I recently had a conversation with a mother on Twitter. She was supporting her son by buying him heroin. She loves him and can’t stand to see the physical pain he was in as the result of an accident. He was prescribed codeine, a highly addictive opioid that he found himself unable to get off. When the GP ended his prescription, he was offered methadone by a friend, which then led to him using heroin. A Serco nurse declared him fit to work but he hasn’t gone back. He can’t stop using heroin. He knows the dangers, he knows it might kill him and no matter how hard his mum tries to wean him off, he can’t stop.
Earlier this week, health secretary Sajid Javid said family members, and responsible not the state, should be for helping people out of drug addiction because of the “unsustainable finances” of the NHS. “Whether it’s stopping drug addiction or dealing with depression, there’s no more powerful motivating force than family,” he said. The fundamental flaws in his statement is that not only that many addicts have no immediate family surrounding them, it is that it is sometimes impossible to reason with a person in active addiction, no matter how detrimental their drug or alcohol misuse is.
I have had issues with most drugs at various points in my life, but especially cocaine, alcohol, benzos and opiates. I spent most of my mid-to-late teens struggling with addiction and, after engaging with different therapies and community drug services, finally became abstinent in June 2007. I managed to stick with recovery because I finally reached a place where a) help was available and b) using drugs as a coping mechanism wasn’t working any more. I could no longer delude myself that drugs weren’t negatively impacting every area of my life. No family member could have motivated me out of drug addiction: I had to come to accept the problem and then look for a solution. I was also lucky that when I did reach out for help, mental health services were much better funded and I received help promptly. I have since set up the Twitter account, Secret Drug Addictwhere I help support and signpost people (including family members of people) struggling with drug addiction to resources that might help them.
Javid is a banker, so presumably he knows about statistics. He seems to have missed the ones that show that between 2013-14 and 2018-19, community drug treatment funding was reduced by £160m. Or the figures that show half of local authorities in England had cut their drug and alcohol treatment budgets in 2019, despite hospital admissions rising. Or the ones showing that drug deaths are at an all-time high and that alcohol-related deaths have risen by more than 20% during the pandemic. There are fewer under-18s getting help for addiction in England than ever – with youth services being cut by 41% since 2013/14.
Javid said his father stopped smoking simply because his mother told him, “If you die, your boys won’t have a dad.” That is not only unhelpful for many people with a physical dependency on their drug of choice, it’s dangerous.
Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous recorded a surge in the number of people reaching out for support since the pandemic. What these addicts found online was unity and support from a fully functioning, self-supporting structured mutual aid group of recovering alcoholics and addicts. At no point would AA or NA members have advised them to stop using if they were physically dependent on a drug. For some people, it’s not a case of being told “no Special Brew for you, it’s”, as though that was a magic wand. What is helpful is to say, “please contact your GP and reduce safely but keep coming to meetings for support.”
Lots of parents or partners or siblings simply don’t really understand addiction or how to support the person struggling. Sometimes they are the problem. Other times, they will do things that aren’t helpful but are done with the best intentions, usually in a bid to save the person from the consequences that come with active addiction. This is how the mother I spoke to online ended up buying heroin for her son: to stop him being arrested, either by buying the drugs himself or stealing the money or engaging in sex-work to buy them. She thought she was helping him.
I have a close family member currently in long-term psychiatric care for the effects of drug use. He’s younger than me, and even when I was in active addiction, I wanted to save him from himself. When I got into recovery, there was still no getting through to him. Addiction isn’t a career choice, it is an illness. I can’t advise him better, nobody can. He has since been diagnosed with drug-induced personality disorder; He will most likely require psychiatric care for the rest of his life.
If this government is serious about addressing the health crisis surrounding addiction and mental health, it would fund services adequately and address the issues such as poverty, education and insecure social housing that we know make people at higher risk of harm from addiction.
Or maybe… Javid’s mum could tell him to stop slashing drug support services, because it’s killing people. It worked for his family, after all.