Joanne O'Dwyer, a former heroin addict and now working as a counsellor with the Red Door Project in Drogheda.
People normally dread after dinner speeches at social functions, but at the Red Door Project inaugural dinner dance on Saturday counsellor and rehabilitation supervisor Joanne O’Dwyer captivated her audience as she bravely spoke in public for the first time about her harrowing journey through drug addiction.
Joanne reckons that if more people spoke about their problems with addiction it would help deal with the pain and the guilt. After speaking for 20 - 25 minutes about her own story Joanne received a well-deserved standing ovation.
Below is an edited version of her speech. It’s a bit long but, like her audience at the dance, we think it will be well worth your while to stick with it.
This is the first time that I have spoken in public about my story and I’m nervous and apprehensive as its not pretty listening, I’ve been as honest as I can be, but parts are left out as they are just too painful and distressing to mention here tonight.
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At times it will no doubt sound like I am making excuses for my actions, this is not my intention, I am merely trying to give you my perception of how I made sense of the events that lead me into and out of my life of addiction .
I was the second of four children to a middle class working family in a very small village in the west of Ireland, my father was a chef, my mother a housewife and both were very ambitious.
My parents wanted the best for us and we never wanted for anything, it was this strive for a better life and ambition that would see us move to over 20 different homes and nine different schools over my childhood and teenage years. This constant change of friends and home filled me with a anxiety and uncertainty that was already present in an overweight, bullied child.
Most of my late childhood and teenage years were spent working in the many bars and kitchens of my parents establishments.
It was in those early teenage years that I started a relationship with alcohol and, by the time I was doing my junior cert, I was a regular weekend drinker. I started drinking mid-week, I remember being in school hungover, I lost interest in my studies.
On leaving school at 16 I accepted a place in college studying science, where I quickly got involved in smoking hash, taking ecstasy, acid any recreational drug that I could get my hands on.
By Christmas of that year, I had dropped out, I spent the remainder of the year, partying, getting high and living on a floor of a friend’s bedroom. That summer I went to London where my recreational drug use continued, I started to deal in small amounts of speed and coke in the bar that I worked in. I returned back to Ireland the following year having used up all my favours and half the size I was when I went.
On returning to Ireland my parents were now living in Dublin. I found myself a flat in the inner city and worked in the family business. I was frequently attending raves and partying most of the weekend on ecstasy and cocaine. I had now begun catering college but I barely attended.
In 1997 I met my son’s father Mark at a rave one night in the city centre, we hit it off straight away. After a few months together, I became aware of heroin on nights out, it was used for the come down to help people sleep. Even though I swore I would never take that stuff, it wasn’t long till I was taking it with the rest.
Soon we stopped going out at all and our nights out consisted of sitting in smoking three or four bags of heroin between us, this then went from one night at the weekend to two or three nights a week and before long we were smoking every day.
If we didn’t have heroin we were sick, I’d wake up shivering, cold, achey and couldn’t go to work, I’d started not paying the rent, robbing from my parents business , it wasn’t long till we started to inject. By 1998 I was injecting three bags of heroin a day, I had left college, was rarely seen by my family , Mark was dealing and I would rob and shoplift to feed our habit, we regularly did runs to Liverpool and Amsterdam and smuggled large quantities of heroin back into the country. To this day I still get the heeby jeebies going through Dublin Airport.
We got involved with an inner city drug gang that would eventually burn our family member’s cars out to intimidate us into paying money we owed. I lost all respect for myself, any values morals or principles I had disappeared, I was ashamed, guilty and embarrassed of what I had become.
We were living in a dingy flat in the inner city, where we dealt from, above us was a brothel and below us were two families of addicts who we regularly used with. One night in 1999 I witnessed one of the women in the house give birth to her third child while she was off her head on heroin on a dirty mattress on the floor. When the ambulance arrived and they rang the guards to attend the house and remove her children into care, I decided I had to do something about the life I was living.
I was attending a methadone clinic and they referred me to a detox bed in Beaumont Hospital, I spent six weeks detoxing off everything, there I found out I was Hep C positive. I was to go from there to rehab to continue my treatment, but I discharged myself, got a bus to Howth, scored and overdosed. Within five hours I was back in the A & E of the same hospital that I had discharged myself from earlier.
I continued to use heroin, methadone, and tablets chaotically till I found out in Christmas of 1999 that I was five months pregnant. In May 2000 my beautiful son Cian was born , I was stable on 40 mls of methadone but nothing prepared me for the shame of watching as he was monitored for withdrawals in the High Dependency unit of the maternity hospital, I was a Hep C, heroin addict, after giving birth to a child in withdrawal.
