Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: Son addicted to heroin
Monday 17 December 2007
Dear Virginia, I have discovered that my son is a heroin addict. I can't tell you how upset I am. He has agreed to try to get clean in the New Year, but we can't afford private rehab, and no NHS places are available. I have given him money for drugs because he says that otherwise he'll steal to pay for them. My world has been torn apart. I want to help him, but how? Yours sincerely, Marjorie
You've asked for advice to give to your son, Marjorie, but it seems to me that more than anything you really need advice - and comfort - for yourself. It's a hard ride, being the parent of an addict, because you so long for everything to be alright that you often end up doing what you're doing at the moment which is that awful thing called "enabling".
You've completely bought in to the whole addict line. "I am desperate, I can't give up at the moment, but will later, the drug has enslaved me, no one is there to help me, I can't give up on my own, I'm so desperate I'll risk turning into a criminal, so you must give me money for more drugs."
I've no doubt he feels a bit desperate - but the truth is that that feeling is not as bad as it's made out. We've all felt desperate - desperate for a lover to ring, desperate for a job, desperate, even, for a drink - but we bear that desperation, however unpleasant, as stoically as we can, until either we face up to the fact that we'll never get what we want or our needs are satisfied. We don't go out and become criminals.
It takes a lot of injecting or smoking, or however he's using heroin, to get addicted. If someone were to pin you down and force a needle into your arm, you wouldn't then become an instant wild-eyed addict. You've got to work at heroin addiction. And it's not true that there's no one there to help him - you're there to help, to provide him with food and shelter and emotional support, and that's really all he needs.
Not only did hundreds of GIs in the Vietnam war use heroin repeatedly while they were in battle and give it up happily when they returned home, but withdrawal from heroin isn't nearly as bad as made out. At worst, it's like a bad dose of flu. I know three one-time heroin addicts who gave up on their own and none of them had medical help. Withdrawing from heroin is not medically serious at all.
Try to lay your hands on a copy of Theodore Dalrymple's Junk Medicine, which argues that it's not only heroin users but the whole rehab industry that's interested in perpetuating the Coleridge/de Quincy idea that heroin withdrawal is something too awful to contemplate. Don't give your son any more money. Tell he must give up now, not in the new year, tell him you'll support him through any psychological problems, but don't let him lay any guilt trips on you, and give him the address of Narcotics Anonymous (not Narconon, by the way, a drug rehab programme associated with the Church of Scientology and therefore, in my view, to be avoided), where he will meet a jolly band of ex-addicts who will support him.
And finally, Marjorie, don't blame yourself. If he turns to crime to make you feel awful, let him go ahead. Remember, he doesn't have to if he doesn't want to. The more you buy into his version of the situation, the more you infantilise him. And that's the last thing he needs.
Tough love is still love
Marjorie should not panic but establish exactly what her son is addicted to, how much he uses, how often and what the effects are. Her son is likely not only to steal, but to steal from her. I can tell her from experience that she must lock away her valuables, jewellery, credit cards and anything else she regards as precious, even the deeds to her house. In addition, she must not give him money for drugs. He needs to experience the full consequences of his actions, even if they include arrest and a criminal record. Her "protection" will only prevent him taking responsibility. Tough love is still love.
I am suspicious of his agreement to start rehab in the new year. It sounds as if he may be agreeing to try rehab to pacify her and it will only work if he is really committed to doing it. There are a number of websites which offer support and advice. www.talktofrank.com, www.trashed.co.uk, DrugScope and Adfam can all help, as can Marjorie's GP.
Marjorie doesn't say how old her son is. When many teenagers get involved with alcohol and drugs they tend to talk up their drug use to shock us. One of the saddest things about addiction is the destruction of trust in the relationship. You should not trust your son now and it may be years before you dare trust him again.
Name and address supplied
He has to stop now
It has to be tough love. Would you forgive yourself if he overdosed on the drugs you have paid for?
Go back to your GP and ask for help now, not in the New Year. It sounds like your son is using delaying tactics; ultimately, the choice to stop using drugs can only be made by him.
Help him to stay safe
Maybe McDermott's Guide to Do-it-yourself Detox would be a suitable Christmas present for your son? It's a comic published by the Lifeline drugs charity in Manchester. Written by a former heroin user, it describes how to safely get clean and try to stay clean, and makes the point that the majority of drugs users stop without the help of expensive rehab schemes.
Your son may not be ready to stop using heroin yet. He has to really want to for himself, not for you. There is a real possibility that he may move to injecting heroin, and he needs to be able to be honest with you if he is doing this. Consider getting him the six other Lifeline comics aimed at injecting drug users listed in their catalogue, together with their publications on bloodborne viruses. These will help him to stay safe.
Lifeline comics use explicit sexual imagery and swearing, so you may not like them yourself. Find them at www.lifelinepublications.org.
Kate Evans by email
Let him decide
Sometimes we have to stop trying and let them decide what they want to do. As long as he knows you will supply money for his habit it will continue. Threats are part of the drink and drugs habit and he will play on this, hoping you will give in.
If he does steal from anyone and appears in court, he will be put into rehab anyway. Its a hard decision to make, but there are places of support during this hard time. Look on the internet or ask your GP and they will give you advice and information on support groups.
Next Week's Dilemma
I feel so ashamed - I went to our office Christmas party and got drunk and a bit out of control. Worst of all, I ended up snogging my boss - a married man I don't fancy at all. If I were a secretary it wouldn't be so bad, but I'm an executive. He's on a business trip at the moment and then there's Christmas break but how can I face him when he gets back?
Yours sincerely, Zara
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