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Annemarie Ward: Breaking the cycle of addiction

Annemarie Ward: Breaking the cycle of addiction

There is one brief moment during my long interview with Annemarie Ward when the Favor chief executive begins to well up. Our conversation takes in everything from the trauma of childhood abuse and ravages of addiction to Favor’s work on behalf of those affected by alcohol and drugs, but it is only when we discuss her mother’s descent into alcoholism and eventual death that the tears look ready to come.

“Her alcoholism really escalated in her 40s and 50s,” Ward says, describing her mother as a binge drinker who believed that as long as she was able to make it to her job as a sheltered housing warden then everything was under control.

“I know she recognised there was a problem when she was in her 60s and she did seek help, but she was given a spin dry and was never given rehab. I think a long-term stay in rehab was what my mum needed because she had so much trauma. She was sober for a year when CJ [Ward’s 20-year-old son] was born and she was going to AA. She would have been in her early 50s then but there just wasn’t the therapeutic support. It was inevitable that she was going to use alcohol to medicate the trauma.

“She’s been dead for four years now. She got to 70 years old. Between that period when she was sober for a year and her death, the medication she was given from the doctor really escalated. She had sleeping tablets and various other addictive pills. She did continue to function up until her late 50s, early 60s when she took early retirement but when she did she died because her stomach burst due to the excessive alcohol intake. She was so inebriated that the doctor reckoned she didn’t even know. There was a lot of blood.”

After a pause to compose herself, Ward adds: “My campaign to help people get rehab, to help people get help, I know where it’s coming from.”

A young Ward with her mother

The campaigning work started 15 years ago when Ward, by that point 10 years into her own recovery from addiction, started organising national walks to show that substance abuse but also recovery are everywhere and that the latter is something that should be celebrated. By 2012 the walks had morphed into Favor (Faces and Voices of Recovery), a charity that lobbies for those with addictions to have the right to access treatment and whose work was last year formulated into a potential legislative bill. Drafted by Favor, the Right to Recovery Bill was lodged by Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross in June. It has received widespread support from charities and church groups, with Ward stressing that swift action needs to be taken to stop Scotland continuing to rack up eye-watering levels of drug and alcohol deaths year after year after year. 

“The sector in Scotland is in complete denial – it’s broken, there’s a problem,” she says. “The people dying are in our poorest communities, but those people don’t vote so it’s not seen as important. The stress this has brought on me has been almost unbearable at times and eventually it got to the point where the denial was so excruciating that [campaigner] Stevie Wishart and I took legal advice and wrote the bill. We took it to the quangos – we took it to the sector because we are too wee [….] but they said no, they didn’t want to do it, so we took it to the political parties and of course who picked up on it but the fucking Tories. Douglas Ross was sincere – as was Miles Briggs – but he knew he could use it as a political tool. Ideally we would have wanted to take it to the SNP because they’re the only ones who could do anything with it but we were left with no choice but to give it to the Tories.”

When Ross lodged the bill, which Ward hopes will be subject to parliamentary debate in the new year, he said it has the potential to be “a game-changer in tackling the national tragedy of drug-related fatalities in Scotland” and offers a “common-sense solution […] to a problem that shames” the nation. As its name suggests, the bill envisages giving fast and effective addiction treatment to anyone in Scotland who needs it, removing all the barriers that currently exist and recognising the role those who have overcome addictions have to play in helping others follow suit. For Ward, an SNP supporter who has worked alongside third-sector agencies in England since Favor began, this is one area where the Scottish Government should by looking south and following the example that has already been set there.

“We have a multi-million-pound treatment budget in the UK but the majority of that is spent on opioid replacements – the majority is spent on other medications, not on helping people get well and rebuild their lives,” Ward says. “I’m not saying we should be taking money away from that, but that we should be investing in helping people get well too. We need harm reduction and abstinence. In Scotland the treatment comes through health and social care. The NHS gives out appointments but chaotic alcoholics and drug users can’t keep appointments. In England you can walk into a service and get treatment that day. In Edinburgh, it took us 24 weeks to get a woman a methadone script.

