Ending Addiction: ‘You Can’t Do it Alone’

July 30, 2012 12:00 pm

“Fifteen years of madness and mayhem,” my friend Alan used to say when he spoke of his drug-taking days.

“I was mad. I was angry with the world. I could be your best friend in the morning and your worst enemy in the afternoon,” he said.

I met Alan when I started my job in 2003 as a therapeutic worker at Phoenix Futures residential rehab in Merseyside. I’d heard about Phoenix’s ‘therapeutic community’. They helped people kick their drug and alcohol addictions and I jumped at the chance to be a part of the process of ‘ending dependency, and re-building lives’ as their logo says.

I’d worked in a young person’s secure unit. I saw firsthand how some of today’s damaged youngsters can grow up to become tomorrow’s drug addicts and alcoholics. This was my opportunity to see how it was possible to help people put right some of the damage addictions can cause.

Alan’s view of his own recovery was clear: “Only you alone can do it, but you can’t do it alone.”

Born in 1955, he grew up in Warrington with an unemotional, alcoholic father who was abusive. His mother had to hold down three jobs to provide for herself, Alan and two older brothers when his father spent money on booze and the racetrack.

“I told him once that, when I’m older, you’re getting it. I waited until I was big enough and he got it off me,” he said.

As a teenager, Alan found escape in cannabis, pills and alcohol with his mates. He took his first hit of heroin at a party.

“I collapsed. My head rested against a speaker with Jimi Hendrix’s music pumping out. I was in Electric Ladyland.”

His father told him he was only fit to be ‘factory fodder’.

“I had a better idea. This was the 1970s so I grew my hair long and took lots of lovely drugs.”

Alan received a short sentence at a detention centre at 15 – “for a stupid fight.” He took more drugs when he came out.

“It felt unfair. It was a schoolboy fight. The other boy had posh parents who were more vocal and the magistrates saw in me this working class ruffian off the estate.”

He fell into heavier drug use, more violence and a merry-go-round of ‘short, sharp shock’ prison sentences.

“Prison didn’t work. It made me more resentful. It made me a marked man. Any trouble in the neighbourhood and I was someone the police would haul in for questioning whether involved or not. They knew I only got into fights or I would con some doctors for prescriptions. I was never a mugger or burglar. I hated those kind of people.”

Alan’s health began to suffer and only his wife, Denise, and his mother and stepdad, were around to help him. As often happens with drug-users, their partners start taking drugs too. Denise became hooked on heroin herself. Social services got involved around their three children.

“Because of our drug lifestyle, we would often get up late and the kids would miss school now and again. It shouldn’t have happened but I don’t think putting them in care was the answer. They were never neglected. We were a happy family unit. They were taken into foster care because our relationship with a social worker was not a polite one, to say the least. I think she had it in for us. These days, they would have given us more support.”

After the children were taken away, Alan woke up one particular morning and found a syringe still hanging out of his groin. When he pulled it out, he hadn’t realised he must have turned over in his sleep and bent the needle into a hook. Blood began to gush.

Doctors told him he was in danger of losing a leg due to an infected injecting site that blocked his veins, causing gangrene. He knew it was time to do something about it if he and Denise wanted to be re-united with their children.

He entered Phoenix’s London rehab in 1987 and underwent a challenging therapeutic programme there.

“I had to change my behaviour, because without that change, drug-user thought processes are still there beneath the surface. You’re just a ‘clean junkie’ and without genuine change it’s easy to relapse like I had so many times.”

Alan began to address those issues that had led him into a life of drugs –  anger and relationships both played key roles in his drug use. As a senior resident, he was asked to be a part of a group to go to Merseyside and help set up a new therapeutic community on the Wirral.

“I grabbed the chance. My wife and kids were in that area. Denise was thinking about rehab so I would be close by. The deal with social services was, if we got off drugs, we would get our kids back.”

The Wirral project is still open today. Alan graduated there and trained as a counsellor. He worked at Wirral Phoenix Futures for 22 years, supporting many others with similar issues he had experienced.

“Sometimes, you don’t get it right the first time, but you keep on trying. Never give up. If you take drugs or you’re an alcoholic, it doesn’t mean you’re this ‘evil person’ the media try to portray. Addicts are people who have made the wrong choices. It’s never too late to change.”

Though both Alan and Denise went into rehab, their children were adopted anyway. They felt betrayed. By their teens, the kids tracked them down. Two of them came to live with them. Alan looked back on this time as ‘the cherry on the cake’ of their recovery.

“We not only recovered as individuals. We recovered as a family.”

It was a long, hard road to recovery but they got there in the end.

“When I think of how much money I cost to go in and out of jail, hospital, probation, hell, I must have cost tens of thousands. For jail alone it costs forty grand a year, these days, yet a programme in rehab costs around £5,000 and you generally come out a better person. Yet, up and down the country rehabs are struggling to stay open. The powers that be should take note.”

Alan died in May, 2010. He had succumbed to cancer. He spoke about his impending death quite openly. He said he was only glad it wasn’t a drug-related death. He never flinched throughout the painful treatment. There was no self-pity.

The funeral was a humanist service as he was not religious.

“Don’t give me any of that God nonsense,” he’d said.

Typical of Alan and Denise’s humour, at the end of the service Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ played as we walked out into the sunshine.

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