Beatings, weapons, kidnappings and intimidation became part of her terrifying teenage world when former methamphetamine addict Rachel Axis started using the drug at just 14.
But machete-wielding men in the driveway "were the least of my problems" when Axis tried to turn her back on the drug with the support of her family at 19.
"My stepfather found it easier to deal with those guys at the front door than the authorities we tried to seek help from.
"He took me to a mental health crisis unit [outside of the Bay] where we had to literally beg for help. Dad told them if he took me home again he was sure he would find me dead by morning. He said if they couldn't help me at the hospital, he would take me to the police station.
"Even when you are at rock bottom, suicidal, there is little immediate help for people with drug addiction."
If I had carried on taking meth I would not be here today
Papamoa mum Axis, the 28-year-old partner of Bay musician Tiki Taane, is sharing her story because she believes there needs to be better health services for methamphetamine addicts, rather than focusing purely on crime.
New drug hit squad
This week, police established an organised crime squad in Tauranga, specialising in drug investigations.
With the region's booming population and the country's busiest port - a risk for smuggling large shipments of drugs - gangs and the Port of Tauranga are identified as logical targets for the new squad.
Axis says while that is welcomed, the demand end of the meth users and addicts is where increased focus should be.
"While there are people addicted to methamphetamine, there will be a supply ... people have this perception that it's only people with gang involvement that take P.
"Not at all, it is all sorts of people, corporate types with money, professionals ... It's big business. Gangs, they are just the foot soldiers, so just focusing on them is not going to change anything.
"You need to look at reasons why people take it, and put more money into support for addicts."
Meth easy to score
A recent Massey University study found methamphetamine is much easier to access than cannabis.
Higher availability of methamphetamine was found in regions including the Bay of Plenty where, of those questioned, 54 per cent said the current availability of methamphetamine was very good, compared to only 14 per cent saying the same about cannabis.
A third of those surveyed revealed they could buy the drug in 20 minutes or less.
The aim of the country's first anonymous online Drug Trends Survey, completed by 6100 people, backs up anecdotal evidence on the availability of meth and encourages the Government to prioritise support services for meth addicts, says lead researcher Associate Professor Chris Wilkins.
Dr Vanessa Caldwell, the manager at the national centre for addiction, Matua Raki, said Massey's findings confirm statistics and feedback collated nationally over the last two years that methamphetamine had overtaken alcohol and cannabis as "the drug of choice".
"It looks like a trend that is here to stay."
Caldwell said increased availability means more investment in services is needed to cope with the demand from people seeking help for P addiction.
"The availability means people are going to use it, develop potential problems and need assistance and we need to provide that."
Labour MP Angie Warren-Clark said improving addiction services in the region is a priority for her, and this week she met with Bay of Plenty District Health Board chief executive to initiate the conversation about residential addiction services in the Bay, learn the health board's perspective, as well as a general discussion about services.
There is currently only one detox bed in the region in Whakatane's Psychiatric Unit, which Warren-Clark says is "not acceptable for a city our size".
"This Government sees methamphetamine use as a health issue – that is not to say we are soft on crime, we welcome the taskforce and, of course, we will be tough on organised crime, but as well as this we also need to look at improving services where people can get help."
The health board contracts its alcohol and other drugs services to providers outside the city meaning Bay addicts may have to travel as far as Hawkes Bay, even Christchurch.
Warren-Clark also met this week with families of methamphetamine addicts, many of whom told her similar stories to Axis, with crisis teams unable to cope.
She urged people to submit their stories to the Government's select committee inquiry into mental health, drug and alcohol addiction, a $6.5m inquiry into mental health launched by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the beginning of the year to dive into the crisis of a sector that has been overrun by demand.
A specific focus of the inquiry chaired by former Health and Disability Commissioner Ron Paterson will focus on underfunding of addiction services and equity of access to quality services.
Calls for residential rehab in the Bay
Erin Scarlett, who founded Brave Hearts, a charity to support families with methamphetamine addicts, said better services are long overdue.
"We hear terrible stories of people unable to get immediate help for their addiction, even when they are suicidal or have already attempted to take their life. They are turned away and then they go back out and use again."
Scarlett says it is devastating on the family when someone is turned away,
"They then have to look after severely addicted loved ones in their own home but don't have the necessary skills for coping. It's traumatic and heartbreakingly tough but the alternative is putting them on the street."
Residential rehab services in the Bay are critical, says former drug addict Stephen King, who runs a drug and alcohol rehabilitation recovery house service in Waikato and thinks the Bay of Plenty needs a similar service.
Like Axis, he believes even a taskforce cracking down on gangs will not curb the methamphetamine epidemic.
"They might seize more meth at the border but this is just a tiny amount getting in ... It comes in anywhere along the coastline from Asia and while gangs might do some distribution, they are just the tail end of the pyramid – it's not the Mongrel Mob dealing with the Chinese, it's your middle-class salesman."
The affluence of the Bay means meth salespeople are targeting the region.
