A portrait of addiction

In a new book, which raises awareness of drug and alcohol abuse in the North-East, addicts have achance to tell thier own stories. Ruth Campbell takes a look at Gary's Friends.

WHEN Rachel Woodger was just 13 years old she discovered her mother dead in bed. With only her 17-year-old sister Andrea to care for her, she started drinking heavily and fell pregnant at 18.

Then Rachel woke one morning to find her four-month-old son dead. That is when she started taking heroin.

"People tell me I use the death of my child as an excuse. The truth is I wouldn't be here at all if it wasn't for the drugs. I would have done something silly."

Rachel's is just one of more than 40 devastatingly bleak tales, accompanied by haunting photographs, in a harrowing book which paints a portrait of the lives of alcoholics and drug addicts in former mining villages around Durham and Middlesbrough.

Gary's Friends, compiled by lawyer turned photographer Adrian Clarke, exposes so many wretched lives, it is hard to know which to highlight. The girl who turned to prostitution to pay for drugs who says: "My earliest memories are of my dad sexually abusing me"?

The 16-year-old living rough on the streets who woke up to find her boyfriend had died beside her? The mother and daughter prostitutes who injected heroin together until the daughter, an addict by the time she was 17, died from an overdose?

Or the Gary in the title of the book, left to fend for himself as a child, stealing food and coal to survive before turning to a life of drugs and crime?

"My Uncle Stan remembers coming round on Christmas Day and finding us children on our own. We were opening boxes, but they didn't have any presents inside," Gary remembers.

Gary's Friends is not an easy read. The searingly honest and surprisingly eloquent stories are, at first, shocking. Then, as page after page unfolds to reveal broken life after broken life it is hard not to feel frustrated, even angry.

For the common thread running through these heart-rending memoirs of despair is the terrible damage done to children who have been badly let down by parents, by their community and by society at large.

In most cases, there is a history of violence in the family. Many dropped out of school from as young as 12 years old, without anyone in authority appearing to be aware or to care.

When 13-year-old Rachel's sister Andrea was admitted to psychiatric hospital, no one stepped in to help: "I was left on my own in the house, I didn't tell anybody because I knew I would go to a children's home," she says.

Much later, a social worker did become involved. "But she lost touch with us," says Rachel.

Like all the others in the book, Rachel and her sister appeared to fall off the radar. Out of sight and out of mind.

While the issues of drug and alcohol abuse, family breakdown, crime and poverty are debated and analysed endlessly, those living at the centre of it all are usually hidden from view. We know all about the statistics. But we don't know much about the people.

That is why Adrian Clarke, who first became exposed to drug users in his work as a duty solicitor at King's Cross Station, decided to explore this much misunderstood world. "I wanted them to be visible to other people," he says.

After securing funding for a photographic project from the County Durham Drug and Alcohol Action Unit, Adrian was put in touch to Gary Crooks, the reformed dealer and armed robber of the title, who introduced him to friends and relatives willing to talk.

I wonder if spending so much time amongst such shattered families left him feeling down: "It was quite the opposite," he says. "I saw a real vigour and intelligence. They were extremely engaging. In the midst of the chaos of the emotional turmoil and trauma of their lives, I found people to be thoughtful and kind."

For many, damaged as they were in childhood, drugs - with a gram of cocaine costing as little as £15 - were a cheap way to block out pain: "These weren't presented to me as excuses for drug use. They answered questions slowly and thoughtfully."

He did not, however, feel hopeful for their futures: "Such damage has been done. It is difficult to confront what is paralysing you. Their children are not receiving a better experience of life than they do. The pattern is continuing."

Experiences in children's homes and prison are often shown to exacerbate problems and many spoke of how hard it was to break free and live among those who haven't been similarly damaged.

However, Adrian adds: "There could be hope for others."

He argues for changes in our Criminal Justice System: "We could stop locking up children for a start. This sort of community is relatively invisible, not easy to find and to help, but society as a whole could do more."

There are glimmers of hope. As well as the victims, we meet victors in this miserable battle against addiction. Sandra Goggins, whose addict son John almost died several times, went on to set up a drop-in centre for addicts in Seaham. "Initially people didn't like it, but it has been accepted. People can go in and have breakfast and a shower. They have helped people get jobs. It is highly successful," says Adrian.

Kay Moore, who tried to kill herself after her daughter was taken away, tells how getting a place in Middlesbrough's Addictive Behaviour Service helped save her.

"I have enrolled on a course and want to work as a veterinary assistant. I know I can sort my life out. I am determined."

Gary himself, now a volunteer with the Drug Action Team, is thoughtful about his future. "I want to live a life that makes sense to me," he says.

Adrian is aware some commentators have interpreted the book as a hackneyed slur on life in the North of England. When excerpts appeared in The Guardian, there were angry letters of complaint.

"I like where I live. Adrian Clarke doesn't speak for me," said one reader from Langley Park. "Why didn't you visit people who have built decent careers? Your foul portrayal sets our communities back years," wrote another, from Bishop Auckland.

"It's a shame these people didn't see the whole book. It isn't what they described," says Adrian.

For some southern-based national newspaper commentators the book does appear to have confirmed long-held prejudices about just how grim it is up North.

"The North is no grimmer than anywhere else, but I don't have the capacity to photograph everywhere," says Adrian. "Some people in London fail to realise that there are people living just as deprived lives perhaps just a mile or so from where they live.

"Drugs are a problem all over Britain. The idea behind this book was to raise awareness of the sort of lives these people are living and the difficulties they have to overcome."

At least, says Adrian, in the North-East agencies such as the County Durham Drug and Alcohol Action Team are at last helping to bring the problem into the open and dealing with it head on.

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, a high profile supporter of the project, agrees: "This book should be read by those seriously concerned with social injustice - lawmakers, teachers and anyone involved in social care."

And for the sake of those abused and damaged children - potential addicts of the future - who may, like Rachel, be coping silently on their own or, like Gary, fending for themselves on Christmas Day, perhaps even a short distance from where we live, shouldn't that go for those of us living in the wider community too?

These children need all the friends they can get.

* Northern Echo readers can receive a 20 per cent discount off Gary's Friends when they quote the code NE001. (The West Pier Press, normal price £30). For further information or to order a copy, go to www.garysfriends.net or call 0191-3006-941.

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