Kiwis are among international travellers visiting Southeast Asia for dental work, plastic surgery, and also, addiction treatment.

Mums, dads, daughters, sons, wives, husbands; business owners, builders, consultants, creatives, health professionals, hospitality workers ... Ordinary people, suffering from a disease.

Waiting lists for government-funded treatment, and the costs of private treatment in New Zealand, are two of their reasons for heading overseas.

So too is a strong desire to just get away.

Britt Mann and Jason Dorday visited rehab centres in Bali and Thailand, encountering people who’d left broken lives behind in search of the knowledge of how to rebuild them.

For them, it was a life-or-death choice. For some, it felt like a last resort.

Beyond the gates

You won’t find Sivana Bali on a map. Or at least, not one that’s any use to you. Search for the rehab centre on Google and its coordinates are incorrect. If you want to pay it a visit, you can’t pop in on a whim. Someone has to invite you, and tell you where to go.

In this part of Bali, Indonesia’s most touristed island, roads are clogged with barely-clothed Westerners, knee-to-knee on mopeds, damp hair dusted with pollution and sunshine. Shops with air-con and glass facades sell designer surf brands; offerings of flowers, rice and incense burn on the footpath. Visit a temple at sunset and see selfie sticks speckle the horizon: tourists worshipping their own image. Prayer flags flutter over paddy fields; music blares at the beach. The sky sifts into the sea, different hazy shades of blue.

Sivana sits in the same suburb as the prison where Schapelle Corby spent nine years, and Bali Nine kingpins lived on death row. You’ll find the 14-bed addiction treatment centre, marketed with words like “luxury” and “exclusive”, off a winding street bordered by deep ditches, colonial villas, and the occasional superette. Look for a nondescript cafe on the corner of an unpaved lane. At the end, a gate of heavy brown steel.

Behind the gate: gentle sounds of fountains and birdsong. Swimming pools surrounded by tropical plants and sun loungers. Pale marble floors, and dark wicker furniture with orange upholstery. And a force by the name of Nadine Winter.

The 49-year-old from Invercargill is Sivana Bali’s clinical director, a tough-love mother hen who gives the impression she’d be the life of any party, though she hasn’t touched an intoxicating substance for two decades.

Winter grew up wanting to be a heroin addict – “I’m not really sure why, but it was attractive” – with a plan to be dead by the age of 30. Her OE was organised according to where the best dope was: Australia, Thailand and Bali. Once, she emerged from a drug-induced blackout on a plane, and asked a flight attendant where they were going. “She said, ‘We’re about to land in London.’”

“It never really dawned on me that eventually, I was going to have to stop,” Winter says.

I kind of knew that people went to jail or they died. Those were the two options I thought there were.

Three days after her 29th birthday, Winter found herself at Higher Ground, a publicly funded rehabilitation centre for people with severe addictions to alcohol and other drugs, on Te Atatu Peninsula in west Auckland. Winter’s friend – also an addict – had retrieved her from hospital after another overdose. He decided enough was enough: Winter was going to rehab.

At 29, she was the youngest in the group of 19 men and six women. She was angry, confused, and had no desire to get clean.

“I had no idea what else I was meant to do with my life other than use drugs. I had no career prospects. I just loved heroin.”

Winter wasn’t exactly a poster child for rehab. She loathed 12 Step meetings. She threw tantrums. She tried to smother a snoring roommate with a pillow. She punched a fellow client for falling off the wagon. Technically, she says, she broke every one of Higher Ground’s house rules. Except for the one banning residents from using.

While in treatment, she appeared in court on fraud charges. Instead of giving her jail time, a judge put her on parole, ordering her to undergo urine tests and attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings regularly for two years. When the time was up, Winter planned to use again.

Twenty years on, that hasn’t happened. After Higher Ground, Winter returned to Invercargill where a counsellor, bored of her self pity, suggested she herself train in the role.

“He said, ‘You need to learn how to care about other people.’”

