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'My son died from an heroin overdose': The monstrous, life-destroying toll of drug addiction in Northern Ireland


Earth-shattering grief: Penny McCanny at her home in Antrim
Earth-shattering grief: Penny McCanny at her home in Antrim
Penny McCanny with her son, Aidan, who died of an accidental heroin overdose when he was just 25

To mark today's conference organised by Addiction NI to raise awareness of the harm of drug and alcohol dependency, Lisa Smyth talks to two people profoundly affected by abuse who are speaking at the event.

‘There is no pain like losing a child — now I have to speak on our son’s behalf’

Nurse Penny McCanny (56) lives in Antrim with her husband, Paddy (64). Her 25-year-old son, Aidan, died from an accidental heroin overdose in July 2013. Penny says:

The first I knew Aidan was taking heroin was on April 22, 2013. He was living at home and I found it hidden in his bedroom.

We had a really good talk. I asked him what he wanted to do and he said he wanted to come off it.

I was still in shock, though, and the biggest thing going through my mind was the worry of how we were going to get him off it.

I knew it was going to be a such a hard journey for him and for us.

We did a lot of research about what was the best thing to do. We knew he needed to see the doctor and that we needed to sort out counselling.

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We decided that he should tell at least one friend because he was going to need support, so he told his brother and his best friend.

The only option available through the doctor was a methadone programme, but we knew that was something we really didn't want.

It takes such a long time and we felt like he was replacing one addiction with another addiction that would actually be more difficult to come off.

There's also a lot of stigma attached to it, which would have been a problem if he had been going for a job.

We talked about it a lot, looked at all the evidence and decided that he would gradually reduce the amount that he was taking - heroin-assisted recovery is a legitimate plan.

In an ideal world, he would have been prescribed the heroin by a doctor, but of course that couldn't happen.

There are places where addicts can go and take heroin. No one has ever died in a supervised facility, but they don't have any here, so we were faced with knowing that Aidan was going out and buying heroin from dealers and taking it in the house.

It's impossible to describe how difficult that is, but we felt it was the safest option.

It's so hard to watch your child suffer. You have to try and help them see that they can be happy again, but Aidan was so committed and I don't think I would have had the courage and strength that he had.

He wanted to be free of his addiction, he wanted to go to India and he didn't want to have to worry about where he was going to get heroin from.

He stopped taking drugs completely in June and he was feeling very optimistic at that point.

I went to Barcelona for the weekend with my two other children while Aidan stayed at home with his dad.

It was my husband's birthday coming up and Aidan and I were texting while I was away and he was asking what he should get his dad.

He said he was going to Ballymena to get a present. That was a little bit scary because I knew he could get heroin there. It turned out that he took some heroin with a friend and then I got a phone call to say he had died at his friend's house. I'll never forget it.

I always say there is a line drawn in my life - the before time and after time.

I've lost both parents, and I lost my brother to suicide, and nothing compares to losing a child, but you have to keep moving forward.

I don't want another parent to feel what I feel and I also want to give Aidan a voice - I have to speak on his behalf.

It's been so hard for the whole family.

His brother, Matthew, who is 29, loved him deeply - they were both so close. And Aidan loved his sister, Megan, who is now 22, probably more than anyone. He was doing a master's degree in chemistry and Megan was really struggling with her GCSE science, but he helped her work through the whole course.

Megan got her exam results after he died. She was only 16 years old and she had lost her big brother - 'very difficult' doesn't even begin to describe it.

There needs to be so much more available to help people beat an addiction to heroin.

If a parent asks me what they should do if their child tells them they are taking heroin, I would tell them to listen.

Aidan didn't know before he spoke to me what my reaction was going to be.

I'm not ashamed that Aidan used illegal drugs, I'm ashamed that I didn't understand him sooner. If I had, Aidan might still be alive.

I've never felt angry with him and I'm glad that I didn't put him out of the house.

The thought that he would have died in the street with no-one around him, not knowing that he was loved, would have made this even more difficult to live with.

There is no pain like losing a child. I can't change the outcome for me, but I can maybe change it for other families."

