Kicking the habit

A former drug dependant speaks about what it is like to live with an addiction.

“This is my only vice these days,” smirks Rudolph*, as he lights up his cigarette. “I swear I’ve actually cut it back quite a bit — a pack lasts me maybe a month or more. It’s only for when I’m feeling a bit nervous.” Having arrived straight from his job at a multinational company, the 41-year-old is still in his well-tailored office wear, and looks slightly out of place in the rundown eatery we are at in the middle of the city. He assures me that he is more than comfortable with the location, saying it’s favourite spot to “people watch”.

“Take those two, they look like they’re probably on ice (crystal meth),” he says, gesturing at an innocuous, if slightly scruffy, young couple walking past. “You can guess by their teeth; I don’t know it’s because of the teeth grinding (a common symptom of those who regularly ingest the drug) or the meth itself, but always the teeth.”

Whether or not this armchair diagnosis is accurate or not, Rudolph certainly does know about drugs — after all, he used to be addicted to them. “It’s almost a stereotype in my industry, but no one would have ever guessed I was a user,” he saya. “To this day, only my immediate family, my wife, and a few close friends know.

For the most part of Malaysia’s long-standing war against drugs, heroin consistently remained as the choice drug for many substance abusers. Data from 2008 to 2012 shows that almost half of drug abusers had consumed heroin, and one thirds had misused morphine. Since then however, studies show that a declining trend in heroin misuse, coinciding with a rise in methamphetamine in its place.

Heroin is an opioid derived from morphine, a substance found in the seed pods of certain types of poppy plants. Avid fans of cop dramas may recognise heroin as a white powder, and is usually sold “cut” with sugars, starch or quinine. The appeal of the drug due to the way it affects the release of neurotransmitters in the brain, specifically dopamine, which in turn causes a pleasurable sensation or “high”.

This short-term high however, comes at a cost. In the long-run, heroin can change the physiology of the brain, causing hormonal and neuronal imbalances that are not that easy to rectify. A highly addictive drug, heroin also causes a high degree of physical dependence and tolerance; this means that with repeated use, you will need more of the drug to produce the same results you initially experienced.

“It got to the point where I was shooting up just to avoid the withdrawals,” says Rudolph. “It was terrible; the sweating, vomiting, and most of all, the horrible depression. Ironically, I would feel even more depressed while prepping to take the drugs, and be just waiting for them to kick in to feel ‘normal’ again.”

Functioning high

Rudolph’s foray into hard drugs initially began as a temporary release from the stress of work. “I liked my job, and I was definitely getting paid well, but there was a lot of pressure to be ‘on top of things’ all the time. I had always been the dutiful son, the straight-A student, the reliable employee. I wanted to cut loose for a change, and suddenly, I had the means to do just that.”

He adds that he had even rationalised his actions by setting himself apart from “the regular idea of an ‘addict’.” “For all my education, I thought I was ‘different’ for snorting it, telling myself that at least I wasn’t jabbing myself with needles in some back alley in Chow Kit. We were at the poshest clubs, or in someone’s studio apartment, just having a good time. I was pretty arrogant in thinking that I could control the habit,” he says.

Thus, he recalls the occasional puff or pill, taken as part of the night out. “I tried other stuff too, but usually it was either E (ecstasy) or heroin. It was just another thing to do while partying, just like having a drink or dancing. But heroin became a preference: it made me feel like I was at the top of the world, and that nothing could go wrong. After a long week dealing with clients and putting out fires in the office, it was the ideal feeling for me,” he says.

Aside from the narrow profiling of what a substance abuser looks like, another misconception has to do how the addiction itself starts to unravel: one whiff or encounter with a substance, and your life is immediately spiralling out of control. While it may be true for some people struggling with substance dependancy, in other cases, the addiction takes over their lives in a more gradual manner. In Rudolph’s case, it took about three years of “performing a normal existence” before he was forced to seek help.

“I guess I was a high functioning addict, but I lucked out in so many ways,” shares Rudolph. “One lucky break is obviously not getting into really serious trouble with the law, like death sentence serious. The other thing is that I had the resources and support to get treatment. My parents, they must have been really disappointed with me when they found out, but they always had my back.”

Before he sought help however, Rudolph was in denial. “The occasional smoke turned into a weekly habit, but I was still telling myself that it was just a weekend thing, no big deal. After a while, I started buying drugs for my own ‘personal’ use, for whenever I felt like I needed a boost. Then it became as routine as my morning coffee; I’d take a hit just before work, but not too much that I was out of it. Still, I thought I was in control,” he says.

It was during this time that he also started injecting instead of just smoking the drug. Yet, because he was still performing well at work and appearing to be same outgoing person he had always been, his habit went mostly unnoticed. “I’m ashamed to say it now, but I can barely remember anything from my brother’s wedding because I was high,” he says. “Up till then, I was still convinced that I didn’t have a problem. That was the day I realised that I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to. But the real turning point for me was when I really hit rock-bottom.”

Rock-bottom for Rudolph came months later, as he was sifting through his garbage in the hopes of picking out remnants of the drug from the tiny plastic bags he purchased them in. “I remember feeling relief at finding a few last bits of powder, mixed in with spoilt milk and rotting food,” he says. “So there I was in my living room, trash all around me, trying to filter those bits. I look over at the empty spot where my sound system used to be – I sold it the week before because I couldn’t wait for pay day to get more drugs – and I just broke down. I wanted out.”

After an emotional conversation with his family, Rudolph found himself at a rehabilitation centre in Thailand. He describes his months there as “intense, terrifying, and a miracle”, as he underwent detoxification, counselling and group therapy. “I think the worst part were the therapy sessions,” he adds. “Don’t get me wrong, the withdrawal period was hell, but at least you know it’s just physical and for a set amount of time. After lying so much to everyone, and myself, it was scary to actually face those demons by talking to someone honestly. That, and the realisation that you have to live with what you did, and yourself, for the rest of your life. I had lost myself, and the real work is in learning to cope like real person again.”

Rudolph has been sober for five years now, and even abstains from alcohol. “It was hard, but if you have the right support, not impossible,” he says. “I’m one of the lucky ones from my old crew: some have overdosed, some are in jail, and others have become so broken that they couldn’t just go back to having a normal life. I’m not special in any way; the only reason I could do it was because I had help.”

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