Since then, she has worked for methadone programmes in Blenheim and Wellington, at Arohata and Paremoremo Prisons, for the Gambling Helpline, and at DARA Rehab in Thailand.

“I sort of saw the counselling course as not being that difficult, because I understood the basics of how drugs worked in the body,” Winter says.

“I knew heroin made you feel numb, I knew speed made you feel up, I knew Valium put you to sleep… I got into the field for all the wrong reasons.”

With twinkly blue eyes, black-painted toenails, and a tattoo that reads “Just Breathe”, Winter says she loves her life now. She was forced into rehab, “complying” rather than “surrendering”, doing what was required to stay out of prison. But somewhere along the way, she found her own motivation. After five months at Higher Ground and three in a support house, Winter started thinking that “maybe it was OK to be clean”.

“I still have memories of using and how wonderful it was,” she says.

“But it’s never, ever going to beat where I am now.”

Sivana was founded in 2014 by Nev Doidge, a friend of Winter’s she’d met through the recovery fellowship in New Zealand.

The Christchurch-based social worker moved to Bali after the 2011 earthquakes, wanting to establish a rehab based on the whare tapu whā model used here. From the beginning, Doidge, a recovering opiate addict, emphasised “recovery is to be enjoyed, not endured”.

Last year, he sold his share of Sivana to his business partner, and asked his old mate Winter if she wanted to take on Sivana’s day-to-day operations. She moved to Bali a year ago.

Still, she says, “I never wanted to save anybody.

“Cos I know how this works: if people want it, they’ll get it. If they don’t want it, they won’t get it.”

At Hope Rehab Centre in Thailand, the gates are always open. The 35-bed facility opened in 2013 on a hectare of grassy hillside in the port city of Si Racha, the birthplace of the eponymous hot sauce. Hope’s co-founders, Simon Mott and his ex-girlfriend Alon Kumsawad, lease the land from a former Thai transport minister. British rockstar Pete Doherty was one of their first clients.

Mott is a strapping, charismatic Englishman with an accent from Camden Town and a clean time of 16 years. A crack and heroin user for almost two decades, Mott had admitted himself to rehab 11 times before another accidental overdose at age 37 brought with it the “rock bottom” moment so many addicts consider seminal in their recovery journeys.

It is important to Mott that his clients are highly motivated. Hope’s unlocked gates remind them they’re not patients or prisoners. They’re there by choice.

Addicts aren’t at rehab to save a relationship or a career, he says.

You’re going to die if you don’t do something. Directly or indirectly, one way or another: addiction kills you.
Simon Mott

“Addicts forget so quickly that they’re actually here saving their life. It’s our job to keep reminding them.”

Ordinary people

An addict’s willingness to leave their home, job, family and country, and fly thousands of kilometres to live 24/7 with fellow substance-dependent strangers is an indication of their motivation to get clean. So is the fact that they, or their relatives, are paying for their stay.

“Going private” is a way to circumvent waiting lists at public addiction treatment centres such as Higher Ground, where Winter spent those five months 20 years ago. Higher Ground’s programme director Johnny Dow says the 52-bed centre’s list stands at about 100 people. There is a 12 to 16-week-long wait. Bed numbers have not kept pace with Auckland’s expanding population, nor Kiwis’ appetite for methamphetamine, though most addicts use more than one drug.

“If they could pay to go into private treatment, they could probably get in a lot faster,” Dow says.

“But the thing is, this is free.”

Higher Ground’s programme director Johnny Dow.

Higher Ground’s programme director Johnny Dow.

The risks of waiting are obvious. Professionals working in the sector speak of a window of opportunity: the moment an addict realises they’re not in control of their using, and they need and want help. Miss the window, and the consequences can be fatal.

“If somebody tells you, ‘I can’t get you in right now’, what do you think you’re going to do?” Winter says.

