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'My parents used to tell me that Matthew was “on holiday”. I found letters addressed from Clover Hill'

This is what I’ve learned about Ireland’s problems with addiction since losing my brother Matthew, writes Niamh O’Donoghue.

Niamh O'Donoghue Journalist

THERE ARE ONLY a few times when family members arrive unannounced to your job, and death is one of them.

I had just started my dream job after college. I had my own desk, a computer and work phone, and a new lease on life. After a brief stint with cancer, scoliosis and kidney disease that same year, I was ready for life to become more normal instead of the uphill battle it had been.

The vivid memory of the moment I was told of Matthew’s death will never leave me. I remember standing in the hallway of my new job, packed with my new colleagues and aspirations, wailing inconsolably at the thought of my brother’s dead, limp body lying in an apartment somewhere, tablets, syringe, and whatever else in tow.

His beauty and innocence was squashed

As a child, Matthew was raped: his beauty and innocence squashed like a delicate butterfly before he was given the chance to flutter his wings. As a result – similar to a brigade of other men and women here – he fell victim to the revolving-door system of drugs, crime and incarceration.

For years my parents told me that Matthew was “on holiday”, and I remember finding letters from him to my mam addressed from places like Clover Hill and Mount Joy. Sounded like great places to visit for a holiday, I thought.

It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I fully understood Matthew. People often doubted our relationship  because he was different to me, and for a long time I couldn’t understand why.

He had a tough outer shell – a typical north-side hard man. But inside, his soul was filled with love and kindness. I used to be hesitant to introduce Matthew to new friends or boyfriends because I felt like I had to be mindful – apologetic even – of his drug use and tenacious exterior.

Truth be told, I wish I had introduced him to more people so that they could understand that beneath the addiction is someone’s brother, or son, or dad. Nobody openly chooses to destroy their lives and the lives of their loved ones with chemicals. And if we concentrated the negative attitude and prejudice that we have here for addicts towards positive change, then we have a really strong chance of making Ireland a safer place for the many people – and their families – who have fallen victim to drugs.

We need a more collaborative system

Drug addiction has been treated as a complex issue here in Ireland, but the reality of it is that other countries have adopted measures that are not outside the realm of possibility. For starters, we should be treating addiction as a national health issue instead of automatically criminalising members of society who have already fallen short of opportunity and prosperity.

There needs to be a more rigorous collaborative system in place between health services and users, one that reduces the addicts want and desire to use again.

Portugal, for example, decriminalised personal possession of drugs years ago, and because drugs are less stigmatised there, problem users are more likely to seek out care. Not to mention its free public health system and extensive treatment programmes. Ireland could learn thing or two from them.

Around 25 other countries have also removed criminal penalties for personal possession of certain drugs, demonstrating a global shift away from punitive drug policies.

The truth is that there is no easy solution to Ireland’s drug problem, but change is imminent thanks to groups of lobbyists and volunteers who see the first-hand effects of addiction. Just this week we’ve seen Minister Catherine Byrne, Senator Lynn Ruane, Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, and the CEO of The Ana Liffey Trust, Tony Duffin, Gary Gannon (among others) introduce the Controlled Drugs and Harm Reduction Bill 2017 to the Seanad.

Raising awareness about addiction

If passed, the Bill will see the introduction of supervised injection clinics here, helping to compound the cycle of hopelessness that addiction often brings, and instead divert people towards a health-led approach. It would be a compassionate move.

Then there’s the countless women and men who give their time at Merchant’s Quay, The Dublin Simon Community, and The Peter McVerry trust, who are committed to helping people like my brother Matthew.

Only last month hundred of thousands of people joined together to raise awareness for mental health awareness, and I believe we can do the same for drug addiction.

What we need to change right now is our attitudes towards those who are struggling with addiction, and that starts with the basic language we use. We need to back and support the people fighting to introduce new legislation to help reduce the harm caused to the user and the wider community.

We need to think before we place prejudice on a person based on their physical appearance. We need to speak openly about addiction and not fear it: education is crucial.

Niamh O’Donoghue, a journalist from Dublin, had an extraordinary opportunity to interview her brother Matthew – who struggled with drug addiction his entire life –  to help people to better understand addiction and the mind of an addict. Matthew passed away shortly after the interview was conducted and today Niamh is remembering him on his first anniversary. 

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About the author:

Niamh O'Donoghue  / Journalist

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