At the Inca site of Machu Picchu, Diane Esguerra grabs handfuls of her son Sacha’s ashes from the orange silk pouch that has made the journey with her. She scatters them to the north, south, east and west while whispering to him, “I’ll meet you again.” It is the most intensely painful journey, the kind a parent never wants to imagine.
Sacha, who would have turned 41 last week, died of a heroin overdose aged 30. He had, his mother now knows, been sexually abused by a housemaster at boarding school. But in her first book, Junkie Buddha: A Journey of Discovery in Peru, Diane was determined to write an uplifting account of her relationship with her son.
“I wrote the book to honour Sacha’s memory,” she says. “And because I’m a middle-class, middle-aged woman and I want to lift the shame associated with addiction and with abuse. I’d like to see sexual abuse education being taught in schools.” Diane, who has worked as a playwright, scriptwriter and performance artist, had reluctantly sent her fishing- and football-obsessed son to prep school in Eastbourne. He was dyslexic, and little support was offered in the state education system in the 1980s, while the boarding school had a dyslexia unit. She had no idea of the abuse he suffered at the time. “I missed him terribly and wrote letters every day,” she remembers.
Her son’s character transformed as he approached his teenage years. He became miserable and angry, but Diane thought this was because her marriage to Sacha’s stepfather was breaking down. His teenage years were troubled. A teacher saw cuts on his arm at 14. Soon after, he was expelled for carrying a Swiss Army knife on a school trip, and moved to a local school in Holland Park, west London.
At 18, he left home but lived close to his mother, bringing back washing most days. He lived for the moment, going to lots of festivals, making music and joining the New Age Traveller movement, where he formed strong, lasting friendships. He loved nature, especially climbing mountains, and spent time travelling in South America, sometimes visiting his Colombian father. “I was aware he was drinking quite a lot, and taking drugs – mushrooms and so on,” Diane says. “When I asked why, he would just say, ‘You shouldn’t have sent me to boarding school, Mum,’ but wouldn’t say any more.”
It was only when Diane, by then living in Brighton with her husband David, retrained as a psychotherapist that she recognised what Sacha had suffered. “I went to a seminar on male abuse and Sacha ticked every box,” she remembers. “When he next came to stay, I broached it with him. He ran from the room and I didn’t see him again that evening.” The next morning, she offered help and support. He remained silent. It was 18 months later that he opened up about his experiences.
“He told me he’d been abused on many occasions by his housemaster,” she says. “He took him out of his dormitory and filled him with alcohol. He was 10. He said he’d been too ashamed to tell anyone, even me. His housemaster directed him in plays at school, and invited us to lunch sometimes when I came down to visit. He was repulsive, but I didn’t want to say no as I didn’t want Sacha to lose favour with him. I thought he fancied me because I worked in the theatre – but that’s the grooming.”
At the same time, Sacha told his mother he was a heroin addict. “I hadn’t suspected he took heroin,” she remembers. “He was getting on to a methadone programme and wanted my support.”
Sacha continued making music through his twenties, and Diane supported him through his struggles with addiction and his painful withdrawals, when he would go cold turkey, turning to drugs again in times of crisis.
On 2 January 2005, Diane visited her son. She found Sacha’s body slumped kneeling on the floor; he had died from an overdose after partying over the New Year. Her husband David came to join her. “We sat in the living room of the flat upstairs, staring down at the hideous blue carpet, holding hands in stunned silence. I was living through my worst nightmare, and there was a horrible familiarity to it all,” she writes in Junkie Buddha.
It was a year after Sacha’s death that Diane travelled to Peru, a country her son had adored and was hoping to return to. “He loved Macchu Picchu. It felt like the right place to be,” she says. She was joined by Sacha’s father, Roberto, to scatter their son’s ashes, healing a huge rift between them. “It was as if it was what Sacha wanted: it felt spiritual and beautiful.”
Drug addiction, overdoses, and a very brief history of Heroin
Drug addiction, overdoses, and a very brief history of Heroin
1/14 Heroin – the chemical name for which is diacetylmorphine – was originally synthesized by British chemist C.R.Alder Wright (pictured overleaf) in 1874, by adding two acetyl groups to the molecule morphine, which is naturally found in the opium poppy.
2/14 Bayer, the German pharmaceutical company behind Alka-Seltzer and Aspirin, bought the rights to diacetylmorphine, marketing it under the name “Heroin” in 1895 because early testers said that it made them feel “heroisch” or “heroic”.
3/14 By 1898, it was ready for mass marketing. It was originally sold as an over-the-counter cough suppressant that didn’t have problematic side effects, like addiction (the irony) - while alternative treatments morphine and codeine did. This was before they realised that, when taken into the body, it actually converts into morphine, and is ferociously addictive. Thus defeating the object and defining what was to become a historically embarrassing moment for the company in later years.
4/14 By 1899 Bayer was producing a ton of Heroin and exporting the drug to 23 countries, while free samples sent to doctors and studies appeared in medical journals. It was also around this time that early reports of addiction began to surface. The company wisely released Aspirin this year, which would go on to become one of the most popular and widely used pain relief drugs in the world.
