Karen Oates has been through hell as the mother of a methamphetamine addict, and now wants to reach out to offer help to other parents with drug-addicted children. Steve Braunias reports.

Her childhood, Karen Oates said, was happy. We talked, when we met at her home in Huapai, about her family and what went wrong. She boiled the jug for instant coffee and her cuckoo clock went off at really inappropriate times.

Growing up, she said, her family life was pretty normal, no dramas. Her father worked in forestry, then in trucking. They lived in Coatesville. As a girl she used to ride her pony all the way to Rosedale Rd.

Her mother's all good. She's 85, and has just left on a three-week cruise. She lives on a block of land by herself and she's off the grid, she has solar power these days but for ages she just ran the generator off diesel. Her water supply is what comes off the roof, Karen said.

Her first husband, Karen couldn't say when they last saw each other or talked. They were married when she was 18, and he was about 21, 22. She said she didn't actually know him that well when they got married but had fallen madly in love. At 21, she had her daughter. So, she guessed, she must be 40 this year. She said it with a rising inflection: 40 this year? Her son was born a few years later. So, she said, he must be about 36 or 37 or something?


Her marriage started to go crazy after a while, she said. They were living in Riverhead and borrowed $750,000 to buy an earthmoving company; the stress of the loan began to weigh heavily upon the marriage and things started falling apart. They tried living apart but that didn't work, and he moved back in but that didn't work either, and they were still trying to run the business and manage the debt. She ran the office from a house at the front of the property, the house was at the back. There was an incident with a .308, she said, and the police were called, but it was just part of the madness that was going on.

Her marriage basically ended the night she did a bunk in the middle of the night. She said her husband was always in and out of the house even though he didn't live in it any more, and she knew if he knew she was going that he'd try to stop her. It was, she said, "You don't want me but you don't want me to go." So she didn't take pictures off the wall or anything like that, just packed a few suitcases, and got the kids.

She can't recall what she would have said to them - we're leaving, we're going, something like that. She said she had a friend back then who was going through a messy break-up, too, and she involved her kids in everything. Karen said she was the opposite. She tried to shield the kids. What they saw, what they felt - we've never really had that conversation, she said.

Her second husband also had two children. Their mother died in a car crash. His kids were about 10 years older than hers and they'd been brought up with a lot more rules, she said, so blending the two families was a bit tricky. Her husband, she said, had certain expectations about how things were done, and it caused friction.

Her kids went to see their dad in the school holidays. They'd take the train to Tauranga. That's when the emotional stuff started happening for her son, she said. He'd come home from Tauranga and he'd feel unsettled. Maybe that's where things started going wrong, she said, and she began to cry.

The clock shrieked: Cuckoo! Cuckoo!


We met a second time, and I'd said to her that it was going to be filmed, so it'd be good if she could mentally rehearse something that might make for a great soundbite. The camera got set up. I gave her a prompt: "Please tell me why we are here talking to you."
Karen is 60 this year, a small, dark woman, with an easy smile. She said, "My son is in recovery after 15-plus years of heavy drug use, including P. I now have a message to share and I want to impact a million lives.

"I know there are families out there really hurting. The drug scene is destroying the fabric of our world. And I know what it's like as a mother to live that. The feeling that your own world is over, that you can't help your children; feeling guilty as a mother, and feeling shame. Guilt and shame run under everything.

"I know now that from taking the focus away from my children . . . and bringing the focus back to me, to being the strongest and best mother that I can be, and the person that I can be, that I would make better decisions not only for my children and grandchildren, but I've now gone on to try and make a huge difference for other people, and that's what I'm about now. I am not going through this journey and not have it mean something, something really important, something really helpful.
"And that's my mission."
All up her speech was a bit longer than 90 seconds but it was admirably concise and conveyed the basic message. The shorter version is that she offers her services as a kind of life coach to mothers of addicts, and will be holding a Loving An Addict workshop in Takapuna on May 13.

She's had about 20 clients, mothers trying to cope with something they have tried to hide away as a dirty little secret: their kid's a crackhead. Her advice is to accept that it's a fact but to realise there's nothing they can do about it, that it's beyond their control.

She said, "You don't have any power in that place. You've got to move forward and not stay stuck in the dramas and all the craziness that meth addiction can bring to somebody's life. The only responsibility we have is to ourselves and being the best we can, and live in hope that the child will change, and get to where they need to get to make their decision to go into rehab.

"However, that may never happen. The reality is that they may never get to that point. But as a parent, you can't stop living your own life."

I thought that it would take a lot to stop Karen. She was a very determined person, not exactly ruthless but certainly unwavering, someone who lived the principle not so much of remaining calm at all times but remaining in control at all times. I might even have thought that during all the years she was in denial that she was the mother of a crackhead.

She said, "Inside I was an emotional wreck. I shut down and put up the walls. I didn't want anybody else to know. I didn't share it with anyone. I prided myself on the fact that I hadn't cried in seven years."
The dam broke one day when she was driving around with one of her grandkids in the car. He would only have been 4 years old, and he said, "Nana?"
Karen said, "Yes, darling?
"Did you know your son's in jail?"
She allowed a silence after telling that story, for the punch-line to sink in. And then she said, "It was at that moment I thought, 'How the f*** did I get here?' That kind of broke my heart."

