The dismissed metaphor of the health service is that it is like a coin. Tails represents ‘the societal perception’ we hold of our NHS workers as expendable superhumans. Whilst the head represents the ‘worker’s individualism’, their unseen personal experiences. Throughout lockdown we revealed the flip side of the coin, the head. The health service was no longer glamourized but shown realistically, highlighting the sacrifices entailed by those at the forefront; leaving families, losing loved ones, and putting their lives on the line. This was the first time our health service was truly represented as humane, not an army of superficial superhuman that tainted the population’s eyes.
Lockdown injected Northern Ireland with hysteria; shopping sprees, avoidance of each other to protect oneself, hyper-vigilance of every ‘coronavirus update’ and some isolating themselves to their home to contain the virus.
For me lockdown brought both negatives and positives. It offered me time to reflect and be grateful for how nursing was receiving the credit it deserves. However, lockdown also magnified pre-existing problems prior to coronavirus.
During what, quite rightly, seems the scariest danger to face the world, those issues that were assigned second base are now as intense as they have always been. I saved someone’s life today; not from the pandemic but another silent, creeping poison called addiction. It is ironic really that both issues hold equal prevalence in so many of our lives here. While we fear this pandemic and take precautions, we must also offer attention to what can appear as an asymptomatic condition to those on the outside world.
Alcoholism is defined by Drink Aware as a “serious long-term problem when an individual has a strong, uncontrollable desire to drink”. This causes damage to an individual’s health and is a foundation for harmful behaviour. This definition, although clear and concise, does not illustrate the pain and chaos that alcoholism and addiction can bring to a household. In fact, addiction is one of Northern Ireland’s leading causes of death. It is a condition overlooked because of the normalization society has bred. Addicts fall down a spiral of self-sabotage with their support systems standing as pillars of redirection. Throughout the lockdown, I journaled as a way of coping. Below is one of my entries about a struggle I faced. This entry, along with others, will form my novel; ‘The Truth of Life’.
"Yesterday. Looking back feels like a blurred dream. Me and my mother were out for our restricted one walk a day as implemented by the government. We entered my uncle’s flat and found him lying on the floor, unconscious and choking, surrounded by a pool of vomit and blood. I felt so much anxiety in that moment. I am a student nurse, so my training did come in well until the paramedics arrived and then he was whisked to hospital. I wish I could say this was a rare event but watching the consequences and harm of addiction is something me, my mummy and my brother have experienced for many years. My uncle, we will give him the name Seamus, lived with us for 10 years.
When he first lived with us everything was fine, granny was there then you see. He did not drink as much, and me and my brother very much viewed him as a father figure. My granny took him in as she saw that he was struggling. When granny left our lives, my uncle became more unwell and has escalated beyond the addiction.
I have decided to write a letter to Uncle Seamus on what I wish he could hear;
Addiction appears to me as a slow suicide; stationed at the top right chair and your arm glued to the tables with a packet of the cheapest cigarettes and a small glass with a clear substance, I often thought resembled water. I now know this substance as the despicable vodka, known in religion as the 'Devil’s juice', not the purest substance. Well, throughout the years, I can see why this substance gained its reputation.
Seamus, I always looked up to you as a child. You were like a second father figure in my eyes. You were consumed by your addiction, living at my home, mostly at 'your kitchen chair', which I came to know after being told! Back then you were very sociable and a well-known man; everyone we passed would say “Alright Seamus!” You appeared as royalty in my eyes. There were times when you drowned, and the alcohol and you would smash to the floor. The noise ruptured through the wooden planks and jolted my body from the sofa. I sprung up from the sofa and my eyes were met with the sight of your body on the floor, your eyes vacant, the blue glint absent. Your pupils shrunk and your mouth lay gaped. The panic I felt made me vomit up all my dinner. I thought you were dead, but the alcohol had overcome the blood brain barrier to the point that you no longer ruled your mind.
You were as harmless as a fly everyone would say, the “Robin Hood of Belfast” in your prime. That is what I always hear anyway; a quick witted, hilarious, handsome, handy man known throughout the streets as “Seamus Rubble.” As time went on though, you became introverted. My brain lay on a roller coaster of emotion throughout my teenage years. We were all grieving the loss of granny. There is no doubt your addiction escalated in the heat of your trauma, everyone copes differently.
But I remember one time you did not get your vodka on time; your body tremored uncontrollably, punishing you until your tongue felt the next drop. My heart always sank when I saw it again. My mother was also mentally suffering, and me and my brother watched it unfold. She always tried to protect us. Like I have told you before, Ann is always selfless but as I grow, I feel I must set boundaries. Me and my brother also bare this burden; “Please exploit our kindness”.
You moved out after 10 years, only up the street though. We still called 2 or 3 times a day and that first year was the beginning of the end. Most days we went up we were met with a sight of blood, dark crimson pools, and head lacerations while your eyes still glittered, your pupils dilating at the shining bottle of vodka. You were still fighting demons, waging a war with the luring whispers of your mind.
I say this in the most heartfelt way; you were on the local hospital’s hotline. An exclusive member of the short stay unit. A regular on the rollator of the health service … beats being a regular at the bar. There were times when you were clean but the havoc the poison had caused became clear in those moments. Your legs waddled like a toddler on short distances, you now require aids to walk. T-shirts that once set neatly now drowned the once solid figure you graced. Your arms now feeble and twig-like decorated with black holes and scars. Your head remains permanently indented on the right side just above your eye from the obstruction of many objects.
Addiction, Seamus, I understand is a messy illness, not nice and neat with one physical fix. Yes, you returned home with the wounds nicely dressed, but voices still roamed your mind. We tried to be louder than those voices to hold you in our reality. However, we simply became sound waves in the presence of the pain of your mind.
The thing is addiction does not have clear cut episodes. Relapse felt like falling back to the bottom of the mountain and always occurred with no obvious trigger. Recovery became more like an unfulfilled wish. We all bear scars, our internal voice always asking if you are okay even after our 2 or 3 visits a day. When I entered my 20s, my feelings became more complex and I could not ignore it. Feelings I had never stumbled upon; resentment, frustration, and anger. I call them the triangle of loss. In that moment I was angry at the fact I had to see so much and the more I learnt about addiction my tongue was no longer rust. I felt betrayed by our society in a way because it is a normalized part of life here and it is just assumed that “everyone experiences it.” Yes, I suppose we are all addicts on some level, but unaddressed addiction escalates and robs the individual’s identity.
As I grow, I realise an element of this person must want recovery. This was the hardest realisation of my life. If I did not do this, I was going to chip away each part of myself as if I were a jigsaw slowly loosing pieces."
There is no doubt my experience with addiction influenced me to become a mental health nurse. I believe it is important for people to see both sides of the coin. We are all normal people, fighting our own battles, just like every other profession. Always be kind.
Mairead Ryan is a student mental health nurse and a mental health campaigner.