Family Urges Action Now To Halt Scourge Of Heroin
The mother of a Shetland heroin addict is urging the community to wake up to the explosion in drug injecting. She says action taken now might prevent many more families suffering the unspeakable misery hers has endured. This is her story . . .
ANN (not her real name) has been ripped apart by her son’s descent into a poisonous underworld of drug dealers, overdose comas and spiralling debts.
She has been bankrupted and forced to move to escape the drug users invading her house to party and steal, and to shake off the debt collectors from south who threatened to take her furniture.
With little expert help available for families pitched into this nightmare, Ann has suffered anxiety and depression from the worry, the fear and, worst of all, the frustration of not knowing what to do to try to save her son.
For families who think it can’t happen to them, she sounds an ominous warning: her boy was a normal hard-drinking Shetland teenager who detested the local “smack heads” and was repulsed by the thought of sticking a needle in his arm. But his weekend boozing and drug-taking eventually propelled him to the stage where he started smoking heroin. There was only one more step to go.
When the moment came, he didn’t even have to inject himself because an obliging “friend” did it for him. It is not an unusual way to make the dangerous leap to intravenous injecting.
Since then mother and troubled son have been to hell. So far they’ve not found a way back.
More than anything else she says she craved good advice. “You’re scrabbling in the dark. I just wanted somebody to tell me: am I doing right or am I doing wrong? Is this the right way to go or should I just be showing him the door?”
The local groups who offer help are targeted at the addicts and don’t have the resources to help all the families. In moments of real crisis Ann found even the professional medical authorities hopelessly unable to help.
One night her son was going through a Trainspotting-style withdrawal psychosis in his bedroom, seeing things crawling up the walls and hearing voices shouting at him.
“I just felt very isolated, very scared in the house on my own. I didn’t feel safe because he didn’t know what was going on around him. If I walked in the door and he thinks I’m somebody else I don’t know what he’s going to do. He just wasn’t in control of his thoughts at all. He was terrified as well.”
With no GP on duty in Lerwick to call for advice she eventually phoned NHS 24. Four hours later they returned her call advising her to make him a cup of camomile tea and call the doctor in the morning!
“I didn’t know at what point do I get him sectioned [to a mental hospital] or taken in to get medical help. I said I really didn’t know what was going on here and I got no advice at all other than to take him to the doctor in the morning, which I felt at the time was really devastating.”
While the internet can track down information instantly on almost any subject, many people don’t have access to it at home. In a household with a resident drug addict the computer may have been sold for drugs.
Ann felt horribly isolated and despairing, especially in a small community where people naturally don’t want to admit such a problem, which would encourage the gossips and upset the wider family.
“It’s really frightening. This is somebody going through a torturous situation themselves and I was no help at all. If you had that support and knowledge – even if there was a phone line that was specifically geared up so you could contact them and they would say to try this or try the next.”
She would also like to see far more resources going into providing rehab treatment in Shetland because there is simply not adequate services up here to fight addiction.
“I totally believe that all the work that’s being done is really good but they just don’t have the resources to deal with it as it stands today. A few years ago they could but now I think it’s just become a bit of an epidemic and they can’t possibly tackle it.”
She believes more support is needed for users before they become too established in their habits (if they are willing to accept help) and also to help families at all stages of their children’s addiction. Often, drug-users are still living at home, she says, and if parents were equipped with the best advice and support they could try to help out. She says once a person becomes detached you can’t do anything.
Her son lost all his possessions and racked up huge debts through credit cards and their spiralling charges. His mother kept bailing him out until she had nothing left.
Ann and her son are about as “Shetland” as they come – born and bred for generations. She says any family, local or incomer, can become heroin victims – even the most respectable types.
“I think an awful lot of folk think ignorance is bliss and it will never happen to us because we’re raising our bairns right, teaching them the right morals; that it’s only happening to folk that are not watching what their bairns are doing.
“Well, I raised my bairns right. I wasn’t drunk and lying around taking drugs. I warned the bairns because drink problems were in the family and I said to be careful about addiction problems.”
Her boy suffered depression, which may have led him to drink more and take more and more dangerous drugs. One night his pal offered him a smoke of heroin to knock him out. That was the start of the slippery slope with heroin. His story is no longer a rare one in Shetland, she says.
