'My Fiona had it all at 16, excelling at school... four years later she was dead'
A Dublin mother who used to search the back lanes and flats of the city for her daughter at 3am – not knowing if she was dead or alive – has said she is backing proposals for medically supervised injection centres for others in the same situation.
Brigid Sugrue’s daughter Fiona died at the age of 20 after four years of heroin use, and now Brigid is sharing her experience in the hope that others may know and learn from her family’s pain.
Fiona had it all as a child. She was in the top three in her class, enjoyed horse riding and swimming, and had a very bright future ahead of her.
But succumbing to heroin use in her mid-teens was to lead her into a life of despair until she died at the age of 20.
Brigid tried everything to help her eldest child fight her demons.
“Fiona was our first child. She excelled in school and was very close to us all. There were no problems at all,” Brigid explained from her Finglas home.
“Everything seemed perfect. It’s so difficult to believe how things ended up, but I can trace it back to when Fiona was around 14 and she changed quite rapidly in second year of school.
“It was like lighting a piece of paper and watching it burn. That’s how quick it seemed.
“From the September she started second year to that December, Fiona became a different person.
“She wouldn’t listen to us, she lost her friends and started hanging around with other people, then she started staying out at night.
“The gardai started calling, her schoolwork suffered, and it was just a horrific time where we could not understand what was going on with her.
“Despite all of this I still loved the bones of her. The school insisted on having her assessed and we were told Fiona was psychologically and psychiatrically perfect but that she just wanted total autonomy of her life, even though she was just 14.
“Then she was caught shoplifting. I’ll never know what happened to her. It was like she hit a self-destruct button.”
Fiona was caught shoplifting so many times that she would be in court every Wednesday. Eventually a judge sentenced her to two years detention in the Oberstown centre for young offenders, from where she would escape regularly.
“Fiona started using heroin at the age of 16,” said Brigid. “We had heard it from a friend first, but then Fiona herself told us she was using it, saying she was not addicted and she was moving out to stay with friends. But she became a huge heroin user in a short space of time.
“From the age of 16 until she was 20, Fiona had been with social workers, treatment centres, medical hospitals, and psychiatric hospitals. She used to beg on the streets for money.
“We lost her to the streets. We wouldn’t know where she’d be. Fiona was self-harming and injecting heroin,” her mother said.
She remembered looking across the city for Fiona, not sure if her young daughter was dead or alive.
“I would find myself in back alleys and city flats complexes at three in the morning looking for her, asking addicts if they had seen her,” said Brigid.
When Fiona was 18, she had a baby with a man she was in a strong relationship with, and for a very brief period it looked like she could get well again.
But when she slid back into addiction, the baby was placed into foster care.
“Fiona would never miss a visit with the baby. I would never miss a visit. The only day Fiona missed a visit was the day she died on March 30, 2004,” said Brigid.
“It is my belief that Fiona’s heroin use started as a method of self-medication for the darkness she felt she was living in. She had made attempts on her life before but that day she drank a lot of methadone and died.”
Through all her ordeal Brigid got great comfort from the National Family Support Network and is encouraging anyone who has a family member suffering from drug use to seek the network out. She said outside support is vital.
Brigid is also backing the proposals for centres where drug users can inject under medical supervision, which would prevent overdoses and the health risks to heroin users and the public from street injecting.
Advocates of such centres hope that legislation before the government is passed over the coming months and the centres become a reality in 2017.
“Nobody plans to become a user, so these centres are necessary,” Brigid said.
“Does anyone want to imagine their own child in a dirty back lane injecting heroin on their own. It’s too awful.”
Ireland has the third-highest rate of deaths from overdoses in Europe, with one person on average dying every day as a result.
Last week, Minister for State Catherine Byrne launched a HSE evaluation on a pilot Naloxone project which prescribed the medication to addicts, and is already credited with saving five lives.