Editor’s note: This is the third 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. The first and second episodes are available here and here. Earlier this year, Honolulu’s Kumu Kahua Theater offered a gritty portrait of meth culture on the North Shore. The play, Not One Batu, ignited a wave of response. Hawaii Public Radio’s Noe Tanigawa invited three women, all former meth users, to share their experiences.
It was a Saturday afternoon when we all got together: Hannah Ii-Epstein, the author of the play, “Not One Batu;” Lelea’e Kahalepuna Wong, known as Buffy, who plays Ma in the play; and Michele Navarro Ishiki, a substance-abuse counselor, who took her daughter to the play the night before. All are former meth users. Buffy began:
“Everybody says that weed is the gateway drug.”
“Do you think so?” Hannah said.
“No,” said Michelle. “It’s not even drugs, it’s behaviors. Behaviors are the gateway.” Michele said liquor, always present, begins the pattern.
When I asked for their drug history, Hannah began.
“I was addicted with putting stuff up my nose, really, from when I was 14 to when I was 19. I really used meth between the time I was 17 to 19.”
Just kind of a progression?
“There’s always a thing that happens in each person’s life that really triggers them to go for that pipe, even though they know better. You know it’s not good; but then there’s that thing that hits you as a person that you just feel you cannot handle, so you use,” Hannah said.
“It’s a coping mechanism,” said Michele. “You spoke of sexual abuse, physical abuse? I went to alcohol because I started being physically abused at a very young age, and I hid that. I was 15.”
Asked whether they remembered their first meth experience, all said they did, comparing it to the first time you have sex: something you don’t forget.
Buffy said, “I took that first hit, and whoa, that was cool. Let’s do that again. With meth, for me, it was like this rush of energy where you could just go on for days and days and days without stopping. But I didn’t use all the time. Once every two weeks, maybe. I did a lot of other drugs, but eventually it always came back to the meth. That was definitely one I could rely on.”
Was it as great when you went back every time?
“Honestly, yes. At first.” Even just one time a week, Buffy said, can be a problem; because it’s something she knew she shouldn’t be doing, but she did it anyway because she enjoyed the feeling.
“Once I graduated, unfortunately, I met somebody,” Buffy said. “I had met a man who moved from the mainland to Hawaii on the day of my graduation. He had no place to live, so I invited him to come home. My mom took one look at him and said ‘No.’ So I moved out with him and we were living on the streets, at Kapiolani Park.
“We would smoke in our van. At first it was great and then it got violent. Quick. We would have yelling matches across the park, just yelling at each other. Eventually it became physical. He’d hit me; I’d hit him back. He’d slam me against the wall; I’d slam him on the ground. It was a back and forth thing. It got to the point where I couldn’t even recognized myself in the mirror anymore. Then it got even worse. The physical fights became really, really bad.
“One day I woke up and I said I had enough. I’m done. My boyfriend and I were having an argument at my family’s house. I remember going into the kitchen, grabbing a knife, and going upstairs to my room. I closed myself in my closet, just thinking, ‘I’m done, I cannot do this anymore. I cannot be this person that I am. I don’t want to feel this way anymore.’
“Well, they locked me up in 24 hour suicide watch at Kahi Mohala [a behavioral health clinic]. I was in there just thinking about, ‘you used to be somebody before, and now you’re nothing. So you either try and fight this or you’re going to die.’
“So after 24 hours were up, my grandmother was there. She just hugged me. She hugged me and said, ‘I’m here for you,'” said Buffy. “So she took me home. My boyfriend and I broke up. My grandma helped me through it. She knew it was hard for me, and she said, ‘All I want to do is be there for you. I just want to take care of you.’ I was her only grandchild, so, it was because of my grandmother.
‘I struggled a little bit. I would be OK, then I would relapse again; and then I’d be OK; then I’d relapse again. It took a couple of tries, but I’ve been clean and sober, well, not exactly sober because I still drink, but I’ve been clean for six, seven years now.
“I lost my grandmother in 2014. But without her and without the love and support of my family, I wouldn’t be here right now. And I wouldn’t have been able to do this amazing story that Hannah wrote.”
Michele spoke next.
“Addiction is a family disease. It doesn’t affect just the person who’s using because whoever’s around you, has to adapt to your behaviors, everything. It’s a family disease,” she said.
Hannah said that when it came time to quit, her family was there.
“My parents took me back in. My cousins, they were like, ‘Oh you wanna use? Let’s go surf instead. You wanna use? Why don’t we just talk story in the lanai. You can smoke your cigarettes; we’ll just talk story. Why don’t we enroll you in community college? And you just take one class. Take English, you love English.’ They just kept me busy doing things they knew I loved. I started doing poetry; I started doing all kinds of things; and I found myself again. I was like, ‘Oh, this is me! I’m back!’”
Georgianna DeCosta has been the executive director of the Meth Project, a rehabilitation program. She remembered her years on meth, her incarceration and the day she was released.
“By the time they processed the papers, it was dark, so I’m sitting outside OCCC [Oahu Community Correctional Center] in the dark at the bus stop. Is this how it works? They put you out here? Isn’t this kinda counterproductive? So I had not seen my kids until this day. This is what happens with meth to the families,” DeCosta said.
“What I had put my mom through was so incredible. I had stolen from her. I had lied to her. I had just screamed at her. I had done so many things, and she had fought tooth and nail for my kids.
“And when they started to call her mom, she said, ‘No, I’m not your mom; I’m your grandma, I’m your Tutu.’ And so what she did, I was a hula dancer when I was little. She said, ‘I’m not your mom, I’m your Tutu.’ So she got the pictures of me dancing hula and she blew them up like posters. So I come home and I see poster-size pictures of me all over the house. At first it was a little creepy, but then it was absolutely adorable because that’s what families do.
“And I think this is the kind of thing families all over Hawaii are doing, that grandparents are doing for grandkids, because the parents are all messed up on meth.”
Would the level of meth use in Hawaii — if it is, as estimated, four times the national average — be impossibly chaotic if it weren’t for the families we have here? Hawaii is still a place where many people have ties, close ties.
Lack of funding has closed down the Meth Project, but DeCosta said she hopes that seeds planted with youth over the past seven years will have some residual effect. At least for a while.
DeCosta said that while the prevalence of crystal meth remains high, there have been fewer sensational cases like those that drove publicity in the past. She said that U.S. Attorney Florence Nakakuni has said federal drug cases are 50 percent of her caseload, and that “97 to 98 percent of those are meth related and they are exponentially higher than they were five years ago, 10 years ago, volume wise.”
In the fourth and final story in this series, we’ll look at the toll of crystal methamphetamine on one family’s life, and how they moved on.
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.