‘Living Through Our Son’s Addiction and Death: Our Journey to Recovery’: Ian and Irene’s Story Update

In my last blog post, I described how I met Ian and Irene MacDonald at their home on the outskirts of Cheltenham during my last trip to the UK in September 2022.

Ian and Irene had lost their 27-year-old son Robin to an accidental heroin overdose in November 1997. In response to this loss, they set up CPSG (Carer and Parent Support Gloucestershire), a free and confidential service that was available to anyone concerned about another person’s substance use.

I posted Ian and Irene’s Recovery Story, Living Through Our Son’s Addiction and Death: Our Journey to Recovery, on this website in 2013. We updated this Story in 2021 for my eBook Our Recovery Stories: Journeys from Drug and Alcohol Addiction. Here is that update:

‘Seven Years On (June, 2020)

Irene:  What have I learned of myself in the past seven years? Firstly, recovery is an ever-changing world and I am constantly learning how to accommodate this. I thought it would be a smooth upward trajectory and was absolutely horrified to find that I have lapses from time to time, which I realise are very similar in intensity to those experienced by substance users in their own recovery, although obviously not exactly the same.

Some of these lapses I can understand. They occur on a specific memorable date for me and I have learned to become aware of this trigger; when the lapse occurs, I am prepared for it to a certain extent. Other lapses are more difficult to anticipate, e.g. when I catch sight of a young man who resembles Robin, hear a song he used to like, or see a film or a book he enjoyed. The odd thing is that these particular lapses can be pleasurable at the time, recalling old memories before the harsh truth kicks in that this is all they are—simply treasured memories. It is hard to move on from lapses of this sort, but I try to do so without spoiling the memories they invoke.

Secondly, it’s also still hard for me to see Robin’s group of friends getting on with their lives with their own families. They are getting older, whilst Robin will always be 27 to me. Again, this is something I am still trying to deal with, and I sometimes feel that I may never be able to come to terms with it. I think it is regret for what might have been, rather than any form of jealousy—at least I hope so.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Robin’s death shook the foundations of my existence, and it has been a long, hard heartbreaking climb back. My life is not what I imagined it would be, but it is by no means bad—simply different, and I endeavour to embrace these differences and move on.

I became the manager of a needle exchange back in 2008/9. Me, who felt that needle exchanges were the work of the devil when I discovered that Robin was obtaining the means to inject himself with heroin from strangers on one side of town, whilst on my side I was desperately trying to get him to stop. I recall how I ranted and I raved about them, but I really knew nothing about how needle exchange services worked or what they were trying to achieve. 

However, once I learned what they were trying to do, I became a fervent harm reductionist. I imagine Robin would find this about-turn by me quite strange and possibly even ironically amusing, but I also hope he would be pleased that I was beginning to understand, without necessarily approving of, his views.

It is 23 years since Robin died and whilst I am able to accommodate this fact, I remain heartbroken by his physical absence, which has left a large hole in my life that can never be filled. I still experience flashbacks and have never lost my fear of the phone ringing late at night—the latter is under a bit of control now, but will never disappear.

I still fear bad things happening in my world and to my other son who lives in New Zealand. I have had to re-think my life and decide what is important and what is less important. I also feel that the loss of Robin has made me more aware of other people’s problems, less judgemental and hopefully kinder.

You could say that Robin and I are both victims of heroin—him for his decision to use and me for having to live with the consequences of his decision. Wounded but still walking—that’s how I see myself—yet another casualty of the so-called War on Drugs. My recovery is ongoing and at whatever pace I feel comfortable with, but I will never be ‘recovered’. How could I be?

Ian: Irene has written the above update to our story from a personal point of view, and I will give a brief history of our CPSG charity which provided information and support for anyone affected by another’s substance use.

We lost our funding in 2016 as a result of the re-commissioning of Gloucestershire drug and alcohol services.  We had some contingency money left in the account which allowed us to continue to a small extent, but that expired in 2018. Sadly, the charity was dissolved in April 2019 after 16 years of service.

However, we still maintain a close interest in the drugs field and the recovery movement. We have collaborated on projects, mainly around bereavement through addiction, with the charities Adfam [1 ] and DHI (Developing Health & Independence) [2], and Bath and Sheffield Universities. Being active members of the Wired In community also contributed to our own personal recovery process.

Irene has completed six years as a board member of DHI Bath, specialising in family issues. She was invited to join the board after an impassioned talk about the reasons for, and benefits of, needle exchanges at one of their events. She continues to speak at such events when asked.

We both maintain an interest in the field in general and, in conversation with the CEO of one of the national organisations, mentioned that ‘families need to recover too.’ The reply was, ‘You know, I’ve never really thought of that and will remember it.’ So, we do still contribute!

Many people have, over the years, questioned why we chose to work in the field after Robin’s death. Initially, it was for us to get an understanding, which developed into an unexpected passion for the work. This passion and the work have greatly contributed to our ongoing recovery.

For myself, I still very much miss Robin and the times we could have had with him. However, like Irene, I have come to terms with the loss, although ‘recovery’ is still an ongoing process.

[1] https://adfam.org.uk

[2] https://www.dhi-online.org.uk

As I said in my last blog post, It was wonderful to see Ian and Irene again on 26 September 2022. I had never visited them in their house before. We had a good catch up and then Irene made us a lovely lunch. We talked about their son Robin and they showed me a picture done of him, along with his guitar which was hanging on a wall. They also talked about Robin’s brother’s family in New Zealand. Ian and Irene are both retired now and enjoying life.

The contribution that Ian and Irene have made to other people and to the field through their work with CPSG has been very special. It is easy to forget that other people, particularly family members, are badly affected by a loved one’s drug and alcohol addiction. The help that the MacDonalds have given to such people in their area (and beyond) has no doubt been deeply appreciated. Their bravery through the early stages of their loss and in later years has been remarkable. Their Story no doubt will continue to touch and inspire many. I feel deeply honoured to have met, and been friends of, Ian and Irene MacDonald.