by Mary Lou Palmer


Since her son, Ben, died from a heroin overdose, Mary Lou Palmer has become an advocate for the legalisation of heroin. The following extract, written by Mary Lou with the assistance of Kirsty Simpson, comes from an article published in The Age on Saturday, 9th January 1999, entitled ‘Ben: How our drug laws failed him’.

Ben, our son, died on 6 October 1998, three months after his 21st birthday. He had been addicted to heroin for nearly two years. We were an ordinary middle-class family. Photo albums full of Christenings, birthday parties, kindergarten, nativity plays, Christmas Days, family picnics, beach holidays, school photos, confirmations. We nearly always had dinner at the table together, invited conversation on any topic, encouraged an active attitude of tolerance and understanding of people outside our comfort zone. We were totally committed to our marriage and our children.

It did not prevent us from slipping into a nightmare existence.

I was putting away some clothes of his in a drawer – I know he probably could have put his own away – and I saw a syringe. He was in the end of Year 11.

I didn’t want to accuse him, I didn’t want to drive him out. All the time I was conscious I didn’t want him out on the street, because his best option was in the safety of our environment.

So I bided my time. I decided I wanted him to get a thorough medical check-up, which he did. He was referred for tests. When they rang, Ben went white. For the first time he opened up. He said: ‘Mum I’m in deep shit. I’ve got Hep C.’ I went across the road to the chemist and got a brochure on hepatitis C and read it. Then I said: ‘Yes, I think we are.’

The stress is, of course, huge and there are many leads to follow, many options: good and bad. You are desperate but you have to use your common sense. You end up with files inches thick. You learn such things as heroin was first available over the counter in 1889 for general medicinal use as a cough suppressant and that it gives an intense feeling of pleasure.

At times I was envious of the feeling it produced – I wanted to feel the feeling as a release from the emotional pain and anxiety.

We had many heart-wrenching moments with Ben, too many to recount, but all are indelibly etched in my mind. Anxiety is the worst emotion in the world, I think. We were in a situation we had no control over – we could only adjust our sails in the prevailing winds.

One night I woke to hear my husband quietly sobbing on his side of the bed. One day in the Botanical Gardens in a secluded area we sat and held each other and wept tears of utter despair. We had run out of options and no one could help us, we had tried everything. But, of course, you don’t give up. Ben said one night: ‘Mum, let go’. I told him giving up was not in a mother’s job description.

In the end you realise that you didn’t cause it, you can’t control it and you can’t cure it. Only they can. In the end we realised we could only help Ben by helping ourselves. We joined a small group of seven people. It was incredibly helpful. It taught me that you can’t change other people’s behaviour, only your own. That may force a change in the other person. It drove home the fact that we are all responsible for our own behaviour, thereby eliminating any feelings of guilt. It taught me that assuming responsibility for someone else’s behaviour makes them feel inadequate and hopeless.

I would like to put forward some ideas I have had for a while. I believe legalisation is the only way to go. We have to eliminate the criminal element in heroin. If Ben had had access to a medically supervised dose to suit his detoxed clean system he might not be dead now. Street heroin is unreliable in its strength and content.

On 5 October at 11:45am we were taken into intensive care at the Royal Melbourne Hospital to see eight doctors and nurses work for almost 12 hours to stabilise Ben. He was treated with such care and dignity and we received such kindness, compassion and professionalism.

Five friends from school came in; boys who had stayed close. I stood aside as one by one they put their arms around him shed tears and whispered their own special goodbye to him.

Ben died at 5pm Tuesday 6th October 1998 surrounded by people who loved him. I bathed him and we said goodbye. I remembered, for no particular reason, the Father’s Day card Ben chose for Ian the previous month. It said: ‘I was never an easy child – the great ones never are.’

When we arrived at the church for the service on the 9th, we could not believe the huge number of people – nearly 500. We didn’t know that many people cared about us so deeply. It was the most tragic week of our lives but the most privileged. We were on the receiving end of humanity at its best.

Friends sent us this poem with their condolence letter.

To mourn too long
For those we love is self-indulgent
But to honour their memory
With a promise
To live a little better
For having known them
Gives purpose to their life
And some reason
For their death

Our young are at war but it is not on foreign dirt; it is in our streets and our homes. And we are paying a very high price. We are losing the potentially productive middle section of our society.

I want to make a difference – I want the carnage to stop. I don’t want to go to another young person’s funeral. 

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