Can a book or TV programme challenge the stigma around addiction? Shuggie Bain, the prize-winning novel about a boy growing up in Glasgow with an alcoholic mother, didn’t sound to me like a potential bestseller. In fact, it sounded like a potentially grim read for lockdown, likely to raise issues from my own childhood, growing up with a dad who drank too much. However, as I listened to the author, Douglas Stuart, explaining why he decided to write the book and talking about the death of his own mother who had struggled with alcohol, I started to change my mind. He spoke with such love and compassion for his mother that I wondered if this book might in fact cast a more hopeful light on families living with a loved one’s addiction. I bought the book and read it in a matter of days.
I recognised some of my own story in Shuggie Bain – not in specific situations, but in the emotions; the stress of constantly monitoring a parent’s behaviour to see if they have been drinking, anxiously checking to make sure they haven’t harmed themselves whilst drunk or searching for a hidden bottle. Douglas Stuart himself talks about “how exhausting it is to love a parent with addiction”. Discussing the book with other family members in the Scottish Families book group, it occurred to me that although we shared many of the same experiences, our responses, feelings and attitudes could be quite different. There was anger, shame, frustration but also love and humour. For those reading the book who haven’t experienced living with a loved one’s addiction, it might be hard to understand why Shuggie doesn’t become impatient with his mother. However, as many family members know, it is possible to continue to love the person who is drinking whilst hating the addiction. I found my anger towards my father diminished over the years and I was able to develop some understanding of his drinking after he died. Every family is different and even within families, the responses can vary, as is the case with Shuggie’s siblings.
I was surprised by the lack of shame Shuggie felt about his mum’s drinking. My own childhood was filled with shame and the determination to keep my dad’s drinking a secret. I thought my family were an exception but now realise there were many other families struggling with addiction, but we didn’t have anywhere to talk about our experiences. Reading a book like this back then or seeing a similar story on television, would have been a comfort to me. I have spent more evenings than usual watching the soaps during the lockdown and I’ve been following closely the storyline of Peter Barlow on Corrie [Coronation Street TV Programme] because it seems realistic to me, not shying away from the physical impact of long- term heavy drinking and the reality of relapse. The impact on his family, their hope, frustration and despair feel familiar to me and many other families I’m sure. Does it help people who don’t have that lived experience get a better understanding of addiction? Maybe that’s not the point, maybe the point is that it helps families who are impacted to feel less alone, feel that their stories are being heard. Challenging society’s stigma about addiction is important so that much needed support services are properly funded but for those families living the storyline right now, recognising they are not alone, seeing their stories portrayed sympathetically, maybe the one thing that helps them reach out for support.
Author: Beverly (Scottish Families Volunteer)
If you are worried about someone else’s alcohol or drug use, we are here to listen and to help. You can contact our team on 08080 10 10 11, firstname.lastname@example.org or use the webchat on our website.