5/14 US medicines containing heroin were available over the counter from 1907, after the American Medical Association gave it its stamp of approval.
6/14 As Heroin dependency became a torrent and overdoses began to be reported, Heroin was made illegal to obtain without a prescription from a doctor in the US in 1914. Bayer lost some of its trademark rights to Heroin and Aspirin under the Treaty Of Versailles in 1919, after the German defeat in World War I.
7/14 In the early 1920s, a number of addicted users in New York supported themselves by collecting and selling scrap metal retrieved from industrial dumps. It was from this that the label “junkies” was born. The behavior of Heroin addicts was soon, however, to cause a concern to the public and the authorities. In 1924, it became completely illegal, and doctors were told they could no longer prescribe the drug.
8/14 By this point, Heroin had become popular among creative industries. Pictured left is famed actress Jeanne Eagels, who died of a Heroin overdose in 1929. Its outlawed use had pushed manufacturers underground, and the purity of the product illegal traders now used varied in quality.
9/14 In the UK, the Rolleston Committee Report in 1926, illegal Heroin dealers were prosecuted, but doctors could prescribe diacetylmorphine to users when they were withdrawing from it, if it would cause harm or severe distress to the patient to go without it. This would be the law until 1959 when the number of diacetylmorphine addicts doubled every 16 months between 1959 and 1968.
10/14 The Brain Committee recommended that only selected, specially approved doctors at specialized centres were allowed to prescribe diacetylmorphine to users in 1964. The law was further restricted in 1968, and by the 1970s, the emphasis shifted to encouraging abstinence and the use of substitute methadone.
11/14 In the 1980s, the UK experienced a surge in Heroin supply because of a sudden cheap influx from Pakistan (the main supplier had been – and is now – Afghanistan). Cues from popular culture – and a social downtown caused by the economic and industrial crisis in the late 1970s – created the perfect environment for the Trainspotting generation.
12/14 In the 1990s, Heroin use was again popularized by the rise of grunge and Britpop, while the emergence of ‘the waif’ in fashion, of which Kate Moss is often cited as the originator, would give rise to the term ‘Heroin chic’. In 1994, the Swiss began to trial a diamorphine maintenance program for users who had failed multiple withdrawal programs. It aimed to maintain the health of the user, by discouraging the use of illicit street Heroin. It was deemed a success.
Kate Moss and Johnny Depp, together in 1994
13/14 Today, the largest producer of opium, needed to create Heroin is Afghanistan. This is closely followed by Mexico, who increased their rate of production sixfold between 2007 and 2011. Diacetylmorphine is a controlled, Class A substance in the UK, but continues to be used in palliative care for the treatment of acute pain, such as in severe physical trauma, post-surgical and chronic pain, as well as relieving sufferers of terminal illnesses.
14/14 Key figures continue to campaign for greater sympathies and better treatment of Heroin addicts as they attempt to rehabilitate themselves and re-enter society. Russell Brand’s Give it Up Fund, run in conjunction with Comic Relief, aims to provide financial aid to help people remain free from substance abuse by setting up support groups. "It's integral that people entering a life of abstinence after the chaos of addiction have stability, support and a role to play in the wider community," he said.
Her memoir describes her journey through the country and the Peruvians she meets along the way, including an Inca witch who predicts that she will write a book about her travels. “Flying over the Nazca Lines, seeing the temples – it brought me alive again. I think the surprise of travel does that. When your mood is low, you’re grieving and thinking one-dimensional thoughts, and are stuck in your own head, it has the power to delight and amaze, as much as to shock and to horrify us. I’m fascinated by the human race – our common humanity, both our similarities and our differences.”
Diane now lives in Salford with David, and works as a psychotherapist, often with clients who have been abused. “I want there to be more understanding of what it does to people and why children stay silent, even if there’s a close parental bond,” she says. “The guilt and the self-disgust that the victim picks up from the abuser, the fears of being judged and the damage to self-esteem.”
Police investigating Sacha’s death have tried to trace his prep school housemaster, but without success, and the school is now closed.
Diane continues to feel Sacha’s presence. “I feel he’s happy and at peace,” she says. “I sense him sometimes very strongly – especially if I’m afraid and have to have an operation, or something.” She hopes Junkie Buddha may help others in a similar situation. “I know suicide rates are very high for adult women who have lost their only grown child,” she says. “There’s a survivor’s guilt. I felt I should have gone before him; he should have been at my funeral.”
She says her grief is “constantly there, but not in the same agonising way it used to be. I feel a sense of peace within it”. And her Buddhist faith that even the darkest situations can be transformed has helped to carry her.
“Death is part of life,” she says. “It’s such a taboo in our society, but the dead have a place in our lives – it’s not something to move on from or not to mention. We have continuing bonds: it’s healthier to continue to talk to whoever you’ve lost, than ‘recover’ from it.”
‘Junkie Buddha: A Journey of Discovery in Peru’ will be published by Eye Books on 11 September (Eye Books, £8.99)Reuse content