Nicole Ryan was working as a marine engineer when her brother died after taking a drug known as Nbomb at a house party in Cork city. Here she writes candidly about the profound sense of loss — and how it propelled her to reevaluate her life
When I was little all I ever wanted to be was an actress – it was my dream to be on stage putting on a mask and becoming whoever I wanted to be. As I grew up I realised that this was more of a dream and not a reality, just like many of you reading this had dreams when you were younger. In a weird way, I had been living out my dream without ever really knowing it.
From a young age, I was a very independent person, learning to walk in my first year, talking next. I was even able to make my own breakfast, sit in front of the TV and watch my favourite cartoon by the age of 3, never once disturbing anyone for help. One of my early passions was showmanship. I loved to perform and when my brother Alex was born, I had a real-life doll to perform with. I would put him in my dresses, and we would reenact scenes from films word for word.
I loved him dearly and I grew up dreaming of making a better future for him. He was the thing I cared about the most in life. I did not have the easiest of beginnings in life but every hurdle I overcame, and I think that’s where my resilience came from. Life showed me early on to always have a plan, account for external factors and adapt.
I was a very studious young teenager but also slightly lazy and I am also an introvert-extrovert – I love spending time with myself, I get shy if I get recognised, I am humble and I love to put on a show when feasible. My whole life has been a battle against the odds – as a child I battled difficult circumstances; in school I was told that I could never become an engineer because I was a female, that a man could barely do it so why would I think I had any hope? I went on to study Marine and Plant Engineering at the National Maritime College of Ireland after I left school. I was the only female out of a class of 50 males and again I had to prove myself.
Nobody in my class believed I could do it – not even some lecturers — but the more you tell me I cannot the more fire it creates inside me to say, “YES I WILL!”. Most people don’t know this, but I failed my last year of college – I failed a practical module which meant I automatically had to repeat the year. People did not think I would go back — or even finish — but for a solid year I went into college every Friday for three hours and got that degree. As an entrepreneur now I have become an advocate for failure: if you are failing and learning, you are doing it right.
All my life I had been building a better future for my brother. I had envisioned this life that we all are formulated to think will make us happy: an education + a degree + a good job + a family = Happiness! I had built a plan on this formula, engineered every single fine detail, every moment; accounting for almost all external factors except for one and that was the one factor that unravelled my whole entire being and forced me to look at myself again, to overcome my fear of being vulnerable, remove my mask and ask myself, 'What was it all for?'
In 2015 I graduated with a degree and it was one of the best days of my life. I got to spend it with my family and friends and four days later I set sail on the Oscar Wilde where I met my new family – around 15 men who had never seen a female engineer and did not like me at all. Many would not speak to me while others would question daily why would I ever want to become an engineer on a ship and that my place was “minding kids at home". But you have to give the boys some credit – the merchant navy is still a little behind and females rarely become engineers at sea so, for them, I was like a unicorn.
Every morning I had to get up and endure another day of silence but this was just another hurdle for me. It was not going to phase me and with time they accepted me and we became friends, they even looked out for me and I felt at home. I was here living out my dream, living and breathing the sea air, working with my hands – it was everything I dreamed it would be until the morning life as I knew it came to an end.
I remember getting the call that my brother was in CUH from my mom. She rang once, told me he was in critical condition and hung up. I heard the words, but I did not listen – I went to the engine room for the briefing and I sat there stunned as one of the lads asked if I was okay. In that moment I didn’t even know my name. I called her back to see if what she said was real. When I called her for the second time she was crying and then it hit me – this is happening; this is not a drill. I ran for what seemed an eternity to the Chief Engineer's cabin and then I travelled for two hours to see Alex.
"My first thought was 'How could you be so stupid?'"
All I kept thinking on that journey was “Please don’t die, not before I see you”. I stood for 30 minutes looking at him in his hospital bed, legs dangling over the bed as it was too short for his 6ft 7” frame. He had taken a synthetic drug known as Nbomb at a house party thinking it was a less potent drug – he suffered a cardiac arrest. Nobody even knew he was dying on that floor in Greenmount. He was put in an induced coma to give his organs time to heal. It was now up to him to wake up. My first thought was “How could you be so stupid?"
The days that followed I will never be able to forget, my hope slowly fading away just like his life. On the day he was pronounced braindead, I walked outside the hospital. There was a full moon that night and as I stood looking at it, I breathed a sigh of relief – it was over.
Alex was such an amazing person who loved making people smile, loved sports, had amazing friends and was just trying to make his way in the world on his own for the first time. He was anyone’s child. Alex didn’t go out that night to die. He was not a habitual drug user, just an uneducated young guy believing that the world would never hurt him. He made a decision that cost him not only his life but changed everybody else’s life in the wake.
My only regret is that we never opened a discussion about drugs with him and we just assumed that he would know better. His death is on us as a family as much as it is on him. Alex ended up saving four lives through his organ donation, but he really saved five — he saved me too. When Alex passed I tried to sweep it under the rug and pretend I was okay but that no longer worked – I had lost the love of my life, my future and dreams. All the work and sacrifice I put into building this life and for what? How did I not see this? I never calculated the fact that he could die. I was angry, I blamed myself, I blamed him, and I blamed the universe – I did everything right so why am I praying every night now not to wake up?
Life forced me to look beyond myself – what I was building was never going to truly make me happy. I had lost everything and while most people will think this is the worst-case scenario, I am grateful because I was given a second chance to reinvent, to become vulnerable, stronger, smarter, kinder and better.
All my life I had been acting but acting in the wrong play – I think life just rectified that for me and now I am on a path that I hope will change Ireland for the better. I have so much grief inside me that the only logical thing to do was to use all that energy into something meaningful and start Alex’s Adventure and it has been the most difficult but rewarding journey I have ever embarked on – I even won some awards along the way! I am living my childhood dream in a different way now and I hope he is proud.
To find out more about Nicole's work, see alexsadventure.ie
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