"As long as there's demand and money to be made they will find a way in, so it is the demand side you need to look at."
King fears addiction services will not get a fair hearing in the Government's mental health review.
"Substance addiction can be the driver of mental health issues, as well as driving all sorts of societal problems like poverty and family violence, yet addiction is seen as the poor cousin in mental health funding. It should have greater priority."
Last week, a residential facility catering for up to 30 people was opened in Ngongotaha, Rotorua, expanding on the existing kaupapa Maori services there. It will offer residential as well as day services.
Free from addiction
Rachel Axis says a similar service in Tauranga is long overdue. She had to wait for six months to enter a service in another region.
Clean from addiction now for almost 10 years, Axis is completing her social work qualification, training to be a personal trainer, and wants to work supporting people with addictions in the Bay community.
"Drug addiction is still a big stigma – while we have got over stigmas about other types of mental illness and people say openly they suffer from depression or anxiety, you don't get people say, 'Oh, I suffer from addiction' or 'Oh my teenager is a P addict'.
"It has got that dirty image ... And addiction is hidden away, which is why the criminal side thrives."
The findings of the Massey University study are not surprising to Axis, who says meth availability has definitely increased over the years to pandemic levels.
"It is easier to get than weed, everywhere, and, as a parent myself, yes it is a big worry."
With young people in Tauranga now more likely to try meth as a drug than weed due to availability, Axis thinks young people also need to be better supported in mental and emotional health.
"I started using because I had low self-esteem. I ran into the wrong crowd and when someone said, 'Try this', I did, it made me feel happy, forget my problems. I was an anxious teenager, worried about my weight and suddenly I was losing weight, felt confident, it felt good."
Her weight plummeted to 50kg, her hair became brittle, her skin was bad and she suffered mood swings and hallucinations, staying awake up to seven days at a time.
With her family unaware of her drug use, Axis was at one stage taking up to a gram a day.
At 16, she was finding the high harder to maintain, explaining away the scabs on her arm as an allergy to washing powder. She recalls regularly helping her friend inject into his groin.
"Deep down I felt ashamed, I knew it was wrong but part of me didn't care. I was deep into it."
At a family celebration at a concert for her mother's birthday, Axis was so exhausted after a P binge that she went into the bathroom to snort more from a bag.
With her mother and family outside the bathroom door, she had an epiphany moment that she still finds emotional to talk about today,
"I suddenly thought, 'What am I doing, here I am at my mum's birthday'. I went out and put my arms around her and said 'Mum, I need help'."
She says making that first step is so hard for any addict that services should be there immediately "to scoop that person up right away".
"There are lots of people out there who know they are addicts but don't know where to turn. So they just keep using which fuels the demand. It makes sense to invest in better services, remove the stigma around addiction and treat it properly as an illness.
"Approaching the methamphetamine crisis from a health crisis not only stops demand for the drug, it is rescuing people from the life that goes with it, that life of violence, sexual abuse, threats."
Axis still receives counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder because of the things she experienced in that dark underworld.
She is one of the lucky ones.
"If I had carried on using meth I wouldn't be here."
Bay of Plenty District Health Board chief executive Helen Mason responds to calls for increased addiction services:
Referrals to our addiction service tell us that we are not seeing significantly increased referrals from methamphetamine use in the Bay of Plenty.
The health board has Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD) Services with a number of kaupapa Māori providers, as well as a range of non-government organisation providers. Many of them have youth AOD roles and there are also secondary specialist resources within Community Mental Health and Voyagers.
Around 80 per cent of alcohol and other drugs treatment at any given time is carried out in the community.
For those who need residential treatment, the health board contracts with six national residential alcohol and other drugs service providers for access for Bay people needing residential treatment.
All providers have direct access into the Salvation Army Bridge programme in Hamilton and Te Whare Oranga Ngakau, a kaupapa Māori alcohol and drugs treatment in Rotorua.
There are also a number of specialised alcohol and other drugs services available nationally, for example Odyssey with its therapeutic community approach works best for the most complex clients (particularly those with addiction and mental health issues) but the treatment period is longer.
To get the best out of residential treatment, all clients need good preparation therefore immediate admission is not always the best approach. Problematic alcohol and drug use is usually a symptom of underlying long-standing issues and time and skill is needed for healing.
Clinical advice is that there are many ways of treating addiction. Residential care is one option and not necessarily the best model of care. Treatment decisions are made on individual client need.
In terms of our future plans, our immediate priority is strengthening existing resources and units rather than aiming for new ones.
Government inquiry into mental health and addiction
- Part of government 100-day plan.
- Focus on equity of access to services, community confidence in the mental health system and better outcomes for Maori and other groups with poor outcomes.
- Looks at addiction services. Will identify and respond to needs of people experiencing mental health and addiction.
- Former Health and Disability Commissioner Ron Paterson will lead a taskforce travelling the country to collect people's stories as well as voices in and out of the sector.
- He will report back by the end of October.
For more information click here
Where to get help:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• Samaritans 0800 726 666
• If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
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