AFFMs in this study described experiencing significant and extreme changes to their lifestyle, working life and relationships, as well as increased psychological and financial distress. Participants described their experiences of being close to someone using ice as ‘stressful’, ‘chaotic’, and ‘unpredictable’, often resulting from verbal abuse, physical aggression and violence. AFFMs reported variable levels of support for their current situation. While some had the support of other family members and friends, many others reporting experiences of social isolation. Negative stereotypes, inaccurate portrayals of ice use, and the experience of stigma were common.
A number of key themes emerged from the thematic analysis, namely loss, stigma, support (or lack thereof), ways of coping, and the value in sharing personal experiences.
The experience of loss emerged as a strong presence throughout AFFMs’ stories, despite not forming part of any formal questioning. It was the pre-eminent theme, in itself, and overlapped the other identified themes. In telling their stories, AFFMs regularly described experiences of loss permeating through all aspects of their lives.
The experience of ‘loss’ covered many domains for AFFMs in the current study and was present both in discussions about the person using ice, and when the AFFM discussed themselves. Loss included actual physical loss via death:
Participant 1 [woman who had lost her daughter to suicide via overdose]:“I don’t understand what it did to her to help her … and take herself out”
Participant 1: “But we all go, we all have battles that we need to, and, you know, as I say to myself and other people when they say that, you know, the loss of your child. But as I say, I had mine for 21 years. Some people don’t have them for 21 minutes”
Participant 1:“I’ve had a definite change in who I am through the loss of a child”.
‘Loss’ also permeated AFFM’s stories through their descriptions of the person they once knew, someone who had changed, a known and loved person who had become seemingly lost to ice use:
Participant 3:“She was great, professional, wouldn’t swear, wouldn’t lie, wouldn’t steal, you know perfect member of society, very professional... the opposite. (Later after starting using ice) Would steal, would lie, swear like a trooper, you know. Basically, living on the streets.”
Participant 1:“Where I just sort of thought, oh you know, you’re going to end up being a waste of space and how can this be happening... to this incredible creature... that seemingly had everything to live for”
Also reported, was a loss of future dreams and goals, both for AFFMs and for their loved one using ice.
Participant 4:“We have got, um, her four children, ah, in permanent care with us, now. Um, when I say us, me and my husband. Ah, but in the last six months, me and my husband have split up. And it’s all been caused through this…um, as well as me having a nervous breakdown. And, yeah, its, its um, it’s just, yeah, and I’m a mot-, ah, I’m a grandmother of um, 21 grandkids, so…these four grandkids are, are taking over our lives, you know? And I carry a lot of resentment for the kids… And that’s not fair. I know it’s not their fault. But I just resent them so much… for taking this part of our life away”
Participant 4:“And that [money stolen] was going to go on buying an RV and we were going to travel around Australia”
Grief and loss extended to aspirations as to what the loved one could have been, including concerns about their future ability to lead a normal life.
Participant 5:“From the very beginning I’ve worked with him to keep a life and build a life. I made sure he, during that time, he finished an apprenticeship. I drove him to work for four years, and I lived out of town, to make sure he got work”
Participant 6:“And that broke, it broke my heart. Like I just cried because I was like, you worked so hard and that was something that was just yours. And no one else had anything to do with it. And that was something you could have been proud of. And you’ve lost it all.”
(Girlfriend of ice user who had lost his DJ business due to drug use)
For some AFFMs in our study, the loss experienced was reflective, not a fully formed response; a sense of no longer ‘knowing’ the person using ice.
Participant 1:“I couldn’t believe that this was my child and I thought… what have you done with my child? Can I please have her back please?”
Participant 1: “This isn’t the person I know”.
Others spoke of observing a separation between the former ‘person’ and their current persona:
Participant 5:“I’d see him… where you’d look and you’d go, oh he’s gone. He’s gone, he’s gone...”
Participant 1:“I think the thing that I have mostly taken from it is I thought I knew my child…. There’s a child in there and then there’s a drug addict”.
Participants spoke of enormous disruption to, and loss of, a ‘normal’ life. This was reflected in comments about social disruption, as well as at very practical levels. The role of caring for someone impacted by ice became paramount in people’s daily lives:
Participant 7:“Because this became a full-time job”
Participant 8:“Because I am sitting here all day with no motivation. I’m just smoking continuously, one after the other”.
Participant 8:“Nothing. Been trying to get me haircut for two months and no, that’s just out of the question, at the moment, as well”.
The experience of loss extended to family cohesion, with many AFFM’s highlighting the devastating impact of ice use on family relationships. For some, the loss of relationships and family cohesion also further limited the support they could receive from those family members, thereby isolating them further.
Participant 8:“Everybody’s divided. Everybody is just divided. I argue with them all the time, they tell me to um, stop trying to help her. I have ruined the family by allowing her to keep coming here and trying to help her.”
The impact of ice use on families was pronounced; destroying and dividing families:
Participant 4:“It’s just destroyed the whole family…it’s drawn a wedge between me and my other kids”
As well as the loss of one’s drug using relative, either because they had changed so substantially or through death, and the loss of the hopes and aspirations that the participants had for that relative, and for their hoped for lives together, there was also a loss of self, highlighted in the ways AFFM’s described how they had altered as a person, as a result of living with someone who was using ice. This included both loss of self to psychological distress, as well as the loss of self, resultant from disruption to life roles and activities.
Participant 8:“I’m a changed person”
Participant 6:“And so… I was lost. I couldn’t actually help myself because all of my energy and all of my emotions were going into try and get him help”
Participant 4:“Well I gave up my nursing when we got the [grand]kids…I’ve given up working for other things… we lost our friends”
The loss reported by AFFMs was not linear and interviewees found it challenging to ‘resolve’ because it was also influenced by the nuance of hope and cycles of despair.
