Born Addicted documentary about babies born on methodone reveals we're still haunted by spectre of 80s heroin epidemic
Remember the 1980s? Big hair and big shoulder pads for the ladies, skinny ties and jackets with turned-up collars and sleeves for the men. Rubik’s Cubes, Cabbage Patch Dolls, mullets, boom boxes, breakdancing, He-Man, Care Bears, leg warmers and all the other fads and fancies that launched a thousand TV clip shows.
And a heroin epidemic. A vicious, merciless heroin epidemic that tore through Dublin like wildfire, destroying communities, tearing families apart and taking lives. Taking, taking, taking, until there was nothing left.
The communities, the ordinary decent working-class people whose lives had been blighted, whose sons and daughters had been taken, fought back.
The Concerned Parents Against Drugs went on the offensive, marching and naming and shaming the dealers. Pushing out the pushers. Those righteous defenders the Provos hovered opportunistically, trying to muscle in and run the show.
Some of the gangland dirtbags — excrement, every last, worthless one of them — who orchestrated the destruction are dead or in prison now, replaced by a new generation of dirtbags. The game has changed; smack is no longer the only buzz in town. The drugs these days are varied and even more plentiful.
But the spectre of the 1980s epidemic is still there. It’s summoned up tonight in Martin Daneel and Alison O’Reilly’s powerful Reality Bites documentary Born Addicted, featuring a handful of people who survived addiction (barely), but still rely on methadone.
“I was strung out by the time I was 11,” recalls Donna. Vicious circle doesn’t begin to describe her story. Her mother was an addict who spiked her baby bottle with Valium and vodka to make her sleep.
Donna, who has a newspaper clipping of her court appearance at 17, was eventually taken into HSE care and weaned off drugs. She’s determined her own daughter will never endure such a life.
Some babies born to women on methadone don’t suffer withdrawal symptoms; others do. It’s a lottery. The effects are awful to behold: babies constantly agitated and crying, unable to sleep or feed properly. But it could be much worse; it could be heroin.
Methadone babies can be treated effectively and relatively quickly, and the benefits of the drug to the mothers, says Dr Maeve Eogan of the Rotunda’s specialist DOVE Clinic, far outweigh the risks to their babies.
Former heroin addict Jennifer has been on methadone for eight years. She has six children, with a seventh on the way, and none of them suffered methadone withdrawal. She knows some people will look askance at her, but using methadone doesn’t mean you’re “a junkie”, she says, or a bad mother (for the record, her kids look as happy and healthy as any I’ve ever seen).
The saddest, most fragile people in the film are Lisa and her partner Tomas. Lisa had four miscarriages before giving birth to five babies, all of whom died — the last one, Robyn, at the age of 18 months, having suffered seizures.
The most remarkable story, perhaps, belongs not to one of the mothers, but to Gary. Born to a chronic addict, he didn’t go near heroin until he was 22 or 23.
Lisa and Thomas
It was, he says, as if he’d been waiting all those years for his second fix: “It was the best buzz I ever had. All my life I’d been missing something, then I found it.”
Gary has been clean for seven years, has a teenage son and runs a Forbidden Planet-style hobby shop. The so-called war on drugs will never be won, but hope will never be entirely crushed, either.
Born Addicted: Reality Bites airs on RTE 2 at 9.30pm.