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'It's exhausting because everything you do... he's always there': The first Christmas without a brother

Nicole Ryan campaigns to raise awareness about the dangers of drugs after her brother Alex died in January.

Alex1 Alex and Nicole when they were children. Source: Nicole Ryan via Facebook

ON THE NIGHT of Monday 19 January Alex Ryan was on a night out with a group of friends in Cork city.

The 18-year-old was a popular, laid back teenager from the town of Millstreet. Like many young people his age, he enjoyed going out with his friends and wasn’t too worried about the future.

He had recently completed his Leaving Certificate in Millstreet Community College, and had been spending more time in the city, meeting new people and enjoying his freedom.

A picture of Alex from the previous July shows him decked out in an afro wig, hand raised in the air soaking up the atmosphere at Townlands, his first music festival.

Alex2 Alex at Townlands Festival. Source: Nicole Ryan via Facebook

Alex loved music. Standing at a towering 6ft 5 in, he’s described as a “gentle giant” by those who knew him.

After finishing up in the city on that night, Alex and a few others headed back to a house party on Green Street in the Greenmount area of Cork.

Once back, they decided to take what they believed was the drug 2C-B, a hallucinogenic and stimulant, popular among young drug users. Some of the group swallowed what they thought was a single trip of the drug. Alex snorted it.

Soon after, as one of the party goers would later describe, all hell broke loose.

The drug took hold and people began to suffer extreme hallucinations, far more powerful than those associated with a dose of 2C-B.

Local man Gerard Banks was passing by the house when he heard loud shouting from within. He decided to investigate.

Banks was let into the building by a dishevelled looking man who didn’t seem to know what was going on, and as Banks later told Neil Prendeville on Cork’s RedFM, what he found inside “was like a scene from CSI”.

As he described it, there was a man and a woman “dancing naked on the chairs” covered in blood while another smashed up the house. Alex had suffered a seizure and was on the floor in a state of cardiac arrest.

The gardaí and paramedics had been called and Alex was rushed to Cork University Hospital. His organs were failing and doctors put him into an induced coma.

However, he was taken out of the coma less than 24 hours later.

“All his organs were failing when he first got in there, but they all repaired,” his sister Nicole Ryan told TheJournal.ie.

“He was alright. We were hoping he’d be okay, but he kind of started to deteriorate and his brain started swelling.

“He had an episode then on the Thursday night where he was almost in cardiac arrest again.

And then on the Friday he was pronounced brain dead.

Alex Ryan was taken off life support and declared dead on Saturday 23 January. His organs were donated to four people in need.

The State Pathologist Dr Margaret Bolster would later rule he had died of a cardiac after taking the drug.

Alex3 Alex in CUH in January before he died. Source: Nicole Ryan via Facebook

Campaign 

The drug Alex and the others had taken wasn’t 2C-B, but a far more potent and dangerous psychoactive drug 25I-NBOMe – known in some cases as N-Bomb.

N-Bomb is a derivative of the 2C family of drugs and requires a far, far smaller dose to produce hallucinogenic effects. For this reason, it is usually sold in blotter form (like the more well-known LSD).

download (21) File photo of 25I-NBOMe seized in the United States. It is commonly sold on blotters like this. Source: Shelby County Drug Enforcement Task Force

It is known as a ‘designer drug’ – a broad term used to categorise synthetic, laboratory-made substances increasingly used by drug takers.

Drugs of this kind (other examples include mephedrone, and the cannabis substitute Clockwork Orange) are available for purchase on the internet, and came to prominence during the Head Shop boom in Ireland in the late-2000s.

Head Shops sprung up around the country towards the end of the last decade, selling various amphetamine, cannabis and other substitutes under a variety of different names.

In some areas, shops would open until 4am or later, selling substances out of hatches. They were closed down under sweeping legislation in 2010.

11/5/2010 Head Shops To Close The Happy Days Head Shop on South Georges St pictured before it closed down in 2010 Source: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

The drugs however, didn’t go away.

Latest drug monitoring reports show that the use and proliferation of these types of synthetic substances is increasing all the time.

Harry Clifton – who was jailed in November for supplying drugs to Alex and his friends – thought he was selling them 2C-B.

Clifton, of St Finbarr’s Place, Proby’s Quay in Cork, got six months in prison for supplying the drug which led to Alex’s death.

Twenty-year-old Jessica O’Connor, from Ballyhar in Killarney, and 22-year-old Ruairi Maher from Ballycurrane in Thurles each received two-year suspended sentences for conspiring with another to possess a controlled drug.

Nicole Ryan spoke out against the sentences at the time, calling them a “mockery”.

“Alex has paid his price for the choices he made, but the sentences they were given is a mockery, really,” she said.

Alex7 Alex Ryan died from a cardiac arrest after he took the drug N-Bomb Source: Nicole Ryan via Facebook

Speaking to TheJournal.ie this month – a number of weeks after the sentencing – Ryan strikes a more concillatory tone.

“We kind of knew the verdict that people were going to get. But I was actually surprised that Harry got any time in prison,” said Nicole.

Nicole says she understands that the people in the party were supposed to be Alex’s friends, but she could not forgive them after what happened.

“At the end of the day they also lost somebody.

I’m not going to have to like them – and I don’t – but they have to live with the guilt of what happened that night, and having to live with that as punishment.

