Addiction: A Guide for Friends and Family (1)

Written by David Partington. 

You can download the PDF of this resource here. 

‘A while back I visited a jail in New York. I walked through the cell block with a cop I've known for years. A kid in one of the cells called to me.

‘Mister, I gotta talk to you.  I need help, please talk to me’.  ‘What's the problem, son?’ I asked. ‘What can I do for you?’

He lowered his voice so my friend could not hear.

‘I've been here seven days already, and they won't let me call my father. Please, I'll give you the number. Call my father. Tell him I'm in trouble. I need him.’ He was in trouble all right, but his father would never be able to help him.

The cop told me the story. This boy was a nice kid, never been in trouble before. College student, upper middle class. He smoked marijuana but was not considered a heavy smoker. A couple of months ago he was hit with angel dust. Someone had stuffed a joint that he smoked with it. After the party, he walked into the house where he lived with his family, took a gun out of his father's desk drawer, went into his parents' bedroom, and killed them both. Then he killed his little sister.

He does not know they are dead. He does not remember killing them. He had been in jail for two months and every day he cries for his father to come and help him.’ ¹   

Thankfully, stories like this are incredibly rare. But still they highlight the issues involved with drugs.  The fact is that `innocent` drug taking brings heartache and tragedy not only to the individuals who do it but also to their families.

Why the problem?

‘Young people today appear to see themselves as consumers in a psychoactive Pic’n’Mix sweet shop, starting with alcohol .... but then trying cannabis, 'poppers' and LSD blotters.` These words of Professor Howard Parker are supported by research which continues to document unprecedented drug use among the school-age population.²  In the northwest of England, among 14-15 year olds, 59% had been offered drugs and 36% had actually tried them. ³ In Exeter it's slightly less - 31% had tried them.4 A Home Office report said that ecstasy usage had increased by 700% in the previous few years, whilst one in three young people who went to raves had tried drugs. Prices are cheap, especially compared with the price of alcohol; kids can pool their money and for less than the price of a packet of cigarettes each one can get stoned. The effects will vary, but a trip can last either minutes or hours. 

It isn't only illegal drugs that are a problem; alcohol is readily available on every street corner. Its consumption is encouraged by adults, as exemplified by young delegates at a conference on alcohol abuse ending up being served wine and spirits themselves at their hotel.

One of the major reasons is that parents, like their children, have grown up in a world where instant gratification is everyone's inalienable right. ‘We live in a world of cheap, quick thrills’, says Bill Hybels. ‘You can get a quarterpounder in less than two minutes, guaranteed. Sit on the couch and, with a punch on the remote control, turn on the music, the TV or the VCR. Take a pill and, within minutes, clear out your sinuses, settle your stomach or simply lose your appetite. It is all so simple. Partake and dispose. A thrill or a cure a minute.’        

But perhaps the greatest reason for the growing drug epidemic is that, in many people's minds, drugs are socially acceptable. Drugs and alcohol are not only a readily acceptable part of their own social scene but are increasingly approved of by the establishment. Today's teenagers see growing evidence that many adults accept drugs, in their attitude to what used to be the great unmentionables: 

·         Criminality - teens see that possession of certain drugs is allowed by some police forces.

·         Legalisation - driven by a very vocal minority group of people who want to legalise some drugs.  This will clear the way for unrestrained use of these drugs as far as young people are concerned.

·         The `Cannabis is harmless` debate.  Once again a vocal minority of people who want to justify their own abuse of cannabis have taken the moral high ground.  Using the distorted and unproven logic that cannabis is not as dangerous as alcohol, they have communicated to young people the message that so-called `soft` drugs will not cause them any damage.

·         Harm minimisation is the acceptable way of helping people to limit the amount of damage they do to themselves or other people.  In its basic form it involves prescribing drugs that people would normally buy on the black market, and supplying as many clean syringes and needles as people need to prevent them using other people’s equipment, thereby reducing the risk of spreading HIV/AIDS.  These measures in themselves sound perfectly reasonable, which they are; but the danger is that young people see them as a justification for carrying on using drugs. Harm minimisation sends the message that, regardless of the risk of using drugs, there’s someone who will do a damage limitation exercise which will ensure the users won't suffer the consequences of their drug abuse.     

Who is at risk?

