How former heroin user Jim Keane turned his life around is now helping drug users

Using benefit withdrawal to steer people away from drugs would become just another failed anti-drug policy according to former user Jim Keane, who now works for a charity. Jeremy Dunning hears his story

Using benefit withdrawal to steer people away from drugs would become just another failed anti-drug policy according to former user Jim Keane, who now works for a charity. Jeremy Dunning hears his story

Jim Keane (pictured) cites the break-up of his marriage and the influence of his line manager as key reasons behind his now drug-free lifestyle.

Keane, 45, had been a drug user for more than 20 years but after his wife left him he was determined to clean himself up. Keane’s work as a volunteer for the charity Turning Point impressed senior team leader for Turning Point’s Wakefield adult treatment service Bev Rankine.

So much so that she offered him a full-time role that has allowed him to help others turn their lives around.

He is now needle exchange co-ordinator for Wakefield adult drug services run by Turning Point. He has been drug-free for four years. It is a role he enthuses about.

“Bev has known me for a long time since I was a client and she’s been a big part of it,” he says. “She’s given me chances and I’ve never let her down. I was being given this opportunity and I felt honoured that someone was willing to give me this chance.

“I didn’t want to let her down. I still thank her for that. She’s been a big influence on what I’ve done.”

It is this belief in the strength of personal relationships between client and key worker combined with his insight and ability to empathise that Keane brings to his work.

Added to this he believes that his experience brings a motivational quality to users trying to break their addictions: “They know if I can do it, they can do it.”

For him the key is the person-centred holistic approach and allowing people more input into their treatment. He does not support forcing people to quit, as the Home Office is considering doing by threatening to withdraw benefits from users without their entering treatment.

Keane’s relationship with drugs began in Manchester when he was 17 and wanting to follow the path set by his then rock idols – Debbie Harry and John Lennon – who both had their own drug battles.

For the next four years Keane describes himself as “going hell for leather” with heroin, which ended up costing him his job, saw him sleeping rough and, inevitably, in prison.

He stayed free of drugs for a short while around the time when he met his future wife, had the first of his three children and moved to Wakefield, West Yorkshire.

Influx of heroin

However, when the town experienced an influx of heroin Keane, despite himself, found a supplier and began using again. He was soon back in its vice-like grip.

“I fell into the trap of thinking I would be alert, having used before, but before you know it you are in trouble and it was non-stop again,” he says.

“I was never out of control. I kept the house running or rather my wife was working to keep the house going and I was working to feed my habit. I was very selfish.”

Unusually as a drug user Keane managed to hold down a job. He was also careful never to use in front of his three children.

However, six years ago his mental health declined and his long-suffering wife finally left him. He took sick leave, lost his job and then his ability to pay for drugs.

“When my wife had had enough and left me I spiralled downwards and had a proper breakdown. I had to do something about it.”

Back from the brink

Four years ago he started the journey back from the brink, which involved methadone, counselling and growing involvement on service user representative forums, which allowed him to keep busy. “The more I became involved, the more stable I became and I didn’t use after that,” he says.

Following this he became a volunteer, where he was involved in needle exchange and urine testing, and later became a case worker. He is now needle exchange co-ordinator for the three exchanges in Wakefield, with 2,000 people on their books.

Keane says his role is about building up a rapport with clients and through this to encourage them to change their ways – whether it be to exchange needles, for testing or to get into treatment.

Keane is thankful he escaped and admits he is lucky compared with others. His ex-wife is still a good friend although she has a new partner; his children are close to him and he is in reasonable health, in contrast with some of the clients he has seen whose bodies have been ravaged by drug misuse.

“I do it just to help people get to where I am,” he says. “The fact I got out of it is wonderful.”

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