How Northern Ireland mum who lost her son to drugs has rescued thousands from life of addiction
Londonderry woman Sadie O'Reilly endured every parent's worst nightmare when her son died from a drugs overdose. But then she established a charity to help others in the grip of addiction and has seen many lives transformed. Now, as HURT is in line for a prestigious award, she tells her story to Leona O'Neill
Londonderry mother Sadie O'Reilly (62) has saved thousands of people from the cruel, relentless grip of addiction. Her charity, Have Your Tomorrows (HURT), was set up by the heartbroken mother after her son Tony died from a heroin overdose in 1999 at the age of 22.
"My son Tony was a lovable, sports mad, typical teenager," Sadie says. "He grew up dreaming of playing football for his beloved Liverpool Football Club. When he was a teenager, he studied sport and recreation at the North West Regional College. At 15, he was offered a scholarship to play football in America, but I wouldn't let him go. I thought he was too young.
"Now, with hindsight, I wonder what might have been because at 16, Tony began smoking cannabis and a little over a year later I noticed his behaviour changing.
"He started missing days at college and I was so concerned about him that I sat him down and talked to him about the dangers of drug use. However, he denied everything. But his cannabis use lead him to using harder drugs, such as cocaine and ecstasy, and eventually heroin.
"I found out he was on heroin after he came back from Dublin after a weekend. He was pretty sick. I found a letter in the toilet that he had tried to flush away. It was from the hospital. It said he had overdosed down there and was taken in. On the letter, it said he was using heroin. I went into panic mode. I didn't know what to do. I was distraught."
Sadie says she exhausted all avenues in efforts to get help for her son - but to no avail.
"As a mother I was desperate to get help for him, but could find nowhere to turn," she recalls. "I thought that he would die if he didn't get help. We went everywhere we could - doctors, addiction centres, you name it.
"Back then, there weren't a lot of places to get help. There was no help. There was nothing anyone could do for him. We helped get him clean several times for months and we'd get the real Tony back. But then he'd relapse.
"He was 22 when he died. He had been clean for three months before he overdosed. He was living with me, even though he had a flat he never used.
"I remember this Saturday, he was in bed with flu and a guy called to the door for him and I told him he was sick, that he wasn't going anywhere.
"I was glad he was sick because he was in bed and I knew where he was. But when I went out, Tony went out with this guy and they went to Dublin to get drugs. I was phoning him and he wasn't answering. When he didn't come back the next day, I got really worried."
Sadie's worst nightmare was realised when she got the family together to go to Tony's flat.
"Tony had rung me at about 10pm and said that he'd be back at midnight, because he had to paint his sister's room," she said.
"But midnight came and went and there was no sign of him. I was ringing and ringing him for a full day and couldn't get him.
"I called to the house of the guy who had called for him and asked his mother if she knew where they were. She didn't. I knew in my heart and soul that something wasn't right.
"On that Monday, Tony came back from Dublin on the bus and used at the station in Monaghan. He got off at the end of the bridge in Derry and went up into his flat, instead of coming home here because he didn't want to come home in the state he was in.
"We had gone to the flat and there was no sign of him there. We had met people who lived in the flats above and below him and they said that they had seen him and that he looked in a bad way. I said to my partner Dessie that he needed to break the door down because I knew he was in there.
"There was a roof space above the flat and Dessie went up and looked through. I think Dessie had seen him and came down and told me to go back home. But I refused. Dessie broke the door down and Tony was in there. He was down on his knees. It was horrific. He had injected into his ankle and suffered a massive heart attack.
"At that moment, I don't remember anything else except lying on top of him and screaming. It was horrific. In the days after, I was just numb. It was like I had died myself. My heart was completely broken."
Sadie says that she lay under the grief of the loss of her beloved son for two years before a spark lit in her to help others.
"I sat in my pyjamas all day and cried," she says. "Or I'd go to the cemetery. I couldn't function. But I knew that there was something that needed to be done to stop this happening to anyone else. There was no support for us and I didn't want others to go through that pain alone. My first idea was to set up a helpline for parents and Have Your Tomorrows was born."
From small beginnings, great things grew with the help of Lottery funding. And HURT has saved thousands of lives, all in Tony's name. Today, Tony's portrait sits proudly in his mum's office as she helps those navigating the darkness of addiction.
"I have helped many young men, just like Tony," she says. "There have been so many that have come through our doors. I remember a man in his early 20s coming to us here in a very bad way. He was using a lot of Class A drugs, a lot of cocaine, amphetamines, poly drugs and mixing heavy drugs. He was in a really bad place in his life and needed a lot of support.
"He got a listening ear first to determine what stage he was at, what drugs he was using and for how long. Then we offered counselling and acupuncture on his ears every day - this helped with addiction and with liver detox - and he got holistic treatments, too. We find that it really works to relax people and improve their lifestyle. And if they needed to go into rehab, then we would help organise it.
"With our help, this young man was able to beat his addiction and is now doing very well teaching English in a foreign country and has since had a baby with his partner. He keeps in touch with me still. It's just so nice to see a life saved and a life lived. It lifts your heart.
"I know that if a service like HURT was around when my son was struggling with addiction he would still be here. There was nothing then at all. There was no support for us. Tony didn't get that chance to go anywhere. That is why I'm so passionate about helping others.
"When I see people coming in that are struggling like Tony did, it makes me determined to help them, because my boy did not get that support.
"We have saved thousands of people. There are so many people who have turned it around, gone on to university and are in really good jobs today. We would get cards from loads of people who would write to us thanking us for saving their lives. That is really special.
"But there are the tragedies, too. Not everyone turns their lives around, but you try your best and that's all you can do. It's so sad when it happens, maybe the addiction is just too much for them and they take their own lives. It's devastating. But then we are there for their families, to give them the strength to carry on.
"This service was needed when Tony was struggling and it is needed now. I feel that the war on drugs in Northern Ireland has been lost."
Sadie says the memory of her precious son gives her the courage to carry on.
"This is a hard job at times, and there have been times I have felt overwhelmed and wanted to give up," she says. "But when I do, I hear Tony's voice in my head, telling me to keep going. We are working together, he and I and the team here, to help save the lives of others."
See more about HURT at www.hurt ni.org.uk. The charity has received more than £1.6m via a series of grants from the National Lottery's Big Lottery Fund. HURT has been nominated in the Best Health Project category of the 2018 National Lottery Awards. You can vote for HURT by logging on to www. lotterygoodcauses.org.uk/awards