Phoenix Futures residential treatment home means addicts can be reborn from the ashes of their lives

Gary Stewart, who has lost a leg to his addiction
Gary Stewart, who has lost a leg to his addiction
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FOURTEEN weeks ago, Thomas Leith, a sad-eyed grandfather from the Calton, took up a pint glass and smashed it, rim-first, into his face three times, cutting an artery in his forehead and carving his nose up like butcher meat. “I hated myself,” he says. “I just didn’t like who I had become with the drugs.”

The exact circumstances change. The precise blend of intoxication, self-loathing and horror. But this is the sort of state in which addicts often find themselves before they come to live at Phoenix ­Futures, a residential rehab centre in the north of Glasgow.

Each day in rehab begins with a “huddle” – residents gathering in the community room and saying in unison the Phoenix philosophy, which begins: “We are here because there is no refuge finally from ourselves.” They stand in a ­circle, arms around each other’s shoulders, some with eyes closed. Afterwards there is applause and hugging. People congratulate one another on another day clean and wish each other strength for the struggles ahead. Thomas Leith lifts a petite middle-aged woman in a pink velour tracksuit and burls her round for the sheer joy of another morning free of heroin, valium and coke, another morning when he isn’t robbing his mother to feed his habit. When he first arrived at Phoenix, he’d have struggled to lift his own head up, never mind anyone else. He was seven-and-a-half stone, a bag of rattling bones, scarred inside and out. “Coming in here,” he says, “is the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Phoenix Futures is a large modern building on Keppochhill Road, an area of warehouses and waste ground not far from the canal. It is one of around 20 residential drug treatment centres in Scotland. The drug problem in this country is huge, with a record 584 deaths in 2011, a rise of 76 per cent over a decade, and an estimated 61,000 problem drug users nationwide. Given these statistics, one might think that all rehabs would be full to capacity. Not so. Numbers in many places are in decline. Phoenix has room for 39 residents, but at present only 18 of the beds are occupied.

According to Rowdy Yates, head of Scottish Addiction Studies at Stirling University, Scotland’s residential rehab sector is “dying”. GPs and local authority care workers are far more likely to put an addict on a heroin substitute such as methadone rather than refer them to residential care. Why? Partly cost. Residential drug rehab in Scotland costs, on average, in the region of £500 to £800 a week. A weekly prescription of methadone comes in at around £28. Yet methadone merely replaces one drug with another, and a life on meth can, in its way, be as miserable, narrow and chaotic as a life on smack. Methadone kills more Scots than heroin. Rehab is at least an attempt to get people off drugs altogether.

Yet if numbers in rehab continue to decline as they are, Yates says, many centres will be forced to close, meaning that intensive, abstinence-based drug treatment will become available only to those who can afford private clinics. “All that will be left are the residential treatment equivalents of public schools, which are only really catering for the well-off and the middle-class,” he says. “The not-for-profit agencies will disappear. They can’t continue to operate on those levels of occupancy. It can’t go on for much longer.”

To spend a day in rehab, talking to staff and residents, is to understand the severity of the drug problem in a way that the statistics, grim as they are, cannot convey. It is the difference between being shown a photograph of a knife and feeling its edge on your skin. One thing the people here have in abundance is stories. The man who won £100,000 on bingo and blew it soon ­after. The man who spent nine years living beneath the railway bridge that spans the Clyde on the way into Central Station, climbing up the rivets each night, wearing 12 jackets against the cold, and sleeping on a steel rafter so narrow that had he rolled off he would have fallen to his death.

Phoenix opened in Glasgow in 1995 and is home, at present, to ten men and eight women. Its location in Possilpark is something of a grim joke among residents; they could walk out the door and buy drugs in two minutes if they so wished. “Kick a Possil dug,” says one man, “and it could tell you where to score.” Movement in and out of the house is restricted and supervised. Service users must be resident for four months before they start being allowed out on their own. Phoenix functions as a “therapeutic community”, meaning that all the tasks of the house – cooking, cleaning, maintenance, etc – are carried out by the residents themselves, and that they are there to inspire and support one another. The days are full. Residents meet in groups and have one-to-ones with key workers. It’s not just about giving up drugs. It’s about confronting the reasons that made you start taking drugs, and finding ways to stay off them in future.

