Recovery Moments: Ian and Irene’s Story

Two of my favourite people that I have met on my Wired In journey are Ian and Irene MacDonald. I first met Ian in 2007 at a Federation of Drug & Alcohol Professionals (FDAP) meeting, although we had been corresponding earlier. Ian and Irene had lost their son Robin to a heroin overdose in 1997 and were now running a family support group, CPSG (Carer and Parent Support Gloucestershire).

Ian later asked if I would give a talk to family members in Cheltenham and I happily agreed. The talk took place in September 2008. I was still living in Cowbridge in South Wales at the time. My new partner Linda was visiting from Australia, so she came to Cheltenham with me. We spent a lovely evening with Ian and Irene. I remember thinking at the time how would I ever recover from losing a child?

I was thrilled when Ian and Irene agreed to write their story, which appeared on Wired In To Recovery and then on this website. Their original Story and update are in my recent book Our Recovery Stories: Journeys from Drug and Alcohol Addiction. Here are some excerpts from their Story, chosen to reflect some recovery moments during their journey.

“4. Dealing with loss
We now inhabited a frightening and strange world. It was as if we were in some sort of parallel universe with everything in the world going on normally and us watching it through a mist. Life did go on, but this time it was on autopilot. Somehow, we managed to survive the early aftermath of Robin’s untimely death, though sometimes we were so wracked with grief that life seemed pointless….

Irene: The days, weeks and months after the funeral were hard, but we stood together and supported each other as best we could. That’s not to say that there weren’t occasions when we lashed out at each other in our individual grief, but we were managing (just) to exist in this strange new world without our younger son. I’m ashamed now to say that I used to look at apparently happy families and resent them, questioning why this should happen to us and not them….

Ian: I recall an argument we had in the early days after Robin’s death.  We were on our way to visit Irene’s sister, had stopped in town to buy some flowers, and I’d put the steering wheel lock on prior to leaving the car. When we returned, I realised that I’d left the key at home—something I’d never done before, but we were both still functioning on autopilot and keys were not at the front of my mind. I told Irene to wait there while I walked home for it, and her reaction took me aback.

She completely lost her temper and yelled, ‘How could you do this to me?  I’ve just lost my son!’ I found myself responding, ‘You seem to have forgotten he was my son too!’ We looked at each other in horror, realising just how we each felt, and that moment actually brought us closer together in our grief. I believe that a very early shoot of recovery grew from that moment, although I didn’t recognise it as such at the time….

…Irene: I remember what I now think of as my first real recovery moment, although I didn’t see it as such at the time. I had been supporting another mother through her son’s addiction and subsequent recovery, and she had called on the helpline to tell me that things were going well, that he had just been accepted back into university, and to thank me for the ongoing support.

She then went on to say, ‘You’ve been so helpful and knowledgeable about the problem that I can’t believe you made a mistake with your own son.’ I found myself replying, ‘Oh no, Mrs P. I didn’t make the mistake—he did. I just picked up the mess.’

It was quite a Damascene moment for me and I felt so positive about it.  She quickly said that she realised it was a bit of a thoughtless thing to say to me, but I assured her that was not the case and that thanks to her I was able to realise how much more I understood about addiction and recovery. The way I bounced straight back with my comment without even thinking about it made me realise how recovery was happening to me too. I no longer felt the need to make excuses for Robin’s drug use, and accepted that no guilt on my part was necessary. Lasting sadness yes, but certainly no guilt!’….

Irene: Another landmark recovery moment happened when I was on duty with the Independence Trust. A colleague introduced a client to me by saying, ‘I’ll pass you on to my esteemed colleague, who can help you with this.’ It was said in a jocular fashion, but it made me realise how far I’d come to gain the respect of other project workers.

Ten years earlier, when I was being very vociferous about perceived failings in the treatment system, during a meeting that I’d been grudgingly allowed to attend, I heard myself referred to as, ‘a bloody pest’. Recalling this particular meeting after my colleague’s comment, I had a quiet laugh and said to him, ‘Not bad—bloody pest to esteemed colleague in ten years!’….

Ian: Sometimes, it’s the little things that are significant recovery moments. Like the many comments from family members who we’ve supported, confirming to us that their contacting CPSG has been of genuine benefit to them. Things like, ‘I can only say that without the sincere, continued support of Irene and Ian I’m not sure I would still be alive.’ That particular endorsement made us feel that all our efforts have been worthwhile.’

… Ian (in their Story update): 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.