I had to move back home where my family were able to support and see that Cian was ok but the stress of a new child on top of everything else threw me further into the spiral I was already on.
I remember the day of my son’s christening, my father brought me into the kitchen and there on the countertop were photocopies of around 20 different cheques that I had forged from his bank account, the bank wanted to press charges, the total amount I stole from my parents this time was over €6,000. My parents still paid for the christening party that day.
Soon after this I moved out of the family home, my drug use was being constantly being challenged by my family, and I couldn’t listen to the constant criticism of my behaviour. Cian and I got a house together, I enrolled him in a crèche and this freed me up to try work.
My relationship with Mark got very strained, he got very unpredictable and was taking a lot of other drugs as well as heroin, his mental health was suffering, he was very paranoid and at times suicidal, he eventually got a prison sentence for a year and this gave us some time apart.
By 2004 I was injecting Cocaine and heroin at the same time, my veins were now all gone and I as injecting into my neck and groin area, I had re infected myself with Hep C, was on a very high dose of Methadone and had mounted up numerous criminal convictions.
I had a two year custodial sentence hanging over me for an armed robbery I had been involved in, I arrived into the court heavily stoned, the judge was lecturing me on the lack of respect I had for his court and was about to sentence me when a guard who knew my family stood up and pleaded with him to give me a chance. I was given a suspended sentence and probation, I remember the relief as I left the room, I would have lost what little I still had and my son would have been taken off me.
Shortly after this my parents moved to Castlebellingham, they asked me to move with them, I said I’d give it a go and rented a place in the village in early 2005. I met my future husband Ronnie on the 23rd of March 2005 which was the last time I ever injected heroin.
The following year with the help of my GP I began the process of reducing the methadone and medication that I was on for over nine years. In 2007 I married Ronnie and with his help, I was fortunate enough to be allowed start the gruelling processes of getting treatment for Hep C.
I began to overeat and soon ballooned to over 24 stone, I was miserable , suffered with depression and on reflection now, I thought that I was in recovery , because I wasn’t taking drugs, but my mental and physical health was suffering and my self-worth and confidence was very poor .
I made a conscious effort this time to implement proper change, I went weekly to an addiction counsellor, and started the process of dealing with some of the pain and hurt that surrounded my life of addiction.
In the years that followed I attempted to work through the low self-esteem, anxiety, shame and guilt of the things that I had done and that had been done to me.
In 2009 I was accepted to University of Ulster to do a counselling degree, I continued to work on myself, I needed to change my life totally, I began to look at my physical health, I was becoming unable to walk when I started doing some physical training, and over many years of training and eating healthy I’ve slowly shed most of the weight I’d gained.
In June 2011 we got the news that Mark had passed away in a drowning accident, he was 40, a chronic addict, homeless and HIV positive.
The following year I separated from my husband, I was very unhappy in the relationship, and I had vowed to not allow myself to be miserable again, I will always be grateful for his support and encouragement when I needed him.
I decided that I needed to have a relationship with myself first before entering into one with someone else. Get to know who Joanne O’Dwyer is, years of abusing my body and mind had left me not knowing who I was.
In 2010 I started volunteering, then onto CE as an addiction support worker with LCDAT which is now the Red Door.
In 2013 I got my degree as a counsellor, I went to work in Dublin for addiction services for the next three years finally returning to The Red Door as CE supervisor of the rehabilitation programme in 2016 and three years later I’m delighted to still be here.
I use my experience of recovery to instil hope and belief in others that come to this service, recovery is possible with the right environment around you, …. I was blessed to have a family that always stood by me. They didn’t like my behaviour in addiction but always loved me, and when I was ready to recover they were there for me.
Everyone needs a safe space to heal and get better. Addiction is pain, unresolved hurt and emotion pain that the addict learns to self-medicate in order to soothe. So when we deal with the addiction we are usually dealing with trauma that has brought them into addiction. And the addiction helps the person escape from
Cian and I now live in a wee cottage in an amazing community in Castlebellingham where I’ve been fortunate enough to make some lifelong friends, its communities like this, like the Red Door Project, that help and nurture people to grow in a safe non-judgmental manner.
I’ve watched as the Red Door has grown as a service to what it is today and I would like to think that I’ve played a part in making it the wonderful, caring compassionate service it is.
As a service we are not adequately resourced for the number of people who need help in this town, we need more staff and funding, but as addiction is a dirty word that fills most people with fear, we are forgotten.
People have no issue in supporting homelessness or mental health services, but they don’t make the link that most people accessing these services are there because the root issue is addiction. Our prisons are clogged up with people who are being criminalised for having an addiction.