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In conversation with Claire McGowan

I’m in here because I ended up homeless. I’m originally from Bracknell in Reading. I came to Oxford because of the Night Shelter, and I’ve been here for about five years, in and out of shelters and housing. I’ve been in the shelter for about two weeks this time.

It can get quite boring in here. There’s nothing to do all through the day. I’m a recovering drug addict. I was a heroin addict and I’m on methadone now, reducing week by week. Sometime in the future I’ll hopefully get back to work. I’ve done a lot of jobs; in bars, in customer services, I’ve got my fork-lift driving license, I’ve been a dry-cleaning operator and I’ve done roofing. I’d like to go back to bar work, that’s what I enjoyed doing the most.

I’ve got an identical twin brother. He’s back in Bracknell with all my family. That’s where I grew up. I had quite an eventful childhood. I was in foster care, and my parents divorced when I was quite young. My mum was an alcoholic. There was no lack of love or anything like that, I wasn’t treated badly; it was just unsettled. I’ve also got another brother, and a younger sister. I went to school until I was fifteen, then went straight into work roofing for my girlfriend’s stepfather. After that I just toyed with work for a while and did loads of things until I found out what I liked. I’ve got lots of certificates in hazards and so on. I did NVQs in bar management and customer services. Then I started a management traineeship for a brewery. After that, through the people who were drinking in the bar I worked in, I got into drugs. One thing led to another. I started off just experimenting. The first time I tried heroin was the summer when I was 21. The girlfriend I had at the time was into bad things, so it didn’t take long before heroin came into it. It takes hold of you very quickly after the first few times.

Your whole life revolves around it. It just takes over completely. You can’t do anything else, it’s a stop-gap in front of everything and everything has to wait. Then obviously you get into crime and shoplifting to pay for it. Work is out of the question. I was working at Kwikfit a few years ago, but I couldn’t keep it up. I was getting urges to take money out of the till, and I was friends with the manageress. I had to leave. If you’re not on methadone every four hours or so you just have to take heroin. The methadone takes your cravings away and everything. Heroin definitely changed me as a person. I’ve been in a lot of places – Slough, Reading, Newbury – and I’ve met a lot of different people and learned a lot of things. I feel a lot wiser from the things that have happened to me through being on heroin.

I see my family sort of as and when, but we do keep in contact. I moved away from Bracknell because of the drugs and the way I was carrying on. I couldn’t do that in front of my family, the shoplifting and mad things I did to get money. I’ve been in and out of prison since I was 21. I’ve never done more than six months, but I’ve been in about ten or eleven times.

My brother is the complete opposite of me, although we’re identical twins. He’s into cars, like I was before. He’s a mechanic and does quite well. When we were little we’d have the teachers pulling their hair out at school. We do have a special bond. It’s weird really, something only a twin can understand.

I’ve been in and out of the shelter for a few years. I was on the streets for about three months. Hopefully when I leave here I’ll get a bedsit or something. I feel quite positive about the future, and about the drugs, as long as you have something to help you stand up straight. I have quite a lot of people who help me. I’ve got a good friend who’s in Simon House at the minute; he’s always been there for me and supported me. That helped a lot.

My priority is to keep on the straight and narrow, keep away from the shoplifting, get my methadone down, stay away from the drugs, and get back to work and get my own independence away from the Shelter. In the past my background had an effect on me, but I’m determined not to let it in future. It depends on the roads you take though just as much, the decisions you make. At the minute I feel good about moving on. I’m a lot calmer than I have been in the past weeks. I’m more relaxed thinking about it. I hope I’ll be able to get back into work and have my own money. Money motivates me as much as the next man. Before I got into drugs my motivations were my girlfriend, going out on a Friday night, and so on.

I’m afraid of falling back into old routines, but I try not to worry about it. When I was taking drugs I felt afraid because you never see a way out. You feel like there’s nothing you can do about it. I’ve seen people go past the point where you could recover, because there’s no one there to help them. I’ve been lucky to have people to hold me back. I’ve never met anyone who’s actually happy being an addict, or who does it because they enjoy it. It’s just a way of life. It’s something you have to do. It’s a different life where you meet different people and do different things. I became a totally different person than I was up to the age of 21.

I’ve actually written an autobiography. My friend’s got it and he’s going to type it up for me. When I was in the shelter a couple of years ago, I was bored, so I was getting home in the evenings and just doing a few pages. It’s just written by hand. The title is ‘Why?’ I enjoyed writing it. A few staff in here have read it and quite like it. Once it’s typed up I’ll just give it to a few friends and loved ones. As far as education’s concerned I don’t have any drive to go to college or anything like that. Basically I want to get back into work, have nice things and so on. I like bar work because you meet people. What I like most is working in the local pub – you’re there with your friends and having a laugh. It doesn’t seem like work. My ultimate dream would be to own my own pub, out in the sticks somewhere. The cosiness of it appeals to me.

