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Home » 'I took my daughter everywhere – even to Narcotics Anonymous' – The Guardian

'I took my daughter everywhere – even to Narcotics Anonymous' – The Guardian

Ana and Rita Nevoa, who appear in a new BBC series about Bristol’s drug problem, are an inspirational story that shows addiction does not have to end badly
The BBC documentary series Drugsland, which begins this week, examines Bristol’s growing drug problem – on the frontline and in the backstreets and hidden stairwells. Cameras follow police, addicts and drug workers. It is a hard, dark programme to watch, but in the midst of the chaos, in an oasis of calm, are Ana Nevoa and her 15-year-old daughter, Rita.
Rita has never known her mum to take drugs, never seen her as an addict – nor has she ever taken drugs herself. “And yet,” she says, “drugs have controlled my life and everything around me.” Their story gives the series a shot of hope. It shows the terrible toll of addiction, but also the possibility of simple family life.
Ana, 50, is Portuguese. She was born and raised in Lisbon, but came to England in her early 20s – already a heroin addict.
“My father was an economist, my mother a teacher,” she says. “All the ingredients were there for me to be successful. I remember feeling very much the black sheep, the wreck of my family.”
Speaking now, she is matter-of-fact; there is no self-pity, no shame, no apology. Her drug use began in her early teens when she was groomed and abused by a family friend. By 18, she was injecting heroin. This was the late 80s and early 90s. Ana, like most drug users she knew from that period, was infected with the virus. “At that time, with that diagnosis, the prospects were grim,” she says. “You felt there was no reason to get your life together because you were going to die anyway.”
Most of Ana’s 20s were spent in London, living on the edge, feeding her habit, shoplifting, just about surviving while everyone around her lost to Aids.
Her rock bottom was the death of her partner. “That was the catalyst, the moment for me,” she says. “I realised, first, I was going to die – but, second, he had me, but I was going to die on my own. Even if I didn’t have long to live, I didn’t want to waste it any more. I didn’t want to die taking drugs or live a life where that’s all I’d done.”
There were false starts and setbacks, but gradually she transformed her life. Along the way, Ana met Steve, another addict, and they made a new start in Bristol. By the time Ana was in her early 30s, she was able to contemplate what for a long time had been unimaginable: motherhood.
“For years, I abandoned that idea. But there’d been progress, lots of treatments and, for the first time, I was being told by my specialist that, actually, I could have a baby.
“I was young and healthy, I’d been on antiretroviral medication and had an undetectable viral load. If I had an elective caesarean and didn’t breastfeed, I could minimise the risk of transmission.”
Having Rita was a huge act of faith – in herself and the future. It was also her most powerful reason to stay clean. “Rita wasn’t the reason I stopped taking drugs, but she has been the reason I stayed in recovery,” says Ana.
“We were joined at the hip and I would take her everywhere,” Ana says, “including Narcotics Anonymous meetings, doctors appointments. She grew up in those rooms. I’d always been open with everyone about my life; it didn’t occur to me to be any different with my daughter, but I did realise that whatever information and knowledge I fed her had to be age‑appropriate.”
For Rita, the NA meetings, checkups and appointments were part of life, albeit a boring part. “I grew up in this very open, accepting bubble, so when I was very young I didn’t realise that HIV and addiction is something hush‑hush for a lot of people.”
Sometimes, those two worlds collided. “I remember being in a sex education lesson at primary school and my teacher said: ‘If you have HIV or Aids, you will die.’ I just burst into tears.
“I didn’t tell my primary school friends about my mum because it didn’t occur to me. I didn’t think of it as anything big,” says Rita. “Now, at secondary, all my friends know.”
The most poignant scene in the programme is at Gloucester cathedral, a place Rita used to visit with her dad. Steve did not manage to stay off drugs – he and Ana separated, his life spiralled into chaos and he died just after Rita started secondary school.
Shortly before his death, Rita had written him a letter. “At the time, I thought it was the right thing to do … even now, I’m not 100% sure,” she says, hesitant. “I saw a documentary and there was this girl, way older than me, basically in the exact same position and she wrote her dad a letter saying: ‘I’m not going to see you until you get off drugs or go into rehab.’ So I thought: ‘I’ll do the same.’ I thought it would push him to stop … And … he didn’t.”
Although they don’t regret taking part in the TV series, they are braced for consequences. “It’s only now I’m thinking, my neighbour who says: ‘Hello,’ every morning might feel differently if he sees this programme – but I am who I am,” says Ana, who now works as a mentor for people with addiction or HIV.
“The other day, I asked my friend if her parents knew about Mum and the whole addiction thing and she told me they don’t,” says Rita. “I just think, they’re adults, they’ve all met my mum, so it’s not like they’re going to come round with pitchforks.”
In fact, Rita believes her upbringing has protected her, made her less likely to take a similar path. “In my year at school, there’s a split between people who use drugs and people who definitely wouldn’t. Me and my friends are in the ‘definitely don’t’ side. From what I can tell, the others do it recreationally – but it freaks me out loads. I can’t picture myself ever going near them.”
Despite everything, she knows drug use will always be a possibility for Ana. “When life is hard, there are still going to be thoughts: ‘I could take drugs and it will all go away.’ But I think Mum has lasted this long … and she has me. I think she could bounce back.”
However people react to the programme, Rita is protective and proud of Ana. “There’ll be people who aren’t kind, who aren’t educated, who’ll come up and say: ‘Your mum’s a drug addict,’ but why should their opinion matter?” she says. “Going to rehab, coming off drugs, changing your life is really hard. It takes years. Decades. My dad didn’t make it. Lots of people don’t. My mum did – I think because she’s strong, stubborn, she’s got a lot of self-will. She shows you can get out of it, that there’s hope.”
Drugsland begins on 14 November on BBC Three. Ana and Rita feature in episode four on 5 December


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