Participant 8:“You’ll have her out, she’ll be back here in a couple of days and we’ll be dealing with the same shit”
Participant 5:“You’re feeling despair, and there are no words that are going to comfort a mother’s heart from that despair”
Respondents often reflected on this cycle with comments such as:
Participant 9:“This isn’t my first ride on the merry-go-round”.
Participant 8:“And I always get the same thing. Always “I’m not going to do it anymore”. It’s ruined my life. I just want my family back. I just want my son back”
Capacity to find cognitive congruence was often difficult for the AFFM participants. One participant stated:
Participant 3:‘‘I don’t know how people live with this, I really don’t.’’
Another participant spoke of being trapped, proclaiming;
Participant 4:“There is no escape”.
Being ‘lost’ was a particular word which arose on a multitude of occasions. For most participants it was incredibly difficult to fathom why and how they had, not only lost a sense of the person they love, but lost themselves in the process.
Participant 4:“And now because they are in our care, I can’t have my husband to myself. It’s just that I’m so lonely…”
Trying to find meaning was an on-going, complex process.
Participant 2:“I just stopped looking for the reasons why and um, I don’t know. There’s no point in agonizing over why it’s happened. You’ve just got to go, well its happened. And what do we do?”
In summary, participants spoke of family breakdown, changes in family dynamics, feeling dislocated from family, friends and society, and the loss of the person using ice, as well as the loss of their own sense of ‘self’; all associated with their loved one’s use of ice. There was evidence of complex emotions ranging from despair (participant 7“…because we were just over it”) to fear (Participant 8“I did put a lock on my door last year when she was threatening me”) to guilt (Participant 1“…and I’ll never forgive myself”).
This led to an experience of living with or supporting a person using ice that was characterised by guilt, shame, and stigma. The impact of experiencing loss that could not be openly acknowledged was also significant.
The experience of stigma
The experience of stigma on affected family members and friends was evident throughout many stories, with AFFMs frequently reporting social isolation as a result. This further extended to include discussions about the stigma of ice use and the difficulties of public grieving.
Participant 7:“You have to choose what you tell your friends or who you tell, which friends you tell, because people become very distrusting…. And so, they don’t want to be involved. They don’t want to be involved. They don’t want to have anything to do with it”
Participant 7:“What I found out very early on is that you can’t trust anyone… you have to be very selective on who knows about this… extremely selective. Because people are very judging.”
AFFMs reflected that stigma, whether directly experienced, perceived, or feared, affected their inclination to seek support from others, including professionals, social networks, and, indeed, sometimes within their own family unit:
Participant 1:“That’s probably my stigma because the way I see it is I’ve already lost my child… do I have to go through more?”
Participant 2:“I kept it from my friends… I don’t know that I’ve even really admitted to them that he’s a drug addict… and I think I’ve disguised his bizarre behaviour in terms of the mental health issues”
AFFMs suggested that the stigma of ice use added to their isolation and, therefore, inhibited the grieving process. One participant encapsulated this by saying:
Participant1:“Because I still think there’s such a stigma attached to saying out loud my son or daughter uses ice. I don’t say it out loud”.
Fear of social disapprobation meant sadness was often internalised. One participant described this with the metaphor –
Participant 9:‘‘Oh, I lock them [feelings] away in that little box, you know, that no-one ever talks about and I don’t think about it.’’
Support (or lack thereof)
Participants spoke of a systemic lack of support. This ranged from friends and family to mental health services and police. Many associated this with negative societal perceptions of the relative worth of people using ice, highlighting a link between lack of support and stigma:
Participant 8:“I rang the police station, they told me to ring the MST team. I rang the MST team, they told me to ring somewhere else. I rang somewhere else, they told me it was the police’s responsibility. I rang back the police, they told me it wasn’t their responsibility. Thirty phone calls later…. Nobody was responsible”
Participant 10:“Ice addicts come into accident and emergency and you see things like that, and they’re horrible despicable people, but the person loves them doesn’t think that way, and sometimes they just need support from other people who are in the situation. They’re not bad people and someone does care about how they are feeling”
Ways of coping
Participants described the ways in which they tried to ‘cope’ with the impact of their loved one using ice. Some strategies were practical (e.g., information garnering). Others involved talking to someone (although complicated by responses of some people and value judgements). Several participants described seeking ‘comfort’ through eating, exercise or watching television. Still others spoke of a need to write and reflect. Participants often ignored their own needs to prioritise those of the person with the addiction.
For some participants time and prioritising self were challenging.
Participant 11:“He thinks I should do counselling but, um, it’s just trying to fit it in.”
Participant 7:“So, your health, your mental health, your physical health, your emotional health, becomes, just goes further and further down the list… and the same with all your other family members. So, because the problem is so consuming that it just covers everything else”
Participant 12:“I’ve tried to help my brother to the point that it’s been to my own detriment.”
On a positive note, one participant named belief as a means of surviving.
Participant 13:“How have I coped? Because I’ve always had hope.”
The value in sharing personal experiences
Participants spoke of a desire to generate support for other people in a similar situation through the sharing of their story.
Participant 1:“When this tragedy happened, we all looked at each other and went, yeah this can shatter families. This won’t shatter our family. There’s got to be something good that comes out of a tragedy”
This was a highly motivating reason for participation and far exceeded people’s interest in a tangible gain. (Participants were offered a music store voucher – some declined and others chose to give the voucher to someone else.) Parallel to this altruistic motivation was a valuing in being able to tell their story in a non-judgemental climate.
Participant 14:“…if this can make it easier for someone else.”
Participant 14“…the story or the experience is important”
Participant 15:“…sharing experiences”( when asked what would be helpful in a program).