A pretty wooden sign saying ‘Happy Ever After’ hangs over Keeley Anderson’s fireplace in her home in Marianus Park in Hazelbank.
But Keeley doesn’t believe in happy ever after. The 37-year-old Derry woman believes in fighting a very real fight every single day of her life, to stay away from the addiction which almost killed her.
She knows that she should not be here. Her home in Hazelbank is the same flat that she was pulled from by her neighbour, Tina Hegarty, after a fire started when she fell asleep after drinking a full bottle of vodka. On other occasions there were overdoses and at her very lowest point, Keeley told her GP that she simply didn’t want to live any more. A fall resulted in a fractured skull which has left her with Epilepsy, a condition she’ll carry for the rest of her life.
“I thought about the river, that seemed the best way. It seemed there was no coming back from that, and I thought long and hard,” said Keeley. In the end, it was thinking about her daughter which stopped the mother of one from making her way to the Foyle.
Keeley is - very bravely - speaking publicly about her battle for the first time. She’s doing this, she says, to show people the real need for a proper detox centre in Derry. In the wake of the disappearance of 19 year old Andrew Quigley, a family friend, Keeley says memories of her own battle with alcohol have haunted her in recent days.
“I had nowhere, nowhere to go at all, and at the end I had to get myself sober because I had to be sober for three months before I could be admitted for help.”
Prior to this, Keeley had been hospitalised in a number of facilities, including more than thirty admissions to Gransha.
“I took my first drink when I was eleven,” she says.
“I never ever liked the taste of it, but I liked the feeling it brought. I liked that feeling of having no worries.”
At 15, Keeley was involved in a car accident which left her with multiple injuries, but the emotional fallout left her unable to sleep. Years of bullying at school over her weight also took their toll.
Desperate to be able to sleep more than anything else, Keeley turned to alcohol and began drinking behind closed doors.
“I suffered a lot of flashbacks after the accident and one night I had a few drinks, and it was the best sleep I’d had in years. That was where it started and from there, it stopped being about enjoying having a drink, and I started needing it. I couldn’t function without it. I couldn’t get through the day without it. It was my answer to everything, all the time.”
When she asked for help, Keeley says her addiction was treated like something that needed to be brushed under the carpet.
“I was just thrown into Gransha, out of the road,” she says, fighting back tears.
“I remember saying to a nurse ‘why am I in here, why do they keep sending me here?”
I cried, and begged and pleaded to my doctor for something, anything that could help me. I twice tried to take my own life, at that point. It wasn’t a cry for help. I wanted to die. I did not want to live. I wasn’t living a life, I was just existing. I never felt well. I just felt sick all the time.
“Soon, I needed a drink just to get up in the morning. I needed to know that I had drink in the house. And when I wasn’t drinking I had the shakes, the horrors. At one point I thought I was seeing rats all over the place in my house. I felt like I couldn’t go on.”
By this stage, Keeley had given custody of her daughter over to her mother.
I”m glad I did that, because she didn’t see a lot of what went on. But I missed out on so much. I missed my daughter’s Holy Communion. I’ll never be able to take that back, never.”
Keeley had watched several relatives lose their lives as a result of addiction. She wanted to be next.
“I told my doctor I was going to do it and do it right and begged again to get me somewhere for help. I had hit rock bottom,” she says.
It was only in thinking about her young daughter at this point that Keeley realised she would have to go “cold turkey” before being accepted into a rehabilitation programme.
“Every time I looked into my daughter’s eyes I knew I couldn’t leave her with those unanswered questions and I had to try my very hardest from there.
“I had to get myself sober before someone would help,” she says. “I had to stay dry for three months before I could get in. For most addicts that is impossible. Looking back, I still don’t know how I did it. And I’ve known so many people who didn’t have the strength to get themselves sober. That’s the big problem. And that’s the problem in this town. We need somewhere where people can be taken in to help them get sober. Our young people are dying because we don’t have that place, and that is breaking my heart. Because I’ve been there, I know exactly what that battle is like.”
Now Keeley feels stronger, and more able to tell her story, in the hope that it will help convince those in power that Derry needs a detox centre and so she can help others who may feel that there is no hope for them.
“Believe me, I know what it’s like to feel hopeless and when you’ve hurt people, and you have to live with that shame it is so so hard. But now I want to give something back. I want to give something back to my mother and father, who have been my backbone and I want to do something to help the Quigley family in their campaign for this centre.”
She has been sober for the past six years. She doesn’t socialise any more and devotes her time to looking after her mother and building a great relationship with her daughter.
Asked what her priorities are now, she has one focus in life.
“That’s easy,” she says. “It’s family, family all the way. For me, as long as I have them around me, I’ll be happy. I have my daughter who I am so, so proud of, and she’s my best friend.
“I don’t socialise as much any more. When you don’t drink, people don’t really want to do as much going out with you, that’s something I’ve learned.”
Keeley also has advice for young people out there who are battling with their own addiction demons.
“I don’t want another young person in this town to lose their life like that. I just don’t. I lost the best part of my life. My door is open day or night. I’ll talk to anyone who needs help in the same way I did,” she says.