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Column: Amy Winehouse was an addict – and I know how that feels

The singer’s meltdowns were very public, but few people understand the reality of addiction, writes recovered drug user Brendan Magee.

Brendan Magee

Amy Winehouse was found dead last Saturday after a high-profile struggle with drink and drug abuse. Here, former user Brendan Magee reveals how it feels to wrestle with addiction – and why even a family’s best intentions cannot make an addict stay clean.

WHEN A HIGH-PROFILE tragedy happens, the media make a fortune out of it.

It’s big news, it sells papers and pulls in viewers. Public train wrecks are great for business. The constant coverage of Amy Winehouse’s struggle with addiction was a sick form of entertainment. But for families living with alcoholism and addiction it isn’t entertaining. I know my own family was devastated by alcoholism and addiction, seriously destroyed. A lot of families in both Ireland and the UK are facing the same problems.

Photos of a public meltdown don’t tell you anything about the pressures and problems that drive a person into addiction. A lack of acceptance at home drove me. I felt a great sense of loss from a young age. My grandmother reared me until I was three, and when I was taken from that environment and placed in the family home with an alcoholic father, I really felt it. I hated that feeling and I tried to escape into anything and everything. When I found drugs, I thought I’d found a comfort. I didn’t realise how devastating it would be, so I just went for it. I progressed from simple things like cigarettes and cider through the whole lot – from Tipp-Ex, glue and hash to speed, coke and eventually heroin.

When you’re using, you’re not thinking straight. You are consumed with finding ways and means of getting more drugs. The obsession and that compulsion to use is just really heavy. The physical damage can be huge. You don’t eat, so you lose a lot of weight and have no energy. When you use needles you can get abscesses and all sorts of illnesses and infections as well as the big ones, Hep C and HIV (which I was spared thanks to clean needles from Merchants Quay). It’s just devastating.

Psychologically it’s hell. The self loathing is really amplified. You hate yourself and you turn everything inward. It’s a vicious circle. The physical addiction is terrible and the mental obsession and the compulsion to use is so strong, really strong. You feel worthless, thinking you’ll never get out of it and you use more drugs to suppress that hopeless feeling. You just keep pushing stuff down when it comes up, pushing it down and covering it up with more drink and more drugs.

Rehab

Families try to step in, but they get pushed away. You can bring a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. You can only show them the way, then it’s up to them to do the walking. It’s important that families don’t blame themselves. And don’t forget the other children in the family – because the addict becomes the focus of attention even though it’s negative. The rest of the family needs to be loved and nurtured. They need help dealing with the stress and conflict that addiction creates in the family.

When you finally enter rehab it’s tough. The emotional pain you have to deal with can feel overwhelming. It’s commendable when anyone goes into rehab and stays and sticks with it. It’s really hard. The emotions you have been pushing down with drink and drugs begin to surface. You can start feeling like a ball of shame and guilt and you want to run from that feeling, back to the drugs and drinking. Some people do run and the cycle of self-hatred starts all over again. But many people, like myself, stay and do the hard work it takes to rebuild our self-worth and self-respect. You have to forgive yourself for the mistakes you’ve made, for the damage you have done to yourself and others. Making amends to your family and rebuilding relationships is all part of the on-going process of recovery.

But many young people aren’t even given the chance for recovery from addiction. I think there should be more focus in Ireland on people getting off drugs, and not just on giving them methadone maintenance. I think the focus should be on rehab beds and detox units that help young people move out of addiction. There are an estimated 20,000 heroin users in Ireland and we have a shortage of 104 detox beds and 252 rehab beds. You can’t break free from addiction if there’s no place to go for help.

Brendan Magee will graduate in 2012 with a Social Science degree from UCD and is an addiction counsellor working toward his IAAAC accreditation. He completed his drug-free rehab at Merchants Quay Ireland.

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Brendan Magee

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