“Treatment is coming through the NHS, nurses and social workers. They are lovely, great people, but in England the workforce is made up of people in recovery. You are met by somebody who knows how to get out of the hole – you’re not just being met by someone who is nice and lovely. [Nurses and social workers] probably each have 90 people on their caseloads but that’s because there’s no way to get people out of it. If you walk into a service in England you get a prescription on your first day, you’re met by someone in recovery and introduced to group work. People aren’t getting that in Scotland. You’re met by someone who will give you an appointment for three to four weeks’ time.

“People argue about methadone or getting people clean, but we should be giving them the choice. That’s what the bill is about. We had someone the other day, the GP and case worker had never met them but they were told they weren’t ready for rehab yet. The GP would have to explain the reason for that decision if the bill went through. Ultimately the bill would give accountability and would give power back to the people affected.”

Ward at home in Glasgow

In the run up to writing the bill the focus of Favor’s work changed. For five-plus years the charity had been all about positivity, about showing that recovery is real and that the knock-on impact is felt within families and across communities rather than by individuals alone. But as Scotland’s drug death figures continued to get worse, reaching 1,264 in 2019 before rising to 1,339 in 2020 and levelling out at 1,295 last year – and the poorest communities continued to bear the brunt of that – Ward realised something had to give, particularly as it became clear it was the same families that were being hit time and time again.

“There was a day in 2019 when I was at mass and the bible reading was that if a neighbour chaps your door at 11pm you have to answer it,” she recalls. “That night my phone rang at 11pm and it was Natalie MacLean, who is now CEO of [prison recovery organisation] Sisco. She said the sixth member of her family had just died and could I help her. I said I didn’t know what to do but maybe we could organise a rally in George Square. We put a shout out on Facebook and six days later 600 people turned up.

“For me, my whole life changed again. There had been nine or 10 years of doing that work, and six or seven years of doing the charity. All the campaigning had been about positivity, making recovery visible. When that happened in 2019 the campaigning style changed. That coincided with a trip to Medjugorje for me and the phrase ‘you keep talking, we keep dying’ came to me there. That has been the last three years of my life. It has been a very negative campaign compared to celebrating the joys of recovery, but we would never have had the support we have had if we hadn’t campaigned so positively before.”

The idea that both addiction and recovery have vast family-wide impacts is not lost on Ward, for whom family is obviously hugely important, with heirlooms and mementos filling her immaculate West End of Glasgow flat. In pride of place in her sitting room is a huge, ornate fireplace her mother drove over from Donegal on the roof of a car, and the walls and surfaces are covered with family photos – her mother, siblings and, most importantly, her son, CJ. But one person isn’t pictured – her father, whose alcoholism, violence and abuse wreaked so much devastation on the family that, despite him managing to get sober several decades ago, Ward has had no contact with him for very many years.

“I grew up scared,” she says. “My father was a violent alcoholic. My sister and I were talking about this the other day and she was asking if I had any nice memories of one of the houses we grew up in. I don’t really have any happy memories of childhood at all. There were four of us [as well as her younger sister Ward has two older brothers]. My dad beat my mum and he beat us.”

Ward says her father was abusive because his own childhood had followed a similar pattern and, just as he turned to alcohol as a means of dealing with that, so too did she. When she had her first drink at the age of 11 the numbing effect was, she says, profound.

“I remember it vividly,” she says. “It was at a party in Shettleston – we lived for two years in Parkhead because of my mum’s job and I was at a party with my new school friends. Red, Red Wine was at number one and was on a loop. Someone gave me a cider and almost immediately the feeling it gave me was that people couldn’t see how shit I was. It was profound. 

“My childhood was full of fear and very isolating. One of my earliest memories is being at school and watching the other kids play in a joyous, spontaneous way and thinking ‘I don’t know how to do that’. Alcohol and drugs, which came after, made me not care about being disconnected. I felt alienated, alone, separate, not part of the world. I didn’t feel connected in my family. Alcohol and other drugs made me not care. Right from the first drink I felt protected. I got my first job soon after in a wee café and the reason for working was to get money for cider and cigarettes by then as well. I very quickly got addicted to nicotine and I had to find money to feed my habit, even at that age, which seems ridiculous.”

