My Journey: 11. Stories of Loved Ones Indirectly Affected By Substance Use Problems

Three short stories from people affected by a loved one’s heroin problem, two of which refer to the stigma associated with heroin addiction, whilst the third relates to ‘not taking ownership’ of a loved one’s addiction. The last two are excerpts from longer stories. The first story concerns a conference speech, given by a mother who attended a family support group. (3,675 words)

1. A Conference Speech

‘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 programme, 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 members helped to put our problems into perspective. The caring attitude shown to us on that very first visit gave us the incentive to 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.’

 2. A Mother’s Story

The second story is from Kerry Manley, later to become a volunteer for Wired In, who writes about a stage of her son Kevin’s heroin addiction when he was seriously ill. Kevin was later one of my right-hand people at Wired In. The full  two-part Kevin and Kerry’s Recovery Journey, A Family’s Story, can be found on this website (Part 1 and Part 2).

‘When Kevin was desperately ill with what we would later learn was septicaemia, I’d go to his house every day. He was deteriorating rapidly in front of my eyes. We’d been to a hospital Casualty Department, but nobody picked up on how desperately ill he was. I actually attended Casualty twice with Kevin, to try and give him some sort of credibility, but twice he was turned away, even though his condition warranted him being admitted. I’m sure that they saw no further than the fact that he was an addict.

Even though Kevin was so unwell, he was still using heroin. I sort of understood it, because at this point I knew that if he didn’t, he’d be even more unwell. He was at such a stage that I think he might have died if he hadn’t continued using to some degree. He was already having rigours (uncontrollable shaking, fever etc), chest pains, and numerous other problems. So, what would the effects of withdrawal have done on top of that?

I remember thinking what a terrible thing addiction is, that it could do this to someone. I’d also be thinking, ‘How could it get like this? How could it get any worse?’ If he’d died at that point, it wouldn’t have been worse; it would have been better. In his eyes, as well as mine.

This isn’t easy to say, but I really did debate whether to end Kevin’s life. I could have done so easily. To see him there, like a skeleton, in agony and struggling for breath. He was comatose at times, and I used to think how easy it would be to put a pillow over his head and end all his agony. I just couldn’t though. I just wanted so much for him to be better.

I was nursing Kevin at his home every day. Every time I went there, and let myself in, I was prepared to find him dead. I really thought the end had come.

In the end, I absolutely insisted they take him into hospital. And they let him in. Thank God he didn’t die, but I could so easily have helped him on his way. God forgive me. It wasn’t for any selfish reason, I just didn’t want him to suffer any more. I don’t think anybody quite understood what I was doing day in, day out, keeping him alive. I felt so isolated with him.

When he was finally admitted to hospital, Kevin’s body was wracked with septicaemia and we were told that he was only days from total organ failure. The lack of understanding from the medical staff about the addiction side of Kevin’s problems was very apparent. He was admitted to the poisons unit, but they just didn’t have an understanding of the psyche of an addict. The nursing care was nil, and the lack of physical care was apparent.

Strangely enough, even after the way he had lived, Kevin was always worried about disinfecting things and making sure things were clean. He always has and always will be like that, thank God, but the staff just didn’t expect him to have those standards. He was an addict, a junkie, his illness was self-inflicted, and he didn’t deserve better care. It upset Kevin, it annoyed him, and he was very angry at times. Mentally, he was desperate for the right attitude.

Things did change a little when I spoke to the Ward Manager, and read out something from Kevin’s notebook about how he’d been treated. She burst into tears and said that she had no idea of how he was feeling. Luckily, she was a good Ward Manager. She took his comments on board and did make changes.

Some doctors and nurses believed in Kevin and they really made a difference. There really needs to be more education given to medical staff about addiction. I’ve talked to senior nurses in emergency units and they’ve said themselves that there’s a distinct lack of understanding about these issues.

Basically, it should be part of their training. There ought to be something put in place to help them to look past the façade of addiction. What you see in front of you is not necessarily what is there. Addicts are labelled. Most, but not all, nurses use derogatory terms when discussing addicts. It is sickening. There should be more understanding of the psyche of an addict.

For a long time, I kept it secret that my son was an addict, but when Kevin was ill in the hospital where I worked, I had to be open. It really taught me, more than ever, that addiction is an illness and something can be done about it—and it should be.

Since Kevin left hospital, I have talked freely about his problems in a way that I would never have thought I could—in a less emotional way. It’s the only way I can think of to show people that we are an ordinary family.

Kevin was brought up with values, the same as his sister. He chose one way and she chose another way. So how can it be the way you bring a child up? It can’t be, otherwise Kate would have been an addict as well. I think it’s important for people to realise that it could happen to them. For example, even their husband could become addicted to pain relief after an operation—so don’t be complacent.

The worst thing for me was the attitudes of some of my work colleagues. It’s very strange because I work in a caring profession in the health service, but some of the attitudes of workers were truly awful. Over the time that Kevin was an inpatient, I heard that the staff had been gossiping about him, not only on their ward but on other wards. They discussed Kevin and our whole family in a very derogatory manner. Much of what they said was unfounded or damn right untrue. I find it incredible that they can break confidentiality with other members of staff.

