Keziah was 16 when she first tried heroin and had a habit for eight years. She hasn’t taken heroin since late 2007 and is now an integrated coach and full-time mother.
I did know that clean kit would keep me safe. But the problem was getting hold of it. Yes, there are needle exchanges, but chemists didn’t want to stock needles because they were frightened the junkies would scare away their other customers. So they refused to stock them or gave us limited quantities. In 2005 I contracted Hepatitis C and in 2007 I was diagnosed with HIV.
By that time I was living on the streets. People despised us. Strangers used to approach me just to tell me that. It was as if by becoming an addict I had negated everything else about myself – but it wasn’t true. I was still me. Yet I began to believe that the attitudes were justified, that being an addict meant I was a bad person. It was soul-destroying.
By the time I had stopped using, I was losing four or five friends a year. Some of them from overdoses; most from a combination of circumstances. HIV, poor living conditions, lack of access to medical treatment. When I think about it now, I am so sad – and so angry. Every single one of those deaths could have been prevented with a change of attitude. With clean, safe injecting centres and doctors who listened to us. Support in getting off heroin – we all wanted that; nobody wants to be a slave to a drug. But it’s never that simple. How can you cope with muscle cramps, spasms, whole-body pain and diarrhoea without the proper care and support? So much social support out there is conditional on already being abstinent. Substitution programmes are hard to get on to and rigidly inflexible. They fail a lot of people.
People who meet me now sometimes tell me I must be something special to have got out. But that’s untrue. I am no better than any of those people who lost their lives, or those still struggling with the habit and its associated downward spiral. I was fortunate enough to have support from my family – without that I would probably be dead now. Socially, there was nothing appropriate.
Every day I am grateful that my story did not end there, and I remember those for whom it did.