People: A different side of Shetland life

Marsali Taylor finds ordinary people coping with extraordinary difficulties when she meets members of the support group Families Affected By alcohol and drugs.

The women I’ve come to meet could be a SWRI group, a Ladies’ Lifeboat Guild committee, or  the hostesses sorting out rotas for Up Helly A’ night. One is from Lerwick, the rest from the country, and all are Shetlanders, speaking softly in dialect. They range in age from mid-fifties, I’d guess, to thirties, and they’re smartly dressed in bright jumpers. Because they come from all over Shetland, it’s almost certain that you know one of them. They are ordinary Shetland women, sharing tea and a box of Quality Street, talking, listening, nodding, laughing sometimes.

Except that their lives are not ordinary, for each of these women has a son who is struggling with drug addiction. During this brief time together, sharing and supporting, each is conscious of the world she has to return to – a nightmare world which can only be really understood by someone else coping with the same problems.

The FAB group meets every Wednesday evening from 6pm until 7.30pm at CADSS building, 44 Commercial St, Lerwick.

“We recognize the impact drug and alcohol use has on family members, not only financially and emotionally but also psychologically. The FAB group is somewhere to share experiences, explore the effects on you and your family and to meet other people experiencing similar issues.

“If you are currently affected by family members alcohol or drug use please telephone 01505 695363 for further details. Relatives are usually seen on an individual basis in the first instance to ensure the group is appropriate for them.”

“People talk about Shetland’s idyllic lifestyle,” one said, “but not everyone here is rich or successful. It has every element of life south, including addiction to drugs and alcohol.”

“In Shetland, people don’t want to come out up-front and admit a family member is addicted to drugs, even when their world is in turmoil,” another said. “You want to keep quiet, not pleeps about the problem. There’s an element of shame.”

“Unless it affects people directly they don’t want to think about it, they just dismiss it as exaggerated – or say ‘It’ll never happen to me’. We said that too. I could never have imagined the things you have to go through and see with your own family.”

The stereotype is that island drug users are Lerwick teenagers from housing schemes, from single-parent families, and of non-Shetland parentage; the reality is that 87 per cent of drug users helped by the Community Alcohol and Drugs Services Shetland (CADSS) are of Shetland parentage, or have had all their schooling here.

The FAB group (Families Affected By alcohol and/or drugs) meets weekly. They’ve invited me here so that I can hear their stories at first hand and in the hope that an article in Shetland Life will let more people know about the support they offer – “because this”, as one said, “is Shetland life too.”

Like most people who’ve never been affected by drugs previously, these mothers initially knew very little about them. One mother said, sadly, “Sometimes you feel you’ve become an expert on a subject you’d rather know nothing about”.

“Drugs was an unknown quantity,” another agreed. “If the problem was with alcohol, at least we are more familiar with it and know what’s available; with drugs – we’ve had to learn about the different kinds and all the slang names. I never thought I’d be here, or have the word ‘heroin’ mean so much in my life.”

Generally, there’s a lack of information on what drugs do, and these mothers have consulted the internet. “It helps – it explains slang names, so you know what they’re talking about. I’ve seen me finding packets of pills, and if there’s a name then I can look it up, and know what I’m up against – you have to deal with it as it occurs.

“It’s funny that there’s a hierarchy even within the drugs scene – cocaine is almost glamorous, but heroin is the lowest of the low. It gives a faster physical decline, within a few months people can see the change in you just as you walk down the street.”

Living with a person addicted to drugs is a desperate lifestyle. “Each morning when you get up, you don’t know if he’s going to be living or dead. I had to do drug searches of my home because he was living there  and then at the end of the day you don’t know if he’s still living – it’s torture.”

Trying to come to terms with the problem is “like a grieving process; you are grieving for the life your son could have had, had he not taken this destructive path. You want to save your son, but you can’t save them – it’s devastating and you can’t get out of it. It’s hard to get across what it’s like – you could be sitting there, seeing your son going in and out of consciousness, and not able to help them. It’s heart-breaking to witness.

“On his good days my boy is like the youthful young man he should be, and he can’t understand why we’re so angry with him – he expects us to love him as we’ve always done.  Then he turns into this aggressive, horrible person stumbling into the house – it’s like living with Jeckell and Hyde, he’s two very, very different people.”

But as the mothers say, “You have to have a sense of humour, it certainly helps you many a day – like when you want to do a roast, and find there’s no tinfoil – it has been taken for his drug use.”

