14 June 2018

“I’d a wife and two kids. Everything looked perfect to the outside world. It wasn’t.”

Published in the Journal.ie on Monday 11th June 2018 

Written by: Sean Murray, thejournal.ie

'I'd a wife and two kids. Everything looked perfect to the outside world. It wasn't. I was addicted to cocaine'

A middle-class family brought to the brink by a father’s cocaine use speak about an addiction that cross all demographics.

If you looked at the front of our house. A car and van out the front. The lights were on. Family inside. Everything looked perfect to the outside world. But it wasn’t.

STEPHEN* took cocaine at a work do with friends and then became addicted to it for three years. He had spent a fortune. He owed drug dealers money. He was on the brink of losing his wife Rachel* and his kids because of his addiction.

He and Rachel had good, steady jobs. They had a spacious home in north Dublin. But his cocaine use brought the family to the brink.

Stephen eventually went and sought help, kicked the habit and has got his and his family’s lives back on track.

Last week, the husband and wife sat down to share their story with TheJournal.ie to help raise awareness of an addiction that doesn’t strike just one demographic or socio-economic group, and the supports that are available to those in a crisis.

‘Social drinking’

Stephen said that he would have drank and taken other drugs on nights out when he was younger but that all stopped when Rachel became pregnant with their first child. But while he stopped taking drugs, the drinking continued and escalated.

He said that it was alcohol that paved the way for his later cocaine addiction.

“It was an issue for a really long time,” he said. “It would have looked like social drinking to some, but it wasn’t a positive experience in my home.”

Rachel said that Stephen’s drinking escalated over time, and had reached a point where every four months or so, it would “come to a head”.

She said: “He’d stop drinking for a couple of weeks… and then he’d start again. At the time, we were still very young. Our friends seemed like they were drinking just as much.

But the aftermath of their drinking wasn’t the same. I kept his drinking quiet. Anything that would have happened at home was never something I shared. I didn’t want to hear ‘why are you putting up with him?’ or anything like that.

Stephen said that “drink was always there” but that as he got older he found it harder and harder to “keep up the pace” during drinking sessions.

And that’s what led him to try cocaine.

“I was out at a work do one day,” he said. “We started drinking at around 10am in the morning. I knew I wouldn’t be able to last the pace so when one of the lads said he had cocaine, I went and done a few of lines of it.

At the time, I felt I’d found my masterplan. Drink all day, and be able to keep going. That was my kind of lead into it. I didn’t know anything about addiction. I felt I’d be able to control it. I did cocaine for three years.

Common threads

Stephen’s case is not unusual.

According to statistics from the Health Research Board, cocaine is becoming more prevalent as the main “problem drug” reported by those seeking treatment in Ireland, and the numbers treated for cocaine use rose for the third year in a row in 2016.

Dr Suzi Lyons, senior researcher at the HRB, said last month that “since 2014, there has been a steady increase in the proportion of cases reporting cocaine as a main problem drug, rising from 8% (708 cases) of all cases in 2013 to 12% (1,138 cases) of all cases in 2016″.

The number of people presenting with cocaine issues that were in employment also rose. In 2010, 15% of all people presenting for treatment for cocaine use had a job. In 2016, this figure was 28%.

Fifteen-34 year-olds in Ireland are among the highest users of cocaine in Europe with 2.9% of this age group reporting to have used the drug in the past year.

The drug can also have fatal consequences with stats showing that the number of cocaine-related deaths increased 110% between 2010 and 2015.

The problems associated with cocaine did increase for Stephen as time went on and he started using more and more regularly.

He said: “About a year before I stopped I’d fully realised what I was doing was wrong. I was a totally different person. I thought I was bad to the core. My mental health was deteriorating and I thought there was no comeback.

I’d get into the car to go home from work with the full intention of not getting any. By the time I got to the end of the M50, I’d be on the phone to the dealer. I really didn’t want to stop. I couldn’t. It had got a hold of me… Nearly every night, I was on the phone to the dealer.

Right before he stopped, Stephen owed drug dealers and was taking money from Rachel to pay for his habit.

‘This is not the person I married’

As his cocaine use increased, Rachel said she knew that there was a change in Stephen but wasn’t sure what it was.

“I knew for a long time that something was wrong,” she said. “The last year I thought: who am I married to? This is not the person I married. We’d always been great friends and now we weren’t. I started to resent him. If I ever brought it to his attention, it was like I was just nagging.”

