Brave Hearts: Uniting Addicts’ Families
Erin O’Neill’s son fell victim to methamphetamine when he was still at high school.
Unbeknown to his family, he had tried cannabis at 13 and two years’ later, a friend’s mother gave him meth during the school holidays.
“We had no idea,” Erin says. “It just didn't cross our mind that it could be happening and I know we were probably pretty naïve. Part of what we do at Brave Hearts is to let people know to be quite vigilant and to watch out for behaviour patterns that change. Don't just think it’s adolescent hormones, which is what we put it down to.”
Brave Hearts is a charitable organisation which Erin co-founded in 2016 to educate and support the families of those struggling with substance abuse.
Her own personal battle, trying to help her son kick his meth habit, took over 10 years but he is now drug-free and working fulltime with teenagers to overcome similar problems.
“He and I are now both working in areas that 20 years ago I would never even have thought either of us would be in! He was going to be a personal trainer. He was into fitness and was studying towards that,” Erin explains.
The first clue that something wasn’t right was when her teenager started acting out. “At this stage he’d left school after pushing over a desk and throwing a chair and things like that, and I just couldn't believe that I had a child who was doing something like that. Medically we couldn't find anything wrong, and he wasn't saying anything. They're really scared to say, ‘I’m on meth’ because it's illegal.”
Erin tried everything to help her son – psychiatrists, anger management courses, even a trip to Outward Bound. “He came back from that like a different person, but within two or three weeks he just morphed back into his disturbed ways and I still didn't pick up on it.”
Further clues included little plastic bags with playing card characters on the front which Erin found when cleaning up his room. She also found several shattered lightbulbs – her son claimed the wiring was faulty when in reality he was using them as a bong to heat up the meth to then inhale the fumes.
“I talked to a friend of ours who was a barrister and said, ‘what do you think's going on?’ And he said it's probably drugs and I said ‘oh I really don't think so. I don't think my son would even know anybody who does drugs or even know where to get drugs from.’”
The truth emerged when her son, age 19, finally admitted he was addicted to meth and asked his mother for help. He immediately went into rehab which worked for a time before he relapsed.
“That was heart-breaking. We know now that relapse is part of the process. It's not a failure. If an addict has a wee stumble, they can get back on track again. But our son spent the next five years going up and down from ages 21 to 26.”
Erin learnt an enormous amount from the experience, so when she later moved to Tauranga and met another mother, Ros Potter, whose daughter was also a meth addict, the pair decided to put their knowledge to good use and Brave Hearts was born.
With the help of a local policeman, a small meeting was organised in the staffroom at Tauranga Boys College for any interested parents who needed information or support. “We had 60 people turn up. I just couldn't believe it. People kept coming through the door. It was unbelievable.” A subsequent follow-up seminar drew a staggering crowd of 270.
Brave Hearts support groups are now operating all over New Zealand, offering one-on-one and group meetings to help guide families through the addiction journey. Support is tailored to individual circumstances, and Erin wants people to know they’re not alone.
“My passion is the parents. The naïve person that I was, not knowing about little plastic bags or about the light bulbs… we now have a presentation that shows all these things. The addicts need professional medical help themselves but the family also needs help. And at some stage, when they’re both ready, they can come together.”
BayTrust has granted $15,000 to Brave Hearts to help cover their operational costs. The money will be spent on funding a free phone number for families to make initial contact, and to help pay expenses associated with their new Tauranga office on Girven Rd.
“We don't receive any government funding so we are solely reliant on groups such as BayTrust who have been very generous and private donors.”