Think back to the time when you were around the age of thirteen, when you were caught in that awkward transition between the blissful innocence of childhood and there complex struggles of teenage life. Do you recall the mildly sweet aroma of freshly-mown grass which surrounded you during P.E. class? How about the potent pangs of anxiety you felt on your first day of secondary school? It’s little wonder that many consider the age of thirteen to fourteen to be the most carefree period of their lives. For me, however, my memories of these supposedly idyllic years are tainted with aromas and pangs of an entirely different nature. My name is Vijay, and here is my story.
Math lesson that day seemed to last forever.
My insufferably boring teacher just could not stop droning on about quadratic formulae and factorisation, concepts which I would have struggled to grasp even in the best of conditions. The oppressive heat of a Tuesday afternoon only seemed to slowly broil my already-confused brain, rendering my concerted efforts to pay attention completely useless.
Glancing to my right, I caught the eye of Adam, one of my best friends, who looked every inch as bored as I was. He beckoned me to lean slightly closer.
He firmly pressed a small rectangular packet into my hands whispering in a conspiratorial undertone, “I managed to get four of them for you. No need to pay me, my treat.”
It was the latest fad amongst my closely-knit gang of friends. Almost all of them had sampled these sleeping pills, and according to them, it was an amazing experience.
Hearing them describing the euphoric “highs” they had reached with the help of these pills did not just pique my interest: it made me feel slightly alienated from my social circle. To me, the mysterious and exclusive nature of taking these pills seemed like an initiation ritual — a unique, bonding experience shared between my friends. After days of incessant pestering, I managed to persuade Adam to get me a couple of the pills from what he called his “secret source”.
I flashed him a roguish grin. “Thanks bro,” I muttered under my breath, as I swiftly pocked the packet.
Due to that tiny packet, the rest of the lesson flashed by as my friends and I waited for a good time to try the pills. As we had done almost every day after school, we trooped to our usual haunt at a nearby playground. I had often watched silently as a few of my friends got high from eating sleeping pills, or sniffing glue. This time, however, was different. As my friends casually pressed their own pills against their lips, I was still struggling to remove a single pill from the tiny packet which Adam handed me.
My heart thudded rapidly against my bony cage of my ribs as I gazed warily down at the pill I held in my hand. It certainly didn’t look special in any way — just a little pink plastic capsule which I could get off the shelf at any local pharmacy. I told myself that I could walk away at any moment, reminding myself that I wasn’t being forced into taking the pill. However, the alluring and mysterious ecstasy which the pill promised to bring to me soon overtook my initial fears. Hands trembling, I mustered the resolve to put that very pill on the tip of my tongue. I took a small sip of water, I swallowed.
Initially, my head started throbbing violently, like it was being squeezed tightly. I clutched my head and let out an audible groan. Sensing my discomfort, Adam motioned that I should continue imbibing more pills into order to relieve the pain. It seemed counter-intuitive, but I reasoned to myself that since I had already take the first step by swallowing one sleeping pill, it was entirely reasonable for me to swallow two or three, in order to reach that elusive “high”. Shoving two more pills into my mouth, I gulped them down with a liberal mouthful of water.
I instantly felt the pressure in my cranium melt away, as a soothing, warm sensation spread throughout my entire body. This sudden rush made me shiver involuntarily, as my mind temporarily ceased to function normally.
For the first three months of my sleeping pill abuse, I found that I could control my drug-induced “high” with sheer willpower, especially when I limited my intake of pills. This only heightened my sense of personal invincibility and my dependance on drugs. Within a few weeks, I started smoking marijuana so as to amplify the effects of my drug-induced rush.
At first, I had little doubt that I could control the pill.
Remember when you were fifteen, and in the midst of the secondary school academic rat rat? At fifteen, you would probably have experienced the giddy euphoria of adolescent love, and discovered some of the harsher realities of everyday life. My life at the age of fifteen was anything but typical. It is at this age when my life started spiraling sharply downward into the abyss of self-destruction and despair.
