"What’s the best way to deal with addiction to heroin?"
ANSWER – Don’t get started in the first place. That means none, no, never of that "trying just this once..that won’t do any harm". Wrong – IT WILL.
Even if you might not like it the first time, you have imprinted your mind with its experience. There might be a second time, which could be the following week or even a few years after. Then there will be the 100th, 1000th time.
Drugs, including alcohol, leave a pleasant sensation; although this might vary from person to person the first time. Some people actually "hated the bitter taste, and the vomiting" when they first smoked heroin. They might even be puzzled as to why many people could become addicted to it. But they’ll also remember the immediate change in mood and feeling.
And this memory will be the magnet that pulls a person into doing `a second time’. Most probably, he will now like it – very much. And some years later, from being a marketing executive with a KLSE-listed company, he will be in charge of the fish-breeding pond at Pusat Serenti Gambang.
Take ice-cream as a common example. For us, just thinking of it would bring up desire and make us salivate. That’s because we know the pleasant sensation it causes. If there’s none in the refrigerator, we will go out to buy it.
But it’s different to some Masai tribesman living 200 miles from Nairobi. If he has had no experience of it, his mind can’t/won’t set off any desire beyond curiosity at the most.
"When will this return to normal? When will the imprint and memory disappear?" That depends on one crucial factor – the date of his death. Because that’s how long it will remain in him.
That’s why I can’t/won’t make or agree to statements like "Belia/Aku benci dadah!" (Youths/I hate drugs!..as a campaign slogan). This shouldn’t be taken to mean that "I love drugs!" though – it’s just that it’s best for people like me to be quiet rather than brash and loud when it concerns this killer… as in "let sleeping dogs lie".
But I didn’t know much about the mechanics of addiction back then. Heroin is such a cunning drug – I didn’t even know that I was addicted, for its grip is silky smooth. It took quite some time before I realised that I must consume it at least once daily.
The first time I realised its grip was when I went to stay at my aunt’s house in a kampung 16 miles away. I had intended on three days. But I couldn’t sleep that night, and the following morning I felt so tired and moody with my legs aching. My mind was thinking only of smoking a spiked Lucky Strike cigarette. So I returned home at noon, went straight to the pusher… and everything `was right’ again.
After the failures to get me off the drug, my father decided that it was time to seek official help. The government rehabilitation centres were known as Pusat Pemulihan then, and they were under… the Social Welfare Ministry! It’s hard to imagine this right now, but that is a reflection of how clueless almost everyone were about this matter of "addiction".
There were only four centres then (as compared to 29 now) serving the zones in peninsular Malaysia – Bukit Mertajam, Rawang, Tampoi and Besut. Although the inmates were admitted on a voluntary basis, more or less, and hence should be better disciplined than the court-ordered addicts of present day, it required trained personnel to reasonably handle them. And handling addicts and running a rehabilitation centre was way different than in taking care of an old folks home, as the welfare officers might have had experience with. But everyone was in the learning phase; and that included the government too.
So Bukit Mertajam, situated about 70 miles away, was where I was to be sent for six months. But I was to undergo detoxification at the Alor Star General Hospital first. And that meant the infamous Wad Sebelaih – Ward 11… the place for those with mental problems.
The ward was like any other Third Class ward – a long dormitory with folding walls and beds on both sides. I was quite scared when I entered it, for there were quite a number of people with weird expressions on their faces. One helpful guy pointed at an empty bed to the attendant; of which the response was "Oh, his sickness is different" , and led me to a different section at the end. There were four lockup-like cells. And in one of them was… Ali Afro, who was sharing it with a young Indian guy. Another cell was occupied by a wild-looking man in his 30’s, while two were empty. The one beside Ali’s was mine.
Later, I would wonder about the whole arrangement – Almost all the psychiatric cases were in the main ward. The one in the cell was presumably violent. And I, too, was in a cell…
Ali and Raj were into their second week there and were waiting to be sent to Bukit Mertajam. I had noticed that his cheeks were no longer as gaunt. He was almost fully detoxed, and had gotten back his appetite. It was late afternoon – I had not had my intake of heroin and was already feeling the withdrawal pangs gnawing away.
