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My friend said: ‘Heroin will get rid of the pain.’ And it did

Anne Buckley spent 17 years on heroin and methadone: ‘an addict, a thief, a zombie’

Anne Buckley, a former heroin addict, tells her story of addiction and recovery in TV3 documentary "My War on Drugs", which airs on Wednesday January 31st at 9pm. Video: TV3

Anne Buckley wants to see a ‘sensible’ drug policy that focuses on addiction as a health issue. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

“They want to hurt you,” says Anne Buckley. “You can see it in them. You know people are looking at you but it’s not you. They’re looking at something else. They’re not seeing you. They call you a ‘junkie’. There is judgment, stigma, hatred.”

Anne Buckley is a 41-year-old journalism student who presents a powerful and polemical documentary on this country’s drug problem, My War on Drugs, this Wednesday on TV3. She is uniquely qualified to do this, having come out of 17 years of addiction just six years ago.

Buckley believes that a lot of the addiction in this country stems from a mix of trauma and deprivation. For her, the traumas were many. She had heart surgery when she was 10. The same year her eight-year-old brother Mark drowned in the canal.

“We didn’t talk about it. There was no help. I got to see him in the coffin. The nurse put a little chair down for me to climb up and kiss him. I remember kissing him and touching his hair. I remember his body was all bloated from the water…. That leaves a mark on you.

“I often think about how Whitney Houston’s daughter died the same way as [she did]. I can understand that. I used to lie in bed and want to know what it was like to drown. So I used to imagine myself drowning and think of what he went through. I wanted to be there in the water and to hold him.”

‘I was a really good kid’

She was the second oldest of eight children, born in a flat in Fatima Mansions in Dublin 8. “I’m the eldest girl. You know the culture of the eldest girl in an Irish family? I looked after my brothers and sisters when my mother was at work. I took care of the home. I took care of them.”

She sighs. “I was a really good kid. You couldn’t have asked for a better kid.”

But she was also living in an environment scarred by a drug epidemic. “I remember a lot of noise, a lot of people shouting for drugs and running around.”

What did she think of addicts when she was a child? “You could see they were manic, and then they got the drugs and they were peaceful. And when you’re watching that and you’re learning different behaviours and how to be. You think, ‘They find a peace in that.’ I wanted to know that peace, that quiet. That safety.”

Anne Buckley had no intention of being an addict then, she said, but she filed this thought away. She still had hopes and dreams then. She loved storytelling and singing and history and theatre. “I remember when I was 12 our school choir went to Foxrock for a singing competition. There with judges’ kids and doctors’ kids, and I loved it.”

We would go sit in Trinity College and look at the kids going in and out and imagine we were going there

In her teens, Buckley says, she realised that she wasn’t going to have the same sort of lives as those Foxrock kids. “When I was 15 there was crazy stuff going on in the flats, so my friend and I would come into town and we’d get off at the bank and we would go sit in Trinity College and look at the kids going in and out and imagine we were going there.

“We wouldn’t even talk, we’d just sit listening to them talking – the different languages. And then her and I would stay quiet, barely talking to each other, soaking it up. Then you’d get a little bit of sadness and look at each other. We knew that wasn’t going to be for us. She was my best friend. She’s dead now . . . We only lost her last year.”

Discovering heroin

Anne Buckley’s friends discovered heroin before she did. Buckley herself, wary of her heart, stayed clear of drugs for many years and consequently became quite isolated. “I was 19 and I was depressed and anxious. I was getting panic attacks and I was sleeping for long periods. It was depression, but I didn’t know it then.

“I wanted to go to college. I wanted to have opportunities like the doctors’ kids have. I wanted to travel but there was nothing out there for me. I didn’t want to become a single mother in a council flat. I don’t want to scrub toilets for a living. I didn’t want to be sad and hurt and to struggle like I watched my mother do.

“And one day my friend was sitting with me and I was talking about these things and she just looked at me and said, ‘It will get rid of the pain.’ I’ll never forget that. She wasn’t trying to entice me into taking drugs. She was just identifying with me. She was just a kid.”

Anne Buckley aged around 20.

What was that first experience of heroin like? “It was awful. I got sick. My body rejected it at first, but it did get rid of the pain. And I knew: this is what I do now . . . I was ten years on heroin.”

‘I was a thief’

Shortly after Buckley started taking heroin, her mother got a house away from the flats. “She deserved it, she really did. I kind of moved in with her, but my addiction was in the flats. All the drugs were there.”

She would go missing, becoming homeless. “I’d find myself in corners, waking up on a stairwell somewhere trying to remember how I got there, trying to find safety without judgment, without people being angry at you. You’re very ill when you’re an addict.

“My father would search high and low for me when I was missing. I call him the real lord mayor. I don’t know how he’d find me but he’d find me. He’d have to pick me up and carry me out of places, flats filled with strangers, and his daughter just lying there. Imagine what that was like for him?”

You learn not to trust anyone. There is no friendship anymore, there’s just addiction

There was a group of addicts that hung around together for a while, she says. “But then we went our different ways. Some had children. Some got better. Most are dead.

“I became very isolated and lonely and wouldn’t be with anyone. You learn not to trust anyone. There is no friendship anymore, there’s just addiction. I kept going back to the flats and I saw all the gangland stuff developing.

“I was a watcher. I’d buy my drugs off them and see the behaviours. I’d always be on my own. I wouldn’t get into relationships or anything like that.”

