COMMENT: From an addict to a student —Ishrat Saleem - Friday, March 11, 2011

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I know I have committed numberless mistakes in the past and my conduct has been less than ideal many times, but I have learnt to embrace my mistakes with compassion and my achievements with gratitude

I never realised I was an addict till the substance abuse of my teenage brother had caused serious disruption in our family. I was addicted to anger, impatience, directing and controlling others, tantrums, depressive thoughts, and much more. True, it was very difficult for me to come to terms with the reality that much of the blame for our family’s problems lay with me, not my brother. I was on the edge of my nerves most of the time and started shouting at small things. I blamed my near and dear ones for anything that went wrong, sometime for things that happened many years ago. Of course, the prime target of my, and everyone else’s, temper fits was my brother, being the weakest in the house and easiest to blame for everything we did wrong (he being a ‘drug addict’). I did not realise I was a bigger addict. Laying all the blame on things outside ourselves and feeling secure in our self-righteousness is common to all addicts. It was not until I hit the bottom in my relationships that I made a solemn pledge that I will reform myself and allow a higher power to make things right for me.

It was during that phase of extreme dejection and helplessness that I came to know of a group for the families and friends of drug addicts. My brother had just returned from his latest sojourn in rehab after suffering another relapse. My family and I were all broke and clueless about what to do next. We were obsessed with monitoring him, even while he was in the washroom. It was becoming insane. I knew that a Narcotics Anonymous group for drug addicts was active in Lahore and had sent my brother to some of its meetings, but recovery from addiction is not just about being ‘dry’ (i.e. not taking alcohol, drugs, etc) but working on one’s self. It is not without a conscious decision that one recovers from addiction, whatever its kind. Although my brother had been detoxified physically, who can detoxify an addict’s mind, which cleverly works to go back to drugs at all costs, through lies, deceit, hypocrisy, stealing and what not? But I was becoming more worried about my own obsession with his addiction; even my dreams revolved around it.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the group meeting for family members was held at a place I had once taken my brother for a session with a psychologist and that it was held at just 10 minutes walk from my office. This is how I was introduced to the exciting as well as sobering world of Twelve Steps, which focus on the recovery of self. Several families meet every week and share their stories for an hour. A ‘normal’ person cannot empathise with the trauma that such families go through. Most of them become cut off socially and live in a veritable hell in which suspicion, fear, anger, resentment, and daily fights reign supreme.

The Twelve Steps programme works miraculously. Many members have experienced a feeling of healing after sharing their own and listening to others’ stories and unconsciously learnt what they needed to know to deal with their own situation. For me, my own recovery was a miracle. During this time, in addition to studying the Twelve Steps, I read about various religious/Sufi traditions of the world. I was awestruck to find the same message and meaning in all of them. Even the atheistic tradition of Buddhism contains the same message that I was taught in my religion when I was a child.

In this eventful journey, I was fortunate to meet recovering addicts, many of whom had spent the better part of their lives indulging in hard drugs such as heroin. Most used a combination of alcohol, prescribed medicines, heroin and other hard drugs for decades, but succeeded in finally getting on to the path of recovery by following Twelve Steps. I have yet to meet wiser men. I remember meeting a rehab worker Hamid, himself a heroin addict for many years and now in the 19th year of his recovery. While talking to the mother of a precocious teenage drug addict, an outstanding student and debater, on what her son needed to do with his free time in rehab, Hamid said something that has stayed with me since. He said I know your son has read every book on religion and philosophy in the library and can present the best arguments to anybody. He does not need to read more. Recovery is about learning to implement the knowledge one has in one’s conduct.

Just recently I had the good fortune of meeting another recovering addict, Farrukh, who had brought with him the brother of his friend, a lifelong drug addict, to introduce him to our group. Farrukh said he was in the initial stages of his recovery when his friend’s brother came with a request to bear false witness in court so that his friend could be released from jail. Twelve Steps stipulate that reforming personal conduct is the key to recovery. Farrukh immediately refused but was won over by the emotional blackmailing of his friend’s brother. In the courtroom, he sweated when he took oath on the Quran to speak the truth, knowing that he was going to tell a lie. The court accepted the alibi and ordered release. When they went to the jail get his friend, the jail warden handed over his bag to them, which was with him at the time of arrest. Farrukh knew the secret place in the bag where his friend used to keep his drugs. In his guilt and confusion, he put his hand in that place and found 2-3 doses of some drug. On his way back home, Farrukh suffered a relapse and smoked all those drugs. I was stunned to find in this simple story the essence of all religious/ethical teachings. Marmaduke Pickthall in a brief introduction to Surah Al Baqarah, writes that when Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) migrated to Madina, the Jews of Madina “opposed him and tried to bewilder him with questions from their theology, speaking to him as men who possessed superior wisdom, failing to perceive that, from a prophet’s standpoint, theology is a childish nonsense, the very opposite of religion, and its enemy; religion, for the prophet, being not a matter of conjecture and speech, but of fact and conduct.” In Farrukh’s story, I received a demonstration of this wisdom with deep gratitude.

I know I have committed numberless mistakes in the past and my conduct has been less than ideal many times, but I have learnt to embrace my mistakes with compassion and my achievements with gratitude. I have learnt that our past is a memory and our future is a fantasy. We have only the present moment in which we currently live and which holds the key to everything. We have to live fully in the present moment. My brother is in recovery, though he is still struggling to restart his studies. But I feel grateful for his addiction that made me understand happiness and made me wake up to all the wonderful things and people in my life. I see the lush green trees swaying in the wind every morning while going to office. I smell the fragrance of parched soil when rain falls on it and feel the touch of wind on my face. I feel deep gratitude for my friends and family who supported me all along and, most of all, my group members who patiently hear me speak my deepest thoughts every week.

I know there are hundreds of thousands of people who are suffering torture at the hands of their near and dear one’s addiction and who have not reached such a group. There is good news for them. Recovery is possible.

(This essay is meant the celebrate the second anniversary of the Lahore Group for friends and family members of drug addicts)

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