'I took my first drink aged 9... now I help others with addictions'
A BBC NI series starting tomorrow will show how a support group is tackling the scourge of drugs here. By Ivan Little
He was drinking and sniffing solvents before he was out of short trousers, but Darren Whiteside only shares his childhood experiences on a need-to-know basis with the 'clients' he now helps with the crises blighting their lives like drugs and alcohol dependency.
Thanks to his troubled past, Darren – who is a key worker with the Forum for Action on Substance Abuse (FASA) – does know exactly what the people he deals with are going through. He's been there, he's done that but he's now thrown away the T-shirt.
"I was a primary school pupil when I tried my first drink at the age of nine," he says. And before too long he'd popped his first pill as well.
"But I don't necessarily broadcast my life story to my clients," Darren said. "And I wouldn't walk into a classroom and tell children they should respect me because of my past.
"It might lead some of them to think that if I did it, and came out the other side, they might have a go because it's not that bad."
But there's no doubt that the difficulties he encountered in his youth have made Darren better at his job, and helped him to empathise with the people he is striving to help. And there's no pulling the wool over his eyes.
That's all abundantly clear as Darren is featured prominently tomorrow night in the first of a powerful new three part documentary – Watch Over Me – about the pioneering work of FASA.
The programme follows a year in the lives of some of the organisation's frontline workers, including Darren, who are trying to combat the growing nightmare of drugs, alcohol, substance abuse, self-harm, mental health and suicide – a depressingly common cocktail of problems bedevilling Northern Ireland.
It's been a harrowing journey for the series producer, Natalie Maynes, who says she wanted to make the documentaries about FASA after discovering about the "inspirational and successful" work they were doing to help people cope with a long and disturbing list of personal difficulties.
"I'd never heard of FASA before people I know shared their stories about them," Natalie says. "It's been distressing at times but inspirational too because they have saved so many lives."
And it's not just the stereotypical tearaway teenagers who keep FASA busy, but rather people of all ages, and from all walks of life, who are trying to cope with life-changing traumas like bereavement, divorce, abuse, bankruptcy or mental health problems.
One woman who figures in the series was taking upwards of 32 painkillers every day before FASA helped her overcome her addiction, which resulted from a family breakdown.
Darren Whiteside is an Impact of Alcohol co-ordinator, but his role covers a variety of dilemmas, and in tomorrow's programme he and his colleagues are seen spearheading FASA's response last summer to the emerging news of eight deaths in Northern Ireland, where legal highs sold openly in shops are exacerbating the addiction worries.
The team are also filmed as they try to help one young man called Lee – who's on a concoction of drugs and drink – as he struggles to re-build his life and his mental well-being before and after serving a prison sentence.
In one particularly disturbing scene Lee comes out of prison, and FASA workers realise, to their horror, that he's high on drugs which he obviously obtained behind bars.
Darren says: "I was off the rails myself at certain times as I was growing up. I wasn't as bad as some of the clients we are dealing with today.
"But in primary school I was misusing solvents and drinking alcohol.
"And, even after a friend died from solvent abuse, we still continued to pretend that we were brave and had that whole machismo thing going on. We continued to sniff solvent even harder."
Darren insists he wasn't completely hooked on drugs, but for a number of years he and his friends weren't able to go out at weekends without first taking drink, solvents or ecstasy tablets.
Darren says that he started to believe his detractors who labelled him a no-hoper who could never do anything with his life.
"Teachers stopped asking me for homeworks. They had written me off as well and I could have lived under that cloud of no hope but a youth worker called Ronnie Wilson changed my life," he says. "He was a friend of my brother and he showed a bit of belief in me. He asked me to come to his youth club in the Monkstown estate where I grew up.
"He wanted me to work in the tuck shop and I wondered if he was for real."
It was the spark that made Darren realise that he wasn't a waste of space. And he immersed himself in youth work.
"I wanted to inspire other young people who had stopped believing in themselves," he says.
"Even before FASA came about I was employed by the Belfast Trust as a peer educator, one of only eight in Northern Ireland. It was an American concept and I was trained in all sorts of health and social issues like HIV and Aids, car crime, drug awareness and sexual health.
"But I was particularly passionate about substance misuse. It was relevant in my life, and generations in my family, and that was the subconscious thing that was pushing me towards that line of work. And, at the same time I working with the Forum once a month, which was eventually my path into a job with them."
FASA had started on the Shankill in 1995 after five worried mothers came together to talk about their sons' glue-sniffing. They didn't know where to turn and decided to tackle the crisis head-on. Their first office was in an attic.
And just as the problems of drugs, alcohol addiction and suicide have grown, so too has the work of FASA – which started off with three workers, but now has 60 members of staff and 60 volunteers, in five centres in Belfast, Bangor and Ballywalter.
And similarly, while drug and drink dependency knows no boundaries, FASA's work is now carried out in Protestant and Catholic areas.
Suicide is another scourge which is no respecter of religion or politics, and the third programme in the documentary series concentrates on mental health and the piloting of a FASA crisis centre which for the first time offers support to at-risk people at nights and at weekends.
Alex Bunting, who is FASA's head of corporate services, says more people are dying as a result of suicides than died during the troubles. He hopes the BBC series will make people sit up and take notice of the problems around them which they might prefer to ignore. A big concern for Alex on suicide is that Northern Ireland has a pharmaceutically driven health service for mental health.
"We believe that there has to be something different from a tablet," he said. "The difficulty is that we are working with many people who are going to look for that sort of help. But they don't receive it. They are going to A&E and are being discharged with 'no mental health problems' and maybe two or three days later they're found dead."
FASA see around 6,000 people every year and 1,500 come to them in crisis situations. Their success rate is high but the people who invariably stand out for the staff are the ones who end up taking their own lives.
"We reckon that we lose about six to 10 people every year who are on our books." says Alex, who adds that the biggest section of the community they work with in relation to addictions are 24 to 44 year olds.
"They've been through the experimental recreational stage and are now in the dependent stage.
"And over many years of abuse it starts to impact on major life issues where their relationships are breaking down, they're being turfed out of their houses and they're losing their jobs."
An independent evaluation recently showed that 80% of people who were surveyed said they had reduced or stopped their use of drugs and alcohol after FASA's intervention.
Darren Whiteside adds: "Yes, there is hope out there"
The first of a three-part series of Watch Over Me starts BBC One NI, tomorrow, 10.35pm