When Krystal Poutu speaks about her role mentoring youth struggling with addiction there is fight in her eyes, evidence of her own battle with drug use.
It is only seven months since the New Plymouth woman began hitting back against her demons, after almost a decade lost in a drug-induced haze following the loss of her stillborn son, Blade.
Now, drug-free and in a positive space spiritually and emotionally, Poutu, who is of Ngati Maniapoto descent, has found peace and happiness within herself.
She is in training to become a drug educator under the guidance of the Taranaki group Drug Free Aotearoa, which helped her get clean.
Poutu first experimented with marijuana as a 12-year-old and dabbled with drugs recreationally in her teens, but says her drug use only became a problem after the death of her son.
After losing Blade, eight months into her pregnancy, the then 20-year-old's life spiralled out of control.
"To deal with the grief and pain I turned to drugs and alcohol," says Poutu.
The 29-year-old says marijuana took over her life; from dawn till dusk she would spend her days inebriated, trying to wade her way through a sea of emotions.
"I would be stoned from the time I woke up until the time I went to sleep," she says.
"All I knew was hanging out with mates and getting stoned all day."
Although Poutu admits the drugs helped numb her pain, she says it was always only temporary, and by avoiding her issues many aspects of her life suffered.
Her primary goal was to get through the day and all relationships came second to the drugs.
"I didn't care about anybody else," she says. "I was still lost in that grief, I was hurting people emotionally, and I didn't care," she confesses.
Her parents, who knew nothing of her initial recreational drug use, confronted her on many occasions after her dependence became obvious.
They warned her of the adverse effects of cannabis use and questioned whether this was the path she wanted to take in life.
"It didn't matter how much they said it, at the end of the day it was my decision and I chose to ignore what they were saying and continue with the drugs."
An unemployed addict, she had no desire to address her habit and after eight years of travelling down a path of self-destruction that included run-ins with the law, she was set on that course.
Then, while idly hanging around outside of the Puke Ariki library, Poutu was handed a life- line.
She was approached by Drug Free Aotearoa volunteer Lani Hunt, who was previously associated with Waves.
She says Hunt, who was known to her, urged her to attend the organisation's one-week drug education course.
Straight away Poutu dismissed the proposition, but says after sitting on the idea for a couple of days something clicked and she decided to give it a go.
"I kept remembering Lani's words over and over: 'Don't say no until you have tried it'."
Drug Free Aotearoa, which started in November last year, is a Taranaki drug education service founded by Motunui woman, Rose Denness.
An independent entity, it runs on donations from Taranaki businesses and distributes educational resources based on the Church of Scientology's drug rehabilitation and prevention methods.
Denness, whose interest in drug awareness stemmed from trying to help a nephew beat addiction, began sharing her concerns with the community about 15 years ago.
She says she was handed a Scientology pamphlet by chance which outlined its take on drug abuse. She found herself agreeing with the church's theory, although Drug Free Aotearoa's strategies are more closely aligned with Maori tikanga.
"I would go into schools and talk to the children about drugs," says the 80-year-old, who also spent a lot of time door-knocking trying to educate people about drug harm.
In more recent times she has called on a younger educator, Darren Hulton, who she hopes the children could better relate to.
Hulton is an independent drug and alcohol counsellor who has worked as a facilitator with the prisoner rehabilitation group Te Ihi Tu Trust, with Like Minds Taranaki and Waitara social agency Mahia Mai.
Drug Free Aotearoa now has two fulltime co- ordinators and several trainees who also attend a Leadership Aotearoa course that provides workshops and holds seminars for people interested in delivering drug education.
The group, which gives lectures on drugs at schools and workplaces around the region, has also helped many addicts successfully give up drugs after doing its one-week course.
Poutu is one of them. Despite maintaining on the first day that she wouldn't be cutting cannabis from her life, she stuck with it and completed the week.
She remembers feeling sceptical at the start.
Even as Hulton welcomed her she was telling him that if this was some form of counselling service she would be leaving.
"I didn't want to sit there, one- on-one, having a counselling session," says Poutu, who still hasn't received any counselling to deal with her grief.
Hulton became her mentor, and was able to support, guide and challenge her while she made the decision to come off drugs.
He says he has seen Poutu grow since first meeting her.
"Krystal has made huge changes; she used to be very judgmental. She based a lot of what she believed on assumption, she was manipulative, but in the end she was able to acknowledge all of that and work through those issues."
The greatest foundation for her recovery and beyond is for her to be able to acknowledge her wairua (greater-being), Hulton says.
Drug Free Aotearoa's programme is based on Maori principles and during Poutu's rehabilitation she used the tools "Kia marama", meaning insight and understanding, and "Tika, pono and aroha". These are the principles of action by which tapu (being with mana) and mana (spiritual power) are exercised. If one wants to have mana, one must first seek after tapu, and to possess tapu one must exercise tika, pono and aroha.
Tika can be defined as the principle concerned with the right ordering of relationships and encourages positive conduct within those relationships.
Pono is the principle that seeks to reveal reality and to achieve integrity of relationships, while aroha is expressing empathy, compassion and joy for others in all that we do.
Through applying these principles Poutu says she has opened herself up to recovery and transformation.
Since Poutu has focused on looking after all aspects of her well-being she says she no longer needs to fuel herself with cannabis because these tools have helped her reconnect with her mana.
"I've been taught how to maintain my mana, and as long as it's intact, then I feel all right."
But Poutu admits coming off the drug wasn't easy; the first few weeks were intense and filled with anxiety and irritability.
Now it's not so extreme, and as the months pass the withdrawals become easier to handle.
"I take it one day at a time, I have my tools in place and so far it's working," says Poutu, speaking of her relapse prevention strategies, which also include taking walks while listening to music or ringing Hulton if she needs to.
Poutu acknowledges you can't recover from an addiction by merely terminating its use, but rather by recreating a new life without all the factors that initiated and fed the addiction, and sometimes navigating a life after the drugs can be harder than beating the addiction itself.
So, inspired by her own transformation, Poutu now spends her days "paying it forward", trying to make a difference by educating others about the dangers of drug use.
Serving as a walking warning, she is sharing her story, under the guidance of Drug Free Aotearoa, within schools and workplaces in an effort to steer potential users away from drugs.
"My goal is to help as many youth off the drugs and alcohol as I can; I want to see them make something of their lives."
She is training under Hulton and attending the workshops and seminars at Leadership Aotearoa to become an educator, and says that she is now at the stage where she can pass on the knowledge and tools that she was once given.
"But in order for me to get to that place I needed to first deal with my issues. I couldn't just jump in and say 'I think I want to start helping other people', because that wouldn't work."
The core issue Poutu was in desperate need of addressing was the loss of her son.
She says she knew it was something that needed to be done and has since made peace with his passing.
"With the tools I have learnt I can now put him to rest and keep him in my heart, but also move on knowing he will always be with me," she says.
"I'm on a beautiful journey now, and I see life in a clearer and more positive way."
Tara Shaskey is a Witt journalism student.
FACTBOX Drug Free Aotearoa is an independent Taranaki drug education service.
The group was founded by Motunui woman Rose Denness. It aims to help people who want to stop using drugs and alcohol by providing support and training.
It runs on donations from Taranaki businesses and often from the volunteers' own pockets.
The group has been open for a year, and in that time has helped more than 20 people beat addiction.
It uses Maori tikanga as the premise of its training, but takes the lead from the Church of Scientology's drug rehabilitation and prevention methods.
The organisation is based at New Plymouth's Metro Plaza and is open Monday-Friday from 9am until 3pm.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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