My arms throbbed. I lay stretched out on my bed, dozing in a stupor induced in equal measure by the numbness that pervaded my body and the oppressive Singapore heat. I reached up, brought the glue to my face and took a deep breath.
The effects of every sniff had been diminishing for some time, leaving me consigned to a lack of sensation. The door opened. My father stood in the doorway, but I turned over and pretended not to noticed him. A long pause later, there was a click as it latched itself shut.
Hours later, as the sky began to turn the same shade as my arm, I heard voices at our front door, then footsteps. Then, my father’s voice:
“Madeline! Come here!”
I rolled over again.
That got me. It was unlikely my father to say that word when asking me to do anything. Muttering under my breath, I stashed the glue in a drawer and headed into the main room.
“Pa, what you want…”
I halted mid-sentence and mid-stride. Standing in the corridor outside our flat were two uniformed men. Despite the drug-induced haze I’d imposed upon myself, I understood what was happening in seconds. Even so, it was only after my father began, “Madeline, I can’t let you take drugs anymore. It’s not…” that the full ramifications of the situation sunk in.
I can’t really recall what happened immediately afterwards. The sight of those police officers, the fact of my father’s betrayal, the question of what would happen to my son and, perhaps most significantly, the rise of the fears of what would happen to me, all left me in too shocked a state to react rationally. I remember screaming then, eventually, packing my things and changing my clothes before leaving with the two officers under the stares of neighbours who were curious to know what was going on but too afraid to ask. Most of all, I remember my father’s face as he watched me leave, weighed down by my 5-year-old son in his arms but also by his fear of the future.
I think both my father and I should have been more afraid of the past. Back in primary school, I returned home late at night in the hopes of avoiding my parents’ arguments, which consisted primarily of them screaming at each other.
On day, I returned home to find that my mother wasn’t there. I was used to this, since my mother had a habit of staying with a friend after particularly bad fights; even so, I had to check with my father.
“Pa? Pa, where’s Ma?” He told me he didn’t know.
“When will she be coming back?” He said he didn’t know. I tried a last questions.
“Did she go stay with her friend…”
“This is adults’ business! Just go to your room and do your work! Go!”
I knew, even then, what my father was like when he was angry. I obeyed, expecting that I would see my mother within a few days. The next time I did, however, was in court.
A few months and various court proceedings later, my father told me that my mother would never live with us again. I was too young to really understand the concept of divorce, but I did understand that this left me with only my father who was often out working or drinking.
Once, I returned late to find that he hadn’t yet returned, leaving me locked out of the flat. I waited outside for hours, until a neighbour asked “Where’s your father?” I told him I didn’t know.
“Well, will he be back soon? It’s already past ten.” I said I didn’t know that, either.
“Do you have any where to go? If not, you could stay in our flat instead. Tonight only, okay?” Her expression was one caught between concern and trepidation. After a moment of hesitation, I agreed, and thanked her.
I woke up the next morning with my eyes red from crying. Some time during the night, I wasn’t sure when, I’d realised that my father had, for the first time, left me alone. I didn’t go to school that dat, and when he returned later in the morning, he thanked the neighbour profusely and apologised. He got me a flat key after that, but that didn’t matter… he’d finally displayed just how little he cared for me.
The fact that I now have a key, and could get into the flat regardless of his presence, led my father to spend even more time out of the house. He refused to say where he went, and I knew better to spend much time questioning him. The results of this, however, was that I started staying over at the house of a friend about once a fortnight, even well into secondary school.
In secondary one, I confided in one of my friends, a guy I’d met in primary school. I told him about my parents, my uncertainty and my belief that my father didn’t care about me. He told me that he had a solution.
“Eh, don’t worry about that lah, I know how you can feel better.”
“I met some guys at Northpoint, they can give you something for it. You wanna go on Saturday?”
“Uh…” I was unsure if I should, but he continued, “Don’t worry lah, I’ve done it before also, no trouble. You scared is it?”
Eventually, I agreed. After all, we would be meeting a fairly public area, Northpoint Mall, and if my friend had done it, it couldn’t be that bad, could it? After the first meeting we had, I was certainly happy that I’d agreed to go. My friend took me to meet his friends in a stairwell in the mall. There wee about 6 or 7 of them, and they looked to be a couple of years older than us. I couldn’t help but noticed that several sported tattoos and were smoking cigarettes. One of them stepped forward and introduced himself, “I’m Kai Xiang. Jason said you wanted to try some glue. Your name?”
I couldn’t hide my nervousness. “Mad-Madeline.” He nodded, and passed me a bag of glue. “Your first time sniffing is it?” He grinned when I told him that it was, and teh rest of the group leaned forward, interested. “Go on,” he smiled. “It’s always interesting to see how people react.”