Things came to a head when she began to notice money going missing. She said she had received a bonus in work that was quickly taken from her account.

She said: “We were getting a bit of work done in the house, but I knew it couldn’t have been all that. I thought my card had been scammed. I went to the police. Some of the ATMs listed I knew I hadn’t been at. He said he wasn’t at them. But then he obviously realised I was going to figure it out.”

Rachel said she really didn’t know what Stephen was up to, but maybe subconsciously had an idea.

“I said to him ‘is it drugs?’,” she said. “I was in pure shock. I went into shutdown mode. The kids were with us. I said we’ll just get them home to bed.

I said to him then that you’ll pack your bags and you’ll leave. Just pack your bags and leave. I was very cold. I also rang his parents because part of me didn’t want to send him off alone. He was very vulnerable but at the same time, on that day in my head I was like ‘you’re gone’.

Seeking help

The next day, she called him with a clear choice: give up drink and drugs and get help, or she’d be gone. Rachel’s stance made it clear to Stephen that he needed to seek help.

“There was a big part of me that wanted to change,” he said. “When I got that ultimatum the drinking or drugging hadn’t stopped yet. I was still in that addictive behaviour.”

He then checked in to the Rutland Centre for treatment for his addiction. “I thought I’d go in there, and they’d just fix me,” he said. “I didn’t realise how much work I’d have to put in myself.

I’d have to bring an awareness to the parts of me that would block my recovery, and bring home the real impact I was having on Rachel and the kids. Those six weeks were powerful.

The pair outlined one specific instance that really hit home. They had told their eldest child that daddy had gone to a place to “teach him how to love us again”.

“For me, that was a big wake up moment,” Stephen said. “Whatever was going on, this wasn’t just about me. Recovery wasn’t just about me. It was also about them.”

He said that the recovery journey was a difficult one, involving a lot of learning how to manage his thoughts and identify the behaviours that would emerge when he was drinking or doing drugs.

Inside the Rutland Centre, he was surrounded by counsellors there to offer him support.

Outside the centre, however, Rachel was having to deal with it on her own. She was looking after their children, and going to visit regularly.

“I learnt a huge amount about addiction, and about myself in those few weeks,” she said. “The kids were well looked after but it was a terrible time.

I remember three weeks into it. I brought something up to him that was wrong. He got annoyed and then I realised how much shit I was taking at that point. I said to him ‘you’re on your own’. I decided I wouldn’t go up and see him. And that’s not like me. I’d become a bit of a caretaker so I started to stand up for myself. Then we made up after that. That was a change.

Road to recovery

It was with the support around him that Stephen really began to turn things around. “I recognised I was wrong,” he said. “It wasn’t okay for me to do this. She deserved an apology.

“I was sitting in a treatment centre with counsellors all around me. She was out there dealing with the world… that addictive behaviour was still present, and I had to work on that.”

And he did. Stephen managed to give up alcohol and drugs, and has been sober for quite some time.

He said: “For us, they say the early stage of recovery is the first five years. It’s a long journey. We had made a decision that we would try this relationship. We were always fundamentally good friends. We both got lost.”

Rachel agreed. She said that at the time she felt like she’d lost her best friend but, after rehab, she got a “much better version” of her best friend back.

They both attended aftercare sessions at the centre which drove home how many others were in a similar situation to them.

“I actually got to hear everyone else’s story,” she said. “It blew me away. This wasn’t just us going through this. It reinforced that this wasn’t my fault. For a long time, I didn’t think I was good enough, or he doesn’t love us enough. It really drove home for me. It opened my eyes.”

A ‘normal’ life

So how are they now? Stephen went and re-trained, and now also works to help those in the addiction field.

Rachel also volunteers in addiction services, while their eldest child is studying social and community work.

“We have good days and bad days, but we give each other that space,” she said.

Stephen said: “For me, in terms of this relationship, the greatest gift of recovery has been to be able to go back to my life. Having my family back. Being a husband, a father, a friend. It’s been a journey.

Tomorrow is our wedding anniversary. When I was going for treatment, I didn’t envision the two of us would be sitting here having this conversation.

His wife added: “We’ve both worked so hard to get here. Without that care he received, I don’t think we’d be sitting her right now.”

Stephen and Rachel are huge supporters of Recovery Walk Ireland, an awareness day to celebrate and build awareness of addiction and recovery. The 7th edition of the Ireland Recovery Walk takes place this 15 September.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved