Drugs & Tough Love

London Portrait Magazine – c.1983

It is now [1983] about fifteen years since widespread drug abuse started to cripple the lives of many young Londoners. We know what devastation it can cause. But what of the innocent victims – families, friends and lovers? And are they as innocent as they believe? Christopher Long was a fly on the wall at meetings of a remarkable organisation which started in Chelsea and is now spreading nation-wide.

By Christopher Long

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Long ago we got used to seeing bodies slumped in public lavatories. We got used to the wreckage of young lives and promising careers. We're no longer surprised to hear of hundreds or thousands of youngsters being rushed to hospitals or being arrested for theft, prostitution or dealing. Many of them are now dead and there are plenty more waiting to join them. We are quite accustomed to it all.

Chelsea, of course, is a favourite stamping ground for young adults – often the well-heeled variety – and probably has one of the highest concentrations of drug abusers aged from 14 upwards anywhere in the country.

It's all very tragic, very sad – "such a waste" – and, so far as the hospitals, police and welfare services are concerned, a bloody nuisance.

Strangely we forget the real victims. It's so easy to forget the devastation that these 'abusers' leave in their wake: distraught parents, broken families, the strain on brothers and sisters, and the endless, relentless shame and despair which is so easily forgotten as everyone rushes to assist the addict.

If anyone has any doubts about the cruel effects drugs can have on families they should be a fly on the wall in a church hall in Radnor Walk, SW3, when the 'innocent' victims meet one night each week.

Families Anonymous (FA to its growing number of members) is a remarkable organisation which originated where else but in the United States. It was spotted by the founder of the Chelsea Branch, Rita.

Rita, like all the other members of FA, is known only by her Christian name and she is the mother of an addict. Like nearly everyone, she had reached suicidal depths of despair watching an adored son turn into a monster before her eyes. Like everyone else she was totally depressed, desperate and shamed by the appalling consequences of her son's addiction to heroin – "the death drug". She knew all about police cells at three in the morning; finding her house and belongings rifled to pay for fixes; living with a brilliant and devious liar; and the innumerable sordid consequences of living with someone whose only thought is how, when and where the next fix is coming.

In the States she found Families Anonymous which preaches a strange approach to all this. Like AlAnon (for the families and friends of alcoholics) it depends on mutual support, sharing and unburdening, plus some very tough home-truths.

Melanie McLaughlan at the author's Earl's Court Square flat, shortly before her death. "You could get me in the papers, couldn't you," she used to say. Unfortunately she had no well-heeled or concerned parents to help or 'enable' her in her slow path to death in 1985.

Rita discovered that it wasn't only her son who was sick. She too was part of the syndrome. She learnt a new vocabulary and a new creed of FA principles that changed her life. She discovered that she was an 'enabler'. By covering-up for her son, herself and her family as well as bailing him out of trouble she was playing along with his manipulative power over everyone. She was doing just what he (or the heroin) was wanting. She was helping him to be an addict.

She learnt about 'tough love' which briefly means that you have to be cruel to be kind and that if you 'detach with love' you face the fact that you have no power whatever over drugs – that you let a loved-one sink or swim and face the consequences of addiction and you do it without feeling guilty.

The FA approach was itself tough, reassuring and above all successful.

It worked because it saved families from a crippling combination of fear, guilt, shame and despair that was probably more deadly than the drugs their addicts were hooked on.

Once you admitted that you were powerless over drugs and that your own life had become unmanageable, then it was easier to see that fate and the addict alone would decide the result – that there is no magic solution and no fairy wand.

Three years ago the Chelsea group was formed. Now there are four groups in London, four in the Wirral, and one each in Dublin, Glasgow, Bristol and Portsmouth.

In Chelsea there are constant new-comers: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers – and like the Pied Piper of Hamelin they have all been dancing along the grim path of guilt and desperation to the tune of the addict's addiction.

Yet surprisingly the talk at the meetings is seldom about the addicts themselves. This is how it's supposed to be.

Patricia, for example, describes heroin as the Death Drug too. When she was 25 three of her friends died of it. When she discovered that her own daughter was on heroin it was 'like a cold bath all over me'.

"I begged, I pleaded, I cajoled and I threatened. I blamed her friends and myself most of all. I would have terrible recriminations with myself at night. If only I'd done this... if I hadn't done that...

"I wasn't doing anything well. I was a mess. It was my fault: I'd allowed her to go to that school... she only wanted "the big one"... I wanted to kill her friends, break their legs, do terrible things to them.

"I learnt the meaning of the word fear. There was only one end to it all – death. I accepted that but not the living death until then. I slept with my keys and my purse under my pillow and couldn't sleep because I was expecting her to come in and kill me if necessary to get the money.

"I came here, to FA, completely broken. Thank God I realised I was powerless. The FA slogans and principles gave me some structure. Without them I couldn't have lived. I detached with love from my daughter and now when I look at her I have learned to hate the sickness and to love the person."

If, as Patricia says, she would have committed suicide without FA then the heroin would have killed her, not her daughter – something which is more common than people suppose. Anything between 25 and 50 people listen to those who want to speak about their feelings and experiences. None of it is new to any of them. They have all learnt that addicts are self-obsessed liars, cheats and manipulators. They all know the degradation when they too become inevitably involved with the dealers, police, courts, hospitals and are forced to watch children, husbands, wives and lovers turn into ruthless unprincipled monsters.

Elizabeth, divorced and in her 50s, is now picking up the pieces and launching herself into a property development business in Mayfair.

