Brain Damage (Part 2)

 

"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.

camera2 The mind, like a camera, has captured the nice effects, which is filed in the memory; just like data in a hard disk. Previously, it was heroin = ??. Now, it becomes heroin = pleasant, dreamy, joy…

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.

mental0013 CAPTION: A real psychiatric ward, although not in Malaysia

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.

mental0002I 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.

longest-day 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…

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Shine On, You Crazy Diamond – Part 1

Why didn’t I put my foot down and stop the madness of drug addiction right there and then? Even during the time of my first addiction phase when I was in my late teenage years, I was aware of the horror stories. Instead, I just went on and on despite seeing my life deteriorating.

The answer is, perhaps, I’m in that group of people who just have to learn things the hard way; that I had to suffer first. And suffer I did.

My parents had already suspected that I might be on drugs.  Besides the relative with a grudge (after I refused to lend him my motorcycle), a distant cousin had also gotten me into trouble. She was on her way to work at a supermarket one afternoon when she saw me in the company of a notorious character, Ali Afro (due to his hair), who was two years older than me. It was also very near `a wrong place’ – Leng Kang.

This was the name of the Chinese woman with the most potent heroin in Alor Star; situated between the canal behind Cathay cinema and Hotel Mahawangsa. However, she didn’t sell it to just about anyone. That means we had to get it through someone who could `score’. Ali was one, and it was quite unfortunate that this distant cousin saw me handing money to him.

1977 was.. Saturday Night Fever year

When asked, I had refuted the allegations, of course; insisting that Ali was borrowing money from me. However, this time it was impossible to deny anymore – not when I was arrested with a RM5 sachet of heroin in my hand. This was the middle of 1977 when I was 17, and the very first time that I was arrested.

Actually, you have to be quite unlucky and/or careless to be arrested during this time. It was before the enactment of the Drug Dependants Act in 1983 — the only way the police could take action was to catch an addict when he was in possession of an illegal substance. If you weren’t carrying anything, the police had to let you go.

It was a source of frustration for the police, of course. So,` to even things up a bit’, they might detain you for a few days under pretext of investigating some crime or other. In my case, there was more than enough evidence to be charged under Section 12 (2) of the Dangerous Drugs Act:

“Any person who contravenes the provisions of subsection (2) of this section shall be guilty of an offence against this Act and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding twenty  thousand  ringgit or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or both”

I had read about such cases before – fillers of a couple of paragraphs in the newspapers; and the common sentence seemed to be… 18 months in prison. I knew of one distant cousin three years older who was also addicted. He was serving a two-year sentence due for handbag-snatching.

However, there were a couple of factors that were in my favour that night of my arrest – my age and the fact I was still in school. The police were going to give me another chance – they won’t file a report! However, they were going to take me home and inform my parents. So, two detectives went – one riding pillion on my motorcycle and the other on his Vespa scooter [for some reason, many policemen and soldiers at that time favoured this].

My father was angry. But he wasn’t too surprised. He said he had had a premonition about this; of “someone – a stranger – coming to this house to tell of your being arrested”. It was the start to the stress that I was to impose on him from the worry, embarrassment and disappointment that I was to cause over the coming years due to my addiction. My elder sister was studying medicine then, and it was his great hope that I would be studying law at University Malaya a couple of years from that [By the way, had things gone according to plan, I would have been course mates with lawyer-economist De Minimis].

Lucky Strike cigarettes
Image via Wikipedia

That incident, and the lucky break granted by the police, should have given me enough reason to pause and do something about the matter. At least that’s what any sane and normal person would have done. But addiction to heroin takes away one’s sanity – less than 30 minutes after the detectives left, I was back in town looking for the substance.

With that particular pusher in the lockup, and with my body hurting from the withdrawal, I went to Leng Kang. There was a first time to everything, and she agreed to deal with me. Hurriedly, I rode off. After stopping to buy two sticks of Lucky Strike (10 sen each) and syrup drink (20 sen), it was  to the Sultan Abdul Hamid College canteen. It was almost 11PM, but there were a few people studying there.

It was a relief to smoke the cigarette spiked with heroin; with the syrup water moistening the paper to slow down the burn rate. The immediate and drastic change from drug withdrawal to the bliss of heroin high was too much for the body. Nine times out of 10, I would vomit; and that night was no exception. And after that, all the pains and aches and anxieties were miraculously lifted, and the self was in a heroin-induced state where “everything was alright”.

It is the desire of wanting to recapture this feeling again that pulls someone who might have been clean for a few years to relapse… For one who is physically addicted, there is no choice though – either take heroin or suffer from the pain and torment.

My parents saw my worsening condition, and it must have been a sorrowful period for them. They tried everything possible. Firstly, it was to a bomoh (medium) – I was “to be treated by him for a few nights to rid my body of the addiction”. This was during a time when there was no AADK, and a time when people – including addicts – didn’t really know how to deal with the addiction.

So the bomoh, with his chants and all, also provided a cigar, which was spiked with “substances to get rid of the addiction”. I was to vomit “and bring it all out”. I don’t know how much my father had paid, but needless to say, it was totally ineffective. Then my father heard about one addict who stopped by taking Guinness stout. Despite his religious upbringing, and despite my grandmother’s objections, he bought a dozen bottles of it to help me through the withdrawal. To him, it was a case of “the lesser evil”. I ended up being high on heroin and alcohol.

The hospital wasn’t of much help either. It was a time before methadone and buprenorphine (Subuxone/Subutex) made it to our shores; no thanks to the hardline, conservative stance of the government then. There was nothing a doctor could do, except to dish out valium and sleeping pills. Now these were better than nothing but were way inadequate.

My grades in school had gotten worse, and it didn’t look like I was going to get rid of the addiction. In fact, my usage had increased. I was granted a federal scholarship, and had spent almost all of it on heroin. My father, in desperation, knew that drastic measures were called for – I was to be sent to a government drug rehabilitation centre.

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Mosquito Attack!

Stegomyia aegypti (formerly Aedes aegypti) mos...
Image via Wikipedia

I’m writing a much-delayed new post right now, in continuing from the last post of In the Name of the Father. However, there’s an invasion of hardy mosquitoes that’s interrupting it.

This species doesn’t seem to be affected by fumes from the mosquito coil! And spraying is only a temporary relief. My hands and legs are really itchy right now. Will move this laptop to under the mosquito net and type on the mattress. I just hope I don’t fall asleep before this is completed:-)

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