It was New Year’s Eve, and I was standing on the top terraces of Machu Picchu, the sacred Inca site in Peru, gazing out at the snow-capped glacial summits of the Cordillera Vilcabamba and the deep, green valley of the winding Urubamba river below.
The sun blazed down on this stunning vista, but I wasn’t here to admire the view. I had come in search of a suitable spot to scatter, in two days’ time, the ashes of my son Sacha.
New Year’s Eve the year before was the last time I had seen him alive. And Sacha was very much alive – chatting excitedly about partying with friends that evening. I expressed my apprehension. He had recently started on a new drug programme, and was doing well.
But as much as I yearned to, I couldn’t tell Sacha what to do. He was a 30-year-old man, not a 13-year-old teenager.
Diane Esguerra’s son Sacha died of a heroin overdose at the age of 30, pictured together when he was a toddler in 1977
Two days later I drove down to Sacha’s flat in Brighton. He wasn’t answering his phone – but that was nothing new, he was always running out of credit. He didn’t answer, either, when I knocked on his door. With a pounding heart, I searched for my key and stepped inside.
His two German shepherd dogs came rushing out of the living room and leapt all over me, howling. Sacha was slumped on the living-room floor, a syringe of heroin at his side, cold, white and dead.
Sacha was my only child. I’d met his Colombian father, Roberto, an architect 14 years my senior, when I’d just turned 19. We married soon after and the following year Sacha was born. I was a young, emotionally immature mum, but I adored my little boy. The marriage didn’t last and Roberto went to live and work in Africa.
Sacha was a happy, bright little boy, and also a dyslexic one. The only help on offer at the time was in the shape of a private tutor whom I had to pay for myself. Sacha resented being pulled out of his favourite classes of football and chess, and when he was eight, his father offered to pay for a weekly-boarding private prep school, Chelmsford Hall in Eastbourne, which had a dyslexia unit.
He struggled with drug addiction as a young adult and blamed his issues on boarding school, pictured woth his mother
I had qualms about sending Sacha away to school. But I was persuaded it was in his best interest. It was also, I’m ashamed to say, in my own. My performance work in the theatre was taking off and I had the opportunity to tour in the UK and abroad.
I was, by now, married to an American called Jake. Sacha continued to see his father from time to time, but he and Jake soon became very close.
Sacha enjoyed school for the first couple of years, but when Jake and I broke up and he returned to the States, Sacha changed from being a happy to an unhappy child, and, later, a difficult teenager.
One day his English teacher told me she had spotted cuts on his arms. Sacha made out it was some macho game he and his friends were playing. I knew nothing, then, of self-harm. The psychologist I took him to see put Sacha’s low mood and self-esteem down to his dyslexia. At 18 he left home – but he only lived a Tube stop away, and popped home most days to raid the fridge or do his washing.
He loved music and began going to festivals. The New Age traveller movement appealed to him. He started travelling around Europe with DJs, rigging sound systems. He also co-founded a company which designed and sold clothes in shops and at festivals in the UK and Europe. But I was becoming increasingly concerned about his alcohol consumption, and his admission that he was using recreational drugs. He loved travelling and mountain climbing – particularly in South America where cocaine was cheap and plentiful.
Whenever I asked Sacha the reason for his substance misuse and reluctance to settle down, he would answer: ‘You shouldn’t have sent me to boarding school Mum,’ but refuse, point blank, to say any more. I was consumed with guilt, and deeply regretted my decision to send him away.
By now I had married a lovely man called David and I was making a living as a writer, mainly for the theatre and sometimes television – including the series Peak Practice. Then one day, out of the blue, seven potential writing projects – including a documentary – for one reason or another failed to materialise. Realising that I needed something to fall back on, I decided to train as psychotherapist.
It was while attending a seminar on male abuse at Sussex University that I finally understood what was at the root of Sacha’s unhappiness. The profile of an abused male matched Sacha’s – anger against authority, substance misuse, misery and self-harm. When I gently raised the subject with Sacha, who was by now in his twenties, he ran out of the room. One evening 18 months later, as we shared a bottle of wine together, he confirmed that it was true.
He claimed he was sexually abused while he was a pupil at Chelmsford Hall in Eastbourne (pictured)
His housemaster, he told me, who also directed the school plays and had cast Sacha as Bugsy in the musical Bugsy Malone, used to take him out of his dormitory at night, force him to drink alcohol and then abuse him. This all began around the time Jake and I split up – which for years I had believed to be the primary reason for the change in Sacha. The divorce had affected all three of us. The paedophile knew when to pounce.
He had often invited Sacha and I to have lunch with him on school open days. I found him repugnant, but felt I couldn’t refuse as it could cause problems for Sacha. Little did I know then that his chumminess was all part of the grooming process. Sacha told me that even as an adult he would vomit when he heard the music to Bugsy Malone.
As if Sacha’s admission that evening wasn’t devastating enough, there was more horrendous news to come; he was also a heroin addict. Heroin was the only drug, he told me, which silenced the critical voices in his head. By now I was counselling clients, and was starting to understand why so many victims of sexual abuse self-harm and self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. I was also learning why so few actually speak up.
