The £12 party drug ketamine killed my lovely Louise – please don’t let it be your child next
by Natalie Clarke
Over the past three months, Vicky Unwin has borne with quiet fortitude the wretched milestones that follow the sudden and unexpected death of a loved one.
The identification of the body, the funeral, and the small, mundane things that acquire an unbearable poignancy: closing down the bank account, calling up the electricity and water companies to say there’s no point sending any more bills.
Vicky’s husband, Ross Cattell, found the call to Chelsea College of Art and Design, where their 21-year-old daughter Louise had hoped to win a place on a degree course in the autumn, especially distressing.
Louise approached everything in her life with a gusto that few of us manage, and she was especially excited about this new chapter. But it was not to be. The day after dropping off her portfolio at the college, she was dead.
On Tuesday, March 1 this year, Louise cooked a meal for a group of friends at her flat in Clapton, East London. The young friends drank beer and at some point in the evening a large amount of the drug ketamine was produced and taken by the group. Later that night, Louise decided to take a bath. Still in a state of torpor under ketamine’s influence, she drowned.
Last week, Vicky had to face another milestone — her daughter’s inquest at Poplar. But she was gratified at the coroner’s verdict regarding the cause of death: death as a result of non-dependent use of drugs, acknowledgment that ketamine effectively killed Louise.
It gives impetus to the campaign she has begun to warn young people of the dangers of taking ketamine, an anaesthetic used for certain procedures on people and animals and often referred to as a ‘horse tranquiliser’. Vicky wants to do something that will go some way to negating the pointlessness of Louise’s death.
‘It’s everywhere,’ she says. ‘Young people take it because it is cheap, from about £12.50 per gram, which is what is apparently needed to get a high.
‘There’s an awful amount of peer pressure to take it. Since Louise died I have spoken to her friends and several of them have moved away from London because they were so desperate to escape the “scene”. It’s that bad.
‘It’s so easy to get hold of. You can buy it over the internet. The kids buy in large amounts and then sell it to each other. It’s terrifying.
‘You know, I’ve been told that 21 is one of the worst ages to lose a child. You’ve loved and nourished them and you’re beginning to see the person they’ve become, the path they are set on. Then it’s over, gone. It’s such a waste . . .’
Her voice trails off and the armour she has built around herself drops momentarily.
We are sitting in Vicky’s living room at the family’s four-storey house in Belsize Park, North London. It is a large, light-filled space, with a wooden parquet floor, exquisite paintings and French windows on to the garden. Vicky is chairman of Art First, a London art gallery.
Her husband, Ross, 53, is a partner at the financial services firm Deloitte in Switzerland. For the past 18 months, the couple have divided their time between London and Geneva. They also have a 23-year-old son, Tommy, a business development manager, who has remained at the family home in London.
Photographs of Louise are all over the house. Brilliant, creative and wildly artistic, Louise changed her hair colour all the time and wore outrageous clothes with style. A favourite picture of her mother’s is Louise in a black bodice with jet black hair and a provocative pout.
Louise attended Francis Holland School, a prestigious establishment in Baker Street. The Cattells enjoyed family holidays in Africa and the Caribbean, and skiing in Switzerland.
The fact that Louise was a middle-class girl from an affluent and privileged background will certainly sound alarm bells to thousands of parents who believe that living in leafy areas, or sending their children to private school, will provide a barrier to the drugs culture that blights Britain today.
‘I think you’ll find that ketamine is very prevalent across the middle classes,’ says Vicky. ‘But it’s prevalent everywhere, across the board.’
And it has stolen a precious daughter and left the Cattell family bereft.
Looking back, Vicky says: ‘We knew she was creative early on,’ she recalls. ‘At the age of three, she was wearing a blue wig and putting on face paint. My mother was arty, she inherited it.
‘At first we didn’t think she was terribly academic, when she spoke her words would come out in a long stream of consciousness and she wouldn’t really get to the point, but we later found out she had dyspraxia. It’s a sort of clumsiness — people who have it aren’t spatially aware. Louise once walked in front of a car and broke a leg because of it.
‘Actually she was terribly clever and a won a top maths prize and got all her GCSEs and A-levels. But she was quite brilliant at art. At the age of 17, for instance, she was doing installations.’
But, like many teenagers, Louise had a strong rebellious streak and, being an exuberant personality, demanded freedom to go out partying and clubbing at weekends. Her parents were concerned but placed few constraints.
‘What do you do?’ Vicky shrugs. ‘If you say no, they’re going to do it anyway. We allowed her to be her own person. So when she went out at weekends, we’d say, come home by 1am, and sometimes she’d come back at 2am. But it was OK. And because we were a happy family she’d often have friends round here, which gave us an element of control.’
Aged just 14, Louise began hanging around on the fringes of the notoriously louche ‘Primrose Hill set’, now largely disbanded, which included Kate Moss, Sadie Frost and Davinia Taylor and assorted hangers-on.
‘There were a few pubs around here where bands would play and she’d hang out there. I’m not naming names, but Louise started hanging out with rock stars. She told me she’d seen people taking heroin and crack cocaine and she said she’d seen how people were ruining their lives and that she’d never get into anything like that.’
But Vicky did discover her daughter was smoking marijuana.
