Written by Reuben, Senior Assistant Counsellor
I felt terribly unwell as I slowly opened my eyes. It took me a while to figure out that I was lying in a hospital bed with one hand cuffed to the side of the bed. A stern-looking police officer was standing guard next to me. I tried to recall what I did to get myself into this situation. All I could remember was the usual drinks my band members and I had the previous night after our gig, but nothing else about how I got here. Where was everybody? This was the beginning of a journey to hell and back that spanned a period of 45 years in my life.
Hi, my name is Reuben and I am a person in recovery from addiction.
I would like to talk about how a recovering peer like myself can help others. But before I do that, I would first like to tell my story of recovery. I want to share how my own peers have helped me, and how that has helped me to pay it forward.
How did my story start? It all started with me wanting to be happy all the time, or to put it another way, I lived for the pursuit of pleasure. Alcohol did wonders for me. With a drink or two, shyness dissipated and conversations came easily. Though I was aware that many lives had been ruined by alcoholism, I thought this was just a ‘phase’ I was going through and that I could stop anytime if I wanted.
There were warning signs leading towards my downward spiral. I became more reliant on alcohol to cope with various situations, mostly just to socialise with people. Alcohol made me feel confident and cool. And I was not breaking any laws. But around this time, most of the people I hung out with were using drugs, particularly heroin. I told myself I would never touch that stuff. I continued drinking more and more and one day found myself waking up handcuffed to a hospital bed with a
stern-looking police officer standing guard over me. It seemed that I had been arrested for being drunk and incapacitated. I could have died of alcohol poisoning had I not been arrested and sent to the hospital. The next day I was charged in court.
Despite what happened, I continued drinking after that, thinking I could manage it better every time I drank. Everything came crashing down when alcohol lost its desired effect on me. I caved in to heroin as a substitute. This was a drug I never thought I would ever come close to, and now it had wormed its way into my life, giving me one high after another. Whenever one drug lost its magic, I would switch to another or lapse back into alcohol.
And this ‘phase’ dragged on for 21 years. My addiction had a vice-like grip on my life. Like they say in the recovering community, I used to live and now I lived to use. For a long time, drugs and alcohol dictated my life. I was stuck in a revolving door. I could stop, but not for long. The world around me crashed and I asked myself, “How did I get into this mess?” Life felt rosy when I was on a high. But beneath the surface, I was crumbling into pieces. One moment I was up in the clouds, and the next moment I found myself in society’s rubbish heap.
My family members were not left unscathed. In the earlier stage of my addiction, I thought getting married to my girlfriend would help me become more responsible and get me out of the quicksand I was in. She thought so too. But it only got worse. Eight months into my marriage, I was arrested for using drugs and sent to the Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC). In the DRC, everyone around me, including myself, would think that was the end of our drug-using days. But upon discharge from the DRC, I would resume using drugs where I left off, despite genuinely swearing off it.
What I discovered was that stopping the addiction was actually the easy part. Staying stopped was another matter altogether. One DRC stint after another, I sincerely tried to quit drugs. I wanted to get clean. I was desperate to stay clean. I changed jobs and moved house. I sought treatment. I even consulted the shamans. I went for rehabilitation at a halfway house. I tried to keep up the momentum but kept losing the battle.
Once again, my wife suggested I tried rehabilitation again in a halfway house. She had seen some changes in me the last time I was there. I always thought I could quit drugs on my own. I was sick and tired of living life as a person with an addiction. In fact, I was sick and tired of being sick and tired, so when she suggested giving the halfway house another try, I obliged. I got myself admitted into the halfway house, went through the programme, and this time the programme went through me.
I was inspired by so many others like me in the halfway house, whose lives had been transformed and are now helping people recover from their addictions. I saw a glimmer of hope that I could change too. I thought that if they could do it, so could I. With help from the recovering community there, I had a chance to reflect on where I went wrong in the past. I was always doing the same thing and expecting different results. I realised that drugs and alcohol were just my means to escape from life, and learned how to face problems instead of running away. It was a good place for me to practise how to “live life on life’s terms”. I found resources I could tap on to aid me through challenges. For example, I came to an understanding that my recovery needed aspects of spirituality, connection with other recovering peers and service to others. I also accepted that recovery is a lifelong journey, and learned how to take it “one day at a time”, year after year.
Six years later, the need for continuous learning compelled me to volunteer at the former Community Addictions Management Programme (CAMP), now known as National Addictions Management Service (NAMS), where I got the opportunity to help other people in recovery from addictions like myself. In my capacity as a volunteer, I realised I was able to connect with patients in the hospital with natural ease, just as how I experienced meaningful relationships with my peers in the halfway house. This is consistent with what I learnt in my recovery support group - the therapeutic value of one peer helping another is unparalleled.
In addition to my volunteering, I also enrolled myself in addiction counselling courses and was eventually certified as an addiction counsellor. In 2005, I was fortunate enough to be employed by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) as a full-time employee with NAMS, where I still work till today. I get to share my stories with patients seeking help for their own struggles with addiction. I learnt to establish genuine connections and build intimacy with them. Most importantly, I did all these without the help of alcohol or drugs.
Seeing patients is a constant reminder of where I once was and how far I have come. I get to do meaningful work that I value. I do not see this as a job, but a calling which I am grateful for. I want to give back to others what was given to me so generously. In a way, paying it forward is my way of making up for all the suffering I have placed on my family and society.
In my dark days, I was left in society’s rubbish heap. Now I feel that I have been picked up from that heap and am totally restored. At first, I thought it would be difficult for me to blend in at the workplace because of my past. But as I focused on my purpose in the work I do, I received a lot of encouragement from my bosses and colleagues, and validation for my work.
It still intrigues me how I changed from a person who depended solely on drugs to help strike up conversations with people to someone who now shares genuine concern through heartfelt conversations. Each day, as I try to initiate such exchanges with patients, I am reminded of how exceptionally grateful I should be.
I also treat the miracle of my family (my lovely wife, daughter and granddaughter) with the same deep gratitude. I am truly blessed to still have them in my life today. They appreciate how my life has
changed and they still play a big part in my continuing recovery. Many times in the past, I felt that I needed to do a lot to make amends to my family. But they keep encouraging me to continue what I am doing, and that this is good enough. I continue to look after myself today by regularly attending support groups, namely Narcotics Anonymous, where I am still learning how to live life on life’s terms together with other people in recovery from addictions. This fellowship instilled in me a sense of serenity. Day after day, interactions with patients and colleagues lend support to me in my own recovery. Today, I’m looking forward with profound gratitude, my 24 years of staying abstinent which will be on 21st June 2021.
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