a Kiwi mother and daugh­ter share their har­row­ing story

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY by EMILY CHALK STYLING by LULU WIL­COX HAIR & MAKEUP by CLAU­DIA RODRIGUES

It’s a sce­nario no par­ent wants to face – see­ing their child’s life be­ing de­stroyed by ad­dic­tion. But if it hap­pens, what can you do? A Kiwi mother and daugh­ter who have been through the de­struc­tion, and sur­vived, are now of­fer­ing hope to oth­ers. Emma Clifton tells their story.

When it comes to close mother and daugh­ter bonds, Va­le­ria Tokoa and her mother Caroline Cook are a prime ex­am­ple. In fact, they lit­er­ally wrote the book on it. But theirs is not a cookie cut­ter story of shin­ing best friends. No, their re­la­tion­ship is hard won; the re­sult of re­silience and for­give­ness in the face of some­thing dark, per­va­sive and ever-grow­ing.

Over three years ago, Va­le­ria – or Vea as her mum calls her – be­gan her re­cov­ery from an ad­dic­tion to metham­phetamine, also known as P. Hope­fully, it’s not a sub­ject you know a lot about. But, then again, maybe you do. More than 700,000 peo­ple in New Zealand suf­fer from ad­dic­tion re­lated prob­lems, and meth is be­com­ing more read­ily avail­able than mar­i­juana in some parts of the coun­try. Maybe you, too, have had a fam­ily mem­ber touched by this, and you have watched, as Caroline did, as your child’s life falls apart, while you are help­less to stop it.

“‘Va­le­ria’ means ‘strong’,” says Caroline. “As it turned out, there was no name more ap­pro­pri­ate for my daugh­ter… be­cause she needed to have a strong char­ac­ter to make her way through all that life was go­ing to throw at her.”

So be­gins the first chap­ter of Caroline’s book, Where There’s Life, There Re­ally is Hope. The idea of writ­ing their sto­ries started when Vea, 32, was ad­vised by a friend that it would be a cathar­tic ex­pe­ri­ence. Vea asked her mum, 52, to con­trib­ute a para­graph to her own book – ti­tled Re­ha­bil­i­tated – but there was too much to in­clude, so a para­graph be­came a chap­ter and then a book of its own. The pur­pose of the books is to pro­vide two very dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives on one very big prob­lem: the ad­dic­tion to, and then re­cov­ery from, meth.

Three years clean, Vea is now healthy and happy, re­united with her el­dest child, whom her mum helped look af­ter dur­ing the peak of her ad­dic­tion. Both mother and daugh­ter are bru­tally hon­est about what the ex­pe­ri­ence was like, in the hope that other fam­i­lies can learn from them.

When I ask Vea what peo­ple get wrong about ad­dic­tion, she starts off by say­ing drily that, “We don’t all kill our fam­i­lies,” be­fore she grows se­ri­ous. “We’re lost, we’re bro­ken.

You don’t do drugs be­cause you want some fun; there are usu­ally un­der­ly­ing is­sues. And once you’re stuck in the drugs, it’s very hard to get out.”

Vea’s un­der­ly­ing is­sues were im­mense. At high school, she had lacked in con­fi­dence and fell be­hind her class­mates; in join­ing the Navy, she ex­celled at ev­ery­thing and her self-es­teem slowly re­turned. Read­ing this part in the book is like watch­ing a hor­ror movie – you know some­thing is wait­ing around the cor­ner to jump out at you. And, sure enough, it does.

On her first over­seas ex­pe­di­tion with the Navy in Hong Kong, when the crew went out one evening, Vea be­came sep­a­rated from the group and got lost. She was sex­u­ally as­saulted by a stranger who had ap­peared to try and help her. While the Navy were ini­tially help­ful fol­low­ing the as­sault, Vea, then just 17, soon be­came with­drawn from her crew­mates and even­tu­ally left the Navy. She started re­build­ing her life, but two un­ex­pected preg­nan­cies cre­ated new chal­lenges. Vea – with the help and love from her fam­ily and friends – rose to meet them each time. At 23, she was liv­ing on a farm just out of Napier, the lov­ing mum of two preschool chil­dren. And then in 2009, her youngest son, Tyreese, was run over in the drive­way when a fam­ily mem­ber re­versed into him. The 18-month-old had been play­ing with rel­a­tives while Vea got his bath ready for bed­time, when he darted out­side and was hit. An am­bu­lance was called but noth­ing could be done; he was pro­nounced dead on the stretcher.

The Napier com­mu­nity ral­lied around Vea and her fam­ily, but Vea was bro­ken by the tragedy. In her book, she writes, “A part of me died the day my son died and I was merely try­ing to sur­vive.”

