August 31st is International Overdose Awareness Day. People world-wide will be remembering loved ones and others they know who have died too soon from drug overdoses. I will be remembering (as I do every day) two of my sons who died from heroin.
I want to help remove the stigma around deaths from drug overdose. I find it hard to tell someone that my children have died - it's a conversation stopper. But when I tell them it was caused by drug overdose, that's harder still.
I feel awkward because I realise they don't know what to say. And I wonder if I am going to be judged as a parent. And I wonder if they will inwardly dismiss as worthless those sons whom I love and miss. And I wonder if they will hurtfully remark, as though my sons deserved to die, that it was their choice to start taking drugs.
This makes me want to avoid the sort of conversation where a new acquaintance asks how many children I have. In my case, now, the correct answer is 'one'. But I can't and won't deny the existence of the other two who are no longer with us, as though they can just be forgotten. So attending social events makes me nervous.
My sons brought me extremes of delight and despair. When not under the worst influences of drugs both were caring, intelligent, deep, amusing, and loved creative writing. Roland, my youngest, the tall, shy, guitar-playing one, went first at twenty-three. Jake, thirty-seven when he died, was the energetic runner, strong and artistic. Both wished they had never got so deep into drugs, and attempted to escape their hold. Jake had been drug-free for almost seven years, and was doing his utmost to give back to society and make up for wasted years, when he relapsed.
Yes, people do express sympathy, but I feel it is not like it would be if I'd lost my boys to illness or an accident.
Bringing your children up properly will not necessarily prevent them from dabbling with drugs, nor will telling them to 'just say No'. The fact that possessing drugs is a criminal offence - even in places with more draconian laws than ours - seems not to be a deterrent to most young people. Whether we like it or not, very many young people enjoy taking drugs without coming to harm. Very many of them grow out of it eventually. Becoming a drug user could happen to anyone's child. And the consequence of that, because illegal drugs can be so dangerous, is that dying from drug use could happen to anyone's child.
I'm not forgetting that some overdose deaths are caused by misuse of prescription drugs rather than illegal ones, or that some people die from overdose deliberately rather than accidentally, because they have chosen to take their own life. I'm not forgetting that these deaths are also tragic for all concerned. But I am writing about overdose of illegal drugs because that is what I, unfortunately, know about.
Every day more families suffer the pain of bereavement from drug overdoses. They shouldn't have their grief made worse by stigma preventing them from talking about it. We need to talk about it.
Death rates from drug overdose in the UK are at their highest since records began in the 1990s. Around fifty families per week are devastated by receiving the dreadful news of a death from overdose of an illegal drug (not always an opiate). These families then have to begin their journey through grief. Many of them are parents facing the awfulness of arranging their child's funeral. This is in spite of (or, I believe, because of) our punitive drug laws.
Most of these deaths could be prevented if our government had the will to treat drug use as a health issue, not a criminal one, as in the far-reaching ideas advocated by Transform Drug Policy Foundation. Also, testing of drugs should be allowed at festivals. And a big difference would be made by Naloxone kits and training being available to anyone who might find themselves with somebody overdosing on opioids. Naloxone can revive an overdosing person whose breathing has slowed or who can't be woken, and gives extra time for 999 responders to arrive. I wish that Naloxone had been available to the people Roland was with when he died.
A teenager unwittingly swallows Ecstasy that turns out to be lethal. A young person starts off believing he can handle a drug and becomes an addict who accidentally overdoses. Another despairs of life and deliberately takes too much. Each of these, along with others who fatally overdose, is somebody's child, brother, sister, spouse, partner, friend, or even parent. Let's forget the stigma and remember them.
You can find out more about Rose's story at Anyone's Child.