Camden News
Publications by New Journal Enterprises
  Home Archive Competition Jobs Tickets Accommodation Dating Contact us
Camden News - by SIMON WROE
Published: 29 January 2009

Sarah Lucas: ‘Everyone has got their own way of making money... It’s like a big family but you don’t trust people’
‘From first thing to last, your whole day is the drug’

With drug deaths in Camden now running at almost one a week, Simon Wroe talks to a woman winning her battle with addiction.

Every morning, pockets of Camden wake up with the hangover of a drugs problem.
Road sweepers remove discarded syringes from parks and alleys; rough sleepers are roused from doorways.
At St Pancras Coroner’s Court in King’s Cross, inquests are opened into the deaths from the day before, often with nobody but a coroner’s officer present.
Earlier this week, the coroner ruled Vivian Stansbury, a 41-year-old addict from St Pancras Way, Camden Town, had died of a massive heroin overdose. No family or loved ones were there to hear the verdict in the echoing courtroom.
There are about 50 similar inquests each year in Camden, completed with only a handful of people being aware – the names change but the story remains the same. The borough has the highest drug mortality rate in London.
Down the road at Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court the day begins with the overnight cases: a bedraggled procession of addicts, charged with minor possession or breaching bail conditions, are thrust into the dock and fined money they invariably do not have. In Euston, users waiting for their morning methadone queue on the pavement outside the Margarette Centre, a drug treatment facility.
Within an hour the dealers are stirring. Life begins again. For those who witness this process each day it can seem tragic, contemptible or just exhausting. But whether they look on or look away, an estimated 3 per cent of Camden’s population is living this desperate cycle of dependency, crime and self-destruction.
Sarah Lucas knows the routine well. Aged 30, she has spent the past 16 years fighting and feeding her heroin and crack cocaine addiction. Eight of those years were spent on and off the streets of Holborn, Soho and Camden Town. In that time she has seen the insides of dozens of courtrooms, prisons, hospitals and rehab centres, and begged or stolen thousands of pounds to fund her habit.
“Your whole day is the drug,” she said. “The drug runs you. It’s the first thing you think about and the last thing you think about.
“Everyone has got their own way of making money. Everyone’s morals are different. It’s like a big family, but you don’t trust people. I don’t really like what the working girls do but I would steal anything. The madames in the brothels like steak and fish and raw chickens. The prostitutes give you their bra sizes to go and nick sexy underwear for them. The dealers take PlayStation games and cannabis, and they love jewellery.”
Sarah is a small, pale woman, five foot four and just under seven stone. The viral infection hepatitis C, which she contracted by sharing drug equipment, makes her constantly fatigued and unable to gain weight. Her features are those of a young girl, yet her eyes are much older. She wears her hair pulled back severely in a tight bun. Over an hour she lights the stub of a rollie several times but does not smoke it.
“I know it’s our own fault,” she said. “But people think we take it to get high and we don’t. We take it to feel normal.”
Sarah has been dead on arrival at A&E twice after overdosing on speedballs – a common combination of heroin and crack injected together – and nearly died a third time from septicemia. Her body bears the scars of years of misuse: she has holes in both sides of her groin from injecting, a leg that will never recover from deep vein thrombosis, and crack-induced asthma.
Yet Sarah is one of the lucky ones. After numerous attempts to clean up, she is finally winning the battle and becoming a mother to her 10-year-old son again.
Her methadone intake is down to 35ml a day and she has not touched street drugs in a year-and-a-half, although she still sees the dealers who used to serve her every time she goes through Camden.
For the past three years she has lived with her partner, whom she met on the streets, in sheltered housing in Archway, run by the homeless charity St Mungo’s.
Drugs outreach ser­vices currently have nearly 2,000 people on their books in Camden, although only half this number will seek treatment and most of those will not stay the course.
“The stats don’t lie,” admitted David Devoy, St Mungo’s regional director. “There’s more going on in terms of drugs in Camden but there’s also more going on in terms of responses. Ten years ago, society just looked away from these people and it paid the cost.”
Rehabilitation, he said, has “got to come from the users to some extent. And it’s not linear; it’s more of a zigzag.”
Bona fide successes in the field are so rare, in fact, that the borough’s other main drugs service, Camden Primary Care Trust, recently rebranded as NHS Camden, declined to be interviewed.
“I detoxed seven times, I went to rehab four times,” said Sarah. “But my mind frame was just ‘the day I get out I can’t wait to put a needle in my arm’. I was trying to kill myself, more or less. There’s no point pushing somebody into rehab if they don’t want to go.”
