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Can a parent save their child from addiction?

  • 26 July 2011
  • From the section UK
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Ewan McGregor in a scene from Trainspotting
In the film Trainspotting, Renton (Ewan McGregor) is put through "cold turkey" by his parents

The death of Amy Winehouse has once again highlighted the danger of drink and drug addiction. Mitch and Janis Winehouse's battles to cure their daughter of her addiction are shared by thousands of parents up and down the country.

Many parents reading of the death at the weekend of singer Amy Winehouse will have thought to themselves: "What would I do if my son or daughter was an addict?"

Some people, like Tom Methven, know only too well what they would do and whether it would work.

His son, Jason, 29, is an alcoholic.

Mr Methven, from Surrey, said: "When I heard about Amy Winehouse I thought, 'It's finally got her'.

'Slave to the addiction'

"Drugs and alcohol damage a receptor in the brain. You become a slave. Why else would she have kept taking it? She was a very similar age to my son."

Hannah Meredith was 17 when she died of a heroin overdose in October 2009.

Teenager Hannah Meredith wrote a "letter to heroin" a month before her death in 2009

A month before she died, she wrote a "letter to heroin". Her aunt, Lisa Moore, read out excerpts from the letter on BBC Radio Five Live last year.

Ms Moore told the BBC: "It takes years to recover but it only takes seconds to relapse."

She said: "We heard about Amy Winehouse's death on Saturday and it brought back feelings of what happened to Hannah. It was two years ago, but it's still raw."

Ms Moore said: "I've read stuff on Facebook about Amy like 'one less junkie', and it is so ignorant and insensitive. Families feel helpless, they feel like failures, they think, 'How can we fix it when that person is choosing to do it'?"

"What people don't realise is that no matter how badly someone is on drugs nothing ever prepares you for the knock on the door or the phone call, nothing prepares you for their death."

She said Hannah had been given an ecstasy tablet on her 14th birthday, "liked the feeling" and by the age of 15 was on heroin.

Two years later she was "clean" but then had her fatal relapse.

"She had been in recovery for four months and was sure she was in control of heroin. She might have thought she would try it one more time," said Ms Moore.

Both Ms Moore and Mr Methven said there was a lot of ignorance about substance abuse.

Tough love

They said many people thought they could just lock their son or daughter in a room and make them go "cold turkey" - completely denying them drink or drugs - to exorcise their demons.

The cold turkey scene has cropped up in films like Trainspotting and soap operas like EastEnders, where a parent uses so-called "tough love".

But Mr Methven says the reality is that it very rarely works.

He has tried almost everything to rescue his son from his alcoholism:

  • Rehab - two sessions in a £500-a-day private clinic.
  • Medication - Antabuse, or disulfiram, a tablet which makes the taker sick if he or she drinks alcohol.
  • Sectioning - a compulsory week in a mental health unit.
  • Psychiatry - several sessions with a top specialist.
Mitch and Janis Winehouse had to deal with their daughter's addiction amid the public's gaze

At his worst point Jason, who weighs 19 stone (120kg), was drinking huge quantities of vodka and would become violent and aggressive.

"One time he smashed a piece of glass at his girlfriend's house and cut an artery. I had to follow the trail of blood to find him. They broke up about a month later. She couldn't cope with it," said Mr Methven.

He said: "Another time he was self-harming. He burned himself with an iron and was then banging his head against a table.

"He tried to cut his wrists once with a knife. The police were called and he was taken to hospital.

"He was so drunk he was fighting with the security guards and he got one of them, a big guy, on the floor. Eventually he was given a very strong tranquilliser."

Mr Methven said his son, who is an only child, had a normal childhood and was very intelligent.

He went to university and got a first with honours before embarking on a PhD.

Out of control

But his drinking, which had started as a teenager, got out of control and he never completed it.

Jason is now unemployed and gets £20 a week in Disability Living Allowance.

"That is supposed to be given to his mum for laundry and shopping but it is in many respects money for alcohol," said his father.

Mr Methven said: "He was about 24 when we realised he had a real problem. We went to the doctor and got a referral.

"We wanted to get him into rehab but it took so long on the NHS that we panicked and went private."

Jason has been into rehab twice.

On one occasion Mr Methven spent £18,000 and he said: "Before the cheque was even dry he was back on the drink."

He said: "There is no alcohol in the house now. I used to have some good-quality wine. It was very well hid. I was going to give it to a friend as a present but it was gone. He had drunk it."

Mr Methven said his son had stolen money from him and his wife and had also taken DVDs and other property and sold it at cash converter shops to provide drinking money.

'Secretive' drinking

"It's always secretive drinking. He doesn't go to the pub. He just drinks in his room. He hid it in rucksacks or under the hedge in the garden," he said.

Jason has now joined Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and has a sponsor, but he is still drinking.

"He is trying to take it down. Yesterday he had six cans (of beer) and today it's four. He is still drinking but it's far less," said Mr Methven.

But he said the crucial thing was that Jason has now said he wants to stop.

Nicholas Mills (pictured) hanged himself after a drug-fuelled argument but his twin brother survived and is now clean

"If they are going to get well they have got to go to AA or NA (Narcotics Anonymous). The individual is powerless, but collectively they can do it. It's a spiritual thing. AA is about giving it up altogether.

"Once you are an alcoholic or an addict one is too many and 100 is not enough."

Asked how he feels about his son now, he said: "It's not so much shame as disappointment about what he could have done with his life."

While Mr Methven can understand the addiction, Elizabeth Burton-Phillips knows the heartbreak of what she calls the "double whammy" of addiction and death.

Her twin sons, Nicholas and Simon, both became heroin addicts.

Nicholas died in 2004 but Simon survived and has kicked the habit.

Mrs Burton-Phillips, from Buckinghamshire, has since set up a charity, DrugFam, and she told the BBC: "We are trying to help families who are struggling to cope with the addiction of their loved ones, like Amy and my son."

She said she met Amy's mother in 2008 and added: "I have been in text contact with her since Amy passed and they are obviously going to be terribly badly affected."

Mrs Burton-Phillips travelled to Llanelli on Monday to give her moral support to the Hannah Meredith Foundation, which launched a support group for the families of those in the Carmarthenshire area coping with substance abuse.

Anyone wanting to contact the foundation should do so through their Facebook page.

To protect the identities of some of those involved, some names have been changed in this article.

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