“Every moment an addict has to cross a river of pain and powerlessness.” These words personify the internal struggle active at all times within a drug addict. The perpetual disconnect of action and intent causes a never-ending cycle of pleasure and displeasure, of love and hate. The story before you is borne out of the experiences of Irfan Rehman Khan, an ex-addict successfully rehabilitated and now on the steadfast mission to dispel conventional notions on addiction and change social attitudes. In 1984, at the impressionable age of 14, a child burdened by the death of his mother and coping with the substitute, finds he is growing further apart from his father, his stepsiblings and the life they are leading. Irfan wrestles with mental illusions of temporary relief; he is lightheaded from chewing his 40th pack of supari (areca nut) of the day. This relief needed consistency and potency, so he naturally shifts to cigarettes without much thought or hesitation.
Teachers describe him as a brilliant student, with knowledge of topics far advanced for his age, yet uninterested in the daily joys associated with youth. Thoughts of disdain are amplified as time goes on and cigarettes simply did not provide the kick he required to keep him going through the day. Irfan came upon an opportunity not long after. At a wedding he found himself gravitating towards a distant cousin known in the family as ‘the junkie’. As the guests went to sleep, he snuck in a chance to take his first hit of heroin, and the effect is euphoric: “I saw the world in different colours; it was a set of eyes that showed only miracles.” All addicts can remember their first time, and Irfan does vividly as he narrates the event with a look of serenity and resolve. Unfortunately, his 14-year-old self had resolved for something much more profound: the need to get high again.
Another opportunity arose when he arranged to visit his uncle in Multan where it so happened that the distant cousin was also coming to spend some time in the hope of rehabilitation. The days were spent under the supervision of the family and in a façade of self-change, but the nights were devoted to the throes of heroin. As the stay came to an end, Irfan realised that he had to be proactive in procuring the stuff on his own in Lahore. Back in school, he immediately associated himself with the company of another student with links to some dealers. Soon, the days started to bleed into each other and the isolation from his old friends, from family, from adolescent normalcy grew significantly. Within a year, he graduated to intravenous usage and started adopting the identity of an addict. This graduation coincided with his graduation from school and into college. When asked about his college experience, Irfan tells me in a humourous manner, “There were some classes that I did not even attend once in two-and-a-half years. I think this shows what my priorities were.” His brilliant mind started to draw focus away from standard subjects and towards the intricacies of addiction.
“My addiction had taken a toll on me by this point. I was utterly discontented with myself, my weight had dropped noticeably, my reactions were delayed and my interactions were more uncomfortable than ever.” As his knowledge on the subject matter advanced, his dependency evolved at a much faster rate. Living on his own, he had very little of the family support, discipline and resolve required to kick the habit. To feed his addiction he had quietly stolen handsome sums of money from his family but when that proved insufficient, he resorted to selling most of his belongings. As addicts come to terms with their surroundings, Irfan too found comfort in the dera (hangout) of a dealer, the smell of it, the dim lighting, the diversity of addicts and addictions. If you just cannot get high like you used to, then you have to improvise to reach that state, so you would as he did, start coupling the heroin with litres of alcohol and copious amounts of pharmaceutical medicines daily. He started to mirror the environment around him and the identity of an addict embedded itself deeper in the fibre of his being.
Irfan managed to alienate his only remaining friends by this point. His family grew weary of him, his sisters and brothers were warned to stay away from him and his notoriety grew. He described how he resolved to kick the habit every day, and every night his resolve withered and what remained was a shell of the brilliant child that once was. The morning resolves resulted in him investing in rehabilitation innumerable times but unfortunately, like all his other commitments, he reneged on this as well. Rehabilitation facilities in the early 1990s were few and far between, not many had insight into the topic and due to the social stigmas associated with drugs, none had particularly ventured into the development of a comprehensive programme or infrastructure to rehabilitate these lost souls. Irfan subconsciously draws attention to his arm at this point in the conversation, leading me to inquire about any possible injuries. He narrates that under the spell of the nasha (intoxication), he used to lose consciousness at various points and in these fits, had done some irreparable damage to his body and mind. His inability to better himself had only created exaggerated feelings of inferiority within him. These feelings manifested themselves in him inflicting considerable pain to himself. “I cut myself all over. The pain of the wound was quickly masked by the pleasure of the sensation. I overdosed countless times and passed out in drunker stupors as routine yet I never managed to successfully take my own life.” At some level, it is presumable that the instinct for self-preservation prevailed and this instinct is what has brought him to this point.
By the mid 1990s, Irfan linked up with Dr Saddaqat Ali, an established addiction psychiatrist responsible for pioneering the modern-day rehabilitation paradigm within Pakistan. It can be said that this meeting was the final impetus required for Mr Khan to commit to his convictions. The addiction and addict were almost inseparable at this point yet he tried and tried and tried and was able to wrestle that brilliant mind out of the haze of dependency and into the clarity of day. It was a long and tumultuous path to recovery. “I used to feel the withdrawal symptoms for up to 6 years after quitting.” But luckily he was able to connect with individuals from around the globe with similar experiences and see himself out of this internal servitude. Latest figures estimate that there are nearly four million addicts just like Irfan within Pakistan and nearly 40 million users presently. A considerable portion of resources are allocated to curbing drug trafficking and incarceration of liable parties yet little to no attention has been paid to rehabilitation, treatment or prevention of drug abuse amongst the masses. Over 21 years have passed since Irfan reclaimed his sobriety and society has managed to evolve since then. There are multiple rehabilitation outlets offering a wide array of services for people from all socio-economic classes. Yet this still proves insufficient in the greater context of the problem. The social stigmas attached to this disease are prevalent and, despite successful rehabilitation, it is as hard as ever to shed the shadow of this notoriety.
Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Raheel Sharif, recently completed a tour of ...