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Drug deaths: Trauma of the grieving families left behind

As the number of drug fatalities climbs, we speak to some of the people affected.

By STV News

Published 15 Aug 2017.

Vivien Kelly is standing by the grave of her son a few days after what would have been his 21st birthday.

The hardest thing, she said, had been breaking the news to her eight-year-old daughter that her brother, Lee, would not be coming home. That was more than 18 months ago.

Lee Kelly, aged only 19, passed away in one of the first of 867 drug-related deaths in Scotland in 2016 - which was on Tuesday revealed as a record high.

Lee's young sister now sees her brother as a "star in the sky".

"We go out every night and she says 'good night' to him," their mother explains.

"In the morning she says 'good morning' to him, even when she's going to school."

He died of multiple organ failure in a hospital bed on January 3, three days after going to the O2 Academy in Glasgow to celebrate Hogmanay with his friends, where they took MDMA tablets.

"It's been hard but his friends still keep in touch with me as well which is a great thing," she said.

"Lee should be with them right now. Some of them are having babies, getting engaged, getting married and he's not going to have that."

The teenager was not a regular drug user and was well on the way to earning a degree in business studies at Langside College.

"He had a job coming out at the end of it," she says. "He was a really good boy."

Vivien adds: "He didn't usually go out at New Year - he was always in the house with myself and his wee sister.

"This was the first time he'd went out. He'd actually wanted to go to Spain. There were friends going to Spain and I wouldn't let him go."

As any mother would, she wonders if there was something she could have done to change what happened.

"They think they're invincible and they're playing with their lives," she says.

"It's Russian Roulette. It can happen to anybody as it happened to my Lee."

He might have been one of last year's first drug deaths but Lee's case is the exception rather than the rule, with the majority of drug-related deaths occurring among addicts.

Barbara Bauld is a retired teacher from Cumbernauld. Her son Douglas died earlier this year of an overdose.

He had been using both prescription drugs and street drugs, including heroin and cocaine.

Barbara says he hid much of his addiction from her and first confessed to its existence when his father died in 2015.

"Part of the difficulty in helping him was that he was quite convinced, as many people who have addiction problems are, that he was in control of it all, and he didn't want to wash his dirty linen in public," she says.

"He just thought it was something he could do in private and nobody would ever find out, and he could stop it whenever he felt the need to stop it, and that's the mistake I think that a lot of addicts make."

She believes his addiction developed due to a convergence of factors, such as losing his job, worrying about his mortgage and becoming a father, which left him vulnerable.

"I said to Douglas at one point: 'Just don't take it.' This was shortly before he died," Barbara recalls.

"And he said: 'This is the only thing that puts away the pain.'"

Barbara is now trying to raise awareness of the law around data protection and medical confidentiality, and feels it is too rigid for carers and next of kin of patients dealing with mental health and drugs-related issues.

"I am consumed with feelings of guilt because I knew that he was down, I knew that he was as down as I'd ever seen him and I didn't know what to do," she says.

"I didn't know who to get in touch with, who would be willing to listen to me, because I had been in touch with every agency, every organisation, every medical professional that I could think of and I'd run out of options."

Tuesday's figures put drug fatalities at a record high - they have almost tripled since 2005 - although this is in significant part down to the ageing addict population.

In Kilmarnock, recovering heroin addict Neil Sanders, 59, knows all too well that he could easily be dead.

"I question that myself quite often," he says.

Originally from Hull, he began taking drugs in his early teenage years and was hooked on heroin by the age of 28.

He also became involved in drug dealing, for which he has three convictions but never served a prison sentence.

"It wasn't like I had an extravagant lifestyle," Neil says. "I didn't live in a palace, I didn't have a car, none of that. It was all about just feeding myself with drugs."

He has been attending a meeting ahead of the launch of a new support group later this month in Kilmarnock for those dealing with the addictions of others, called Someone Else's Addiction (SEA).

Neil has been in recovery for three years but still has family and close friends struggling with various addictions on both sides of the border and has lost relatives to drug overdoses.

"Luckily I am now at the point where I can be about it and it doesn't affect me," he explains.

"I've totally lost the lust to take anything. I chose abstinence of everything.

"I don't drink and I find that makes it easier because when I was reducing on my methadone I was still drinking and it very nearly led me to taking something."

Neil also knows it is possible - although there may be no way of knowing - that his drugs could have resulted in the deaths of others.

"I can't turn the clock back," he says. "It certainly doesn't justify it or anything - I was out-and-out wrong."

He adds government needs to recognise the full extent of today's drugs problem - in terms of both the availability and range of substances young people can find.

"You've got your legal highs coming through that nobody recognises," says Neil. "It's becoming a huge problem for the youngsters.

"To me that's your target area that you need to get. If you can get people into recovery in their early 20s then people don't end up like me with decades-long addictions."

Chloe Noble, 18, whose mother and brother are both addicts, was at the same meeting planning for the launch of SEA and is starting college soon.

Raised by her aunt at the age of three due to her mother's addiction, she wants to set up a group where children and teenagers can meet and talk about having family members who are drug users.

"They're still my family, I still love them but it can be testing on your relationship, my mother not being able to be there for me," she says.

"She's the last person that I want something to happen to so it is a constant worry.

"It's always in the back of my head, late at night when I'm in bed, that's when it's hard and it keeps you up at night."

Chloe's brother struggled with alcohol before going to prison. When he got out, he started taking heroin and crack cocaine.

"People don't know the half of being dragged into it and how easy it is to be dragged into it," she explains.

"Sometimes it's not as black and white as it seems. Everyone has their problems, everyone has struggles, just sometimes people can't deal with it as go od as other people and people turn to different things.

"But I don't feel like it's going to move forward if you just look down on people rather than trying to help."

Julie Biggley is one of two women who has set up the new SEA group.

She formerly worked for the Lighthouse Foundation, a local family support group which closed after its funding ran out in 2015.

Julie has lost four members of her family to drugs - a cousin, two nieces and, two months ago, a nephew who overdosed the day after he was released from prison.

Family members and close friends, she says, are better placed than anyone to help addicts and to know the "danger periods" when overdoses are more likely.

"When they're in prison their tolerance levels are reduced," Julie explains.

"They come out and they take, and a lot of the times that's what it is, and also, the mix of the drugs that they're taking."

She is scathing of the job being done by government to tackle not only drug deaths but other issues around addiction such as family breakdown and crime.

"Nothing's changing, nothing's getting done. It's shocking," says Julie.

"We talk about figures but these are lives - people's daughters, sons, husbands. It's just getting worse and worse."

Julie also says the stigma attached to the families of people whose lives are claimed by drugs is "massive", and that the grieving process for these families is often made worse by feelings of anger, guilt and shame.

"It is a choice to take drugs and it's a choice to drink alcohol," she admits.

"But then that choice becomes a need and then that need becomes an addiction. And nobody chooses to have an addiction."