But what did it have to do with how she got there? It was her son that got banged up in jail. How had he got there? What had he gone through?


He lived alone in a damp, bare house.
-Back in June 2015 I got arrested for selling meth to a cop.

He worked long hours outdoors, and was strongly built, in good shape.
-I was at my mate's house in Sunnyvale and she knocked on the door. And she asked my mate, 'Can I get some gear?' And she told some bullshit story about how she knew to come to the house to ask. My mate said, 'How do I know you're not a cop?' Then I popped my head around the door and saw her. She was pretty hot and I said, 'Yeah I'll sell to you.' So I met her down the shop 10 minutes later and sold her a quarter of gram for $200. She said she'd come back for some more in the weekend and the cops rolled up instead.

His skin had turned deep brown. For 15 years it was grey as ash: the crackhead's tan.
-I ended up going to jail and was accepted into the Drug Court, and they sent me to rehab. I wanted to give up for years and years and years. So really it was a blessing in disguise that I did get caught. I'm just f****n truly grateful to have been offered that place on the Drug Court. It saved my life.

When he got out of jail, and before he went into rehab, he called Karen and they talked for three hours in a car.
-I just came clean with the whole picture instead of just trying to bullshit her for money and her being in denial. She was in denial, wickedly. Things were happening that she knew but didn't want to know.

He told her about the last 15 years of his life, wasted on P.
-I needed it every day to get up. If I didn't have some, I was nonexistent. I'd just be in bed, asleep. If I did have some I'd get up early and smoke it, and then work in my garage all day and sell crack.

Pretty much just that, for 15 years, in Henderson.
-There was some real dark shit. All sorts of shit. Yeah. Violence, just ... everything. Just random shit.

He said he could make $200,000 a week selling P.
-Yeah. Mean money. But then you'd go through periods when your supplier was in jail. Basically I had one person I used to get from but he'd be in jail a lot, and then it'd start to cost me, because I had an addiction and I needed to find it. It's the drug you have once and you go, woah, there is nothing better. Nothing. And then it turns into a f****n nightmare. Straightaway.

He constantly vowed to himself that he was going to give up.
-Yeah. For years and years and years. But because I was around it and everybody else I knew - everyone on crack knows everyone else on crack. So you can't ever get away from it. You need it every day so you're looking for it every morning.

It was shabby and monotonous and it was also a lot of fun.
-Yeah. The money, the drugs, the girls. There was always a lot of girls.

Was there anything about it that he missed?
-Nothing. Nothing. I couldn't stand the people by the end, eh. F****n shit people.

He was one of those shit people, according to Karen. "I didn't like him," she'd said in our first interview. "I didn't like him. He was manipulative, he was just ... he was just a horrible person." His motive for getting clean wasn't especially fine or noble: he'd been sentenced to two years nine months, and he couldn't bear it, he'd been inside before, three or four times, and hated everything about prison.
-Shit place. Shit people. Nothing worse. Yeah.

He went through rehab at Higher Ground in Te Atatu.
-Getting off meth is the hardest thing I've ever had to do. But people can do it. You've got to get out of the scene. You have to, definitely. And you need support.

He was totally behind Karen's mission to coach parents of addicts.
-I think it's really good what she's doing. It came as a shock to me really because she was in denial for so long, and now she's making an income from it. But yeah. She can help people and that's the reason I'm doing this interview.

He's got clean.
-I don't get too far ahead of myself. I'm not saying I'm never going back to it but I ain't going back to it today. I know that much. And I'll keep saying that every day, you know? I have no desire to go back to that scene. F*** that. Too much of my life has just been a blur. And it's gone just like that, and you think: 'What have I done? Nothing. Just smoked crack every day.' That's shit.


She was quite frank about identifying a gap in the market, that her services appealed to a large, silent niche - the mothers of crackheads. Her clients include a businesswoman in Wellington with a daughter addicted to meth, and who felt everything was slipping away until Karen laid out her advice on taking control and feeling good about herself. The woman's daughter went into rehab and now things couldn't be better. She's singing my praises to everyone down there, Karen said.

The cuckoo clock shrieked: Cuckoo! Cuckoo!

Karen had taken control of her own life with an iron grip. She said about her own life that things couldn't be better and it was as if she said it through gritted teeth. She was on a mission; she was staying on track. She wasn't especially fond of talking about her own role as a mother; the examined life wasn't worth living. And so she spoke about her adult children as though they were strangers, as people she barely knew - "36, or 37..."

Looking back, she said, she shakes her head at her level of denial about what was going on right under her nose. She just had no idea, she said. She said her son was like, Mum where were you? How could you have not seen it? It just wasn't in her sphere of thinking, she said.

Was she a bad mother? No, she said. She was the best mother she could have been.
Did she accept any fault, any responsibility? She asked herself a different question: Did the outcomes of her decisions she made as a parent impact on her children? The answer was yes, absolutely. But, she said, she's spent way too many years of her life beating herself up about it.

Karen talked about giving her clients a morning ritual to start the day. If you wake up in the morning and if you've got some heavy shit going on, she said, the worst thing was to think about it, because the first thing that goes into your head will be about all the stuff that's not working in your life. Instead, she advised, focus on something in your life, maybe something you did, no matter how small, that was great. Not on something that went wrong. Not, she repeated, on something that went wrong.