Mother-of-one appeals for heroin treatment unit in Northern Ireland saying it's needed to save lives
CURLED up on a chair in her mother's house sipping a can of diet coke, 24-year-old Aoife Loughlin looks more like a fresh-faced teenager and greets us with a beaming smile.
Her gentle manner and memories of a happy childhood in a leafy suburb of north Belfast are striking given the traumatic direction her life was to take in her teens.
Six years ago, the quietly spoken mother-of-one telephoned her mother to tell her she was a heroin addict.
"I rung my mummy at 2am in the morning and was completely out of it. I told her I'd been addicted to heroin for a while. She thought I was making it up. But then when I saw her the next day, she asked me about it and I told her it was true.
"She said it was the worst thing you want to hear from your child."
Aoife is now three years clean after several relapses and attempts at NHS community detox programmes as well as going cold turkey multiple times.
The shy young woman, who credits her two-year-old son Michael with "saving her", is also studying for a law and criminology degree through the Open University.
She feels that she "would not be here today" if it wasn't for the treatment she received in a private rehab hospital in Scotland, where she spent two months as an inpatient.
"They focussed on why you use, it wasn't just treating about the addiction," she said.
Aoife, who "loved" primary school and was close to her parents and two brothers growing up, said everything went downhill in her second year of grammar school.
"Just out of the blue I began to drink and take drugs. I started off smoking weed and using aerosols. It got worse and I left school when I was 14 or 15. My family didn’t know I took drugs at that point, they thought it was just drink," she said.
Despite her addiction spiralling, she achieved five GCSE's at Loughshore, an educational facility for pupils who can't be educated in mainstream settings.
Aoife was offered heroin for the first time at a party when she was 17 and remembers "not liking it".
However, within months she became an addict after getting into a relationship with someone who used the drug.
Over the next two years she became estranged from her family and admits she resorted to stealing to fund her habit.
"The way that heroin makes you feel is that you'd do anything, absolutely anything to get it. It's just mental how fast it can take hold of people and completely change them, turn them into someone you don't even know, turn them into someone with no morals," she said.
At age 19, Aoife attempted an eight-week detox programme with the community addiction team in the Belfast health trust, which she said was "far too fast".
"They used Subutex (a substitute drug) for the detox. At the start it was okay, as they reduced the drug gradually but once you got down to the last week, I told the doctors and nurses could really feel the withdrawal.
"There was eight of us in that group and every single one of us relapsed."
Desperate to get help, Aoife's family intervened and two months short of her 21st birthday she went to Castlecraig, a private rehab clinic 20 miles outside Edinburgh.
The place was funded through her father's health insurance - which Aoife was on until she turned 21.
She says a similar specialist NHS inpatient facility is urgently needed in Northern Ireland. The last such unit, Shaftesbury Square in Belfast, closed more than a decade ago as much of the care switched to the community setting.
Northlands addiction unit in Derry has eight inpatient beds but has battled for NHS funding to sustain its services.
"There's so many people who don't get the chance to do what I did and die while being on waiting lists," she said.
"I learnt so much about myself in Scotland. I don't think I would be clean now if I hadn’t gone there. I learnt why I was using and how to cope with stuff that's happened without using drugs. The first week of detox was difficult but after that there was two months of counselling, group therapy and trauma therapy.
"The treatment here is very clinical. Methodone stops the withdrawals but it doesn't stop everything that's going on in your head. They definitely need some sort of inpatient unit here, I don't understand why they don't have one."
Her final relapse occurred after she left the Scottish hospital.
"I was so disappointed in myself as my parents had gone to all that trouble. I also found out I was pregnant when I relapsed. That's when I thought I really need to sort this out for good."
Despite being on methodone during the pregnancy, her baby boy was born healthy.
"I haven't relapsed since then. I just look at Michael. I know so many people who have kids and have lost them or had them taken off them because of drugs. I think about that.
"I don't want my son to grow up thinking I've put drugs over him. Now it's a choice that I have. If I start taking heroin again I've chosen that over him. I just look at him and think how amazing he is. Michael saved me."