Thursday 24 October 2019

Drug and alcohol addiction swamps our overstretched rehab services

The Coolmine chief executive says there is a desperate need for more residential places to house recovering addicts, writes Liam Collins

Pauline McKeown, chief executive of Coolmine. Photo: Maxwell Photography
Pauline McKeown, chief executive of Coolmine. Photo: Maxwell Photography
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

It emerged from the wreckage of the unrequited love affairs between Monaghan peer Lord 'Paddy' Rossmore and the heroin-addicted Marianne Faithfull. That glamorous story of the 'swinging 60s' masked the harsh reality of drug addiction that is swamping therapeutic services, but inspired the founders of Coolmine in west Dublin.

Last week's launch of the national drugs strategy, sub-titled Reducing Harm Supporting Recovery, gets a guarded welcome from its chief executive Pauline McKeown, but in the end she concludes that "it all comes back to finances".

At Coolmine's Ashleigh Centre, there are 24 residential places for recovering addicts and their children and another 34 placements for addicts in the main Coolmine Centre. "But we are not even scratching the surface; we need three times that to get somewhere close to meeting demand," she says.

"Addiction impacts Irish society massively," she adds. But while some sections of society deal quietly with their addictions, at the front line it is a war of attrition with few rehab places even for those who desperately want to get off the horrifying treadmill of drugs and drink that lead inexorably to crime, homelessness and death.

These include addicts coming and going through the revolving doors of our prisons, homeless pregnant addicts on the streets and probably the most vulnerable of all, those who go through rehab, fall off the wagon and end up dead from an overdose.

"Addicts and crime are absolutely connected," says McKeown, and, as to emphasise the point, two people sitting opposite put a human face on what it means to live in the netherworld of addiction and incarceration and ultimately salvation.

They are well-dressed, fit and articulate now. The man readily admits to becoming an addict in his early teens and spending much of his adult years in prison. He no longer looks anything like the washed out addicts you see along the so-called 'junkie corridor' in Dublin, and now in every city and town in Ireland.

Yet they have been there and know how lucky they are and how hard they've had to work to break that terrible cycle of addiction and crime.

"Every time I was released from prison, I thought I was done with drugs and crime... I came out with great intentions, but then I found myself surrounded by drugs again," says Sean. "I got a sense of ease and comfort taking drugs, I started on prescription drugs, sniffing glue, paint, ecstasy and finally heroin... the full monty," he says. "I robbed. I did whatever I had to do to get through the day. I have done a lot of prison time and if I had access to Coolmine back then, I would have done this a long time ago. I wanted it to happen, but the support wasn't there."

Now with a degree in Addiction Studies, he believes that what is desperately needed is a 'therapeutic community' established in the prison service, so that prisoners don't have to wait until they leave prison to try and get into drug treatment programmes like Coolmine.

"No prison officer, social worker or guard can tell you... it is the people who have gone through addiction and prison, they are the only ones who can tell you there is another way, because you know they've had the experience themselves," says Sean.

Aine didn't drink to socialise or mix with people, she drank to pass out. Although she has one child with her in the Ashleigh Centre, her other three children are with family. "I don't believe alcoholism is a disease, it's a choice you make, I say I am allergic to drink and now all I want is to get my children back, I have missed so much of their lives."

"Alcohol is often the gateway into harder drugs," says McKeown, who welcomes the designation of alcohol as a drug in the Government's new strategy.

Only resources, she says, can close the gap between grand aspiration and specific targets and time frames. "To do that, it all comes back to finances," she says, "it's a comprehensive plan, but the services required to fulfil them need to be addressed".

As for Lord Rossmore and Marianne Faithfull, their brief engagement didn't survive the stresses of her addiction and the pressures of the rock and roll lifestyle. But it inspired him to become one of the founders of Coolmine, which now includes its original facility in Coolmine, Ashleigh House and a day service in Lord Edward Street in the centre of Dublin.

Sunday Independent

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