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First person: Julia Kerr, 25 and Ellen Prentice, 49.

Byline: SUSAN WATT

THE day my life began was the day I had planned to end it. I was sitting in tears with a needle full of bleach ready to inject it into myself and finish everything.

For six years my only care in the world had been where the next bag of heroin was coming from. But now I had nowhere else to turn. I was hungry, dirty and had nowhere to go. I no longer had regular contact with my daughter Shannon, then seven, as she stayed with my mum.

I would say I was coming to visit and then I would never turn up, hurting her again and again. My addiction had changed my personality. I didn't care about anybody, I was selfish and would break out in a temper.

From being a funny, out-going teenager always going out with my friends I was now quiet and withdrawn. I had turned into a demon. Before I would never have argued or fallen out with my mum. I was spending up to pounds 60 a day on heroin and I even started to sell my body to get cash. I was injecting because smoking no longer took the rattle away.

But as I sat with that needle filled with bleach in my hand I thought about Shannon and my family who, despite everything, loved me and constantly asked: "What are you doing with your life? Why throw it all away?"

At that moment, I called out and God must have heard me. I threw the needle away and went home, pleading with my mum and step-dad to help me.

I phoned Hope House run by Teen Challenge, an American Christian organisation my mum had read about in the Daily Record.

It ran rehabilitation centres for addicts in Wales.

I had been there for a six-day stint once and it didn't work. But this time I was determined. That was a year ago and I've never looked back. It's hard to say when or why it all started to go wrong. I'd lived in Auchinleck in Ayrshire with my mum and step-dad Drew since I was three years old after returning from Zambia when my mum separated from my dad. We were a very happy family though I think I was spoiled as a child. Anything I asked for I got. I took my mum and Drew for granted as I never appreciated what they did for me.

I fell pregnant when I was 14 to a boy from my village and gave birth to Shannon. I didn't know it then, but she is the best thing that ever happened to me.

At 15, I started going out to nightclubs with my friends, taking speed and ecstasy while my mum and step-dad watched Shannon. I got in with the wrong crowd and, after a couple of years, I tried heroin and liked it. It all went downhill from there. Soon I was hooked and needed it every day.

At first I kept it a secret from my family because I had my own house with Shannon. But as my addiction grew and I started to steal and get into bother with the police, I lost the house. The drugs became more important than my daughter. I stole her clothes and toys. I would steal from anybody for heroin. I ended up on the streets because I stole from my mum when she let me live with her.

My family got me a place in Hope House, but when I got there, I wanted to go home. I said I wanted to see my girl, but I just wanted to get heroin. Shannon was living with my mum because I wasn't fit to look after her.

But after being on the verge of taking my own life, my second time in Hope House changed everything. Its programme revolved around the Bible.

For a week I was put on detox and it was hell. I would never want to go through that again. It took three months to get a proper sleeping pattern. I had no appetite and was violently sick.

The hardest part was the guilt and learning to forgive myself. Then I had to rebuild my relationship with my family. I had to wipe the slate clean, which began with writing to people like my gran to explain and paying back the money I had taken. After 18 months of hard work I graduated from Hope House. Today I live in Swansea with Shannon. We have a flat and I am working as a carer. In September I am going to college to do a course in childcare and hopefully go on to do nursing. I want to give something back. I would love to work in a maternity ward with babies - that is my dream.

I know it will be tough. It'll be the first time I've studied for anything in my life. In school I wasn't interested. Now I have hope and a future. This year Shannon's ninth birthday was special because it was the first we'd spent as a proper family.

It was wonderful watching her open her presents. Shannon is great, she is settling into her new school so well and is even learning Welsh. To have her back is the best feeling in the world as I never thought it would ever happen. Two years ago I never thought I'd be here. I thought I would be dead in some dingy hovel.

But I have been back home and people can't believe the difference in me. I want them to know how different it can be without drugs. I never thought becoming an addict would happen to me. I was from a happy family and there was no reason for it.

But drug addiction can happen to anyone, to any family. My family never turned their back on me, although it must have been so hard sometimes, especially for Shannon. For once they are so proud of me and I don't need drugs or pills.

ELLEN PRENTICE, 49

I REMEMBER walking the streets every other night desperately searching for my daughter Julia, a heroin addict.

I hadn't seen her for days and wanted to make sure she was all right.

Then I'd pray that the police had picked her up and she was safe for the night, away from the heroin that was destroying her. I didn't know my daughter had become hooked until it was too late. I knew things weren't right, but she was addicted for a couple of years before I realised. Then it all started to get worse with the police coming to the door because she was in trouble. I didn't know anything about drugs. At first I didn't want anyone to know my daughter was an addict, not even my own family.

Julia moved into a flat with Shannon and at first she seemed to be coping. Then I had to watch in horror as my daughter changed.

At one time she wouldn't go out the house without her make-up, but there she was walking the streets like a tramp. Sometimes her hair hadn't been brushed for a week. She'd sold all her clothes and all she had to wear was on her back. In the end Julia had sold everything in her house and all that was left was a mattress on the floor.

She would steal from her family, taking videos, jewellery, clothes. She'd sell the furniture for her house and we'd replace it. Maybe we were doing wrong, but we did it for Shannon.

But worst of all Julia would sell all Shannon's Christmas presents. For a long time Julia managed to look after Shannon despite her addiction. But in the end we took her into our care. Their house was filthy and disgusting.

Shannon was always so protective of her mum. If Julia stole her birthday presents she'd say: "It's alright, gran, I didn't need them anyway."

She would never tell us anything that Julia had done. It was heartbreaking for us to hear her say all that, she is just a kid but is mature beyond her years and knows so much. She has lived with the pain drugs cause.

My husband Drew and I always said that if Julia sorted herself out, Shannon could go back to live with her. We tried everything to help Julia - home detox, cold turkey. She'd be clean for a few days and then would go back to it all.

All Julia cared about was getting pounds 10 for a bag of heroin.

Three years ago I read in the Daily Record about an addict whose life had changed because of Teen Challenge.

When Julia went to Hope House I could sleep at night for the first time in five years because I knew she wasn't wandering the streets.

The first time she went because we forced her, but she only lasted six days. Finally she tried again and we've never looked back. I remember for the first four months after she went to Hope House I'd phone every night asking if she'd stick it. And every time they told me: "Well, she is still here." If Julia's story can inspire one girl or boy to seek help then it is worth it. But I would plead with parents never to give up on their child.

I nearly did, but I just couldn't, she was my daughter and I couldn't turn my back on her. It was hard work but we couldn't have done it without Teen Challenge.

Everyone deserves a second chance, and Julia is doing great.

I can see the terrible problems that heroin is creating for young people. People need support and they need a chance. Julia has made it because of the rehabilitation and her faith. There are so many people like us out there.

The other day I was talking to somebody like me whose child was addicted to heroin. Her family wanted to give up, but I believe there are no hopeless cases.

Hope House call 01269 844 114. For Narcotics Anonymous Scotland's 24hr helpline, call 07071 248 710.
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Title Annotation:Vital
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jul 2, 2003
Words:1698
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