Christchurch's Karen Watson 'humbled' by local hero nomination.
Matua Raḵi April 2016 newsletter
Karen Watson, a remarkable local hero
Karen Watson, leader and founder of the Familial Trust in Christchurch, became one of three finalists in the 2016 New Zealander of the Year Awards – Local Hero category. It was a wonderful achievement and fitting recognition for a woman doing some truly heroic work with the families and loved ones of people with addiction. She graciously shared her story with us.
The Familial Trust was established some 15 years ago by Karen Watson as a safe place for any person whose life has been affected by someone else’s addiction. It’s a standalone service, separate from other services so it can retain its autonomy when working with service users. It does not work directly with a person’s addiction, though it will help addicted people deal with family and relationship issues that stem from others’ addictive dysfunction. Since opening, more than 25,000 people including 2,500 children and young people have accessed the service.
Karen’s own family was affected by alcohol and gambling addiction. She left home when she was 13, got involved with gangs, and was pregnant and married by the time she was 16. They were difficult times, but she eventually escaped that situation and has been with current husband Graeme for 39 years.
For the last 20 of those 39 years Graeme has been sober. Before that he struggled with both alcohol and gambling, and Karen says she spent 17 years dragging him around various services trying to get a handle on what was wrong.
“It was absolutely exhausting,” she says.
“Graeme wasn’t ready to face his addictions and I was frequently told there was little I could do until he truly wanted help. Nothing was offered to me personally so I felt like I was lost in some sort of wilderness.”
The frustration and despair took its toll and led Karen to a very dark place of her own, especially after she found herself with another unplanned pregnancy.
It was from that dark place that her own journey of self-knowledge and growth began through the support of others who were able to “love her spirit” back to health.
She discovered this was something she could experience whether or not Graeme was ready, and the “controlling stress” around trying to get him to stop drinking dissipated.
It took another two years for Graeme to stop drinking but then the gambling and drug use escalated. By 1996 when he was admitted to Queen Mary Hospital in Hanmer Springs the couple were $500,000 in debt and had lost pretty much everything.
“Things were looking pretty grim at that stage,” Karen says, “but I was okay!”
Graeme emerged from Queen Mary clean and sober and started taking more responsibility for his addictions and the damage they had caused. Karen says it was like they were each in their own recovery programme and eventually they began to approach recovery as a couple and as a family.
It was then that the idea for the Familial Trust began to take shape.
“I wasn’t sure what it would look like when planning started,” she says.
“I just knew I wanted to create a safe place for families because there had been nowhere for me. It’s developed and changed over the last 15 years, but I’m pleased to say we’ve stayed true to our original values.”
Karen started with a three-year qualification in alcohol and drug counselling from the Central Institute of Technology. She has since gained a diploma in alcohol and drug counselling, is a dapaanz qualified supervisor and has Level 6 qualifications in youth work.
The Familial Trust has seven full- or part-time paid staff and around 12 volunteer youth leaders. Graeme now plays an important leadership role, and everyone who works there is involved with addiction from their own perspective.
Service users are mainly from Canterbury, but counsellors also use email, Skype and telephone calls to work with people around the country, and even some from overseas. Programmes are abstinence-based, but staff will use whatever treatment model works with a person.
Services range from providing information to one-on-one counselling and advocating for people needing to section someone under the Alcohol and Drug Act.
There are also intensive outpatient programmes for family members and a wide range of services for youth and children. One example is the “Rocks Group” where kids learn that there are others in similar situations to them. But it’s also a time one night a week where they can just have fun in an environment where consistency is the norm.
Karen’s Local Hero nomination was made secretly by Graeme in recognition of the work the Trust does. In fact the first she knew of it was when she received an email informing her she would be one of the 550 nominees who would receive a medal. Next Karen was told she was one of 10 semi-finalists. Excitement grew when Karen made the final three, but in the end the award went to Selwyn Cook, a champion of equal employment.
“Though I didn’t win, I’m really proud and I do feel recognised – and I take recognition for every family out there who gets lost in this addiction field. That means more to me than anything,” Karen says.
I’m a child of an alcoholic and so my core belief is that I don’t deserve any recognition. So to be put in a spot where I might possibly have won was both terrifying and exhilarating.”
Karen is quick to remind that there are 400,000 registered people with alcohol dependence in New Zealand; this does not take into account other drugs and associated behaviours or addictions such as gambling, sex or even work. There are also countless others who have never presented for help.
“Research says one alcoholic will affect at least ten people but I believe it’s a lot more than that, and they’re the people we’re here to support.
“There’s also an estimate that one in four children in every classroom has been affected by a family member’s addiction. Those kids have a predisposition in their lives to picking up an addiction themselves or choosing an addicted person to love.
“It’s why we’re keen to work with children because maybe those children will seek help earlier and get into a recovery system if they do go on to become addicted themselves.
“So we’re about prevention as well as intervention.”