The deviousness and personality change of someone suffering from drug abuse was emphasised by all the women. “One problem was my naivety in the beginning. I was so easily manipulated, I would accept his excuses, because I wanted to believe them; I couldn’t believe it was happening to my bairn, to me – it’s a real kick in the guts when you can’t hide from it anymore.

“It was really hard when I had to accept that my son was a liar. ‘If you don’t help me, Mum, I’ll be dead by morning – I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had that game played on me.

“The lies end up breaking your trust, and that’s so difficult to overcome – you come to the stage you don’t believe a word they say.”

“Yes, he just can’t understand he’s doing anything wrong. He’s blinkered – he’s lost all touch with reality – he really believes his own lies, and in a mad way he feels by lying he’s protecting you – he has no idea what you feel.”

“Addiction makes them a thief. That’s hard to accept too – at first, you say, ‘I’m sure I had a tenner in that purse’, and then it happens more and more often – you can’t keep casual cash in the house, and you have to hide cards – hide any object that can be sold. I used to sleep with my handbag looped over my arm.”

“When they need a hit they’ll take anything. I suffered from migraines, and was prescribed strong pain-killers, and I had to hide those – I’d be woken in the night by him hammering on my door, asking where I’d put them.”

“Yes, money is one real warning sign – if they keep asking for more money, even though they get fair pocket money, or if you start missing money – or if the Playstation goes and they say they just lent it to a friend.

“Another  sign of heroin use is when you realise that some of your spoons are missing, or your shoelaces have been taken.”

As well as coping with their children, these women have to try and continue their ordinary working lives. “As an individual, as well as your job there are times when you are more or less a 24-hour carer, you have to do everything for them, as you would for a child or an elderly person, and then you have to go out to your job. When you go out to work you have to put on a face and leave all the problems behind on the doorstep, ready to be picked up when you come back. Sometimes I think we deserve an Oscar for our performance during the day.”

Research has shown how vital family support is to the recovery of someone addicted to drugs – yet the extreme behaviour of a son or daughter with this sort of lifestyle is a terrific strain on the family. “They manipulate both parents, and disagreement over what the best thing to do is can drive you apart. A single parent has to deal with that on their own – at least a couple can discuss what to do, except you just go over and over it: Why? What you can do? How can we deal with the situation?”

“My husband and I disagree about how to support him – and family members also have their opinions on what we should be doing – some think we are doing too much, others think we are not doing enough. It can make you feel such a failure. Although folk are giving you advice, their experience of the problem is limited, understandably.

“What really annoys me is the way people give you advice. ‘If I was you I’d do such and such’ – and you think, ‘No you wouldn’t.’ I might have thought that myself once – but not now.”

“I dinna feel angry noo – maybe this article will help them understand a bit more. I wish folk could be more open-minded, but you can’t expect them to understand what we’re going through – how can they? We struggle to understand it.”

“I used to be really angry when I felt I was being criticised – friends and professionals giving advice. None of us kent what we were doing – our life was falling down around us, and we were just trying to cope. Folk would say, ‘Don’t give them money’, ‘don’t let him go to Lerwick’, ‘I wouldn’t put up with that’, but when you see your son destroying himself it’s not so easy.”

“When my son was growing up, I was aye there to help him when he had problems. I feel for him now, but I canna help. It’s up to him – we’re powerless. I’ve done my best for  him , always, and you go over all the years from dot, seeking reasons – somehow you feel it’s your fault – it’s no, but you still wonder. You just have to keep telling yourself it’s not your fault.”

“We’re doing our best – it’s a learning curve. You’ll always feel guilty – you’ve given them too much, or not enough. But family support is so vital for the person in the middle of it all – if the family support is really positive they’re more likely to recover.”

Recovery isn’t a quick or easy process, though. It’s not that a young person takes drugs, their life falls apart, they get treatment, they get better; it’s a backwards and forwards dance, where you never know what’s coming next. The drug user isn’t aware of how time is passing, but their family can see the weeks becoming years.

“This is my seventh year of dealing with it. My son  began when he was 14 – I didn’t see it then – he began to get  into trouble with the police, vandalism, and getting drunk. He started with cannabis then got into other stuff, and slipped very quickly into the pattern of drug abuse. He should have enjoyed his teenage years, but those years were valueless. I had to live through that with him, and it was devastating. I’m amazed to say he is still living – I so often thought he’d be dead.”

