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This week’s blogpost is a particularly poignant one. Last week, we heard from an addict in recovery, who shared practical advice on how to make positive changes and rebuild a purposeful life in the wake of substance use disorder, time in prison and relocation to a new community. In today’s article, we hear from a different but equally significant perspective – that of a mother whose son has been affected by substance misuse and their family’s journey through the agony of active addiction and into the ongoing work of recovery. The voices of families and loved ones are incredibly important: our guest author writes powerfully on the despair of watching a loved one go through addiction, as well as the pride and hope that recovery brings. Her son has come through his struggles wiser and stronger, and now shines as a vital member of Red Rose’s army of volunteers: an incredible success story, and proof positive that there is life after addiction. 

Another Little Piece of my Heart: A Mother’s Story 

When Janis Joplin sang ‘Take Another Little Piece of My Heart’ in 1969, I was very young. She died just a year later from a heroin overdose. She was singing about a man she was prepared to do anything for. Fifty years later, a young man that I would have done anything for was taking another little piece of my heart everyday as I watched addiction envelope him. He is my precious son. 

The year 2000 was one of the saddest and happiest years for me. Within the space of ten weeks, I lost my lovely Dad – and our beautiful son was born. I had hoped Dad would get to meet our first born, but I guess God had other plans… Nineteen months later, our gorgeous daughter was born, and it felt like our little family was complete.  

My son and his younger sister grew up surrounded by love, laughter and boundaries. My mantra has always been that being a parent is the most important job in the world, so twenty-two years ago, I chose to take maternity leave so that I could nurture and cherish the children. My son had a real sense of adventure, he was slightly sensitive in his earlier years, but he blossomed into a gifted writer, captain of the rugby team and the gift of an academic brain. Some of our favourite family holidays have been on the west coast of Scotland, camper-vanning, canoeing, looking for seals and enjoying their vast white beaches. Such a happy fulfilled childhood, surrounded by love, respect and a lot of laughter – what could ever go wrong? 

As a family who had never had any living experience with addiction, looking back we felt things were going pear-shaped probably four or five years ago. And yet, it’s like the illustration of a frog in hot water – if you gradually turn up the heat, you don’t realise its boiling until it’s too late to jump out. Then all the questions and doubts started to rise to the surface. Is this just a phase that he’s going through? But that soon turns into, what have we done wrong? We thought we’d done the best for our family, but clearly, as parents, we’d messed up big time. And then the family started to break down. My husband and I have always had a close, loving relationship, but I was starting to watch that crumble as the chaos ensued, the lying increased, the stealing got worse and another little piece of my heart got broken. Our daughter, who was an innocent bystander in all of this, slowly watched her little family disintegrating in front of her. You see, “addiction is a family disease. It affects the relationships of those close to the addict… We who care the most suffer from the addict’s erratic behaviour.” (Nar-Anon) 

Our son had come home from university in lockdown March 2020, the same time as his sister was sent home from school and told A-Levels wouldn’t be happening; and my husband, for the first time in twenty years was at home every day. Throw an addict into the mix – it was pretty hellish. There were times when it felt like I hated my own boy. 

By August 2020, I felt I was losing it.  I shut myself away in my bedroom for two days, and my daughter came to me and asked why I was punishing her as well. It was a real wake-up call – I decided enough was enough. We had yet another chat with our son where I said to him “Either you don’t give a shit about anything anymore, or you have a problem” (and excuse the language, but it does become quite choice, and considerably worse than this when you’re living with an addict). Our son admitted that maybe he had an ‘unhealthy relationship with weed’, and agreed reluctantly to speak to someone. That is when I googled drug support in the local area. 

When you’ve never had dealings with addiction, nor social services or other such services, it’s a massive step to pick up the phone and say to someone, “I think our family has an issue with drugs.”  

However, making that call was the best thing we ever did. We were linked with an amazing support worker, and straight away she started talking to us about addiction. One of the first things we heard was that addiction is a disease – we weren’t to blame – and what a relief that was. We also heard personal stories of people being many, many years clean – and again, that gave us hope that people can recover. Our son also had a few initial contacts with the Support Worker, and we were incredibly keen that his contact with her would continue. However, as we gradually learnt, the addict has to make their own choices and decisions, and it would be probably another fourteen months before he would contact the support worker again. But a seed had been sown in those initial conversations.  

We were introduced to a weekly parent support group which was on zoom. And since October 2020, we have met almost without fail every Wednesday afternoon at 1:30 with other parents who are going through the same thing we are. Our support worker also educates on addiction. This ranges from how an addict’s brain works – how the reward/pleasure centre works in the brain in an addict compared with the frontal lobe where logic and consequences and decisions are made. We learn how an addict can be incredibly manipulative; how an addict has an obsessive compulsion to use, in spite of all the negative consequences. We learn about denial in an addict, but also sometimes in the families of addicts. We look at the cycle of change. We look at Slick – the voice of addiction. We look at the various routes of recovery. We discuss Nar-Anon which is a 12-step programme running alongside NA for families of addicts. We also learnt that addiction is an illness, a physical, mental and spiritual disease that affects every area of life.  

