Helping a heroin addict | Tony’s story of his son’s heroin addiction – My Treatment My Choice

Helping a heroin addict | Tony’s story of his son’s heroin addiction – My Treatment My Choice


I drew an analogy of a junkie dying in a back alley with a needle in his arm and then the funeral of a much loved young man where 400 people came and praised his talents and qualities. This is not a statistic: this is the same person. We live in Australia. In the 1990s I was living on the North Shore which is a middle class, well-educated area and I was a father of three children and several step children, so like any other parent I guess, we had alcohol issues occasionally, some of the kids used cannabis but nothing prepared me for finding out that my son, Damien, at the age of 21, was using heroin and was in fact dependent. There was a period of 12 to 18 months when I wasn’t aware that he had a heroin dependency I knew there was something wrong and I tried to find out what was wrong but it wasn’t until he came clean and admitted everything and then I had a period of 12 months or so of dealing with that. And again I think for a long part of that 12 months leading up to his death I believed that we’d solved the problem and that was part of my denial it was part of Damien’s struggle to give up the drug. He wasn’t using it regularly and therefore he was vulnerable to overdose which is always the case. So, after the shock of Damien telling me that he was using heroin, I guess my next steps were to try and get help and I guess that’s where I hit a lot of problems because I couldn’t find help anywhere. Everywhere I turned to there was nothing that really looked at what families needed so the treatment services particularly wouldn’t talk to me, they said that, you know because he was over 21 they couldn’t speak to me directly, that I could only find stuff out from the library. I did try a couple of support services that were supposed to help families but I felt their models weren’t appropriate. It was very tough sort of stuff that I was getting and all I wanted to do was to help support him and try and get him off drugs and so it was a very lonely time. And I then found that speaking to friends and work mates was just as bad that the messages I got from them was, oh dear, you’ve had it now it’s a downward spiral to the end now and he’s going to bleed you dry he’s going to pinch all your money and you’ve got to let him hit rock bottom and you’ve got to kick him out. So those messages weren’t very helpful and I found that it wasn’t helpful talking to people. So then we internalised it and we dealt with it as a family which is what a lot of families do certainly back then and still to this day a lot of them keep it internal because of the negative stigma that they get when they try and talk about drugs. He went cold turkey and I think he attended one or two 12 step meetings but not wholeheartedly and even though he’d given up heroin for a period of time he was drinking alcohol and again that was something that I just didn’t have any idea that in fact was just a diversion into another drug of his dependency. I didn’t recognise it, I thought we had dealt with the heroin dependency and so therefore when he died it was a huge shock. It was in early 1997 that he overdosed and died. It took the police three days to notify me, when they did it was by telephone. By the time I’d identified his body he had already had a postmortem carried out without my knowledge or consent. The messages I was getting from everybody involved in his death: the police the mortuary attendants, was he was just another junkie, somebody who was worthless and yet for me he was somebody who – even though he had his drug problems I still loved, still saw him as more of a person than just a drug user and he’d struggled really hard in the 12 months leading up to his death to give up heroin. And so I had the shock of the death, I had the grief of losing my son… Now, I have to say that my knowledge about heroin came after his death. I was actually quite ignorant. I was very ignorant at the time he told me he was using and I was still quite ignorant at the point of his death. I didn’t even know about pharmacotherapies. The term harm minimisation would have meant nothing to me. If you’d asked me before I knew Damien was using drugs whether I believed in zero tolerance, harm minimisation, I wouldn’t have had a really strong opinion. I like to think I would have been humanitarian but I honestly don’t know. I was ignorant. I drew an analogy of a junkie dying in a back alley with a needle in his arm and then at the funeral of a much loved young man where 400 people came and praised his talents and qualities. This is not a statistic, this is the same person, this is my son and we are losing four people a day in Australia to heroin because we’re not doing things that might save their lives.

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