Most of the people who got honoured in the Queens New Year honours list are celebrating. But my British Empire Medal is bitter sweet as I would swap it in a heart-beat to get my daughter Hester back.
Whilst I’m proud to accept the honour for the achievement of keeping young people safer, preventing harm and even death, it has made me pensive. When I reflect on the Angelus journey, and why I undertook it in the first place, I remember the passion and determination I had burning inside me to not let my daughter’s death be in vain.
My youngest daughter Hester was a 21-year-old medical student at Sussex University, which is the other side of the Downs from my house in Brighton. She was a student mentor as well as a very enthusiastic cheer leader. She sometimes called to say “Mummy, come and watch us practice tonight and by the way what are you making for dinner?”. She was a wonderful daughter who was much loved by all those whose lives she touched. Very sadly, she was given a legal high after an awards dinner by a ‘friend’ on 25th April 2009, and, coupled with the few drinks she had consumed during the evening, it shut down her respiratory system and she stopped breathing forever. Two policewomen appeared on my doorstep the following morning to relay the devastating news that broke my heart and the hearts of her family and close friends.
Probably because of my profile in the media as a wellness expert, author and broadcaster and the fact that Hester was such a star student and not a drug taker, the story became irresistible to the media. We got tipped off by the Telegraph that we were about to be ‘door stepped’ by the press and indeed they camped out on our doorstep for the following four days and nights whilst we were hidden in a hotel nearby.
I felt like I was living a nightmare, ripped out of real life and plummeted into a dark place filled with agony, pain and unfamiliar surroundings. I prayed I would wake up and real life would resume, but alas, that was not to be. Richard Edwards, the then Crime Correspondent from the Telegraph accompanied us to the hotel for those few days. It was during that time that we discovered that Hester had been given a substance called GBL, which I found out from Google was paint stripper. I also discovered that it had been banned for human consumption in many other countries around the world four years before and that several European countries had run awareness campaigns 18 months before, in conjunction with night clubs, charities and the police highlighting the fact that GBL + Alcohol = Death.
Jackie Smith, the Home Secretary in the UK at the time, had been urged by the European Committee on Drug Dependency Monitoring as well as the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to raise awareness about the dangers of GBL in a similar way to our European counterparts, but she chose to take no action. I felt angry and aggrieved when I discovered her inertia as I felt certain that Hester, who absolutely adored life and helping others, would still be alive if she and her friend had known about the dangers. It was my anger and devastating loss that fuelled my passion to campaign to raise awareness so that other families wouldn’t have to experience a similar life sentence.
So instead of curling up in a ball, really choosing to swap places with Hester, I made myself get out of bed each day with the determination I would somehow save lives in her memory as she would have done if she had lived to qualify as a doctor.
I was completely clueless about how I was going to achieve my objective, except to say that my first stop was to meet with the Home Secretary, and ask her to account for her lack of action. I also knew I needed to do more research and talk to medical experts to expand my understanding. I felt utterly shocked as a knowledgeable health care professional that I had no clue what legal highs were until Hester’s death. Even her father who is a medical doctor had no knowledge that chemicals and drugs were being used for recreational purposes purporting to be safe as they were ‘legal’.
During my lifetime, I often found myself challenged with many weird and wonderful tasks I hadn’t planned to do. I used to joke that I felt like I was in training for something. I came to realise that all of that had actually been the dress rehearsal for the next chapter in my life. I needed all the skills I could muster for this next journey; one that would truly save lives and preserve wellbeing.
With significant help and resources I managed to attract, I founded the Angelus Foundation with the goal of raising awareness about legal highs so that young people could come to understand that legal doesn’t mean safe and therefore make informed decisions, and their parents would be enabled to have wise conversations increasing the likelihood of keeping their teenagers safe.
The skill set that I needed to learn however, was to tune in and trust the Universe and to follow what I now knew was a calling. In exchange for losing Hester I seemed to be given an increased perception from helpers who were my ‘higher powers’, or spiritual guides; call them what you will. And the cherry on the cake was that I was certain that Hester was with me in spirit every step of the way. Call me ridiculous if you like, but how else could I have been followed around by multiple TV cameras since day one, managed to get massive coverage on TV and in the national newspapers, and keep the headlines going over six years, some days doing as many as eight TV interviews in one day? How could I have engineered laws to be changed when leading experts said it would never happen? Be introduced to Lady Valerie Corbett who called for helpers? Attract a member of The Royal Family, Katharine, the Duchess of Kent, as the Patron to the Foundation I eventually set up and four members of The House of Lords? Plus, a number of household name celebrities and more world class experts than would eventually completely fill a large Board Room at the Guildhall, given to us on a pro bono basis? I had personal communication with the Prime Minister as well as large numbers of other Ministers over the years and had the honour to become friends and working associates with Mitch, Jane and Janis Winehouse, parents of Amy, and the highly accomplished Vicky Unwin, due to the common losses and objectives to make a difference to the world in memory of our daughters.
Relationships and introductions played a key role in this success story. Whoever said it’s all about who you know was so right. I remember the day when I received a call informing me that Amazon were selling legal highs. We tried for months to communicate to their team, from the CEO down to their PR department, and received no reply. In desperation, we asked the Daily Mail to help and indeed on the day their cover story went to print Amazon not only stopped selling legal highs in the UK, but by tea-time that day, they also took legal highs off their websites world-wide.
Then there was the day I got a call from Norman Baker, the Drugs Minister, saying that Mrs May, the then Home Secretary, wouldn’t publish the report on the review that we had all worked so hard to engineer, calling for a new Bill. He asked for my help in desperation. I wrote a personal letter to the Prime Minister begging him to help, which was hand delivered that same day. The Telegraph published the letter on page three the next day and BBC radio stations across the country read out my letter as if I were speaking and typing at the same time. Within two days I had a response from David Cameron to say that the report would be published and indeed, the New Psychoactive Substance Bill was the first bill the Queen mentioned in her Speech in 2015 and became law in June 2016.
The new Act banned the supply of legal highs and new psychoactive substances, closing approximately 500 retail outlets, including 115 websites, and in the process, saving countless lives.
The new law has also stopped 332 shops across the UK from selling the substances according to figures from the Home Office.
The Crime Survey Figures for England and Wales (CSEW) released in July showed a 55% fall in use of NPS by 16-24 year olds, while statistics from The Public Health England reported that young people having problems with NPS fell by 45%.
I realise with hindsight that the Angelus journey was predestined and came about because, even on my darkest days, when I felt I lacked the courage or willingness to get out of bed, I learned to trust the Universe and believe that I wasn’t operating alone.
As a result of my arduous and emotional journey, sometimes working more than 70 hours per week, and the collective efforts of Team Angelus, young people will now survive rather than die, wellbeing will prevail instead of huge numbers of young people becoming mentally ill, and parents will be armed with sufficient knowledge to keep their young safe.
I am proud to share my story and hope that, instead of dwelling on the sadness of loss, light bulbs will go on in minds across the world when they realise that they too have the ability to bring about positive change.
I wanted to take this opportunity to remind you that you are, like me, probably capable of so much more than you give yourself credit for. As the New Year begins you can paint your canvas in any way you so choose. Helping others and making a difference in the world is a great way to serve yourself a decent helping of joy. I highly recommend it.
Wishing you all an excellent 2018.