I didn’t know what to do, so I nodded, smiled nervously, and took a deep drought of the fumes rising from the glue. For a moment, all I noticed was the sickly, cloying smell of glue. I was disappointed. “Surely, this can’t be all this is about…” My thoughts were interrupted by a tingling sensation that began in my throat, then a rush that hit me like a train. As my eyes popped and nostrils flared, I barely noticed the rest of the group laughing. I took another sniff, then another, before I knew it, it was evening, and I left, though not before agreeing to meet them the following week. My father hadn’t even noticed that I’d been gone.
For the next few weeks, I would spend the time in school looking forward to meeting the group at Northpoint, and had difficulty concentrating in lessons. I started bringing glue home to sniff throughout teh week. Eventually, in secondary two, my teachers decided that they’d had enough.
I stood, sullen, with my hands behind my back. My father was sitting on my left, looking anxious. In front of me, the principal steepled her hands and looked at me across the top of her desk. She opened her mouth, “Madeline, what have you been doing in class?” I shrugged.
“I’ve spoken to you before, and I’ve told you that you can’t keep missing lessons like this. You’re failing all your subjects! At this rate, you won’t be promoted to secondary 3.” I muttered something under my breath, but she caught it.
“What did you say?”
“It’s okay, Madeline, you can tell me. Come on.” She gave me what she clearly thought was an understanding look, although both the me of back then and th me of now didn’t believe it one bit I decided to tell her anyway.
“I don’t really care if I’m promoted, ma’am. I want to quite school.”
Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped. Her surprise was so comical that I wold have laughed, if I weren’t still reeling from the courage of my own declaration. Her head jerked, and she looked over at my father, sitting on a chair next to me. “Have you discussed this with her, Mr Lim?” she asked. My father nodded, and they began a conversation. I caught snatches where they discussed career prospects and teh like, but I was, for the most part, too preoccupied with thoughts of freedom to notice. No longer would I have to waste tim in school, and no longer would I have to answer pointless questions about where I’d been. Given the fact that my father was only ever at home at night, I could do whatever I wanted during the day. The principal wasn’t happy with it, and we had to talk to some MOE officials, but within a week, I was officially no longer a student in the education system.
Over the next couple of years, my life devolved into a daily routine of glue sniffing punctuated by meals, as I tried to reach the next high. I spend most of the time out with my cirlce of friends from Northpoint Mall. To fund our addiction, we served as runners for loan sharks and bookies. Occasionally, we would even resort to shoplifting. Once, when I was sixteen, I was stopped as I wandered through the mall after a day of glue sniffing.
“Madeline? Is that you? Hi! what’ve you been doing?” I stared confusedly at a girl my age, whom I didn’t really recognised. “Sorry, I don’t think I know you…” I mumbled, as I attempted to brush past the girl. “Don’t know me?” she cried, looking surprised. “Madeline! It’s you, isn’t it? I’m Patricia! You used to stay ver at my house, remember?”
Patricia… the name was familiar, although my mind was far too fuzzy to recall who she was. Her voice cut through my aching brain again, “We were in the sae class from P4 to P6! Surely, you haven’t forgotten me?” I paused, unsure of how I should respond. Finally, I pretended to recognise her, and said hello, but quickly made an excuse about having to meet someone and left.
By the time I got home that night, I was unsure if I’d really run into someone from primary school, or if I had just dreamt the whole episode. My mind was still clouded by the effects of glue sniffing, and left me unable to even recall what the girl looked like. I dug through my things from primary school and pulled out my primary six yearbook.
“Let’s see… What class was I in? 6, uh, 6… 6J, right?” I muttered to myself, as I flipped through the pages. However, I scanned the class picture f 6J, and found no mention of my name nor my face. An old textbook informed me that I had been in 6H, but when I flipped to the picture, I stopped.
“This is me, but… who’s this? I don’t recognised him… or him, or her. That’s… That’s the girl from just now, right? Patricia?” The only person I could definitely recall was Jason, whom I’d been seeing regularly over the past few years. The rest, however, were unfamiliar. The realisation that I could no longer recognise people from my past, whom I had known well, and that my grip on reality was loosening, was one of the things that persuaded me to stop sniffing glue later that year. The other was that I found out I was pregnant.
Finding out that I was pregnant was one of the most shocking events of my life. My relationship with one of the others in the group had grown intimate, and I was aware of he statistical risks, but I had never actually thought that I would become pregnant. I stopped sniffing glue immediately, since I knew it would be bad for the child. After the father refused to accept responsibility, I no longer hung out with the friends I had met at Northpoint, not did I respond to their attempts to contact me. In fact, I succeeded in going off glue for an entire year. My father was supportive of my decision to keep the child, and helped me look after him. For a while, it seemed that I had stopped for good, although I would occasionally think about glue sniffing. I even managed to get a job in a pub — ultimately, however, that job led me back to sniffing glue.
I was working a late night, as usual, and nearing the end of my shift. I was tired, and the baby had been keeping me from sleeping at home. I headed over the latest group to arrive. One of them looked up. “Five tigers, one… Madeline, that you?” With a shock of recognition, I realised that I was looking straight at Jason. He asked, “You want to join us when your shift is over?” I did, I talked with them about what had happened over the past year, and told them that I’d stopped sniffing glue because I was pregnant.