Just one puff

Metham­phetamine af­fects the plea­sure cen­tre of the brain; it pro­duces a re­ac­tion very sim­i­lar to the body’s own pro­duc­tion of dopamine, the chem­i­cal that makes us feel good. It’s what makes meth so ad­dic­tive; it’s an in­stant hit of pure, unadul­ter­ated joy.

In the three years since her youngest son had been killed, joy had been in short sup­ply for Vea. She strug­gled on, con­tin­ued to work, moved with her el­dest son to Auck­land, en­rolled to study at univer­sity and com­pleted her first se­mes­ter. But she was mis­er­able, and drink­ing a lot be­cause of it. At a party one night, a friend of a friend of­fered her a puff on the clear pipe she was hold­ing. Grow­ing up, Vea had been very anti-drugs; cannabis was ev­ery­where in her early 20s and she wanted no part of it. But meth was rel­a­tively new on the scene and she didn’t know what she was hold­ing. She took one puff and that was it.

One in six peo­ple who try meth be­come ad­dicted to it, and Vea says that even though it was a month be­fore she tried it again, it was all she could think about. For two years, Vea was a reg­u­lar meth user. To help fund the drug, she even­tu­ally start­ing work­ing in pros­ti­tu­tion – a path that is ex­ceed­ingly com­mon for fe­male users of P. She was home­less on and off dur­ing this time when her rental prop­er­ties fell through, stay­ing with friends at times, but some­times on the street. A re­la­tion­ship she was in be­came abu­sive; Vea would of­ten turn up at her mum’s with a black eye or cut lip. In both books, these chap­ters are bru­tal to read.

The phys­i­cal ef­fects of drug ad­dic­tion are well known but the men­tal ef­fects are more in­sid­i­ous.

“You don’t do drugs be­cause you want some fun; there are usu­ally un­der­ly­ing is­sues.”

Vea ex­plains it well: “When you haven’t been on drugs, and you think a thought, you know you can trust that thought. But if you’re on drugs, that thought changes on the way through your brain. So by the time it gets to you, [for ex­am­ple] in­stead of walk­ing some­where nor­mally, your brain is telling you to crawl. You think these ridicu­lous things be­cause your brain is over­stim­u­lated.”

One of the most con­tin­u­ous thoughts Vea had was that her fam­ily hated her. This is ap­par­ently com­mon amongst drug users; there is a sense of shame around what they’re do­ing, but even if they want to stop us­ing, the fear of the iso­la­tion that comes with be­com­ing clean can of­ten be a strong de­ter­rent. “You’ve lost all your nor­mal friends; the friends you have are drug ad­dicts, so you’re go­ing to be lonely if you sep­a­rate your­self to try and get bet­ter. You feel like you have no one, be­cause you think your fam­ily has al­ready aban­doned you.”

But noth­ing was fur­ther from the truth in this case. Caroline had taken over look­ing af­ter Vea’s el­dest child – his name is kept out of the book to re­spect both his and his fa­ther’s pri­vacy – and was do­ing ev­ery­thing she could to try and look af­ter Vea, when­ever she reap­peared on the scene. This meant field­ing a lot of phone calls in the mid­dle of the night, to the point where Caroline started to dread Vea’s name show­ing up on her phone. “I knew that ei­ther she was go­ing to be rude to me, or she’s got some crazy sit­u­a­tion and I won’t be able to make sense of it, or she’s do­ing some­thing I’ve al­ready sug­gested isn’t wise to do, but she’s done it and now wants help with the con­se­quences.”

But de­spite the sheer ex­haus­tion of deal­ing with this – on both women’s sides – the bond be­tween them be­came the life­line they needed. Vea never stopped call­ing her mother, and Caroline never stopped an­swer­ing her calls. “That’s where I re­ally want to en­cour­age par­ents to keep lov­ing your child,” Caroline says. “It re­quires daily for­give­ness, some­times sev­eral times a day, when they’re rude to you, or spew filthy words at you, and you’re hurt­ing so much. But it’s that for­give­ness that makes you able to keep lov­ing them. They need that love and you as a par­ent also need it.”

Main­tain­ing that at­ti­tude isn’t easy, but it is im­por­tant, Caroline be­lieves, par­tic­u­larly if you’re look­ing af­ter your grand­chil­dren while your own child gets bet­ter. “I’ve come across par­ents who hate their kids who have be­come drug ad­dicts, and it’s so sad. Those grand­kids will still love their par­ents, be­cause all kids love their par­ents. So even if their par­ents are on drugs, they’ll still love them. And to ex­pe­ri­ence their grand­par­ents hat­ing their par­ents, it must be so con­fus­ing for them.”

