Brenda Shankey's tragic sister Erin wrote in her diary 'This will be my last summer. I cannot wait to be at peace'
Belfast businesswoman and celebrity hairdresser Brenda Shankey (45) today will say a final goodbye to her beautiful younger sister Erin Wilkinson, who died last week at the age of just 32 after a long battle with alcohol and drugs. Here, Brenda tells Karen Ireland how her sister's perfect life was destroyed by addiction - and how she knew since January that she had only mere months to live.
In the past few days, Brenda Shankey has been doing what she has done all her life - looking after her baby sister Erin. As she and her family chose the songs and prayers for the beautiful 32-year-old's funeral, which is taking place today, she kept Erin's wishes close to her heart.
"Erin was always so proud of me and of all that I have achieved, and I just want to continue to make her proud," an emotional Brenda reveals. She is chatting at her sister Shauna's home in Londonderry, Erin's final resting place before the funeral today in Steelstown Chapel in the city.
Amid the turmoil of the funeral arrangements, Brenda has taken great comfort from the many messages of love and support that have been flooding in.
"I have had so many messages on Facebook, and I have had over 500 private messages," she says. "Many of these have been from people I don't know, but who wanted to thank me for sharing Erin's story in the Belfast Telegraph earlier this week and helping to lift the lid on the addiction problems in Northern Ireland.
"All of them identified with what I had to say as they are going through it too with a loved one."
What makes Erin's story especially shocking - and heartbreaking - is that there was nothing in her family background to ever suggest her life would go so drastically awry. A much-loved little girl, she enjoyed a happy childhood.
With a broken voice, hoarse from crying and talking at the same time, Brenda recalls what Erin was like when she was growing up.
"She was the youngest of five girls, and even as a child she was beautiful and bubbly and outgoing," she says. "She wanted to follow my footsteps, so she studied hair and beauty at college in the north-west. Then she fell pregnant at just 18 with her daughter, Eve, and she became a single parent.
"She lived with mum and dad, and they supported her as much as they could. Then, when she had saved up enough money, she moved to Belfast and started working for us at the Jason Shankey salon on the Lisburn Road as a beauty therapist."
Brenda says Erin was a credit to the industry and a dream employee. Life was good - she was settled in her own home with Eve, was earning a good salary and had her own car.
It was also a period when Brenda and Erin grew even closer as they worked together, socialised together and brought up their children together - Brenda's son, Will, is 13, the same age as Eve, and her daughter, Lauren (15), is just two years older than her cousin.
"Erin never dated during this time - she was just focused on her career and her daughter," says Brenda.
But she reveals how everything changed five years ago at Brenda's 40th birthday party when Erin met a guy. "We later discovered he was a known drug dealer, and he soon had a real hold over Erin," she explains. "Six months later, Erin had started partying hard and her friends had changed. She had never taken drugs in her life, but it was obvious he was giving them to her.
"This went on for another year, and eventually Erin lost the job she was so proud of as she was constantly letting us down and not coming in. We had made it clear to her that she couldn't party all night and then work the next day. We had to let her go.
"Of course, by this stage I was desperately worried about Eve, so I had brought her to live with me and my family. She was no longer in the same social circles, but she had no job and her life was in chaos. Her daughter was living with her dad, and all that Erin did was drink."
Trying everything she could think of to help the sister she adored, Brenda took Erin to AA, to addiction services and to counsellors, but nothing seemed to work. She even had a spell in rehab in Newry, but signed herself out after two weeks and immediately began to drink again.
"That was when I decided it was too much for me and I couldn't cope any more as I was getting ill with the stress of it all, so I asked my daddy for help and he moved Erin home to Derry," Brenda says. "Daddy had no idea how difficult it was going to be, though.
"Erin would disappear for days and then come back home when she needed some rest and to dry out. Everyone was getting frustrated with Erin as no matter what was happening she was able to get a drink from somewhere."
Brenda then decided to try again. She brought her sister back to her house in Belfast and attempted to rehabilitate her herself. "I tried to get her to go cold turkey, but she ended up on life support in the Ulster hospital as her liver was so badly damaged," she says. "This was a scary time as they told her she was killing herself and destroying all her organs, but when they discharged her a month later, she got on a bus to Derry and fell in with all her old drinking pals.
"She was clever, as alcoholics tend to be, and she surrounded herself with people who let her carry on drinking, even though we begged them not to.
"At the time, she screamed and cried out to me that she was ashamed of what she had become and that she wanted to stop, but her brain wouldn't let her. She was completely addicted."
Recalling the horror of the recent past, Brenda reveals that Erin was admitted to hospital 25 times in the last 12 months.
"She would be admitted and they would dry her out and give her medicine to cope with the DTs, but then she would be discharged," she adds.
"No one ever dealt with the mental problems she was facing, and there was always a loop that she fell through where none of us could catch her.
"She would joke that she wouldn't go to AA as the only people who went there were all old and she was too young. She didn't see the irony in that she was the sick one while they had all got better and healthy."
Six months ago, Erin was admitted to hospital and the family were told that her liver had stopped functioning and all her other organs would slowly follow. She was told one more drink would kill her. The doctors said she would die peacefully at home very soon.
A clearly heartbroken Brenda struggles to carry on with the story, pausing and weeping before resuming: "That's the thing - for the last six months Erin didn't take a drink. We were all so proud of her as a family, and we thought her body would heal itself now that she had stopped drinking.
"Unfortunately, the damage was done and she was in agony. I went to see her a couple of months ago. Her eyes lit up when I entered her room, and she said, 'My beautiful Brenda, I love you and I am so sorry for all I have put you through. I am sorry I can't get better.'"
In the end, Brenda says, the pain became too much for Erin to bear, so she took one drink and her daddy found her collapsed in the bathroom. She went back into hospital again, but this time there was no getting better or second chances. She had fluid on her lungs, she had brain damage and all her organs were shutting down. She was on life support for several days until the family knew it was time to say goodbye.
"She only turned 32 last week and she always told me she would be like Amy Winehouse - that she would live hard and die young," Brenda says. "And she did. She kept a diary all through her journey, and on May 22 she wrote: 'This will be my last summer. I cannot wait to be at peace.' Finally, there are no more demons for her to fight - she is at rest now."
Brenda hopes that by sharing this poignant and personal story she can help others in their battles with addiction.
"Addicts are usually caring, sensitive souls, like Erin," she says. "She couldn't handle the bad things in this world, so she self-medicated. She was too sensitive for this world.
"I have promised her that she will not have died in vain, and I will do all I can to help raise the profile and awareness of addiction. There is nothing like the feeling of hopelessness, of not being able to help someone you love.
"And, yes, there is a stigma attached. If someone is dying of cancer or some other illness, people rally round. When it is addiction, they don't want to know.
"But the support I have had in the last few days has told me that people do want to know and they do want to help.
"I have started a JustGiving page on my Facebook page and people can make donations towards addiction services.
"Erin needs to be a light now, shining down and helping others. She's like that as she was so loving and caring all her short life."