Mizoram and the deadly poison of addiction

So, tell me, when was your first high?    

mizoram add

I never thought I would be a drug addict, time passes so swiftly from your first try to the day you are hooked, you don’t even realize you are addicted, said Ramliana*, a 29 year old recovered addict residing in Aizawl.

The bustling city of Aizawl welcomes you to many things, there are hilly terrains, and all those interestingly built house structures that scare anyone who has never been to this side of the country. There are the things it’s famous for, bamboo dance, beautiful girls and the best weather. But look a little closer, at the street corners, the narrow steps in dingy areas, take a closer look at the faces you walk across, there you will see the true face of Mizoram. Tired eyes, pale skin, shaky figures, rugged features – all looking for a little more, more intoxicant to cure reality. Its not that reality is harsh, it became harsh when day after day intoxicants pumped life into the blood of the drug abuser, that a drug-less day became too mundane and a bite into ones very bones.

Drug addicts are seen to be a little scary, someone to be avoided, an outcast of the society, a church nuisance. It is easy to forget, that before the person you just walked past became the drug abuser he is today, he had a childhood. He was his parent’s greatest joy when he took his first steps, he was the merrymaker of the lot in his early teen years. He aced at football and hated Maths. He was just another kid. Before she lost the colour in her eyes, she was her daddy’s little girl, she topped at English and loved helping her mom in the garden. She was most often scolded for loving the rain too much, just another girl.

Have you ever wondered what made these people take their first shot of adrenaline rushed intoxicant? Me and my friends were all hanging out on the roadside one day and one of them asked me to pop a pill, she said it’d be great with the beer I was drinking, that was my first time said, Rinsangi*, an 18 year old student. My first time was in a hostel study camp, we were bored so we decided to try out some of the medicines we had carried for emergency sickness said 20 year old Puia.*

While for the male group, the main reason they start with their first drug is peer pressure, curiosity to experience the high friends talk about, boredom and a need to fit in among the macho crowd. For the female folks, it accounts to depression due to heartbreak, peer pressure, figure maintenance, and the absence of odour as is with alcohol which helps them maintain their good girl figure in the society. Unlike the boys, their addiction is not often the outcome of curiosity, a 21-year-old college student said she took her first pill when she was 19 and her boyfriend broke up with her after sleeping with her.

The increased incidence is often accounted to the popularity of stick thin figures and pale white features brought about by Korean films. My friends and I thought we would get fair by taking pills but in the long run it made us have unhealthy skin, by then it was too late, said Feli* another 18 year old student. Among my friends atleast 60% of them are drug abusers and I haven’t heard of anyone planning to quit, it has no odour so parents can’t catch us and we haven’t seen any drastic health effect as of now, she said.

If I don’t take my pills, I lose confidence, I become fat, I become insecure said 23 year old Zoremi*. Unless it comes to the point where my parents catch me red-handed, I will deny it to the fullest, she said.  The surprising thing is, these young girls keep their grades up as they avoid consumption during exam times, have boyfriends who are unaware of their drug abuse and continue life as the normal Mizoram state citizen. They may be sitting next to you in the bus, you may be sharing classes with them, they may be your most active KTP members, all battling a fight you can’t see.

Esther, a 25 year old University student who has been battling addiction for four years said she tried her first few drugs due to friends but she got hooked at 21 when her boyfriend of 3 years eloped with another girl because he got the girl pregnant. At first, it takes away the pain, the numb sensation feels good, but as time passes, you realize it only increases your pain as depression comes easy but it’s too late to quit by the time you realize that, she said.  I have tried quitting around five times but, I am full of pain and I don’t have the guts to ask my parents to help me. I can’t imagine how the society will treat our family if they found out, she said.

There was a rumour among the crowd of a certain girl, a beautiful master’s graduate of who it was said, her father’s death led her to see a doctor due to depression. The anti-depressants got her hooked and she went on to higher games leading her to become an injecting drug user(IDU).

On many instances, the need for the intoxicant lead these young women to traverse to nearby states such as Assam and Meghalaya in the guise of a fun trip, where all their pocket money is spent for strips and boxes of strips.

What about quitting? These girls believe an attempt at quitting will only earn them a name in the society. Their withdrawal symptoms if noticed by their parents will hurt them and approaching rehab centres only heightens the rumour volume so their only safe place is within the four walls of the room, a strip of pills under the pillow. But who could blame them? What is our first thought when coming across a rehab-returned girl – Oh! What shame. It seems to be that all our loving is whittled away to the orphans, the poor, the sick, with nothing left for those who lose their last breath at dumpsters. While we find such shame in bikinis, we seem to have lost shame in giving disgusted glances at the people fighting hard to survive one more day.

For 16 years, Sanga* was hooked to the high but is now a recovering addict. I took my first drug at the age of 12. We thought we’d never get addicted and that we were so clever to know just the right dosage but before I knew it I became one of those drug addicts we used to laugh at on the streets, he said.

Though we enjoyed the high sensation of the drug at first, when time passed, there was no more enjoyment, it was taken for survival. My drug addictions lead me to rock-bottom depression, I tried to quit over twenty times but everytime I would go back. Though people are nice in church when you quit, the society doesn’t really accept you and the loneliness drives you back to drugs. To be looked at as a form of trash by the society, that’s what hurts the most, he said.

What’s the government doing about these folks? There’s a drug strategy that’s being followed in the state, supply reduction taken care of by the excise folks, demand reduction by Social Welfare Department and harm reduction by Mizoram State Aids Control Society.

The Social Welfare Departments consultant, Lalhlupuii Sailo says, “We shouldn’t look at addiction as sin, it is a disease. Like cancer and TB, it needs love and care for full healing.” The department is working to enact the Mizoram Drug Controlled (Substance Abuse) Act, 2016 under which there will be Accreditation of De-Addiction Centre with a guideline to check on the various centres in Mizoram and a Mizoram Drug Demand Reduction Policy, both of which are planned to be implemented by this year. A standardized module on substance abuse, one each for prevention and treatment has also been prepared which will soon be followed by all sectors of the society, and a state wide survey was recently conducted, the results of which will be out in the next month. There is also a plan to introduce state funding through the sale of drugs seized by the excise which will be sold back to pharmaceutical companies, the funds of which will be used to support rehabs in the state. There are currently ten government funded rehab centres in Mizoram, two with 30 bed capacities and three with 15 bed capacities. The drub abusers term in these rehab centres is two months which is sometimes prolonged due to necessity.

On the harm reduction part, according to the Mizoram State Aids Control Society, there are currently 8,533 injecting drug user’s (IDU) signed up under them as of January 2017, on a monthly average the amount is 8339.  MSACS take up syringe needle exchange programs for which the society often accuses them of encouraging drug use, but an MSACS official commented, “In the past ten months leading upto January 2017, there were 336 new cases of HIV, these syringe needle exchange programs are meant to help decrease HIV and we wish the family and friends of IDU’s to encourage them to approach us. Other services of MSACS for harm reduction are oral substitution therapy and condom promotion. According to MSACS reports from April 2016 to January 2017 there were 39 cases of overdose out of which they managed to save 11 lives.

I went to over 20 camp centres where for a short while we are boosted with spiritual energy, but someone telling you to quit doesn’t make you quit, we need care, we need love and we need proper treatment said a recovering IDU. While availability of recreation facilities would be a plus factor, Mizoram still needs to fulfil basic needs, do the Math, over 8000 addicts and a dozen or so centres with a 2 month stay period, how much could they quit?

*names changed to protect identity

#originally published in The Mizoram Post, March 2, 2017               

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