If you know you’re on a waitlist, you’re going to use and use and use and use, until that day you go to rehab. You could die in those six weeks.
Nadine Winter

Costs of private options in New Zealand vary from $10,900 for 30 days at a rehab in Ōtāhuhu, to $24,010 for 35 days at one in Sandringham. A 90-day programme at Sivana costs AU$34,500 (about NZ$37,000); three months at Hope costs US$17,900 (NZ$26,300).

Winter notes an increase in Kiwi clients at Sivana. She receives about 14 enquiries from New Zealanders a month, and has had six Kiwi clients this year, aged 21 to 57. Methamphetamine, benzodiazepines (prescription sedatives), and alcohol were their most common drugs of choice.

Hope has an influx of Antipodean clients in November and December. The rehab receives about 20 enquiries from New Zealanders a month, and has this year hosted two or three Kiwi clients a month – 10 men and five women.

Winter, a self-described “public girl”, at first felt conflicted about working in the private sector. However, both she and Mott have observed a motivating effect of “putting your money where your mouth is”.

Ultimately, private treatment programmes offer addicts – of a certain demographic – a chance to “save their lives a lot quicker”, Winter says.  

“One of the reasons I love working over here is, the minute they want to come to rehab, we get them on the plane within 24 hours.”

When Stuff visits Sivana, a 30-year-old travel agent from Perth is lying on a sunlounger by the pool, reading The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F.... She’s been struggling with alcohol and cannabis abuse for seven years. She’s been at Sivana – her first rehab – for four days.

“My biggest fear coming here was that there was going to be some scary junkie who was acting out, threatening and violent,” the petite mother-of-one says.

“It’s literally the exact opposite. It’s just normal people. With problems.”

Peter* is writing in a journal at the long table where dinner will be served at 5.45pm. The 50-year-old Australian lives in the Middle East, where he works as a consultant. His T-shirt reads “Life is good”.

It’s Peter’s first time in rehab, too. And nobody back home can believe he is here.

Peter is an alcoholic. About five years ago, he recognised he was depressed. One day, he caught up with his best mate, who was similarly struggling. “But we blokes, we don’t talk to one another about this sort of stuff. That was the last time I ever saw him. Two months later, he hung himself.”

His friend’s death affected him more than he realised, Peter says. He began drinking too much – downing spirits topped up with juice for breakfast, hiding bottles around the house – and was contemplating suicide.

“The way I explained it to my doctor was, it’s like a game of tennis in my head: on one side was the dark voice saying, ‘You’re useless, just end it.’ And then the guy on the other side was battling. I started drinking heavily to shut the first guy up.”

Peter admitted to himself and his wife he had a problem. He’d celebrated his 50th birthday in Bali, and he and his wife liked the look of Sivana. He was apprehensive on the way here, making a beeline for the Moët & Chandon bar in the Emirates lounge at the airport, and drinking glass after glass of Jack Daniels on the flight, thinking every nip would be his last.

“A lot of my friends know I’m here,” Peter says.

“[But] I still don’t think a lot of them know the extent of the alcohol problem that I’ve been having.”

Peter has been at Sivana for 25 days. At first, he wondered if he really belonged.

“I mean, to me, alcoholics – we’re not the problem, you can go anywhere and buy alcohol. Drug addicts – they’re the ones that f... up society...

Honestly, I put myself on a pedestal. It didn’t take long to figure out that I belonged every bit as much as everyone else.

Nikky, too, says her friends would be shocked to learn the extent of her addiction. Some knew she has been in treatment before for cocaine use; others knew she smoked marijuana. In reality, she has been smoking heroin for the better part of a decade.

Half-Jamaican, half-English, the Londoner was adopted into a white middle-class family of down-to-earth, open-minded academics (her dad is a Kiwi). Before arriving at Hope – her third rehab – she was in her final year studying towards a film degree. She was also on methadone maintenance therapy.

It’s always a very thin, thin line: you’re still existing, you’re just a bit better than before.

