The Rastafarian reggae star Bob Marley was once famously quoted saying, “When you smoke the herb, it reveals you to yourself.” When we put aside the casual camaraderie (greatly glorified by pop culture) around the use of drugs and substances, we are forced to face the dystopic reality it has given rise to. With a lack of national level data to show the status of drug abuse amongst India’s youth, journalistic accounts such as this supplement as evidence to show the extent to which drug abuse amongst India’s youth and children has grown:
“According to New Delhi-based de-addiction expert Keshav Palita, five to 10 new adolescent patients crop up each day and more than half of them were introduced to drugs when they’re below 15. Cannabis, alcohol, cocaine, mephedrone and other pharmaceutical and party drugs are the most common among children.”
The film Udta Punjab brought into focus (albeit for a short while) just how devastating the consequences of substance addiction can be. It also exposed the audience to the disturbing reality about the nexus between various state and non-state actors which actively perpetuate substance addiction by allowing and indeed facilitating easy access, amplified by a dearth of both preventive and rehabilitative facilities, and highlighting its adverse effects on the youth of Punjab.
Punjab, Karnataka, Mumbai, Manipur, Odisha, Tamil Nadu – no part of the country is untouched by the menace of drug abuse and addiction. And yet, there is so little done about it, and even lesser dialogue on the issue. Given the emotional, social and psychological vulnerabilities of being an adolescent youth, they make for easy targets for substance abuse and addiction. In India, the drug problem is largely interpreted from a law and order and legal perspective. A preventive and community based approach to the issue is the only lasting solution, and countries like Iceland are leading the path by example.
To be able to find solutions to an endemic problem such as drug abuse, perhaps one of the first steps is to find ways to have uninhibited dialogues about the issue. This narrative captures the honest accounts of two adolescents (speaking as adults today) and their foray into the use and abuse of drugs.
“For the next few days after you do drugs, your body temporarily loses its capacity to produce endorphins. Which means you don’t have the capacity to feel happy. You feel existential.”
SAILESH, A 21-YEAR-OLD STUDENT
1. How old were you the first time you tried a drug? What was it?
I have been smoking pot for a while now, but the first time I tried a chemical drug – MDMA, was last year. I was twenty-one at the time. I don’t remember much of the trip, I was extremely exhausted from alcohol. I tried it again after a couple of months when I was at a concert with my friends. It made me feel extremely positive and energetic, almost euphoric. This drug is also known as the love drug.
2. Tell us a little more about the effect of this drug, and any other drugs you may have tried so far.
When the drug kicks in, it makes you feel euphoric and you enjoy that state while it lasts. The drug infuses a great deal of energy into you, so you need to keep moving to feel like you are in control. If you don’t, it might make you feel nauseous. The problem is, if the ratio of the ingredients in the drug is messed up, it can have serious repercussions, and there is no way to know what you are consuming. Some side effects that I have felt are severe jaw clenching – the ache has lasted up to two days, and lacerations resembling ulcers on my side lips – which have lasted up to five-six days. These are common side effects for almost enough who has tried them.
When I tried acid, I had an ‘out of body experience’. The whole thing last for 12-14 hours. The first 2 hours were the worst hours of my life. I thought I would die. I thought I was dead. I realized I wasn’t when I had to go to the bathroom to pee.
For the next few days after you do drugs, your body temporarily loses its capacity to produce endorphins. Which means you don’t have the capacity to feel happy. You feel existential.
3. The decision to do drugs is a very defining moment, often influenced by your state of mind. How did you get to making yours?
I had begun smoke pot with friends when I was in college. Over time you start talking about these things with your friends when you are chilling. I knew the effects of MDMA, I knew they would predominantly give me good vibes. So, I was confident about. My decision to finally try it was influenced by the occasion of my farewell party. A lot of us did it together. For me the decisive factor was to just ‘experience’ it, trying it wasn’t a coping mechanism for me.
4. How easy is it to score drugs for a teenager/ adolescent to score drugs?
It is easy. Even if the person may not know someone directly, there is always the friend of a friend. In terms of order of access, it is easiest to score pot, followed by cocaine, MDMA, ecstacy and acid. More youngsters prefer going to the hills to score and experience a trip. Technology has also contributed hugely to how accessible drugs are.
5. Have you ever been caught by your parents/ police?
Never by my parents, a few times by the police.
6. And how did you get away?
You know they want a bribe, they know they want a bribe. But if you act smart they can really make things difficult for you.
7. If you could go back and take a different decision, what would it be?
My decision wouldn’t be any different from what it was. I know my reasons for it, and I don’t fear I will get dependent on it.
“When I got into drugs I got there out of curiosity, I was vulnerable, and it took me to a lot of dangerous places…we need to let our children express themselves more freely, we need to let them know that it’s okay to speak about feelings and emotions.”
