he started gambling.
It was love at first sight when Elise Niu saw her husband Ray step out of the car at a touch rugby camp 18 years ago. She announced then and there, "I'm going to marry that guy and have his babies."
Four children and two weddings later, the couple are still head over heels, juggling family life with a successful gym on the Kapiti Coast. But they've overcome challenges that would have destroyed many other couples.
"Our experience has proven you can get through anything with love," shares Elise, 35, who supported her hubby through a gambling habit and helped him end a nightmare methamphetamine addiction.
"I have so much love for Ray and know how much he loves me, even though he didn't always show it."
The couple had their first date at a pub in Palmerston North in 2002 and Elise beams, "As soon as we saw each other, we were inseparable. We hugged like we'd been together forever and it was instant."
Ray, 37, had been living in Australia and decided to stay in New Zealand for his new romance. Two years later they moved to Sydney, where he picked up work at an oil refinery company. But soon
he started gambling.
he started gambling.
Softly-spoken Ray admits, "I was 18 the first time and put $2 in a pokie machine, winning hundreds of dollars, which sparked something."
When his friends in Australia started gambling on weekends, Ray joined in. Within three months of getting a credit card, Ray had secretly racked up $30,000 in debt.
"Some mornings Ray got dressed in his work clothes but caught a train to another suburb to sit on the pokies all day," tells Elise, who eventually found credit card statements.
"I was heartbroken. I felt like I was dealing with someone I didn't know."
Then the couple learnt they were expecting their first child.
"It never crossed my mind to leave Ray – we were in it together," insists Elise, who gave birth to their eldest son Cavalli, now 12.
"I figured the gambling was one stupid mistake and he'd learn and become a better person."
When Cavalli was seven months old, Elise returned to Aotearoa to stay with her mum, while Ray worked in Sydney to pay off the credit card. After three months they were debt-free and Elise returned to be with her love.
They married in September 2009, welcoming their second son Koda, now nine, followed by Raven, six. Things were going well until early 2015, when Elise started noticing changes in her hubby.
She explains, "Ray had an aggressiveness that wasn't normal for him, there was a lot of secrecy and he didn't sleep much. He lost weight and said it was from taking a pre-workout supplement. But my husband was someone I didn't recognise. His whole demeanour and loving goodness were nowhere to be seen."
Ray's drug use was a way of masking the demons he was battling. He admits,"I'd have unwanted thoughts and then smoke some ice [known as P in NZ] and forget about everything. But then I couldn't stop."
Elise came face to face with the devastating truth in late 2015. After a particularly bad fight, the worried mum checked Ray's pockets while he slept and pulled out a bag of meth and a pipe.
"I freaked out and just felt sick," she admits. "I went into the bedroom and buried my head in my hands, shaking."
Then she heard a voice.
"It came into my head and heart and said, 'Change your reaction,'" recalls Elise.
"It said to react with love and not anger, and everything would be OK." So she wrote a note and put it in Ray's bag. It read: "Please come back to us Papa, we miss you."
She wrapped her arms around her sleeping husband and told him, "You're a good husband and father, I love you and everything's going to be OK. I'm going to stand by you right until the end."
Moments later Ray woke and turned to Elise and said, "I need to tell you something."
It was the beginning of a hard road to recovery for the determined dad, who moved with his young family back to NZ. Around the same time, the couple learnt they were pregnant with their little girl Quincy, now three.
After an agonising 18 months, Ray qualified as a drainlayer through Elise's parents' business – and he was sober.
"If I'd chosen anger and defeat that night I found the drugs, we wouldn't have all we do today," smiles Elise, who has her own fitness app and is launching a maternity activewear range. "Love was the winner on that day and it has been ever since."
Nearly four years on, Elise has directed her pain into growing Functional Hiit NZ, where she and Ray run group training sessions that are inclusive, non-judgemental and encourage exercise as a natural high.
The pair renewed their wedding vows in November to mark their 10-year anniversary. Ray held Elise's hands and said, "You're the reason I'm in front of you, still breathing. Today I stand before you an open book, a changed man. You saved me from myself and gave me new life."
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