She has a keen sense of her own narrative – while at Hope, clients share their “timelines” or life stories in small groups. Nikky’s goes something like this: she first smoked marijuana about age 10, working up to a daily habit by 16. When she turned 18, she went to the pub, “and never left for a week”. She also realised she was gay. Fearing she wouldn’t be accepted by her West Indian peers, she was depressed for about a year.

“Then, I went out and had a field day.”

Nikky became a DJ on the gay club scene, progressing to party drugs: speed didn’t agree with her, so she took cocaine. After a break-up, she became depressed again. “I was living the lifestyle everybody wanted really – cars, girls, money – and there was the expectation I’d live up to that. The people I did tell that I was down or that I’m not OK, didn’t really take it that seriously. I’d put the mask on in the day, and go home and cry. It didn’t matter how much money I spent, how many women I had – it didn’t fix the way I felt when I was alone.”

Eventually, Nikky decided to end her life by jumping out a window. At the last minute, she changed her mind, and chose instead to smoke lumps of crack she’d been planning to return to her dealer.

“I knew full well, pretty much, what it would do to me.”

She was addicted within six months. She told her family she had a problem with cocaine – which has less of a stigma than crack – and checked into rehab for the first time. She was in her mid 20s. “I kind of went there thinking I could roll in, a bit like a rockstar, and just sit there in a chair, and roll out the other side OK.”

Within a week of discharge, she was partying as before. “A lot of my friends don’t get it. They’ll be like, ‘Well, you don’t look like an addict, you can still drink, you can smoke weed.’ But I can now see that if I put anything in me, especially alcohol... it lowers your inhibitions, but that’s not going to be enough for someone who’s done coke or crack.”

Five years later, Nikky checked into her second rehab, and used only marijuana for about nine months afterwards. She started dating a recovering heroin addict, who relapsed.

“I stuck around thinking that I could maybe save her. And eventually, I started using heroin.”

Nikky was prescribed methadone, an oral medication used as a legal, longer-lasting substitute to heroin to mitigate withdrawal symptoms and the need to use illicit opiates, but, she became worn out from hiding her dependence. She tried to go cold turkey innumerable times, sinking lower and lower into despair.

She told her dad she needed to go back to rehab.

“He was like, ‘OK. No problem.’”

Nikky’s four months at Hope have been beset by the kinds of struggles Mott is, perhaps counterintuitively, heartened to observe in his clients.

“The struggles are what makes us strong,” he says, comparing residents to butterflies escaping from the cocoon.

“If you cut the butterfly loose, it dies. The struggle to get out the cocoon makes its wings stronger so it can fly.”

A very powerful solution

“Holistic” is the buzzword in private addiction treatment both in New Zealand and overseas; programmes aim to treat the whole person: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. They emphasise cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness, and the 12 Steps.

“It’s a very powerful disease,” Mott tells us, more than once.

“So it needs a very powerful solution.”

Hope is not advertising a cure. Those in the sector often compare addiction to a chronic disease like diabetes, requiring lifelong management.

It’s not bad people getting good, it’s sick people getting well.”
Vinny Khureya, Hope’s weekend manager

“It’s not weak people not having willpower, it’s taking help because one recognises that one needs it.”

Almost all the clinical staff are in recovery themselves. We’re told it’s not essential, but it does help. They have first-hand understanding of their clients’ disease. They act as a role model: living proof that recovery is within reach. And, Mott says, counselling addicts offers staff the chance to right some of the wrongs they may have done in the past.

Clients at Sivana and Hope range in age from late teens to retirees. They have various backgrounds, family dynamics, financial situations, careers and drugs of choice.

Differences soon cease to matter.

Before a client arrives at rehab, they’ve been thoroughly assessed. Staff know what their drug of choice is (Australasian clients tend to be addicted to methamphetamine; British clients, cocaine and heroin). Mott says methamphetamine addicts, often working men on higher incomes, are realistic about the time commitment required – they usually stay for three months – and are willing to put in the effort.