“You never think at the beginning how it will go. You just have to hope you can cope.”

“I discovered my son sniffing aerosols when he was 11 years old and it escalated over the years. He’s 26 now, so that’s fifteen years.”

“It’s frightening, the easiness, the speed they slip into addiction. That’s something we want to get across too: be aware. It’s hard, because so many of the danger signs are just normal teenager things – mood swings, all that – but once it gets a grip it’s obvious something’s no right.”

“My son has been a drug user for 17 years. He started with cannabis, then getting drunk; he kept so much from me, and here in Shetland drinking so young is accepted. I thought it was a phase he’d grow out of. Now, it gets harder and harder to hang on to the belief that he will make a better life, that he’ll become happier – it may never happen, and I have to be aware of that.”

Reactions from people at work and in the community can also be hard to deal with. “At my work, some people know, but not the full extent of the problem. Some folk feel able to speak, but others have a problem talking to you about it – maybe embarrassment, or just reluctant to talk in case you don’t want to speak about it.”

“People close to me have said they did not know what to say or do. I’m sure it is different for everyone, but for myself I accept no-one can ‘fix’ things, and I don’t expect that. I’ve lived with this for years and I can’t fix it. Try not to make judgements – however well you mean, you don’t know what you would do in the same situation until you’ve been there. What has meant a lot to me was a regular phone call, asking how I/ he is doing. If I want to talk about it I will, but mostly it’s just the contact I appreciate as I feel so isolated at times. Don’t be offended if I don’t want to talk about it at all, I live with it every day of my  life and sometimes it’s a relief just to have a distraction away from it. Just to know there is somebody aware of what is going on, who still cares enough to make that call can mean more than what is actually said.”

“It’s hard to keep up with other people. You can never really plan to go anywhere, to a function, or to an event, because like as not there’ll be a big upheaval and you won’t get to it. In the end, you lose your enthusiasm to go anywhere.”

“I’ve been involved in voluntary groups, but I had to cut that down – this takes up the rest of my time, it just drains you.”

“Folk can be very down on people with drug addictions – they speak about ‘druggies’ as if they’re saying ‘low-life’. Sometimes you hear folk speaking when they don’t know about you, or don’t know you’re in the room, and it’s so obvious they know nothing about it.  You can either sit quiet or stand up and say something – usually you say nothing, then go home and let rip.”

In the women’s experience, health professionals can also show a lack of understanding towards drug users. “There’s only one doctor in the Lerwick Health Centre willing to work with drug addicts. In my experience they seem to feel that your son ‘chose’ to be a drug addict, so they’re lower down in priority. It compounds the isolation – you feel there’s nowhere to turn.”

“My son had medical problems not connected to his addiction, and I’ve had to take him to the doctor, but the first thing the doctor spoke about was the addiction, as if it caused the medical problem. Now he doesn’t want to see a doctor because it was a bad experience.”

“I was very naive – I assumed that professional people would behave professionally, whatever their feelings, but I do feel I’ve been looked down on and I found that shocking. If a person is distressed and looking for help and advice, then seeing clear disgust on the professional’s face, well, that’s not right behaviour from them. Our sons are already at a very low ebb, vulnerable, ashamed of themselves – if they’ve struggled to get the foot over the door and ask for help they shouldn’t feel judged.”

“There’s an air of unwillingness to treat them even with politeness. We’ve all experienced extreme behaviour from our sons, and at times I can’t believe how gross he can be, but nevertheless he’s still a human being.”

These women take a sombre view of the availability of drugs in Shetland, and the extent to which young people are using them. CADSS workers reckon that for everyone who comes forward there are another three who are managing their habit, or who haven’t run out of money, or who’re afraid of losing their job or their reputation if they come forward.

“Drugs seem to be so easily available in Shetland for anyone who wants them. The perception is that most young people have been offered drugs and they all know someone who takes them.”

“I asked my son about it, and he said, ‘Mam, I won’t give you names, but you’d be surprised if I told you. It’s just not got a grip of them the way it has of me’.”

“Most young people are taking recreational drugs here in Shetland.”

On the other hand, one mother said, “He says ‘Aabody’ but his circle of friends is small now, and maistly folk in the same boat. In other circles, perhaps it’s none.”

“This problem exists now in Shetland and much as we would all like to ignore what we see happening, it is a fact that there is a growing drug problem and as a mother who has seen her son dragged into the very destructive cycle of addiction, I want to highlight the dangers.”