Remembering

Alex grew up in Millstreet with Nicole and their mother Irene. Nicole was four years older than him, and she says they were close growing up.

Every Christmas Day, Nicole says she and Alex had a tradition.

They would watch a Harry Potter movie, each year watching the next installment in the series.

“So this year we would have reached Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince Part 1, but it’s not going to happen this time,” says Nicole.

He’s not here anymore and I can’t continue that without him.

Nicole says that she has found the months since Alex’s death very hard, and things are not getting easier.

She suffers from depression, and has been taking medication to try to control her moods.

screenshot_20161219-182522_1 Nicole and Alex when they were kids at Christmas. Source: Nicole Ryan via Facebook

When she is not taking medication, Nicole describes her grief as though there is a constant presence of Alex with her wherever she goes.

“It’s very hard to describe unless you’ve lost somebody. But for me it’s like he’s part of me,” she says.

And it gets very exhausting because everything you do, no matter what you’re doing, he’s always there. Like he’s part of you. It’s like you’re two people in one.

Nicole says she can get on better with her day-to-day life when she takes medication, but that then the overwhelming feeling is one of numbness.

“But what it’s like taking the medication is like I would have no feelings towards anything,” she says.

If something bad was to happen I’d acknowledge that it’s really bad but I wouldn’t be upset, I wouldn’t be sad, I’d just be indifferent.

The first of November was Alex’s birthday, and Nicole and her mother travelled to Ballyheigue beach in Kerry where his ashes had been spread after he was cremated.

She said they had been fearing the occasion in the months up to it, but it had turned out to be a lovely day for both of them.

“We were dreading that day for a long, long time because as you know he was turning 19 but he wasn’t there to see it,” she says.

But it was actually a phenomenal day – the weather and everything – nothing was really sad about it.

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Alex6 Nicole celebrating Alex's birthday in November. Source: Nicole Ryan via Facebook

The first Christmas without Alex will be tough, Nicole says.

Usually on the day the three of them would just sit around, eat too much food, lie on the couch and watch tv.

This year, Nicole says she and her mother spend the holidays away from the house.

“Just the thought of staying at home would be very hard and very painful for us,” she says.

Instead, the pair will spend some time in Kerry, and visit Ballyheigue beach again on Christmas Day to be close to Alex.

Alex’s Adventure of a Lifetime 

In the wake of Alex’s death, Nicole brought herself into the media spotlight, using her personal tragedy as a basis for warning people against the dangers of drugs.

She has been vocal in trying to advocate for an alternative drug policy and to warn people about the dangers of synthetic drugs.

In March, she began the Alex’s Adventure of a Lifetime campaign, using her brother’s story to highlight the dangers around unregulated, untested drugs and advocating for better education to be given to students in order to empower them to make better decisions.

She said the campaign grew out of a need to do something after Alex’s death, and was a way of keeping his spirit alive. Nicole has travelled to a number of schools in the south of Ireland to speak with students.

14716048_1045292822254278_631700945863829790_n Students from Ard Scoil Rís in Limerick with Nicole. Source: Nicole Ryan via Facebook

Young people will take drugs, Nicole says, so she believes there should be extensive education given to them to warn them against the dangers.

“People think I’m completely against drugs – I mean I’m not for drugs – but I’m for a sensible drug policy,” she says.

“That’s the reason why young people die because we don’t have a sensible drug policy in place. These are unregulated, you can buy this stuff online and get it delivered to your door.

You have to realise that people do take drugs. And a lot of people in college are going to take drugs whether you say it’s bad or not. But we need to give them an outlet, of number one – doing them safer.
Or number two – educating them on all these different drugs and all the different effects that they have and so that you can make an informed decision about what you’re going to take when you’re going to take it.

Nicole says deaths could be avoided by ensuring that they know of the dangers that are out there.

Alex could be anybody’s child. It could happen to anyone so easy. I never thought it would happen to me, but it did and it can happen to absolutely anybody.

The future 

The government has recently finished its public consultation for forming a new Drugs Strategy on how to shape the State’s approach to tackling drug use.

A commitment in the Programme for Government involves the approach moving away from a criminal focus and towards a health-based system.

Nicole says she has plans next year to move her campaign towards advocating and agitating in politics to inform a more sensible drugs policy.

Alex4 Nicole Ryan says what happened to Alex could happen to anybody. Source: Nicole Ryan via Facebook

She would like to dedicate all of her to the campaign, but she has bills to pay, a job to keep down, and her own grief to get through.

“It’s a weird thing because it helps as a cure. The more I talk about him to more it helps me to help somebody else,” says Nicole.

“If one person can read Alex’s story because I said it, and they changed their mind that night about taking whatever they were going to take – then that’s one person that is now maybe alive because of that.

“It helps me but it also is hard to move on as well.

But at the end of the day, what am I moving onto? I have nothing anymore. He’s gone, you know? Nothing in life makes me happy and I don’t think it will for a while.

“It’s a realisation that I will have to come to accept at some point but for now I just can’t.”

You can read more about Nicole and the Alex’s Adventure of a Lifetime campaign by visiting her blog here

Read: “When he died, a lot of my dreams and my hopes died with him”

Read: “Those who sell drugs don’t give a damn about human life”

About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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