Rachael Keogh was the ravaged junkie whose scarred arms shocked Sky News viewers three years ago. Now clean, she’s found love, had a baby and written a book. Jane Hardy reports
After finally hitting her real rock bottom in 2006, the last of several decent tries, heroin addict Rachael Keogh decided to appear on a Sky News programme to highlight the third-world facilities available for recovering junkies in Ireland.
She writes in her superb memoir, Dying to Survive, that she suddenly felt confident. “I wasn’t going to play a role others had chosen ... I would be myself, rotten arms and all, and if you didn’t like it, you could ‘Kiss my a**e.’”
Reading her journey from 15-year-old heroin addict to recovering twentysomething mother, the defiance is understandable.
Rachael had been used and abused by men, dealers and society since embarking on her slippery slope just after primary school. Normally, 29 might be considered rather young to produce an autobiography, but Rachael has more than enough incident to fill a TV biopic or movie.
“Yes, that’s true,” she agrees, “although I haven’t been approached yet. There is loads of plot there. If I had to choose somebody to play me, it would be Mena Suvari from American Beauty — she’s quirky.”
But, Rachael adds in her light Dublin accent, she’s still trying to get her head round having produced a book. “It was traumatic to write ...”
That is hardly surprising. The section Rachael says she found hardest to set down on paper was the beginning, covering her childhood and first steps on the road to full-blown addiction.
Rachael structures the book cleverly, starting near the end of her hellish struggle to get clear of drugs, and delivering her story initially as a response to psychiatrist Dr Sweeney, who is conducting a psychological assessment.
She started smoking at 11, having practised by herself first so she looked cool, to keep in with the gang that hung out in Sillogue tower blocks and was led by two lads who lived there, Steo and Snarts. Steo became her boyfriend. Then came alcohol, air freshener and hash and school didn’t get much of a look-in.
Rachael writes: “I began to wonder why people even went to school or work, when they could easily draw the dole ... and get stoned all day, like we did.”
She says that writing all this down would sometimes make her cry over her computer.
In places, the book reads like a drugtaker’s manual. You learn the vocabulary — an injection into the vein raised by a tourniquet (significantly) is a ‘turn-on’ and ‘duck eggs’ are small egg-shaped downers with a lethal liquid inside. You also learn the technique.
But Rachael isn’t worried that this sends a mixed message. “No, I didn’t worry about it. That’s the reality of it — and my arms, which are still scarred, are the consequences.” She won't be able to have skin grafts until she has been clean for two years.
What this gutsy author did have to worry about was revisiting, and reliving, the 14 years she’d been dependent on a catalogue of hard and recreational drugs.
Rachael admits: “If I talk or write about drugs in a certain way, they come alive for me again. When I was typing the graphic descriptions of scoring, I couldn’t breathe.”
The book’s cover shows Rachael in mid-junkie career, very pretty and blonde and unhappy with forearms ravaged by years of injecting heroin. Her veins had mostly collapsed or been affected by thrombosis.
At one point Rachael lost feeling in her left arm, and was finally at risk of double amputation. She was also, of course, near death.
So how does she feel now, two years clean, looking at the book cover?
“I feel a mixture of emotions, sad, of course, but I never forget what life was like. I don’t need to look at my arms to remember. They are badly scarred, although not with open wounds any more. Being a girl, I’m self-conscious about it.”
Rachael adds that she chooses not to wear short-sleeved tops, even in summer, then says seriously: “I remember it all in my heart, that’s what keeps me clean.”
Asked why she chose to publish this very personal account of a 50% unhappy life, Rachael reveals herself to be a lifelong scribbler.
“I always wrote, from an early age, and kept a diary. That’s how I got caught taking drugs. I used to write about everything I was up to and one day I put down, ‘I was smoking hash, meself and my friend Katie, and I was brought down to the security guards outside the flats.’ I kept on doing this, so I must have wanted my family to know.”
Although the tone of this readable book is at times confessional, like somebody speaking at one of the Narcotics Anonymous meetings Rachael still sometimes attends, it’s none the worse for that.
Rachael has been in rehab and is now quite open about her feelings, including her feeling about the drug that caused all the trouble, with which she has had a kind of love affair.
In a memorable passage, she describes her first experience with heroin, which resembled a deadly embrace.
She writes: “The little brown blob of heroin rolled its way down the tin-foil. I could feel the smoke enter my lungs, tasting like burned toffee on the back of my mouth. After doing two or three lines, I could feel it taking hold. It crawled its way through my body, wrapping me up in a warm, cosy blanket and holding me protectively like a mother ... This was the feeling that I had longed for all my life. I instantly fell in love.” She was 13 at the time.
The psychology is painfully clear. It was Rachael's relationship with her glamorous, troubled and absent mother Lynda that led to her problems.
She was largely raised by her devoted grandmother, Theresa Keogh, who refused to give up on her bright, yet wayward granddaughter. Rachael’s father left her mother, who’d become pregnant at 15, when she was a toddler.
Though Rachael only felt truly comfortable in her underworld, there was help along the way.
Her mother and well-off partner sent her at a young age to a private clinic in Cuba. Much later, family friend Father Adrian enabled her to visit an unconventional convent in Italy, where she became hooked on prayer for a while.
Although no longer a religious junkie, she says: “Most people in recovery turn to some form of spirituality. Sometimes I think about the addicts I knew who have died and I feel I was looked after in some dangerous situations.”
She says she has forgiven everybody, including her mother who is now “more like a friend, we do things together”.
Some of the most harrowing passages concern Rachael’s prostitution, which she took to as a means of feeding her habit. She also had frequent convictions for shoplifting. The courts and prisons — where basic treatments such as methadone were often withheld — weren’t exactly helpful to a young woman trying to get off the most addictive of class A drugs.
While the book firmly belongs in the misery literature genre, it differs from some of the most famous examples because of the happy ending. That was apparently a doddle to write.
At 27, Rachael embraced a clean life that meant learning how to live with unclouded perceptions. She says now: “I used to watch people in Dublin, in cafes, and wonder how they managed to be normal. After 14 years’ drug use, I had to learn how to think again.”
Rachael has succeeded brilliantly, even though she missed a lot of school through truanting.
As she says, even while she was on drugs, she always read a lot. Her reading matter wasn’t exactly conventional stuff for a girl who commuted between squalid bedsits and the prostitutes’ haunt, Baggot Lane. “I used to read Socrates — I dont know where I picked up the book but I found him interesting.”
Now her life is, to borrow her own word, “normal”.
She met Patrick, an attractive musician who was also getting over drug abuse in Keltoi clinic in Dublin. They eventually started a relationship and produced baby Senan, now 13 months.
You can hear the grin in Rachael’s voice as she says: “My life is very normal now. I go to college and look after my son.”
Although Rachael had to contend with Patrick’s fall off the wagon, during which they briefly separated, she remains living the dream.
Asked what she will tell Senan about her life, Rachael says: “I'll sit him down when he's old enough and explain. As for him trying drugs, he won't get away with anything! I know all the signs.”
She quotes Socrates’ famous saying on the flyleaf: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’
After reading Dying To Survive, nobody could think Rachael Keogh’s life, which includes a recent career as lecturer on the evils of drugs to schools, as anything but 100% worthwhile.
Dying to Survive by Rachael Keogh, Gill & Macmillan, £12.99