The Reality Of Growing Up With Parents Addicted To Drugs

Photographed by Mert Mayda.
Drug and alcohol abuse doesn't just affect those with an addiction, it can rip families apart, cause financial strain, result in abusive behaviour and, if their parents are the ones with a problem, it can blight children for the rest of their lives. According to the charity Adfam, for families affected by drugs or alcohol, it can affect their health, education and development.
There are an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 children in England and Wales with one or both parents with serious drug problems, and there's a strong correlation between this and issues like poverty, physical and emotional abuse or neglect. But having a drug or alcohol problem doesn’t automatically make someone a bad parent, and many children with addicted parents do receive the love, support and everything else they need. Nevertheless, growing up with an addicted parent can often be heartbreaking.
Veronica Cook, 41, who is from London and now based in Kent, grew up with both parents addicted to heroin. Her father began taking heroin at 12 or 13 after some older teens introduced him to the drug, while her mother became addicted at 25, a decade after she first began dating Cook's father. Here, Cook shares her story with Refinery29. She has also written a book about the experience.
They both lived with heroin addiction for years. It got to a point where they would commit petty crimes to finance their addiction. Eventually they got fed up with that and my dad decided it would be better to start selling heroin so that he wasn't under the police's radar, rather than getting caught for burglary and crimes like that. They started out by supplying to only people they knew – it was never kind of dished out on the street, and they'd never supply to anybody who was too young, so in their eyes, they had morals. Society may have frowned upon it and looked at it very differently, I'm sure, but in their eyes they were trying to survive and that's what they had to do.

I'd find them passed out on the floor with needles hanging out of their arms

I was aware of their habits from as far back as I can remember. I have vivid memories of them injecting from about six years of age, and I remember my dad convulsing from a bad batch of heroin. In the early days when they used needles they'd send me to another room because they didn't want me to witness that. It would have been quite frightening for a child to see that. Unfortunately due to the effects of the drugs, they'd quite often pass out for what seemed like hours at a time. Being an only child in another room, it was quite boring and I'd wonder where my food was, or when I was allowed to come out of the room and get a drink. I'd go wandering and find them passed out on the floor with needles hanging out of their arms. But they didn't want me to see that so they stopped using needles and went on to smoke heroin from when I was about nine. Things seemed to settle down a little bit with regards to how they performed as parents.
I have a memory from when I was about 2 or 3 years old of my dad talking about something to do with smack, the nickname for heroin. I remember pointing to his drugs and saying, "Smack, Daddy!" And he leapt up and smacked me on the bum for it really hard. It always stuck in my mind because I must have been trying to please him by showing off that I was a clever girl because I knew what that was. But obviously I wasn't meant to know what smack was at that age.
My sisters came along when I was 8 and 12 and they were both born with habits. I remember them having to be weaned off the drug in hospital. My mum was always adamant that she wasn't going to do it and that if my dad didn't stop she'd leave him, but in the end it got to the point where he'd disappear for days at a time and she grew weak and ended up taking it just to be with him. She always said she didn't touch anything until she was 25.

My parents were dealing kilos of heroin at one point and we were living like kings

My upbringing was loving in lots of ways, but at times really dysfunctional, stressful and emotional because of what I witnessed. I hated it. I felt as though they loved heroin more than me at times. I thought they didn't love me enough because if they did, they'd stop. I couldn't get my head around it even though they'd explain it's like an illness. I didn't feel very secure. I was always scared of what was going to happen. Would I wake up tomorrow and find them dead because they'd overdosed by accident?
I was around 9 or 10 when I became more aware of their dealing. People would come in and out of the house all day and I'd be their little runner, opening the door to punters and making them cups of tea. I'd get pocket money for that as well. My parents were dealing kilos of heroin at one point and we were living like kings. They used to pay for me to get into taxis and go from one end of London to the other, just to go and see a friend or whatever. They used to do their shopping at the corner shop when most people would go to a supermarket. There were pluses and minuses to it. On the one hand it was like, 'Look at us, we're living the high life', but my parents were also claiming benefits for years as well. They were dealing while claiming benefits, so I grew up with them cheating the state. As I got older I realised it was morally wrong.
I didn't move out until I was 24. I felt like I couldn't leave because they needed me. I propped them up; I'd take my sisters to school and appointments, cook dinner and clean the house. I became like a little housewife from a young age. I wish I could have helped them to stop taking the drugs. My biggest regret was in me being so loving and devoted to them, I was enabling their dealing and bad habits. When I started to live my own life, their dealing completely fell apart and my dad even blamed me for it. He was quite bitter and I don't have anything to do with him anymore. He wasn't always like that but the drugs really affected his personality. My mum passed away in 2012 and I've had to cut ties with my sisters too – they've sided with my dad, despite his unreasonable behaviour over the years.

I remember as a toddler being high on marijuana and asking for more

If they hadn't had to deal with their addiction, they would have been amazing parents. My mum was a loving, caring woman who did her best for me considering the pressure she was under, having to live with heroin addiction. Society portrays heroin addicts as dirtbags and in my situation that wasn't the case, my mum was a very clean person. She always tried to keep the house relatively clean and tidy, and she often cooked us meals. Yes, they were often late, but she did the best she could. They were clever people. They were young hippies who started out on a bit of marijuana, dabbled in a few pills here and there and ended up dealing heroin. One thing led to another and that was the culture they were living through, especially with the music at the time and my dad briefly being a musician.
My life would have turned out differently if they'd been different. I would have had a much more peaceful childhood and I'm sure I would have had many more opportunities to excel at certain things. My attendance in year 10 at school was 14% because my parents weren't bothered about whether I went to school or not. If I wanted a day off, I could have a day off. If I wanted to stay at home and smoke cigarettes, that was cool.
I suffered majorly with depression. My mum said I had my first breakdown at 10 years old. I'm more on top of my mental health now. I've sought help, and writing about my life has been really cathartic and helped me process what I've been through. I was too scared to do drugs for a long time because of what I'd seen with my parents, although they fed me marijuana from a young age until I was about 5 or 6. I remember as a toddler being high on marijuana and asking for more. My dad always denied it, he said it was all in my mind, but when my dad was in prison that my mum admitted it and said, "We totally regret it. We didn't realise the damage we were doing." It was only when I had a bad episode aged 5 – I was hallucinating that snakes were coming out of my dress and attacking me – that they stopped giving me it.

My mum and dad could get high and forget about everything but I could never escape

I smoked marijuana for a short time when I was 18 because of my depression and anxiety, and I felt like my mates were all doing it. My mates were taking pills, ecstasy, acid but I was too scared to dabble in that because I'd seen where it could lead. I stopped doing anything before I had kids because there was no way on earth I was going to bring them up around drugs. I don't smoke and I haven't done for years, not even cigarettes.
I'd tell anyone going through something similar to my experience to speak out and get help. I bottled everything up for years. The burden was too much for me. I ended up having a massive mental and emotional breakdown to the point where, three weeks after my mum died, I was suicidal. My dad had been tormenting me, telling me I was evil and worthless, and I wanted to kill myself even though I had two beautiful children and a wonderful husband who's put up with more than most men would ever put up with. Drugs affect users' children even if they've never touched them. It affects them just as much, if not more because they can't escape. My mum and dad could get high and forget about everything but I could never escape. I was faced with the reality of their addiction for all those years.
If you are a family member of someone with drug or alcohol addiction, find local Adfam support services in your area.
If you are personally struggling with substance abuse, please visit FRANK or call 0300 123 6600 for friendly, confidential advice. Lines are open 24 hours a day.

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