Fighting the Demon

WARNING: THIS STORY CONTAINS REFERENCES TO DRUG USE, DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AND CHILD ABUSE THAT MAY BE DISTRESSING AND/OR TRIGGERING FOR SOME READERS.

Two recovering meth addicts reveal their painful lives and explain how they got clean, to inspire hope in other users.

"With my youngest boy, even during pregnancy I used. I couldn't stop using. I would pray to God that if I got to keep my baby I would put down the pipe. But my addiction was stronger than my will to stop."

Darnell Rumbal begins to cry. She composes herself and continues.

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"I went into labour six weeks early … When I went to the hospital and I was being monitored my friend turned up and had gear. I knew he had gear and even though I was in labour and even though I knew I was risking my child and I was in the hospital, I still said to him, have you got a puff? And he said yes, so we went into the toilets and I got high.

"At the time [I felt] happy that I got high. Now in hindsight, horrible. Horrible for my baby, horrible that I exposed other people in the hospital to meth. It's not a cool thing to do."

Today Rumbal is one year and 27 days clean. She lives in a tidy rental in Kawerau with her sister, Angel, herself a recovering addict, and five of their children.

They moved from another place down the road in January. The new house is a step up, bigger. They've got nicer stuff. There's a neat garden at the front dotted with kids' toys.

Inside, two of the youngest children take turns reciting the "blah blah blah" line from the animated movie Hotel Transylvania. There's laughter and mischief.

From this house, in a room with wooden walls that may once have been a sauna, Rumbal, 36, hosts a daily live support group for recovering meth addicts on Facebook.

Recovering addict Darnell Rumbal says faith and the support of other people in a similar situation helped her stop using meth. Photo / Mike Scott
Recovering addict Darnell Rumbal says faith and the support of other people in a similar situation helped her stop using meth. Photo / Mike Scott

"No matter how dark and gloomy things look and how messy your life is, there's hope that you can come back from where you are. You've just got to want it."

Rumbal first tried methamphetamine in 2002 then switched to party pills. When they were banned, she returned to meth, building up to daily use for almost a decade before going clean.

"At the height of my addiction I would wake up and use. I would use before my morning coffee and my morning cigarette and then I would use again sort of like morning tea, lunchtime, afternoon. It was like I used as much as someone would eat.

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"I lost all my teeth and I was very anaemic. I was very small, I was down to 44kg and if I wasn't high I was unwell because my body was depleted of all natural nutrients."

At the peak of her addiction she was spending anything from $250 to $800 a day on the drug.

"For many years I would prostitute for money to get gear and then when my addiction got worse or when my habit got bigger I stopped doing it for money and just prostituted for the gear itself.

"I'd get a text from someone and I'd know that this meant they'd have gear and I'd have to sleep with them, and I might not have felt like it or I might have slept with someone the night before. You know but I'd do it anyway just because I needed to feed that habit so yeah it became quite ugly."

Darnell Rumbal, clean for more than a year, says her youngest child's kindy is seeing signs of meth exposure in a growing number of children. Photo / Mike Scott
Darnell Rumbal, clean for more than a year, says her youngest child's kindy is seeing signs of meth exposure in a growing number of children. Photo / Mike Scott

As a child, Rumbal was sexually abused by a family member; her parents were drinkers who dealt marijuana; she was bullied at school.

"I was molested at the age of 7. My birth father raped my older sister and he starved me as a baby and my mum was quite resentful towards me because I look like him so I always felt like that child that didn't fit in in the family. And then at school as well I had the glasses I had bung teeth, I had a patch on my eye.

By 14 she'd discovered alcohol. By 16 she had her first son.

"I had already run away from home ... I was messed up and so then I was looking for something to fulfil me and I thought drugs and sex did that."

Was she looking for an escape?

"Yeah from reality 'cause I had so many hurts.

"I didn't choose to become an addict. I did choose to pick up that first time, but I wasn't aware of what it was going to do to me. But nobody chooses to become an addict, nobody chooses to become dependent on a drug or alcohol to function."

Rumbal moved around, tried to kick meth. It worked for a time – the longest period was 92 days – then she relapsed.

When she moved to Kawerau last year for another go at recovery, she was at rock bottom. Two things were in her favour: She was finally ready to quit, and she'd met Rachael Wild.

Rumbal and Wild bonded in Rotorua a couple of years ago when they were on an introduction to social work course.

