Belfast Telegraph

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Drugs: why my new life is a miracle

Dubliner Shay Byrne (55) got hooked on heroin in his late teens. He straightened himself out at 23, but by the age of 28 he was hooked again. Today, he is clean. the miracle of Fatima Mansions is his story of addiction and recovery. Gráinne McCarry finds out more

Describe growing up in Dublin in the sixties and 70s

I had a very happy childhood. I lived in a cul-de-sac in Drimnagh and there were plenty of children around to play with, as well as my own sisters and brothers. We were always out on the green playing games ... hurling, football, conkers.

I was quite sporty and I always made it on to the sports teams at school. I was good at languages. My favourite subjects were English and Irish - maybe I would have gone on to do something in that field if I hadn't wasted my talents.

It was when my father died in the late Sixties of a stroke that it all started to go wrong.

I was trying to be cool and drugs were fashionable. I lived in a respectable area and came from a well respected family ... still, if you knew the right people you could always get drugs.

Is that why you turned to drugs?

Yes, it was a combination of grief and unexpressed anger. My father's death was the trigger ... I felt that I didn't have to be good anymore. I didn't have anyone to behave for.

I was very angry and my way of grieving was to find some sort of release. I felt I didn't have anything in common with my school friends and I started hanging around in a gang, staying out late, heading into town, going to dances.

I started taking drugs when I was 15. I knew people who would rob the national health dispensaries. We would take whatever was on offer. It started off with prescription medication.

How could you afford them if you were only a schoolchild?

I used to be given some for free by dealers in return for bringing them new customers. I had a friend who was working at the time, and he used to buy them when we had to pay for them.

We used to rip people off by dyeing saccharine tablets bright colours and selling them to people pretending they were drugs - that gave us money for real drugs. It was quite dangerous really, especially when people came looking for their money back.

The first time you took drugs, you nearly ended up in hospital. Was that not enough to put you off?

No, it didn't. A gang of us took what we thought was speed and the majority ended up in hospital - four in intensive care.

We were supposed to be studying for our Intermediate Certificate at school, but the teachers were on strike. We were heading into town that night to see a band. I waited all night to get high and nothing happened. The next day, I was sitting in a cafe on Grafton Street when my head jerked backwards in some sort of muscle spasm. Later that evening at home it got worse and I had to tell my mum what I'd done. She called for the doctor and I was injected with a muscle relaxant. My mother was naturally very upset.

One of the gang was even administered the Last Rites. I had to tell his mother what we had taken so the doctors knew what to treat him with. It put the most of the group off drugs for life - but not me. A few weeks later I scored the proper speed - Dexedrine.

How did drugs change your personality?

Speed made me stay awake all night - I felt euphoric, invincible, it filled me with a great confidence. I was quite a shy person and it made me more talkative. I always had more success with girls when I was on speed, with asking them up to dance and chatting to them.

Where did the book's title, The Miracle of Fatima Mansions, come from?

Before I entered rehab for the final time, I came close to losing my life. I had gone to a flat in Fatima Mansions, a pretty run down area of Dublin, to get drugs with my then girlfriend. I handed over stolen cheques to a guy I trusted and was waiting for him to return with drugs for me.

Some men came in looking for the owner of the flat and didn't believe me when I told them that I didn't know who it was. As far as I was concerned the flat was Martin's.

One of them grabbed a carving knife and stabbed me in the leg. I thought I was going to die - the only thing that saved me was that my girlfriend threatening to throw herself out the window onto the concrete below.

What's your connection with Thin Lizzy?

I knew Phil (Lynott) when we were growing up. He was a couple of years older than me and my hero.

One night, after Thin Lizzy had finished a tour, Phil came over to me and asked if I had any gear. I took him to a dealer's house where I knew he could get some ... that was the last time I met him and years later he was to die from a drug overdose.

What did your family make of your drug taking?

Well, not very much was known about drugs or the effects of drug taking in those days. My mother obviously knew of the first incident. However, she wouldn't have known signs to look out for or anything like that.

Although I started to take drugs recreationally, it quickly became an addictive habit. I broke ties with my family and moved to London in my late teens for five years, and I didn't keep in touch with them. It was while I was over there that I was introduced to other drugs and my friend and I became runners for a big heroin dealer. For every five bags I sold for her, I got one.