Cannabis addiction is tougher to treat, Mott says. “We get a few younger lads who’ve been sitting at home smoking cannabis, and their lives are just not happening at all. It destroys the motivation centre in the brain, and you see quite a lot of psychosis – mental health issues – with it. I know there’s a huge cannabis lobby that wants it legalised, and compares it to alcohol, but I won’t have anything to do with that. I see the damage.”

On arrival, bags are searched for contraband: drugs, booze, weapons, porn. (One Kiwi client arrived at Sivana with three surfboards, thinking he would have a lot of time for recreation…) Prescription medications are kept locked away and dispensed as necessary. Clients are allowed to smoke – nicotine is not an intoxicating substance – otherwise, abstinence from drugs and alcohol is expected and enforced. Staff can request urine tests, and search rooms, at any time.

Excludable offences include unwillingness to follow the programme, using drugs or alcohol, being physically or verbally aggressive towards staff or fellow clients, or having sex. Discharging someone isn’t done lightly. If it comes to that – and it rarely does – they’re dispatched to the airport and put on a plane. Staying in Bali or Thailand, where drugs – despite draconian laws prohibiting them – are rife, is dangerous. Discharging yourself early isn’t easy, either. Staff hold clients’ money and passports.

If it’s required, clients will first undergo a medical detox. Opiates, alcohol and benzodiazepines are physically addictive: using them to get high or drunk soon gives way to using to function normally.

Withdrawal symptoms are often compared to the worst flu imaginable; addicts say the psychological anguish, too, is almost unbearable. The rehab centres contract physicians to prescribe methadone or Subutex to opiate addicts to help ease their transition into sobriety, and anti-seizure medication for those who’ve been abusing booze and benzos. Abrupt withdrawal from these can be fatal.  

“I was a mess when I got here,” many clients tell us. For staff, a favourite part of the job is watching them come back to life. Their skin regains colour, their eyes are brighter. They’re more agile, they put on weight.

For clients coming to the end of their stay, observing recent arrivals shows them how far they themselves have come. Hannah, a musician and journalist from Australia documenting her stay, had been in the throes of a three-year-long heroin relapse before checking in.

For the first month, she says, “I was pretty f….d.”

She could barely walk across the hilly, grassy, campus to group sessions. When she arrived, she lay on the floor, wrapped in a blanket, shivering. Her bones hurt too much to sit in a chair.

Six weeks later, the 37-year-old has a tan, an appetite, and compassion for those suffering as she did during detox.

I wouldn’t wish anyone to go through that… But it is a really good reminder. Our brains will go, ‘Oh, it wasn’t that bad, it was actually quite amazing, it makes me feel better…’ It’s bullshit. It doesn’t make you feel better at all. It’s a complete lie.”

In group sessions, clients process their histories and experiences in recovery so far, and are educated on everything from the neurobiology of addiction, to denial, shame and communication skills.

During their stay, they receive letters from family members, detailing the effect of their using on those close to them. At Hope, clients read them with their counsellors. At Sivana, they’re read aloud in front of the group.

“That’s usually the thing that puts them on their arse,” Winter says.

“Some family members don’t want to be that honest – they fill the letter up with, ‘I think you’re great, thank God you’re doing this.’ But other ones, they just go straight for the jugular.”

Peter recalls his “consequence letter” from his wife.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to read,” he says. “And here I am reading it to what were, 18 days ago, complete strangers. But I felt very comfortable doing that.

Everybody thinks they’re unique, and that my problem is bigger than everybody else’s problem.”

“But then when you’re in a roomful of people, seeing that ‘woah, this guy overdosed eight times, he’s been brought back to life twice; this guy’s spent time in jail; this guy’s been in psych wards... people that have killed when they’ve been under the influence, that have managed to get through…’ If they can do it then, I can do it.”