Why was mum being so damn unreasonable?
It wasn’t my fault that my Science teacher decided to spring a surprise Chemistry test on us one whole week before the exams. Nor was it my fault that I shouted at her for lecturing me about my grades. It was my life, and I was doing all right. It has been two years since I first started consuming sleeping pills and smoking marijuana, and I felt perfectly fine. In fact, I had become such a “pro” at taking these drugs that they no longer have me the same rush anymore. Eventually, I developed a chronic, piercing headache which could only be soothe by smoking marijuana once a day.
This all changed when I started working as a part-time dishwasher at a nearby eatery. I did not earn a lot of money, but it was certainly far more that the meagre allowance my mum gave me. Through Adam’s contacts, I managed to get my hands on some heroin, which took my drug experience to an entirely new level.
In the beginning, my first injection of heroin gave such an intense feeling of euphoria I almost blacked out. As the days wore on, it took more and more heroin at shorter and shorter intervals to achieve the exact same feeling. It was like the flu — as my body slowly developed a tolerance to the drug, it was only natural that I had to take more of it to get the same result.
“Vijay, this is unacceptable, young man! Do you want to be retained?” My mother’s irritatingly shrill voice derailed my train of thought. She rudely strode into my room, clutching my most recent report card in her hand.
What the hell. Who was she to scold me like that? Something deep down within me seemed to crack. “Look mum, I’m doing perfectly FINE. Can you leave me ALONE?” I roared back, snatching my report card from her hands.
“I’m warning you, Vijay, DON’T push me.” Her words were firm, with an edge of steel.
This was incredibly stupid. I was tired, annoyed, and my headache has returned, throbbing furiously. I had made a personal decisions to take drugs and to accept the consequences, My mum was clearly just being painfully overprotective.
“Look, I don’t care if I got an A, B, C or F for all my subjects, ok? I don’t care if I have to be retained, or that my teacher wants to see you. Bu I DO care that you are nosing around in my life, and THAT is pushing me too far.”
For a moment, there was silence. Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw a blur. I felt a sharp, painful sting on my cheek, Through my teary eyes, I saw my mother’s lips part again, emitting a wall of sound which crashed all around me in a cacophonous symphony.
I really didn’t give a damn anymore.
There is certain duality to everything in life. We cannot discern what constitutes goodness if there is no Evil to compare it against. Darkness can only exist because of the absence of light. Our actions carry weight only because there are consequences attached. I had convinced myself that I was ready to face up to the consequences of my actions, and willingly accept my fate. What I did not realise, however, was that there can be no pleasure without pain.
“I rather see you go to rehab than watch you die before my eyes!” Tears streamed down my mother’s weathered face as two uniformed policemen dragged me away.
So it had come down to this. This laughable pathetic attempt at separating me from my drugs would not succeed. I couldn’t possibly be detained or more than three, four months, could I? Would I even have to be locked away for that long? Was there any way at all for me to get my fix of heroin?
These questions raced through my mind as I was bundled into a police van and handcuffed to the door from the inside. My hands grew clammy, while perspiration pooled around my neck and armpits. A deep sense of betrayal welled up deep inside me. I would never thought that my own mother, my own flesh and blood, would be willing to condemn me to a life of misery in a drug rehabilitation centre, The very thought made me sick to the stomach.
As the van trundled over the poorly paved roads, every bump over every pothole made the vehicle shudder ominously, shaking me like a rag doll. It was a fitting sign: I thought bitterly, that my life was entirely out of my hands now.
I could only wait.
Tantalus, a prominent figure in Greek mythology, was one of the few who managed to successfully escape the horrors of hell. The Lord of the Underworld, Hades, caught Tantalus and cast him into the deepest depths of Tartarus, cursing him with the most terrible punishment: to stand in a deep pool of fresh water beneath a fruit tree with low branches of eternity. Every time Tantalus reached down for water or up for fruit, it would be tantalisingly close but out of reach. I now understand how Tantalus felt, to experience that agonising thirst and that endless hunger.
