When Bex Phillipson tells people she juggles being a breastfeeding mum-of-two with a building apprenticeship, they’re usually impressed. But there’s an even more remarkable element to the Upper Hutt woman’s story.She’s an ex-methamphetamine addict who was involved with gangs and drug dealing before turning her life around three years ago.
“I had a very Christian, loving and stable family with really good role models growing up,” says Bex, 33, who went to rehab in October 2020, so she wouldn’t lose care of her eldest daughter Lucy, 10. “No matter what background you come from, when you start using drugs, it’s so easy to forget everything you’ve been shown.”
Bex was 16 when she first tried the class A drug with her peers, deciding she wouldn’t try it again because she knew it was highly addictive. But six years later, as a first-time mum, she went through a difficult break-up with her daughter’s dad and tried it again.
“Pretty much as soon as I started smoking meth, I started selling it and it snowballed really fast into me using every day,” she recalls. “I also got addicted to the rush of making fast money. It was a buzz fitting in with people in the drug scene after feeling like an outsider growing up. You’re suddenly really cool because you’ve got the stuff.”
In Bex’s eyes, if she hadn’t lost custody of her daughter, she was doing fine. But everyone around her could see she’d lost a lot of weight, her skin looked unhealthy and her behaviour had changed. Even when police detectives began following her and raiding her house, Bex continued to deny her drug use to family.
“When you’re surrounded by other people who are doing it, you think it’s normal,” she says. “I was put on curfew, but I kept breaching it and getting arrested. The last time it happened, an officer said
I’d be going to jail the next day and I broke down because I was desperate to change for my daughter.
“He told me that to have any chance of not going to jail, I had to be honest with my mum and get into rehab. I called her to admit I was on drugs and she contacted a private rehab facility in Upper Hutt straight away.”
Able to enter the facility two weeks later, Bex continues, “I was allowed to go on bail to my mum’s home in a retirement village for the weeks before rehab, which she paid for using her KiwiSaver money. It cost around $19,000 for 28 days.”
During her first week in rehab, Bex panicked when she received a letter from the family court saying she was about to lose custody of her then-seven-year-old daughter. She promised herself she’d become a better mother.
“That was my drive and it still is every day to stay on the path I’m on,” Bex shares. “I felt a lot of guilt and shame, and it was heartbreaking. When I got out of rehab and was allowed to pick up Lucy from school, it felt like I’d just run some insane marathon, crossed the finish line and got a big medal. But there was still such a big marathon to run.”
Thanks to the support of her brother Josh, 37, she and Lucy were able to stay in a self-contained studio at the bottom of his house. Josh had her sign a contract agreeing to random drug testing, no visitors unless given permission and having to live by his house rules. After a few months of proving she was serious, her probation officer agreed that Josh could take her to his job sites twice a week and Bex started her four-year building apprenticeship in September 2021.
“My life before was so hard that sometimes I was hiding in a motel room from police and paying people to pick up my daughter, so a challenge like digging six 50cm holes was small!” says Bex, who unexpectedly became pregnant with her youngest daughter Sarah, 15 months, at the end of her first year.
Bex took nine months off with her baby, who she welcomed with her now-husband Ben, 32, an engineer she met in recovery and married in August this year.
“Now I work three days a week building because I’m still breastfeeding, so it’s really different to a lot of the other tradies!” she says. “But everyone is on board with it and BCITO, the building and construction trainer I study through, has been so supportive.”
For the inspiring mum, who has spoken on stage in front of groups about her recovery, building keeps her busy and motivated, while also helping her process memories of her troubled past in a healthy way.
“I like seeing the good things I can do with my hands after all the bad things I did with them,” tells Bex. “I love that my family is proud of me now, especially my daughter. That’s everything.”
If you’re struggling with drugs or alcohol, call 0800 787 787 or see alcoholdrughelp.org.nz.