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Williams Journey To die and Live Again
Recovering Journey

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William’s Journey: To die and Live Again

Written by William Teo, Senior Counsellor

It could be one of two outcomes: End up in jail, or dead. The trite trajectories of the life of a person with an addiction.

I am grateful that I am not in jail and that I am still alive. I could never have imagined myself living till 60 years old. Today, my 67-year-old self is writing from the comfort of my desk in the inpatient unit of the National Addictions Management Service (NAMS), my workplace for the past 19 years. Some colleagues still call me the ‘boun-cellor’ (a term they coined by combining bouncer and counsellor). In my early twenties, I worked as a bouncer at a nightclub in Anson Road. There were all kinds of people there: sex workers, pimps, drug dealers and gangsters. Fight scenes from action movies were the reality there, and people getting stabbed was an everyday affair. Being in such an environment was not ideal, but it provided good money. Money that could help me pay the rent and all other living expenses.

I am the eldest of seven children and the most rebellious one. Born into a family of tobacco users, I took my first drag on the cigarette out of curiosity when I was just seven years old. I grew up in the Kolam Ayer area where it was common for neighbourhood youths to congregate and experiment with new things, including drugs. It started off with the casual marijuana then progressed to pills, amphetamines, opium and heroin. Not at all interested in studies, I left secondary school when I was 16 years old. As an adventurous daredevil with a desire to see the world, I dropped out of school and trained to become a sailor aboard a ship.

I got to travel all over the world, fulfilling my wanderlust dreams. However, the freedom also increased my desire for substance use. That lifestyle served me well till one day I decided to stow away on a ship to New Zealand to escape being arrested. In Wellington, I found myself waking up from a drug-induced stupor in jail. I was so intoxicated that I had no idea how I was caught – not the first time this had happened. I was incarcerated for six months before being deported back to Singapore.

I managed to stay abstinent during my National Service (NS) days. Unfortunately, I went back to using drugs almost immediately after that. Life started spiralling downwards in my early 20s as drug addiction took a strong hold on me. I used to have the distorted thinking that just one use does not make me a person with substance use disorder, but it turned out to be never just one. Drug use was part of my ‘lifestyle’ and addiction was not something I understood, until I tried stopping heroin use for two days.

The two days without drugs were horrible. I alternated between feeling hot and cold, all the while with a runny nose and fever. I thought I was sick but it was the withdrawal symptoms that I was experiencing. “Ya, you are sick without heroin,” a friend commented after throwing a straw of heroin my way. I took a dose and immediately felt okay. A huge part of the life of a person who uses drugs also involves avoiding suffering; the fear of withdrawal symptoms often keeps one going at drugs.

For the next 14 years I was in and out of the Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC). Each time I got out of DRC I would stay off drugs for a while, but soon I would gradually give in to using drugs, get arrested and sent for rehabilitation again. I was completely sick and tired of this vicious cycle. Giving up on myself seemed like the only way out. I thought that I was so hopelessly incorrigible that even God would not forgive me. Caught in a cycle of chasing after the next fix and getting high, I was

totally lost in my own delusional world of drugs. I was oblivious to the pain I had inflicted on my loved ones. I was at my lowest point, having lost meaning and purpose in life.

During my fourth prison term, I re-examined my life, wondering if I would ever get out of the deplorable abyss of addiction.

I needed a new life. That was my final incarceration. However, after serving my sentence, I still could not pull myself away from the addiction despite taking up sports, bodybuilding and attempts at starting my own business. I grew more and more despondent, and eventually I thought of giving the halfway house a try because back then treatment options were limited – it was either the halfway house or prison. Finally, I checked myself into Helping Hands, a halfway house for people with addictions. My past attempts were futile, but this time I saw it as an opportunity for recovery and learnt a new way of life. I stayed on at Helping Hands after completing the rehabilitation programme, and later went on to join them as a staff, making contributions to the development of the services and programmes there.

While I was in the halfway house, I wanted to work as a mover and I was eager to get back my driving license which had long expired while I was incarcerated. I went for the driving test with full-fledged confidence (since I had Class 3 and 4 licences previously), but it was no mean feat. “You failed…” Those two words from my driving instructor stopped me in my tracks but what really left an impression was the line that came after, “And you always will if you lose the learner’s mentality.”

That was how I started searching. With a learner’s curious attitude, I started searching for ways to contribute, both big and small. I needed help and guidance, so I tried seeking them in the protected environment of the halfway house. The personal and caring touch in the recovering community was helpful. I was once interviewed by a reporter who asked me, “What made the halfway house work for you while the other rehabilitation centres did not?” I believe there is something powerful

when you are known by your name and not a serial number. It felt good to be needed. I started accepting myself. People with addiction issues struggle big time with worthlessness. Being able to feel needed brings about a lot of hope. And staying hopeful is like exercising muscles we have long forgotten how to use. It has to be done consistently and gradually over time.

My wife, the lovely mother to my three grown-up daughters, also played a significant role in my recovery. Her parents were aghast when they knew about me. Like all well-meaning parents, they disapproved of our relationship, because they saw the detrimental effects of drug use on their eldest son. But my wife (then-girlfriend) never gave up and eventually her parents came around. We got married in 1990.

I was at a stage in life where I could not imagine myself being able to hold down a job. No, to be exact, I could not imagine myself having a job or a family or anything worth mentioning. I was blinded by fear and could not find the way out from the cycle of addiction. I did not plan to spend 19 years of my life working as a counsellor. Sharing this experience again was definitely not part of the plan as well.

I remember it all so clearly… The initial sense of worthlessness. The gradual dependence on drugs. Wanting so badly to break the vicious cycle. Struggles to obey. Learning to work on my recovery. Being my better self. Becoming a father. Taking up the role as a pioneer recovering person to work as a full-time counsellor at NAMS. Then a lecturer. A supervisor. My journey has been a long battle between hell and hope.

My tattoos remain, but looking at me now, one would never guess my turbulent past when I was younger. Now a senior counsellor at NAMS, I have dedicated close to two decades of my life to helping others with addiction issues. Becoming a counsellor and helping others with addiction issues is a reminder to myself of who I am and where I had come from. Using my experience to help others is my way of making amends by giving back to society and also to receive healing from the past. Year 2021 marks my 31st wedding anniversary and also 33 years of abstinence. It has been 33 years, but my driving instructor’s words still ring in my head as if it was just yesterday, “Always keep the learner’s mentality with a teachable attitude.”

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