My mother was an herion addict

‘I wandered into the kitchen and there she was at the table with a tourniquet around her arm, holding a needle’

  • Experience: my mum was a heroin addict
‘Occasionally, if she hadn’t had her fix, she was short-tempered.’ Photograph: Alastair Levy for the Guardian

I was nine when I accidentally walked in on my mother injecting heroin. I had climbed out of bed to get a glass of water. I wandered into the kitchen and there she was at the table with a tourniquet around her arm, holding a needle. I didn’t understand what was going on, but I could see from her face that she was mortified.

In the past I’d seen a few things, such as powders on tables, but as much as possible Mum had sheltered me from that side of her life. She had moved down to London from Glasgow in the 1960s, fallen in with the bohemian Portobello Road set, and there were a lot of drugs around – we once shared a squat with  Sid and Nancy My dad was a 19-year-old musician who, at nearly 10 years Mum’s junior, didn’t know his arse from his elbow. I was only a year old when they separated, and I had almost no contact with him.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that she really began to use, though. She’d had a lot of pain in her past. Her mother died shortly after giving birth to her, and that caused a lot of resentment among her siblings. When she came to London, drugs became her blanket. Despite the fact that she was balancing a full-time job and looking after me alongside a heroin habit, I never felt neglected. Occasionally, if she hadn’t had her fix, she was short-tempered and I was aware she needed to take her “medicine” to stop her feeling “sad”, but there was always a lot of love from her.

On the night that I walked in on her, she followed me back to the bedroom and explained that seeing me in the kitchen had made her realise that she had to go away for a while to get better. It sounds strange, but I didn’t panic – when you’re that age, you trust your mum.

At the start of 1983, mom was sent to hospital to detox and I went to live with foster parents. As much as I hated leaving my friends and happy life in London, I didn’t kick up a fuss. I guess it’s a testament to Mom’s parenting that I didn’t go off the rails.

The foster familywere cold and I could tell that they didn’t like kids. On one occasion the mother called me into the laundry and shouted at me, “You’ve pissed your pants. Why are you doing this?” I remember thinking: “I’m nine years old and my mother’s in rehab. You bitch.”

For the first three weeks, while Mom was in hardcore detox, I couldn’t have any proper contact with her. She sent me a few upbeat-sounding letters in her scrawled handwriting with little smiling bunny faces on, telling me that she’d be better soon, but it killed me to see them. I could tell how hard she was trying to make me believe she was OK.

After the detox, Mom entered a rehab programme run by a charity in a converted country house in a tiny village. It had a ramshackle tennis court, large gardens and lots of animals. There were nine other women there – all recovering addicts from a variety of backgrounds, including a 19-year-old punk whose dad was a journalist at the Guardian, the daughter of a surgeon and a former prostitute.

At first I was allowed to visit at weekends, then after a year Mom and I moved into a caravan in the grounds. My memories of this time are very happy. There was so much space to play in. Ashley Copse felt like a wonderland – it was basically a hippy commune without the drugs – and I was with Mom, which felt safe. I was often the only kid there and I enjoyed being surrounded by all these devoted women, even if most of them were slightly insane. I got used to the regular sound of crockery smashing in the kitchen.

Finally, Mom got her name put on the list for a council house in Andover. We moved to a huge estate, which was a hellhole, but it was nice to have our own place. Mom stayed clean and trained as a social worker. Eventually she went on to chair the charity Mind. I did my A-levels and went back to London for uni.

Mom died in 1998 of an asthma attack, when I was 24. I can’t look back on what I went through with her and feel sad. It’s an unusual part of my life, but we had a deep understanding and love between us. I’ve always been ambivalent about drugs – I sometimes use them recreationally, but I much prefer a vodka martini. I know I’ll never be tempted to try heroin, though. I’ve seen the devastation it can wreak.


By; Robin Sherwood/UK Guardian( As told to Becky Barnicoat)