I asked Ali how long would the suffering be: " The first four days are really bad…". I wasn’t over with the first day yet and it was already moving from discomfit to aches. There will be worse to come for sure. It’s time to pay the piper; and this thought of what laid ahead was frightening.
I had no appetite to eat. Smoking felt bitter, and there was no strength in my muscles. It was an effort to get up to piss inside the black rubber buckets placed at one end. There were also a couple of patients who kept coming to watch – as if we were zoo animals. And they’d ask for a cigarette (I had half a carton of 555); which I’d give just to get rid of them.
CAPTION: It was something like this picture. Just replace the mattress and bed here with bed sheet and CONCRETE PLATFORM.
There was only one thing an addict in withdrawal wanted – relief. And that wasn’t forthcoming in the `primitive’ medication then. At that time, should Angelina Jolie, Claudia Schiffer or Aishwarya Rai share my cell, I would have used my leg to push them away – the skin had become super-sensitive. I couldn’t use my own hands to touch my thigh without feeling extreme discomfit. Someone else’s touch would be like an electric shock.
I received a valium pill and two sleeping tablets. But these aren’t substitutes for heroin. Although I managed to snatch a few minutes of sleep, I’d wake up abruptly with a certain panic. That was just the first day – the knowledge that it would get worse frightened me.
The following day was worse. I had been sick before, which included being hospitalised for acute asthma and bronchitis when I was 13 and 15. But the withdrawal was a lot worse – it was incomparable. At least with normal sickness, you are bound to be able to have some sleep.
Even if your body aches, it wasn’t the same kind as drug withdrawal. Time was measured in seconds – that was the longest day I had ever experienced until then. There was the fearful thought that it would actually become even worse before it gets better.
And there was the mental torment of knowing that a dose of the substance will instantly alleviate all your sufferings. How fast? If you take it by injecting (IV), the effect will be felt faster than Usain Bolt’s 9.58 seconds world record over 100 metres. These are the reasons why an addict trying to detox would fail – the immediate alternative seemed a lot more attractive than the miserable and excruciating pains.
The next morning, I decided that I couldn’t take it anymore – I was going to run away. But how? The cell was similar to a lockup. I asked Ali Afro about it and he told me how. Our cells would be opened after breakfast for us to go take a shower. The common bathroom was beside the ward – there was a big-enough opening in the wall, and there was also a hole in the chain-link fencing.
Ali didn’t want to run away, but he became the lookout while I quickly made my way out. There was a big problem after that – I had to pass by the attendants’ quarters. I was wearing a sarong, and an attendant standing in front of his house saw me. He held out his hands, as a gesture to stop me. I was thin while he was medium built. But there was fire in my eyes and expression. I kept on walking briskly towards him, waved him to move aside while firmly stating “I’m going home”. I had expected him to catch hold of me and that was that. Instead, he put his hands up as in surrender and moved aside!
My house was a mile away. I must have been like a madman. In fact I was; half-crazed by the pains and torment of withdrawal. My father was shocked and disappointed to see me. I gave the excuse that “it was extremely uncomfortable… couldn’t sleep on hard concrete… poor food… lunatics..” But he gave me the RM5 I demanded; and, with my motorcycle, made it to Leng Kang and back in record time.
I was worried about one thing – I was suffering that bad; surely the normal RM5 sachet of heroin would not be enough…? At that time, I didn’t know about what was to follow: After spiking the Lucky Strike (it was enough for two sticks) and taking no more than three puffs, I was already in a comfortable stupor. In fact, I then dozed off.
Only after that did I realise – when you had not taken the substance for a while (two days in my case) and was suffering badly from withdrawal, the body required less than usual to reach the same state. It was lucky that I had smoked it – there wasn’t any possibility of overdosing. It’s different from injecting or inhaling where all of the amount intended would be consumed instantly, and there was no turning back.
It was fortunate that my father had gone to the Welfare Department and the hospital to discharge me. At the hospital, the attendants were about to come to my house and take me back to Ward 11. After that aborted attempt to detox and be sent to a centre for six month, I was back in the routine of addiction. About five months later, in Feb 1978, I was to go far…