Trav­el­ers on the hid­den path to obliv­ion

The chal­lenge faced by drug abusers in get­ting clean can seem in­sur­mount­able but re­cent find­ings have spurred so­ci­ety to un­der­stand their prob­lem more thor­oughly. Honey Tsang re­ports.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FOCUS - Con­tact the writer at hon­eyt­sang@chi­nadai­lyhk.com

(right) and Yip Siu-ping, reg­is­tered so­cial worker, who has coun­seled Wing for years, was play­ing bas­ket­ball in Au Tau Youth Cen­ter.

He snorted his first line of ke­tamine a decade ago. At 17, Wing learned how to con­tact deal­ers and buy a HK$100 small bag he would share with friends. Af­ter a while, his crav­ings be­came fe­ro­cious. He’d load up on four sacks at a time. He didn’ t share with his friends any more. He’d hole up at his place and snort him­self to obliv­ion for HK$800 a day, all on his own.

Wing was a wreck by the time he was 23. The drugs con­trolled his life and left him feel­ing very much alone. He asked for help.

He’s been in and out of re­hab for four years. It’s pretty hard to shake the “mon­key on his back”. Once he climbed over the wall to get out of a re­hab fa­cil­ity, re­claim­ing his “free­dom” so he could get a dose, crav­ing the full-body buzz ke­tamine brought to him — a sur­real feel­ing as if he was sail­ing aloft, eas­ing away all his anx­i­ety. Then a nasty hal­lu­ci­na­tion would pitch him back into the depths.

For as much as he told him­self he was de­ter­mined to quit, he’d fall back. He knew his next re­lapse would come in only a mat­ter of hours. His ac­quain­tances re­marked on his in­sa­tiable hunger for plea­sure.

Last year, at 26, he made another re­solve to get clean. To do that, he in­tended to get ar­rested, so he tossed a small bag of ke­tamine onto the street in Wan Chai. The cops came and ar­rested him. He’d dumped enough in the bag to get him put on pro­ba­tion.

“My im­pulse was so in­tense that no sin­gle thing or per­son could con­trol it,” Wing said. “I had no choice but to re­sort to the law, and to hope the pro­ba­tion or­der would force me to quit.”

Che­ung Ching-kit, a reg­is­tered so­cial worker who coun­sels drug ad­dicts, said peo­ple who aren’t into the drug scene don’t re­ally un­der­stand what’s go­ing on. They see drug abuse as a moral fail­ing on the part of the abuser.

In a pri­vate ex­change with China Daily, Lam Ming, a con­sul­tant at the Tuen Mun Al­co­hol & Drug De­pen­dence Unit of Gen­eral Adult Psy­chi­a­try at Cas­tle Peak Hos­pi­tal, pointed out that drug ad­dic­tion is in fact a chronic ill­ness, not the re­sult of a dam­aged psy­che.

The chem­i­cals found in drugs, he said, can al­ter and im­pair the brain’s struc­tures and func­tion­ing. This will gen­er­ate a tran­si­tion from oc­ca­sional drug use to a se­vere ad­dic­tion, and makes re­lapses so com­mon among ad­dicts.

Go­ing un­der­ground

Hong Kong’s Cen­tral Reg­istry of Drug Abuse (CRDA) has re­ported a con­tin­ual drop in the num­ber of drug abusers. The CRDA is a vol­un­tar y drug-abuse re­port­ing mech­a­nism mon­i­tored by the gov­ern­ment. The re­ported num­ber was 10,260 in 2013; it dropped by 11.7 per­cent to 9,059 in 2014; and dropped another 5 per­cent to 8,598 last year.

The au­thor­i­ties were con­tent they had their time­line straight, be­liev­ing drug abusers were du­ti­fully re­port­ing their his­tory of first abuse.

Back in 2009 peo­ple were turn­ing up to the sys­tem with just 2.1 years of us­ing. Then in 2015, a whole new pop­u­la­tion sud­denly ap­peared and the av­er­age time of abuse jumped to 5.8 years. Where had all these peo­ple been?

Back in 2009 when high school stu­dents were col­laps­ing un­con­scious in pub­lic parks, the au­thor­i­ties started a ma­jor crack­down on drugs. That’s when the num­bers started to skew.

“We’ve been so con­cerned about the hid­den drug abuse prob­lem in the city,” said Tam C hi-wah, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the So­ci­ety for the Aid and Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of Drug Abusers (SARDA), a non-gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion which has aided drug abusers since 1961.

“The in­creased years of drug his­tory is re­veal­ing of the fact that the mo­ti­va­tion for abusers to seek help is spec­tac­u­larly low. This makes it harder to dis­cover their cases and lend help,” Tam added.

Wing , who asked for his real iden­tity to be with­held, was one among the many young drug abusers in town who went into hid­ing, out of sight and out of mind of the au­thor­i­ties who mis­tak­enly be­lieved the war on drugs was pretty well won and all that re­mained was the mop­ping up.

Wing hushed up his ke­tamine fix­a­tion for six years. Only his fam­ily, a few friends and the deal­ers he used knew the truth.

Ke­tamine, also known as a club drug, is cheap, pow­dered, and easy to carr y. Its with­drawal ef­fec ts are less de­bil­i­tat­ing than those of heroin and opium. It started show­ing up in town around 2000 and quickly be­came cat­nip to young­sters look­ing for a cheap high, Tam ex­plained.

In 2015, ke­tamine was the third most com­mon type of drug in Hong Kong. Metham­phetamine, also known as ice, had moved into sec­ond place. Heroin still tops the list of il­licit drugs, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est of­fi­cial re­port on the city’s drug abuse sit­u­a­tion.