‘I spent £500 on cocaine a week — I’m embarrassed I wasn’t there for my child’

Dan, who is 31 years old and lives in east Belfast with his partner and two-year-old daughter, describes how his life was ruled by drug addiction for more than a decade. He says:

I started taking drugs when I was about 14 or 15 in the area I grew up in. It was the older ones who were smoking cannabis - that's how I got started.

It would have progressed on from there, and then I got involved in a criminal lifestyle as well.

My problems really started when I started to take cocaine when I was about 18 or 19.

I didn't actually drink. I've never drunk that much - I've only ever had one or two drinks at a time because I don't like the taste of it.

In fact, I was always quick to point at people who were drunk. I would think I wasn't as bad as them.

The drug taking started off when I was going out. I did it with the ones I was running about with when we were in clubs and things like that.

However, before I knew it, I was doing it in the house when we were sitting around playing the Fifa football game on the computer.

It got to the stage where I was smoking cocaine every day, but I just wasn't accepting that I had a problem.

Once I was doing it every day, the criminal life really became a big thing and I ended up in jail for robbery.

I was robbing from drug dealers. The way I saw it, I was taking drugs and money from dealers, but I can see now that it wasn't a victimless crime - they were people too.

It's not even like I was performing some kind of vigilante service and flushing the drugs down the toilet, but we could always find a way to justify what we were doing.

I was flat out and I didn't realise I had a problem because I could still manage to do what I wanted to do.

I was in and out of jail, but the time I got caught for the robbery was the first time I got caught for something serious.

It was the first time I was sent to Maghaberry - I went in during July 2012 and was released on June 5, 2015.

Jail didn't stop me taking drugs. I can honestly say you can get drugs faster and quicker than you can on the street.

I was really worried before I went there. I was 10st and dripping wet. You think all sorts about what's going to happen to you while you're there, but it wasn't like that at all.

You actually end up with a lot of people you know because they're all inside too. You come out and you know a lot more about drugs.

The first time I ever saw anyone taking heroin was on my first day in Magilligan.

I'd done my time in Maghaberry and had been moved up to Magilligan.

I was walking past one room when I looked in the door. There was a guy sitting there tapping his arm.

I just assumed he was taking the hand out of me, thinking I was new, not knowing I'd already done three years at Maghaberry.

He asked if there was a screw about. When I said there wasn't, he just plunged the needle into his arm and collapsed on the bed.

It was like a scene out of Trainspotting. I remember thinking, 'What have I seen?'

The guy I was with walked into the room. He had been eating a bag of crisps and he used the bag to take the needle out of his arm and put him in the recovery position. Then he walked out and closed the door behind him.

When I was inside, I stuck to the prescription drugs because they don't show up in the tests.

There were drugs everywhere. I watched one guy in the yard swap his brand new Timberland boots for two diazepam.

The next day he was walking around in prison trainers.

When I got out, I just kept on taking the drugs.

I had my daughter but my life was doing cocaine and avoiding my partner, so I didn't have to take any responsibility for my daughter. I was doing about £500 a week.

The turning point came one day when I was sitting in a friend's house - there was a crowd doing drugs. I was in the kitchen doing pure heroin and I was hiding from the others because I didn't want to share it with them.

I just remember looking around me and thinking 'What am I doing?' I looked on the internet for help and found Addiction NI.

The first time I went, I didn't think it was going to be any use, but it actually turned out to the best thing I've ever done.

I've been off the drugs for a year. I look back now at what I did and I'm embarrassed. I'm embarrassed that I wasn't there for my daughter and at all the stupid things I got involved in."

Changing the conversation on substance abuse

Addiction NI is hosting a conference today to mark its 40th year as the leading addiction charity in Northern Ireland.

It is once again renewing its call for government departments and communities across the province to unite in a renewed effort to end the harm of drug and alcohol abuse.

Penny McCanny, who campaigns for an overhaul in legislation relating to the treatment of drug users, and recovering cocaine addict Dan are due to take part in today's event at the Hilton in Belfast.

Penny and Dan will join Northern Ireland's Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride, and the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Justice, Peter May, in examining the best way forward to assist families being torn apart by addiction.

For more information, visit www.

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