Sitting in the dimly lit bar of Manchester’s Albert Square Chop House – nursing what can only be described as the world’s biggest (and most expensive at £6) gin and tonic – I wait for the launch of From a Dark Place: How A Family Coped with Drug Addiction to begin.
Written by father-son team, Tony and Paul Husband, this 50-page book of cartoons chronicles their combined journey through Paul’s addiction towards recovery. As you can tell by the title, it’s weighty subject matter.
Even today, addict is a loaded word. It’s a term with sharp edges and coated in stigma, like a boiled sweet left down the back of the sofa. Addiction is used as a modern-day fable; the addict is reduced to a deterrent, and sympathy is largely absent from the narrative.
Which is precisely the premise behind From a Dark Place. Both Paul and Tony believe that a fundamental understanding of the nature of addiction is missing from treatment and society.
“There’s this frequently held perception that addicts are happy with their existence,” Paul explains. “But people don’t see how much self-loathing and anger there is.”
While Paul and Tony found the experience cathartic, naturally it was upsetting and the realisation of just how far-reaching the ripples of destruction stretched is evident in the way both parties discuss their relationship with Paul’s addiction.
Paul openly admits that he “chose” the lifestyle (“Most people were put off by Trainspotting,” he jokes. “But we wanted to be them.”). However, his dad believes that Paul’s problems stem from a particularly nasty period at secondary school. His “bubbly lad” began to break-down at home and it’s clear that Tony sees this as having played a huge part in Paul’s decision to turn to drugs. “We’ve got to stop glamorising drugs,” he says.
Paul cites music idols with well-documented penchants for drug-taking as part of the reason he was drawn to drugs. He also reckons he’s got an addictive personality, stating that even his mates refused to score for him. In his mind, his finger lingered above the self-destruct button. He also admits that addiction made him good at deceit.
Tony agrees. “I’d become what you call an enabler,” he says with regret. “I didn’t realise at the time, but I was allowing him to carry on being an addict because, as a parent, you want to believe the lies.”
The audience laughs as Tony recounts numerous times where he gave his son money for fictional construction jobs or interviews. One tale saw Tony phoning Paul numerous times throughout the day for him to bungle his location, changing city so frequently that he’d have needed Aladdin’s magic carpet to travel cross-country with such speed.
Prior to tonight’s event, I was already familiar with Tony’s work as a cartoonist for publications such as Private Eye and The Times, and a fan of his simplistic cartoons which capture wit and character so perfectly. Three years ago, he created a book of cartoons to help cope with the loss of his father who had suffered with dementia. Take Care Son was an instant success and, as I sit in front of Tony and Paul, flicking through the pages of their book, it’s easy to see why his images strike such a chord.
It seems strange to describe a book of cartoons as poignant, hard-hitting and, possibly, ground-breaking in its approach to discussing addiction, as well as opening a dialogue within society, but, believe me, it’s accurate. When the Husband family realised that their son Paul was addicted to heroin and crack, they did everything they could to help him. Unfortunately, the right support was difficult to find, Paul relapsed and came close to losing his life.
“The drug and alcohol services don’t do much to help the people around addicts,” Paul says. “They’ll just deal with the person that’s in front of them and offer them a prescription.”
Much like mental illness, medication plays only a small part in the act of healing. It’s the talking and exploration of self which helps in the long run.
However, a chance meeting at a party – which will make even the most cynical person believe in serendipity – led the Husbands to the Lancashire User Forum (LUF) and completely turned Paul’s life around. Through LUF, Paul challenged the mindset of not being “good enough” and began to see a life after addiction. Inspired by friends from the group, he took up photography and found that he was was good at it (Paul regularly takes stunning snaps for us here at Northern Soul). Today he is engaged to his partner, Sarah, and has two daughters.
I have never welled-up at a book launch before. Not even when I was in the proximity of Neil Gaiman, or the time when I walked into a table at a Lionel Shriver event and could have wept with pain. But I was on the verge of tears for most of the evening. Not because I felt sad, although at times it was difficult to hear some of the more hard-hitting events in the life of the Husbands, but because of the honesty, humour and love with which they tell their story.
The power of the book is in its simplicity, its realness. I feel a bit weepy because I recognise my own family, anyone’s family, in the little in-jokes, digs, the memories, and the loving looks cast between Paul and Tony.
The launch is intimate. It feels like a family gathering. Friends and loved-ones cheer and laugh and clap, visibly chuffed to bits that Paul is where he is today, and in absolute awe of Tony and his wife Carole. There’s a huge cheer when we get to the bit about Paul becoming a Dad to both his girls.
Hosted by Radio 6 Music’s Chris Hawkins, the whole event has casual atmosphere, like a candid chat between friends. Both Tony and Paul have a brilliant sense of humour and the room see-saws between tears and belly laughter throughout the evening. The Q&A is full of people telling their own tales or asking what they can do to help LUF.
As the final session ends, the last question goes to a small, blonde lady seated in front of me. Flanked by her parents, she tearfully recounts her own tale of addiction, sobriety and, infuriatingly, the stigma she’s faced. This remarkable woman, along with others, staged a play called The Wall of Addiction to not only document her own story, but raise money for her disabled son’s school. The local press, however, refused to cover the story as they were ‘addicts’. The disappointment and disgust is permeable. But no one is surprised.
It’s a tale as old as time. Society likes an ‘other,’ someone to hold up like a baby Simba in The Lion King as a cautionary tale to all. But the reality is that no-one is immune from tragedy or adversity.
And who knows? Perhaps with the continued publication of books like From a Dark Place, along with the honest, real conversations we are beginning to have about addiction and recovery, the more likely it is that we’ll find the correct resources to help those battling with such debilitating illnesses.
Photos by Kerry Hargreaves kerrydavidphotography.smugmug.com