"I took one look at her and I knew she was on the gear," says Wild. "It was like looking at me."

Recovering addict Rachael Wild says she feels awful about exposing her children to meth, but is now focused on being the best mum she can. Photo / Mike Scott
Recovering addict Rachael Wild says she feels awful about exposing her children to meth, but is now focused on being the best mum she can. Photo / Mike Scott

Wild was physically and sexually abused multiple times before her 5th birthday. She had counselling as a child and still gets flashbacks. A "full-blown alcoholic" by 13, she first tried meth when she was 16 or 17.

"Very quickly it started to numb feelings … the child abuse and sexual abuse … the meth started to pretty much take me away from reality."

Initially Wild used occasionally, binging every few months. Then she used more often. Then she became an addict. She was in a violent relationship "fuelled by meth". She left her partner and entered a women's refuge. Went four months clean. Then she lapsed.

"I hit it even harder. I really started to believe that I was just worth nothing, the pain, the turmoil of that relationship.

"It wasn't so much the physical abuse. The broken bones, the bruises, all of that stuff used to go away. It was the psychological, the mental abuse of things that were said to me so often I started to believe that was what I was worth.

"I used even more because there were so many underlying things that I never talked about, that I'd never dealt with."

The 33-year-old has three children, two to her former partner. Towards the end of her time using she associated with "really dangerous people", did "illegal things I'm not proud of" to fund her habit. She alienated her family. Child Youth and Family got involved. She lost her kids.

"My drugs were more important than my children. That takes a lot to sit here and say that, but I'm not going to lie about my life. I had to come to that realisation on my own that enough was enough."

Angel Rumbal, left, and Rachael Wild during an Anti-P Ministry hīkoi in Kawerau. Photo / Mike Scott
Angel Rumbal, left, and Rachael Wild during an Anti-P Ministry hīkoi in Kawerau. Photo / Mike Scott

Wild has been clean for three years, two months and 29 days. She's got two children back and sees the third regularly. She's rebuilt relationships with her family, especially her mum, and has a comfortable family home near the beach in Papamoa.

"If someone ever told me three years ago that I'd be sitting where I am today, I honestly would have laughed in their face because I didn't think that I was ever going to be able to give up."

Addicts usually describe their first taste of meth as a euphoric high more incredible than anything they'd felt before.

But the dopamine rush doesn't last. During comedowns users become anxious, aggressive, paranoid and agitated, sometimes picking at invisible bugs crawling on their skin. They create open wounds known as meth sores which scab, then scar. Many lose extreme amounts of weight. Life becomes chaotic, a cycle of binge and bust. Hygiene is forgotten, teeth rot.

Once dependence sets in addicts are unable to get out of bed without a hit. But by then, their tolerance has grown. The drug has less effect, so they need more and more, but it does less, meaning the withdrawals grow worse.

"The first time that I smoked meth it was like the best thing that ever happened to me," says Rumbal.

"It was mind-blowing. It was mind-opening. I felt like I could conquer the world. I felt like I had energy for days … but you never get that again.

"The last time I smoked it I felt horrible. My mind was scattered. I felt like I lost myself. I felt guilty. I felt suicidal. I felt horrible."

Just 10 per cent of our $1.5 billion annual mental health budget goes to addiction. Estimates say an extra 100,000 people could benefit from some kind of care. Demand has increased 70 per cent over the past decade. Funding rose by 40 per cent over the same period.

Politicians, says Ross Bell, executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, are worried about looking soft on crime.

New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell wants more money spent on addiction services. Photo / Mike Scott
New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell wants more money spent on addiction services. Photo / Mike Scott

"But I can tell you, if they came out and doubled the treatment budget they would receive plaudits from those families who are affected."

When Rumbal was ready – really ready – to quit, she sought help from Wild, by then two years clean.

"All I did was tell her what I've been through, that I was living a life without meth," says Wild. "Something must have clicked and she thought she could have that too.

"That's what this whole thing is about. It's one addict helping another, sharing their story to show there's another life out there, there's something better than smoking meth all day every day, thinking that that's what we're destined for."

Not everyone gets clean the same way. Wild had a stint in rehab. Rumbal didn't.

But both women cut everyone connected with meth out of their lives and leaned on people in similar positions for support.

"You have to change your people, places and things," says Rumbal. "You've got to fight for your recovery like you're fighting for your life. Because you are.

