James McConnel: on addiction and the loss of his son

A FEW days after our son Freddy died from a heroin overdose in 2011, we came across the following entry in one of his last diaries: “Peaches is coming over later and I am going to inject for the first time. Perhaps I will die. I hope I don’t.”

Peaches Geldof. Picture: Getty

In the days after the equally tragic death of Peaches Geldof, calls and e-mails I received from friends went along the lines of: “So sorry, it must be a painful reminder …”

Yes, it certainly was – but I was touched by the sentiment. However, the subtext within one supposedly sympathetic call from a journalist was very clear: “Do you feel a sense of poetic justice?”

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No, I feel desperately sorry; not just for Peaches and how dreadfully unhappy she must have been for so long, but for those left behind; her family and close friends. They are survivors in what is essentially an addiction-fuelled train wreck.

Bob Geldof, in describing himself as being “beyond grief”, puts it chillingly well. As a parent, when it relates to your child, the word “dead” somehow raises itself to a horrifying new level and I found those early stages entirely unexpected.

Shock, yes, but also bewilderment, guilt, anger, then inexplicable periods of complete calm – followed by spontaneous spasms of uncontrollable crying.

However, it’s the phrase “addiction-fuelled” which is key here. For me, addiction is a disease, an illness, every bit as valid and as devastating as cancer … possibly more so, because the behavioural symptoms of the sufferer cause devastation to all those around them. In a further sick twist, thanks to one of its most insidious symptoms – denial – it is also the only disease which convinces you that you don’t have it.

Addiction gradually invades a person, body and soul, to the extent that they become something else. They are no longer the people they were.

Peaches but not Peaches. Freddy but not Freddy.

For an addict, the Addiction God is all that matters. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, takes precedence. Not work, not spouse, not friends, not even children are allowed to interfere with the procuring of that next fix. The impulse to serve the Addiction God will always win out. Always.

Whether it’s heroin, crack, booze, work, gambling or sex; ultimately, it doesn’t much matter. Yes, heroin, crack and booze will affect you physically, but the other non-chemical addictions can be equally devastating. It’s the behaviour that’s the point. Honesty is an early casualty. Lying, cheating and stealing reside in the top drawer of the addict’s tool chest. Freddy stole from me on numerous occasions, whether it was cash or “stuff” to sell.

Living with an addict – and Freddy did live with me a lot of the time – you eventually begin to question your own sanity. When “stuff” and money start disappearing, you’re so desperate to believe that your child can’t possibly be stealing from you that you convince yourself that either you’ve been forgetful and somehow “lost” that 50 quid, or worse, your suspicions fall on others.

And then you become dishonest yourself. I began sneaking looks at Freddy’s mobile phone texts and e-mails, and even though there were numerous references to words such as “horse” (slang for heroin) and “gear” – I still didn’t want to believe it.

Ironically, I should understand addiction because I myself am a recovering alcoholic. Though I’ve been sober a good many years now, I can still remember the mindset … being prepared to go to any lengths for that next drink. And yet even knowing that, I was still in denial when it came to Freddy’s stealing.

But, above all, there is the total disregard for anyone else. A few days after Freddy died, Peaches rang me at home. Freddy had mentioned her once or twice in passing but I’d never met her. She was in a high state of anxiety; far too concerned about the implications for her of Freddy’s diary entry to express more than passing sympathy.

At the time, unable to focus on anything much except Freddy, I mentally dismissed her as a selfish brat, but in hindsight I know she was simply displaying the symptoms of a disease over which she had no more control than Freddy did.

Actually, someone recently did ask me: “Do you forgive Peaches?” My answer: There’s nothing to forgive. Whether or not she taught Freddy how to inject is immaterial. She may or may not have done. If she didn’t, someone else would have.

Many people still misunderstand addiction. They often view addicts as being either weak-willed or spoilt and judge them accordingly. This simply isn’t the case.

I have almost no understanding of the workings of a mobile phone, but I daresay I could learn. The same is true for addiction. Ill-informed judgment is at best unhelpful, and at worst, damaging.

So when I read about what Peaches did – or indeed anyone in the grip of this foul disease – the thing I’m always careful to remember is that it’s not them. It’s the addiction. Somehow the Addiction God kidnaps their ability to think or behave rationally. My ex-wife Annie summed up both our feelings very well on Freddy’s Facebook page this morning.

“So sorry for her family. Freddy will definitely be looking after her. Let us remember when the press rip her apart that ‘Lady Heroin’ is a very powerful pull and recovery is hard daily work for an addict. Forever. Whether you love your babies or not, one single weak moment is all it takes. What a total tragedy for her family.”

l DrugFam, drugfam.co.uk; The Angelus Foundation, angelusfoundation.com.