One woman’s war on addiction

Christine Tooze founder of a drug counselling charity called Kickstart
Christine Tooze founder of a drug counselling charity called Kickstart
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Christine Tooze has changed the fate of over 14,000 drug and alcohol addicts. But not even she could prevent her own son’s life being ruined by heroin...

For 19 years, a middle-aged mother of four from Sheffield has been waging a one woman war on drugs.

Christine Tooze with son Kenneth, left and youngest son Jon, who has been a heroin addict

Christine Tooze with son Kenneth, left and youngest son Jon, who has been a heroin addict

She turned her family dining room into a drying out clinic for a year, making up beds on the floor for addicts going cold turkey and nursing them through the pain.

She checked in to one of the toughest rehab clinics in America to find out how to crack the hardest cases and once gatecrashed the elegant London home of Lady Sainsbury to launch an impassioned plea for money to enable her revolutionary style of rehab to grow.

In two decades, she has helped over 14,000 people to tackle their addictions; the success stories are inspirational.

No wonder applause rang out last month when Christine Tooze stepped up to the podium to accept a national award and a £10,000 cheque for her charity, Kickstart, from the Centre For Social Justice Awards 2012.

It was plain to the judges who singled out Kickstart from over 300 drug projects across the country that Christine had poured her heart and soul into her work and was getting amazing results.

But what few realise is that, while turning around the lives of thousands of strangers, behind the scenes for years she was locked in a private battle to get her youngest son Jon off heroin.

Now 41, Jon has lost both his legs as a result of his addiction – and his freedom. Last year he was jailed for four-and-a-half years after being found guilty of playing his part in the robbery of another drug addict.

“I hate drugs with a vengeance,” says Christine. “They give people hiding places from the realities of life – and they destroy lives, families and communities.

“They maimed my son for life and nearly killed him. In my mind I have buried Jon so many times. I was so convinced I was going to lose him I even wrote his funeral sermon.”

I could not save son from drugs

It would be easy to presume it was Jon Tooze’s drug problem which set his mother on her one woman mission. But that wasn’t the case.

Jon was a schoolboy when his mother, a committed Christian, began helping South Yorkshire Community Church launch a counselling service for people in need. She soon discovered that scores of parents were desperate to help their children combat drug problems.

“I hadn’t realised how widespread the problem was or how few services there were for them in the city,” she says. “At the time there was only one small clinic set up at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital. Drug addicts were having to wait two years to get help.”

With volunteers, she set up her own drop-in centre. When some addicts needed a bit of mothering, she had no qualms about opening up her Grenoside home to up to seven at a time, making beds up for them on the dining room floor.

“I gave them herbal baths, massaged their legs and kept them talking; anything to distract them from the pain they were going through,” says Christine. “I discovered that essential to their recovery is ensuring they know there are people around them who care enough to listen and help.”

Jon, a compassionate boy, saw all of this – and helped. He was proud when his mother managed to raise enough money to set up Kickstart at offices in Hartshead, off Campo Lane, and invent a revolutionary kind of rehab.

She explains: “It became clear that a few hours a week wasn’t enough. Addicts wanted to come to us every day so that’s what we did. They came to us from nine to five, every working day. The more they were with us, the easier they found it to get off drugs and get their lives back.

“We set up training schemes so they could get qualifications, did group therapy and one-to-one counselling.

“We took them to the seaside and out into the country; in many ways, it was like caring for children; when people start taking drugs their emotional growth stops.”

He watched Kickstart grow - in 2002, funding came from the Local Authority and the charity was able to work on a wider level with A4E to get clients with addiction problems back into work. And he witnessed his mother do amazing things in her fight against addiction. When she realised she needed more money than her fund-raising and begging for donations could achieve, she went uninvited to the home of Lady Sainsbury, a committed Christian and charity supporter. She got into a prayer meeting and left with a donation of £59,000.

The elegant and feminine blonde even tried out life in one of the toughest rehab clinics in America to gain a deeper insight into how to tackle addiction problems.

“I have never been so scared in all my life,” she says of her week in the Californian centre. There was a woman in there for murder. She had bitten chunks out of people – so the authorities had taken all her teeth out.

“But these people all had real potential. I went back to Kickstart determined to enable addicts to live to the potential within themselves.

“Unconsciously, I think that was because that’s how I wanted others to treat Jon.”

For somewhere, in the middle of all that, her youngest son managed to slip into the very world she was attempting to rescue others from.

“I’d realised early on that Jon had started smoking cannabis,” she admits. “I lectured him. I tried to make him see sense. Nothing worked; another vital thing I have learned from working with addicts is that they can only be helped when they want to stop.

“It’s like being on a motorway. You can’t get off until you yourself see the turn-off.”

Christine’s other children went on to further education and make successes of their lives. None of them ever dabbled in drugs. But after Jon left school at 16 Christine discovered his drug use escalating rapidly.

“It was devastating for me to watch,” says his mother. “I knew from working with addicts how bad it could get. And it did. He went onto crack cocaine and heroin,” she says, her voice going to a whisper.

He had been injecting into his legs; infection set in and Jon developed ulcers that wouldn’t heal and made his life such agony he would howl like an animal, says Christine. A fall led to both his legs being amputated below the knees.

“It was heart-rending. I thought of the chubby legs and feet I used to stroke when he was a baby. His addiction had maimed him for life.

“Jon is from a loving, happy family. People seem to think that drug addicts only ever come from poor and dysfunctional backgrounds but it’s not the case,” she says. “There are so many reasons why people use drugs.”

Her experience enabled her to identify many of the reasons behind Jon’s drug use. She paid for rehab clinics, she held him through the pain of detoxing. But try as she might, she couldn’t stop him using.

Bizarrely, while Jon couldn’t accept his mother’s help, he would often bring other users to her door. “He would turn up at the office or at my home with people he had met on the streets. He wanted his mum to help them and I did.

“The agony for me was that I could help to save them, but not him; my own son.

“And I’m ashamed to admit that there were times when I was jealous of the families whose lives I had helped put back together.”

But each life she turned around gave her fresh hope that maybe one day, Jon would be saved, too.

That day has come, she says. But at a terrible price.

Jon Tooze is currently serving a four-and-a-half year sentence in Doncaster Prison.

Sheffield Crown Court ruled Jon helped three drug addict friends helped to rob a fourth friend on Christmas Day 2010.

The men had been at Jon’s Highfield home enjoying a Christmas dinner cooked by Christine. She arrived later that night, alerted she says, by desperate phone calls from Jon, to find a blood-spattered flat and the victim lying battered and stabbed. It was she who called an ambulance.

Judge Robert Moore commented in court: “If anybody wanted an illustration of where long-term drug abuse gets you, they need only to look at the facts of this case.”

But the sentence has saved Jon’s life, says Christine, who is currently transforming Kickstart into a new charity after it recently lost a third of its government funding.

“He is off drugs and deeply regrets the life he led,” says Christine. “When he comes out he wants to do what I do - help people overcome addictions.”