In South Australia's Sunday Mail from the weekend just gone, even the most hardened reader will find the story of Emma Pawelski heartbreaking and incredibly tragic. We find ourselves in the unenviable position of a mother paralysed with the question of what could have been, that horrific state of limbo where no course of action can make any difference whatsoever to that which has already taken place. Emma's story is deeply upsetting and leaves this insignificant blog writer with the most bitter of tastes.
The kind of bitter that causes one to hunch over with sickness.
It is understandable that Sharon McKell, Emma's mother, has written a book on the subject, with an accompanying mission to educate the next generation about the dangerous "allure of drugs". We saw the same response following the loss of Sydney teenager Anna Wood to an 'Ecstasy'-related death, when her surviving parents reached out to the public. Of course it is understandable, but it certainly is not the only response available to loved ones, nor is it one based upon reflection and consideration. At the risk of seeming insensitive and callous, I think, as difficult as it may seem, it is vital for those who have lost people dear to them in such circumstances to take the time to really consider what has occurred before running with knee-jerk, emotional reactions; and I think it is important that the more experienced and wise amongst us reach out, where possible, to assist with the difficult process of learning.
In the Sunday Mail article, Emma's mother speaks of feeling "betrayed and disappointed" in her daughter, eventually "badgering" her to just stop. I can't help but think of two young people I know of. One is a young female who has just turned twenty-one, currently working daily on the streets of St Kilda to support an intensive heroin habit. Where does she live? At home with her mother. What are her mother's primary concerns? That her beautiful daughter is safe, uses sterile injecting equipment, eats decent food regularly and has a roof above her head; and above all else, is in close, daily contact. The second person is a young male who is just past twenty-five years of age, has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, has previously attempted suicide and currently injects amphetamines and steroids. He has smoked cannabis in the past on a daily basis. Where does he reside? At home with his mother. What is her primary concern? That he is alive, safe and in close contact with her. Both of these young people are alive today and are reasonably healthy.
I am not blaming Sharon for her daughter's death, but I do find it frustrating that she seems to have chosen to completely externalise everything to do with her deceased daughter. She wants to know "exactly what happened" and wants young people who read the book to "think seriously about the choices they make, the company they keep and the consequences of their actions..." And in the article's brief moment of inward contemplation, Sharon explains that "I could have pushed Emma a lot harder but there were reasons that didn't happen." The reader subsequently discovers that one of those reasons is that Emma "hid a lot of things" from her mother. Shouldn't we be having the kind of relationship with our children that fosters openness, where young people can reach out to their parents for support no matter what the issue is?
And what kind of system allows young women to undertake sex work simply to maintain a drug dependence? What kind of judge sentences drug users by day and then hires the sexual services of drug users by night, as occurred with Emma? For people like this, is Prohibition a convenient way to channel pretty young women into the sex industry for their consumption? ("Gee, if it wasn't for illegal drugs, I'd never be able to buy sex from someone as young and delectable as you!") Like I said earlier, the kind of bitterness that sickens you to the core.
With all due respect to Sharon McKell, families of all walks of life may be better off spending more time considering the following:
a) why humans use drugs
b) the role of drugs in the evolution of humankind
c) the most suitable response regarding the affected family member/s that is based upon the individual involved rather than what is socially acceptable
d) why the family member uses drugs and what drugs mean to the person
e) reducing the most amount of harm to the person/s from their drug use
f) helping the person/s to stay alive
g) employing the appropriate expertise to support the person/s if and when they make a decision to move on from drugs
h) understanding the meaning of 'unconditional love'
I dare say that it was the hardness of Sharon's pushing that further entrenched Emma's isolation, alienation and increased risk. Think of the word 'push' - it means to increase the distance between yourself and someone else. Since when do we increase the distance for people we supposedly love? Shouldn't we be pulling such people towards us? Tragically, it must be easier at this point in time for Sharon to embrace the words of those who have themselves been misguided, for fear of the immense pain that would come from looking inward and genuine reflection.
Finally, I feel it is important to mention Tony Trimingham, the founder of Family Drug Support, who lost his son Damien to a heroin-related overdose. Trimingham has delved deeply into both his heart and mind to come to terms with the life that his son led. Since his son's passing, Trimingham has gone on to champion harm reduction (needle exchanges, supervised injecting facilities etc.), comprehend the complexity of drug use and support other families in need.