Paedophiles can threaten or bribe a child to keep quiet, convince them they are colluding, or make them feel they have brought it upon themselves because they are bad. They also, unconsciously, project their own feelings of guilt, shame and self-loathing on to the child, who is afraid to speak up in case they are not believed, or are blamed and rejected by those they love.
With David’s help, I threw myself into doing everything possible to help Sacha come off heroin. Although he tried several methadone programmes – a heroin substitute – he refused to go into rehab because he was starting to experience paranoia around strangers. It was soul-destroying when, after it seemed he had completed a successful ‘home cluck’ (coming off methadone slowly) he relapsed again.
I became frustrated and angry with him, convinced that he wasn’t trying hard enough. I worried, too, that my marriage wouldn’t take the strain of it all. But although David was sometimes livid with Sacha, he also loved him very much and never put me in the position where I had to choose between them – for which I’m eternally grateful.
In an attempt to remove Sacha from the druggy area of South London he was squatting in and give him a stable base, we remortgaged our home and bought a flat for him in Brighton, half an hour’s drive from Horsham where we were living.
The day Sacha was due to move in he suffered a psychotic episode.
I registered him with a Brighton GP who referred him to the Community Mental Health Team. When they had failed to get in contact after several days I took him, in desperation, to The Priory. There, a psychiatrist diagnosed schizophrenia, which he said had been triggered by the sexual abuse.
Sometimes Sacha refused to take his anti-psychotic medication because, he said, it dumbed him down and he slept most of the time.
But before long, I realised he was nipping up to London to score heroin, which, he said, was the only way he could shut up the voices. More than once I felt like tearing my hair out with frustration, but I couldn’t give up on him. I loved him too much. Sacha always said: ‘I’m not a junkie, Mum, I’m someone with a habit.’ He was a kind, gentle, handsome young man, who cared deeply for others. He never stole from us, or from anyone for that matter. He was also an excellent harmonica player and when he couldn’t find work to fund his habit he would earn money busking.
Once Sacha had finally told me about the sexual abuse in 2001, whenever I brought up the subject of the paedophile he would say: ‘He’s dead, Mum, he’s dead,’ in a tone that meant the conversation was over. Like so many abuse victims, he just couldn’t bear to go there. But I was worried that the paedophile could still be alive and abusing other children.
About a week after the funeral, my sister and I trawled through all the letters Sacha had written to me from boarding school, and also those I’d written to him, to try to find the housemaster’s name.
The school photos were themselves a giveaway. In the earlier ones, lined up with his fellow pupils in his maroon stripy blazer, Sacha was full of life, sparkly eyed and smiling happily. In the later ones, he was staring sadly into space, glassy-eyed and detached. In all the photographs, the paedophile sat in the foreground, alongside the other teachers and the headmaster, beaming, it appeared to me, smugly.
Eventually, we managed to work out who he was and I passed the name and photographs on to Katie, the Brighton police sergeant who had investigated Sacha’s death. She was the same age as Sacha and told me she was also dyslexic. Katie set to work with a vengeance – even though, if he were found, there would be no possibility of bringing him to trial as Sacha wasn’t alive to give evidence.
Ms Esguerra scattered her son’s ashes at Machu Picchu as he had walked the Inca trail some years earlier
Katie’s task wasn’t an easy one. The prep school had since closed, and the Local Education Authority held no records. She managed to trace the elderly, since-retired headmaster and went to interview him in his home.
She told me he had remembered Sacha fondly, and was visibly upset when he heard the sad history of his former pupil. But he didn’t know what had become of the school records or the housemaster, who had been sacked after physically assaulting another boy.
I wrote to Katie’s superintendent, telling him how impressed I had been with her efforts. He wrote back, thanking me, and assured me my comments would go on her file. He also said how much he appreciated receiving (rare) positive feedback from the public.
When he died, I knew in my heart that Sacha would want his ashes scattered at Machu Picchu. He had walked the Inca trail some years earlier and had watched the sun rise over the sacred citadel.
Not long before his death, he told me he wanted to revisit the citadel and take me with him.
Only after I had booked my non-refundable ticket and was on the point of leaving did Roberto call to tell me he wanted to be present at the scattering, but couldn’t make it to Peru until the end of my trip – which would coincide with the first anniversary of Sacha’s death.
Our relationship had been difficult since our divorce. But he was Sacha’s father, and he had a right to be present at the scattering.
Unlike the blazing sun on New Year’s Eve, Machu Picchu was damp and chilly when Roberto and I scattered the ashes on January 2, 2006.
By the time we had completed the scattering, it was engulfed in cloud and rain was pouring down. We could hardly find our way back to the entrance. It felt, once again, as if the curtains were closing as they had at Sacha’s committal.
Roberto and I succeeded in healing our long-term, painful rift at Machu Picchu – something Sacha must have wanted all along. I’m so grateful for this as Roberto, still stricken with grief, died of a stroke a couple of years later.
Today I work a lot with clients who have also been bereaved, or have suffered abuse and addiction. I am grateful that I am able to help others in a way that I was unable to help my son until it was too late.
●Junkie Buddha: A Journey of Discovery in Peru is published in September by Eye Books at the special price of £5.99 with £2.50 p&p. Visit www.junkiebuddha.com
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