It got so bad that sometimes I used to keep a big, long needle in my groin so that I could hit up instantly instead of wasting time looking for a vein. It was very dangerous because I had to go past an artery to find it.

You turned to petty crime to fund your habit

Yes, I did as many drug users do. When I needed money for drugs, I would rip off tourists by stealing their travellers cheques or pickpocket handbags, things like that.

I look back with some degree of regret and shame at many of the things I did, but I have to accept them as part of my past. I know many people will be shocked when they read the book. I'd like to think that stealing is as far as I would have gone to get my next fix.

You came off drugs twice. What happened the first time?

I was caught pick-pocketing in London and a warrant for my arrest had been issued. I came back from London for Christmas '74 with a prescription for enough methadone to last me 10 days.

Rather than go back to London and face whatever was in front of me, I decided to stay at home and try to get my life sorted. I did it by going cold turkey.

I was living with my mum again and I stayed away from everyone and everything I associated with drugs. I went back to doing all the normal things I used to do like playing hurling and football and watching TV. I got a job in a hardware store and earned a wage.

Society was quite ignorant of drug addiction and everything that went along with it.

My mother understood that I had stopped taking drugs and as far as she was concerned that was it. She was relieved that I was off them, but she didn't understand the power they held over people.

Why did you start using again?

I went to London for a holiday with the girl I was dating at the time and I decided to visit my friend. He was still hooked on drugs and was now a registered heroin addict. He looked a state, his teeth were rotten and he was in poor health.

I had been to London once since getting clean. I was working as a salesman selling life insurance and I was sent over there on an advanced sales course. I hadn't got any hassle from the police about my arrest warrant and hadn't felt the urge for drugs or my old lifestyle, so I suppose I thought I would be safe enough returning there.

I don't know what made me start taking again ... my friend asked me did I want a turn-on (to get high) and in a moment of weakness I accepted ... that's the thing about drugs, once you start you want more and more. You're always looking for the next high. I went back to Dublin and split up with my girlfriend as I had begun using again.

Why did you move to Germany?

I needed to go to a place where I didn't know how to get drugs and I saw an advert in a paper for a salesman's job. I weaned myself off heroin there because I couldn't get any. When I saved up enough money and thought I was on the straight and narrow, I moved back home to Dublin.

It didn't take long for me to fall back into the trap of taking drugs again. About a year later I was working in a tyre factory and a former addict offered me morphine and I accepted it.

I ended up leaving home and sleeping wherever the drugs were.

Why did you finally get back on track?

I got caught in possession of heroin and I faced a very lengthy jail sentence - 14 years at least. I needed to go into rehab so I entered Coolmine Therapeutic Centre and shortly after I completed my time there, I left the country. I moved to Germany again to restart my life and eventually got work selling cars to Americans.

How is life today?

Life is quite ordinary. I'm now married with two children. I met my wife, Ute, in an Irish pub in Nurnberg in 1988. I was there with my boss and work colleagues celebrating being named salesman of the month. A lot of people tried to chat her up, but I was the only one who had any luck. We've been together 19 years now.

Has your drug taking had any long-term affects on your health?

There's no doubt that my years of drug taking had a serious effect on my mental health.

Not long after I met Ute I had my first breakdown. Everything was going well in my life, I had an apartment, car, an excellent salary and I'd met someone new.

Some time after that, I was diagnosed with unipolar disorder, which can be controlled with medication. I've also got Hepatitis C which I must've contracted during my drug-taking days.

Your teenage kids, Patrick and Martin, are roughly the same age as you were when you started taking drugs. Do you worry they might fall into the same trap?

No, I just couldn't imagine it. The boys don't even like to see us smoking so that sort of thing wouldn't interest them. They enjoy their sports and playing their computer. We don't live in an area where drugs would be easily obtained.

The drugs problem in Dublin is out of control. What seems to be the problem?

There are not enough resources being put into drug rehabilitation. There are 24 detox beds and an estimated 13,000 addicts. They can't afford their daily fix of drugs so they have to resort to stealing and robbing to get it. Drugs doesn't just affect the person that is taking them - it affects the whole community.

The Miracle Of Fatima Mansions, Maverick House, £7.99


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