Monday, September 03, 2018

DYING TO SURVIVE




The other day I met Rachael Keogh. Rachael is amazing. She is warm, open and quick to smile. While she is self-confident, there is a hint of shyness or reticence there.

All this is understandable when you know her history, and what a history.

When Peter was introducing me to her, he told me she had written a book about her experiences. He had previously mentioned she had drugs in her past. And that was it. We talked about her art and the work she was doing, about which more later.

But I was curious and when I got home I Googled her and came up with a story from 2009 in the Irish Independent which would make the hairs stand up on the back your neck.



It also referred back to an earlier article which arose out of an approach by Rachael's mother to the Independent when she gave the paper a photo of Rachael with the flesh on her arms dying from heroin burns. She was at the end of the road, a fourteen year long road littered with drugs of every hue. Her relentless injecting of heroin into her arms had led the flesh to start dying and she had been told she was on the edge of having them amputated.

Her mother's action was a last throw of the dice in the hope that the publicity would help get Rachael into long term rehab. Sky News picked up on the story and made a documentary, but despite Rachael and her desperate plight being in the headlines, she still had to wait her turn to get into rehab. Too many addicts and too few beds.




At this stage I really did want to read the book so I got a copy from my local library. I expected it to be a harrowing read but I was not prepared for the journey I was taken on.

From a really disturbed family background, Rachael just slid into drugs. They were all around the place and many of her friends were experimenting. Not all of them followed her down the path but she quickly escalated her way through the range of available drugs and her behaviour deteriorated drastically.

To feed her habit she stole from all and sundry, including her own family. She had a go at prostitution for a while. She was in and out of prison. It was heartbreaking to read, but the real heartbreak was those times she got "clean", and there were many, only to crash again and again. The tension reading the book was unbearable. Each time she got clean you wondered was this it. Then you looked at how many pages were left in the book and you knew she was going to crash again.

In retrospect she describes these as relapses, a word that comes nowhere near describing them. It reminded me of alcoholics talking about slips, but they are not slips like slipping on a banana skin, they are falling into the deepest black hole you can imagine. Language trivialises the experience.

I know from alcoholic rehab that the counsellors can usually tell fairly early on who is going to make it this time and who is not. Success requires that the decision to quit has to come from the depths of your being and has to be for yourself, not for family, friends or neighbours, for you and you alone.

Rachael has a good take on this. While she was fighting the drugs she did not succeed. That only came when she realised it was herself she was fighting, that she had to face up to whatever she was running away from and let her real self come through. And she had to do this for herself.

It took fourteen years in all for her to get there and she's been there now for the last ten years. An enlightened judge has struck out her past record. She is now bringing her experience and street cred to bear in mobilising support for those caught up in the treadmill of addiction.

She did a lot of work with schools a while back raising pupils' awareness of the dangers of the drug scene. Nowadays her talks as such are directed at drug services.

She has written the book and she has made three documentaries with Sky news. These date from the early days of her recovery. For her they were to help her recovery. Now they are there to help others.

She wrote a play, Heroin, with Grace Dyas illustrating the drug scene and they have now updated it with Barry O'Connor. It will be going on national tour, to venues and prisons, and on to London and to an invitation tour in Finland.

It's listed now in the O'Reilly Theatre (in Great Denmark St., Dublin) for 25-27 September. It's also listed for Leitrim and they expect to have Ballymun, Limerick, Cork and Waterford confirmed shortly. Rachael says:
The newly rewritten play is part of a campaign with a whole new cast. It's emphasizing the need for change in drug policy and basically we are putting it up to the government now. No more holding back. We have the support of lots of people including Senator Lynn Ruane, Aodhan O'Riordan and loads more. It's gonna be good.
Since 2013 herself and Grace Dyas have been looking at creative ways to get people thinking/talking about decriminalisation and they have an ongoing petition to Government to de-criminalise small time drug addicts and shift public spending from prisons to rehab.

Kitty Holland's piece in the Irish Times on the play is worth a read. You can listen to Grace and Rachael on the Irish Times Women's Podcast.

Rachael's 2014 interview on NearFM with Leslie Murphy about her petition is worth a listen.



I said I'd come back to the art. Rachael is into this big time. An example is the picture above which she is donating to Casadh to hang in their new premises in Cork Street. She sought suggestions for a title from the public and got a big response. The one chosen by Casadh was "Rise from the Struggle" which was submitted by Sarah Kidney.



And I can let you in on a secret. The above pictures are watercolours but her next one will be in oils.

Best of luck Rachael. May the Force be with you.



2 comments:

voiceforchildren said...

An inspiration and credit to you for giving her a voice.

Addiction should be treated as an illness rather than a crime. Prisons are full of addicts, if putting them in prison worked, there wouldn't be any in there!

Póló said...

I'm just back from a few days in Galway city. While passing Dubray's bookshop it struck me to check out if they had a copy of Rachael's book. I had read a library copy but would like to have one of my own.

The man knew exactly what I was talking about without having to look it up. Unfortunately he didn't have a copy left but thought it might still be in print.

My next stop was Easons, a few doors down, where the young lady made straight for a copy on the shelf. When I said my interest was because I had met Rachael recently she immediately asked how she was. I said she was great and the young lady was very happy to hear it. She did sound like she cared and had heard about Rachael though she had not read the book. I figure she may now do so.

When I left the shop there was at least one copy left on the shelf.