Putting families first The third Families First conference heard how the will for family support was there – even if the money was hard to come by The Labour Party is totally committed to the families agenda, said Luciana Berger, shadow minister for public health. Addressing the Adfam/DDN Families First conference, she said her party was looking at how it could work with families further. ‘We don’t just see through the lens of the Troubled Families programme,’ she said. ‘We don’t just see them as problems to solve.’ Megan Jones from Public Health England (PHE) said that while commissioning increasingly focused on delivery, outcomes and value for money, ‘we can make a case for solid value for money for family services.’ The needs of families were now being taken seriously, she said, and statutory requirements and treatment providers would play a key role in leading the drug and alcohol field into this brave new world. ‘Why do commissioners always give the money to the big organisations, when we do all the work?’ asked Maddy Vaz of the charity Sanctuary Family Support. Berger responded that clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) needed to be held to account. ‘There’s nothing to stop anyone in this room turning up at their health and wellbeing board,’ she said. Alex Boyt, service user coordinator in Camden, spoke of the ‘really harsh environment out there’, with just one family worker in his London borough, while Dr Martyn Hull said general practice was the ideal place to support families. ‘Don’t dismember shared care,’ he said. Investment needed to take place in primary care, so that GPs knew how to help families deal with harder-to-spot problems such as dependency on new psychoactive substances. Lisa Sturrock of WDP’s children and families service pointed out that for many children school was a safe place – ‘so exclusion’s an issue’. Support also needed to be holistic, she said, and there was discussion about how families could draw strength from the recovery movement. ‘We need to make the case for people recovering at a pace that suits them,’ said Boyt, while Maya Parker of Nacoa said ‘we have to use what’s already there – use each other.’ This kind of mutual support was demonstrated effectively by Claire Robinson, who explained how her organisation, Props, was formed for ‘women to prop each other up’. From meeting in each others’ kitchens ten years ago because of the lack of support and investment in family services, the group had became a close-knit team that made carers feel listened to. ‘Respite is an important part of making sure people are physically and emotionally well,’ she said. ‘We had over 300 referrals last year and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.’ The current landscape was ‘challenging’ with ‘all of us expected to do more for less’ and the threat of many small services disappearing. But Props was determined to survive, she said. ‘With a small organisation you feel that personal responsibility and that gives you the edge and determination to make things happen.’ ‘We’ve heard about the challenges of the future,’ said Adfam’s chief executive Vivienne Evans, closing the conference. ‘The need hasn’t changed, though the way we deal with it might have. ‘We’re trying to combat stigma and we need to have a movement – like the recovery movement – to shout louder. Come on, let’s think. Luciana Berger talked about hidden heroes in families, but there are also hidden sufferers.’ **** Bringing a busy day of presentations, debate and networking to a close, Emma reminded the recent Families First conference why family support is worth fighting for. Here’s an extract of her story For the first few years of my life I was unaware that my mum was any different to any other. She would be there to collect me from school; a beautiful vision of long dark hair and big brown eyes. I never noticed the slight wobble on her heels or slurred speech – these things meant little to a seven-year-old. She would be there every day to take us to school and waiting to walk us home. She would be there to cheer us on during sports day or see our nativity plays. I was about 11 the first time she went ‘away’ to hospital for a rest. My little brother and I went to stay with nan – her warm comforting home was our place of sanctuary. Nan took care of everything and we thrived there. I was a model pupil at the time and it didn’t seem to matter too much that mum stopped showing up to watch performances, games or go to parents evening. My bubble burst when mum didn’t collect my younger brother from school one day and the local vicar took him home to find she had overdosed on Valium and alcohol. She claimed it was accidental, but that was the moment my childhood ended. An ambulance took mum away and she was sectioned to the dreaded D block – a place whispered about in hushed tones. Only dad could visit her and on Sundays she would come out and we would go to country parks. The vibrant woman that I adored so much as a little girl was gone; she was just a shadow. Her sadness was palpable even then and I would count the hours till it was time for her to return to her sanctuary and we could return to ours. I could list the awful, embarrassing and sometimes violent moments that followed in the years after. There was the day I came in from horse riding and she went to slap me because I had muddy boots. In her drunken state she missed, but I was faster and full of anger and one slap from me sent her flying to the floor. She didn’t get up. My brother and I stood over her. I thought I’d killed her – and for one tiny moment I hoped I had, stopping that feeling of unending dread of the increasing times she would turn into a drunken mess and seek attention through declarations of terminal illness, or attack us mentally, verbally or physically. I hadn’t killed her; she had just passed out drunk. We dragged her into her chair and left her to sleep it off. When she woke up she had wet herself, such was her stupor. My loathing for her at that moment cannot really be put into words, and yet she couldn’t remember any of it. I went from being a model student to disruptive one and teachers would ask what was wrong. My excuses were varied but never the truth – a shameful secret I kept from everyone. I couldn’t tell them the reason I hadn’t handed in my homework was because I had been busy cleaning up her vomit; or making tea for the family, desperately trying to restore some normality to our chaos; or that I had lain awake all night after a screaming match with a mad woman. After leaving school I went to college and work. I went through a phase of going out on weekends and drinking to complete oblivion. I wanted to know what the attraction was; why she found such comfort in it. I found no comfort there, it only led to more vicious rows and after one particularly horrendous weekend, when I failed to come home, she threw me out. I discovered I was pregnant on Christmas Eve 1986 and Laura Louise was born on 24 May 1987. That sweet baby saved my life. Finally all the love I craved from my own mother I was able to bestow on my perfect baby girl. Sadly her father resented the fact that I had heaped the responsibility of being a parent on to him and our relationship slid into a cycle of mental and physical abuse. When a job came up with a local carpet company I applied hoping the extra money would make life better for us all and fix things. It was there that I met Glenn, who became my husband and a true father to my little girl – 20 years later we are still together and happy as a family. Mum had a massive stroke at 59 and for a time she forgot she drank, and was sober. I visited and cared for her; we had a precious few months together with love and clarity. I had a mum, even if it was for a short time, and she was doing really well when sadly the wrong person stepped into her life again. She chose a path that led eventually to complete organ failure, dying alone in a hospital with no one there to hold her hand and tell it was okay to let go, or that she was loved. I didn’t grieve for mum, after all no one really expected me to. Was she worthy of grief? After all, she had chosen alcohol over her family. Then I read an article in a newspaper, which directed me to an online charity called COAP – a place where young people can talk openly and confidentially about their feelings, and seek help and advice. Finally I could reach out and turn my negative experiences into something positive. I realised I wasn’t facing my own demons or coping with my own grief, so I saw a Cruse counsellor who urged me to seek closure. I found mum’s final resting place and wanted to ensure that those who loved her and needed closure could say goodbye, knowing she was finally at peace. Dad kindly bought a plaque for her, even though they had been divorced many years before. On a summer’s afternoon recently we all gathered together and gave mum a fitting goodbye. Saying goodbye to mum and giving her forgiveness was a huge part of my journey; it helped enormously as forgiveness is easier to carry than bitterness. Addiction has a ripple effect like a stone dropped on a pond, affecting everyone it touches. We need to break down those barriers of shame and silence, which is why groups like COAP and DrugFam are vital. Young people need to feel they are being listened to and that they are not alone. We can’t change their lives, but we can listen, share experiences and support them, helping them find peace and closure.