It was so dark.
It was the kind of darkness that lurks under your ned, the darkness which creeps around you in the middle of the night, the kind which does not just surround but permeates the very air you breathe. The darkness suffocated me. As I walked down the grim, endless hallways of the drug rehabilitation centre, I could feel the darkness wrapping around me, threatening to overwhelm me. When I looked deep into the eyes of my fellow addicts, the darkness stared right back at me, boring directly into my soul. The entire institution seemed to sap away the person whom you used to be, replacing it with impenetrable nothingness.
Every fibre in my body strained desperately against this oppression. Time itself played tricks on my mind. At times when I was trapped within the claustrophobic confines of my cell, I could literally sense the passing of every millisecond I could hear the metronomic ticks of the wall clock with stunning clarity. A single minute felt like an hour, an hour felt like an eternity. When I was allowed into the canteen to interact with fellow inmates, or permitted even a minuscule amount of recreation time, the hours seemed to flash by with vulgar speed. Before I knew it, I was back in my stone-walled tomb, forced to go cold turkey from drugs in chilling isolation.
A biochemist will tell you that the ingestion of heroin provides an addict with a transcendent state of euphoria, which occur because diacetylmorphine is being metabolised into 6-monoacetylmorphine and morphine in the brain. He will tell you that the drug alters an addict’s neuroplasticity and disrupts the brain’s normal chemical balance, creating a dependance on the substance.
He cannot tell you, however, about the intense torment which grips you when you try to go cold turkey. He cannot tell you about the sleepless nights which seem to drag on forever, while sweat pours from every burning pore in your body, or the tortuous days you have to suffer through while your head threatens to explode. He can never imagine what it is like to have every single joint in your body ache while your legs shake uncontrollably.
He has not been to hell and back.
Almost paradoxically to me, the excruciating pain was the only thing which was able to pierce through the dense veil of darkness which had descended around me. With surprising clarity, I realised that my addiction to drugs was far worse than I had ever imagined, and that something had to be done. Instead of controlling the drugs, they had ended up controlling me. Each time, I found myself back within the oppressive confines of the drug rehabilitation centre. I resolved to rid myself of the scourge of drugs once and for all.
Each time, I failed.
When we were all young, inquisitive toddlers, we learned to count. Slowly and painstakingly, our preschool teachers made us all stretch out our stubby fingers, and repeat after her. It’s been quite a long time, but I still vaguely remember my own preschool teacher patiently smiling down at me as I struggled to count from one to twenty. Again and again I failed, but she kept persisting until I eventually mastered the skill. These are memories that have suddenly floated to the forefront of my consciousness, memories which I clung on to during my final prison sentence. Little did I know, however, that these fond recollections would soon be brought back to life: this time with a sinister twist.
“One.” The harsh voice of the prison warden combed.
My face contorted in pain as the stiff prison cane thwacked mercilessly against the tender flash of my buttocks. For a split second, I could feel the thin rod impact against my skin, causing my entire body to go numb. Almost instantaneously afterwards, an intense, white-hot bolt of pain shot through my buttocks, spreading through my trembling body. I bit my lower lip to avoid crying out.
The second strike was worse than the first. The cane struck the exact spot on my body, chewing into the red, raw flesh which was already present. The pain was beyond excruciating —like someone had taken a steaming iron and laid it across my buttocks. I couldn’t control myself anymore. A weak whimper escaped from my mouth as my eyes started to water.
I was now sobbing uncontrollably, mucus streaming out of my nostrils as my whole body shook violently. The biting cold air in the room seemed to attack the open wound on my buttocks, grating again the broken skin. My head almost exploded from the torment, as the pain reached an unbelievably agonising crescendo. This had to stop. I just could not take it any longer.
“Please… please sir, may the next four strokes be postponed to a later date?” I managed a barely audible, hoarse whisper.
Through a haze of pain, I could hear the prison warden conferring with a medical officer who was standing nearby.
