Agony and ecstasy: I know the pain of losing a child to drugs
After two youngsters die at a UK music festival, Anne-Marie Cockburn tells the tragic story of her daughter and says it’s time we all woke up
It is a strange thing, to exist in the knowledge that, every once in a while, you will receive an acute reminder of the very worst day of your life. Yet that has been my reality for almost five years, and it happened again over the weekend.
I was on Twitter when I learnt of the tragic deaths of two young people, 18-year-old Georgia Jones and 20-year-old Tommy Cowan, at the Mutiny festival in Portsmouth, UK, on Saturday.
A familiar helplessness crept over me as I read the story. It wasn’t immediately clear what had happened (the police had not yet confirmed the details) but it seemed inevitable that drugs would be involved; that these would turn out to be more entirely avoidable deaths.
On Sunday, Georgia Jones’s mother wrote as much on Facebook. “I can now say Georgia died yesterday due to complications after taking two pills at Mutiny,” Janine Milburn said, in a post since shared more than 13,000 times.
“If nothing else, I hope what has happened to her will deter you from taking anything ever. The pills had caused her temperature to rise so high it made her fit for 45 minutes.”
Whenever this happens – and it happens with heartbreaking regularity – I immediately think of the families involved. I think of what they’re going through, and what it meant for me when I was that mother.
In July 2013, my only child, Martha Fernback, died from an accidental ecstasy overdose when she was just 15 years old. She was taking the drug for the fourth time, with friends on a Saturday morning, and swallowed half a gram. But like so many young people, she had no idea what the pill was composed of. I later found out it was 91% pure MDMA (the chemical name for ecstasy).
In one go, she had taken enough for four people.
All I knew was 'just say no'
I can physically recall the shock when I heard my life had been torn apart, that day in 2013. If you have ever had a near-crash in a car, and experienced that momentary whoosh of adrenaline as you’re frozen in horrible, numb helplessness, you will know some of the feeling.
Imagine that, but with it staying with you forever.
As a single mother, I always lived in fear that I would die and leave Martha as an orphan. You never assume it could be the other way round, so nothing prepares you for just how it might feel.
As a parent, you just cross your fingers and hope this kind of thing will never happen to you. I know I didn’t, I didn’t think we were “that kind of family”. Now I know there is no such thing as “that kind of family”.
I was always a fair, modern parent, but when it came to the talk about drugs all I knew was the traditional “just say no” advice. But I also knew, as I think we all do, that teenagers will be teenagers.
When you reach adolescence, you are curious to try things, to rebel and feel a little danger. It is perfectly natural to want to escape life for a moment – I should know; I have tried hard enough to leave my reality behind over the past few years – and parties and music festivals are there for that purpose.
I didn’t want to stand in the way of Martha having fun, or deny her the chance to learn from her mistakes. And when it came to drugs, I hoped her school might have encouraged her to educate herself about them.
Yet, six weeks before she died, I found out that Martha had taken ecstasy for the first time and I spoke to her about it. I tried to put her off, explaining that pills can be cut with any old chemicals and poisons.
After she died, I found out she had been researching ways to take drugs safely. Sadly, in the age of the Internet black market, the risks are greater than ever, and young people have no way of knowing what they’re putting in their bodies.
Those of us alive in the 1990s might remember the case of Leah Betts, the Essex schoolgirl who died shortly after her 18th birthday after taking an ecstasy tablet and subsequently drinking seven litres of water in 90 minutes.
The images of Leah in a coma – looking just like Martha did in her final hours – stunned the nation into a moral panic, and brought the risks of recreational party drugs into sharp focus.
We were jolted out of our comfort zone; these weren’t substances that were solely a danger for certain members of society you’d read about in things like Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (published two years before Leah’s death, incidentally). It could happen to anybody, anywhere.
But Leah Betts died in 1995. We were on high alert for a few years, but that was nearly 23 years ago, and the majority of today’s ecstasy users weren’t even alive when her story made the news.
A matter of priority
Perhaps we became blasé and lost sight of the lessons her case taught us, but it feels like a different world now, for both parents and young people. When I go into schools to speak about drugs today, the teenagers there don’t know Leah Betts, and haven’t seen those photographs of her in intensive care. Why would they?
These days, organisations like Anyone’s Child – an international campaign that brings together families who want new legislation that is centred on compassion, health and honesty, rather than criminalisation – are doing vital work, but everybody needs to be making drug education a priority. That includes parents, teachers, politicians and our teenagers themselves.
There are things that parents can do. They can contact their MP and get the subject on the agenda. And if they have teenagers giddily packing their bags to head off to one of the summer’s many other music festivals, then speak to them as openly as you can. A lot of parents will have dabbled in drugs themselves in the past, but it is not hypocritical to remember for a moment what you were like at that age. If your parents said don’t do it, you probably went and did it.
So be straight with them. You can tell them to look at the advice on The Loop’s website and you can tell them that at the first sign of distress in their friends, they must get help and they won’t be in trouble for it.
It might be a difficult conversation to have, but the advice could save a life. For all I know, it might have saved Martha’s.
In October, my beautiful daughter would have turned 21, and in a few weeks it will have been half a decade since I lost her. But bereavement doesn’t wear a watch. To me it still feels like it happened yesterday, or sometimes it feels as if it hasn’t happened at all. I wake up and assume my Martha is here in her bedroom, as she always was, before I realise again what happened.
Just as Georgia Jones’s mother says her “little girl was 18 and full of life”, so was Martha. That phrase we often hear applied to victims of tragedies like this – “full of life” – is perfectly appropriate, because there is so much potential in young people. To think of just how avoidable these drugs deaths are makes the theft of that potential all the more painful.
I don’t want anybody to ever know how it feels to lose a child like this, and almost five years on from my own experience, I cannot quite believe that I am still writing about it.
This weekend, though, as two more families have their lives changed forever, it proves why this conversation is one that we need now more than ever. But I’m optimistic that we’re pointing in the right direction. The government is starting to listen, parents and teenagers are becoming more aware, and our campaign work is having an effect.
Still, the process is slow, and accidental overdoses continue. I am tired of telling my story, but if we can save even one more young person from needlessly losing their life, the heartache will have been worth it.
• As told to Guy Kelly.