Talk Story: Brian Kohatsu

  • Bethany Freudenthal / The Garden Island

    Lihue man Brian Kohatsu said hitting rock bottom as an addict led him to find faith in God, which inspires him to help others as a licensed social worker and by volunteering at many organizations throughout Kauai.

or one Kauai man, turning a series of tragedies into triumphs inspires him to help others who have hit rock bottom.

With the death of his parents six months apart, the loss of his children through Child Protective Services and the foreclosure of his house, Brian Kohatsu turned to a life of drug and alcohol abuse that would eventually land him in prison.

In his desperation, Kohatsu said, he eventually found faith, which led him to completing his master’s degree in social work from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He now works at the Drug Court and in private practice, where he is able to help those who are struggling with addiction to change their lives.

How long have you lived on Kauai?

I lived on Kauai a long time. I just moved back though; I was off island for almost seven years and I just moved back in 2015.

Where were you before?

Well, the truth is, I was locked up. I went to substance abuse treatment, went to school, started getting into all of that stuff and then I came back.

Can you tell me a little bit about that experience?

There’s definitely a spiritual component as far as my beliefs and God and all that, but I think there was just a lot of stuff. Both parents died, CPS took my kids, foreclosed my house, got arrested, ended up in jail and it was sort of a turning point, where I wasn’t able to pretend like things were good. Nothing was going good really. It was sort of the bottom that many people talk about. It was my bottom and at that point I decided it was time, or God decided it was time for me to change and I was able to do it.

Trying to make my way back into society was tough, trying to get back the kids and earn people’s trust. It’s been a challenging yet rewarding journey. It’s ongoing.

What’s one thing that helps you through it all? What gives you the most strength?

I would have to say my faith. Absolutely. I’m a Christian. Never was religious, never believed in any of that stuff. Thought that was for people who couldn’t handle life and needed some vice to make it through, but in 2009 I was blessed with the gift of desperation and it is a gift and so at that point I surrendered and I asked for help from something and later came to understand that it was God, so faith, Jesus, all that stuff.

When you went back to school, what did you get your degree in?

I went back to school in the spring of 2010. I went into a community college on Oahu, Windward Community College and just started from there. I was going for my basic requirements to get into the social work school for my bachelor’s and I transferred over to UH Manoa, got my undergraduate in social work and then got my master’s in social work as well. I finished that all in 2014.

How did it make you feel when you walked across the stage and collected your diploma?

It’s interesting because I’m one of the nontraditional students. One of the older students, me and a friend, we were both locked up and had some history in the past. We were sitting there and we were just like in awe that people like us who have gone so far the other way, were sitting in this crowd with our caps and gowns; it was amazing.

Tell me a little bit about what happened after school? Did it take you some time to get a job?

I graduated in May 2014. The next month I was working at a treatment center called Salvation Army ATS. I was there for about a year and then I moved back here to take the substance abuse counselor position with the judiciary.

What’s it like coming from that background and being able to help and assist people through their recovery?

It feels like that’s what I was born to do. It feels like my past has purpose. There’s definitely a connection with people who can relate. Not only am I able to relate to the clients who I serve, they trust that I understand a little bit of their struggle.

How do you feel at the end of each day?

I feel tired. I feel drained, because it’s more than a job for me. I put a lot into it. Some days are better than others, there are a lot of successes and then there are some setbacks and watching that can be taxing on the spirit, but one of my mentors said that we are seed planters, so I’m not the harvest guy all the time. I believe that and that’s one of the things I continue to do. It’s rewarding because I feel like I’ve been prepared to do this kind of work.

How do you handle the setbacks?

It comes down to faith. I feel an enormous sense of gratitude for being saved and so I think it always falls back to that, even though I get frustrated at times like normal people, but what gets me through it eventually is that, (faith).

How do you practice your gratitude?

In many ways. For one I stay clean. Two, I continue to use my time to be of service. I think service for me in this season of where I’m at, and for a long time, service equals my gratitude in action.

Where else do you serve besides in the courts?

At the court I work; that’s my service. I’m part of the Drug Court because I graduated from that program, so I’m an alumni, so I try to help graduates outside. I belong to a fellowship who helps alcoholics and drug addicts. I sponsor individual people in that program, so I’m in service that way. I’m part of the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Treatment and Community Integration and I’m the chair for that committee so we do some work doing those things. We’ve started a monthly meeting for families of addicts and alcoholics, this year it will be every third Tuesday of the month at Kapaa Missionary Church at 6:30. It’s free, we’re not getting paid to do it.

We do it because we want to help families. I’m also in service with my church. I belong to a church called Ohana Christian Fellowship. It meets up at Kapaa Middle School and so I’m in service up there. I help set up the church. I play on the worship team and sing a little bit. I’m on the board of elders there.

I’ve got five kids. Four live on Oahu and one lives here, so I’m involved with her. She plays baseball, she dances hula.

How do you handle that busy schedule?

It’s hard. It requires balance. Every so often I’ve got to recalibrate everything and drop some things off because I say yes too much.

So learning to say no?

It is, because there’s balance. After you come out of the dark you want to do so many things in the light, it can sort of overtake you a little bit and you can forget about other things.

When you take a step back from your life now and when you really think about it, are you sometimes overwhelmed with everything you’ve accomplished?

I think when I take a step back, you know striving so hard to be successful and finally experiencing some success can be challenging, and sometimes it’s overwhelming. Sometimes it’s not enough. Sometimes I think it’s me and I give myself credit when it’s not me. It’s been a little bit of an adjustment, which is probably why I keep myself busy with saying yes to a lot of things.

What do you do for fun?

That’s one of the areas I’m working on. I play a little guitar, I do some things with my daughter. I like watching movies, we go to the movies a lot, go to the beach. Really, helping people is what’s fun for me, but it’s not always fun for my daughter.

What would you say to someone who’s going through addiction and recovery, how would you encourage them to continue that path?

What I’ve found to be the most encouraging, or what I’ve been told has been the most encouraging, is sharing where I’ve come from and staying on the path.

How’s your family reacted to this change they’ve seen in you?

For the most part, family is super excited and they can’t recognize the person that’s here today.

What do you see when you look in the mirror every morning?

Most mornings when I reflect on myself in that way, it really goes back to faith. I’m one of the saved by sinners, saved by grace.

If you could say one thing to people struggling with addiction, what would you say?

You are more than your mistakes. I would say, “I see you, and I care; there’s hope.” That’s a really powerful statement because a lot of alcoholics and addicts are sort of hiding behind the shame of the things we’ve done and are doing, so when someone that you trust or that you have a connection with, even when you meet them for the first time and they look you in the eye and say that “I see you,” it’s sort of this powerful thing.

What are your goals?

I’m trying to build a house in Anahola on Hawaiian Homes. Hopefully that will take place this year. That’s something I’m looking forward to. My career goal is to continue to get more experience in the field of mental health.

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