Clients also offer feedback on each other’s journeys. One morning at Sivana, a heavily set young man covered from head to toe in tattoos tells a fellow resident he feels concerned that he doesn’t wear sunscreen when he sunbathes. Four clients tell another – a recently arrived business owner addicted to methamphetamine – they’re worried he’s procrastinating beginning his 12 Step exercises. They want him to ask for help when he needs it, they say. They tell him they’re there for him. The group supervisor, a tall, calmly spoken Australian named David Rowe, asks the client how he feels.  

“Attacked,” he says.

Others chuckle sympathetically, murmuring encouragement. One claps him on the shoulder.

A head full of rehab

At Sivana, clients have a relapse prevention seminar on Thursdays at 12.30pm in a breezy, open-air space on the top floor of the administration building, overlooking rice paddies and rustling palms. They’re sitting in a U-shape, wearing shorts and holding print-outs. Winter is writing on a whiteboard next to a list of their names, and their number of days clean.

There are three stages of a relapse, she explains: emotional, mental and physical. The earliest stage might be triggered by intolerance, frustration, exhaustion, conflict or boredom. The intermediate stage is when someone starts thinking about using, questioning whether they can control it, whether they deserve a drink for good behaviour, whether they’re really an addict at all. They might start thinking they don’t need to go to 12 Step meetings. They might start reminiscing about the good times. She says it’s why many rehabs have a rule banning “war stories”: entertaining anecdotes that might glamourise or glorify using.

When a physical relapse occurs – when an addict in recovery “picks up” – they tend to use enough to quiet the knowledge they’ve gained, as well as the guilt and shame.

“There’s nothing worse than a head full of NA and a body full of drugs,” one of the group says.

About 95 per cent of addicts pick up after their first time in treatment, Winter tells the group, to general dismay.

Why be so brutally honest?

“Because it’s true, but also because it gives them something to fight for.”

A relapse is not considered irredeemable. Most who stay in recovery have had multiple attempts at staying clean.

Rolf is wrapped up against the humidity and heat: a zippered sweater, socks with slides.

The 33-year-old is six days clean. He says it’s the first day he’s felt semi-normal, that someone’s told him he looks happy. He is quietly spoken, and slow to smile. He is tired. He is resigned. “I’m done. I need to get well or I just... I won’t make it.”

Rolf, an English ex-pat, is an illustrator who plays the gypsy accordion. He was a DJ for the better part of two decades. Before Hope, he had been to six rehabs and a detox.

He was at his physical worst when he checked into a treatment centre in California weighing 45kg. He’d consumed nothing but wheat cereal and 7 Up for six months. He was also in crack-induced psychosis. He’d been going without sleep for up to a week.

A girlfriend had introduced Rolf to heroin when he was at university. “Watching her smoke it in front of me – it just seemed like such a small thing. It’s not like in the movies – people kind of writhing on the floor with pleasure. It was just this little, comfortable feeling. It just felt like a warm hug,” he says.

Rolf left the rehab in California, and, against conventional advice, married a fellow client. She introduced him to needles. Five years later, he’d destroyed every available vein in his body – from the palms of his hands to the soles of his feet – and was injecting heroin into his groin.

He was “quite determined” to die, overdosing on benzodiazepines and heroin with a plan to slit one wrist. His dog was crying in the corner; it was enough to change his mind. Rolf went outside and fainted on the footpath, waking up in an emergency room in downtown Los Angeles. After a stint in a psych ward, he found himself sleeping on his dealer’s couch, aiming to scrape together enough cash to buy a gun to reattempt suicide. The dealer was raided by the police: the house was full of heroin, meth, cash, guns and ammunition. The dealer was put in prison, Rolf’s charges were eventually dropped.

Rolf isn’t sleeping, he is finding it difficult to eat. Withdrawing is getting more difficult as he gets older, he says.

This time, I need to do what I’m told. When I make decisions, I ruin everything.

In the past, he’s had a few months clean:  “Even with that short amount of time, I’ve never actually felt so good.”

