Family Tribute at FFDLR’s 19th Annual Remembrance Ceremony ‘for those who lose their lives to illicit drugs’
In memory of Sam – 21st October 2014
My son Sam, died from an overdose of Heroin three years ago. He was found dead in a men’s toilet in Redfern in Sydney. A Heart breaking and pointless end to a beautiful young life. Was Sam a bad person? No – Was Sam selfish? No – Could Sam’s life have been saved?
Let me tell you about Sam. He was born in 1983 in Castlemaine hospital and was the younger brother of Luke. We moved as a family to Wagga Wagga in NSW where the boys went to Primary School. Sam was happy there doing all the things youngsters do – including playing on the trampoline in our large back garden.
I then got a job in Albury Wodonga and the boys and I moved there – my partner and I had separated. With their acrobatic skills earlier honed on the back yard trampoline, Luke and Sam attended the Flying Fruit Fly Circus School in Wodonga. The school is small and focuses on Circus training, touring shows both in Australia and Overseas. (It has just celebrated it’s 35th anniversary.) Both Luke and Sam quickly became proficient jugglers and acrobats and had the great experience of touring with the circus shows.
Piano lessons were also available at the school and it was not long before I had to replace a rather old pianola with a modern Yamaha so that Sam could develop his musical skills. I also took piano lessons but Sam was always way ahead of me. He played at all the school concerts and I remember a wonderful performance he did of ‘Black Blues’ at the end of year review when he was in year 12.
Sam had a great sense of discipline, evident in his piano playing and also in his ability to juggle 5 balls/clubs and hoops – all these skills taking hours of solitary practice to perfect. He also enjoyed drawing and sketching. He had a great sense of humour especially at making jokes at my expense and seemed to see into people’s quirks. He would make fun of me and the blokes who came to my house as part of a men’s group. He gave them really appropriate nick names. There was chocolate biscuit man (you can imagine) – and ‘half car’ – who never used to leave his van quite off the road, but always half on the pavement. He was also a great mimic. He could not only mimic my friends but put on foreign accents. One day Sam and a friend were reported in the local paper as being visiting Canadian tourists saying how much they liked Wodonga!
But there was also a dark side to Sam. I didn’t realise that he was starting to suffer from depression whilst in his early teenage years. The truth is that even the best parents cannot know everything that goes on with their children – especially single parents. What triggered the depression we will never know. Sam didn’t give up though and he certainly wasn’t down all the time. He was an attractive young man and had a number of girl friends. In his late teens he started boxing and judo. I remember that it was one of his girl friends who drove him to hospital after he broke his toe being thrown in a judo match by a rather large opponent.
His mental health problems didn’t go away, though. Sam was put on anti depressants and went to counselling. He didn’t do well in HSC and hadn’t any career thoughts but he had plenty of talent. His brother went to study at NICA – the National Institute of Circus Arts- in Melbourne and I encouraged Sam to audition too – of course he got in. He shared a flat in Melbourne with an old school friend who was also studying circus skills at NICA. During all this time he continued his struggle with anxiety and depression. He had attended a Vipassana Meditation course and was trying to manage his worries with meditation. He completed his first year at NICA and performed in the end of year show in Melbourne. I didn’t know it, but during this time he had started taking heroin. It was the one thing that made him feel OK and less anxious for a few hours.
He dropped out of second year as his anxiety had increased and he went into a psychiatric hospital in Wodonga where he was given heavy doses of anti depressants. After a fairly disastrous 2 years living with a partner in Albury he went to stay at his mother’s and worked at reducing the high levels of prescribed drugs on the advice of yet another psychiatrist. Later he moved to Canberra with me and my new wife and joined a methadone programme. He found part time work and went to NA meetings where he had the support of some excellent sponsors.
Sam really wanted to get off the methadone programme and so he went to MTAR in Sydney – a drug rehabilitation centre. He was given plenty of help there and the hospital was set in the beautiful grounds. He got off methadone and was only using some prescription sleeping pills. He left MTAR and got a flat in Balmain, although he was advised to stay on in a half way house that MTAR ran.
For the last 2 years of his life Sam enjoyed Sydney. He had mates there – he taught some circus classes – he was in a juggling group and he did odd jobs and went to NA. But heroin was always there despite some time being clean. My last extended time with him was a journey to the UK after my Mother died. Sam did all the driving for me on the busy roads around Manchester and seemed so supportive and so much better. Looking back it’s hard to believe that he still had difficulties in his life. He came down to Canberra with a lovely girl friend and stayed with us over Easter, having a great time at the National Folk Festival. He was happy then – but happiness on a knife’s edge.
I talked to him a few days before he died. He was excited about a promotional video he had made of his juggling skills for a prospective gig. He told me about a fun expedition to see a band at the weekend. I had organised to have dinner with him in a few day’s time on a business trip to Sydney – but it was not to be.
We played his juggling video at his funeral and at the same time his brother and his many many circus friends stood and juggled silently along side him – it was the most moving thing I have ever witnessed. I also have a video of him playing the piano but I haven’t watched it yet.
Could Sam’s life have been saved? I believe it could have been. But no easy answers, no magic bullets – mental illness can be a terrible thing. Mental illness together with uncontrolled drugs supplied by criminals is deadly. We have to keep working on treating mental illness. |It can be very difficult to cure.
Putting an end to unsafe illegal drugs is something we can do. I know prohibition doesn’t work. My son died, but I know how to beat the drug cartels. We supply drugs carefully and safely using all our knowledge of medicine. We provide the support needed. We recognise that the society we have made can be very difficult and frightening for young people and they need guidance and encouragement. We admit to the failure of current policy. We learn from other countries who have not been afraid to embrace a rational approach to managing drugs. We have to stop the terrible wastage of lives that we witnessed today with a mature and considered response developed from evidence and analysis – not a childlike fearfulness or an unenforceable control. It is my hope that this can be achieved soon in Australia.