Finding a voice

Katie’s experience of stigma made her determined to help herself and others – the beginning of Adfam’s #StigmaMakesMeFeel campaign. She shares her story, with DDN.

Katie’s family have suffered from the stigma surrounding her brother’s drug addiction.

My older brother has been addicted to class A drugs for the past 17 years. I was 12 years old when he began using drugs, and my younger brother was just ten. Needless to say, his addiction has affected my family in every way possible, but perhaps the worst part was how other people treated us – all because of the stigma surrounding drug addiction.

The stigma was ridiculous – nobody wakes up in the morning and says ‘I think I’ll become an addict today’. Yet why does it prevent so many people from speaking out?

Is it because they’re worried that people will judge? Of course. Is it because people are worried that others will think they’re an addict? Perhaps. Does it mean anyone has failed? Absolutely not. Does wider society realise the anguish that comes with having somebody who is addicted in the family? No. These are questions that I have been asking for 17 years now.  

The first time I experienced stigma was when I was 13 years old. The day before we had had a horrible ‘post-high comedown’ drama with my brother. He was incredibly violent and the police were called – and of course being in a small village, that meant that our neighbours watched the drama unfold.

While I was looking at the magazines in the village post office, treating myself to an escape for the afternoon, I overheard three fellow villagers saying, ‘I don’t want a family like that in the village, I don’t want my children growing up surrounded by drug addicts.’

I calmly walked around the corner and corrected their perception, making it quite clear that my family were not a ‘bunch of addicts’, but incredibly hard­working and respectable people who were going through tremendous pain and heartbreak supporting someone with an addiction, and that they should be ashamed of themselves for being so naïve. I didn’t get an apology, but was met with rather embarrassed looks and silence. After that day I never returned to the shop.

That’s why Adfam is so important to me. Stigma has had a huge impact on me – it silenced me for 16 years, and those who know me, know I am not easily silenced!

All the years of not being able to speak openly about something that has several times come close to destroying my family and me was released, and I am incredibly grateful to Adfam for giving me the confidence to speak out against stigma. I hope this campaign will not only bring people together, but go some way for us, as a group, to have a voice and influence policy.

Through #StigmaMakesMeFeel we are determined to help others and get our voices heard.

Gaining momentum

Adfam has embraced the opportunity to talk openly about stigma, says Robert Stebbings.

Robert Stebbings – Adfam Policy and Communications Officer.

Stigma has been a prominent theme for us at Adfam and something that we frequently encounter in our varied work supporting families affected by alcohol or drug use.

One family member spoke to us about how stigma is ‘like being labelled with a big invisible sign that I can’t see but others can’.

This isn’t good enough. Families should feel able to talk about their experiences openly and live their lives without fear of judgement from others. Often stigma isn’t malicious or deliberate; it’s due to people misunderstanding the issue and what families are going through. That’s why we have launched #StigmaMakesMeFeel – a campaign that gets stigma out in the open and tackles it face on.

We’re aiming for 1,000 photos of people with our campaign boards writing their own personal messages of how stigma makes them feel and how it’s impacted on their lives.

By talking about this issue openly and honestly, we believe we can make a huge impact and change the way people think about substance use and the families affected.

Since our launch earlier this year the response has been fantastic, with people across the country sending us a range of powerful and inspiring photos and messages.

How does stigma make you feel? You can get involved in our campaign to raise awareness of stigma experienced by families affected by drugs and alcohol through three simple steps:

  1. Download and print off our campaign board (pdf)
  2. Write your own message on how stigma makes you feel
  3. Take your photo and tweet it using the hashtag #StigmaMakesMeFeel (or email it to us at admin@adfam.org.uk)

Strength in narratives

Helping families and friends to tell their stories has been an effective way to offer support, says John Taylor.

John Taylor is DAWS family and carers lead. The Drug and Alcohol Wellbeing Service (DAWS) is run by Blenheim and Turning Point.

I was reading a recovery stories book, full of inspirational stories of how service users found recovery from substance misuse. With that in mind, I thought ‘what about the people around them – their families and friends? Do they not need some form of recovery and for their stories to be told?’

I started to ask my clients at the Daws Families and Friends service if they would be willing to tell their stories about how they found their own recovery with a ‘loved one’ in addiction, and the response I got was both positive and quite remarkable. Many said they would like to tell their story to help someone else to feel less alone.

 

Most felt when they came into the service that they were all alone in dealing with their loved one’s addic­tion and that they couldn’t tell anyone about what was happening in their life because they feel so much guilt and shame – hence it becoming a ‘family illness’.

They stopped talking to people closest to them because they felt sick of talking about the same old stuff or they had received advice that wasn’t useful to them, such as ‘kick them out’ and ‘don’t have them in your life’. They felt that those around them didn’t understand about addiction and were quick to judge, adding to a sense of shame.

This is exactly why groups can work so well for ‘affected others’ just as they can support people tackling their own addiction. You can be with people who are just like you, get identification and lose the feelings of judgement and shame. It takes away the isolation that can come with addiction and make people unwell.

The result of this project to share experiences, the DAWS Families and Friends Recovery Stories book, is about these forgotten victims of addiction – people who rarely have a voice and who are often supporting loved ones to access treatment and find recovery from substance misuse.

Read the Recovery Stories book here.

My clients who attend DAWS have loved ones who might be in treatment or might not; they might be in their lives or they might not. Whatever the circumstance, if someone has been affected by another’s substance misuse, they are welcome. In some cases their loved one has passed away as a result of addiction and they are left with the trauma. More than ever, they need support to help them process the loss that they are going through and they often experience a debilitating sense of guilt.

At DAWS we help them to explore how they are processing their thoughts and feelings. Our 12-week rolling programme covers setting boundaries, self-care, healthy relationships, looking at anger, building up resilience and social networks. The first half of the programme is a process group, where we work with whatever is brought up by clients.

The strength and courage that the families and friends show on a daily basis amazes me, and this shines through the book. These are stories of how people are watching their loved ones on a destructive path and unfortunately often end up on the path with them.

It’s so very important to remember how substance misuse affects so many others around that one person. Figures from Adfam state that for every person in active addiction, eight people around them are likely to be affected. This highlights the problem we have and also shows how important it is for these people to get support and have their voices heard.

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