“This can’t all have been for nothing...”

There is still a misconception that drug problems exist only within deprived urban areas, says IRENE BERMINGHAM. As we continue our five-day feature series on drugs, Irene says we must talk about the common, but complex issues of mental health and drug addiction that exist in every rural townland across Ireland
“This can’t all have been for nothing...”

Aidan Bermingham as a young child, with his father.

“Mr Bermingham (26) who died on December 14th, was from a well respected family, immersed in the local farming community.”

This was a quotation from a local newspaper article published on December 16, 2016.

I grew up in a rural townland outside of Tullamore, in Co. Offaly and come from a ‘well respected farming family’.

Our parents worked hard all their lives to provide us with a healthy and happy upbringing, good education and a world of opportunities.

As the youngest of five kids, we had a brilliant childhood and upbringing; in the summer we played on bales of straw with our cousins and entertained ourselves with games of forty forty in the dark of winter. All five of us were loved unconditionally and never wanted for anything.

Oblivious to the disregarded issue of drugs or mental health difficulties in the early 2000s, little did we know the impact they were to have on our home some years later.

Aidan was the middle child - always full of imagination, intelligence and curiosity. Aidan’s mental health struggles began at a young age. Unfortunately, Aidan turned to drinking as a coping mechanism for the crippling anxiety and depression he faced. Drinking turned to smoking, which then led him to ‘harder’ drugs.

Aidan passed away just one week before Christmas 2016, when he was hit by a car on the road. It was only after losing Aidan we came to figure out that we were not alone in our battle and it was not unusual that a farmer’s son would suffer like Aidan did. The penny finally dropped - the fight against mental health and drug addiction is a hushed one, going on mainly behind closed doors; but it is everywhere.

After losing Aidan, our father in particular was determined that it was time we opened up about our experiences. He felt it was important that Aidan’s struggles and death were not in vain. Da’s exact words, “this can’t all have been for nothing”. He felt that if we could help one other family or individual, to realise that they were not alone, it would be worth speaking about.

There is a national notion that drug problems exist only within deprived urban areas. While this may have been true-ish, at one point in history, it certainly is not in 2020.

Aidan Bermingham with his dad.
Aidan Bermingham with his dad.

From city apartments and soccer teams, to farm houses, GAA clubs and rural pubs, drugs are everywhere.

I often recall an interview with Philly McMahon on his brother John’s drug addiction and how it impacted his GAA career. He speaks openly about the embarrassment he felt when people brought up his brother’s addiction.

Unfortunately - and I hate to admit this - but I too felt that burning sense of shame when well meaning friends or neighbours asked, ‘How is Aidan? What is he doing now?’. Sometimes I could answer honestly and say he was doing well and mid way through an IT course. Other times when things weren’t going very well, I brushed over the question with a vague response, ‘I haven’t really seen him much lately, but he’s grand’, hoping they wouldn’t go any further with the conversation.

As time went on, people stopped asking about Aidan, maybe because they could sense my discomfort at their question; they already knew that Aidan was struggling and didn’t want to embarrass me.

In some ways, it was a relief to not have to talk about Aidan’s personal struggles. On the other hand it was a denial of my own brother and that was awful.

As I write this, I am not ashamed of Aidan or of the battles he fought; I am so proud of his kindness and compassion for other people and in particular animals, despite his own turmoil.

I am now ashamed of my own shame. Why was I embarrassed of my brother’s struggles? How dare I? Would I have been embarrassed if Aidan had a physical illness and my neighbour asked for him? Absolutely not.

If you are lucky enough to have not experienced the direct impact of drugs on your own household - do not think any further than the home of your own sibling, cousin, or best friend. This drug epidemic is not beneath you, you are not superior to it because of your career, address or family reputation. Drug addiction knows no boundaries. It is not selective. It exists behind closed doors in every corner of our country and we must accept that before we can make any progress.

We have come a long way, but there is a long way to go yet.

And as we decided in 2016, if the issue is spoken about openly, the stigma attached to it begins to fade.

After losing our father this month to a very short illness, it is on behalf of both he and Aidan that we continue to talk about the common, but complex issues of mental health and drug addiction that exist in every farming community and rural townland across Ireland.

TOMORROW: “We should be alarmed at the high numbers who die every year from preventable deaths and the impact this has on those left behind,” said Dr. Sharon Lambert, Lecturer at school of Applied Psychology UCC. As we continue our five days series on drugs, tomorrow she talks about her research and says we need to design services that meet the needs of those struggling with addiction.

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