At times when I’ve been really deep into the heroin, naturally you feel a bit lonely. I’ve been lucky that I’ve always had people around. If I feel lonely I can go and see someone. In my life I’ve been closest to my dad. I’d like to go back to Bracknell when I get better. I went away to get cured. I blame my mum to an extent for my childhood. Being a heroin addict I know what can be done to prevent it, if you have the motivation. Having four kids should have been the motivation she needed to stay away from the drink, but it wasn’t. She died when she was 33, when I was 13. After that it was just my dad and now my stepmum. She’s only been around for about a year. Up until I was 18 or 19, I was very happy, going out clubbing every weekend, having a laugh. I did show jumping between the ages of 11 and 14, and I had my own horse. Then I started doing ice hockey. Then I got my first girlfriend and sport sort of went out the window. I’ve usually had a partner through my life. I’m single at the minute, but I’ve got an ex-girlfriend who’s still on the scene. I think my exes from before the heroin wouldn’t be too happy about what happened to me. I don’t want to sound like I’m blowing my own trumpet, but I was quite popular at school. I had a lot of friends.

I had a really close friend from when I was 13 to when I was 21. He fell out of a tree when he was 21 onto a fence, and he died. I still miss him. His name was Paul. We did everything together. This was just before I got into the heroin, and sort of prompted it. I left school at fifteen and started work, and had a bit of money, so I went out quite a lot. I never regretted not staying at school. I have no real ambitions to do any more learning or anything.

I’ve never been abroad, but I’d like to go to America, and see what all the fuss is about. Otherwise I’d go somewhere really hot. I wouldn’t mind seeing a nice bit of the world. I can’t see myself travelling in the near future, but it’s definitely something I’d like to do, once I get my passport sorted. I’ve got no great ambition to be a millionaire or nothing like that, but I’ve always wanted to be comfortable. I’d spend my money on having things, a place I can make look tidy and call home. I’d like to get a nice car too. If I won lots of money I’d travel, and maybe get a car, something I could look after and be proud of. I’ve never really thought about getting married or having kids. It’s never come up in any relationship. I’m not saying it won’t in the future.

The time I was doing drugs was a complete waste of my life. If I narrow it down to the time when I was actually doing the drugs, and going out waiting to buy them, that was a waste. It’s very easy to get hold of drugs, even heroin. It’s gotten quite out of hand in Oxford. It’s cheap too. The police have got a big struggle with it at the minute. I could make a phone call now and I could have it in five minutes outside the front door. I’ve always known it to be a bad thing. It’s wrong. I’d never wish a prison cell on anyone, having been there myself, but there are some dealers who deserve to be caught. But there are some who aren’t really bad people, they just do it for the money.

I think people should educate themselves about drugs. I don’t agree with taking drugs – I know that sounds ironic. The world would be a better place without mind-altering drugs. It is like a different community, like an underworld of drugs. There’s the illegal world in Oxford and then there’s the normal world. When I was mixed up with drugs my life was different and I mixed with different people. Otherwise you don’t see it, it’s a totally other world.

I’ve slept rough before. There are people with a stiff upper lip who think they’re better than you. I feel sorry for that sort of person, because they’re totally wrong. I’ve never thought I was better than anyone. Students, fair play to them – they’re getting their heads down and making good use of their time. I’ve never begged. I think people are mad to do it. There’s no need to do it – I know there are other ways of making money. I couldn’t stand there with my hand out. I’ve seen people being really rude and pushy about begging from the public. I don’t like that. There is a community feeling about people on the streets. We all look out for each other. Some people don’t get on, obviously, but you don’t feel lonely because there are always other people.

When you’re quite young, you have an idea of what life’s supposed to lay out like, but it never turns out anything like you expect. The only expectations I have now are to get back to work, get back to normal, and have a purpose to my day. I think the choices I’ve made have played a big part in my life. If I’d made different choices I could have been better, but on the other hand it could have been worse. I feel like I’m in control – I can change the way things are. Physically I’ve been quite unhealthy at times, from not eating and not looking after myself. Now I try to eat a lot and keep clean.

One thing that would make my life more complete? Visiting my mum’s grave. I’ve never been because she’s buried in Ireland, in Tyrone. She died in 1992. Most of my relatives are over in Ireland. I’ve been a few times. That’s definitely something I need to do, go back and see my aunties and uncles and cousins, and see my mum’s grave. Then I can get on with things.

January 2006