Anna Wright is a university lecturer. She also buys heroin for her son. Here she explains why, and describes the strain on all the family of living with an addict
Wednesday April 18, 2007
I am a drug dealer. I park in dark streets waiting for the man (more often the lad) to exchange a small package for a disproportionately large quantity of cash. I subdivide it into 14 wraps and dole it out to my "customer". I use the term customer loosely and in the singular because I supply only one addict who is not a paying client.
My story is not unique. I am one more accidental dealer to an accidental addict.
How did this come about?
The police phoned. They had arrested my 19-year-old son while raiding the premises of a known heroin dealer. Ben had knocked on his door, been invited in by the police, searched and arrested for possession of cannabis. Guessing the police would probably appear with a search warrant, I ransacked Ben's room. There were no drugs, but there was lots of tinfoil with scorched lines on it and a bottle containing a quantity of green liquid. Instinct made me remove these, although at the time I had no idea of their significance.
Ben confessed to the police to being involved in the supply of ecstasy to his friends and was charged. He confessed to us that he was addicted to heroin, that he was "chasing the dragon" (hence the tinfoil) and trying to get clean using black market methadone (hence the green liquid).
The nightmare had begun. We paid his debts to dealers and relentlessly pursued the few and mainly useless sources of help. Meanwhile, the wheels of justice ground slowly, while Ben's addiction spun faster and faster, exacerbated by the threat of prison for the ecstasy charge. Eventually, despite the efforts of two enlightened judges and brief spells in two detox units, he ended up in jail.
He became relatively, although not entirely, clean while in prison. But he obsessed about heroin all the time. He used his release money to score the day he left prison.
My career as a drug dealer began. It was not a decision taken lightly - so why did I do it? I did not want to see Ben go back to jail. By now I realised that his addiction would drive him back to stealing or dealing, and all of his stealing had been from us. He convinced me that part of the problem was the unpredictability of supply. A reliable source of heroin would enable him to get his life together, and we could wean him off it. I say we because I did not take these decisions alone. Ben's father was a key, if reluctant, participant and without his professional salary, financing Ben's addiction would not have been possible.
Hindsight shows the futility of our decision. The idea of security of supply was fanciful. Street heroin varies in quality and quantity for any given price. These fluctuations and Ben's growing tolerance resulted in a rising drug bill for us.
Supplying heroin was not our only strategy. We tried a range of detoxes, at home and residential - counselling, methadone maintenance and Subutex - mostly at our expense and all to no avail. At his suggestion, we also paid for Ben to take a range of IT short courses. These enabled him to develop sophisticated computer skills, even to the extent of designing animated websites.
There were times when everything became unmanageable. Ben's rages when we tried to curb his demands to £30 worth of heroin a day resulted in police interventions and arrests at our instigation.
How has this affected the relationship between Ben and me and relationships with the rest of the family and our neighbours? There have been some positive outcomes. Ben and I became closer. I trained to be a voluntary substance misuse counsellor. I studied drugs and their effects on users and became interested in drug policy. I learned about users and dealers and the workings of the drug market.
There have also been considerable negatives. Ben has developed few coping strategies. He uses drugs to avoid withdrawal but also to avoid dealing with difficulties. He is entirely dependent on our largesse. He has a comfortable life compared to many addicts but that life is largely empty of everything except heroin. His potential remains unfulfilled.
Ben's brother has become more distant. He understands the problem but feels angry about what Ben has done to us. He may feel resentful about the amount of resources, financial and emotional, that have been squandered on Ben. He probably feels embarrassed that his brother is a heroin addict.
The relationship between Ben and his father has deteriorated. His father has tried hard to provide Ben with breathing space, time to develop skills, grow out of the drug habit and get a life. But the problem has dragged on so long now (10 years) and been exacerbated by theft and lies. They rarely communicate peacefully or directly with one another. I have been forced into the role of piggy in the middle in a vain attempt to keep the peace.
Family, friends and neighbours divide into two camps. There are those who understand and those who think we should throw Ben out. Some neighbours barely acknowledge me because they see us as harbouring a dangerous drug addict and criminal. They fail to see that by paying for his drugs and allowing him to use them at home, we are trying to contain the wider fallout of his addiction.
All attempts at detox have failed. These failures rob us of hope. They leave me wondering if it is Ben's lack of commitment, their lack of professional skill, or worst of all, that nothing will ever work. Sometimes I wonder if by detoxing and rehabilitating people we are simply trying to make them come to terms with a world and self that cannot be reconciled. We might be trying to brainwash people because they turn to illegal escapisms. Ben still says he wants to get clean - but despairs of ever being able to. Life is unimaginable after this long on heroin. He blames this or that "cure" or treatment, but doubtless knows that his will or heart has so far never been in it. Knowing this drives him to demand more heroin to anaesthetise himself from self-knowledge, or to use crack to achieve a quick, but far from cheap, thrill.
The relationship between Ben and me has now become a war of attrition. He nags me for heroin. I try to balance his need, or sometimes just his wants, against our budget. So I nag Ben to cut down, he begs, pleads and cajoles and then rants and rages and bullies. If I don't give in I have no peace. If I do I feel depressed because of being too weak to hold the line.
It is now difficult to talk to Ben. We used to share a joke, discuss politics or talk about addiction. His horizons have shrunk to just obtaining and using gear. My life consists of balancing all the spinning plates. Ben's behaviour swings are difficult to live with. If he has had more than enough heroin, he talks non-stop, repeating things again and again as he paces up and down; or he slumps on his bed nodding, half watching TV. If he's had too little he's angry, explosive, unpredictable and intimidating. Lies have become a way of life and challenges are met with shouted denials, which are repeated endlessly until I doubt my own reason. I have to constantly find new places to hide the heroin. Ben ransacks my belongings as though we are playing some sort of hunt-the-heroin game.
Ben lives a one-dimensional life but he is not a one-dimensional man. His addiction drives his behaviour but as well as being demanding, threatening and difficult, he is also sensitive, creative and intelligent. He is shocked by the destructive force of his own rages when he is craving gear. He is ashamed of the impact this has had on us, although this doesn't result in any change in his behaviour. Maybe nothing can or will.
Many professionals will probably blame Ben for not having come to terms with his addiction. I will probably be condemned as a co-dependent suffering from motivated mother syndrome, someone who needs to learn and apply the lessons of tough love. But if your child has a disability you don't walk away, you try to find help and give support. Ben did not commit a murder, molest a child or commit a violent crime. Addiction may be self-indulgence, but it also almost certainly has causes beyond the will of the addict. It may be both, who knows? Living with an addict is heartbreaking - lies, stealing and often squalor come with the territory.
So why do we continue with a course of action that isn't working? There seems to be no solution, just a range of possibilities that work for some addicts. We are still buying time for Ben but can't do so forever. People sometimes say "why did he do this to you?" I try to explain that he did it to himself - we are just in the fallout zone.
∑ All names have been changed. This article first appeared in Black Poppy magazine