osing your only child is a life-shattering experience; losing them through an overdose means having to also endure the stigma that goes with it. In the eyes of society, my son, Sacha, was a sociopathic junkie, whose body, by law, had to remain in a body bag in the chapel of rest. Yet to his friends and family he was wise, gentle, handsome and kind; a global and a spiritual traveller.
Discovering your child’s body is something I’d like to think no other parent would ever have to experience – but, given current legislation and the criminalisation of users, sadly, this is unlikely.
Why and how did my son’s life come to such an abrupt and sordid end? Sacha had always been an incredibly happy child, but when it became apparent that he was dyslexic and no help was available in the state system at that time, he attended a boarding school with a dyslexia unit. From the age of 11 onwards he often seemed sad and distant. At 14 he was expelled from school for taking a Swiss army knife on a school outing. His teacher told me that she’d noticed cuts on his arm. I knew nothing, then, about self-harming but took him to see a psychologist who failed to identify the real cause of my son’s unhappiness.
As part of the techno, free party scene, Sacha’s drug-fuelled, escapist lifestyle in England, Europe and South America was thrilling, but proved ultimately destructive. Only once he’d finally admitted to being a heroin addict, did it come to light that he’d been serially sexually abused at boarding school by his housemaster. His addiction, it transpired, had come about through his attempt to mask the schizophrenic voices which haunted him; the voices triggered, according to the psychiatrist who diagnosed him, by the trauma of childhood sexual abuse.
Abusers unconsciously project their own feelings of self-revulsion, guilt, shame and disgust onto their victims. This makes it hard for the abused to share their experiences with those they love, for fear they will be blamed or negatively judged. Anaesthetising with alcohol and drugs provides many victims of abuse with a temporary refuge from such feelings of self-loathing.
In his book Hooked (Norton and Company, 2001) Dr. Lonny Shavelson writes about his study of 200 addicts in America in which he identified that an extraordinarily high proportion of his subjects had been sexually abused as children. The book throws a crucial light on the link between sexual abuse and addiction. His findings were corroborated in an article which appeared around the same time in The Journal of the American Medical Association which stated that the addiction rate for male, sexually abused children was 25 to 50 times higher than that for the rest of the population. Hooked is a heartfelt plea for deeper understanding and compassion for addicts and for recovery programmes to include advanced psychological care that focuses on the story behind the addiction.
It was incredibly difficult to get Sacha the help he so desperately needed. The ethos of the programme we finally succeeded in getting him onto was punitive rather than compassionate. He was placed on a daily methadone pick-up in Brighton. I remember Sacha pointing out to me the vulture-like dealers who hung around outside the clinic, waiting to either buy methadone off the users or to tempt them back on to heroin.
Once, when he’d managed to find a job in London, (work was essential for his self-esteem), his train home was cancelled and he missed his methadone pick up slot. This meant he needed to score a little heroin to keep going. When he tested positive at the clinic the next day he was thrown off the programme – which meant that, once again, he was dependent upon ruthless dealers. Despite the deterioration in his mental health, it took months to get Sacha back onto the programme – and even then it was only after he’d accidentally swallowed a bag of heroin he was hiding in his mouth and could have died.
In 2015 I published a book called Junkie Buddha about Sacha’s life and my trip to Machu Picchu to scatter his ashes. My reason for writing it was because as a middle-class, middle-age, middle-England mother, I wished to show how this nightmare can happen to ‘anyone’s child’, and also because I hoped, in some way, it might help to lessen the stigma attached to drug use and drug death. This war on drugs needs to end before more people lose their lives.
No-one chooses to be an addict.
‘I’m not a junkie, Mum,’ Sacha used to say, ‘I’m someone with a habit.’