WALKING into the activity room with his usual benumbed face, David Chen was stunned to see a birthday cake on his table. Social workers and fellow recovering drug addicts burst into a birthday song. The 43-year-old man broke into tears.
Chen’s birthday coincided with one of the rehabilitation center’s regular “companion education” days. Beyond the usual counseling from volunteers and talks from reformed addicts, the simple party produced instant therapeutic effects.
“It is the first time my birthday was celebrated since I became an addict years ago,” Chen said. “It has been so long since I felt that I was alive again.”
Indeed, Chen’s shell started to crack that day.
Once passive in group discussions, he started to talk more. He became forthcoming about his mental and physical condition. He wrote to social workers about a renewed determination to kick his habit. And he tried to buck up fellow patients when they became depressed about their situations.
“Drug abusers are not incurable, even if that is the way they are often regarded,” says Jin Weijing, a worker at Shanghai Ziqiang Social Services, which organized the “companion education” program.
“Everybody has a soft inside, no matter how indifferent they pretend to be. My job is not to provide light to their lives but to clean up the dust that obscures their own lights,” she says.
Ziqiang Social Services is the first non-governmental organization on the Chinese mainland to provide support to rehabilitating addicts. It has helped more than 30,000 drug abusers since it began work in 2003.
Its services include helping the rehabilitated addicts get income allowances, finding them jobs and, more importantly, providing ongoing counseling and support as they seek to re-enter mainstream life.
Still, it’s an uphill battle. Only about 26.5 percent of the addicts successfully quit drugs without a relapse for three years or more.
Jin, who became an anti-drug social worker in 2014, herself knows the agony of the struggle. She was a drug abuser until the Ziqiang Social Services helped her quit 10 years ago. Hers is a success story when you look at an average first-year relapse rate of 90 percent globally.
Today is International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking — a reminder to everyone of the huge task at hand.
According to Shanghai Narcotics Control Office, there are 85,045 recorded drug addicts in Shanghai today, 4.6 percent more than a year ago. About two-thirds of them are registered local residents, and just over a third are 35 years or younger.
Government-run drug rehabilitation centers and voluntary addiction rehabilitation hospitals are there to help addicts during their two-year compulsory treatment. Social workers come into play when recovering addicts are released from that treatment.
Although it takes only about 7-10 days to complete physiological detoxification, it takes much longer, probably years, to conquer the physical and psychological pull of drug-taking, according to Li Jimin, director-general of Ziqiang Social Services.
That is a crucial time when social work can be the pivot between success and failure.
Empty lives, devoid of hope
“Most drug addicts long for a normal life without drugs,” Li says. “Yet, repeated relapses often wear down their will and confidence. They often lead empty lives, discriminated by others, abandoned by family and devoid of hope. All that can easily lead them back to drugs.
“Against the monster, they need strong willpower. That can be triggered by an understanding family, by a sense of being needed or simply by a brute determination to defeat their addiction. It is our job to help them find that trigger and use it effectively,” he adds.
Most drug abusers come into the program suspicious of social workers, according to Cao Xia, who has been working at Ziqiang Social Services for 13 years.
She says they are often world-weary and filled with self-loathing. Social workers have to find a way to their hearts through sincere respect and care.
One of the rehabilitating addicts who is paired with Cao told her he was touched by her persistence and genuine smile. A gentle hug sometimes speaks volumes.
Recovering addicts need to be eased out of their closed world. That help often comes from former addicts sharing experiences with them and standing as symbols that a better world awaits.
“It was the sense of belonging that has been long gone,” Jin recalls of her days in rehab. “In a group of people sharing similar experiences, we could talk about things that we would not reveal to ‘outsiders.’ Things like our internal struggles, instances where we had been wronged by others and the murkiness of our futures. It was not just about sharing problems but also about working through them together.”
Jin is still in touch with people who attended the same “companion education” group as her 10 years ago. All of them have successfully kicked their addictions, and many of them are now active in volunteer programs for the elderly and disadvantaged children. Some of them now participate in “companion education” group sessions as counselors.
Quitting drugs is not an easy ticket back to normal life. Prevailing discrimination against drug abusers and latent feelings of inferiority in reformed addicts are hurdles to be overcome.
After she gave up drugs, Jin worked as an accountant at a hotel for a year until the general manager found out about her history. She resigned.
“I just did not want to step into that hotel again,” says Jin. “But my social workers told me that I had to go back and learn to deal with it as a responsible person. I needed to prove that their prejudice wrong even though I had lost my job.”
Convinced, Jin worked there for another month to help the new accountant catch up with the job.
Most addicts don’t sit high on the ladder of skills. They are forced to take jobs as cleaners or security guards in the beginning, according Cao. At work, they hide their pasts.
For rehabilitated addicts who manage to get into mid-level jobs, business trips can pose hazards.
Even though the Shanghai Drug Control Regulations state that compulsory monitoring of former addicts ends in three years, they still run the risk of disclosure at police checkpoints in airports, rail stations or hotels when they travel to other provinces. Whenever their pasts are revealed, most chose to resign rather than face recrimination.
However, there are signs that society is becoming more tolerant to the plight of former addicts — willing to give them a chance.
One of Cao’s rehabilitated addicts, a man in his 50s, has just become a regular employee at a local post office after years as a casual worker. When his case as a successful rehabilitated addict was aired on media, he worried that he would be fired. To his surprise, his work colleagues took the news casually, except for a bit of joking about how cleverly he had hid his past.
“It is natural for people to question the reliability of former addicts,” said Cao. “But there are always chances to prove yourself and to show your worth by your own good deeds. That is always much more convincing than any kinds of spoken defense.”