I have spent nearly 15 years working with addicts and alcoholics, trying to work out why people get addicted. I can't write about some of those reasons, and the answers to the problem, without referring to real people I’ve known: people like Noel , Campbell, `Scouse`, Ken, John Alastair  - and many more. These are the ones who broke free; but then there are those who died, often alone in public toilets or in dirty squats: people like John V, Rob, Vince, Phil.

All of these men's lives began with the promise inherent in everyone else's life. They were normal in every sense of the word; and I knew them all as very special, highly intelligent and sensitive individuals. Each one of them was born with the potential to be, to achieve, far more than they or their parents ever imagined. They could have been a president or a nuclear scientist! Yet somewhere along the line something went wrong, long before drugs ever came into their lives. I have had the privilege of sharing deeply in many of their lives, as they have shared intimately about how and why they found themselves addicted. A few were abused sexually or through physical or verbal violence, but the majority grew up in relatively normal homes. However, behind their comments about how they felt as they grew up there is something really chilling in terms of emotional deprivation:

·           ‘Basically I was never accepted for what I was.’

·           ‘I felt lonely, inadequate, never really part of the family.’

·           ‘I was never prepared for adult life, it was such a shock.’

·           ‘Being constantly told I was a failure.’

·           ‘Loved one minute and not the next.’

·           ‘No support, no advice – nothing.’

·           ‘Unwanted, punished, hated and neglected.’

·           ‘Being constantly told how much of an unwanted accident my existence was.’

·           ‘How I would never amount to anything.’

 It is hardly surprising, given the environment that surrounded these guys, that once drugs became available they felt inclined to try them! The majority confirmed that they had already begun smoking cigarettes so it was an easy transition to something else, especially cannabis. That first experiment with illegal drugs, or even alcohol, almost invariably happened in a friendly environment. For many it was after a game of football or something equally innocent. They sat in a circle, and the bottle or joint was passed around, and everyone else joined in. In one sense they had little choice about whether they took part or not, based on the facts that every other person on whom they depended for friendship and acceptance had already indulged and they didn't want to be different. And they had heard about what happens when you take drugs and were curious; they were dissatisfied with life in general and wanted some `kicks`.

The result of taking a drug, snorting, swallowing a pill or taking a swig was, for them, pleasant. Any pleasurable feelings were, however, compensated for by sheer terror or overwhelming guilt. They went home to spend the next few days totally convinced that someone would accuse them of being a `junkie`. Nothing happened other than that they made the decision that they would never take drugs, ever again. Then one day they again found themselves in a similar environment. For some it was an easy decision to `use` a second time, made more attractive by the remembrance of the satisfying `buzz` they got last time. There was also the fact that for some, in addition to the nice warm glow they had experienced, they also had the freedom, for the first time ever, to chat up a person of the opposite sex. It didn't matter what the rationale or reason was, the fact was that once you had done it once, it was easier the second time, even easier still the third time… So there they were on the slide into addiction, and it carried on down at varying speeds, depending upon their temperament, friends, availability of drugs, money and opportunity…

Family heartbreak

On the way down that slide, the fallout for the rest of the family will only be fully comprehensible to you if there is someone in your own family who is addicted.

For some of us, there has been the slowly unfolding tragedy of seeing their child go through the different stages of drug abuse and addiction.  The impact on them personally was very profound, affecting them not only financially, but physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.  They experienced increasingly spiteful and vicious confrontations, as well as knowing that they were being conned and manipulated.  That their child was actually stealing from them and other members of the family became a fact of life.  The damage to other people and relationships, especially within the family, was profound and heart wrenching.   Everyone was drawn into involvement with social workers, doctors, probation officers and the police in a way they never dreamed of.  Addiction had claimed not only the life of the addict but the rest of the family.  Ahead was the potential of a lifetime of heartbreak, as they slid deeper and deeper into the despair of addiction.


A Straight Word to Kids and Parents (Plough Publishing House, 1987), p.30.

2. Druglink, November/December 1993.

3. University of Manchester `Alcohol & Drug Abuse Among North West Youth`, October 1993.

4.`Young People in 1992`, John Balding, Exeter University Schools Health Education Unit, 1993.

 David Partington

This feature is written by David Partington. David is general secretary of ISAAC, the International Substance Abuse and Addiction Coalition,  He writes in dedication:

`This resource is dedicated to every person who ever worked with Yeldall Christian Centres - staff, wives, families, Board members, committee members, volunteers.  Only eternity will ever fully reveal what your sacrifices have wrought, but you have blessed me and mine so sweetly and richly - THANK YOU!`

 © David Partington 2011.

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