Sunday 21 January 2018

Mum whose twin sons fell into heroin addiction: 'When my son injected heroin in front of me there was nothing I could do'

The story of a mother, whose twin sons succumbed to heroin addiction, has been turned into a play which tells of the devastating effects of drugs on families

Elizabeth Burton-Phillips. Photo: Ruth Medjber.
Elizabeth Burton-Phillips. Photo: Ruth Medjber.

Isabel Hayes

Elizabeth Burton-Phillips never thought it could happen to her. A teacher at a British girls' boarding school, she lived a comfortable life and was a loving mother to three children, including her identical twin sons, Nicholas and Simon. She never imagined heroin addiction was something that would enter her family's life.

But from the age of 13, her twin boys began to experiment with drugs, starting with cannabis but progressing to smoking heroin and then injecting it. It started a 14-year journey of hell, during which Burton-Phillips did everything possible to save her sons from their addiction. Eventually, she forced herself to cut them off. One year later, her son Nicholas killed himself after a drug-fuelled row with his twin.

"I am an ordinary mum, wife and grandmother," says Burton-Phillips (65), who went on to found DrugFAM, a British charity that supports families coping with drug addiction. She is in Dublin to talk about the play based on her book, Mum, Can You Lend Me Twenty Quid, which will be held here later this month.

"When you hear about drug and alcohol addiction, it's always about someone else, not you. Coming from a professional background, being a teacher, teaching drug and alcohol awareness, you just do not imagine that you are going to get caught up in it. But I did."

Family photos show two identical, cherubic little boys, blond-haired and beaming. Burton-Phillips had no idea she was expecting twins - "They were a wonderful surprise" - and from the moment they were born, the pair did everything together.

"One teacher described them as loveable little imps, and they were," recalls Burton-Phillips. "Life was good. It was a comfortable upbringing. We were happy."

In 1991, Burton-Phillips took a new job she believed would be good for her family. She became house mistress at a girls' boarding school in Bath and enrolled the boys in a private day school where she felt they would get a better education. But the long hours Burton-Phillips had to work took its toll on the family and her marriage, which began to break down. Left to their own devices much of the time, the boys started smoking cannabis and trying other drugs.

Over the years, their drug use quickly escalated, but for a long time, Burton-Phillips had no idea.

"Unfortunately, young people are very, very good at hiding stuff from their parents," she says. "They become quite expert at it. The key message I deliver to parents is that you need to educate yourself to look for signs.

"I didn't know what to look for. I didn't know how to identify cannabis or any other drug. I didn't know that you could smoke heroin. I remember wondering why there was a burnt spoon in my kitchen, wondering what is this sticky brown stuff in silver foil? I had no idea."

The boys opted to leave school before doing their A-Levels and rented a flat together. They were always looking for £20 here and there from their mother - hence the title of the book - but she had no idea it was for heroin.

When Simon finally confessed he was an addict, Burton-Phillips was horrified. It was some time before she found out Nicholas was also an addict - and a dealer.

"It's like a slowly unfolding tragedy happening right in front of you," she says. "It's like having a relationship with the worst enemy you could ever have in your life. When you're caught up in it as a family member and you see the destruction it reaps, the ripple effect it has, it's very difficult."

There followed a seemingly endless cycle in which Burton-Phillips paid for various rehabilitation treatments, paid for her sons to get back on their feet, and then despairingly gave them money for their drug dealers to try and protect them when they went back on drugs.

During the seven years she struggled to cope with her sons' addiction, Burton-Phillips told hardly anyone what she was going through.

"I kept teaching throughout this whole period and I kept it a secret from 99pc of the people I know," she says. "There's such a stigma attached to it."

Unsurprisingly, it took its toll on her second marriage to the twins' stepfather, Tony. The couple re-mortgaged their house three times to cover the twins' drug debts and ended up owing over £100,000. Finally, Tony said he couldn't take anymore and he demanded that Burton-Phillips make a choice: him or her sons. She chose him and cut the boys off - something support groups had been advising her to do for some time.

"It was extremely difficult," she said. "As a mother, you want to put it right, to fix it, to mend it. To actually let go is very hard. But it was the right thing to do."

Burton-Phillips' decision to cut off her sons was bolstered by the horrifying sight of her son Nicholas shooting up in front of her in desperation.

"He could not stop himself from injecting in front of me and it was at that point that I realised the power of addiction was beyond my control," she says. "That's the defining message here. You think you can fix it, that you can send people to rehab and make them well. But when my son injected in front of me, I saw that addiction was the enemy that had him by the throat. There was nothing I could do.

"The only thing I could do was let go and say, 'You have to find recovery, I can't do it for you anymore: we can't bail you out, we can't pay more money, we can't send you to more rehabs because it's not working. You've got to want that recovery yourself'."

Over the next year, Burton-Phillips braced herself for bad news.

"I had trained myself to be prepared for the worst, and the worst would be a knock on the door from police to tell me both of them had died because of drugs."

Finally, in 2004, the knock on the door came. Nicholas and Simon had had a drug-fuelled argument. It wasn't particularly serious, but Nick hanged himself later that night. Simon found his body the next morning as he was bringing him an apologetic cup of tea and a cigarette. Burton-Phillips' first shocked reaction was, "Not both of them?"

"It's like your life goes into slow motion," she says. "I was dealing with grief and relief at the same time - grief of losing one and relief that one was still with us."

As his mother struggled to come to terms with her son's death, Simon resolved not to let Nick's death be in vain and to come off heroin for good.

"We didn't realise it at the time, but Nicholas's death gave Simon life," says Burton-Phillips. "I spent many weeks worrying he would also kill himself, that he wouldn't be able to live without his twin, but slowly we began to rebuild."

The idea to write a book on her experience came to Burton-Phillips in the middle of the night shortly after Nicholas's death. "When I told Simon, he said, 'Mum, if you're going to write about this, you need to know the whole truth'," recalls Burton-Phillips.

As a result, Simon contributed to the book, describing the spiral of abuse he and his twin found themselves in.

Nicholas's death also inspired Burton-Phillips to set up DrugFAM to help other families struggling to deal with addiction. They have support groups, bereavement counselling, a helpline and an education program to help spread awareness.

An educational play based on Burton-Phillips' book is held at venues like schools and prisons around the UK and had its 100th performance - at Westminster - earlier this month.

"It brings home to the audience that this could be my daughter, my son, or it could be me doing that to my mum and dad," she says. "It could be anybody. Drugs are an equal opportunities killer."

Simon is now 39 and 11 years in recovery. He's married with two children, a proud homeowner and recently got a promotion in work.

"He never asks me, 'Can you lend me 20 quid' anymore," says Burton-Phillips.

* Two performances of the play, 'Mum, Can You Lend Me Twenty Quid? What Drugs Did To My Family' will be held in Christchurch Cathedral at 4pm and 8pm on Wednesday, October 28. For tickets, email

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