Thursday 26 April 2018

The agony of ecstasy: I'll never stop missing my daughter Martha

The tragic death of Ana Hick brings back painful memories for one mother.

Startling similarities: Anne-Marie Cockburn and her daughter Martha Fernback
Startling similarities: Anne-Marie Cockburn and her daughter Martha Fernback

Celine Naughton

Anne-Marie Cockburn doesn't have to imagine how the family of Ana Hick, the 18-year-old Dublin girl who died at the weekend after taking ecstasy, feels right now. She knows. Her own daughter, Martha Fernback, died in similar circumstances two years ago, having taken half a gram of white powder which turned out to be MDMA (ecstasy).

It was July 20, 2013, when an unrecognised number came up on her mobile-phone screen and a stranger urged her to get to the hospital, because her child was gravely ill.

"I watched them try to save her," she says. "They pumped her chest and drilled something into her shin, but I knew she was already dead. They elevated her arms, but I don't know why, her eyes were half open and she was way beyond the clouds and stars already."

She remembers feeling unable to breathe once they announced what she already knew. Until toxicology tests were complete, Martha was the property of the coroner. She remembers looking at coffins and thinking, what would Martha choose? And then going through her clothes, deciding what her beautiful only child would like to wear, this one last time.

And now, almost two years on, she has good days and bad days.

Today is a bad day. "It's like no other pain you can imagine," she says. "I'm grateful for the days when I can breathe a bit. Right now, my heart goes out to the Hick family. They have become new members of the bereaved parents club. That's a club nobody wants to join and, believe me, there is no waiting list. Sadly, Ana is another Martha."

The similarities between the two girls are startling. With just three years between them, both were popular, beautiful, middle-class students, one in college, one still in school, with lots of friends and their whole lives ahead of them. Both were rushed to hospital and died within hours.

What keeps Anne-Marie going now is the drive to change the law and in the UK she has become the face of the campaign to legalise and regulate drugs.

"It's a subject people are uncomfortable about, but this needs to lie in the political arena now. These beautiful children were sacrificial lambs to an industry run one hundred percent by criminals. Prohibition creates the biggest black market in the world, and it's clearly not working.

"We need to keep our children safe, and it would be safer to have drugs regulated by the proper authorities, and labelled to show how potent something is. We need to get drugs off the back streets and into a controlled environment."

And while drug reform is widely seen as a political hot potato, they're talking about it across the water, and Anne-Marie is leading the conversation.

"Sometimes I feel like a voice in the wilderness," she says, "but I won't let it go. People argue that legalising ecstasy sends out the wrong message. Well, my 15-year-old lying in a grave sends out the wrong message. And now Ana Hick is dead too. It's not acceptable. The drug laws in Britain and Ireland are past their sell-by date and not fit for purpose.

Dublin teenager Ana Hick
Dublin teenager Ana Hick

"We need to treat drugs like any other pharmaceutical and make the industry safer than it is now. We need to look at countries like Portugal, where the approach is one of education and counselling where needed - and drug crimes have actually been reduced as a result.

"I bring Martha's old trainers with me when I go to schools and I hold them up and say, 'Look, there's no one to fill these shoes any more. I appeal to all of you to help me do something about it. We need to educate our young people, and parents too. "When I hear people argue against drug reform, I want to scream from the rooftops, 'Wake up! You could be standing in my shoes one day. Listen to what I have to say. Don't let one more child die needlessly because you want to bury your head in the sand'."

She clearly doesn't want Martha's death to be in vain; if anything it has motivated her to campaign relentlessly for a cause she believes in so passionately, just so that it would not happen again. "How many more Marthas and Anas have to die before we change our approach?" she says.

Maybe campaigning helps her deal with her devastating loss, gives her a sense of purpose that gets her through the day.

Sometimes, she says, she gets through minute by minute, but throughout it all, another amazing aspect of this woman is her forgiveness for the man who supplied the fatal substance to her daughter. Alex Williams, then 17, who sold her the drug, was spared a jail sentence, which pleased Anne-Marie.

"Prison would have done nothing for him but made him a hardened criminal," she says. She hasn't met Williams, but they write to each other regularly.

"I cannot be filled with hatred and anger," she explains.

"It would finish me off to spend the rest of my days consumed by bitterness. I don't like what he did, but he didn't give her the drug knowing she would die, and he's been filled with remorse for it ever since. That's a burden he has to carry." Restorative justice is another of Anne-Marie's passions, and she has high praise for the Irish system.

"We look to you guys for guidance," she says.

"You've got interesting programmes where offenders can meet victims of crime and communities. It raises hope for the future."

For now, though, there is only Martha. Anne-Marie wrote a book, 5,742 Days - the number of days Martha lived - about her life and death, and set up a website,

"I can't bring myself to erect a gravestone. I talk to her every day and feel her energy everywhere. I know she continues, I can feel it in the core of my being. And sadly, now she has a new friend."

5,742 Days: A Mother's Journey Through Loss by Anne-Marie Cockburn (

Irish Independent

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