centres, which increases the chances of them coming back to the Talbot Centre for support.
Certainly Edel hasn’t forgotten how project worker Gillian Tuite came to visit her in jail “every week without fail”. She was “always there for me”, she says, “like a sister”. Equally the centre has always been there for her children, who have had one-to-one counselling, and for her surviving brothers and father.
“This place means a lot to people in the area,” she stresses, adding that the only problem is that it is not big enough.
However, Cotter believes that replication rather than expansion would be more effective. It is the centre’s homely feel that makes it an oasis where people can come to unburden themselves.
“We are building resilience,” she adds, “letting people dust themselves down and then get back out there.”
I get lonely I wish I could have a normal family and live with them
Anna (22)*, who grew up in the north inner city as the daughter of two drug addicts, has broken the cycle with the help of the Talbot Centre.
Her father died as a result of his addiction when she was six and running the household fell to her from a very early age. She would worry about bills and whether her younger sibling had clean socks and under wear.
“On the days my Ma was too busy drinking or taking drugs, I would make sure we had dinner,” she explains. “I did all my own washing.”
But she doesn’t remember the two of them ever going hungry – “I always made sure we had food because I love food,” she laughs.
Sometimes the Talbot Centre, which she first attended when she was eight, and other projects in the area, provided meals.
Initially she and her sibling were in and out of care until, at the age of 12, Anna was separated from her sibling and placed with a series of five foster families, none of whom she really got on with.
“You had to get used to new people and you would never feel it is your home,” she says.
Meanwhile, about once a week she would see her mother, who she is now proud to say has been off drugs and drink for seven years. However, families fragmented by addiction struggle to rebuild relationships.
Anna, who went into residential after-care at 18, dropped out of school in sixth year before the Leaving Certificate.
She did a Fás course and has had a few short-term jobs but now is hoping to get onto a beautician’s course and fulfil her ambition of becoming a make-up artist.
Last October she was successful at an interview with a voluntary housing agency to get her own apartment in Dublin 13.
It was a dream to have her own, permanent place after moving so many times in her young life.
“I do love it but I do hate it as well. Not that I hate it but I hate living on my own at times,” she explains.
“I get lonely. I sometimes just wish I could have a normal family and live with them.”
*Name has been changed
It’s horrible But he didn’t end up on heroin and that’ s one big consolation
A father of three boys, Paul had been very involved in community activism and anti-drugs marches but “I didn’t know where to go when it hit my own family”.
His middle son had struggled with learning difficulties – dyslexia and ADHD – but there was no resource teacher at his school and he was left at the back of the class. By the age of 12 his behaviour was causing Paul and his wife serious concern and, after they got him into counselling, it emerged he had been abused during his time as an altar boy.
At that stage he was sniffing aerosol cans and soon progressed to drinking alcohol and smoking hash. They couldn’t get him back to school after the summer break when he was 14 and dabbling in harder drugs was soon to follow.
“He caused chaos at home. We would all be fighting with each other because of his behaviour.”
Not a good father
As his parent, Paul says, “You felt like you were inadequate – that you had done something wrong and that you weren’t a good father. There was an embarrassment, a stigma attached to it, especially with your work colleagues. You felt like you were being judged.”
What they found in the Talbot Centre was the complete opposite. His son was referred there in 2002, when he was 16, but “they wanted to see the whole family, so we all came up”.
They soon felt it was like a home from home – “it was there for all of us and there was no judgment made”.
Families tend not to discuss addiction issues among themselves, he suggests. Instead, as problems arise, there’s screaming and shouting.
“What we learned in the Talbot Centre is that you can sit down and talk about how his addiction is affecting us and how our behaviours are affecting him. We all have a right to an opinion and a right to be heard.”
Both Paul’s wife and his youngest son attended counselling to help them cope with having an addict in the family. This support strengthened the family unit and the eldest son is now a secondary school teacher, while the youngest is in teacher training.
But there’s no happy ending yet for the middle son, who managed to come off cocaine and speed while attending the Talbot Centre, but is now addicted to prescription drugs and smokes hash constantly.
“When he left here he was just smoking hash but eventually got into his old ways and ended up in prison – and that didn’t help,” says Paul, who is an alcoholic and 16 years dry but knows the inside of a cell from his drinking days.
He is clearly sad and frustrated that his son, who no longer lives with them but is always welcome home at weekends, hasn’t been able to make the same journey to recovery as he did. He has been in and out of treatment programmes, says Paul, often seeming to do well but then unable “to make that final decision to walk away”.
“A friend of mine just told me there she seen him today and he is out of his head . . . It’s horrible.”
However, he reflects on how it could have been worse for his son – and the entire family – if it hadn’t been for the Talbot Centre. “He didn’t end up on heroin and that is one big consolation.”