Detach with love

The story of a son’s spiralling descent into alcohol addiction and the effects on one ordinary family and their fight to save him.

A decade on - have things changed in the treatment of alcohol addiction?

They say that the start of a new year is a good time to reflect and as we enter 2017 we look back on the 11 years since our son – a chronic alcoholic - was found dead. His condition was as a direct consequence of binge drinking at university.

We thought it might be a useful test, to see if anything has changed in the way universities and Society approached alcoholism in young people.

Our son left home to go to university a normal bright young lad. Seven years later he died destitute and alone in a flat in Brighton.

In the intervening years since we discovered he was an alcoholic, we spent most of our waking time trying to find ways to help him. When that was not possible, we turned to the medical profession, Social Services and other bodies to help him.

To a degree, his addiction was not surprising.

In a culture in which universities openly encouraged the promotion of very cheap alcohol on their premises heavy drinking became almost inevitable, (for many different reasons), to a large number of young people away from home for the first time.

In our experience, these organizations, with breathtaking disregard, dramatically failed to see that some of the students in their care were vulnerable young people – lacking parental control and obviously requiring pastoral care.

Once our son died I have written a book - “Detach with Love” - about our experiences. We have set up a campaigning website in the hope that others would learn from our experiences. A principle platform being to encourage those that work in the field of alcoholism and student care to review and consider their practices.

Like many parents of an addict the slow death of our son from this terrible disease opened up a world of terrifying and awful aspects of our lives that we hoped we would never see. We learnt a lot about how Society views and responds to young alcoholics. At that time the most important factor underlined to us, was the notion that under no circumstances should we intervene until, and only until the addict asks for help.

The idea that an alcoholic should be allowed to reach “rock- bottom,” is presumably in the hope that this will somehow provide them with a “light bulb” moment ready for treatment. This deeply ingrained, and we think dangerous view is held by many professionals. We believe that it is imperative that Society should intervene at the earliest possible stage in order for lives to be saved.

Eleven years on, we ask ourselves, have things improved?

If our son was to set out on his self-destructive path through university now, would he still face the same challenges?

The answer is that we sense nothing has changed - there has been little in the way of improvement to the way we treat addicts.

Evidence from those that write to my Website or our Social media suggests that very little has changed.

Two recent instances come to mind. One was of a young girl, who was desperately pleading on behalf of her brother for someone to intervene and bring him the help he so obviously needed. Intervention never seemed to come. This guy was homeless, in a spiral of self-destruction, suffered mental health problems and clearly was not in a position (like so many) to make a rational decision to seek help.

The second, a student at Manchester University, died after drinking huge amounts of alcohol at an initiation ceremony. Universities have responded by saying that this was one of a string of several similar deaths, which they recognized they needed to address. Meanwhile they continue to allow cheap alcohol to be served on their premises.

These are two very different manifestations of the same problem but they serve to show that things may not have moved on very much.

Looking around for evidence, we find that access to mental health services and housing/ housing support has worsened over the last few years and there is certainly a rise in homelessness. We are aware that there have been a number of reports of severe reduction in the funding of some of the essential Social Services. A report a few weeks ago stated that about two out of five college students had engaged in recent binge drinking episodes.

It doesn’t look like much has improved.

Obviously we are no longer directly involved in the front line of addiction treatments. It may be that there have been some improvements in the services, response times and way that Society generally treats addicts. We just don’t know but for our campaign to remain focused we need to find out. We will be seeking to gather evidence via Social media, posting to appropriate web sites and other platforms to try to determine whether our campaign must continue and if so how best we can move forward.