'I felt guilty for years'


At First Hand: 'I felt guilty and embarrassed for years," says Susan, a single mother of four children. Her two eldest are heroin abusers. "I have screamed for a social worker. I went everywhere I could asking for help.

You reach a point where there's nothing you can do any more. You have done everything you could. I realise now that I've nothing to be ashamed of." Susan is a caring mother, determined to protect her two youngest children, aged six and eight, from the influence of "the two addicts", as she calls them. The phrase is telling, for it shows how her two eldest children's addiction has stripped them of humanity even in their mother's eyes.

"I've had my home torn to pieces. My two young children have listened to abuse for years and years," says Susan. She eventually had no choice but to put her two eldest children out onto the street, in order to make life bearable for her youngest ones. One of "the addicts" is in prison, the other is homeless.

When they turn up at the door in the pouring rain, looking for a bed, food and money, she turns them away. "It kills me to have to do it," she says.

Susan's stand isn't unusual. A grandmother tells of turning away her addict daughter even though she was holding a baby in her arms. She was already looking after one of her daughter's children and refused to take the second baby, insisting that the child be adopted.

For years before her children became addicts, Susan struggled to keep them in school. She saw teenagers in her area falling into addiction one after the other. "Put people in a concrete jungle and what do you expect?" says Susan. She first lost the battle with her eldest son, who she says blamed her for living in a drugs-ridden estate. Susan held on to hope for her eldest daughter, but then her daughter left school early, tempted by a job paying €500 a week. For a while, her daughter seemed to be doing well. However, her daughter's peer group was deeply into the drug scene. Before long, seven out of nine of them had become addicts. Susan's daughter followed.

Today, Susan is trying to show her youngest children that there is more to life than drugs, so that when they become teenagers they'll have options. Even though they are only aged six and eight, Susan keeps them busy with activities nearly every day of the week.

Evelyn is a grandmother in her late 40s and has seven children living at home, one of them a granddaughter. Four of her children are "junkies".

There are four bedrooms in the house, one for each junkie. Everyone else sleeps in the sittingroom. Evelyn has to organise the household in this way in order to keep the younger children protected as much as possible from the sights, sounds and smells of addiction. Recently however, Evelyn's four-year-old granddaughter found three syringes in the house.

Like Susan, Evelyn has gone everywhere looking for help, even hiring a solicitor to intervene with the health board. "There is no help available," she says. When gardaí raid her house, they always do it at 8 a.m., so her younger children have to walk to school to the taunts of "Junkies! Junkies!" from neighbouring children. Evelyn alleges that gardaí have said to her: "You're no better than they [the junkies\] are". Keeping her dignity, and that of her younger children, is a daily struggle.

"Why?" is the question that torments most parents of drug-abusing children, says Pat Dunne, who facilitates support groups for parents of drug abusers in Clondalkin, where 12- and 13-year-olds are using alcohol and hash.

"Nobody rears their kids to go into prison or to die from the effects of drug abuse," she says.

"Ninety-nine per cent of the parents in the support groups did their best bringing up their kids. A lot of the kids would not have been identified as prison or drugs material earlier in their lives.

"Younger children see a child using drugs in the family causing mayhem, then the next child goes down . . . It makes parents ask, what did I do wrong? This brings parents down over time. It's not only the addict that is harmed - it's the whole family."