Pauline Tai used to do whatever it took to get her hit.
If she wasn’t using meth, the mum of three and grandmother of six was selling it to fund the habit and get by.
For 18 years.
She still has the same headstrong motivation, still does whatever it takes to get her hit, but now instead of getting a high from the pipe, she gets it from facilitating healing wānanga around the region.
She gets her highs from cheering others on as they celebrate one week, three months, six months, one year, clean.
Not only is she three years clean of using and selling, but she is also one of four people to lead the way in supporting the community out of their addictions, through STOP Mana Enhancing and Whare Rauora Healing from Meth.
Since the first group in 2018, four people attending the groups have celebrated one year clean.
Looking back at herself riddled with addiction, Tai would never be able to do what she does now.
“I would never have thought I’d be sitting in a room with whānau affected by meth. If I was, it would’ve been to share the pipe.”
She has no regrets either – she wouldn’t be doing the work she does now without those experiences.
Her first time trying meth was in 2000.
“Oh boy, it was amazing.”
That was the high she chased for 18 years.
“But I never got it again. It didn’t matter how much I smoked, it didn’t matter how much I rested.”
While chasing the high, she lost everything.
“I lost my family.”
She went to jail for two years in 2006 and again in 2018; the first time for selling meth, and the second for conspiracy.
After her first stint in jail, she was living in Auckland and enrolled at the University of Auckland to keep her mind busy.
She then moved to Hamilton.
However, being strapped for cash as a student, she fell back into what she knew best. Selling meth, and it was downhill from there.
“I quit my uni, I went back to all I knew, and just got back into that scene.”
She believed this was the only way to make money.
“Money isn’t everything, I know that now.”
She’d stop using for a while, but wouldn’t stop selling, and in her eyes at the time, she thought it was fine.
“It was worse because I was creating a lot more destruction in the community.”
Quitting the selling, and not seeing as much money come in, was one of the most difficult adjustments, she said.
Tai now works at Te Whare Oranga Ngakau, a Kaupapa Māori rehab facility in Rotorua and while the money is less, she loves it. She knows it’s money earned while doing good.
She remembered her second time in prison, which lasted a month, as her lowest point – being away from her grandchildren.
“At that moment, being in a jail cell, I thought ‘what am I up to?'”
“I was thinking about how I wasn’t there for my kids. I was there, but it was money-love. I thought giving my kids money, and having money all the time, was love.
“But it wasn’t. It’s time,” she said.
“The big thing for me is being a present grandmother today because I wasn’t a present mum … My kids have seen so much of the destruction of meth … “
She got out, came to Rotorua, and went to rehab at Te Whare Oranga Ngakau.
Kevin Hollingsworth was a former meth addict who turned his life around and is now a fully registered clinical practitioner and addiction counsellor.
Acceptance, acknowledgement and a realisation of unresolved issues is how she began to heal.
“I use to say to [Hollingsworth]- why don’t we just make our own group,” she laughed.
“At the start, he was the counsellor, now, he’s the brother.”
STOP Mana Enhancing was the brainchild of Tai, Hollingsworth, and two others.
The space was created because there was “nothing that was strictly around methamphetamine”.
“Methamphetamine is the destruction in our communities, that’s where the mamae (pain) is.”
It kicked off in November 2018 in Rotorua and has continued to grow, and Tai is the facilitator at the Monday and Wednesday wānanga in Rotorua’s St Luke’s Church while helping set up spaces across the region.
Everyone is welcome, everyone is whānau – even those who are not Māori: “That’s fine, kei te pai,” she’ll say.
The numbers continue to grow and include those she used to be in addiction with and people referred from Te Whare Oranga Ngakau rehab, where she worked.
The rules: Phones are off because everyone is there to be listened to; no judgment; start on time, confidentiality.
Every second Thursday, there’s a wānanga for those indirectly affected at Apumoana Marae – nans, koro, parents, partners.
Everyone has her and her partner’s cellphone numbers, as well as the other facilitators in the region.
“A lot of our whānau don’t have people to reach out to, so we want them to know we’re here.”
It was not just those using meth who need the support. Those indirectly affected are the ones who call the most.
Tai texts everyone every week, reminding them about the groups.
“We’re the experts, we can tell grandparents and the parents, this is what’s going to happen, this is what you need to do.”
The group expanded to Whakatāne, and after losing the hall they used, those attending called for it to start up in Tāneatua.
“You find the space, and I’ll come and kick it off,” she told them.
They did, and now they’ve been “thriving” for just over a year in a building provided by the local iwi, called Whare Rauora Healing from Meth.
The groups in Tāneatua are facilitated by a married couple who Tai first met at the Whakatāne group.
“When I first met [the husband], he was withdrawing, and I could see that … whilst we were having the group, he said – I don’t even want to be here, I want to smash everyone.”
He stayed. He showed up to every group. Now he’s a facilitator.
From the first group in 2018, there is now one every Monday in Wednesday in Rotorua, one in Taneatua on Monday and Fridays, and Waikaremoana on Tuesdays, with Te Teko having their first roopu on Monday.
Once a week, there is a roopu in Ōpōtiki with Whare Rauora Healing from Meth, which is part of the same movement.
Tai always wanted to go back to Ōpōtiki, a place she grew up, where most of her whānau are, and where she “caused the most destruction”.
The community is riddled with meth addiction, she said, with them and people across the country struggling, but unsure where to turn for help.
The idea behind the groups is that they all run under the same principles so facilitators can come together for two months and talk about more ideas.
The principles are mana, mouri, and tapu.
“We allow people to takahi [abuse] our mana, but we also takahi on others’. It’s about allowing our whānau who come here to leave with a little bit of mana.”
It’s about giving them the tools to apply, and the majority of it was around feelings, emotions, acknowledgement and trauma, she said.
Last week, her mother died, and Tai said if she’d still been in her addiction she would’ve “been a mess”.
“My family would’ve had to try to look for me a month later because I would’ve been out the gate.”
Now in recovery, she was able to be present and participate, which her family noticed, too.
They buried her mum on Friday, and she went to the first wananga in Te Teko that evening, staying there the whole weekend.
“I needed to fill my cup up,” she said, and this was it for her.
Te Teko then said they wanted to form a space.
“That filled my cup right up. My mum had passed, but if she was there she would say to keep going.”
Tai was now learning te ao Māori, and the more she learned, the more she believed it would be a game-changer in helping heal the people.
One of her next goals is her te reo Māori courses.
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