Addicts and Those Who Love Them. Behind every addict is someone traumatised by loving them

An exhibition of portraits and words of addiction by Antonia Rolls. With photography by Michael McAlister, drawings by Marie Paul and the wall hanging “Stitch Away The Stigma” by textile artist Natalie Needham.

I am an artist, and there is addiction in my family. It is a painful, destructive, chaotic and shameful thing to admit and I, my addict, and all of us, are powerless over it. There is no normal social situation where addiction is acceptable, and it is a shock to those who have not experienced it to see just how mad it can be. Drugs and alcohol, and other addictive behaviours, are not logical and do not exist within reason, good manners or the greater good. It is hard to know what to do when someone close to you develops an addiction. It can take a long time of denial and covering up before the penny drops, and we have to admit we are dealing with addiction.

Addiction is bad. There is drug dependency, which I am told is not the same as addiction. There is also drug taking, which includes smoking, tea and coffee, and alcohol and most of us manage very well. Of course, tobacco, alcohol and caffeine are legal. Class A, B and C drugs are not. According to Professor David Nutt of Drug Science Organisation, on the chart of the most harmful drug to oneself and to others, alcohol is way up top. And also, according to Drug Science research, only 10% of people become addicted, which leaves 90% who do not. However, the effect of alcohol and drugs on most people is far from good and even if not addicted or dependant, is very destructive. But once addicted, it is bad. Any addictive behaviour is very difficult to handle for everyone.

My response is to create this exhibition where I tell the stories of those who are in or around addiction, to try and understand how we all cope. The subject of addiction needs to be supported, talked about and helped. It feels shameful, and the addicts we love are considered morally bad. They are pursued by the law, ignored by many in the medical profession (because, perhaps, there is no funding or education or will to treat it) and fair game for the drugs suppliers who hold the key to their survival. Once addicted, it is not possible to just walk away and stop. Addicts need huge amounts of help and support on the long journey to sobriety, and the journey is fraught with pitfalls and relapses. Many die.

Addicts And Those Who Love them says that behind every addict is someone traumatised by loving them. Love here is the operative word. Even in the madness and distress of addiction, we love our addicts, those of us who are close to the person in the addiction. We have to learn to step away and make our love tough and boundaried, but we have love and it is impossible to understand, even to ourselves. I love my addict, but I don’t want them in my life. Not unless the addiction is treated. And they have to agree to that.

I have painted many portraits for the exhibition including three of James, a young man who has pulled himself out of his drug and alcohol dependency. The first is his battered face after one of the many fights he does not remember. The second is his face on the day he decided to quit, and the third is his smiling face today. “I am just a bull in a china shop,” he says of himself and his journey is still tough today. I have painted the portrait of Professor David Nutt, who says “everyone is vulnerable” and works tirelessly to help with the recovery of addicts. I have painted Jodie and Kevin, 18 year old partners, who have addicted parents. “It would have been easier to be a child in the system. Drug addicts do disappearing acts. No one looks out for mum except for me.” Says Jodie.

There are other stories and portraits, all speaking of loss and love and hope and sorrow. Ceri is a child of an alcoholic mother, and a young mother herself now. She works hard to understand the lost child she was, and works for a charity in Brighton to help others in addiction. I am painting her portrait now, and am struck by the love she has for her mother, who died of her alcoholism.

This exhibition is powerful, raw, loving and real. It is about all of us, and the stories I tell through paint and words, affect everyone. Once we see we are not alone, we feel stronger. And though there is no solution for many of us at the moment, we want our addicts to get better, to come back to us, and we also know that for many of us, that is not going to happen. But the most important thing we all have together, is hope, and this exhibition is about hope with a dose of hard reality.

Addicts And Those Who Love Them opens from Saturday 14 to Wednesday 25 May, midday till 6pm daily, entrance free, at the Fishing Quarter Gallery, 201 Kings Road Arches, Brighton BN1 1NB. All welcome.

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