The problem with drugs – through the eyes of a mother
27 Apr 2011
The shocking news of Isobel Reilly’s needless drug-related death last weekend brought back the memories of my beloved daughter, Louise, who died on March 2, having taken ketamine.
She was 21, and had a life ahead of her: she had just applied to Chelsea College of Art, she had spent almost two years working in fashion to orient herself for the future, and had recently returned from the trip of a lifetime to Australia.
She had everything to live for.
There are those who criticise the prominence of such stories. They emphasise how alcohol or the mere driving of a car is much more dangerous than taking drugs. Professor David Nutt, the former drug czar, even said taking ecstasy was safer than riding a horse. Well, that depends on how good a rider you are, or how much you know about the drug you are taking and how it might affect your body.
As the mother of a daughter whose future has been cut short by a foolish mistake, I want to share some of our experiences, which may help other parents or young people who are constantly surrounded by drugs, from ketamine, ecstasy, skunk and crack to coke or heroin. Ketamine, due to its cheapness, is the party drug of choice. A friend of Louise’s told me that when she first came to London she could buy enough ketamine to last a month for just £20; the same amount would barely buy alcohol for the week.
After we were interviewed in a Sunday paper last week about Louise’s death and the dangers of ketamine, there was a torrent of abuse on various blogs about how “safe” ketamine is “if you follow the rules”; and that ketamine did not kill our daughter – she drowned in the bath, albeit after taking ketamine. The point most of these critics seem keen to miss is that ketamine is a powerful tranquilliser which affects the brain and renders the taker unconscious if too much is taken. How, then, can you remember the “safe” rules of the game? On top of this, ketamine is often mixed with other drugs and various doses might affect different people differently.
Louise was a very occasional user. She had seen the harm hard drugs could do to talented people when she hung out with the indy rockers of the Eighties who were coked and cracked out of their brains. She told me she would never inflict such damage on herself. And I don’t believe she did.
Louise had been away in comparatively drug-free Australia and before that held down a serious job at New Look which required her to get up at 5am, plus a stint on nights as a visual merchandiser.
We had spoken about ketamine and what a bad drug it is. What even I didn’t know then, and very few people know now, is the terrible effect it has on the kidneys. A friend who is a vascular surgeon tells me he frequently performs bladder removals on young people, the end result being that the patient requires a urine bag for the rest of their life. These facts are not widely discussed among ketamine users but I strongly believe that people coming across such drugs for the first time must have all the facts put in front of them.
It is all too easy for naive young people to succumb to the belief that “a little bit won’t hurt you”, especially if their friends are habitual users. For the first-timer, this can be lethal. These are the girls, like Louise, who do not “do” drugs, but may occasionally experiment, and they are the most at risk.
So what should a parent do to communicate this message to their children? Most teenagers are not receptive to parental advice. It helps, though, if the family has an open and loving relationship. We set broad rules (no house parties was one of them), but if you can’t trust them, they won’t ever trust and confide their problems in you.
If you don’t like their friends – tough. I made sure my two could bring theirs home at any time – they were always welcome. At Louise’s funeral, three or four girls came up to me separately and said: “Do you remember me? I lived in your house for four/five/six months … You had the ‘magic fridge’ – it was always full. You made us feel so welcome.”
But at the same time you want to remain the mother, not the “best friend”, so that there is a loving relationship built out of respect for each other’s points of view. For instance, Louise had shown individuality since she was small: she had been a vegetarian since she was a baby; she loved dressing up, dyeing her hair, expressing herself as an individual. Only today I received a letter from one of her teachers which said: “One could not ignore this presence [her installation] – or indeed that of Louise. As her teacher I learned much from her. She brought her life into our space, making my work, the art room, a more interesting and challenging place … thank you for sharing her with us.” Of the many tributes and messages of support we received, many complimented us on our parenting: the phrase “you allowed Louise to be the person she was” stands out.
But there was the time after a huge family row when I heard the stairs creak and found Lou stealing downstairs with a bag. “Where are you going?” I asked. “Oh, I’ve had enough, we all need some space,” she replied. “If only you’d told me, I would have ordered you a cab,” I said. Later, we giggled like crazy over this, as with the wind so firmly out of her sails she had no recourse but to come home the next day. There is a serious lesson here too: young people are intent on provoking you as part of attention seeking; it is good if you can remain calm and not rise to the bait. After that incident there was virtual harmony ever after.
When is it right to let them leave home? Again, the answer is simple: when they are ready and want to. Louise was in clover with two cats, a flat in Hackney, its vegetable garden and ambitious plans for growing kiwi fruits this summer.
But as parents it is good to be there in the background to help with all those things that can cause anxiety and depression, something that I think contributed to Louise taking ketamine that fateful night. She had no job and no money and was coming down from her holiday. The outlook was a bit gloomy . So she cooked a meal, had her close friends round, some of whom are, I believe, regular users of ketamine, and she made a bad judgment call by ending the evening with a bath.
Had she been more aware of the narcotic and anaesthetic effects of ketamine, she might still be alive. But, sadly for her, for us and for her friends, she simply didn’t know.
My energies will now be directed towards trying to make both teenagers and adults more aware of the dangers of occasional drug use, and which drugs are potentially the most dangerous. We will be making a short film using Louise’s life as a backdrop, include discussions with her friends, combined with some stark facts, and release it virally, on YouTube and Facebook, as well as throughout the school drug education system, with the help of Louise’s former headmistress.
And finally, I intend to rekindle the discussion about the reclassification of ketamine from class C to B, to highlight the harm it can cause. Debating this will give both young people and parents a heightened awareness of the drug.
Yesterday I had “Louise” tattooed on my inner arm, in the same spot where she had “Mum” – a Mother’s Day gift to me three years ago. I was so flattered then; now I am thrilled to reciprocate the honour.
If you would like more information or to help in any way, please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org; the tribute site for Louise is louisecattell.com