'I smoked my first joint at 11, spent a Christmas in a squat, but treatment saved me'
Sheila (not her real name) was 11 when she smoked her first joint at an Irish college summer camp. By 14 she was smoking joints every day, drinking at weekends and taking speed and ecstasy.
Even in the small town in which she grew up, Sheila says drugs were easy to come by. "We were all doing them. It was acceptable in the crowd I hung out with."
Her parents ran a shop and had high hopes for their eldest daughter. "I got 300 points in the Leaving Cert without even trying and got a place on a business course in an institute of technology," she says, "but once I got to college, my drug habit went wild.
"I lived on campus, so my parents hadn't a clue that I was drinking every day. I took cocaine, mushrooms, head shop stuff, everything. I didn't go to lectures and never sat an exam.
"I'd come home on Friday in bits, work two days in my parents' shop and even though they paid me for my work and for my rented accommodation, I'd rob money from my mother's purse and a bit from the shop.
"I dropped out of college after 18 months. Mam and dad opened a new shop in another town, so I worked there full-time. By then I was smoking an ounce of weed a week which cost €300, I drank huge amounts and took other drugs at weekends.
"Cocaine was expensive, so I had it only occasionally. I took home €500 a week and rent was €100, but I was spending more than €400 on drugs. If the ESB or the gas company threatened to cut me off, dad would pay and I'd get a lecture from mam about money management.
"I carried on like this for a couple of years and ended up in a relationship with a homeless guy who robbed my car. Three days later, my dad put me into a treatment centre, but I couldn't handle it and left.
"Soon I went straight back to drugs, but worse than ever. Whereas before I appeared to be managing, this time the cracks began to show. I stopped all contact with my family, started dealing to pay for my habit, forged cheques and took €1,000 a week from work. Not surprisingly, I lost my job.
"I spent Christmas two years ago on a dirty mattress in a squat with no electricity or gas. I couldn't function or dress myself.
"My turning point was meeting Ray (McKenna) from the Aislinn Centre. I reluctantly agreed to go into treatment for a week. Dying felt like the easier option. A lot of the crowd I hung out with were already dead.
"I arrived at the centre in the clothes I was in and holes in my shoes. It was very difficult, but I stuck with the programme and then went to Renewal, a secondary treatment centre in Cork where I stayed for nine months.
"Now I live alone, I have a job, a car, a sponsor and a 12-step programme. I have to be very careful. It's a daily challenge and I keep my guard up all the time, but good things are happening.
"I have a good relationship with my parents and sisters and I try to be honest every day. It's a work in progress."