Tough love finds a way to beat heroin

Young addicts, skilled manipulators of parental love, need a change in strategy if they are to achieve a lasting cure. By Emma Cook
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TESSA CORNER'S story strikes at the heart of Middle England's escalating paranoia about drugs - in particular, heroin. Middle-class, educated and well loved, Tessa started taking heroin in her twenties. When her parents found out, they insisted she go into rehabilitation, which she did. Within weeks, though, Tessa was using again. This time she didn't tell her parents. Instead she moved back home and maintained a charade. Her parents did what all parents do best: they took care of her, fed and clothed her, and didn't ask too many questions. If Tessa said she was popping out to meet friends down the pub, they believed her. If she wore long sleeves even on hot days - they overlooked it.

Until they discovered drug paraphernalia in her room, and then her father, Dennis, gave Tessa an ultimatum. "I said, `I can't let you use in my house - you'll have leave.' I was stuck, really - I had to stick to that decision." When Tessa did come home, Dennis and his wife were strict: They would give her food but not money. They would buy her clothes, but always cut the labels out to stop her selling them or taking them back.

There followed the grimmest time of all for Tessa: left to her own devices she went to live in a squat, used drugs more heavily than ever, and became pregnant. But, as Dennis says: "She had to hit her own rock bottom to change."

Tessa, now an administrator for two rehab clinics in Bournemouth, agrees. "I was relieved when they threw me out. At least it got everything out in the open."

Two weeks ago Claire Campbell, 21, was the latest tragic young case to die from a heroin overdose. Like Tessa, she came from a small town and a loving family. Much was made of Claire's middle-class background, from the well-heeled market town of Haywards Heath in Sussex. As the Daily Mail put it, "She had all the advantages of a respectable upbringing and a loving family."

The same paper also took pains to point out: "Her parents bailed her out with cash which must have gone straight into the pockets of drug dealers." Which raises a vexed question: just how suspicious should parents be about their children? It is normal for parents to give adolescents some money and freedom relatively unquestioningly and allow them to enjoy a teenage culture that they know little about - even if that culture includes drug- taking.

Which is why Claire's parents, like Tessa's at one point, had no idea what their daughter was involved in. Claire's father told one paper: "Only two or three weeks ago my wife Turid took her shopping and said how happy she was that she had left all that behind her." Perhaps they should have been more inquisitive about their daughter's behaviour. But then, how on earth are parents supposed to monitor a 21-year-old's activities?

Last month alone has seen a spate of dramatic figures that draws attention to this conflict. A recent Home Office report predicted an "epidemic" of heroin use, unless sharp measures were introduced, in the shires and rural towns of Britain. Towns such as Bridlington, Hull, Solihull and Huddersfield are seeing new outbreaks. Users are younger than ever before, and many are from well-off, stable backgrounds. Another survey, by the Institute of Psychiatry and the National Addiction Centre at the Maudsley Hospital, echoed these findings. They also found that the annual cost of drug addicts to the taxpayer is at least pounds 2.3bn.

It wasn't long before the first scare stories surfaced, of middle-class parents hiring private detectives at pounds 700 a day to find out if their children were taking drugs. Children as young as 12 were said to be being trailed home from school by detectives, paid for by anxious mothers and fathers. It may have been a one-off news scare, but it does highlight a grey area where parents seem unsure about where to step in and draw the line of responsibility - and trust - between themselves and their children. The pivot for these conflicts is, inevitably, money.

For the user, manipulation is vital in obtaining money from parents. One key issue seems to be who controls whom in the relationship. Ben, now in his thirties, started taking drugs at his public school and had progressed to heroin by his early twenties. "When my mother found me a psychotherapist who told me to take less each day, I told her, `You got me the treatment. You'll have to buy it for me.' It was a pretty despicable thing to do. Then I'd say, `It's your fault that I haven't stopped taking it.'" He is well aware of the power play his addiction created. "Ultimately she was a hostage. I owned her. There was an implied threat of force in our relationship."

In the end, one party has to break that dynamic, as Pam North, who works for a Midlands support group, found out three years ago when she used what she now refers to as "tough love" with her 25-year-old son, Craig. Initially, she didn't suspect he was taking heroin. "He was getting lethargic and aggressive. For us, though, drugs didn't enter the picture." When they found out, Pam and her husband continued to support Craig, giving him money and clothes. "Then there was this point where I realised where the money was going. But it's part of the mother's problem - I couldn't accept that the responsibility for the problem was his and not mine. Then I started questioning him what the money was for and making him bring receipts. He got very angry, because I was changing."

The crunch came when Craig stole money from his brother, and Pam threatened to call the police if it happened again. It did; she reported her son, and he went to court. "It was the hardest thing I ever had to do", she says. "Here was a boy with no previous criminal record - someone I thought could be so kind and loving - and I was getting him into trouble." The worst aspect of so-called "tough love" is losing your one potential point of contact with your child. As Pam says, "I can remember ranting and raving at Craig, `Get out, get out.' But when he did, I was so worried, I would go out looking for him."

In these situations the mother, often seems more torn than the father, between protecting her child and issuing an ultimatum. Rosie Higgins, the project co-ordinator for Parents For Prevention, says: "Men get to a point of issuing ultimatums much quicker than women. Mothers will bend over backwards to bail them out with food, money or rent arrears - whatever they think will keep their children from hitting rock bottom." There's also the fear that if they do step back and the outcome is fatal then they'll carry a double burden of guilt - failing their child initially, then rejecting them again. Pam says, "Mothers are used to making things right when their children do wrong. But children have to work it out for themselves. You can't do it for them."

Many parents also experience a real difficulty in taking that leap from suspicion through to confrontation. Kevin Flemen, an adviser for Release, the drugs help line, says: "I suspect there are a lot of parents who suspect what's going on and hide money, but don't discuss where they think it's going." Flemen advises talking about where money is going as a means of opening up more communication, as well as finding out more about drugs so as to be able to discuss them from an informed standpoint. Tessa's father is a little more equivocal about laying down basic ground rules then sticking to them. "Don't give them money. Give them food and clothes but cut the labels out This is a business of life and death. If they've got to go to prison, let them. At least they're supervised and at least you know where they are. Be vigilant but don't be judgemental."

Eventually Dennis and Pam had to issue an ultimatum, almost as if their children, on some level, were pushing them to break a final but necessary bond. It certainly isn't an option that all parents should adopt - and it's the right one only if there's a happy outcome. In Tessa and Craig's case there was, and Tessa is grateful that her parents stood firm. Had it been otherwise, it's hard to know how both parents would have felt. Tessa, though, is sure that her parents made the right decision. "It's easier to do the caring thing. It could be seen as heartless to throw me out but it was a fairer option. `Tough love' is saying, `We love you.' But it's also saying, `You've got the final choice.'"

Families Anonymous (supporting families): 0181-460 5413. Streetscene, Bournemouth (residential treatment): 01202 293660. Hetty's (supporting parents and carers): 01623 862449. Release, drugs help line: 0171-729 5255