Hidden faces

Rachael (author)To commemorate 30 years of supporting family members affected by loved ones’ drug and alcohol use, Adfam has launched a photo exhibition that celebrates ‘the tough love that gets up to fight another day’. Rachael Evans explains

Adfam is a charity founded in 1984 by the mother of a drug user who could not find the support she needed to cope with her son’s addiction. From humble beginnings as a grassroots organisation, bringing together worried mums and dads, we have come a long way. Today we inform policy development, campaign nationally and locally for improved family support services and carry out regional development work with services and practitioners throughout the country. We have grown in size and influence to become the national umbrella organisation working to improve support for families affected by a loved one’s addiction. We work closely with local support services, partner organisations, professionals, government and, of course, families themselves to ensure that no family in need of support goes without it.

We at Adfam are always looking for ways to reduce the isolation of the families we support; so to mark our 30th birthday this year we are running a campaign to raise awareness of the stigma that these families so often suffer. Through this we will encourage people to speak out about their experiences and problems in an attempt to combat the stigma surrounding addiction, felt by both users themselves and their families.

Stigma comes from an assumption about an individual or a group and results in people being treated differently or seen as a stereotype. The person is dehumanised and is perceived not only as behaving differently from ‘us’, but actually being different to ‘us’. Families as well as users are stigmatised, sometimes seen as being responsible for their relative’s addiction or assumed to be ‘bad families’.

Michael HallWe believe that families are often the unseen victims of drug and alcohol use, facing not only the impacts of their loved one’s addiction, but also grappling with the stigma and shame they feel from friends, family, neighbours, their communities and wider society. However, rather than being to blame for their loved one’s addiction, families are often an essential source of support and ambition for substance users, and play a crucial role in their recovery. Stigma discourages families from coming forward to seek the support they so desperately need, negatively impacts on their health and wellbeing, leads to isolation and renders them less able to support their loved one. What is required is an understanding of the difficult predicaments these families face and the potential for recovery.

To this end, the highlight of our campaign will be our 30th birthday portrait exhibition, The other faces of addiction, where we will showcase 30 portraits – 30 portraits for 30 years – of families who have experienced, or who are still experiencing, the rippling effects of addiction. We have worked with an excellent photographer, David Collingwood, to capture their strength and humanity and to reach out to those who are feeling alone and helpless, encouraging them to come forward for support.

‘I came to this project aware that no two families are affected by addiction in the same way,’ says David. ‘I expected sad stories – and there were plenty – but the people I met were funny, fierce, angry, proud, elated, frustrated and hopeful. What impressed me most was the positive energy of the mothers, fathers, grandparents and siblings: the tough love that gets up to fight another day, and another.’

The stories we’ve heard along the way have sometimes been heartbreaking while others have made us laugh out loud. But they are all undeniably inspiring and touching. Adfam would like to thank all of those who have shared their experiences with us and bravely spoken out on this crucial issue.

Kate 2We came to better understand the true impact that stigma has on families, as one of our participants, Nicola, explained: ‘I had to keep my son’s drug use from the rest of the family, have heard the derogatory way people talk about drug users, and I’ve seen the look in people’s eyes when they find out about my son’s addiction. Luckily, I have friends who see the person he is, rather than the drug user.’

Another of our exhibition participants, Amanda, expressed her eagerness to be involved in a campaign such as this: ‘We want to show that these issues happen to all kinds of families. It’s good to know there is work going on out there to support carers, friends and families with the emotional as well as the practical impacts that substance misuse can have on a family.’ One lady who came forward to be a part of our portrait exhibition, while feeling very passionately that she wanted to be involved in the campaign, nonetheless felt unable to give her real name or even reveal her face in the portrait because of, she said, ‘the shame and stigma that still surrounds drug use today.’

Speaking to these families and hearing their stories has shown that the issue of stigma is a real one – and is in need of addressing. We wanted our campaign to bring everyone together in support of this cause, so we have encouraged local family support organisations to hold their own awareness and fundraising events and provided them with campaign packs containing advice and ideas. We received an excellent response from local organisations wanting to be a part of our celebrations by promoting awareness of Adfam and their own local services, and there will be exciting events taking place throughout the country over the coming months, from drop-in advice sessions in Peterborough to games nights and cake sales in Scunthorpe!

Delighted with the level of enthusiasm for our campaign and portrait exhibition, we decided to spread the message by offering organisations around the country the opportunity to replicate our The other faces of addiction exhibition locally – and services were quick to snap this up. ‘This is a fantastic idea! The replica exhibition would be a fantastic opportunity to involve other agencies and organisations in supporting families,’ said one of our supporters, who works for a small family support service.

JamesAgain, we were thrilled with the overwhelming response from our supporters, and our exhibition will now reach a much wider audience, as it’s being showcased at the Feminism in London 2014 conference, various regional events and beyond. These exhibitions will run from October until the end of the year – and possibly into 2015 – with the portraits displayed in libraries, county halls, reception waiting rooms and at local fundraising events all over the country. We even hope to get them displayed in the House of Commons, taking our message of hope to the heart of Westminster. Many of you should therefore have an opportunity to drop into one of the exhibitions and see the impressive results for yourself. 

You can read more about Adfam, the campaign and the local activities taking place over the coming month at www.adfam.org.uk.

Rachael Evans is research and policy coordinator at Adfam

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