Marie, a ROC Solid client, receives regular invites to tell trainee police and probation officers how best to approach people like she used to be.
She wanted them to remember two important things. The first is… yes, I’m an addict, but I’ve got a story to tell – I didn’t grow up thinking I can’t wait to become an addict. And second is that a little empathy goes a long way. Just before she got her life cleaned up, a policeman bought her a can of pop when she was being charged with burglary. “It really softened my heart,” she says.
When she wakes up alone in her warm, well cared-for house in Newton Aycliffe, she goes through a list of things she is daily thankful for. They include big things, like the fact she has been clean, one day at a time, for two whole years. Big things like the fact she is successfully rebuilding her relationship with her son who was removed from her care during the years when she was in and out of prison, sleeping in doorways, graveyard toilets and parks, working the streets and committing burglaries to pay for drugs, and being violently abused by the controlling men in her life. Big things like a fresh relationship with her dad who had been drunk and violent during her childhood.
Then there are the smaller things, like discovering she loves trees and birdsong. And unexpected things, like the satisfaction she feels when she puts her wheelie bins out to be emptied because it’s what normal people do. “I’m 41 but I feel I’m just starting my life,” she says.
Her story, the one she shares with the trainees, starts with alcoholic parents, domestic violence and prolific affairs, as well as the impact of her mother’s serious mental health issues. Marie was a good girl at school, then a mother to her younger brother in a chaotic household for the rest of the day.
“I believe I was a very fearful young person with all the fighting and the chaos in the house. I got to eight or nine and I would visit a family member on weekends, and I was sexually abused there for three or four years.
“It was just another form of escape and crazy though it sounds, I thought that was what love was. I now understand I wasn’t getting nurtured at home, but I was at the family member’s house, but in the wrong sort of way.
“I believe that gave me a different outlook on life and I knew this wasn’t going on in other people’s houses. I remember going to friends’ houses and they be sitting having dinner together and it was peaceful.
“When I was nine I picked up my first drink – it was to change how I was feeling. I remember sniffing gas in my bedroom when I was ten, just wanting to pass out and not wanting to be me and feel what I was feeling.
“I left my family home at 13 and moved in with an older friend. I just stopped going to school. I met a lad eight years older than me who did drugs when I was 14. I think I felt love then. I’d used party drugs, but I was introduced to heroin when I was 17. When I fell pregnant that year, I was lucky cos I didn’t have a habit then so I didn’t use.”
“Her partner went to jail for selling heroin when their baby was only a couple of months old. She was using again by then. “I was left with a son to look after, a house to look after, and a habit to feed. That’s when I realised I had a massive problem – cos my partner sold drugs, I never had to go out and get them for myself.
“That’s when things got unmanageable really quickly. My son was taken off us, luckily it was to a family member. I’d get clean, get him back then it would all start again. I didn’t know how to stay clean. I was shoplifting and doing stuff to pay for drugs.
“I got back together with my partner and stayed with him for another 15 years. Our relationship became very violent. Everything was about drugs.”
One day she just walked out. “I just couldn’t take it anymore, but I met a young lad within two weeks, an alcoholic. It was a very, very violent relationship. I’ve had broken arms, broken noses, I’ve stabbed him.”
Things went from bad to worse when her dad came to her flat shouting and asking if she’s heard the news. “I thought something had happened to my mam. But he said he had found my young brother dead on the Sunday. He’d taken opiate-based tablets and alcohol. He’d been an addict and had mental health problems. I was totally devastated. I didn’t trust anyone except him. I was very close to him.
My partner and I were injecting heroin in the kitchen two months after he died. We took the same amount each and I remember coming round at the kitchen sink and seeing him lying on the floor. His lips were blue. I knew he was dead.
“After that I lived on the streets and in a tent in a park. I was doing drugs and giving myself to men for a fiver. I burgled a house and got caught and wanted to get jailed for it. At the same time, I wanted to kill myself, but didn’t know how. That was when the policeman bought me a can of pop.
“I remember being at Newton Aycliffe magistrates on my 40th birthday hoping to go to jail. But I got out and went to Peterlee to get my Post Office card and get some drugs.”
The turning point came when she bumped into her prolific persistent offending officer in Peterlee. He knew she was homeless. He told her if she could stay clean for two weeks, he could get her into a drugs rehabilitation unit in Durham. “I got some methadone and stayed clean for two days and got into rehab. I couldn’t believe I’d done it.”
She stayed there for eight months. “I was absolutely broken, lost and mentally drained. I was in a very dark, lonely place. That’s where the disease of addiction takes you. It’s an obsession. I do things to the extreme.”
When she came out, she went to supported accommodation. “But the other girls were doing drugs so I wanted out. My persistent offending officer said he had a house with ROC Solid and I’ve been here eight months now.
“I’ve had to learn how to live again. Doing the 12 steps with Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous has helped me. I truly believe there is a higher power helping me and my brother is part of it. “I’ve had to learn how to love myself and care for myself. I recognise as an addict, I have a cold in me. Now I fill it with self love, so I can stay clean day by day. I pray every day for other addicts, I do kind things. Every day I list the things I’m grateful for – it helps keep my head in the right place and someone once said a grateful addict will never pick up again. I stay positive and I stay grounded – I’m an addict in recovery.
“I know, from the 12 steps, that I have to forgive. I see my mam who still has real mental health issues and it’s hard. And I struggle when I go to see her. But I know I have to let go of the past for the sake of the future.
“One of the best things is my relationship with my son. Before, he was embarrassed if he saw me in the street. He’s seen things he should never have seen in the past and I can see me in him. He has a job and has been doing some drugs at weekend, but as he’s seen me get better, he doesn’t do them as much. He calls me mam and messages me every day.”
And her dad has shared some of his story alongside her when she speaks to police and probation trainees.
Her passion to help others who are still in dark places with their addictions has led her to also volunteer three times a week with Co Durham in Recovery.
“I love telling my story cos I know change can come,” she says. Also, with each retelling, the reality of her changed life is further embedded in the places, which used to feel dark and without hope.
“I have a support worker at ROC Solid, so it’s a comfort to know there’s always someone to talk to. And I can’t tell you what it means to have my own place. I love the peace.”
And while putting the bins out is an irritation to most of us, to Marie it’s a comforting sign of how normal her life is now and she doesn’t want that to ever change.