Annemarie is the magazines editor and regular columnist for the Bay of Plenty Times.

Mum wished P-addicted son would die to free him from the scourge

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A Bay mother is taking on the Bay's P epidemic with a support group for the growing number of parents who face "the daily hell" of living with an addict - and a local cop is giving his own time to help families.

Sometimes Erin O'Neill wished her meth-addicted son would die of an overdose to free him from the scourge.

His addiction was "long years of hell" in which Mount business woman O'Neill, 60, became at times "terrified of my own son... not that he was ever violent to me but he would get so angry, punch walls...a lot of things got broken."

Her son's addiction took over the whole family life.

"It was a roller coaster... he would get treatment, then use again. I would trust him, then he would lie. He stole from me... I lived in fear that dealers could turn up at the door. He dragged us into that dark world of crime -- a world I thought I would never see, never be part of... to say it is an evil drug is an understatement... it is a destroyer, of everything."

Her son (who did not wish to be named) told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend he first took meth aged just 15.

"By 16 I was hooked. At 19 I started a 10-year journey where I was in and out of recovery."

O'Neill has today spoken as part of a special report today after the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend last Saturday revealed the Bay was in the grip of a growing P epidemic with former addicts speaking candidly how their addiction cost them dearly.

O'Neill says she did not find out her son was taking meth for the first two years.

"This might sound hard to understand. I had never even heard of P. It just wasn't something I had ever come across,'' she said.

"He had gone to a good school... he had been behaving strangely and had been so moody, even aggressive, but I just had put it down to his age, being a typical teenager. When I found out he had been smoking meth for two years I was horrified. I think I was in denial, I just didn't know what to do."

Her son has now been clean for more than a year, is happy, turned his life around and is studying towards a degree.

When I found out he had been smoking meth for two years I was horrified. I think I was in denial, I just didn't know what to do.
Erin O'Neill

O'Neill said she felt compelled to use what she learned in her own journey to help others.

"I know how terrible it was to feel so alone. The addict gets the treatment but there is little for families. I have learned a lot over the years, what works, what doesn't."

Together with another Bay business woman, Gina (not her real name), O'Neill has set up Brave Hearts, a support group for those who have loved ones in the grip of addiction.

The first meeting recently at Tauranga Boys' College was attended by more than 60 people. The demand since from families has been so great that O'Neill has set up another group in the Mount.

"We thought a few people might turn up and we were overwhelmed by the numbers. It showed to us the scale of the problem - there are families out there -mums, dads, grandparents at the end of their tether, who just do not know what to do.

"We started sharing stories and it was amazing how much there was in common... the grip of the addiction, the lying, stealing, the stigma, the violence... the fear of your own child, of their moods, aggression. And how do you look after yourself in all of that?"

O'Neill's son is encouraging towards his mother for wanting to use her experience to help other families, and attended the group's first meeting.

I found out when I was tidying her room and found a bag... I didn't even know what it was. I tried to help her myself, but I was out of my depth... I was terrified for her, but also for myself.
Gina

"I am immensely proud of her for doing this. There is little support for families out there and so what she is starting is going to help a lot of other people,'' he said.

Gina's daughter is also a former meth addict who also became addicted when she was a teenager, at 17.

"She was offered it by someone in her circle, and it is not who you think of like a dirty dealer, it was actually someone from a well-to-do family who gave it to her to try.

"I found out when I was tidying her room and found a bag... I didn't even know what it was. I tried to help her myself, but I was out of my depth... I was terrified for her, but also for myself.

"I didn't know where to turn, after two years I was at the end of my tether and I went to the police. It felt like I was dobbing in my own family, but that was the best thing I did, it was that really that got us the help we needed."

That policeman was Red -- also known as Senior Constable Lindsay Smith. The 57-year-old has been a Western Bay cop for 30 years and over that time has seen the meth problem get steadily worse "in the Bay, and everywhere".

Red mentors 20 families who have come to him for help when their child has become addicted to P.

Senior Constable Lindsay (Red) Smith is mentoring 20 Bay families who have a meth addicted member. PHOTO/ANDREW WARNER
Senior Constable Lindsay (Red) Smith is mentoring 20 Bay families who have a meth addicted member. PHOTO/ANDREW WARNER

"They are anywhere from teens to young 20s, but my area of focus is not on the addict, it is giving support to the families. Over the years in my experience as a police officer I have gathered knowledge that I share with them."

He emphasises his mentoring is not official police work - he does it all in his own time, with the support of his bosses.

"I care about my community and these families need help. There is a real lack of support for families of addicts. By the time they come to me they are frightened... for their own kid, and their own safety.

"They are being abused by their own children, mentally and physically. By the time they come to us, their kids might have hurt them, are stealing from them, lying to them, cheating. Some have had to put locks on their own bedroom doors."

Red spoke to the 60 people at the first Brave Hearts meeting, sharing his toolbox which he calls "intel-based decision making for families" about what to look for, where to go for help.

Video

"It is about giving parents practical tools. Giving them a backbone. They will need it. They are in for a long haul. A meth addict doesn't want to withdraw.

"You can't divorce your kids. They want their kids back. For some you can get them back quickly, some like Erin, it can take years. It is an evil drug."

Red says meth is ever more prevalent, with organised crime behind a sophisticated "pyramid marketing system" with dealers actively targeting the young.

It is conceivable that most Bay teens will be offered meth at some point and the families he deals with are from a cross section of Bay society, he says.

"It can depend on their social group... the marketing of it is horrendous."

A common theme in the families is how a user starts to deplete their own family's capital.

"Methamphetamine is an expensive sport. The dealers may give it to them 'on account' -- and then they have to come up with the money.

''They take things from their parents, from around the house, little things at first go missing then it escalates."

Another trend says Red is that users are injecting more.

Red also warns parents of the potential aggression of the addict and why police are tough.

One of the parents in O'Neill's group spoke how terrified she was when police turn up but Red says parents need to work together with the police and make addicts accountable for other crimes they commit to feed their addictions.

"You know your kids better than anyone else but parents can blind themselves because they love their kids and want to do and be the right thing. If you hide them and their habits you are not doing them any favours and just lengthening the heartbreak."

Red's toolkit includes how to notice if your teenager is using, and how to deal with the issues without anger.

"You might think it is great they have a really clean room."

He warns parents police are tough.

"When we go to a house we may not seem friendly but this is because we are prepared. You cannot be complacent around a meth addict, as they may be unpredictable and violent."

Red knows this first hand - once a young meth addict attacked and seriously injured him.

Red also tells parents they need to steel themselves to be tough without confrontation and apply the rules, including packing a box for their children, getting a trespass notice against them and throwing them out when they break the rules.

This can be hard, particularly for mothers, who fear what may happen, but Red says the family home needs to be a safe place for the family, and parents must protect themselves and their addicted child.

"There are some tough times ahead. They will annoy and frustrate you. Addiction is an illness, not a way of life or a choice. Like any virus you have to be disciplined in how you treat the illness if you want a successful outcome," he says.

''The start of sobriety is often at the bottom of the cliff. It's not fun down there. We all need to help our kids up the cliff. If they fall, they go down alone. You can't afford to go down too."

Brave Hearts
For more information see Brave Hearts NZ Facebook page or phone 0800 379 399. Red can be contacted at Tauranga Police Station.

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