I met up with them a few times over the next few weeks. Initially, I was reluctant to join them in their glue sniffing, but my resolve weakened in the face of cajoling. And just like that, I started sniffing glue again.
Eventually, my father thought it was too much, and called the police. I had a lot of time to think in rehab, and I realised many things.
I entered the centre still shocked that my father would betray me like that. After all, my father had no right at all to send me here, no right, and my anger only intensified when I was led to a cell-like room that, I was told, would be my home for the next 5 months.
I myself had no withdrawal symptoms from stopping, which was unsurprising given that I’d stopped before, although others in the centre weren’t so lucky. On the fourth day, I was sitting in my room before bed when there was a commotion in the hallway. I rushed to see what was going on. A fellow addict was lying on a gurney and being wheeled to the medical area. I realised that all along the hallway, faces had appeared in doors as everyone tried to see what was going on. Nobody, however, had the courage to ask. An orderly later told me that the man had suffered severe withdrawal symptoms, and had been sent to the hospital. When I asked why, the orderly gave a short, humourless laugh. “The more addicted someone is, the worse their withdrawal symptoms. He must have been on serious drugs for a while now, “she explained, “and I guess you’re lucky if you haven’t had any.” I probably was lucky that I didn’t suffer from withdrawal symptoms, although I think I was more lucky to have only been a glue sniffer and not a user of heroin or other “hard” drugs.
Over time, my anger at my father turned to concern. I talked about him to my counsellor, a woman named Cynthia. “Are you angry?” she asked. “No, not really.” I replied. She cocked an eyebrow, “That’s good. Why not?”
I was taken aback by the question. I hesitated, then continued, “Because I’m worried about him. He has cancer, and he’s undergoing chemotherapy now, and without me to look after him or my son, I really don’t know what’s going to happen.” I stopped, and was surprised to find tears running down my cheeks. I talked about my entire life with Cynthia, beginning from my parents’ divorce to my first time sniffing glue to my pregnancy and then to how I’d ended up in rehab. At that point, I began to realise that glue sniffing had never really been a means to solve my problems, and I carried that knowledge into the first visit I had.
A few weeks after I entered rehab, my father made an appointment to visit me, I was ushered into the visiting room, where I sat, waiting, not entirely sure how I would react when I saw him. After an eternity, the door opened, and my father stood in the doorway holding my son’s hands. He moved into the room and sat down opposite me. For a moment, neither of us said anything. Then, he broke the silence.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t want to do it.”
I had known, from long before the visit, that he would say something like that. Somehow, I still hadn’t decided how I was going to respond. In that moment, I didn’t; my mouth worked furiously, with no sound, and then I said the first thing that came to mind, “How’s your treatment, pa?” I hated myself for doing it, for not dealing with the issue at hand, but he seemed to know that I was struggling to deal with the subject. He said, “It’s going fine. Madeline, I wanted to ask, how’re you.. how, how are you doing?” He was choking back sobs, and tears were running down his face in tiny rivulets. Before I knew it, we were both embracing each other and crying. I doubt my son understood what was happening, but he stayed quiet and hugged me around the waist, too.
Afterwards, we talked about my son’s daycare, my father’s treatment, and the rehab centre; we avoided the subject of how I’d landed there in the first place. We both knew that it didn’t need to be discussed. When the visiting hours were up, my father took his grandson and walked him out of the room. Just as they reached the door, my son turned to look at me. “Be good,” I said. He asked, “Why aren’t you coming home with me?” I almost started crying again, but held myself together and told him that I couldn’t. As my father carried him away, I could hear him beginning to cry, in the loud, bawling fashion that young children have. This time, I couldn’t control my tears.
By the time I left the centre, 6 months later, I had changed substantially. I had cropped my hair short, and had lost a lot of weight; when I first left, neither my son nor my father was able to immediately recognise me. Past the physical changes, however, I had also resolved not to take drugs or sniff glue again in the future. I’d realised that the addiction would keep me from my children and family. Another factor that has subsequently come into the picture is my husband, whom I met in the rehabilitation centre. He told me that his mother had passed away while he was in rehab… with my father suffering from cancer and undergoing chemotherapy treatment, I would never forgive myself if I were committed to another stint in rehabilitation and he passed away while I was in the centre.
Yesterday, I returned home from work as an administrative staffer in a bank. It’s a job Cynthia helped me get, along with funds for part-time schooling at ITE (Bishan). As I entered the door of the flat, my oldest child, now almost 8, hugged me around the waist and yelled excitedly about his school day. My father told me how my three children had been that day, as he now looks after them and cooks the meals when my husband and I are working. I suspect he might be trying to make up for his neglect when I was young, although I don’t think he needs to. Whatever the case, it ensures that my children always have someone around to guide them, so that they avoid taking the same route that both I and my husband did.
I am taking my “N” Levels this year. More than being a part-time student, though, I am also a working adult, a wife, a daughter and a mother of three. It is all these things that prevent me from returning to drug abuse.