Rehab is not a holiday, he says. It is work, and it’s not easy.

“But it is, from what I recall, worth it. I have been happy once.”

Neither Mott nor Winter has a sixth sense about who will stay clean.

“The ones you think aren’t going to make it get in touch a year later and say, ‘Hey, thanks! I’m clean!’ And you think, ‘God! You were a nightmare! How the hell have you done that?!’,” Mott says.

“Then someone who did everything right for three months, is using again in a month. I mean, that was my story...”

The rehab centres have never had a client die during their stay. But they know of former clients who are no longer alive.

“Addiction kills,” Mott says, again and again.

“Some people will leave here and get on with living, and some people will leave here and get on with dying.”

Late last month, Australian media reported a 34-year-old Melbourne resident named Justin Gatto had died.

Gatto, the youngest child of underworld figure Mick Gatto, was found lying dead on a footpath in the central city. He had apparently fallen from an apartment balcony. Police had deemed his death “not suspicious” and were preparing a report for the coroner.

Justin Gatto had been a client at Sivana in August. He had been using methamphetamine for a decade.

“All my mates were with me doing it, then they stopped, had families, had kids, and I kept on going.”

A friend who had completed three months of treatment at Sivana had recommended the centre to him, having returned to Australia “a changed man”.

“He was a completely transformed person. I congratulated him and I wanted what he had,” Gatto said.

Gatto was vehement in his opposition to methamphetamine – known in Australia as “ice” – calling the drug and its effects “disgusting”.

“I’m a big bloke, but I felt like mouse for years,” he said.

It just destroys your ego, your pride, your courage, your goals... It ruins your soul, and you still go back and do it.

Gatto spoke to Stuff the day before he was discharged from 60 days of treatment. He said he hadn’t had drugs in his system in almost three months.

“I’m comfortable in my own skin – I can honestly say that.”

He said his friends – the ones who had been able to stop using drugs – would forgive him.

“They know that I’m a trier and that I don’t give up. I’ve got to do the hard work... I can’t just do a half-arsed job – I’ve got to do 100 per cent. I guess I’ll get everything back that I lost, but I need to fight for it, you know? It is a hard battle.”

The other side

We meet Michael* at a cafe in an industrial suburb of Auckland about 18 months after he completed 60 days of treatment at Sivana. A professional in his 40s, Michael is olive-skinned, sharply dressed, and cautious about disclosing identifying details.

“I spent a long time in my corporate career wanting to be successful and wanting to achieve results. But the big hours... it all comes at the expense of personal wellbeing. Dealing with anxiety and stress – doctors are very quick to give you medication to help you with that.”

Michael does not disclose the nature of his addiction, simply saying he’d been using for a few years. Abusing prescription medication one of the most common reasons Kiwis seek treatment at Sivana.

Six days after inquiring, Michael was on a plane to Bali. Two months of treatment in Bali cost Michael less than a three-week programme in New Zealand, he says. Privacy, too, was important. “I wanted to keep my anonymity; New Zealand is so small: it’s not six degrees of separation, it’s two degrees.”

Some people don’t understand the disease of addiction, and what it does. It doesn’t discriminate.

Addiction had cost Michael his relationship and his house, and his previous career had become untenable. He wishes he’d had the courage and strength to seek help sooner, he says, but he wasn’t ready.

“When I made the decision, I needed to do it; if didn’t do it, I would have kept putting it off.”

Michael found the first week or so of treatment confronting: the 12 Steps, the introspection, the detox. “I didn’t quite realise how much the programme would drill down into not just... addictions, but the underlying reasons to what led you there.”

One exercise involved clients writing their own eulogies: what they wanted to be known for. They were asked to think about what they wanted to change about themselves, and their lives, in order to achieve that.

“It’s always going to be about family, friends,” he says.

“You never have, ‘so-and-so was an excellent employee’. No-one gives a toss about that.”

