It was a hard truth but one that pierced through the years of addiction.
“I don’t think your son is safe with you.”
Carlie Reynolds had promised she would never use around her children but when her mother dropped in to visit, she found her 10-month-old baby boy alone in front of the television. His mother was in the backyard, spaced out on prescription painkillers 10 times stronger than morphine.
Her mother was horrified.
The next day, she phoned Reynolds, then in her late 20s, to say she had debated long and hard about whether she should have taken her grandson out of her daughter’s care that day.
Reynolds’ battles with addiction began at age 12 when she downed a bottle of brandy and ended up at Starship Hospital. By 22 she had a “full-blown drug and alcohol addiction” before later being hooked on prescribed relaxant and painkiller medications such as oxycodone, after developing endometriosis, which required multiple surgeries.
Her efforts to kick the addiction led her in-and-out of 12 rehab centres in New Zealand and overseas.
The incident with her son was just another low in this 20-year battle, yet it was the turning point. She got sober and 1 years later put together a business plan for her own rehab centre and presented it to her parents, Shirl and Alan Reynolds.
She had always felt most at home in the company of other addicts and wanted to do something to help them.
Seeing it as a way for their daughter to follow her passion and stay healthy, Reynolds’ long-suffering parents gave her their support.
In April last year, the Zen Detox Premium Wellness Retreat opened.
Set on a picturesque rural block in Kumeu, west Auckland, with a view over the Waitakere Ranges, Zen has comfortable rooms and smart furniture, hand-picked by Renolds and her mum, and feels like an upmarket retreat.
Clients can get massages, take part in yoga classes, meditate, go caving or kayaking, have tenpin bowling and movie nights and share healthy meals around a wooden table.
There are group therapy sessions, lessons in the 12-step recovery process, and a medical detox programme overseen by a doctor specialising in addiction.
A “therapeutic pig” called Figaro even roams the grounds.
Reynolds poached the specialist addiction doctor and a manager from another centre that previously oversaw her treatment.
She wants to combine the best from other centres she has been to, striking a balance between quality medical care, wellness and fun.
Zen has now treated more than 100 patients. Its services do not come cheap, at about $23,000 for 28 days, with the addicts’ families often banding together to raise the cash for loved ones.
Yet being private means there is usually no wait time to get into Zen, compared to public facilities, which can take weeks, Reynolds says. Those who pay to go through Zen can also come back any time they want, either to just hang out or take part in one-day programmes free of charge.
Sometimes 20-30 people come back for dinner, and this community, created by recovering addicts returning to share their stories, is the best form of therapy, Reynolds says.
“Connection is the opposite of addiction,” she says.
“When you are addicted you are generally very isolated, you don’t talk about your feelings, you don’t talk about anything — you are just trying to stop feeling, trying to be numb.”
The family are now on to their next project — a charity that will provide stable housing to recovering addicts.
Recovery housing is needed because although Zen typically offers 28-day treatment plans many addicts face lifelong battles, Reynolds says. “There is a 93 per cent higher chance of relapse if you don’t go into recovery housing after treatment. The follow-up care is super important.”
It is these drawn-out battles that make addiction so heartbreaking, problematic and costly.
The Ministry of Health’s latest Drug Harm Index estimated drug use caused $1.8 billion in social harm and intervention costs in New Zealand in 2014/15, yet the Government may be spending as little as $230 million a year to tackle the problem.
In Auckland, about 15,000 people visit publicly funded Community Drug and Alcohol Services each year, says Robert Steenhuisen, the services’ general manager for the Waitemata District Health Board in the city’s north and west.
Many others seek private treatment.
Alcohol remains the country’s most problematic drug with about 20 per cent of the population regularly abusing it.
“That is where a lot of the drink-driving, the family violence, the child abuse, the avoidable hospitalisations all take place,” Steenhuisen says.
Four per cent of the population fall under a more clinical definition of addiction.
Meth addicts remain relatively few in number but some who become severely dependent on the drug lead conspicuously criminal and “exceptionally chaotic” lifestyles, Steenhuisen says.
He says addiction is caused by many interplaying factors.
These can include a “genetic print”, making some more susceptible than others, or being brought up around drugs or alcohol.
Mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression and emotional trauma, can also often be linked to addiction.
Generally, the younger addicts start, the more severe their addiction will be.
Similarly, those seeking help for the first time in their 30s or 40s typically find it harder to kick addiction because many of their life skills and habits are tied to drug use.