"I joined FA at the beginning. By then I'd already been through most of the hell. It amazes me that I was blind to my daughter's addiction for so long. I should have spotted the personality changes. Her obsession with mysticism, the occult and the fact that she was a walking encyclopaedia on drugs didn't tell me anything. It didn't occur to me to question the fact that she seemed to spend hours in the dark in her bedroom; that she almost stopped eating; that her moods were so variable; that she was getting so thin and drawn and strained.

"When I found that we were getting through bottles and bottles of Night Nurse from the medicine cupboard I looked and I saw that it contained morphine but even that didn't click. Then she started getting sick in the morning and I thought what any mother would think!"

Someone left her daughter a small legacy and so she was financially independent.

"Doctors told us she was anorexic. Then bits of silver disappeared from the house.

"Then, when she was in hospital for tests we were all in the room with nurses, the doctor, my daughter and myself. I asked the doctor what was the matter with her. After all these months he just turned round and said: 'Well your daughter's a drug addict... you knew that, didn't you?'

"I felt sick. Why hadn't I noticed? Why didn't schools, colleges, doctors, dentists, family planning clinics and all the other 'experts' help me to find out earlier?

"The great moment was when my own boyfriend quite ruthlessly told me that I just couldn't go on bailing her out and covering up for her as she got worse and worse. He just said that he thought I was more obsessed, more sick, than Melanie was.

"He was absolutely right. I was sick. The family was sick and the fact that my ex-husband had totally neglected Melanie before and during her addiction was part of it too. What Melanie was saying, in effect, was 'Get off my back and make my father do something about me'. Instead, of course, I became a classic enabler by worrying myself sick and trying to help her.

"The best help I gave her was when I joined FA and let her go to face the consequences – to survive on her own. It could have led to prison, awful things – even death. In fact, touch wood, she seems to have got herself off heroin for the time being. She just takes each day at a time as I do."

Newcomers to FA find several surprises which they may or may not be able to accept. First of all there is the ritual Twelve Step creed on a banner that dominates the meetings. It makes frequent reference to a 'power which is greater than ourselves'. for convenience's sake this power is sometimes referred to as God as we understand him. FA members are at pains to point out that this is not a religious or church symbol.

They say that everything depends upon faith and hope which implies that there must be some spiritual power-source to count on. Another surprise is that no-one is particularly concerned about the addict's addiction. The stories are so boringly alike that there's nothing new to be said about that. FA is about accepting that you are part of the addict's problem. What's more nobody will allow you to remain guilty for long. They know you've done your best and that yours is never going to be enough – or even the right thing anyway!

Another surprise is that in Chelsea at least the families are a surprising cross-section of very caring, loving people. Some are very upper-crust indeed – most are just like you and me! When all is said and done the best enablers are probably the richest. It can cost a heavy heroin user more than £100 a day to survive. (One gramme costs £90 – £100 and as the price scarcely rises it seems that availability is easier and easier).

The poorer addict is going to reach desperation point more quickly and it is that cathartic point which is the make-or-break point. Similarly there is a make-or-break point for the 'families' too. That's when they advise you to join FA.

Of course not everyone will advise you to go to FA even then. Some members of the medical profession, drug dependency units, and other experts can still be very wary of amateurs taking matters into their own hands.

FA say that the experts have manifestly failed to "cure" the addicts and have paid scant regard to the victims left along the way. What's more, the experts are often seen as arch enablers, swapping one drug for another and sweeping the problem under the carpet, while lavishing attention on the addict who manipulates them all too successfully.

Perhaps the last word should go 24-year-old Julia who runs her own catering business.

"I became involved because my twin sister, my brother and my boy-friend were all addicts. I tried every drug there was myself but couldn't make it. I would defy anyone who said they mixed with addicts often and don't use drugs too. Addicts are so boring it's the only reason you'd be with them.

"I was the ultimate enabler. When my twin sister started on drugs at 16 I thought it was 'just a phase'. It wasn't. Then my younger brother was expelled from school for taking drugs.

"When my parents went abroad I found myself looking after them, surrounded by addicts and pushers. I lied to my parents to protect my brother and paid his debts and was terrified he'd steal if I didn't. He got worse and I was getting sick. I was aggressive, abusive, cynical and sarcastic to everyone – always wondering if visitors were pushers. My brother was totally centred on his drugs and I was totally centred on him.

"Inevitably I was soon going out with another drug addict myself.

"Then I realised I needed help myself. I hadn't thought so before because I'd always said to myself that I was keeping my brother and sister alive. Perhaps I was – I was keeping them going as addicts. And I suppose they were slowly killing me – my spirit anyway."

Two years later Julia is a changed person. The boyfriend has gone and she has detached with love from her brother and sister even though she lives with her sister in Fulham Road.

"FA has saved me. I suppose newcomers to the groups probably think us old-timers are hard-hearted and uncaring. It's not true. I keep going to FA because I need the continuing process as a strength in my life.

"Before FA my family was sick through and through. We just didn't talk about the dreaded subject. My elder brothers just wrote my sister out of their lives, my parents couldn't face it all any more and I was suffering all the consequences of being an addict myself without actually taking drugs.

"I know what the consequences may be for my addicts but at least I won't be enabling them to get there. It only needs just one enabler to keep them going. It won't be me and I will do everything I can to stop others doing it too. I'm strong enough now to cope with whatever comes."

Anyone wanting information, advice or details about meetings of Families Anonymous should write to them at 88 Caledonian Road, N1 9DN, UK or telephone 01-278 8805. The only qualification for membership is that you are concerned about someone close who is, or is suspected of being, addicted to drugs.

See A Drug Addict's Tale

Please note that this article was written in 1983 and that names, addresses and phone numbers are now likely to be obsolete.

© (1983) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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