Ian O’Brien tells Dublin Gazette how he journeyed from hellish existence to finding peace and reparation
Celebrating your birthday at a food service to the homeless might not be everyone’s idea of a party.
But to Ian O’Brien the humble celebrations at the Lighthouse on Pearse Street, which is run by Tiglin, was the happiest and most rewarding of nights.
Ian grew up in Drimnagh, Dublin and had a happy childhood. But he was smoking when he was nine years old, drinking in his early teens and started on ecstasy tablets by the time he was 14.
At 16, he and his partner Sandra had their first daughter, Amy (now 29), followed by Shannon 18 months later. Ian worked at Maureen Mullins scrapyard in Harold’s Cross, driving the horse and cart.
“Ironically that aided my path to addiction. Drugs were becoming popular in the 80s and I always had cash in my pocket,” he recalls.
Ian’s story is a familiar one; as he became dependent on heroin, then crack cocaine, he turned to crime in the early 90s to feed the addiction and, inevitably, he was arrested and sent to prison.
This was a pattern repeated over the following decade and caused his relationship with Sandra to end. With warrants out for his arrest, he scarpered to London but was arrested there and sent to prison in 1996.
He explains: “In 2000, my mother died of cancer; I was released on parole to come home, then I skipped parole and failed to return.
“My new partner and I Wendy had two girls, Abby and Alanna. Wendy and I were both addicts, I was in and out of hospital, with pneumonia, double pneumonia, ulcers and once, I fell into a 10-day coma. I even injected into my neck while I was being treated in hospital.”
When things were bad with Wendy and Ian, the younger girls went to live with Wendy’s sister and family members. Ian recalls one of the worst moments of his addiction, when Wendy was seriously ill.
“Wendy was in the final stages of liver failure. As a result of a fall, she suffered a bleed to the brain. I was allowed to see her, brought from prison and shackled in chains – the kids saw me like that, as their mother was dying.”
That is one of his greatest regrets, not being a proper support to Wendy, or the girls.
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“After I came out of prison, I wasn’t sober for days, drinking, taking tablets, any drug anyone gave me. Wendy was dead, but I was still here. How was that fair?”
Ian took the ferry to London where he spent a week sober, with no drugs and no alcohol. But after drinking a half bottle of vodka, he got into a fracas, went straight to night court and off to prison again, this time for three and a half years.
Hospital tests revealed he had a spleen infection and cancer of the blood suspected; he needed a liver transplant but wasn’t likely to survive it.
“I didn’t have cancer but had septicaemia,” said Ian. “Here is where my ‘luck’ came in. I was added to clinical trials with the NHS. I got three months treatment which regenerated my liver but I had hepatitis C. Again, I was offered another trial for that – and I came out clear after another three months, I was cured!”
Having completed the 12 steps during the following year in prison, along with counselling and therapy, he returned to Dublin, and is currently living in a flat on Dame Street.
He said: “I went to the church on Liberty Street and I met two chaps from Tiglin/Lighthouse there. I started to help with their work, where I saw so many guys I used to know, I had either used with them or bought from them – they assumed I was dead!
“Some didn’t recognise me, I looked so healthy. Today I’m cooking at the Lighthouse, it’s open seven days and I share cooking duties with Dominic. We served over 600 meals in two days last week.
“With Covid-19 we can only feed, and give out ‘dignity bags’ – soaps, spare socks and toiletries, underwear and hygiene products. Sadly, we can’t give them our ear with the social distancing, normally we could talk to them, advise them on support services.”
He is blessed, he feels that he has rebuilt his relationships with his four daughters and he adores his six grandchildren.
“Can I thank all the sponsors who’ve donated food and funding; we are so indebted to ye all, the Lighthouse is such a vital service,” said Ian. “Remember too that every addict is someone’s son, brother, father or husband and like me, maybe they will find their way back.”
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