PHOTOGRAPH: Karel Miragaya, 123rf.com
“I was a rebellious child. Growing up, I always wanted to break the strict rules my parents set for the household. I wanted freedom. That’s why I started partying. I stayed out late at the clubs with my friends. My father would be furious.
“It was so unfair. My older brother, who is many years my senior, had been on drugs for as long as I can remember. He was wasting his life away and my parents let him get away with it. So I defiantly partied on, and partied hard. I wasn’t interested in school and eventually dropped out.
“In 2000, I turned 18. And that’s when I discovered ecstasy. It seemed that everyone I partied with had tried it. I wanted to feel included. I wanted to be able to say, ‘Yes, ice, I’ve tried it too. I know what it’s all about.’
“I started to use ice frequently. Back then, I worked as a telemarketer earning $10 an hour – enough to get by and pay for the drugs. Pretty soon, I was getting high at work but I was discreet and no one ever realised it.
“My parents knew though. Ecstasy produces a smell that is different from cigarette smoke – they could smell it in the bathroom where I sometimes lit up. They swept my bedroom, searched my wardrobe and bags. They would never find anything – I always kept my drugs on me, tucked in the pockets of my jeans or jacket.”
Down the dark path
“Eventually, I got caught in 2003, when I was 21. I was charged for consumption of ice and sentenced to 12 months in prison. When I released in 2004, the Singapore Prison Service had me wear a black ankle tag to track my whereabouts for another six months. But the moment that tag came off, I hit the streets and went back to drugs.
“A year after, I was at a party and ready to get a hit. But I couldn’t get my hands on any ice. Instead, there was heroin. And so began my destructive spiral of addiction – when I was 23.
“Soon, I was hooked. For the next three years, I would stab needles into my hip, trying to find a vein to fill with the drug. My insides would feel like they had been set on fire. I swelled and burned, but it did not stop me. I did this for years.
“On heroin, I lost my sense of reality. My brain would be shrouded in a thick fog, from which emerged voices belonging to people I loved, and others I did not recognise. I couldn’t hold down a job and could barely leave the house because of the physical effects of my heroin use.
“During festive celebrations, I would simply stay at home. I was so ashamed. What would my relatives think of me, this sickly good-for-nothing junkie?
“I tried many times to quit, but withdrawal felt no better. I would vomit, have seizures, tremble and cry. It was so awful that many times, I wanted to end my life.
“One day, I threw all my needles away. The nausea, depression and paranoia that followed kept me in bed for days. I felt so sick that I could barely breathe.
“I ended up learning to smoke heroin, called chasing the dragon, instead of injecting it. It didn’t stop or suppress my addiction. I carried on using the drug, struggling to let go and failing repeatedly.”
“I met Ben* somewhere along my drug-addled path and we fell in love. In 2008, we got engaged. I was 26 then and everything seemed to be working out, except for one tiny detail: I had kept my heroin addiction a secret from him, secretly smoking in the bathroom. .
“He only found out two years into our engagement. We were at home and I was in the bathroom, smoking heroin again. My body and mind would slow down to almost a standstill during these sessions, so I barely registered it when Ben kicked the door down. I had been in the bathroom for such a long time that he got worried.
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“Ben was no angel himself. He used ecstasy regularly. But heroin, he said, was pushing it too far. After that incident, our relationship began to sour, and friends told me they had seen him with someone else.
“I hung on for two more years until 2012, always wondering if he was cheating on me. I finally confronted Ben and ended our relationship. That was the lowest point of my life. My health was in shambles and my engagement had been called off. These only fuelled the monster that was my heroin addiction. I was ready to die.
“My mother was the one who cared for me. She let me sleep with her each night when I could not bear to sleep in my own room surrounded by the ghosts of my drug abuse.
“She took me to the Institute of Mental Health where I stayed for one night under the care of the National Addiction Management Services. She took me home when I felt I was not strong enough to stay there for another night. She taught me to pray and said only God could help me.
“Perhaps it was God who intervened through my dad. The day my father called the police on me was the day he saved my life.
“I was writhing in bed, sweating profusely yet shivering uncontrollably. I pressed my eyes shut, because when I opened them, I had double vision. In my head, voices were saying my name, whispering things to me. I was suffering from one of the worst bouts of heroin withdrawal I had ever had.
“The police came to my house and went straight to my room where my stash of heroin was quickly discovered. My older brother claimed it was all his.
“‘Leave my sister out of this!’ I remember him saying.
“But the voices in my head whispered to me, “They’re yours, they’re yours!” So I blurted out, “No, the drugs belong to me.” The police arrested my brother and me.
A fresh start
“I made the decision to start over as I sat in the police station. This would be the last time, I told myself. I was charged for possession of heroin and sentenced to close to four years in prison.
“In prison, I applied to study for my ‘N’ Levels and was accepted. For a year, I studied hard with the other girls in the prison’s academic programme. Some days, I would bury my head in my textbooks for up to eight hours without a break. My efforts paid off and I passed my exams.
“I was already 30 when I got out of prison. And I was determined to do better. I wanted to further my education and accomplish something I could be proud of. I set about finding a job, although education remained on my mind.
“A year after I got out of jail, I reconnected with Nazir*, whom I used to hang out with a teenager. I remembered him as a nice guy then. We had lost touch, and he had gone to prison as well for drug use but had just been released.
“Nazir could not have reappeared in my life at a better time. He, too, was looking to start afresh. He was done with his life of substance abuse. In prison, he had studied for his ‘A’ Levels and passed. Now, he was working towards a bachelor’s degree.
“It was he who encouraged me to apply for the Yellow Ribbon Fund Star (Skills Training Assistance to Re-start) Bursary to fund my education. The programme provides bursaries in vocational and skills training to financially needy ex-offenders.
“I went for the interview, where I was the only woman out of about 15 prospective awardees. I was granted the bursary to study for my double diploma in business. I went back to school at night three to four times a week, while working equally hard at my stable job in retail. It felt good that my life was back in order.
“At the beginning of this year, Nazir proposed and I accepted. My heart was the fullest that it has ever been. After all those years of chasing a high, this is the first time I truly felt euphoric.”
*Names have been changed.