The stigma of drug addiction: “I felt inadequate, inferior, ashamed”
After Sue’s youngest son tried to kill himself, he spent three days on a hospital drip.
“In all the time I spent at the hospital,” she says, “not one member of staff came to speak to me.”
“My son told the GP he was suicidal, and the first thing the GP said to my son was, ‘If you’re drinking, the mental health team can’t help you.’
“With that my son said, ‘So you’re telling me that I’m suicidal but you can’t help me?’
“So the GP got quite cross and said, ‘We give ten minutes to each patient and you’ve had yours.’
“I’ll never forget that.”
Sue is one of millions across the country who are adversely affected by a relative’s addiction, and last week she joined the call for action around the strain and stigma afflicting people in her position.
In 1994 Sue’s 14-year-old son started smoking cannabis, and developed an alcohol problem a few years later. When word got round their small, close-knit community, she noticed her family was treated differently to before.
She says: “What’s surprising is how stigma came into every crack.
“It was like seeping into every crack of my life and our family’s life. I went to the local shop and could hear people behind me whispering. If I was sat in church on a Sunday, even there I felt it.
“My eldest son got married and the stigma that he carried meant he had to make a choice. He could either have his brother there or all his friends. For me, it was one of the hardest days of my life, because I was stood at the front of the service, reading a reading on love, and the only person who wasn’t in the church was my youngest son.
“I felt inadequate, inferior, ashamed. I felt a bad parent. And that led on to being isolated, depressed, suicidal myself.
“My eldest son got depression and my husband got depression. I almost did take my own life. That’s how bad it got.”
“I was a good mum. We gave our son a loving home, and lots and lots of love. So I had to somehow believe in myself that I was a good mum, and it was not about being a bad parent.
Sue started driving 40 miles every week to a self-help group for relatives of addicts, where she says she could get away from the isolation and judgement, which she believes added to the family’s trauma and hindered her son’s recovery.
“That’s where my recovery began. I do know because of seeing the evidence myself; that when family members access help for themselves it can often help change the person using drugs or alcohol. I think this is a really important fact that we’ve got to hold on to”, she says.
She also discovered Adfam, the charity started in 1984 by the mother of a heroin addict to provide the support which she and other people in her situation, were having to cope without. Today they offer support to families and training for practitioners and everyone else involved in how to minimise the stigma and impact for families with a member struggling with drugs or alcohol.
A recent study suggests that for every pound they spend on services, they create £4.70 of social value, as well as taking the strain off the NHS and criminal justice system. Six years ago Sue started reading the charity’s advice and support and entering their poetry competition, which she won in the past.
Her son, now 32, has been doing well. Sue now accepts that lapse and relapse is a part of reality with addiction.
His brother, whose wedding he couldn’t attend, has since asked him to be godfather to his daughter. But the day before the christening, he bumped into a friend he hadn’t seen for years. When he told them he was to be a godfather, the friend said sarcastically: “Well you’re a good role model aren’t you?”
Sue says: “Once somebody stops using drugs and alcohol, it doesn’t mean to say that the stigma goes. Stigma can hinder recovery in lots of ways.”
In 2010, a survey by the UK Drug Policy Commission found that 22 per cent of people think that drug addicts don’t deserve sympathy, and that one in four think that most people wouldn’t become addicted in they had good parents. Last week, Sue helped Adfam launch a new report, calling for support for people in her position, and a de-stigmatisation of addiction.
The report records the experiences of addicts’ relatives, such as one respondent from Newcastle, who said: “Because there’s a drug user or an alcoholic in the family, a lot of services think the whole family’s the same so you’re all judged on that person’s lifestyle… and quite often your reaction to the user’s lifestyle is judged as well.”
Joss Smith, the charity’s head of policy, said: “It’s fair to say that families are often hidden from policy discussions around drugs and alcohol, and stigma is no different. I think also the impacts of stigma on the family can be both insidious and pervasive, leaving families frozen with the trauma and suffering that can come from having a family member who is using substances.
“We also know from previous research that a well-informed, well engaged, and- crucially, for us- well-supported family member, can have a positive impact on their loved one’s recovery, and on their own health and well-being.”
And Vivienne Evans OBE, Adfam’s chief executive, thinks that the still taboo subject of addiction can, over time, be de-stigmatized. She says: “I used to do a lot of work talking to women about the need to go for cervical screening and to do breast self-examination. And the word that we couldn’t use then was ‘cancer’.
“I think over the last 40 years we’ve come a long way in de-stigmatising cancer, and I hope it’s not going to take 40 years to do the same around families, stigma and substance misuse.”
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