My heart sank when the prison warden responded. “No, that is not possible. All cane strokes must be finished today. Prepare for the fourth stroke.”
I tried to brace myself mentally for the next few strokes, but it was of little protection against the venomous strikes which seared against my buttocks. All I can remember was being groggily forced to my feet after the ordeal, after antiseptic cream was being dabbed onto my wound. Every step I took for the next few days made me wince as my coarse prison trousers grazed against my raw flesh. For nights after the punishment, my harrowing experience came back to haunt me in my sleep, tormenting me even as I lay in a deep slumber.
Yet, I somehow found the will to fight on.
Within the grim confines of prison, I found myself interacting a lot more with older inmates, who were drug addicts themselves This time, when I stared into their eyes, shared their joy and empathised with their sorrows, I did not only see darkness. Instead, I saw myself.
I had made the same mistakes which they did; I had walked on the same wretched path which they had. The only difference was that they had been doing it for far longer than me, and they had experienced even greater hardships in their lives. It was then that I did not just realised that I had gone astray; it was then that I decided to steer my life back on course. It is hard to explain exactly what had changed, but I knew that something was different this time. Even though I was thirty years old, I was still behaving as immaturely as a child, depending on my family to support me.
It is only in the darkness where you see stars.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, but I was glad that I could not travel back. And be one traveller, long I stood and looked down one as far as I could.
It was a narrow trail, strewn with rubbish, barely visible beneath the coarse undergrowth which had sprung up all around it. Yet, the trail continued on as far as the eye could see in a straight line, never wavering, never stopping. The other was smooth and well-paved, sloping gently downhill. It seemed to beckon invitingly toward me, trying to lure me into placing my feet on its comforting surface. Yet, the trail was almost vulgar in its width, twisting and turning throughout the wood.
Difficult though it may be; I am glad to say that I chose the straight and narrow, and that has made all the difference.
I wasn’t very good at English Literature while I was still in school, but somehow, one particular poem resonated deeply with me when I read it. It was “The Raod Not Taken” by Robert Frost, and to this day, I can recite the entire poem by heart. I really can’t appreciate the artistic technicalities of this work, nor can I tell you precisely what kind of poem it is. However, Robert Frost writes about something every one of us can probably relate to — period of time in our lives when we are torn between two opposing decisions of unbelievable magnitude and are forced to make a choice.
For me, I was confronted with a choice between continuing my sinful life of drug-fuelled hedonism, and a life free of these demonic substances. While my choice may not have been as easy as simply walking down a picturesque forest road, I am very glad to say that I decide to live a drug-free life and have never looked back.
The journey from becoming a hard core heroid and marijuana addict to someone completely free from drugs is one which never truly ends. I have cut off all contacts with my old “friends”, and have sworn never to mix with the wrong company again. Alcohol and tobacco, which were once part and parcel of my everyday life, have now been replaced by soft drinks and the occasionally pack of candy.
My belief in Islam has also been a strong pillar of support, providing me the determination to carry on whenever I feel close to temptation. Slowly but surely, my dependence on drugs is being purged from my body.
I cannot thank my family and counsellor enough for their support as well. They have stood by me through thick and thin, rain or shine. I may not have been the perfect son, but my mother loved me all the same. Despite my regular tantrums and drug-fuelled rages, she never gave up on me.
My eldest brother, who was once a drug addict himself, provided me invaluable first-hand tips on how to combat heroin addiction, and ensured that I didn’t stray from a drug-free life. My counsellor from the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association pointed me in the right direction when I was about to stray, and ensured that I was strict with myself even in times of frustration. Without the loving care and concern showered upon me, I am not sure that I would be telling my story today.
Today, I work as a lorry driver, and have been happily married for over a year. I’m expecting a son soon, and I really hope I’ll be a great friend and father to him. With a little bit of luck and a liberal amount of guidance, I’m sure that he will grow into a successful young man and lead a drug-free life.
The future looks bright, indeed.