I found my son’s body three days after he took an accidental heroin overdose.
Losing your only child is a life-shattering experience. Why and how had this tragedy come about?
Sacha was sexually abused by his house master at the prep school where he was boarding in the 1980’s. He was attending the school because he was dyslexic and it had a specialist unit. Around the age of ten, from being a happy child his behaviour suddenly changed. At the time I attributed this to my going through a divorce.
Sacha didn’t tell me – or anyone for that matter – about the abuse until 2001, by which time he was twenty-seven. He also told me he was a heroin addict.
Throughout his adolescence Sacha had been difficult and depressed, and had also self-harmed. He went on to lead an itinerant life-style here and abroad – often being out of contact for several months at a time. This caused those who loved him endless worry.
Sexual abuse destroys an individual’s self-esteem. Although it’s illogical, the abused take on the guilty, self-loathing feelings of the abuser and feel too ashamed to talk about it – which is why they rarely seek help. Many, like Sacha, experience traumatic flashbacks. Sacha self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. Although I threw myself into doing everything I could to help him, Sacha found it hard to stay off heroin – it became even harder when he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2003. The psychiatrist said the disease had been triggered by his history of abuse.
After his death, with the help of the police, I tried to trace the paedophile – something Sacha couldn’t face doing while he was alive. I wanted to make sure that he wasn’t continuing to destroy the lives of other children and their families. He’d been sacked from the school while Sacha was still there – for physically assaulting another child. The school had since closed and no records could be found of this man – not even his date of birth which, despite the persistent efforts of the police, meant he could not be traced.
After nearly four years I’m slowly moving towards a position of acceptance, but forgiveness? I don’t know. Can I forgive the paedophile? To be honest, no I can’t – but that doesn’t mean I’d want to kill him if I’d met him. I believe revenge is futile. Besides, he has himself to live with, and his conscience – if he has one. If I met him I’d certainly want him to know the misery and suffering he’s caused.
One of my battles has been to forgive myself for sending Sacha to boarding school in the first place. But then I believe guilt is futile too. Most bereavements are accompanied by a ‘what if’…
There’s also Sacha to think about. It’s agonizing to watch your only child slowly self-destruct. I know he loved me and appreciated all the help I gave him, but couldn’t he have tried a bit harder to stay clean – for his friends and family if not for himself?
I’m sceptical about the authenticity of those who seem to forgive easily. It’s a form of denial and doesn’t feel real. It’s important to acknowledge all your feelings including the angry, cruel ones – only then can you start to process them and let them go. As a Buddhist, I’ve tried to create value out of this painful experience in my work as both a psychological counsellor and a writer. I work with the depressed, the bereaved, the abused, with addicts, and with the mentally ill. Sacha’s suffering and my own has made me more compassionate as a human being.
On the first anniversary of his death I scattered Sacha’s ashes at Machu Picchu in Peru. Sacha loved South America. He was half-Colombian and had walked the Inca trail. I have written a book about that journey and Sacha’s life. I’m hoping that his story might help some members of society to be a little less judgemental of those who suffer from addictions and mental illness. Behind both there usually lies a heartbreaking story.