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Editor’s note: This is the fourth and final story in a podcast and radio series produced by Hawaii Public Radio in collaboration with Honolulu Civil Beat. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.
Georgianna DeCosta and her family held hands as she said a prayer, of sorts, that sharing their story would help others avoid the pain they have survived.
Prayers, as her mother, Mahealani Cypher, has learned, didn’t protect DeCosta from the anguish inflicted by her demons.
And they didn’t shelter DeCosta’s own children. But DeCosta’s hopeful words seemed to give strength to her family members, as they stood around her in an office in Kaneohe and recounted their experiences with Hawaii’s enduring methamphetamine epidemic.
Find this four-episode podcast and radio series at hawaiipublicradio.org
DeCosta, who is the executive director of the Hawaii Meth Project until she hands over the reins of the nonprofit at the end of June, has witnessed over and again how important families can be in helping addicts move beyond their meth addictions.
But she and her family also know that from personal experience.
They agreed to share their story as a cautionary tale for the next generation of young people faced with the ready temptation of Hawaii’s “ice age,” and as a lesson about the remarkable resiliency of a family.
A great cliché of drug rehabilitation holds that addicts must hit rock bottom before they can turn a corner toward recovery.
While DeCosta has told her story to students and young adults around the islands many times as part of her job, she still finds it difficult to pinpoint exactly where the bottom was.
It certainly wasn’t when, as a 17-year-old mother in high school, she was partying with friends and an older boyfriend induced her to smoke methamphetamine, a powder that looked to her like rock salt. It was a drug she knew nothing about.
The drug felt like “sensory overload,” as she danced at a nightclub in Waikiki, she said. It was too much. It wasn’t her drug; at least not until she discovered heroin and began to use the two in tandem months later. One mellowed her out, the other boosted her up.
In the space between those two narcotics, she found a home of sorts. For years, it became the one she cared most about.
Her addiction was just kicking in when she took to forging her mother’s checks and stole the family’s VCR as she scavenged for cash. But that wasn’t the bottom.
She had a second child while still a teenager, and responded to her postpartum depression by binging on meth and heroin.
After fighting with her mother and moving with two small children into her boyfriend’s van, DeCosta had a moment of lucidity. She called her mother on a pay phone and begged her to take her toddler and her infant, and to bring them up.
Cypher agreed, on the condition that DeCosta sign an informal agreement.
“I made her sign a contract that I would hanai (adopt) her children until she got herself cleaned up and into counseling,” Cypher recalled.
“If it took jail to do that, that’s what it took. But that was the agreement, that I would give them back to her after she cleaned up her act.”
With the kids taken care of, DeCosta and her boyfriend got back to the all-consuming business of getting money for the drugs that would take them to their special place.
As an addict of both heroin and meth — a precursor to the more common multiple narcotic addictions common in Hawaii today — DeCosta had to work extra hard.
“We were basically chasing dope all day, every day. It is a 24/7 job,” she said.
DeCosta slid into a downward spiral that lasted years.
Early on, her boyfriend got arrested for a parole violation. Suddenly, a young woman who had studied at prestigious private schools was struggling to fend for herself, homeless, on the streets of Honolulu.
“I spent nights at bus stops in the rain. There were couches, garages, bus stops; maybe I was at a hotel if I was lucky,” she said.
But being in a hotel didn’t guarantee her safety. She often hung out with drug dealers. At one point she was with a dealer in a Waikiki hotel room when a group of armed robbers burst into the room, tied everybody up and put pillowcases on their heads.
“I’ve been through a lot of intense situations, a lot of things I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy,” she said.
In Jessica and Kila DeCosta’s earliest memories, their mother is almost entirely absent.
Jessica, 24, remembers playing at her grandmother’s house, but she doesn’t remember when her mom disappeared. There was no dramatic goodbye. No giving of a symbolic gift. No advice. “Mom was just gone at some point,” she said.
Jessica didn’t know that her mother, who had numerous run-ins with the law, often was legally prohibited from seeing her children or being in touch with them in any way. Restraining orders were sent to Cypher’s home, where the kids lived at first, so DeCosta sometimes only learned about the evolution of her parental status when police updated her during arrests.