Having moved on to cannabis, ecstasy and amphetamines by her mid-teens, by her 20s Ward was living and working in London, believing that a change of scene would solve all her problems. In reality things only got worse. 

“At 25 I’d been in London for five years,” she says. “I was doing a job I loved with a family I loved as a nanny. I wasn’t using in the day at my real job but at night I was also working in pubs and clubs. In my last year of using I was smoking dope, smoking crack cocaine. The period between 16 and 18 I used heroin on a regular basis, smoking it to come down after raves. Fast forward a few years, I had three jobs, a nice flat and a daily habit using anything I could get my hands on. Alcohol and hash were a constant and in the last few months I was using crack and heroin more regularly, but I was still showing up and managing to function. It was the working-class thing of denial – if I go to my work I’m okay. I had youth on my side but also denial kept me going. I was also surrounded by people doing the same thing so it was normalised.

“In the last few months of my using the drugs had stopped working. It didn’t matter what I took, my body would be completely inebriated but my mind would be stone cold sober. At 25 the drugs have stopped working. The trauma and horror of what I’ve been through is playing on my mind all the time and I’m not able to medicate it.”

My first profound experience was finding drink and drugs, then on the 30th of August 1997 in St Luke’s Church in Chelsea, I walked in there thinking I was going to get help for my mother but what I heard in that meeting, the way people spoke about their emotions and their thoughts and their lives, I felt connected for the first time in my life

Having opened up to a friend about her mother’s alcoholism, Ward went with him to an AA meeting in the hope she would hear something that would help get her mum sober. What she heard ultimately changed her life.  

“It was profound,” she says. “My first profound experience was finding drink and drugs, then on the 30th of August 1997 in St Luke’s Church in Chelsea, I walked in there thinking I was going to get help for my mother but what I heard in that meeting, the way people spoke about their emotions and their thoughts and their lives, I felt connected for the first time in my life. It was a totally profound, spiritual experience. I had no idea I was an addict or an alcoholic until that moment when someone described it and I identified with it. What they described was an acute sense of aloneness and separation and I had never heard anyone speak about that before. The phrase I used at the time was that this felt like no home I’d ever known before.

“The main barrier to treatment people face is denial. Even though I felt connected and felt hope that I wasn’t alone I probably spent the next year or so going through the 12-steps programme but really fighting with the idea that I was an addict and an alcoholic, even though my first experience told me I was – it set up a craving from the moment it went in and an obsession with getting money to get more cider. Obsession and compulsion are the two main areas of addiction.

“It took me going through the 12-steps programme to really understand what I suffered from and what it would require for me to stay in recovery. It’s not just about abstinence, it’s about healing and healthy relationships. Recovery has taught me that everything I thought was normal and what I was taught was normal is not normal and the majority of it was unhealthy. What happened to me was very unhealthy and what was modelled for me was very unhealthy. I’ve spent the last 25 years trying to heal. I’ve recovered from addiction – I have no addictive behaviours in my life any more, but I’m still healing.”

For Ward, the driving force behind Favor is to ensure that everyone suffering in the way she was has access to the kind of help she received. The story of the charity is the story of every family who has lost a loved one to addiction and the aim of the Right to Recovery Bill is to stop the cycle from perpetuating. She knows from personal experience that that can be done, with her own experience and her own son the living proof of that. 

Ward on a Favor recovery walk

“When my mum went into the detox ward she was really hopeful and really excited about the prospect of being and staying sober,” Ward says. “When she realised she was only going to be there for three weeks she did what she could with the tools she was given and after that she stayed sober for a year. Had she had rehab the last 20 years of her life would have been very different, though, and it would have been very different for us as a family. Rehab is about healing and tapping into all the things that led us into becoming addicted in the first place. It’s about untying all those knots and unpicking all your mental and emotional backstops. She never got the opportunity to do that in a place of safety.

“My biggest achievement with my son is that I have never raised my hand to him and can count on one hand the number of times I’ve raised my voice. That has broken the cycle of abuse, that self-care and self-love that generations of my ancestors were never able to give themselves, and the priority for him is to have good health and good achievements. CJ has broken the cycle.” 

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