‘She was caught by police with some in Camden. We didn’t tell her off because she was so scared. She got off with a caution and we said: “Let that be a lesson to you.” ’
After leaving school, Louise studied for a year at the London College of Fashion and completed a diploma in art and design. Then, at 19, she told her parents she wanted more independence, and moved into the flat in Clapton.
By now the fashionable and arty crowd who had hung out in the pubs of Camden had migrated east to Dalston and Hoxton. The drug of choice on the ‘scene’ was ketamine, known as Special K, or just K, but Vicky and Ross did not know that.
The drug produces a state of dreamy intoxication which can progress to delirium and can be accompanied by an inability to move and feel pain. Those who can move about are prone to accidents because of lack of awareness.
Regular use has been linked to cystitis and incontinence, sometimes necessitating bladder removal, and taken in large doses, it can cause failure of the cardiovascular system, and death. It also affects the memory.
Vicky has since learned from her daughter’s friends that, around this time, Louise became a ‘recreational’ ketamine user. ‘She’d take it when she went out, and sometimes at home,’ says Vicky.
But unlike some of the ‘set’ she was now part of, Louise was keen to work.
Over the next couple of years she took various positions. She worked as a production assistant at a marketing agency, as a part-time DJ and an events organiser. And the talented singer even got through to the second round of The X Factor in 2009.
Until the beginning of this year, Louise was working as ‘visual merchandiser’ at the New Look fashion chain’s store at Oxford Circus — that is, arranging the store. She left to go on a month’s holiday to Australia — a 21st birthday present from her parents.
‘You know, Louise was a real striver,’ says Vicky. ‘Everyone loved her because she was so hard working, so enthusiastic about everything she did.’
In the week before her death, Louise worked behind the scenes as a production assistant at London Fashion Week, while also putting her art portfolio together. Vicky’s last evening with her daughter, on the Thursday before she died, was close to perfect.
The pair pottered about in Louise’s garden, then cooked a curry together. At dinner, Louise produced a bottle of champagne that she’d been given as a thank you for all her hard work helping out at London Fashion Week.
‘Louise’s flatmate had moved out and her best friend was staying. She’d been a bit stressed about getting her portfolio together and finding a new flatmate, but she was in good spirits.’
Vicky had flown out to Geneva to join her husband for the weekend. On the Monday, Louise delivered her portfolio to Chelsea College of Art and Design.
That evening, mother and daughter spoke on the phone. ‘I told her how proud I was of her for getting the portfolio done on time. They were the last words I spoke to her.’
On the Tuesday, Louise held the dinner party for three male friends and her best friend.
The three men later went home and her girlfriend went to bed. Louise stayed up, and decided to take a bath, to help her sleep, as she was restless.
At about 3am, Louise’s friend woke up and became alarmed that Louise, who was sharing the room with her, hadn’t come to bed. She went to the bathroom and found Louise floating underwater. She called an ambulance and was told how to resuscitate the girl, but it was too late.
‘For some reason the ambulance went to the wrong address,’ says Vicky. ‘Several minutes were lost, but I’m told that by the time they got there rigor mortis had set in — she had been dead for some time.’
Although she had drowned, according to the coroner, the amount of the drug in Louise’s body — 5mg per litre — was enough to kill her.
On the morning of Wednesday, March 2, Vicky and Ross were at their Geneva apartment, when a friend of the family, staying at their London home, made the agonising call to say Louise was dead.
Vicky remembers how she knew that something was gravely wrong when she saw Ross’s ashen face. ‘I thought it was one of our parents. But he said simply: “It’s Louise — she’s dead.” The only way I can describe how it felt was as if I was looking down on my body. It wasn’t happening to me. The shock is so great it’s a huge disassociation, you don’t believe it. I still don’t believe it.’
When they arrived back in London, Vicky, Ross and Tommy went to the mortuary to identify Louise’s body. ‘We felt it was something we all had to do. She was behind a glass wall, under a sheet. It was the worst thing I’ve ever done.’
Before she left Geneva, Vicky had posted a message on Louise’s Facebook page: ‘Our darling Louise is dead. Please help us through this very difficult time.’
The message prompted hundreds of Louise’s friends and acquaintances to contact Vicky and, overwhelmed by the support, the Cattells held an ‘open house’ on the Saturday after Louise’s death. Around 200 people turned up.
‘So many people loved Louise. I get messages all the time from people saying how much they miss her. It is so touching.’
Nine days after Louise’s death, her funeral took place at Golders Green Crematorium and again hundreds of Louise’s friends were in attendance.
‘I collapsed when I saw the coffin and reality hit. But we celebrated Louise’s life with her favourite songs.’ A memorial service is planned for later this month. ‘We are coping, we have to cope, what else do you do? We still have Tommy, who misses his sister terribly. We have to go on.’
Vicky’s main focus for now is the ketamine awareness campaign. She plans to produce a ten-minute film telling Louise’s story and distribute it to schools and on the internet, and there is talk of an ITV documentary. It gives Vicky a sense of purpose, otherwise it would be so easy to give up.
Louise’s tribute site is www.louisecattell.com; Vicky’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org. The Mail is making a donation to the Clinical Psychopharmacology Unit at University College London, which spearheads research into ketamine use.