Michael says after 60 days, he was ready to come home, but felt anxious about what that would mean for him, pointing out one of the downsides of overseas rehab centres.

“If you’re doing treatment in New Zealand, you have that support group you bond with [locally], whereas people I did my treatment with were all from other countries...”

The relapse prevention education and exit planning emphasised by Sivana staff helped ease the transition: staff put him in contact with a psychotherapist, helped him find a sponsor, and connected him with people in the recovery fellowship here. Michael, who has continued sessions with his counsellor at Sivana via Skype, admits he was uncomfortable with the prospect.

“I had to really force myself to go along to meetings - which I do regularly. Being uncomfortable or having fear around that – it’s not going to hurt me – it’s just something you have to do. The alternative was not an option.”

Back in New Zealand, Michael moved in with his parents. He chose not to work for almost a year, focusing on doing things he enjoys: fishing, diving, mountain biking, going to the gym.

“I had always wanted to [stop using],” he says.

“But I was never able to stay in recovery; I was never able to sustain it. It took me to do this, to get that foundation, to enable me to be where I am today. I do truly believe that without doing what I did I would still, unfortunately, be in addiction.”

The cognitive behavioural therapy and communication skills he learnt at Sivana have proved valuable in Michael’s life here. So too has “working the steps”: doing meditation, a reading and a prayer in the mornings before becoming distracted by technology. He’s a more present friend, son and partner, he says. He has increased awareness of his behaviours – particularly the ones he wants to change. He’s a more active listener.

I’m a better person; a better version of myself.

It’s been two years since Paul* spent three months at Hope Rehab. The builder and father of four from Thames had been using methamphetamine “and everything else, too” for 15 years.

“It was the cool thing to do. And I kept going.”

The 36-year-old had tried to stop using on his own, without success, at one point being taken by van to Henry Rongomau Bennett Centre, an acute mental health facility, on the grounds of Waikato Hospital.

It wasn’t until his wife Kate* moved out of the family home that he admitted he needed help.

“She left with the kids, and that was sort of the end of it for me.”

A family friend who worked in the mental health sector suggested the couple contact Hope Rehab.

They had been to Thailand on their honeymoon; now, two days after they inquired, Paul was at the airport with his mother, father and sister. He had used the night before.

Paul spent the first few days at Hope to catch up on sleep, soon resuming an old interest – boxing. He received family feedback letters from his wife, her parents, his parents, and his brother. After reading, he burnt the letters in a fire.

“They just break you down at first, I guess, then build you up towards the end.”

It was difficult to return to Thames, Paul says. At Hope, he had participated in role plays, working out how he’d respond if he ran into one of his still-using mates – a scenario that played out the first week he was back.

“I said, ‘nah, I’m not coming’, pretty much. ‘I’m not doing it anymore.’”

Old friends weren’t a good advertisement for his former lifestyle: in the three months he’d been gone they’d lost even more weight. Some were living with their mothers, even though they had a family. They’d lost jobs, companies, marriages.

“I bump into people all the time and you just look them and think, ‘s..., that’s what I used to look like.’

Back when you’re on it – you just couldn’t tell, you didn’t have a clue… I thought it was normal, I guess.

It was almost a year before Paul moved back in with his family. Trust was slow to return; Kate still insists he undergo regular hair follicle tests to prove he’s drug-free.

Now, Paul does gratitude exercises with his kids around the dinner table. In Thames, NA meetings are held weekly, but Paul doesn’t make it to every session. He prefers to work out at the gym. The meetings are “pretty quiet”, he says.

“Sometimes there’ll be three or four [people]. There should be 100.”

* Some names have been changed at interviewees’ request.

* Britt Mann and Jason Dorday’s travels to Bali and Thailand were funded by the Asia New Zealand Foundation and Hope Rehab.

Where to get help




Reporting: Britt Mann

Visuals: Jason Dorday

Design: Kathryn George

Editor: John Hartevelt