Why not? “I knew not to.” She thinks. “Usually female addicts get a boyfriend and end up being abused. Not for me. I could feed my own habit. I stole clothes. I was a thief. Both sides of my family were street traders on Meath Street, Thomas Street, Moore Street, Henry Street.

“I had that sale and banter but I was doing it in an unhealthy way. It’s just an intelligence that didn’t get a proper outlet. I can look after myself.”

Methadone: ‘The darkest place’

Buckley eventually went on a methadone maintenance programme after she injected heroin twice (she had formerly smoked it) and began fearing a future where she contracted Aids or relied on some drug-dealing boyfriend to sustain an increasingly unmanageable habit. She had been using heroin for 10 years by then. She was on methadone for a further seven.

She hated it. “That brought me to the darkest place of anything in my life,” she says. “I was just completely dead. I remember my heroin years. I knew I still had a piece of me in there. But with methadone I was gone. Dead, like a zombie.”

Did it provide stability? “Methadone gives some stability but I think it disconnects you more than heroin. And the addiction adapts to the methadone and you still want drugs. I started taking cocaine and sleeping tablets.”

I had no family around me at this stage and I was used to that safety net. So I was getting beaten up and I was paranoid and scared and mentally ill

She moved into a small bedsit but the building was rife with anti-social behaviour and drug-dealing. “I was in danger because I had a mouth on me. I’d say, ‘What are you doing selling drugs from the door?’ They’d say, ‘But you’re on drugs as well’.”

She laughs. “The cheek of me. But I was getting attacked then. And I had no family around me at this stage and I was used to that safety net. So I was getting beaten up and I was paranoid and scared and mentally ill.

“Then I met a lovely man who wasn’t well himself. He was very lonely. He had his own home so I moved in with him. I was safe. But he was a cocaine addict, and he started injecting cocaine, and then I started injecting cocaine. We hid ourselves away. By the end of it I was starving. We weren’t feeding ourselves and there was no electricity.”

She had serious health issues – blood clots, pneumonia. “You know when you see a very ill drug addict?” she says. “My legs were poisoned. I had loads of abscesses. I was literally lying there waiting to die.”

What happened? “I tried to kill myself.”

She thought, she says, that dying would be a relief. But at the last minute she realised that there would be no relief. “I was just going to be dead and it was going to be nothing – a big hole of emptiness.”

A few weeks later she went to a “wonderful” counsellor named Noirin Mulligan at her methadone clinic who soon arranged a detox bed for her at Cuan Dara (there’s a huge shortage of such beds).

“Coming off methadone was the worst experience of my life. [But] I remember the first time they said, ‘It’s all out of your system’ I went out and danced in the rain.”

‘Waking up in a hurricane’

This was only the beginning. The underlying causes of her addiction were still there and there was a dangerous two-week gap between her detoxing and getting admission to a rehabilitation programme. She likens this to being sent home after an operation without being stitched up.

She had spent her entire adult life with opiates in her system. Being sober after that was terrifying. “It was like I was all veins and blood and I was all exposed, everything was too fast, too loud, people’s voices were scary. Can you imagine waking up in the middle of a hurricane? And all the debris is swirling around you – noises, people’s faces. That’s what it was like.”

She ultimately credits her recovery to the Keltoi drug rehabilitation centre where they focused on “self-compassion”.

Her counsellor told her to picture herself the last time she felt completely safe. “I saw myself at the age of five. He said, ‘It’s real. Go to her.’ I said, ‘I can’t’. I was ashamed. But she wasn’t ashamed. I felt I had abused her, but she just had love for me, like she’d been waiting for me. And I reconnected to that part of myself.”

She went from Keltoi to Focus Ireland to an apartment provided by the Daisyhouse Association. She has since achieved a diploma in journalism, is on the degree year of a media production management course in Ballyfermot College and has done work experience with Irish Times podcasts and for the Claire Byrne Show (Byrne is an ambassador for Daisyhouse).

Why journalism? “Because it’s about freedom of expression. What does addiction do? It takes away your ability to express yourself.”

In the documentary, Buckley revisits relatives, neighbours, a kind shopkeeper whom she once stole from and a community Garda who inspired her. She also talks to experts and politicians and examines the failures and successes of our drugs policy.

The issues have changed since she was a heroin user. Communities are now ravaged by a wider range of drugs, and the drug gangs have become more organised and cruel.

“I remember when young men who didn’t take drugs first became drug dealers,” she says. “They weren’t addicts so they hated you. You were dirt to them, and they would beat you up very quickly. When it was addicts selling to addicts, there was some compassion there.”

She wants to see a “sensible” drug policy that focuses on addiction as a health issue and that acknowledges how drug epidemics are exacerbated by environmental factors. “A lot of people don’t get that,” she says, “because if they did they’d have to look at themselves and the class system and how areas are funded.

“I grew up in a prison. That’s how I saw it. Do you know when I realised it was a prison?” She laughs. “When I went to prison. I went to prison for stealing, and I was terrified. But I’ll never forget that first morning coming out of my cell and thinking ‘This environment is familiar to me’. I looked over the balcony and heard the women going ‘Mornin’ and realised. ‘Oh. I’m at home.’”

Nowadays Anne Buckley is a healthy, energetic woman who has made an excellent documentary with director Kim Bartley. She deserves to be listened to. She is full of insight, ideas and compassion. Why wouldn’t she be, she says, “I was asleep for 17 years.”

My War on Drugs: True Lives, TV3, 9pm,Wednesday, January 31st