Sex, drugs, gambling and alcohol. The epitome of a rock’n’roll lifestyle, right? Not really. One in three people in Ireland battle addiction, so why do we still drink and recreationally use drugs when we know the damage they can do?

When I had my first taste of alcohol at 17, I thought I was just great. For me, it did not turn into something life-destroying, but for many, it does. Searching for fulfillment at the bottom of a Buckfast bottle has resulted, for many young Irish people, in a downward spiral towards drugs, crime, and self-harm or suicide.

When so many families are touched by addiction, why is there still such a misunderstanding about it in Irish society? The idea  that ‘he’s a bad one’ tends to be the norm with people who were lucky enough to avoid having an addict in the family. Parents are sometimes seen as irresponsible- their poor unfortunate addicted child having been ‘dragged up.’ In the majority of cases, this is simply not true.

The thing about addiction is it can happen to anyone; the hard-working nurse who never sees her kids and meets her husband in the doorway after a night-shirt, the young man with an undiagnosed learning disability, the entrepreneur who lost his business after building it up from the ground. Gone are the days when a drug addict or alcoholic had to be one of two things: a homeless person, or a ‘scumbag.’

Addiction can lead to alienation; families, friends and employers become afraid of an addict’s erratic behaviour and eventually, in many cases, they wind up all alone in a big bad world that threatens to destroy them. Their needs increase, especially when this alienation begins, and often the addiction spirals out of control. People can try to help, but the mind of an addict is one-track: always thinking about the next fix, and not much else.

The suffering endured by an addict’s loved ones is often taken on the chin (up to a point), but it can become something very destructive. Families can be torn apart, become ill, and fall into depression  due to the helplessness and vulnerability they feel. They can also be put in physical danger by the addict, who may not have much control over their actions.

For an outsider, it can be hard to understand why a mother stands by a daughter who has shamed herself through drugs and crime. For a brother, it can often be easier to disown the addict and wash his hands of the troublesome sibling. But what does the addict do?

Many young people who become dependent on drugs and alcohol are influenced by their peers, but their decisions are still exactly that- DECISIONS. What we have to remember though, is that one bad decision can lead to something that they can no longer manage, and for this, they cannot be blamed entirely. Self-harm and suicidal tendencies can creep in, and if the addict is alone, having being cast out by those who once cared for them, the unthinkable can happen.

There are many places in Ireland where addicts can be helped to detox and recover with the help of doctors and dedicated addiction counsellors, but he/she has to WANT to get clean. The assumption that a drug addict or alcoholic is an inherently bad person can decrease their self-worth even more, and can make them think that there is no point in getting clean or sober; ‘I’ll always be known as a scumbag.’

There is no point in providing help for these people if there is not enough awareness about the differing circumstances that can lead to addiction. It is not a dirty word. Everyone is touched by it at some stage in their lives; be it an uncle who drinks too much, a stressed-out mum who relies on more and more sleeping pills every night, or a sibling who gets in with the wrong crowd.

The worst thing we can do in Irish society is pre-judge people with addictions. Chances are, that drunken ‘mess’ asleep on the bench lost her parents at a young age, or that junkie in the alley is suffering from serious depression, and didn’t know where to turn- we just don’t know.

We have to learn to open our hearts and minds to addicts- underneath is a real person, just like me and you. A person with feelings and a conscience, who more than likely wants their life back.

Visit www.drugs.ie for information and resources on drug addiction, or www.drinkaware.ie for information about alcoholism.