“It’s a process of success and failure, they get on the good track and then something happens, and you are off track again,” Steenhuisen says.
Millie is taking her first steps down that track at Zen, desperate to get her children back.
Having fallen into the bikie scene, she began partying from age 13 before getting into meth in her late teens.
She stole to fund her habit, continually moving from home to home and descending into a toxic relationship with the father of her children.
She managed to get sober while pregnant and breastfed each of her two children — now 5 and 3 — but she was dragged back into addiction.
Drugs became something she “needed” to numb her feelings.
“You find excuses to need drugs,” says Millie, who did not want her last name used.
“It changes something in your brain, where it comes before having water or food.”
Eventually she lost her children and entered rehabilitation to show child-welfare authorities she is doing what it takes to get sober and regain custody. Yet in Zen, Millie says she found hope. What she noticed most was the sense of family.
That — together with the idea of treating her addiction like a disease so that if she continually manages it in the right way she can stay healthy — has allowed her to focus on her children.
“My future is not jail or institutions or death anymore, which is basically where you end up in addiction eventually.”
Rebecca* has been clean 15 months and now works at Zen after being one of its first guests.
Reynolds, her parents and the staff at Zen are like family, she says.
It’s a polar opposite feeling to the isolation and burden she used to feel when she kept her drug addiction secret from even those closest to her.
She was addicted to prescription medications from the age of 13 and The 25-year-old says she always found it easy to manipulate doctors into prescribing powerful painkillers and antidepressants.
She knew what to say to convince them even though she would be at the clinic alone as a teenager without her parents or an adult present.
Later she mixed in marijuana and alcohol.
Despite coming from a largely loving middle-class family, she says she suffered emotional abuse at the hands of a stepmother, was raped by a teenager when 15 and tried to take her life at 17.
“I never used socially, it was just always on my own to numb the pain,” she says. “When I got high, I could escape everything.”
She went to extraordinary lengths to hide it from her partner — a sailor in the Navy who would leave on duty for months at a time — keeping the drugs hidden in her car and often disappearing to buy cigarettes so she could smoke weed.
Holidays with him were the hardest. She remembers hiding out in the toilet of a kebab shop and taking walks alone at night when staying at his father’s farm so she could smoke weed.
It was only when she took to drinking vodka to maintain the high during periods when her dealer was low on marijuana that her addiction could no longer be hidden.
After she reached an emotional rock bottom, her mother went looking for rehab centres and checked her into Zen.
Her “sunrise moment” on the road to recovery came when staff “made such a big deal about” her reaching her 30th day in the centre.
“We had an amazing crayfish dinner, we let off floating lanterns and everyone was laughing and pranking each other and having this almost juvenile fun,” she says.
“You felt like a kid again, and I hadn’t felt childish since I was 12 years old.”
Now her partner and her mum are her biggest supporters, but the battle with addiction continues.
Although she doesn’t remember enjoying the prescription medication or alcohol, she almost always enjoyed smoking marijuana, she says.
“I’m already panicking about what if it becomes legal,” she says.
Reynolds hopes to find homes in Kumeu where recovering addicts can go into supported living for up to one year with her new charity Recovery for Life.
They’d be drug tested and be able to have counselling once a week as they begin working or studying and doing community work.
The charity’s first challenge will be raising enough money to employ counsellors to run the houses.
Reynolds sees it as crucial to allowing Zen to help its clients to fully recover.
She points to herself as an example of how the battle with addiction goes on.
After throwing herself into long weeks setting up Zen, her marriage broke down late last year and she had another relapse.
She has stepped away from the centre’s day-to-day running as she focuses on her own recovery.
She says her urge to use drugs comes from a sense of inadequacy and desire to feel numb in the face of pain. “It is like having a black bottomless pit and when you take drugs and drink alcohol you are trying to fill it all the time — but it’s endless, it is not going to fill.”
To fill that void she now instead focuses on staying connected to her “family” of recovering addicts, following her own 12-step treatment plan and keeping up counselling.
“You slowly begin to heal that never-ending pit,” she says.
“It will always be there, but it will shrink.”
* Name has been changed
The cost of drugs
• $1.8b in drug social harm and intervention costs in NZ in 2014/15
• $438m estimated cost of pain and suffering of family and friends
• $230m spent by Government a year to tackle addiction
• 15,000 people visit publicly funded Auckland Community Drug and Alcohol Services a year
• 20% of the population regularly abuse alcohol
• 4% of the population fall under a clinical definition of addiction