Read my article for the Guardian, published in support of #AddictionAwarenessWeek.
Addiction is a life-threatening condition. It affects those around the addict who may never have touched a drink or taken drugs. As a child, I lived with an addict – my mother, Wendy.
She was hard working, great fun, and loving. But I saw her struggle during, and in the aftermath of, failed relationships, with three children in tow.
As a child, I could start the day loving my mum and end it hating her. Alcohol changes people.Addiction invades the homes of rich and poor alike. Its effects are far-reaching and its causes run deep. From mental health, abuse, debt and homelessness the daily challenges of living with addiction are multiple and complex.
Looking back I think my mum turned to drink because of low self-esteem. She didn’t deserve to be alone. She deserved to value herself more.
As a child, I had no idea who knew that we had this problem under our roof. You didn’t talk about it to friends. I hoped no one at school knew. It was a secret problem. Our problem. And, even as a child, we knew it had to stay hidden.
My mum did know she had a problem. We once had a family meeting arranged by a social worker. My mum chose the meeting place – the local pub. It wasn’t a success.
But she tried. She attended alcoholics anonymous and other groups; even spent time hospitalised. Years later, I found a diary from 1986. For months she wrote a daily entry: “1, 2, 3…” Wendy was trying to stay sober to support me during my pregnancy. Day 86 the entries stopped.
Mum was at my son’s birth, but she never escaped the hold of her addiction. Four year later her body succumbed to the ravages of alcohol. She passed away aged just 45.
Addiction is simply about individual treatment. Nor can it be ignored. Rather, we need to remove the shame and stigma of addiction and put the way we treat and care for families affected by addiction needs to be at the heart of the conversation.
My experience was of a lack of any support for other family members. Today, as an MP, I see from casework how families can be left out.
A woman came to my surgery. She was at her wits end. Her son, a heroin addict since his teens, was now a grown man in his mid-thirties, still a heroin addict. She described him as homeless with a roof over his head. He had been banned from local shops because he stole to feed his habit. To support him, she bought him a new cooker, microwave, and a few other essentials for his flat. He sold them before the wrapping was off.
Here was a mother carrying the burden years after her son had become an adult. It has affected her for decades. Yet services do not really support her – they treat him as an independent adult. Today, the best of services support the whole family. Those family members are both victims and part of the answer. Action on Addiction’s Moving Parents and Children Together Programme (M-PACT) helps build resilience within families.
Families talk about their problems often for the first time openly to others. Parents are seen to take more responsibility for their problems. Significantly, children begin to realise that their parents’ addiction was not their fault.
The challenge, at a time of shrinking resources and political uncertainty, is how evidence-based approaches such as M-PACT are allowed to flourish, to help addicts see their problems differently and families cope with them in more effective ways. At the most basic level, family members need safe places to discuss their feelings about difficult issues and the effects of addiction.
Responding to addiction is just the first step. Family lives will change whether they continue to live with the addict, or adapt to life with a recovering addict, or separate from abusive behaviour and strained relationships. How others view their lives and support them is crucial. To end the isolation of addiction and for families to live their lives free from addiction we need to break the taboo and be more open about addiction in all our communities. Only then can we get to grips with addiction-related issues that are increasing in both scale and complexity, and the realisation of the importance of collaboration across sectors and services to enable recovery.
We need to start the conversation. This week is the first Addiction Awareness Week which gives the opportunity for people to talk openly about how addiction affects them and to seek the help and support that they need. Conversations will take place in people’s homes; GPs’ surgeries; towns and villages – and I will be joining conversation in Parliament hosted by Action on Addiction.
Addiction was part of my story. A story similar to many. I hope that as inspirational stories are shared, families will feel enabled to take the necessary steps to access help, and find hope and freedom from addiction.