Cypher labored to keep a connection to DeCosta even as her daughter bounced around Oahu and, occasionally, to other islands.
From time to time, Cypher escorted the children to see their mother in a park, in the hopes of nurturing a bond with the children that might give her daughter something to live for.
Child Protective Services got wind of this violation of a restraining order and took the children away from their grandmother, giving them to one of DeCosta’s sisters and her husband to foster.
They cared for them for nearly two years. Through a child’s eyes, Jessica said, “It was like a long sleepover at auntie’s.”
Her little brother Kila, who was 2 years old when that change happened, said his first memories were of watching wrestling on television with his cousins and slamming into pillows.
His mom, in his early years, was little more than a ghostly presence.
DeCosta wouldn’t see them again for years. But she did find some unexpected stability after she concluded that the best way to have consistent access to drugs was to date a dealer.
She eventually moved in with a man named Jose Hector Torres. Getting off the street improved her health, even if she kept doing drugs. She felt safer and — because she could bathe and eat regularly — healthier than she had been in years.
They moved into a serene cottage in Kahala and, soon after, she discovered that she was pregnant again. Given all of the meth and heroin she had been ingesting, she didn’t think that was even possible.
Torres wanted her to have the baby.
“I have no business being pregnant,” DeCosta recalled thinking. “I really can’t take care of my first two and here I am having another one?”
When Cypher found out that her daughter was pregnant, she began visiting her at the cottage, in the hopes she would get clean. Jessica, who hadn’t seen her mother in years, joined her grandmother on one of those visits.
“I remember it distinctly too, because she had this perfume,” said Jessica. “It was her scent. I hadn’t smelled it for a while until I saw her again.”
“I was just a kid sitting there, wide-eyed,” Jessica said. She recalled thinking: “That’s just my mom — ‘Hi, mom’ — I was just taking it all in.”
But DeCosta didn’t get clean — yet.
She and Torres had been living in the cottage for about half a year, seemingly having found an unexpected sort of domestic tranquility by the morning of March 26, 1999.
That was when the calm of their sleepy cottage was shattered. Well-armed masked men broke the door down. “It was full-force, like in the movies,” DeCosta recalled. The men pushed them to the ground. “My boyfriend was like, ‘She’s pregnant! She’s pregnant!’”
“It was surreal. It is just, ‘Holy crap, is this really happening? … The door is gone; it is not on the hinges anymore. There is mud everywhere because they have boots on.”
The intruders, she discovered, were part of the Waikiki Crime Reduction Unit. The father of her unborn child had sold drugs, it came out in court, to an undercover agent. The cottage had been under surveillance.
The only cop she saw without a mask was the sergeant, who was barking orders at DeCosta and Torres.
She told the sergeant about an uncle of hers who had been a captain of vice narcotics. She said the sergeant responded by saying, “‘I know him. He taught me everything I know.’ And that’s when he clicked the handcuffs on.”
“I tried to get a favor, do the Hawaii thing. He acknowledged it, but he was basically telling me, ‘Honey, you need this.’”
Sitting there, five and a half months pregnant, with cuffs tight on her wrists, her out-of-control years were coming to an end.
Georgianna had been in jail dozens of times, usually overnight or for a few days; but after a few days in detox, she was placed in the Oahu Community Correctional Center for the first time.
“I remember the feeling of the withdrawals from all of the drugs,” said DeCosta.
On June 8, 1999, her bail was set at $50,000. Her boyfriend, who faced numerous felony charges of “promoting a dangerous drug,” was given a bail of $300,000, according to court records.
People who knew DeCosta as a child likely wouldn’t have expected this end. She had a loving albeit single mother who had managed to provide some trappings of privilege. De Costa attended several private schools — St. Patrick in Kaimuki, Punahou and Kamehameha Schools — before she asked to transfer to a public high school and attended McKinley and Roosevelt.
But that was a distant memory. The pregnancy insulated her from some of the worst of jail life — if not from the withdrawals — because some prisoners and guards showed compassion for her.
“The biggest, baddest criminals would sing lullabies to my belly. They would protect me,” she said.
In hindsight, she added, that experience prepared her for the work she has done with the Meth Project, by teaching her about so many different kinds of people. “It was extreme,” she said, “but it was necessary.”
