'He went to jail at 17 for driving without tax and picked up heroin'
Drug deaths: Almost all the families at a commemoration in Dublin have lost loved ones to drugs
Family support groups gather for a minute’s silence during the 18th Service of Commemoration and Hope at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Sean McDermott Street, Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
In Our Lady of Lourdes Church on Sean McDermott Street a gospel choir is singing and multicoloured quilts are hanging from the walls. Each quilt represents a geographical area, and the individual squares a young man or woman who has died due to drug use.
Many squares are personalised with embroidered butterflies, tears, trees, horses or doves.
“See that little heart there, the red one? That’s for Daniel, my son,” says Sandra from Blanchardstown. “Daniel was tall and handsome and he was a great singer and the girls loved him.”
Nine years ago, someone spiked Daniel’s drink with methadone and he was dead a day later. He wasn’t an addict.
Sandra is here, along with hundreds of others, for the 18th Annual Service of Commemoration and Hope, to celebrate and remember those who have died. Everyone in the church is connected to the National Family Support Network, which works with the families of addicts, and almost all have lost someone to drugs.
“There’s a section of the cemetery in Finglas,” says Sandra. “And all of the graves there are young people who’ve died because of drugs.”
The opening speaker is Sadie Grace, who helped found the network after the impact of drugs “came crashing through my door”. Her son is an addict, and the lack of services for families in the 1990s caused her and others to create a helpline which morphed into a network of peer-led support groups.
The parents of chronic addicts were wracked with shame and isolation, with their familes often feeling it was their fault, says Grace. Nobody even knew how many people had died. After much lobbying from Grace and others, the State only started counting drug and alcohol deaths in 2005 with the establishment of the National Drug-Related Deaths Index. The most recent available figure, for 2014, was 697 deaths that year.
The ceremony is moving. There’s a reflection on grief from Fr Myles O’Reilly, a message from Pope Francis read by Supt Anthony Howard of the Garda Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau, an address by Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin and uplifting music from the Gardiner Street Gospel Choir.
There’s a minute’s silence, and at one point a representative of each group holds a candle.
The most touching moments are the testimonies from service users. Recovering addict Anne-Marie Taylor says “I was very nearly one of those names on the quilts”, and Adrienne Sweetman tells of losing her sister, Freda, to alcoholism.
Maureen Penrose, whose daughter is a long-time addict, helps run a support group. There are murmurs of recognition when Maureen, whose daughter is a long-time addict, moves into black comedy, musing about the effect of drug use on family pets.
“Our Jack Russell gets very anxious when no one in the house has hash,” she says, as well as recalling a mother who enthusiastically advised her son on his “tomato plants” right up until gardaí raided their home.
As people file from the church, a woman named Maeve points to the top corner of one quilt to the names of her brother and his wife, who died years ago of Aids-related illnesses.
“The only one we had heard of with Aids then was Rock Hudson,” she says, tearing up. “We knew nothing. I threw cups out after them . . . We thought you could pick it up from a door handle.”
Her younger brother also has a square on the quilt.
“He went into prison aged 17 for driving without tax and insurance, and he picked up the heroin habit there,” she says.
Addiction crosses the generations. Maeve’s daughter is an addict.
“We have her two children,” she says. “I reported her, thinking she might pull up her socks, 16 years ago, when the kids were two or three. They ended up taking the kids off her. They were going into care, so I took them.”
Getting guardian status was very difficult. She now helps advise others in her situation. How is her daughter? Maeve exhibits a similar strain of black humour to Penrose’s.
“We call her ‘Rehab’ because she’s been in so many times. ‘Here’s Rehab!’”
But she adds, with sadness: “I’m a born-again Christian. Every day I pray she turns her life around.”
Are events like this important to her?
“Very important,” she says. “But they’re hard. The first one, 18 years ago, I spent a week in bed afterwards, the grief was so bad. But you learn to live with the support of the network.”
Afterwards, people gather to eat sandwiches and chat as a band plays Bright Side of the Road in a ballroom in the Gresham Hotel. There’s a friendly, light-hearted atmosphere. The localised groups help the family members of addicts understand and cope practically with their addictions.
“When your child is sick, you bring them to the doctor’s,” says Sandra. “When an adult child is sick in addiction, you can’t take them to the doctor’s. There’s no guidebook for that.”
Most say that the drug problem is no better than it was 20 years ago, but that the nature of it has changed.
“Most of the services were set up for heroin use,” says Maureen Penrose. “But now we’re seeing more poly-drug use . . . The government hasn’t really caught up . . . Seven hundred deaths in 2014 and it’s not a national emergency? It’s like the homelessness – anything that affects the poor is not a crisis.”
Streamlining the process by which grandparents can get guardianship status and financial support for the children of drug-addicted relatives is a big issue for the network, as is clamping down on “predatory undertakers” who upsell their services to bereaved families. Sadie Grace also notes that the geographical spread of the drug problem is wider now and that those with habits are younger.
This has led to a new problem: the intimidation of the parents of drug debtors. Jenny had no idea her son even smoked hash until people started turning up demanding money. He has ADHD, and she now realises he was self-medicating. The debt wasn’t huge, but it was more than she could afford: €30 to one person, €50 to another. If she paid one dealer, someone else would say: “You paid your man, where’s my money?”
Soon she was being confronted on the street. She had her windows broken. Her son was assaulted. One day two men ran through the house and her son had to jump out of a bedroom window and run away. On a couple of occasions, out of fear, she spoke to gardaí, which led to people calling her a “rat”.
Eventually her son’s life was threatened and, around the same time, he had a breakdown that saw him screaming at neighbours and being arrested. The guards advised her to get a barring order, which she said was the hardest thing she has ever done and which she only did because they promised they would get him help.
“The help never arrived,” she says.
Where is he now?
“He’s kind of homeless,” she says. He’s terrified of coming back to the area, and she’s terrified for him. “He can’t look after himself.”
Paula, a woman in her 50s, says it’s important for people to know that there is always hope. She started taking tablets at 13, moved on to heroin, and spent decades in and out of treatment centres, prisons and mental hospitals.
“I was trying to kill myself,” she says.
One day her 10-year-old walked into the kitchen to tell her that her partner was dead in the next room. His heart had stopped at 43. In her grief she started drinking more, and her liver started to fail. Tragedy was compounded by tragedy. Her niece died of a cocaine overdose.
“It broke my heart,” she says.
Then her sister, the girl’s mother, drank herself to death.
Somehow, Paula got clarity.
“I could see the hurt and devastation,” she says.
She went to a detox centre and has been clean for nearly a decade. She has a neatly scripted tattoo on her arm.
“My own twist on the serenity prayer: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the person I can, and the wisdom to know it’s me.’ This is very important for people,” she says, gesturing towards the ballroom. “I knew a lot of the faces on those walls. They aren’t just addicts. They’re people’s kids. They need to be remembered.”
Before leaving, I talk to Siobhan Maher, who once worked with the network and who spoke at the service. I observe that many of the quilts date from more than 10 years ago and ask whether there are any newer ones. I’ve missed the point. Each quilt, she tells me, is a work in progress.
“New squares are added,” she says. “They get bigger every year.”
Families affected by addiction or bereaved as a consequence of drugs or alcohol can contact the National Family Support Network at 01-8980148 or fsn.ie