Kim Krell’s Healing Journey Leads to Helping Others Heal Themselves

Alan Suemori
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Spokane is a blue collar town nestled in the eastern shadow of Washington state’s Cascade Mountains. In the summer, the hillsides explode with wildflowers, and the parks are filled with the shouts of baseball games and the laughter of families picnicking in the warm afternoons. But it is here where Kim Krell’s life began to spiral out of control.

Kim Krell. (Photo courtesy of Kim Krell’s Facebook page)
Kim Krell. (Photo courtesy of Kim Krell’s Facebook page)

As a child, Krell dreamed of becoming a nurse and helping people heal. She adored her friends, loved school and earned top grades in every subject. But as she grew older, her life began to unravel. Her home life became littered with family arguments, her parents divorced and she began to experiment with drugs to hide her pain. “When I first got into drugs, I was already lost and broken. Drugs helped me cope with my brokenness.”

Looking for a fresh start, Krell and her mother moved to Hawai‘i hoping to start anew. Looking for love and acceptance, she married young and welcomed her first child by the age of 22. But the marriage turned abusive as the money ran low, and Krell’s life began to unravel even more quickly. “I felt so ashamed about the abuse, and I kept telling myself that he loved me, and we had kids,” remembered Kim. “I blamed myself for everything, and drugs made me feel like I could face the world.” As Kim’s marriage fell apart, she entered a downward spiral that would take her into homelessness, prison and the legal system. “Nobody I know grows up as a child dreaming of becoming a drug addict,” said Kim. “I knew right from wrong, but once you become addicted, all you think about is the next high. You forget about your family and all you care about is the drugs.”

Krell’s story is not unique, and the numbers are startling. Almost 20 million Americans are addicted to alcohol or drugs yet only 10% seek help. Deaths by drug overdose have more than tripled since 1990 and 20% of Americans who suffer from depression or anxiety have turned to substance abuse to find some quiet relief. Most troubling is the fact that 9 out of 10 addicts begin their long day’s journey at night before the age of 18.

The low point for Kim arrived when the Child Protective Services took her children away and branded her an unfit mother. Faced with a return to prison, her attorney, Alika Thoene, proposed an alternative. “He suggested I go to Habilitat instead of jail, but I was scared. I had heard so many rumors about their program and how hard it was,” shared Kim. “My lawyer saved my life because he was the only person who gave me hope. He saw something good in me that nobody else saw and that even I didn’t know existed.” Kim would take Thoene’s offer and enroll in Habilitat’s two-and-a-half year drug rehabilitation program that would ultimately change her life.

Founded in 1971 by Vincent Marino as an alternative to the 12-step alcohol-and-drug-abuse treatment program, Habilitat is a self-supporting, nonprofit, long-term residential treatment center located on the windward coast of O‘ahu. Averaging a residential population of 100 patients, Habilitat employs a structured environment where clients are supported through a three step, transitional process of healing where responsibilities are added as the addict’s ability to be more conscientious, diligent and dependable increases.

The program is based on the philosophy that patients need to be healed both inside and out and armed with viable job skills before they re-enter the mainstream. Consequently, residents are mentored on how to deal with their feelings and cope with problems that arise in everyday life. In addition, patients are also offered basic life skills training, GED classes, computer literacy workshops and seminars in fitness and nutrition. Habilitat focuses on what they believe is the root cause of addiction, which is a breakdown of self worth, lack of purpose and personal meaning in people’s lives.

“I had lost who I was and any hope that I could have a good life,” remembered Krell. “When I entered Habilitat I was surrounded by people who genuinely cared about me and who had been down the same path that I was on. For the first time I felt safe. I never felt safe at home. I never felt safe on the streets. I never felt safe in prison. But at Habilitat I could breathe, and I wasn’t looking over my shoulder all the time.”

Krell was assigned an “older sister” who taught her the rules of the program and was assigned simple chores that provided structure to her new life. Over time she was given more responsibility as her confidence and self esteem returned. “I started to believe in myself again, and I learned the value of hard work, keeping my word, and being truthful in every moment of my day,” shares Krell. “I learned the importance of accountability, punctuality and coming to work everyday with a good attitude.”

After a year and a half, Krell was invited to join the clinical staff of Habilitat, where she helped counsel incoming patients and supported the medical professionals in their daily routine. “Why Habilitat worked for me is that their program treats the whole person. I learned how to live life again. How to be responsible. How to set goals and achieve them and then practice what I learned in a safe place,” shared Krell. “Most importantly, I was given enough time to ingrain what I learned into my life. They taught me how to structure my day in a healthy way, and my whole life changed.”

Krell graduated from Habilitat in 2000 and dedicated the rest of her life to helping others regain their lives and put their families back together again. “My advice to addicts is never give up on your recovery. People forget that they are worth something and that’s when they start to fall apart,” said Krell. “Life is precious, and we lose our way when we forget the small things that don’t cost anything like friendship, trust and gratitude.” As a certified substance abuse counselor working in the field for the past six years, her greatest frustration is with a legal system that is complex, bureaucratic and out of touch with what the addict needs. “The system is super broken because it doesn’t address the whole person, and it doesn’t provide enough support over enough time to correct the root problem that is causing the drug addiction,” shared Krell. “As a result, it’s just a revolving door of people going in and out and back into the system.”

What Krell would like to see are more programs that offer a long-term, unshakeable commitment to addicts and prepare them to re-enter society with real job skills. “The key is you have to meet people where they are at. In most programs, the addict is told to show up for treatment from 9 a.m. – noon, but the person returns to the environment that spawned the addiction right after the treatment.”

According to Krell, this is why the numbers are so low at most substance-abuse programs and why long-term rehabilitation is so difficult to achieve. Add in the fact that medical insurance only covers drug rehabilitation if strict regulations are met, and you have a system that is struggling to cope with the rising tide of drug addiction across the state and the nation. “It takes extra work and motivation on my part as a counselor but I do it because I was where they are at,” concludes Kim. “Can you teach someone passion? I have a passion to help people regain their lives because someone believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. My duty is to pay it forward.”

Alan Suemori has taught English and history at ‘Iolani School for thirty years. He is the co-author of “Nana I Na Loea Hula,” an oral history of traditional hula resources in Hawai‘i, and the recently published children’s book, “Leilani: Blessed and Grateful.”


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