Maria and Ronald had the classic blended family.

When they got together 18 years ago, Ron had two boys and Maria had three girls.

Apart from the usual ups and downs, the kids got on okay. They went to school together, went to uni or got a job, they found partners of their own, and some of them had children.

Maria, a university lecturer and Ron, a practising musician and composer, were enjoying being empty nesters for the first time in a long, long time.

With the kids grown and gone, they could focus on their own interests and passions. Maria decided she wanted to undertake a PhD to add to her previous two degrees. Ron decided to compose a symphony.

With both teaching full-time, their lives were rich and rewarding.

“We felt we had done a great job as parents and were proud of all our kids. They were just such a lovely bunch of people,” Maria said.

“We had no idea whatsoever that our eldest son had developed a marihuana and a cocaine habit. He was in Amsterdam working for a global IT company and just got in with the wrong crowd. He hooked up with a young woman who herself had a drug and alcohol problem.

“When she fell pregnant, we were over the moon – we were going to be grandparents for the first time and were blissfully unaware that both she and our son had a severe and debilitating drug dependency.

“I planned to go to Amsterdam when the baby was born to help for a month. It was so exciting and I can’t tell you how much I was looking forward to it.”

But when Maria arrived at her son’s place, the evidence of his drug addiction and the dysfunctionality of their lives was immediately apparent.

“His partner was just constantly drinking and was unable to care for the baby. The doctors suspected fairly early it had fetal alcohol syndrome, an alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder. The baby had a very small head with small and wide-set eyes and a very thin upper lip.”

Maria felt she was not able to support the family in their tiny Amsterdam apartment, in a health care system she knew nothing about and without any of her family and friends around.

“I suggested they move back to Australia with the baby, so Ron and I and their siblings could be more involved in the baby’s life and provide more help,” Maria said.

“They returned to Australia when the baby was just a year old and the development problems were already very pronounced.

“After only two weeks they said they needed to get away for a short break, and left the baby with me. They didn’t come back again for two years.

“I could go on and on about the trauma we have all been through. I am now the baby’s primary carer. My son and his partner are still taking drugs. I have given up my PhD studies but still manage to lecture at university for a few sessions each week.

“Life is a constant battle and very, very tough. It is certainly not what I was expecting in my mid-50s.

“I don’t talk about my situation at work at all – I don’t like others knowing my private business. Only a few people know what is happening in my life. I think most assume that I am taking on a smaller workload because of the PhD. I haven’t told anyone that I have given it up.”