Rachael Keogh’s story of heroin addiction, survival and spirituality

Review: On RTÉ, Keogh’s compelling story of recovery becomes a moralistic secular sermon

Dr Paul D’Alton with Rachael Keogh on Survivors, Tuesday on RTE One

Dr Paul D’Alton with Rachael Keogh on Survivors, Tuesday on RTE One

 

It’s hard to say whether Survivors (RTÉ One, Tuesday, 11.40pm), a series of four interviews with individuals who have overcome extraordinary trauma, is intended to serve as a source of stirring inspiration or severe caution.

The source of those traumas and the path to recovery take different forms. Its first episode, for instance, featured Geraldine Lavelle, who put her life back together after a road accident left her with a spinal injury.

For his second guest, clinical psychologist Dr Paul D’Alton speaks with Rachael Keogh, a campaigner and artist who overcame a ruinous drug addiction that stretched from her early teens to her mid-20s. Her recovery, D’Alton puts it, has been “miraculous”, which is the first note that what follows might come across as a secular sermon.

Keogh’s story is no less compelling for its bleakly familiar patterns.

Born to a very young mother and raised largely by her grandparents, she felt abandoned when her mother married, and began stealing to fund her escalating drug use.

At the age of 15 she first took heroin, and, at the same age, was sent to Mountjoy prison, where her addiction skyrocketed. In Ballymun, she recalls, she went out at the age 13, “and I came home when I was 26. That’s literally what it felt like.”

Keogh’s story is hideously well illustrated. When, in 2006, she developed black necrotic wounds on her arms, a dramatically disfiguring consequence of her heroin use, her mother released photographs to the media in the hope of intervening in her alarming decline.

To show these pictures once is frightening. To show them several times during the programme seems gratuitous, as does D’Alton’s repeated phrase, “the girl with the arms”, when he asks Keogh to consider her past. “The girl with the arms,” he says, “she didn’t come out of nowhere…”

Despite Keogh’s vivid telling, the compassionate moralising of the show might make the more parable-sensitive among us wonder if the girl with the arms came out of the bible, like the story of a penitent sinner, who, once reformed, must share details of hardship and suffering.

Keogh traces her first footsteps to recovery to a Christian community, which Survivors illustrates with a clip from RTÉ’s religious affairs show Would You Believe? Donning his glasses, removing his glasses then sucking studiously on the arm of his glasses in a mesmerisingly brisk cycle, D’Alton nudges at the idea of “replacing one addiction with another”. But the interview seems ambivalent about the difference between recovery and redemption.

Keogh is certainly spiritual, which she presents as a form of recovery (“It feels as though your soul is dead,” she says of addiction). But she would otherwise transform her experiences into something of broader benefit, whether that be her art or a movement to not treat addiction as crime, but as a public health issue.

“It’s really been an honour and a fantastic privilege speaking with you,” concludes D’Alton, before parting with a benediction. “I wish you ever blessing for the future.”

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