From heroin to heroine. From addict to anti-drugs crusader.
It has been a long, painful journey for Zara Doherty and, for stretches of it, she was travelling headlong in the wrong direction.
It’s been said, however, that you only need one good reason to stop.
And for this brave 29-year-old Co Antrim woman, that reason was her child — and the stark realisation that she could lose them unless she turned her life around for good.
Now Zara is an inspiration for others caught up in the vice-like jaws of drug dependency; if she can manage to extricate herself from that hellish existence, so can they.
But nobody said it was easy.
At one stage, Zara was a homeless mother who had developed a life-threatening £25-a-day habit with a Class A drug.
“I knew I needed to get off heroin, and I needed to stop immediately,” she told the Belfast Telegraph.
“I didn’t want to end up begging on the streets. I knew that wasn’t me. I certainly knew I didn’t want to be that person.”
It’s now five years since Zara made the life-changing decision to step off that bus hurtling down the road to hell.
She has since found contentment with partner Thomas (30), a childhood friend, and she loves her work as a volunteer childminder at a rather special local gym in her native Glengormley.
She’s happy now; a lot happier than the teenage Zara who ended up living in foster care, and then hostels.
“My mum and I didn’t get on at all back then,” she said.
“I left foster care and started sleeping on people’s sofas, then hostels when I turned 18.
“I met my child’s dad, who was also homeless, in a hostel. Both of us were turning our lives around so we moved in together. I was just 21 when I got pregnant with our child.”
The relationship, however, broke down.
Zara had been living in west Belfast but when the owners sold their property, she found herself back in a hostel.
Her child, meanwhile, went to live with the father — and Zara turned to heroin for comfort.
“I’d felt as though I was getting my life together, then things fell apart on the relationship front,” said Zara.
“We had a baby, we broke up, it was tough... and I was homeless again. I found myself back at square one.”
Her subsequent relationship with heroin, which lasted almost a year, was funded by her benefit money.
“Heroin is a really big thing in west and north Belfast and in the city centre,” said Zara, a part-time model.
“But in Newtownabbey, where my mum lives, you don’t really hear about heroin or see it.”
Zara told how heroin scared her “from the get-go”.
“I got addicted to it very, very quickly,” she recalled.
“On the third day after I started using, I woke up feeling really strange.
“I thought it was just a hangover or I was coming down with the flu... then someone said it was my body telling me I needed another hit to stop feeling that way.
“That’s when I knew I was becoming physically addicted to it.”
The murky world of obtaining the next fix was full of danger, particularly for a young woman on her own.
“There are contact phone numbers written on phone boxes in the city centre,” she said.
“Everyone calls the dealers ‘The Russians’. The people you get the stuff off are not from Northern Ireland.
“You ring them, they tell you where to go. Then you wait there until someone comes to you. It’s that simple...”
Zara said Class A drugs are easy to come by in Belfast, although the supply points vary.
“The location changes every day so the police don’t get them,” she said.
“Sometimes it’s Ormeau Park or the Waterworks, places like that.
“It was so scary. You were always risking getting robbed.”
She added: “Users who can’t afford their own stuff will find out where the suppliers are going to meet you and then they wait there and rob you.
“I was always being stopped by people asking for some of my stuff after they’d watched me go and get it.”
Zara believes part of her salvation was not getting involved with needles.
“I never injected heroin, I only smoked it,” she said.
“I knew that you couldn’t really overdose on just smoking it, only on shooting up.
“It was roughly £25 for 0.2g. It’s very, very small but it affects you in a really big way. I only smoked one bag a day…”
Thankfully for Zara, the turning point came one afternoon in 2016.
That was when her mother went looking for her and eventually tracked her down — on her way to “score some more drugs” — as her life was spiralling more and more out of control.
“Mum found me in Belfast and took me home to her house in Rathcoole,” said Zara.
Having decided to “put our differences aside”, Zara’s mum helped her get treatment for her addiction.
Fit Moms & Kids in Glengormley, the National Lottery-funded charity gym that Zara credits with playing the biggest role in her redemption, came next.
It took two months for one of Zara’s friends to persuade her to go to there.
“I was worried that people from my childhood would have heard that I’d been on drugs and no-one would want to know me,” she said.
Initially she didn’t want to exercise either, preferring to have a cup of tea and watch other people getting fit.
“I was really skinny and very weak when I turned up,” she recalled.
“Before that, I had nowhere to take my child.
“But I knew that if I was going to get better I needed friends around me, and so did my child.
“A gym that you could take your child to, where kids got minded for free; that sounded great. It soon became normal for me to go there and chat to other mums about their kids, about depression and anxiety.
“Even that was enough for me. People didn’t know my background.”
Seven years ago, Fit Moms & Kids, in Portland Avenue, was founded by personal trainer and mother of three Leanne Evans to support local women trying to cope with loneliness, stress and anxiety.
It has evolved into a valuable refuge where mothers can relax and get a workout, while their children are entertained free by childminders.
Zara told how Leanne, who is now one of her best friends, eventually persuaded her to exercise.
“I was getting my strength back, toning up and eating better,” she said.
“When you’re on heroin, it takes away your personality completely. All you can think about is getting your next hit to ensure your body isn’t in withdrawal.
“Even when you smoke it, you feel the effects of that... you’re always lost as a person.”
Zara also said her continuing recovery is driven by a desire to prevent others from becoming exposed to drugs.
“Heroin isn’t really talked about because, compared to other drugs, there’s a lot of shame around it,” she said.
“People don’t want to admit they’re using, and that they could be really struggling.”
She added: “These people may not know that the Belfast Trust, and other Trusts, can offer help for that.”
Zara revealed how difficult it was to tell her child why they couldn’t spend more time together during the early stages of her recovery.
“I explained that mummy wasn’t well but that she was getting better,” she said.
“I said I was sick and that I’d been silly. I said it was like eating something yukky when you know you shouldn’t do it.
“I explained that mummy had made a bad choice and that it made her ill. But I made my child a promise that I’ll never be that way again.”
Zara said it was her way of vowing “she wouldn’t go down that road again” without her child “actually knowing what I was talking about”.
“When my child replied, ‘Mummy you are better and I love you’, it was all I needed to hear,” she said.
Zara added: “My child was my reason for getting my life back. That is what helped turn my whole life around.”
Now she wants to help addicts defeat their demons.
“If anyone is struggling, I want them to know there is help out there,” she said.
“Anyone who has problems with an addiction should look us up.
“There’s a counsellor here. It’s not just physical exercise. There are people there who will help.
“Some may think it’s just a gym that looks after your kids when you train but it’s much more.”
Zara Doherty, former heroin addict who now has a promising and fulfilling future to look forward to, is living proof of that.
If you have been affected by drugs addiction, visit www. addictionni.com for more information.