Below is the transcript of the speech that I gave at the HIT Hot Topics conference on 14 November 2014.
I know that my story is an uncomfortable one where there’s no way to hide – I don’t like saying these words and knowing that they’re true. When I was pregnant with my daughter in 1997 I remember watching the film Trainspotting and being shocked by what I saw – the imagery within that film showed a gloomy world where people had lost their way in life and hope stood very little chance, as drugs took them into the darkness.
Fast forward to last year – the image of a 15 year old girl, holding her pet rabbit, Bluebell, underneath a tragic headline, three months away from her 16th birthday. That was the day that everything changed for me, Saturday the 20th of July, at 2.17pm.
I was blissfully ignorant about the world of drugs before Martha died. When I found out that she had started to dabble, I felt inadequate and out of my depth. I didn’t know the best place to look for advice or how to address it in a way that would really get through to her, but now it dawns on me that I was going about it in the wrong way – I didn’t provide her with reason and logic. I was angry, which showed her that I didn’t relate to what she had witnessed in her life.
Drugs are laughed about on sitcoms, joked about on panel shows, as well as given a glossy allure on teenage cult shows. Much as I hate to admit it, they are in fact a normal part of modern society. Young people witness their friends not dying from taking drugs all the time. So by simply spouting the “just don’t do it” line and hoping that will be enough of a deterrent, we’re closing our eyes to what’s really going on.
Young people these days aren’t scared like we were. We have a generation on our hands who have witnessed terrible atrocities on the 24-hour rolling media machine that exists and feeds into their subconscious. In my childhood I had the Encyclopaedia Britannica or my uncle John (who was a retired head teacher) to help me find answers. Today children have the internet – a vast sea of information at their fingertips, data and imagery flashing through their young minds and permeating into their brains. Some of it is accurate and proves to be an incredible resource for them, but some of it is also misleading and therefore difficult for them to gauge what is really true.
I tried to scare Martha by saying that those pills could be mixed with rat poison – that was the only ammunition I had at my disposal. Such a traditional response to my oh so modern child. I took her into her school to try to make her see sense.
I wanted to provide her with expert advice and helpful guidance or at least know where I could obtain that information from – I searched the internet, but got lost in the detail. I talked to her about all the sacrifices I had made for her throughout her life and asked her why she would do such a thing. She simply rolled her eyes and said “It makes me feel happy”, I barked “Aren’t you happy anyway?” and she said “Yes, but it make me feel even happier”. I was dumbfounded – but she was blasé and that made me even more terrified on her behalf.
Little did I know then that she actually listened to my advice, by going for the “more pure” option in taking MDMA in a crystalline form which she pounded down into a powder. Martha loved life – but she was curious and that is normal. As a little girl I encouraged her to not be afraid to climb trees or swim in the lake. I took her around the world to immerse her in other cultures and show her what was possible. Ultimately, though, Martha was an ordinary modern teenager.
Most parents will do what I did in trying to scare their children into thinking that drugs are bad. Children are getting so many mixed messages in this modern world – they hear the “drugs are bad” message constantly, but yet they know they’re widely available. When I think back to my school years, I think the worst thing that happened to me was that I slid through a puddle of custard in the dinner hall – I can still remember the janitor coming along with his bucket of sawdust as the dinner ladies attended to my scolded arm.
The world is getting used to the “another teenager has died from taking ecstasy” headline. To most, it’s just another face on the front of a newspaper that within 24 hours will be fading in the recycling box. But when I hear the news that a young person has died and yet another family has joined the bereaved parents’ club, I feel helpless as I wonder how many more need to die before someone in government will actually do something about it? Isn't this loss of precious lives an indicator of a law that is past its sell-by date and in need of urgent reform? The evidence is there – but I understand that it may not be a vote-winning strategy.
After Martha died, I looked at her internet history and found that she had been researching ways to take drugs safely – I’ve gone on the record saying that “Martha wanted to get high, she didn’t want to die”. I know that may seem controversial, but parents would prefer one of those options to the other. Martha swallowed half a gram in one go that turned out to be 91% pure.
“A mum whose only child has died from taking ecstasy wants it legalised!” Is she mad? Shouldn’t she be saying to ban it and to come down with an even heavier approach? Well I believe in a safety-first approach.
Round and round the prohibition-vs.-legal regulation argument goes, spinning in our heads. Someone in my shoes doesn’t need statistics or propaganda. I stand by my child’s grave – what more evidence do I need? Yet the people in power turn away from it. They play an amazing game of “Let’s pretend” as they’d rather be popular than brave. Every day I wake up I need to bravely face the bereavement, I can’t hide – there is nowhere for me to hide. Everywhere in my home and around my community, the ghosts of memories are piled up high as I try to find a new purpose in my life.
One thing I’ve discovered is that many people don’t actually understand what legal regulation means, and that prohibition is a word that’s more familiar to them than harm reduction or safeguarding. So we need to educate the nation with good, evidence-based information on this subject and show them alternatives to what’s been in place for over 40 years now.
When Martha’s bag was returned by the police, it contained an empty packet of Marlboro Red cigarettes and a book on baby animals – it’s a perfect visual symbol of a teenager. They think they’re grown up, but they’re still little. We must protect them. It is our duty to keep them safe. We need to give them good information on how to avoid overdosing. They need to know how to do it, if they’re going to do it anyway. Free drug-testing facilities should also be widely available, to enable people to make more informed decisions.
Of course, it’s important to stress that we need to do what we can in order to deter young people from taking drugs in the first place, however, under a regulatory model, even if drugs got into the hands of younger people, the dangers would be significantly less than they currently are under prohibition. It means taking drugs out of the hands of dealers and treating them in the same way as pharmaceuticals.
As I sat in the emergency room at the hospital, my eyes were fixed on the flat-line: a single beat is all I wanted, such a subtle sign indicating that life within Martha still existed. I yearned for a single beat, the only beat I was left with was my own. That same beat gives each step I now take a new-found certainty. Until that gentle rhythm within my own heart stops, I will go to wherever the answers lie.
My daily primal scream is “Please help me” – please help avoid another person having to live with a loss like mine. And I don’t mind who hears that. But what I would like most of all is for people to actually do something about it. For Martha is not just a story, she was my little girl – the only person who called me mum, a word I don’t get to hear anymore. A very precious life that the world has lost.
With that in mind, I will do whatever I can to help raise awareness of my loss in order to protect your children and your grandchildren.
Thank you for listening.