People spend up to two years within the Phoenix programme, six months in the main house, followed by a ­further six months of semi-independent living within a nearby tenement; during the final year, service users usually find their own tenancy within the city but remain in contact with support workers. Stephen Kennedy, manager of Phoenix and himself a graduate of the drug treatment programme, estimates that around 40-odd per cent of those using the service manage to abstain from drugs and alcohol for more than two years.

The first three to six weeks tend to be spent detoxing, which will usually mean reducing the quantity of methadone taken by four milligrams every three days. Almost everyone who comes here arrives addicted to the heroin substitute. “We’ve had people who’ve been on methadone for more than 20 years,” says Kennedy. “They are terrified to come off because they’ve been on it that long. Methadone suppresses your feelings and emotions. You don’t feel real when you’re on it. The good thing about rehab is you get feelings back. The bad thing about rehab is you get feelings back.”

Among those feelings is guilt. In an upstairs room, cosy with leather couches, I meet Kelly Allan, a 31-year-old from Tollcross. She has a 10-year-old son who has been in the care of her mother since he was five. Kelly’s life had become a chaos of drugs and domestic violence. “I thought I was taking care of him properly, but I was out my face,” she says. “I can look back now that I’m clean and sober and know that it just wasn’t the right atmosphere for my boy to be in. It wasn’t fair.”

She had started off taking speed, which she loved for the way it gave her energy to clean the house and prepare her son’s breakfast before he woke. She ended up on a large daily prescribed dose of methadone, which she had at first been buying illicitly. Meth, she found, made her calm, numb, able to cope with the pressures of motherhood and a torturous relationship. “You get a wee kind of glow around you,” she recalls.

After she lost her son, she spent time in hostels, supported accommodation and a women’s refuge. She had sworn she would never become an alcoholic as her uncle had died of this. Yet it got to the point where she was drinking nine litres of Frosty Jack cider each day, burned holes in her pancreas and gullet, and took panic attacks when she left the house. “All my life ­revolved around was going for my methadone in the morning and then going to the off-­licence. I was lucky if I ate one meal a day.”

She knew that she had to change or die. She came to Phoenix at the start of February and credits it with being the reason not only that she is still alive but that she is glad to be so. Kelly knows she has a long way to go, but she is back in touch with her son and hopes, one day, that she can get him back and he will love her. “A lot of time people think addicts are worthless and ­beyond help,” she says. “But we’re not.”

Downstairs, I meet Gary Stewart, who is 43 and comes from Baillieston. Tall and gaunt with a Scotland tattoo on his right arm, he has survived 20 years of heroin addiction but not in one piece. “I ended up losing my leg. Nae teeth. I’ve no’ got a vein in my body.” He has been trying to quit drugs, on and off, since 1994 and has had lengthy periods of being clean. His right leg was amputated 12 years ago after he contracted necrotising fasciitis, the so-called flesh-eating disease, from injecting into a muscle contaminated heroin which had been stashed underground by a dealer; the same batch killed 21 drug users. He was, in a way, lucky. Gary remembers being administered the last rites, the smirr of holy water. Nevertheless, he survived and ended up back on drugs, crucifying himself, plunging the needle into his forehead and the palms of his hands. He has been at Phoenix for four-and-a-half months. “Aye,” he says, “some journey”.

Some journey. The same might be said of any of the men and women at Phoenix, rising from the choking ashes of their own lives, or those at Scotland’s other rehab centres. And it is to be hoped that those centres themselves have a long journey ahead of them. The idea that any of these places might shut for lack of business is, to say the least, sobering. «