Tales of teen addiction: 'From hash in primary school to 200 Valium a day with a bottle of vodka'
The two boyish young men sitting in front of me were once promising young athletes at the top of their game.
Michael was regarded as one of the country’s most-talented young hurlers when he lined out for Kilkenny as a teenager, while Robbie was a young show-jumping star who rode competitively at the RDS.
Initially, the chatty pair, clad casually in shorts and runners, seem like any other happy-go-lucky Irish lads their age.
But within minutes, Michael (20), reveals that he used to chew 50 Valium pills just for breakfast in a drug-fuelled decade which robbed him of his childhood, his friends, his mental health and, most painfully, his young son.
The pair are coming towards the end of a detox at Aiséiri Aislinn in Kilkenny, the country’s only residential 12-step treatment centre for adolescent addicts aged between 15 and 21.
Both were hopelessly hooked on Valium, with a voracious appetite for benzos – benzodiazepines – which could run to 150 pills a day in Robbie’s case.
“I could take up to 150 or 200 tablets a day and then a bottle of whiskey, a bottle of vodka on top of that,” said the 21-year-old.
“I was on bonsai,” he said, referring to a highly dangerous hallucinogenic, synthetic cannabis.
“It’s all herbs and chemicals. I started with hash in 4th or 5th class and took everything. I smoked crystal meth in a bong,” added Robbie.
Michael says he was taking 115 Valium tablets a day, as well as smoking heroin, up until six weeks ago when he dangerously decided to go cold turkey alone in his house.
His habit cost him €3,000 to €4,000 a week.
“They are €2 a tablet, but if you buy them in bulk you get them for 20 cent a tablet. I was getting thousands. I’d often buy people’s prescriptions. You wouldn’t feel normal without them.
“I would have 50 in the morning with a joint. I wouldn’t even swallow them, I’d chew them,” said Michael.
“They were my family, my best friend, they made me feel happy. The drugs were the boss. You’re walking around with dribbles coming out of your mouth, but you think you look normal.
“I was told by the doctor that if I had taken the 115 tablets for another two weeks I would be dead.”
The two boys had deeply traumatic childhoods, with Robbie leaving home at 15.
“I took drugs to take the pain away,” he said.
Sara Cassidy (above), the caring team leader at Aiséiri Aislinn, revealed how the centre not only offers the youngsters a path to recovery, but is also a place where they feel at ease.
“They’re safe in here,” she said, as we walked around the vast Georgian house with homely red carpets and big, airy bedrooms, which are shared by three or four adolescents.
“Sometimes it’s the only place they have been safe since they were children. In some cases they have never felt safe,” she added, referring to some who have been through horrific childhoods, although the young patients come from all backgrounds.
Behind the welcoming red door in the Georgian House, there is a family atmosphere where the patients often talk for the first time ever about their lives and the triggers behind their addiction.
They are monitored around the clock by nursing staff as they detox, while their days are filled with counselling sessions, therapy, recreation and sports.
Sara said Robbie was like a “dead man walking” when he came into the treatment centre in June.
“I just wanted to go into a corner and die. I couldn’t get out of bed for a week,” he said.
The day before Michael received the call to say he had been accepted to Aiseiri Aislinn he was on his way to get a needle to start injecting heroin for the first time.
He had previously been smoking heroin, but had decided to mainline the drug to try and block out the agony of his Valium addiction.
However, just before he got the needle he got a phone call to say he had secured his place.
While his health has improved dramatically in the six weeks since coming off the toxic daily cocktail of drugs, the strain in his young voice reveals the sheer hell he has been through in the last few weeks, trying to come off the drugs he first started taking at the age of 12.
He said: “I detoxed myself at home. I went off the tablets and heroin. I was sweating. I was broke up. I was brought to hospital with panic attacks. I couldn’t breathe.”
He said he only made the final decision to come off eight years of drug addiction in recent months.
“I lost me child. He’s gone into care. I was fighting with everyone. It’s just not the life for me anymore. My body is not able for it. I’m losing too many people, friendships, relationships.
“I just woke up one morning and said ‘f**k it, I have enough’. It’s either life or death at this stage.”
The toll of the daily dose of drugs taken by the two young boys – who have nearly come to the end of their six-week treatment – is heartbreaking.
In his early teenage years, before drugs took over his life, Robbie had been a young showjumping star.
“I jumped at Cavan, the RDS and Millstreet in Cork a few times.”
Physically, it has left him without a cartilage on one side of his nose.
“It was loose from snorting so I ripped it out. I had a lot of blackouts, shakes, sweats. I’ve been through the wars. I’ve lost teeth.”
Michael’s promising career as a sports star was also a casualty of the addiction which consumed his life.
“I played U-16s for Kilkenny. Drugs took it all away – handball, soccer, everything.”
They both admit they dealt drugs to feed their habits. After intensive weeks of counselling, they also readily divulge how they robbed from their families and complete strangers while they were in the hopeless grip of addiction.
“I was selling heroin, weed, coke, speed. I was robbing shops and houses, harmless people on the street,” said Michael.
“Wallets, phones, breaking into cars,” added Robbie.
Now, in the cold light of rehab, both express deep regret about their crimes.
“I have such a clear mind now. It’s like ‘how the f**k did I ever do it?’” said Michael.
Robbie revealed he was recently jailed for three months and is still on probation.
“It was all over drugs. Off me head, robbing phones, robbing cars. I woke up in prison. I don’t remember going in.”
Both say that coming down off Valium was the worst.
“It was worse than coming off heroin,” said Michael. “It’s harder coming off benzos.”
Sara said that going back on the same dose of drugs again can be lethal for the boys like Michael and Robbie.
She said: “If they leave treatment and if they take 115 like they did before, the likelihood of dying is very high.”
On top of the physical and psychological ravages of drugs, Michael and Robbie had to face up to their actions during weeks of intensive counselling.
“You have to listen to the truth, what your girlfriend had to say. I’ve two stepsons as well. I want to get better for myself and them and get the family I’ve always wanted,” said Michael.
While the Aiseiri programme has a spiritual dimension, it is not religious. However, both boys wear wooden rosary beads around their necks and say they believe their faith has helped them get through their rehabilitation.
Robbie said he has bright plans for the future.
He said: “I’m going back to showjumping, breaking-in horses. I want to get back on track with my family as well.”
Michael is going to a secondary treatment centre for three months and is looking forward to starting his new life.
“The whole world is out there. This place has done more than save my life. It’s put me on the right track.”
Before I left, Sara Cassidy brought me into a peaceful room where they hold emotional farewell ceremonies for the people who have successfully overcome their drug addiction.
“It takes a huge amount of courage to do what they do,” she said.
“There isn’t a dry eye in the house when they’re leaving. We know they have achieved so much, but we also know the risks when they leave here.”