“Every month it seems to be worse. What I think used to be completely unacceptable behaviour with folk is becoming normalised because it’s so prevalent.
“Before, there was this big stigma about heroin and it was only certain folk that took it; that it was just the soothmoothers and the rest – that’s just rubbish. An awful lot of our young folk are dabbling in it and then before they realise where they are they’re completely hooked and doing things they would never ever have believed.
“Now there’s no fear and needle use seems to be acceptable. The use of other drugs with heroin is very normal. It’s just spoken about as ‘taking sweeties’. It’s the combinations that frighten me and the lack of knowledge among the young ‘eens.”
One of her fears for the future is the presence now of very young impressionable teenagers, especially girls, among older drug-takers.
“I think the older ones are taking advantage and steering them in a direction. They’re not caring what happens to the younger ones and they’re quite happy for them to get involved and then it makes [the older ones] feel more normal instead of being the ones doing it on their own.”
She says the blood disease hepatitis C is spreading quickly among drug users in Shetland and it doesn’t necessarily have to come from shared needles. If the injecters share the gauze or spoons used in preparing heroin they can catch it too, or HIV or hepatitis B.
“The thing is that when they’re not in their right minds, when they’re out of their heads, everything becomes okay and it doesn’t really matter.”
The escalation in heroin use has largely escaped the community’s attention because there have been few deaths and little obvious violence and not that many big court cases or drug-related theft. But when Ann talks about local addicts’ connections with major dealers down south she paints a disturbing picture of what is starting to unfold in Shetland.
She tells a story about a teenage lad who came into possession of a stash of heroin belonging to a dealer in Shetland who works for big bosses from England, based in Aberdeen.
When the dealers found out the lad had sold the drugs they were up on the next boat, kidnapped him in their car and phoned his parents threatening to do him in and torch their house unless they immediately stumped up a large sum of cash. They paid up.
She doesn’t know if the police became involved. It’s an outlandish story for a place like Shetland.
She believes Shetland’s love affair with alcohol makes it easier for young islanders to contemplate getting off their face on hard drugs.
“Anywhere that there’s a big alcohol situation – where it’s a big thing to get absolutely blazing drunk for about four days in a row – they are just substituting it. Where it used to be drink it’s now drugs and they go on benders, come down to the town and get whatever.”
For Ann’s son, and others, it has backfired. He always assured her she was worrying to much about the heroin and that everything would be okay. He was wrong.
“To end up with he wasn’t making any promises to me and our life was pretty miserable. He was just not caring because they had gone too far. He wasn’t caring about what was going on with the family or what we were thinking or anything. He just was completely ruled by it.”
Once trust between mother and son had broken down, Ann took to searching his room and checking his messages on his mobile phone. For her, tell-tale signs of heroin use included texts to friends asking about their “kit”, noticing when he was glassy-eyed or his skin had gone pasty-coloured, almost green sometimes.
When he was smoking the drug she would spot his burnt fingers and find squares of tinfoil pressed flat inside books or lying around the floor with burn marks.
Other signs were small flat surfaces left lying around where drugs have been cut and prepared for use.
Ann feels parents must now take action to teach themselves about drugs and also to demand more support from the authorities to prevent heroin addiction getting into their own household.
“One of the biggest resources that we have is the community spirit and the power of the family. I feel strongly that if folk were given the knowledge and given the support when they ask for it when they need it at the very beginning when they realise that there’s a problem I think it would make a huge difference. It could keep folk in their families.
“I feel there are peerie pockets of folk, like the drugs workers and medical professionals that are really doing their absolute best but unless the community takes it on board as being a real issue we could be facing serious crime waves and all sorts of dangers like needles lying around all over the place where they could be picked up by bairns. Instead of waiting, we should be trying to get the resources in place to tackle it now.
“If you can feel that you’re doing something, that you’re looking into things and you’ve got something to work on, it helps your psyche, even if it doesn’t change anything.
“When you’re sitting on the end of a phone and someone says give them camomile tea and wait until the morning to go to the doctor and you’ve got to sit for the next seven hours with somebody climbing the wall that destroys folk.”