By that time, Child Protective Services had transferred DeCosta’s children from their aunt and uncle’s home to the foster care of strangers.
For years, their grandmother had been fighting to get the grandchildren back by formally adopting them.
She only succeeded after then-Gov. Ben Cayetano, an acquaintance of Cypher who heard about the situation, intervened. He encouraged Child Protective Services to find a solution that would get the children back to their healthy family member, to Cypher.
So when DeCosta called her mother from jail to say that guards were going to take her to Queen’s Medical Center for a cesarean section, and she wanted her mom to be there, Cypher went, and Jessica too.
Giving birth as a prisoner was, DeCosta said, “the most awkward thing ever.” She was transported to the hospital in handcuffs. Amid the discomfort of a C-section, she was watched over by a male jail guard day and night as she struggled to recover.
Her son was born on Sept. 28, 1999. He was allowed to stay with her for two days. Then, like DeCosta’s other two children, baby Joseph was given to his grandmother.
Joey, as they call him, is now 16. He joked that he got out of jail before his mom did. His brother Kila described the birth as the “ultimate prison break.”
But it was a quiet one. In the hospital at the time, Cypher and Jessica weren’t permitted to talk to DeCosta; they could only wave to her through a window.
The grandmother, who worked full-time, went on to take the infant in a baby bag to her job as a community relations officer at the Board of Water Supply for a next month before she was able to find a suitable babysitter.
DeCosta, meanwhile, went back behind bars.
Several weeks later, she pleaded guilty to four felonies of promotion and possession of a dangerous drug. She was eventually sentenced to time served and 10 years on probation.
Her boyfriend, who pleaded guilty to more serious possession and promotion charges, was sentenced to a 10-year prison sentence. Like many other convicted criminals in Hawaii, he did his time on the mainland.
A little more than three months later, on Jan. 3, 2000, DeCosta sat awkwardly in the dark outside the barbed wire fences in front of OCCC.
She had just been let out of jail. Sitting at a bus stop alone that evening was hardly the vision of freedom that she had expected.
“They just kind of put you out there,” she said.
She was physically clean of her addiction, but freedom triggered her instincts. It wasn’t to go see her baby and other children. She wanted to go score some drugs; she didn’t know what else to do.
But her mother pulled up and she got in the car. It was time to go home, which was wherever her family was.
It was time to re-learn what she had forgotten during her six-year descent — how to live without what had been her all-consuming addiction.
At home, DeCosta began to fully grasp the extent of her own mother’s efforts to keep her troubled daughter a visible presence in the lives of the children.
DeCosta had been a promising hula dancer when she was younger; that was the image that Cypher projected over and over again to the kids.
“So I come home and I see poster-sized pictures of me all around the house,” DeCosta recalled. “At first it was a little creepy, but then it was absolutely adorable, because that is what families do. This is the kind of thing that people all over Hawaii are doing, what grandparents are doing for their grandkids, because the parents are all messed up on meth.”
Nothing is automatic when you move in with children who have seen more of you in posters than as a nurturing parent over their formative years. They knew what DeCosta looked like. They just didn’t know who she really was.
While DeCosta answered some questions, her sudden presence in the house raised many more for children who had grown up with precious little stability.
“I constantly remember moving around and not being settled, and random new people (around us),” Kila said. “Being 2 or 3 years old and not knowing who your real parents are is kind of confusing for a little kid.”
At various points, Kila and Jessica thought their grandma, their aunt and their unrelated foster mother were their mother — but especially grandma.
After all, Kila had seen Cypher come home from the hospital with baby Joey and DeCosta was nowhere to be seen.
Through it all, Cypher said she saw her major responsibility, besides keeping the kids safe, as keeping their mother “in their hearts, because I knew … they might forget her.”
“Whenever I was with them,” she said, “I did that.”
Kila’s first substantive memories of his mother were of getting to know her when he was in first grade, after she moved back into the house. At OCCC, “I really just remember seeing her and hearing, ‘This is your mom.’ And I was confused,” he said.
When DeCosta came back from jail, he said, “I was like, who is this lady? I don’t need to listen to her. (I had) rebellious 6-year-old thoughts like, ‘I’m going to just not listen to her,’” Kila said. “The rebellion didn’t really evolve, but as time went on I accepted her as my mother. … To this day, I’m still working with that rebellion.”