“For parents who are concerned, training sessions are held that they can attend, and I’d urge all parents to go to one, even if it’s never been a problem.”

The group had a discussion with the police where they highlighted what they see as the biggest problem – the easy availability of drugs in Shetland.

“The police are all too aware that they’re coming in an ‘unending flow’ – most police success comes through folk giving them information, and folk should be willing to contact police with information. The police alone can’t do it – so if you see strange goings on, please contact them. There’s a Safer Shetland Helpline – it’s anonymous, so you can speak without needing to tell them who you are.”

“Another thing is that it snowballs – folk who are users get themselves into a mess, needing drugs, unable to pay for them, and then the distributors use them to sell more drugs – it’s a serious, serious problem. These vulnerable folk are deliberately targeted by the dealers, and they in turn get dragged deeper in, they never get free. Then the dealers threaten them, phone their home, even come round, threatening to set fire to their house, that kind of thing.”

“You never get free of them. My son is recovering from heroin now, but he still gets phone calls back and fore.”

“One thing I feel is that the sentences are far too light. You see it in the paper, so many thousand pounds of drugs they were planning to sell up here and they get a year’s probation. They’re ruining so many lives, and getting off so lightly.”

All the women were strong in their praise of the help that CADSS provides for drug users here in Shetland.

“The drug professionals are brilliant.”

“There are some areas of need, but Karen Smith, the Alcohol & Drugs Development Officer for Shetland is aware of these.”

“The services are there for drug users who are ready to work along with them – the folk falling through the net aren’t at that stage yet, and we need to engage them.”

“I agree with that, but the services are stretched. What I’d like to see is more for young carers who have a parent with an addiction problem. But there’s never enough funding, and I fear for the future in the current financial climate. I see us losing funding over the next few years.”

We’ve all heard horror stories about people with drugs, and perhaps dismissed them as exaggerated because we heard them second-hand. I didn’t ask these women for a single worst experience, but I did ask them what, of all the day to day experiences of living with someone addicted to drugs, was the one that affected them most.

“The worst is not knowing how long this will go on for – always asking will he get better, will he get worse; will it be a year, five, twenty; will I go to my grave still in this predicament? The hardest bit is there, in my head.”

“Yes, it’s the ongoing strain that’s the hardest. I dream of a few days peace, just to be able to switch off from it. I took a few days off and just sat in the house, doing nothing.”

“You can’t ever wipe it from your mind, from when you wake to when you go to bed.  There’s not one day when I’ve never spoken of it. It’s a mental torture, it makes me sick to the bottom of my stomach, a weight that’s always on me – it’s just never ending. I’m not depressed – hauled down, more like, with the hopelessness of it.”

“It’s like a continuous grieving for their lost youth, their lost life – the lost person that your son once was – and the frustration of it all, the never-ending battle.”

“Sometimes I feel very envious. You see families and friends whose children are successful and happy, and you think, why not my son? Why not me? But then other folk hide problems as well – you get these Christmas letters, relentlessly full of successes – now I don’t believe it’s all so rosy.”

“Even in a good spell you feel like the old folk, with an out-of-season spell of fine weather: ‘Na, na, we’ll pay for this later’.”

These women are keen to reach out into the community and support others in a similar situation.

“We’re just ordinary folk, coping with an extraordinary problem. I thought I was the only one, but there are folk here just like me. We’ve all had similar experiences.”

“We’ve all chosen to maintain contact with our sons, to encourage and help them.  But not all parents are able to do this, and some do cut contact. This is not necessarily the easy option it would appear. You would still wonder where they are, what they are doing, if they are doing better or worse, are they keeping their appointments, etc. Certainly they are not ‘in your face’ every day, which maybe makes day-to-day life a bit easier, but in a small community like Shetland, when they are caught doing something wrong, it’s all back in your face again.”

“We’re just the tip of the iceberg – there are so many more out there. We’re hoping this article will bring more folk to us. We all feel that if we even reach one person who’s at home tonight, desperate and ashamed and disbelieving, and persuade them that there’s help and support here for them [it will be a good thing].”

The five mothers I met wanted me to stress how ordinary they are, but I thought they were extraordinary in their day-to-day courage, in their determination to save their sons, and in their generosity, in wanting to reach out and support others while their own lives are one of every parent’s worst nightmares.

Marsali Taylor


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