ARBAAZ, A 25-YEAR-OLD FILM-MAKER & THEATRE PRACTITIONER/ TEACHER
1. Tell us a little bit about how you arrived at your decision to try drugs.
I was nineteen the first time I did drugs – it was weed. Later I tried substances like Ecstasy.
When I started college, I wasn’t the kind who liked doing any of this. Even people smoking cigarettes around me would bother me. But over time, with peer influence you begin to think “it’s okay” to do this, to try these things out. And that’s a trap. Besides, there is always something or the other that is bothering you. Later I realized there were a lot of unresolved emotions within me and drugs seemed the easiest way to deal with them.
2. Can you put substance addiction into perspective for us, based on your personal experience of having battled it?
There is a lot of psychology involved to understand peoples’ relationships with drugs. One says one is not ‘addicted’, no one likes to acknowledge addiction. Everyone thinks they have the situation under control until one day it all spirals out of control. Because of what I have gone through and come out of, I can safely say when people say these things they are mostly in denial. They might say their habits of drug abuse are “occasional”, it doesn’t take long for that to develop into a habit. Not surprisingly, you start to develop a kind of resistance to the quantity of drugs you are used to consuming. After which you start increasing the dose. Even that doesn’t feel enough after a point. And then you start mixing. Nothing is enough. You do it for a ‘feeling’, you want to feel a certain way and because you are internally capable of invoking those emotions. And then there they are at your command – the drugs.You need to deal with the bad emotions. They don’t go away. Just like a bodily would will heal only under hygienic conditions, you have to allow your emotional wounds to heal in a healthy manner. And drugs won’t help with that. They just help you escape temporarily.
3. You have been to some very dark places through your fight with substance addiction. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey, and the point at which you realized you needed an intervention, and how you went about it?
One day when I was sober, I saw gray dots around the pupils of my eyes. While I had noticed it before, I had not really paid attention to it. A few days later, when I did Ecstasy, I started bleeding from my nose. I read up about it and found out that it happens because of cysts that form as an effect of the chemical, and then burst – causing the bleeding. I also found out that the cysts could form in your brain, and if they burst you might lose complete motor control.
That day I realized if I didn’t do something about myself, I would probably die.
I quit my job and went home. I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening to me. I couldn’t talk about my alcohol or substance addiction. My parents would never understand. We have very conveniently developed the knack of sweeping things we find uncomfortable to speak about, under the rug. We term them as ‘inappropriate’. We do not have a culture where we can speak about these things frankly and seek help and support. I went to a doctor but obviously couldn’t even tell him what was wrong. Maybe if I had told him the cause of my state he would have been able to contribute to my healing, but there was no way I could tell him I was facing withdrawal symptoms.
4. What were some of the challenges you faced during your recovery?
I got out of it completely through self-healing and repair. It took me a little over a year and a half. One day I felt as if my brain had completely stopped working. I could not make sense of anyone or anything. Worse, I could not visualize. And for a film maker to not be able to visualize is perhaps the worst thing that could happen. I needed to start sleeping, that was something I realized I had to fix. When you are working for ten hours and partying for five hours, you end up passing out. And passing out is not equivalent to sleeping. Your body crashes and gives up. I realized I had not really slept in months. I started making myself sleep forcibly. And slowly I could feel the difference. It took a long time, but I helped my body heal. Slowly I got back in charge of my mental faculties.
5. Tell us a little more about your journey of self-healing and self-acceptance.
There were good days and bad days through out that self-healing journey. I got worse before I got better. There were times when I felt suicidal. I couldn’t seem to remember my purpose or remind myself what I was worth. But I am glad I went through it. I am glad I let myself feel. I cornered myself and told myself that all I had was time and that I needed to relax. I tried to work on accepting myself. It took a lot of looking back. When I got into drugs I got there out of curiosity, I was vulnerable, and it took me to a lot of dangerous places.
6. So many adolescents and young people today consume drugs ‘casually’, not knowing when it turns into a habit. What do you think needs to change for us to handle this problem better?
Drugs have been so conveniently shut out of popular discourse because of the illegal status accorded to it. No one talks about it. So many children and adolescents fall prey to it, but no one wants to have conversations around it – on how you have support and it is possible to come out of it. There is absolutely no education on this. As younger people/ adolescents we at times have no idea what we’re doing or getting into. Nothing in school or college prepares us to deal with things like these. We are always taught to repress ourselves and our emotions. There needs to be more education on this – we need to let our children express themselves more freely, we need to let them know that it’s okay to speak about feelings and emotions.
7. If you could go back and make a different decision, would you?
Yes, I would definitely change my decision. But this journey too has taught me a lot about myself. It has brought me closer to myself, the realizations I have had through this journey have been very important. Today I can successfully say no to anyone offering me any kind of substance, and that has come with a lot of hard work and conviction.
I am now addicted to food, sleep and laughter.
*The names of the respondents have been changed to protect their identities.