The early confusion and destabilization still echo in Kila’s life. “To this day, I still wonder what it would be like if this all didn’t happen. It is kind of hard to look back,” he said. “It was a hard time for me, it really was.”
DeCosta did what she described as intensive probation at the Salvation Army’s Family Treatment Services center in Kaimuki where, for six months, she stayed and learned how to be a parent to Joey, feed him and otherwise be a mom.
“The Salvation Army had to teach me how to live every day, how to get up in the morning and brush your teeth and fix your bed; because when you are chasing dope 24/7, you don’t do these kinds of things,” DeCosta explained.
After that, she moved back in with the family full-time. “I had to practice that with three kids, and two of them were struggling. … My kids have in no way had it easy.”
Jessica recalled the challenge of sharing a room with her mother, who wasn’t yet in any shape to act like one. “That was probably one of the harder transitions right there, her coming back,” the oldest child said.
DeCosta was, her daughter noted, in the midst of multiple transitions, trying to adjust to an unscheduled life free of bars, being sober and getting her life together.
“It was kind of hard for us because all of a sudden, she’s back,” recalled Jessica. “Although she’s our mom, she’s this almost random woman who we had to listen to.”
DeCosta “wanted to be a mom. She wanted to do all the things she missed out on,” her daughter said. But that took time.
“The transition took years to finally be okay,” Jessica said. “It took time, a lot of tears, a lot of struggles, a lot of arguments.”
Her brother said he accepted his mother back more quickly.
“I was probably about 8 when I accepted her, like, ‘This is my mom.’ But at 9 years old, I had this thought in my head like, ‘If this person is my mom, I made it this far without her being my mom, so that means I don’t need anybody to watch me,’” said Kila. He’d take off on his skateboard or bike, meet up with his friends and stay out until late at night.
“She was never really a part of my life for so long, and I made it without her, so I obviously know what I’m doing. I had that thought of this bold, rebellious independence,” he said.
Highlighting the cycles of addiction that many families in Hawaii wrestle with, Kila also took to partying in high school.
“Looking back,” he said, “I wish I never did those things. I wish I stayed in school and got the good grades. I wouldn’t have to work as hard as I do now.”
But like his mother, his own challenging experiences infuse what he does now. He works long hours as a cook in a restaurant. “Not a lot of people are prepared to be on their feet for 12 hours a day and work as hard as I do, but that’s the path I chose,” he said.
He said he effectively mentors some of the guys who work in the kitchen, some of whom have criminal records, as they try to get a new start.
“I can give them some insights into what my mom’s been through and what we’ve been through in the family, and I can be a sort of light of hope for them,” he said.
After all she’s endured, and put her family through, DeCosta also has been working to bring hope to others, on a bigger scale.
Several years after getting out of jail, she also obtained guardianship of her three children, according to court documents, although Cypher remains their legal parent.
More recently, as the executive director of the Hawaii Meth Project, she has given plenty of talks to kids and young adults between the age of 12 and 24 — the age range of her own children. She shares her own story in the hopes that it might spare other families what hers has gone through.
Her own children speak proudly of their mom’s work.
“I’ve seen her entire speech. She has the big PowerPoint. I’ve seen an entire auditorium of kids, of teenagers — and it’s hard to get their attention — all of them asking questions, enticed, disgusted, because she’s showing them the hard, cold facts about the reality of it all,” said Jessica. “She usually has a line of people after every speech wanting to talk to her and ask her questions.”
“It is unfortunate that she’s stuck in a world that she doesn’t want to be in, that she has to talk about the hard stuff,” said Jessica.
But DeCosta made clear that turning past pain into something useful and constructive helps to soften the sting of her earlier life. It is part of making amends, and it gives a sense to it all.
In a way, she is paying forward her mother’s efforts.
“What I had put my mom through was so incredible. I had stolen from her; I had lied to her. I had screamed at her and done so many things. She had fought tooth and nail for the kids,” DeCosta explains. “And when they started to call her mom, she told them, ‘No, I am your grandma; I am your tutu.’”
Readers and listeners who are interested in learning more about drug treatment and prevention in the islands can check out the relevant Hawaii Department of Health resource page.