Her voice is hoarse. She has been shouting at QPR, her football team. She used to play for their ladies under-18s, before she was kicked out for drugs. At her lowest ebb, Sarah had a £200-a-day habit and weighed just five-and-a-half stone. She looked so bad her mother would not let her see her son and she had a needle fixation; if she had no drugs she would inject herself with water “just to have the feeling of the thing, the relief”. When she was too weak to shoplift she would beg outside the HSBC cashpoint in Charing Cross.
“You wake up sick and think about where you’re going to get your next bag. I was injecting 10 hits a day,” she said.
“The lowest I would make begging would be £80 a day, and more on the weekends. With the shoplifting I’d make a lot more, but I was getting arrested once or twice a week. Prison was no different. I just used in there as well. It was like going on holiday. It felt like more punishment being out on the road. Some people would deliberately do stuff at Christmas to get in there.”
Sarah was expelled from school at 13 for aggression and was sent to a school for the excluded. She started using crack by accident in illegal ragga clubs in Tottenham Court Road.
“People were smoking it in spliffs in the clubs. I just thought it was weed. Then I liked it and started buying it.” At 15, she was taking heroin to come down; by 17 she was injecting.
She added: “Crack ruins your veins. Well, it all does. I had blood poisoning and pneumonia.”
When she got out of a spell in hospital in 2001, Sarah resolved to get clean. Doctors put her on oral methadone but she kept scoring on top so they put her on injectable methadone. She moved into the Endell Street hostel in Covent Garden.
“Eleven people died while I was there. No one turns up to the funerals. You see these paupers’ graves and feel so bad for them. People were always trying to shut Endell Street down but it was helping people. Without it there would have been more people in their doorways cooking up.”
Nearly half the tenants at Endell Street, as at St Mungo’s Bloomsbury hostel in Endsleigh Gardens, have dependency problems.
Drug use on the premises is not condoned, said Mr Devoy, but impossible to stop.
“We would certainly evict someone if all the help was thrown back in our faces. We’re in the business of giving people chances but not blind chances,” he said.
The hostels encourage addicts towards independence through a programme of activities, detox and resettlement.
A new “floating support service”, unique to Camden, now keeps key workers linked with particular clients after they leave hostel to stop them “lapsing”.
Sarah began seeking further help through the Milton Services drug support programme in 2004.
She stopped injecting crack, then smoking it altogether and is gradually weaning herself off methadone.
To deal with her crack cravings, however, there is nothing.
“That’s the worst one,” she said. “You’ve got to fight the cravings. Even some days today, if I see a little brandy bottle on the streets it’ll set off my cravings.”
Sarah has been on the road to recovery for seven years but it is slow and painful work. She undergoes therapy and weekly treatment for Hep C.
Security guards still follow her in shops and some of her family refuse to speak to her.
“It makes me angry – I’ve done all this hard work to get where I am and people still say I look like a crackhead. Am I ever going to look normal?” she wondered.
Once she is better, she wants to work as an outreach worker to the homeless. “I still see my old lot when I go shopping with my mum. I feel sorry for them – I don’t want to leave them. I feel bad that I’m in somewhere now and they’re not.
“I was out there for years and I hated it but when I stopped doing it I missed it. My life just went quiet. It was so loud out there. When I go to the West End and see someone sitting on my old pitch I think: ‘What you doing sitting there?’ Then I realise: ‘It’s not your pitch anymore’.”

Comment on this article.
(You must supply your full name and email address for your comment to be published)





Your comments:

IT is so encouraging to see stories like these. Unfortunately, here in the US we are stigmatized on MMT to the point that you rarely see a success story from here (although there are many including my own) and there are people dying because they are too ashamed to seek the one tx. that might save them from this vicious cycle due to the stigma. Then we have the anti methadone groups who constantly seek the either the banning of Methadone or want restrictions so tight it would make it impossible to keep the clinics afloat. Cherish what you have.
Finding Normal

VIVIAN Stanbury was from South Wales and I am sorry nobody was at the inquest from his many friends and family but I was at his funeral and would just like to say how sad I am that the drug took his life, he was a very intelligent human being with a great sense of humour, I knew him when he was 15 till about 8 years ago when he left Wales. I miss him and wish he'd never found this addiction.
Alan Davies


Theatre Music
Arts & Events Attractions