When it comes to close mother and daughter bonds, Valeria Tokoa and her mother Caroline Cook are a prime example. In fact, they literally wrote the book on it. But theirs is not a cookie cutter story of shining best friends. No, their relationship is hard won; the result of resilience and forgiveness in the face of something dark, pervasive and ever-growing.
Over three years ago, Valeria – or Vea as her mum calls her – began her recovery from an addiction to methamphetamine, also known as P. Hopefully, it's not a subject you know a lot about. But, then again, maybe you do. More than 700,000 people in New Zealand suffer from addiction related problems, and meth is becoming more readily available than marijuana in some parts of the country.
Maybe you, too, have had a family member touched by this, and you have watched, as Caroline did, as your child's life falls apart, while you are helpless to stop it.
"'Valeria' means 'strong'," says Caroline. "As it turned out, there was no name more appropriate for my daughter… because she needed to have a strong character to make her way through all that life was going to throw at her."
So begins the first chapter of Caroline's book, Where There's Life, There Really is Hope. The idea of writing their stories started when Vea, 32, was advised by a friend that it would be a cathartic experience. Vea asked her mum, 52, to contribute a paragraph to her own book – titled Rehabilitated – but there was too much to include, so a paragraph became a chapter and then a book of its own.
The purpose of the books is to provide two very different perspectives on one very big problem: the addiction to, and then recovery from, meth.
Three years clean, Vea is now healthy and happy, reunited with her eldest child, whom her mum helped look after during the peak of her addiction. Both mother and daughter are brutally honest about what the experience was like, in the hope that other families can learn from them.
When I ask Vea what people get wrong about addiction, she starts off by saying drily that, "We don't all kill our families," before she grows serious.
"We're lost, we're broken. You don't do drugs because you want some fun; there are usually underlying issues. And once you're stuck in the drugs, it's very hard to get out."
Vea's underlying issues were immense. At high school, she had lacked in confidence and fell behind her classmates; in joining the Navy, she excelled at everything and her self-esteem slowly returned. Reading this part in the book is like watching a horror movie – you know something is waiting around the corner to jump out at you. And, sure enough, it does.
On her first overseas expedition with the Navy in Hong Kong, when the crew went out one evening, Vea became separated from the group and got lost. She was sexually assaulted by a stranger who had appeared to try and help her.
While the Navy were initially helpful following the assault, Vea, then just 17, soon became withdrawn from her crewmates and eventually left the Navy. She started rebuilding her life, but two unexpected pregnancies created new challenges.
Vea – with the help and love from her family and friends – rose to meet them each time. At 23, she was living on a farm just out of Napier, the loving mum of two preschool children. And then in 2009, her youngest son, Tyreese, was run over in the driveway when a family member reversed into him.
The 18-month-old had been playing with relatives while Vea got his bath ready for bedtime, when he darted outside and was hit. An ambulance was called but nothing could be done; he was pronounced dead on the stretcher.
The Napier community rallied around Vea and her family, but Vea was broken by the tragedy. In her book, she writes, "A part of me died the day my son died and I was merely trying to survive."
Methamphetamine affects the pleasure centre of the brain; it produces a reaction very similar to the body's own production of dopamine, the chemical that makes us feel good. It's what makes meth so addictive; it's an instant hit of pure, unadulterated joy.
In the three years since her youngest son had been killed, joy had been in short supply for Vea. She struggled on, continued to work, moved with her eldest son to Auckland, enrolled to study at university and completed her first semester. But she was miserable, and drinking a lot because of it. At a party one night, a friend of a friend offered her a puff on the clear pipe she was holding.
Growing up, Vea had been very anti-drugs; cannabis was everywhere in her early 20s and she wanted no part of it. But meth was relatively new on the scene and she didn't know what she was holding. She took one puff and that was it.
One in six people who try meth become addicted to it, and Vea says that even though it was a month before she tried it again, it was all she could think about. For two years, Vea was a regular meth user.
To help fund the drug, she eventually starting working in prostitution – a path that is exceedingly common for female users of P. She was homeless on and off during this time when her rental properties fell through, staying with friends at times, but sometimes on the street. A relationship she was in became abusive; Vea would often turn up at her mum's with a black eye or cut lip. In both books, these chapters are brutal to read.
The physical effects of drug addiction are well known but the mental effects are more insidious.
Vea explains it well: "When you haven't been on drugs, and you think a thought, you know you can trust that thought. But if you're on drugs, that thought changes on the way through your brain. So by the time it gets to you, [for example] instead of walking somewhere normally, your brain is telling you to crawl. You think these ridiculous things because your brain is overstimulated."
