Hard News by Russell Brown

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There has been a struggle, and we are coming out the other side

"My kids hated me. My son used to tell me every day how much he hated me and how ashamed he was of me on the meth. But I didn't care. Nothing mattered but my next puff on the pipe."

The opening lines of the Māori Television documentary Ngārara: Overcoming Addiction are raw and hard. And behind them lies a harrowing story. The story of a little girl who was sexually abused night after night, who could tell no one, who grew into a life of violence, prison and drug dealing.

It's a story that Tricia Walsh, at the age of 51, has grown to own and control.

"Through talking about my life I've been able to make sense of the narrative, of the journey that I went on," she says. "I've been able to make peace with my past now. It's not haunting me. I accept it. It doesn’t control me now."

Alcohol and drug rehabilitation often rely on people confronting their histories and the reasons for their addictions. Graduates of services like the two featured in Ngārara – Auckland's Higher Ground and the Rotorua-based Te Utuhina Manaakitanga – become adept at telling their stories. But Tricia Walsh never went to rehab.

The turning point for her was a challenge from her own son, Johnny – part ultimatum, part affirmation of her ability to transcend the life she'd had. And her cure was study: three years earning a Bachelor's degree in Social Work at Te Wananga o Aotearoa.

"It's based on kaupapa Māori theory. Practising those models and frameworks actually taught me to accept that being Māori isn't about Once Were Warriors. You can practice aroha, you can practice manaakitanga – you can practice those things from a place of love."

Walsh now puts that theory into practice working for Turanga Health in Gisborne, where her work centres on going into the homes of gang-affiliated whanau. Some of those she meets are the woman she once was.

"I was angry all of my life. But I didn't know what I was angry at and it was that anger that stopped me being able to have relationships with people. But when I looked at my life, and I looked at my mother's life, who, bless her, is not around the see the transformation her daughter's undergone, I realised that my mum had the same experiences as me. She was a mum a 13, I was a mum at 15. That taught me about cycles, and intergenerational trauma.

"I made peace, because I thought all my life that my mother didn't love me, that there was something about me that she couldn't love me. But she didn't know how to. It wasn't that I was a bad, unloveable person. It was that my mum was never taught love either.

"When I look at a whanau member and see the same thing I've been through, then I know that chances are this has been their experience as a child. As a child, they've lost something and they're grieving. And that grief has just carried on into their lives."

Walsh says the work with a family will often start with them them sewing whakapapa quilts, "then you bring in the health checks, the anger management, the positive parenting. So the focus is not on the problems, it's on something positive.

"The police, they have their role to play. But the community has the answers. We just need to be given the opportunity to come up with those answers. I don't believe the traditional practice of rehab is necessarily the only way for our whanau. We have marae, we have people with lived experiences who have been there, who have come out the other side. They can give a koha of honesty and integrity to our whanau that other people may not be able to give us. Just like my son gave me that opportunity to believe in myself. You can do it."

 Where did that strength come from in him?

"He's always been that boy that picked the beaten mum up off the floor. In an abusive household, you have that one that saves everybody – but I think he also received a lot more mum time, a lot more affection.

"I think our tipuna picked him to be the one to deliver the message that needed to be delivered. Te ao Māori says that our tipuna are there all the time with us. And he became the voice at that time for what I needed to hear."

The remarkable frankness with which the subjects in Ngārara speak – not least in an emotional scene during a marae visit – is a testament to the commitment of its director, Eugene Carnachan, says Jane Reeves, whose small company Tellyvise produced the documentary.

"It was really key," she says. "Eugene's unique. The whole basis of this programme and being able to make it was trust and Eugene has an amazing ability to make connections with people. Not in a surface way, but a lasting connection that he takes very seriously. And the strength of that trust and connection comes through in the interviews."

"Eugene's an amazing man," Walsh agrees. "He took me, this perfect stranger and my moko, into his house. He's Māori and he's had a rough life, so there's that connection. They say that people like me are game-changers, but I think people like him are game-changers too. Because without him, our stories, our pain, our celebrations would go unnoticed."

Reeves, echoing the words of Chasing the Scream author Johan Hari, believes a common thread through all the stories in Ngārara is "a sense of connection – coming out of the isolation of addiction and going into a programme where it was all about connection and belonging. I guess we wanted to offer case studies of Māori solutions to a big problem, showing that the Māori worldview can be curative – rather than framing Māori as statistical basket cases."

Walsh, who recently received a moko kauae to symbolise her journey, has a shorter summary.

"There has been a struggle, and we are coming out the other side. It's not all prison."

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Ngārara - Overcoming Addiction, screens on Māori Television at 8.30pm tonight.

A version of this story originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald's Weekend magazine and appears here with permission.

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