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safer from harm

'I was being punished for something I had no control over': Rachael Keogh 13 years after her addiction made national news

Rachael Keogh’s addiction came to light in 2006, when her mother shared photos of her ravaged arms. / YouTube

RACHAEL KEOGH WAS 11 when she first started smoking and drinking to fit in with the other kids in her area. 

Growing up in Ballymun in the 90s, illegal drugs surrounded young Rachael, and before long she was smoking hash, taking pills and not going to school. 

Heroin quickly followed – with Rachael smoking it first and then injecting at the age of 15. She became chronically addicted to the drug and her life after this continued to spiral: constant drug use, jailed on shoplifting charges. 

This period of Rachael’s life is well-known by anyone who was reading the papers or watching the news in the mid-2000s.

At her wits’ end in July 2006, Rachael’s mother – who had done everything she could to help her daughter – contacted the media lamenting how her daughter couldn’t get the help she needed to combat her addiction. 

It was at this time that images emerged of Rachael’s arms – ravaged by years of injecting. Doctors informed her that her arms would have to be amputated if she didn’t stop using heroin. 

The pictures of Rachael caught national attention. Soon after their publication, a hard-hitting Sky News documentary – My Heroin Hell: Rachael’s Story – followed the 26-year-old as she battled her addiction and sought treatment. 

“I was trying to get clean and I’d been on drugs since I was very young,” the now 36-year-old Rachael told earlier this week, seated in a hotel lobby in Dublin city centre. 

“And I was trying to access treatment and everywhere I went I was just met with red tape. I was told I had to be from a certain catchment area or I had to be on a certain drug and it just seemed impossible.

“I was on the verge of having both my arms amputated because I had been chronically using drugs – completely against my own will – for years and I just couldn’t access treatment.

“So I felt I had to make a public appeal.

It was like a last-ditch attempt to try and get help, you know? And in doing that, I didn’t get in to treatment any quicker but I got a phenomenal response from the public.

Reflecting on a decade

Rachael has been off drugs now for well over a decade. Following the media focus on her and her addiction, she eventually got treatment in a detox unit before undergoing three months of rehabilitation.

In 2009, she wrote a memoir – Dying to Survive – about the battle with her addiction. A new edition of the book will be published later this month, with a new introduction by Rachael reflecting on her life over the past 10 years.

Speaking about her life this week, Rachael said she was lucky to be alive in many ways, but felt she was let down by how the Irish State treats drug addicts. 

“There wasn’t ongoing proper support,” she said. 

“And at the end, I mean, I would have died if I hadn’t gotten help when I did and even before that there was so many situations that I ended up in that I honest to God I don’t know how I’m still alive now.

But I was really blessed that I had my family who were really supportive. But it was a last-ditch attempt to turn to the newspapers, you know?

Rachael spent time in prison when she was 15. She was a drug addict and felt she should have been getting proper treatment rather than being locked up in a place where she received no support and got worse. 

“For me, going to prison. To be honest I felt like I was pushed into a terrifying situation by the state at that age. I don’t think that should have happened to me when I was 15,” she said. 

I was exposed to terrible things. I witnessed terrible things in prison that I never should have seen, you know? And when you come out of prison you carry that with you, it’s traumatic.

As a teenager in throes of a chronic addiction, she felt she needed proper care, which she wasn’t given by the State. Instead she was being punished for something she couldn’t control. 

“When you’re being put into prison you’re kind of being told that you’re scum, you’re not really worth anything,” she said. 

“And it was terrible because I felt like I was using drugs against my own will, it was like something that I had no control over, I didn’t want to be using drugs, you know?

So I was being punished for something that I had no control over.

From addict to advocate 

Rachael was speaking at the launch of a new video from the Ana Liffey Drug Project as part of their Safer From Harm campaign. 

The aim of the campaign is to “decriminalise people who use drugs”. This means moving away from punishing people caught with personal amounts of drugs via the criminal justice system, and moving instead to health-led interventions.

Currently, drugs are fully decriminalised in Portugal, which has seen positive effects as a result.  

The video – made by PushPull Collective – features advocates and notable personalities telling personal stories and advocating for a move away from criminalising drug addicts towards a focus on helping them. 

Safer From Harm / YouTube

Rachael features in the video, and said she supports the campaign fully.

“When I first started talking about my own story to the media and the public, from then up until now I’ve constantly had people onto me telling me about their stories or family members who might be using drugs.

“[I'm] really exposed to what it’s like on the ground, the reality of addiction.

It’s really hard because I know that if we actually did what they’re doing over in Portugal there would be so many people that would be alive today and who could be doing really well with their lives and contributing back to society.

Looking back on her life 13 years after her story first made national news, Rachael feels lucky to be alive and to be on a positive path on her life, but she also still carries the weight of her addiction and everything she went through.

“It’s a hard one because I do feel very blessed. I’m one of the last ones standing, you know? Honestly there’s not many people alive who were in prison with me, especially the women.

“Addiction is a real thing – you hear people talking about heroin in particular. It is a pain killer and people are using drugs to cope, basically. It definitely isn’t a choice.

I don’t know one person that chose to become a drug addict you know? So for me it’s real life and even after ten years I’m still recovering from everything that I went through.

Rachael says she’s an advocate for all the people going through what she went through, but that she also needs to mind herself every day. 

She recently worked with writer, actor and director Grace Dyas of Theatreclub to make the play Heroin, which explores the nature of drug use and addiction in Ireland. 

“There’s a piece in [the play] where over the years families and people have given me names of their family members that would have died,” she said. 

“I find that tragic because I remembered when I was there, when I was in that place where it hit me and I thought, ‘I’m actually going to die here I’m going to just be another statistic, you know?’ And it’s terrifying.” 

Video by Andrew Roberts

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