I was angry and hurt, and felt dreadfully bad for Kevin. He was desperately ill and they were discussing him in such a malevolent way. Gossiping, saying, ‘Why hasn’t his father visited?’, or ‘His sister has cut him off?’, which was quite untrue at that time.

My manager found out and said that it was a breach of confidentiality, and the relevant staff should be disciplined. However, she could only take things further if I made an official complaint. I felt that I couldn’t, because I wanted to keep working there. I’ve been made more and more aware, since I’ve had problems of my own, how nasty gossip can be. It’s made me far more aware of people’s feelings.

People are really unaware of the deeper issues surrounding addiction. I would have thought the people I was close to at work would have understood. Yet all they could say was, ‘She should cut him out of her life.’ I actually had someone say that to me, not in a nasty way, but thinking that she was being helpful. I took it as well-intentioned, because she wasn’t malicious, but I said, ‘There’s no way I could do that, he’s my son.’

3. A Sister’s Story

Some years later, I received a story written by Anna, who lives here in Australia, which relates how her family coped with her brother’s heroin addiction. I published Anna’s Story, Should I or Shouldn’t I, on this website in 2013. Anna’s story highlights the need for family members to accept that they cannot take ownership of their loved one’s addiction. They are not responsible for the addiction, and they cannot do recovery for their loved one. Here is a particularly pertinent section of Anna’s story. At this stage, she was becoming overwhelmed by the whole situation concerning her brother’s addiction. 

‘After this incident in the city, I became unhealthily obsessed with finding out as much as I could about heroin, as well as trying to monitor my brother’s behaviour and uncover his lies. I read every book I could get my hands on, including a few books I’d had as a teenager—Go Ask Alice, Junky and H: Diary of a Heroin Addict.

Every time my brother made up some excuse about needing money, I’d be straight on the phone to my parents, ‘dobbing’ on him. I’d check his pupils and follow him to the bathroom whenever he came over to my place to return the car. It was around this time that I said to him, “Why can’t you just give up? Why is it so hard for you? I smoked and gave it up, why can’t you?” 

He said, “For one, tobacco is not the same thing as heroin. And for two, you’re not me and I’m not you so stop trying to make your experiences, my experiences.” It was an important reminder that I needed to be less judgmental and stop trying to force my ideas about how the world worked on to others.

Not that I managed to stop doing this overnight! I began to talk about my brother’s heroin dependence non-stop to my friends. I’d go over the details again and again and then I’d get upset when they started to get bored or frustrated if they couldn’t help me. I couldn’t see that my brother’s problem was his own.

At the time, it was all about me, and I was very angry with him for hurting me. Why was he doing this to our family? Didn’t he know how much he was destroying us? We loved him so much and he was treating us like crap. Why couldn’t he quit? How could he keep lying to us all the time? How could he steal from us? How could he expect us to ever trust him again?

Once I understood that it wasn’t all about me, that my brother was not purposely trying to hurt me—he was hurting himself and as a result, the rest of our family suffered—I became terribly sad and depressed and would cry most days. My brother, who was an amazingly talented musician as well as an intelligent, caring, funny, gorgeous guy, was now a junkie who spent all of his time scamming, stealing, and doing whatever he could to get heroin. It was such a waste of a life and I started to really fear that he might die.’

And then, Anna had a Moment of Clarity: ‘My parents could see that I wasn’t really coping with what was happening and they convinced me to go and see a counsellor. I went to see a very expensive psychologist for three sessions. The first two sessions were spent crying and telling the same story I’d told everyone else a thousand times. In the third session, the psychologist said to me, “Anna, I’ve been hearing a lot about your brother and all of his problems. What about you? Do you think you might have a problem with drugs too?”

I said, “Yes.” I was drinking every night to cope with what was going on, and my boyfriend at the time was also a heavy drinker.

She said that I needed to accept that I couldn’t change my brother’s behaviour or anyone else’s, I could only change my own. She also said that I needed to focus on my own life and stop focusing so much on my brother’s.

After the session finished, I went out to my car and bawled my eyes out, but it was a different type of emotional release. I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. I knew that things would be different for me, and that I could change the way I was thinking and feeling. It was the first time in about a year that I could see a way forward. I then went to see a counsellor for a while, who was much cheaper than the psychologist, but I didn’t find her all that helpful, and I decided that I already had the tools, I just needed to practice using them.’

Near the end of Anna’s Story, she wrote: ‘On a much more positive note, there’s no way I can tell this story without saying that my brother is truly the most inspirational person I know. I am in awe of who he is and what he’s achieved. He has taught me so much about life, including the most valuable lesson I could ever possibly learn—that you can get through anything. I have learnt that things might be bad, but they won’t be bad foreverI also know that it’s not impossible to make changes—even if they seem small and irrelevant at the time, they can lead to bigger and better things further down the track.

It’s also possible to learn something new or change the way you think if you’re prepared to work at it. Not only has my brother overcome his drug dependence and rebuilt his life and his career, he has travelled the world, has a gorgeous family, and can speak another language fluently, which he had to learn from scratch when he moved overseas. It may take time, it can’t be rushed, but we are all responsible for our own happiness, and it’s up to us to create the lives we want for ourselves.’

Seven years later in 2020, Anna’s brother is leading a happy, successful life free of heroin. He has found recovery, as has Anna.

> My Journey: 12. Recovery Oozing Out of the Walls

> ‘My Journey’ chapter links (and biography)