FOR THE past three years, Betty Grey hasn't bothered putting up a Christmas tree. She hasn't had much enthusiasm for celebrating the festive season since her 23-year-old son, John, collapsed and later died from a cocaine overdose at a house party at their Waterford family home in late November 2007.
Another young Waterford man, 21-year-old Kevin Doyle, also died in the days following the party from cocaine toxicity. Betty Grey is just one mother of 217 families who have lost a loved one to cocaine in the past three years. Katy French and Gerry Ryan are Ireland's high-profile casualties of a drug that continues to claim ordinary people's lives.
The party in the Grey family home in Ballybeg Square was to celebrate Betty's youngest son Mark's 21st birthday. But the revelry quickly turned into a nightmare when up to a dozen young men, who had begun eating the class-A drug rather than snorting it because it was damp, began to collapse. All recovered fully except for John and Kevin, whose families eventually agreed to switch off their life-support machines in early December.
The tragedy became headline news because the two young men died in the same week as model Katy French, catapulting the issue of cocaine abuse into the spotlight. Almost exactly three years later, the same debate is raging in the media in light of the news that Gerry Ryan's heart failure was triggered by cocaine.
"It's actually getting harder as time goes by, not easier," Grey told the Sunday Tribune. "Christmas is a particularly bad time. I don't bother with the tree. I volunteer to work every Christmas Day at the hospital where I work. I'd rather be there than sitting here on Christmas Day thinking about what's happened. Only for my grandchildren, I wouldn't celebrate Christmas at all."
Grey lives in the same house in Ballybeg Square where her son collapsed. She lives with her son Mark, who she says has been deeply affected by what happened, as have her two other children. "I'm going to counselling but it doesn't feel like things are getting any better. My daughter Michelle moved out after what happened; she couldn't bear to live here. And Mark's been very badly affected; it was his birthday we were celebrating. His birthdays will never be the same again."
But Grey's problems ran deeper. As well as coming to terms with the loss of her son in such horrendous circumstances, she was then charged with permitting the sale, supply or distribution of cocaine in her house on that night. In March this year, she was acquitted of these charges. Not long before her trial began, her son's grave was desecrated with abusive graffiti.
"The gardaí made a show of me, bringing me through the courts over nothing. I could have lost my job. Then someone destroyed my son's gravestone and wrote on it 'John's mother was a drug dealer'. What kind of a person destroys someone's grave?"
Grey is not ashamed of her son and hopes his death has made others think twice before dabbling in drugs. If Katy French hadn't died two days before her son and Kevin Doyle, she doesn't believe the media would have paid a blind bit of notice to the Waterford tragedy.
"The only reason it was a story is because of Katy French. But my son died the same way that she did and now it's the same with Gerry Ryan. It has brought it all up again, Gerry Ryan's death. I am not ashamed to say that John died from taking drugs. I loved my son and he really enjoyed life. I hope people learned from what happened to him. Even if just one person did, I'd be glad. John was just a normal Joe Soap. Katy French and Gerry Ryan were famous but they all died the same way."
Grey says her family has been vilified in Waterford over what happened. "That hasn't happened to Gerry Ryan and Katy French. They aren't trying to find who gave Gerry Ryan cocaine, are they? But I feel sorry for their families too. We all go through the same pain."
There are hundreds of families who have lost their loved ones to cocaine over the past decade. Most of their stories haven't made the news. This year, a grim roll call of inquests at coroner's courts revealed details of how dozens of people lost their lives as a direct consequence of taking cocaine. The details of each personal tragedy are entirely different. But the outcome in each case was exactly the same.
In January, Dublin City Coroner's Court heard how 19-year-old Paul Magee from Rutland Grove in Crumlin, Dublin, died of cocaine-induced heart failure. The teenager had delusions that he was being chased by men with guns in the hours before he collapsed and died while in garda custody. The teenager was so paranoid on the night he died that he armed himself with a knife to protect himself from the non-existent people pursuing him.
In April, the case of a pregnant mother-of-two who died after taking cocaine made headlines following an inquest. Thirty-two-year-old Lisa Hart, from Coolock, Dublin, died along with her unborn child after she collapsed. The idea that a pregnant woman would take cocaine appalled the nation. It also reinforced the reality that cocaine is highly addictive, which many occasional users don't accept as the reality.
Several coroners around Ireland have warned about the dangers of cocaine, particularly when mixed with alcohol, as they deal firsthand with the aftermath of suffering as a result of cocaine. In 2007, Dublin County Coroner Dr Kieran Geraghty held five inquests on the same day where cocaine was the cause of death. He had a point to make. "I think people should be more aware and very wary of the use of cocaine. It is a very dangerous drug and can be fatal even in small doses," he told the court.
The stories that remain in our consciousness are the deaths of Katy French and - more recently - Gerry Ryan. But cocaine has countless other faceless victims.
"Katy French and Gerry Ryan might be the famous ones," said Betty Grey. "But there's lots of ordinary people who died the same way."
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