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Addicts find renewed hope in the heart of the city

By Keshav Pariat

For the average reader, the morning may

bring thoughts of the work day or school day ahead, even perhaps breakfast. But how many think about when they’ll next have a drink or get a drug fix? For those who are addicted to either alcohol or drugs, getting a hit may be their first priority when they wake up.

According to Meghalaya Police statistics, there are 17,833 drug users in the state, with 1,000 cases registered in Shillong every year.

Shocking as these numbers may be, they are likely to represent only a fraction of the truth.

According to Roney Lyndem, Project Coordinator, New Hope Centre (NHC), which helps with de-addiction, the problem could be far greater.

The majority are men, but there is a rising trend of addiction among women.

“As a society, we tend to hide these things. It’s a cultural thing among Khasis that, traditionally, women did not smoke or drink,” Lyndem said. “This is changing as Khasis are coming under the influence of practices from abroad.”

The problem of addiction is not limited to Khasis, only, Lyndem added, but is also noticeable in other communities that reside in Shillong.

Hard figures on the issue are hard to come by, but there is a paucity of resources to combat the problem. NHC has a 15-bed hostel that is currently home to 18 inmates in the heart of the city.

Lyndem has been working for two years at NHC after pursuing a Masters in Counseling and Psychology, adding a certificate in de-addiction in the process. He was drawn to this field partly through his own personal experience with addiction; he describes himself as a former alcoholic, although not a chronic one, and he was able to realize when it had become too much.

The Centre is an initiative of the Khasi Jaintia Presbyterian Assembly. It also receives limited funding from Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in New Delhi. The state government, through the Social Welfare Department, “doesn’t help very much”, according to Lyndem. They do, however, act as a conduit between NHC and the central government. The lack of funding also hinders the Centre’s efforts to reach out to every part of the state. Poor roads and communications are further hindrances. NHC conducts awareness camps regularly (most recently, one was conducted in Byrwa, Ri-Bhoi, on Saturday), but with proper funding more staff could be hired and better post-treatment care could be arranged for former inmates.

Lyndem feels that the police are trying to help, but more needs to be done. They need to be sensitive.

The police do refer addicts to the Centre to get help. Doctors, too, play a role in this, but another way through which people come to the NHC is through knowing past inmates.

According to Lyndem, the NHC sees a 40 percent success rate. One of the biggest factors working against inmates who return to society is unemployment. The Centre is hoping to combat that by starting employment schemes. However, just having a job is no guarantee. “Addiction knows no barrier,” says Lyndem. “This disease, as we call it, can grab hold of anyone.”

Even those inmates who have jobs may relapse. The Centre encourages its inmates to come back after two months for a follow-up, but this is difficult given that many live far away from Shillong.

The treatment programme at New Hope Centre takes three months and involves a period of detoxification, followed by counseling. A combination of group therapy and individual counseling is used, within a spiritual and psychological context. The Twelve-step programme pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous is also used.

The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment wanted a two-month programme, but NHC found this to be insufficient, as some addicts require intense detoxification.

There is also a need for the community to do more. Ordinary people need to come together in their localities and ensure that people are not selling drugs or illegal alcohol. Even licensed wine shops and bars near schools can pose a problem, with Lyndem giving Laitumkhrah as a prime example.

Lyndem also called for a change in attitude towards street children. According to a study by Childline, 70 street children were identified in the commercial areas of Shillong who use drugs, often dendrite. What many people do not understand is that sniffing dendrite helps kill the hunger that many of these children suffer from.

Another way society can help is to be aware of the signs of addiction. These include isolating oneself from family, seeing one’s grades go down and poor attendance at work. At the early stages, an addict can successfully hide the problem from friends or family, but a chronic addict will find it impossible to do so.

And what of the government? Although it does provide some funding, a lot of state revenue comes through the sale of alcohol, so there is little immediate incentive for it to help, especially when the costs of drug or alcohol addiction (through medical care and a reduction in productivity) are long-term and harder to measure.

There is no easy solution, but that does not mean that Meghalaya can ignore the problem. “We can’t just look at the issue and turn our heads away,” Lyndem cautioned.

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