Wing, who was a con­struc­tion worker, was earn­ing up to HK$40,000 a month. He would have been do­ing well if he hadn’t lav­ished all his money on drugs. He was also re­cov­er­ing from a bro­ken re­la­tion­ship. He was lonely and feel­ing like a fail­ure, and on top of it all he was bur­dened with a sense of guilt.

As hap­pens with drug abusers, his body had be­come in­creas­ingly re­sis­tant to the ef­fects of ke­tamine. He had to keep in­creas­ing the doses un­til he was tak­ing it ev­ery few hours, a gram at a time. The highs weren’ t as good as they used to be. He no longer got “de­light­fully numb”, as he de­scribed it. Wing pro­gressed up the drug lad­der. In 2014, he started do­ing co­caine.

He said he was shoot­ing up around HK$3,000’s worth a day. That was dou­ble his in­come. He took out a big loan to sup­port his habit. Fi­nally, he fig­ured he’d had enough.

In most cases, abusers mis­use drugs to put them­selves in a men­tal haze, want­ing to be free from all the stress and strains of un­fil­tered life. Only when it’s too late do they rec­og­nize they are ad­dicted.

Re­search by the Cen­sus and Statis­tics Depart­ment in 2015 con­firmed that many re­ported drug abusers get onto drugs be­cause they are bored, de­pressed or can’t han­dle the stress of their day-to-day life. Only a few of them said they took drugs just to get high.

Causes of re­lapse

In o n e s t u d y t i t l e d “Fa c i n g Ad­dic­tion in Amer­ica”, pub­lished in Novem­ber by Vivek Murthy, the sur­geon gen­eral in the United States, re­searchers found out the struc­tural changes in the brain — or neuro-adap­ta­tions — caused by pro­longed drug use per­sist long af­ter users have ab­stained from drugs. This ex­plains why over 60 per­cent of pa­tients sur­veyed re­lapsed within the first year af­ter fin­ish­ing their re­hab pro­grams.

There’s no doubt the first use of drugs is an act of free will. The re­port, how­ever, ar­gued peo­ple should show com­pas­sion for drug abusers who try and fail re­peat­edly to quit drugs. The try­ing and fail­ing are ef­fects of the neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cal changes, the re­port sug­gested.

Since Wing turned him­self in, he’s been com­mit­ted un­der a pro­ba­tion or­der to Au Tau Youth Cen­ter to un­dergo re­hab in a res­i­den­tial pro­gram. He’s been off drugs for over a year now, the long­est stretch he’s stayed straight in over a decade.

He can’t slack off. He’s still learn­ing to chan­nel his stress and he’s taken up Thai box­ing. He finds ex­er­cis­ing an ef­fec­tive al­ter­na­tive to tak­ing drugs.

“Putting a drug user with a long ad­dic­tion his­tory in re­hab is sim­i­lar to a tod­dler learn­ing how to walk,” said Yip Siu-ping, a reg­is­tered so­cial worker and as­sis­tant to the su­per­in­ten­dent of the SARDA . “They have to fall many times be­fore they man­age to make progress.”

In­ter­ven­tion­ist ap­proach

Through­out 2015, 4,7 17 peo­ple were ar­rested for drug of­fenses in Hong Kong. Among them, 2,768 were caught for se­ri­ous drug of­fenses, in­clud­ing drug man­u­fac­tur­ing, traf­fick­ing or pos­sess­ing large quan­ti­ties of il­le­gal drugs. The rest, 1,949 in­di­vid­u­als — in­clud­ing Wing — were ar­rested for mi­nor breaches, such as be­ing caught in pos­ses­sion of small amounts of drugs for per­sonal con­sump­tion.

In a bid to com­bat the hid­den drug prob­lem, the city’s gov­ern­ment has fo­cused on stem­ming il­le­gal drug sup­plies in town, through in­ter­dict­ing im­port of il­le­gal drugs and step­ping up the pa­trol of some dru­gabuse black spots.

In 2015, the city’s two law en­force­ment agen­cies, the po­lice and the cus­toms, to­gether seized 499 kg of ke­tamine, 356 kg of metham­phetamine, 227 kg of co­caine, and 27 kg of heroin.

How peo­ple re­act to drug ad­dic­tion has an enor­mous im­pact on whether abusers come out of the shad­ows. The stigma at­tached to ad­dic­tion is in­cen­tive enough to keep the prob­lems away from pub­lic view. That con­trib­utes to the city­wide prob­lem of hid­den drug abuse, Tam said.

See­ing that the hid­den abuser has lit­tle mo­tive to come for­ward, fam­ily and friends of abusers should take the ini­tia­tive to re­port sus­pected cases and min­i­mize the dam­age through an early in­ter­ven­tion, Tam sug­gested.

“Go­ing on a detox is in fact an im­pos­si­bly chal­leng­ing and time­con­sum­ing task, given your brain has been com­pletely hi­jacked by drugs,” Wing said.

Wing’s life has be­come tamer now. He has sev­eral per­sonal trainer certifications. He is plan­ning to be a coach some­time later. This is a life he’d longed for, a life so clean and or­ga­nized, a life he for­feited his free­dom and rep­u­ta­tion in ex­change for a crim­i­nal record, just to rein in his drug jones.

PARKER ZHENG / CHINA DAILY PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Wing (alias), who had hushed up his drugs habit for six years, has come to a hard-line de­ci­sion to quit since 2015. Wing

PARKER ZHENG / CHINA DAILY

Tam Chi-wah, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the So­ci­ety for the Aid and Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of Drug Abusers, said hid­den drug abuse has been ram­pant in Hong Kong, poi­son­ing the city on the quiet.

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