A Parent’s Story

I met Mike Blanche in around 2003 and he was the first person to help me understand the impact of a person’s substance use problem on family members. Mike was an inspiring figure who had played a key role in the setting up of Drug and Alcohol Family Support (DAFS) in Blaenau Gwent in South Wales. He organised a conference, Families in Focus, at which the following talk was given. We first posted this talk on our SubstanceMisuse website back in 2003.

‘Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I am a mother and I have been invited here today to talk about my experiences as a service user. I have a son who is living at home with my husband and myself. He is addicted to drugs.

He first started dabbling with substances when he was still in school. At first it was ‘glue sniffing’, but it wasn’t long before he started experimenting with cannabis. When I tried to approach him to warn him of the dangers of drug abuse, his typical reaction was to say, ‘Don’t worry Mam, I can handle it.’

Well, like he said, he’s ‘handled it’. Since then though, he’s handled other substances, amongst which, there has been cocaine and heroin. He is currently handling amphetamine by injecting it into his veins. It seems to me a very strange way of handling it.

‘Don’t worry,’ he said. I have done nothing else but worry.

Back last year when he was so-called ‘handling things’, he was doing heroin and he overdosed. My husband and I had to rush him down to the Accident and Emergency Department at our local hospital, where he was admitted overnight for observation. We stayed in that room with him all night long.

He underwent a series of blood tests, but as for treatment, it was mainly my husband and myself who observed him through the night. One of the nursing staff made the comment, ‘If he was a son of mine, I’d kick him out.’

At the time, I could have done without this attitude. What good is it to me making such loose and judgemental comments as she made during what was a very traumatic time for all of us. That kind of attitude does nothing to help my son, or us, and we were left feeling that they were judging all of us for my son’s actions.

In the morning, a member of the psychiatric team came to see my son, my husband and myself. We were told, that because our son wasn’t suicidal, they were unable to take him on. He was promptly discharged from the hospital.

What good was it discharging him? Clearly, my son desperately needed help to fight his addiction to this drug. In my view, there wouldn’t have been a better time for him. He was frightened and really wanted to stop using right there and then, but he needed help to do it. There wasn’t anything or anyone available that would give him the help that he needed.

Since that time, my son visited the Gwent Specialist Substance Misuse Service, but because of the length of time it takes to get treatment in this area, an average of up to 16 months for a methadone program, he became totally despondent and utterly frustrated.

Even though he felt determined in himself to beat this addiction, he ultimately relapsed and went back on the drugs again. Determination alone is not enough. He had made a very hard decision in asking for help, but it wasn’t there when he needed it.

It is absolutely essential and critical that help for this kind of issue is immediate right when you need it. I am 100% certain that if the help had been in place for immediate access then he would have had a much better chance of curing his addiction to drugs.

There is still an enormous stigma attached to drug addiction by many people, including those in the medical profession. The addiction isn’t targeted or treated as an illness, but rather it is seen as self-inflicted, and therefore it’s the user’s problem to deal with. Hence, you have this, ‘It’s your problem so get on with it’ syndrome, that both the user and the family have to cut through before being able to help support him in his fight to beat the illness of addiction.

Obviously, the whole scenario has been extremely stressful for my husband and I and this can be seen clearly by a deterioration in our health. Everywhere we turned we seemed to come up against a brick wall, time and time again. Although we were able to discuss the issue of our son’s drug addiction, and subsequent behaviour, with the rest of the family, emotions would sometimes run quite high, sometimes eventually to the point where my husband and myself would end up arguing over it.

Eventually, we got to hear of an organisation called Drugs And Family Support, or DAFS as it is more commonly known, which caters solely to the needs of families and friends affected by another family member’s substance misuse. What a God send. By this time my husband and I were really stressed right out with feelings of guilt, shame, and hopelessness. When we visited DAFS, we were soon put at ease and they helped to put our problems into perspective. The caring attitude shown to us on that very first visit gave us the incentive not to give up trying.

Subsequent visits enabled us to realise that we shouldn’t feel guilty over our son’s actions. It was my son’s decision to take drugs, and it would be his decision alone to come off them.

We now regularly attend weekly group meetings at DAFS, and have been able to meet other parents who are going through similar experiences themselves, albeit not always concerning the same drug. Confidentiality was a major issue for us as no family in this position wants to ‘wash their dirty laundry in public’. Since then, we have had discussions over individual situations, without the fear and stigma of being judged by others, and more often than not, with a bit of humour. This is most welcome when faced with the dire circumstances that each of us is enduring day after day.

Through attending these meetings, we learn something different every week and we are able to draw strength and support from each other. It is enlightening to find that similar problems can be dealt with in a variety of ways. No one way is right for everyone and each of us has gained a great deal of insight into coping with the horrendous problems that substance misuse brings upon the family as a whole. Both my husband and I have gained so much, not least the many new friends that we have made through DAFS.

The people at DAFS are very approachable. Obviously, we still get our bad days as well as the good days, but it is refreshing to know that we only have to pick the phone up, or call at the office, if a problem arises, and they will do their utmost to help us through it. Sometimes, it’s just the fact that you can talk with them, and know that you are not being judged at all, and that everything said is in the strictest of confidence.

Quite honestly, I don’t know how my husband and I would have coped without the support and guidance that we’ve received through DAFS. I feel that this type of agency is a must, and should be expanded for more people to access it. I understand that although it is essential for the user to receive immediate specialised treatment to combat their addiction, the families are also suffering. There has to be support services, such as DAFS, that are dedicated solely to helping us, the families, through the trauma that drug addiction brings.

I ‘d like to thank you for inviting me and I hope that I have given you some insight into the problems that families such as ours are facing on a day to day basis and the limited help that has been invaluable to us.

Thank you.’

The article may be 18 years old, but much of what is said is just as relevant to families today.