One of the most continuous thoughts Vea had was that her family hated her. This is apparently common amongst drug users; there is a sense of shame around what they're doing, but even if they want to stop using, the fear of the isolation that comes with becoming clean can often be a strong deterrent.
"You've lost all your normal friends; the friends you have are drug addicts, so you're going to be lonely if you separate yourself to try and get better. You feel like you have no one, because you think your family has already abandoned you."
But nothing was further from the truth in this case. Caroline had taken over looking after Vea's eldest child – his name is kept out of the book to respect both his and his father's privacy – and was doing everything she could to try and look after Vea, whenever she reappeared on the scene.
This meant fielding a lot of phone calls in the middle of the night, to the point where Caroline started to dread Vea's name showing up on her phone.
"I knew that either she was going to be rude to me, or she's got some crazy situation and I won't be able to make sense of it, or she's doing something I've already suggested isn't wise to do, but she's done it and now wants help with the consequences."
But despite the sheer exhaustion of dealing with this – on both women's sides – the bond between them became the lifeline they needed. Vea never stopped calling her mother, and Caroline never stopped answering her calls. "That's where I really want to encourage parents to keep loving your child," Caroline says.
"It requires daily forgiveness, sometimes several times a day, when they're rude to you, or spew filthy words at you, and you're hurting so much. But it's that forgiveness that makes you able to keep loving them. They need that love and you as a parent also need it."
Maintaining that attitude isn't easy, but it is important, Caroline believes, particularly if you're looking after your grandchildren while your own child gets better.
"I've come across parents who hate their kids who have become drug addicts, and it's so sad. Those grandkids will still love their parents, because all kids love their parents. So even if their parents are on drugs, they'll still love them. And to experience their grandparents hating their parents, it must be so confusing for them."
One of the reasons that Caroline jumped at the chance to write her side of the story was that when she looked for testimonials or books written by parents in the same boat as her, there was nothing. The lack of support for those affected by drug addiction became particularly glaring when Vea announced one day that she was ready to come off meth. Caroline went into action-station mode immediately, because she knew time was of the essence.
"I rang around all the drug rehab places, because I thought if she was in there, she couldn't get drugs. But all of them had months-long waiting lists. And I was like, 'She wants to change today! By tomorrow, if she's been back on the street, she probably won't want to any more.' I was stunned that there was nowhere we could take her immediately, because you have to take those moments when they come."
The clincher for Vea to start the process of becoming clean was after her parenting rights for her son were stripped away from her, and she could only visit him under supervision. Rather than it being another blow, it provided the impetus she needed.
Both books – despite their heavy content – feel ultimately triumphant, a masterclass in resilience and survival. But Vea and Caroline are honest about the fact that at the time, when they were both in the trenches, neither of them had much hope.
"I felt like every time I got up, I'd get stomped down even further. I didn't have the energy to keep getting up," Vea says of the recovery process. "It was daunting; I knew I had to make so many changes and I didn't want to, and I didn't know if I'd have the strength."
Caroline is more blunt: "I really did think I was going to bury her."
It was 2014 when Vea started the journey to getting off drugs. She estimates it took her about a year to get used to the idea, and it was not a linear process.
Vea relapsed many times, which was difficult for both women for different reasons; Caroline was frustrated that her daughter was going back on the drugs after promising she wouldn't, and Vea was resentful that her efforts to get better weren't being validated when she felt like she was giving it her all.
During the book-writing process, they would send completed chapters to each other and it was only then that they both saw very clearly what the other had been going through. "What we discovered, which was totally unexpected but amazing, is that we actually experienced a lot of healing by sharing our writing with each other," Caroline says.
"It's been really good for our reconciliation, even though that wasn't our intention; we were writing to help others. But it's actually helped us a lot."
In Caroline's case, it was learning about how hard her daughter had been working to try and stay clean.
"For those of us on the outside, recovery doesn't often look like recovery. I found it such an emotional roller-coaster ride, but recovery isn't a consistent trend upwards, it's up and down."
For Vea, it was learning that the unconditional love from both her mother and her son wasn't going anywhere.
In the three years since she's been clean, Vea has had to relearn a lot of things – her common sense, decision making and self-worth were all affected by her time on drugs. But she's getting there, aided by the support of her family and her church – she credits the Life Change Celebrate Recovery 12-step programme as a major reason for her success and still attends meetings.
She now works as a personal trainer, giving back to her body after years of abusing it, she says.
"I'm on a growing experience, I really love trying to improve myself, learning about how to become a better person. Learning to love myself, learning to be on my own. Learning that I'm worth it."
Caroline's intention for the books is that families of those affected by drug addiction learn that it's not over until it's over.
"There is hope. If they are alive, there is hope. And it helps, as a parent, if you can have hope and keep that space open for them."
Visit valeriashope.com for more information.
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