This is a letter to my lost nephew, on the anniversary of his death, June 2015. (His name has been changed to maintain anonymity.)
Six years to the day since we lost you, but you are still remembered with love by all who knew you – me, your favourite aunty; your “favourite cousin”; your Mum, with whom you had so many ups and downs but who loved you though you didn’t always know it; and your brother and sister. Your Nana and Grandpa who were so pleased when you were born one wintry Sunday evening, the first grandson. You were always full of energy, ideas, talk, loved your books, your films and your fishing, your roll up fags, your mates. You excelled at writing and your cartoon illustrations. But you lost your way big time when your Mum and Dad’s relationship became toxic and you had to watch. And you, alone among your siblings, could not cope.
Cannabis followed, and abandonment of A-levels. Such a pity as you had an excellent mind. Worse followed: you got into heroin but not enough for those of us living away from you to detect. Jobs came and went, your energy and intelligence smothered by your addiction. You said pre-trial, when we knew the score, you were “a user of drugs” not a “drug addict”, and in a sense this was correct as your use was not habitual. But in the end, drugs used you up: your need for them led you to fund your habit by selling them to others, as you would not have stolen. You told me at the end, just before the court case, that you only passed to friends already using. But nevertheless, it was dealing and you were imprisoned. They detoxed you in prison but did not sort your demons. A week after release, you resumed heroin use, the normal dose you thought, or it was corrupted heroin, but your tolerance had diminished. And it did for you, six years today. Your mum found you dead.
Some who knew you did not always understand why “such a bright lad” had got into drug taking. But it is a myth that people who use drugs cannot also be smart, funny, caring and loveable. A slogan of Release, the drugs support group, reads: “Nice people take drugs”. You were so nice, Robert, visiting your Nana and Grandpa every Sunday, giving down-and-outs handouts from your meagre JSA, gently chiding your favourite cousin, 14 years younger, when he squashed a butterfly, or tickling him till he had hysterics. How sad you had none of your own kids. You would have made a super dad in a happier time and another life.
Your Mum had over 400 letters and cards after you died, some from teachers, (even from those who weren’t fans of your free-thinking and your constant questioning of what seemed like nonsensical stuff being fed to you.) Letters from your mates, and people she had never heard of. The church was full. Not that you spent too much time in churches. Your creed was to treat all comers with respect no matter their class or background. People liked you for your warmth, your intellect, your kindnesses, your loyalty to mates, your sense of humour. Even in the period when you were using, these characteristics remained.
Robert needed help, not imprisonment. If he had had support earlier on, which was simply not available, he might not have resorted to supplying drugs. He wouldn’t have had to buy the tainted supplies that killed him from a street dealer had prohibition not been the flawed principle on which UK drugs policy is based.
We remember the funny times – the time the candle set fire to your surplice in church, and the vicar had to thump you on the back to put it out, causing one old gossip to comment that you must have done something naughty on the altar! (Such was your reputation for mischief.) The time you fell out of the canoe because you dozed off in the heat, and leaned sideways a bit too far. The day you were lent a quad bike by the farmer, and crashed it into the hedge when a sheep popped up. Silly things but happy days.
If only the stigma that attached to your drug taking had not prevented you from telling me you had a big problem. Perhaps you thought I would be judgemental, be disappointed. Perhaps I could have helped you, perhaps could have made a difference to the tragic outcome of your untimely death.
I keep faith, Robert, by continuing to support the decriminalisation of other people’s children. Had you been able to access drugs and counselling safely, who knows? Maybe you might have got off them. Had there been less stigma attached to taking drugs, maybe you would have told me and I could have supported you somehow. But the fact you had to access drugs secretly and illegally – and the word “had” is key as you did not choose to be addicted – ruled out that possibility. You considered the least awful way of funding that was through handling also, to make the money to pay for your own supply.
Until the law changes, hundreds of families will suffer loss as we have. But you will never be forgotten, Robert, and will always be loved.