“Like most grandparents, I can’t resist showing off pictures of my beautiful little grandson James, sitting with his adoring father Simon. But for me, the joy runs even more deeply than most, contrasting as it does with the devastation my family experienced almost six years ago.
At the age of 13, my son Simon and his twin brother Nick began experimenting with drugs by smoking cannabis. They sampled increasingly dangerous drugs over a period of 14 years, culminating in injecting heroin. One February day in 2004, after a huge drug-fuelled argument, Simon went to make peace with his brother and found that Nick had hanged himself.
I published the story of how addiction affected my family in Mum, can you lend me twenty quid? – what drugs did to my family, hoping that the book would benefit other families and that they could learn from our experiences.
The response since the hardback version was first published in May 2007 has been staggering, with almost 12,000 telephone calls and emails from families saying “Your story is our story, Elizabeth, it mirrors everything we have been experiencing in our own lives and we too are waiting in dread for that knock on the door that you had one night from the police.”
Since the paperback version came out in 2008 with two new chapters in it, I have had direct contact with many families bereaved by addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. I have received letters from everyone from school children to recovering addicts and people trying to deal with addiction in the home.
There is a real ripple effect which reaches far and wide through the family and friends of an addict, the forgotten victims in it all. They face a rollercoaster of emotions, including blame, shame and an absolute dread and fear of how it is all going to end. The people who contact me say, “Is it going to end in the death of my son or daughter too, Elizabeth.”
But now I can look to my healthy son and my beautiful grandson and tell them to never give up hope. Over his brother’s body, Simon resolved to turn his life around and just look at him today. When you compare pictures of him now with ones taken only a few years ago, you see two completely different people. They are two completely different people.
And we are doing our utmost to offer hope to other families with my charity DrugFAM, a support group based in Buckinghamshire through which we aim to throw a lifeline to those struggling with the nightmare of someone else’s misuse of drugs or alcohol.
We do not want any family to be left living in isolation, fear or ignorance of any local or national support available to them. We offer them not only a place of security and support, but also one-to-one counselling, group work, education and a lot more.
Many of the staff – like me – have experienced the ordeal of life with an addict and we can speak from the heart on all aspects of it.
When I see Simon so happy with his partner and his new family I do mourn for what might have been with Nick. When baby James was christened we all said how much Nick would have enjoyed the occasion, how much he’d have enjoyed being an uncle and even a father himself, had he been able to turn his life around.
There are some very poignant moments when it really hits me that he is not here to share the enjoyment, particularly at Christmas, but at the same time there is a bloody-minded determination in me to do as much as I can for other families, just as he would want me to do.
I’ve spoken at political conferences, on television and radio shows, given talks to schools and had meetings with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Gordon Brown, the Home Office, and many more. I’m planning to write another book in retirement which will be a practical resource for families and friends of addicts.
Every now and then I stop and think, “Wow, how on earth did I, an ordinary wife and mum, get here?”
Nick’s tragic death gave Simon his life back, and this amazing opportunity to speak publicly about something we’d hidden for such a long time and now, with the launch of DrugFAM in February 2009, which will help us to reach out to other families too.
With hindsight I can see that my son’s tragic death was a blessing in disguise for our family. From that darkest time for me, as a bereaved mother, there has come so much good and – something I’d urge all families who are dealing with addiction to hold on to – so much hope for the future.”
Elizabeth Burton-Phillips December 28th 2009