One of the rea­sons that Caroline jumped at the chance to write her side of the story was that when she looked for tes­ti­mo­ni­als or books writ­ten by par­ents in the same boat as her, there was noth­ing. The lack of sup­port for those af­fected by drug ad­dic­tion be­came par­tic­u­larly glar­ing when Vea an­nounced one day that she was ready to come off meth. Caroline went into ac­tion­sta­tion mode im­me­di­ately, be­cause she knew time was of the essence. “I rang around all the drug re­hab places, be­cause I thought if she was in there, she couldn’t get drugs. But all of them had months-long wait­ing lists.

And I was like, ‘She wants to change to­day! By to­mor­row, if she’s been back on the street, she prob­a­bly won’t want to any more.’ I was stunned that there was nowhere we could take her im­me­di­ately, be­cause you have to take those mo­ments when they come.”

The clincher for Vea to start the process of be­com­ing clean was af­ter her par­ent­ing rights for her son were stripped away from her, and she could only visit him un­der su­per­vi­sion. Rather than it be­ing another blow, it pro­vided the im­pe­tus she needed.

Jour­ney to re­cov­ery

Both books – de­spite their heavy con­tent – feel ul­ti­mately tri­umphant, a mas­ter­class in re­silience and sur­vival. But Vea and Caroline are hon­est about the fact that at the time, when they were both in the trenches, nei­ther of them had much hope.

“I felt like ev­ery time I got up, I’d get stomped down even fur­ther. I didn’t have the en­ergy to keep get­ting up,” Vea says of the re­cov­ery process. “It was daunt­ing; I knew I had to make so many changes and I didn’t

want to, and I didn’t know if I’d have the strength.”

Caroline is more blunt: “I re­ally did think I was go­ing to bury her.”

It was 2014 when Vea started the jour­ney to get­ting off drugs. She es­ti­mates it took her about a year to get used to the idea, and it was not a lin­ear process. Vea re­lapsed many times, which was dif­fi­cult for both women for dif­fer­ent rea­sons; Caroline was frus­trated that her daugh­ter was go­ing back on the drugs af­ter promis­ing she wouldn’t, and Vea was re­sent­ful that her ef­forts to get bet­ter weren’t be­ing val­i­dated when she felt like she was giv­ing it her all.

Dur­ing the book-writ­ing process, they would send com­pleted chap­ters to each other and it was only then that they both saw very clearly what the other had been go­ing through. “What we dis­cov­ered, which was to­tally un­ex­pected but amaz­ing, is that we ac­tu­ally ex­pe­ri­enced a lot of heal­ing by shar­ing our writ­ing with each other,” Caroline says. “It’s been re­ally good for our rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, even though that wasn’t our in­ten­tion; we were writ­ing to help oth­ers. But it’s ac­tu­ally helped us a lot.”

In Caroline’s case, it was learn­ing about how hard her daugh­ter had been work­ing to try and stay clean. “For those of us on the out­side, re­cov­ery doesn’t of­ten look like re­cov­ery. I found it such an emo­tional roller-coaster ride, but re­cov­ery isn’t a con­sis­tent trend up­wards, it’s up and down.” For Vea, it was learn­ing that the un­con­di­tional love from both her mother and her son wasn’t go­ing any­where.

In the three years since she’s been clean, Vea has had to re­learn a lot of things – her com­mon sense, de­ci­sion mak­ing and self-worth were all af­fected by her time on drugs. But she’s get­ting there, aided by the sup­port of her fam­ily and her church – she cred­its the Life Change Cel­e­brate Re­cov­ery 12-step pro­gramme as a major rea­son for her suc­cess and still at­tends meet­ings.

She now works as a per­sonal trainer, giv­ing back to her body af­ter years of abus­ing it, she says. “I’m on a grow­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, I re­ally love try­ing to im­prove my­self, learn­ing about how to be­come a bet­ter per­son. Learn­ing to love my­self, learn­ing to be on my own. Learn­ing that I’m worth it.”

Caroline’s in­ten­tion for the books is that fam­i­lies of those af­fected by drug ad­dic­tion learn that it’s not over un­til it’s over. “There is hope. If they are alive, there is hope. And it helps, as a par­ent, if you can have hope and keep that space open for them.”

“I re­ally want to en­cour­age par­ents to keep lov­ing your child.”

Visit va­le­ri­ashope.com for more in­for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing a free we­bi­nar on Tues­day Au­gust 21, to con­nect with ad­dicts, ex-ad­dicts and their fam­i­lies. AWW

CLOCK­WISE FROM ABOVE: Va­le­ria dur­ing her time of ad­dic­tion; as a tod­dler, all dressed up for a baby com­pe­ti­tion; on a day trip to Tir­i­tiri Matangi Is­land in 2014 – a day of hap­pi­ness for re­cov­er­ing Vea and her mum Caroline.

Re­ha­bil­i­tated by Va­le­ria Tokoar, and Where There’s Life There Re­ally is Hope by Caroline Cook, both pub­lished by Austin Ma­cauley Pub­lish­ers.

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