I am so thankful that my husband and I spent the last fifteen months seeking out support from both the drug support organisation and Nar-Anon. It’s in these spaces where I started to learn true compassion for those in addiction. As well as educating ourselves on all of the above, we have learnt that addiction is a disease not a choice and only the addict can choose recovery. I’ve learnt that this is an incredibly powerful thing for the addict to hear – so I’m going to say it again, addiction is a disease, not a moral choice. Just as the addict themselves has no control over their disease, we also learnt that we (as the parents) have no control over the addict, we only have control over our own actions. When you are aware that addiction, if left untreated, will end in either prison or death, for me, it shone a very bright light on those actions that we could control. I wasn’t going to ignore the wealth of knowledge we were given about the disease and this is some of what we learnt:   

We learnt we had to starve the addict and love our boy. We learnt about putting very firm boundaries in place. We learnt that we mustn’t enable the disease nor rescue the addict. We learnt that we had to detach with love. We learnt we had to let go and let God (or the Higher Power of our understanding) in. I guess this is where my strong faith really got tested, and where the rubber truly hit the road. My addict had so much prayer through his active addiction. I prayed weekly for his safe-keeping and for the miracle of recovery for him. Some of the actions we put into place were incredibly heart-breaking and sometimes counter-intuitive as loving parents. But we sensed that tough love was required. We could love our son to death – or, just maybe, back to life. We made the decision that life was unmanageable with him living at home and he was given the choice of living at home and not using, or moving out. We knew for many addicts, they have to hit rock bottom before choosing recovery, and we knew our son couldn’t reach rock bottom while living at home. In March last year he moved out. 

On 10 October 2021, a day which will be forever etched in our lives, the miracle happened and our son chose recovery – he chose life. He had reached his rock bottom a week earlier. He knew that coming back to live with us was not an option, and he’d reached the point where the pain of using had become worse than the pain of not using. Later that week he moved into a Recovery Home. 

Our son is now six months into recovery. We are getting our son back, but it feels like we’re getting an even better version of him back. He has this dogged determination to recover – and I think that might be because he knows how bad the alternative is. As far as we know, our son is in regular NA meetings, he has a sponsor, he’s working his 12-step programme, and he’s doing voluntary work with organisations like Red Rose Recovery and Lancashire User Forum. I say as far as we know, because his recovery is his recovery; just as we had no control over his active addiction, nor do we have control over his recovery. We’re also very aware that relapse can be a part of recovery, and yet there is a firm knowledge that our son is in such a good place at the moment that he always has this as his living experience of recovery.  

We are so incredibly proud of his choice to recover. But we are also so incredibly thankful for the education, love, support and counselling we have had from our support worker, without which, I think I would still be having a little bit of my heart being taken away – and once the whole heart is taken, it stops. But also, I could have been writing this today talking about our son in the past tense. When I say that our support worker is a life-saver, I mean it.  

Both my husband and I have climbed a very steep learning curve over the last fifteen months, but in that time, we have reflected on many things. One of which is that if our child was suffering from another disease, maybe lung disease for example, we would be shouting it from the rooftops, telling all our friends and families and probably doing marathons and sponsored bike rides in order to raise funds for the cause. This is not so with the disease of addiction. It is still clouded in stigma, lack of knowledge and judgement. Thankfully, this is gradually starting to change, but I feel incredibly passionate that there needs to be a seismic move in our culture, where addiction is understood, related to and treated correctly by the addict themselves, their loved ones, health and social services, but the rest of society too.  

Addiction has been a hidden pandemic in society for far too long. Too many addicts have died without the support, knowledge and love of people around them. If true knowledge of addiction had been around in 1970, there is just a chance that super-talented singers like Janis Joplin (and other members of the ‘27 club’) would still be taking a little piece of our hearts as a member of our society today, not just as another addiction statistic. 

I don’t know how many of you reading this have heard of Kintsugi? It’s the Japanese art of repairing broken vases by mending the areas of breakage with gold to make it even more beautiful. I see addiction a little like this. The vase slowly breaks through active addiction, destroying everything in its wake – the family, honesty, trust, love, hope, honour, innocence and all the other beautiful abstracts laid waste by addictive disease. Rock bottom happens when the vase shatters into tiny pieces. Recovery is where the vase is put back together, and the vase emerges so much more beautiful than when it started. As Brené Brown once said: it’s only in the very act of exposing our messiest, most shattered parts, that love itself emerges.