"I think faith is important, finding a power greater then yourself. But number one is definitely having a support network and then healing. It's confronting our past and being able to let that go and move forward with our lives."

There wasn't much pain on the first day after Darnell stopped smoking meth.

"It's day two or day three when your body's really drained and you're feeling really sick, it's hard to move and you have no energy, and your mind's playing games with you and it's a real struggle.

"And then sleep's really hard, you're sweating through sleeps, having nightmares, having broken sleeps, you've got aches and pains, twitches in your legs.

"You're pretty hungry, but you're craving sugar, you're craving that energy rush so you binge on the lollies, but it's best to stick to your fruits and get lots of water in you and just rest for those first couple of days.

Methamphetamine is the most harmful illegal drug in New Zealand, with an estimated $500 million spent on it every year. Photo / Mike Scott
Methamphetamine is the most harmful illegal drug in New Zealand, with an estimated $500 million spent on it every year. Photo / Mike Scott

"For the first two weeks it's really, really rough. Based on the people I know, maybe 70 per cent, 80 per cent will pick back up.

"And after that you start to feel a bit better and then you start to question yourself like, 'do I really have an issue?' You've got a constant battle going on in your head."

Over time the mental challenges get easier.

"But they never go away. You're an addict for life."

Early this year she had a spell of "using nightmares".

"You actually taste the stuff, you feel high and everything, and when you wake up you're heartbroken."

Are you dreaming about going and getting the drug?

"Man, opening the bag, scooping it into the pipe, rolling it. You know at first some of my dreams were the pipes going round and I never got a turn and I'm like desperate and it would get to my turn and I'd wake up and I'd be gutted that I missed out, and then I'd be like, thank goodness it didn't happen.

"It's intense, you can wake up sweating because you've been right there, you've been doing it you know, and that sort of does stay with you throughout the day."

Meth addiction is a mental disorder that's hard to overcome says Professor David Nutt, a global expert on the effect of drugs on the brain.

In written evidence to a New Zealand Court of Appeal hearing considering a shake-up of sentences for meth offences, Nutt said it won't go away just by cutting off someone's supply.

"… The desire to use is often present for years after stopping because the memories of the effects of methamphetamine, especially when smoked or injected, are so powerfully pleasurable that they never go away."

Rumbal uses the nightmares as inspiration to stay clean.

"They are just reminders of what we don't want, and we need to remember that when we have them."

The Anti-P Ministry is committed to tackling the scourge of meth. Photo / Mike Scott
The Anti-P Ministry is committed to tackling the scourge of meth. Photo / Mike Scott

Both women have been to very dark places. Both are living proof you can come back.

"I'm only early in my recovery," says Rumbal. "I used for 14 years but I'm in such a better place than I've ever been before, especially in my head.

"The brain's healing itself and retaining information. I'm seeing 'me' come back, my confidence. I know I haven't got it all together but it's way better now than it ever was."

A typical day starts with prayers. She and Angel take the kids to kindy. They work out. Healthy body, healthy mind.

Both are part of the Anti-P Ministry, a Facebook group with more than 5000 members and a physical presence across New Zealand. Its work includes organising hīkoi through towns with meth problems.

"We have online meetings every day," says Rumbal. "We have addicts sharing their stories and their testimonies and their experience.

"We have a lot of people that may not share, but we know that they're watching and then eventually you get them commenting.

"That's what it's all about, helping each other get through this, just knowing there's other people going through the same stuff you're going through but there's hope."

- additional reporting, Kirsty Johnston and Jared Savage

WHERE TO GET HELP

Drugs

• Alcohol Drug Helpline: 0800 787 797
• Maori Helpline: 0800 787 798 or free text 8681
• Pasifika Helpline: 0800 787 799 or free text 8681
• Youth Helpline: 0800 787 984 or free text 8681
• Narcotics Anonymous: 0800 628 632
• https://drughelp.org.nz/
• Anti-P Ministry on Facebook

Family violence

• Shine: 0508 744 633 (free call 9am-11pm) or www.2shine.org.nz
• Women's Refuge: 0800 733 843 (free call 24/7)

Mental health

• Need to talk? 1737 (free call or text 24/7)
• https://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/get-help

Sexual harm

• Safe To Talk: Text 4334 or email support@safetotalk.nz

Remember, if it's an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.​