Memories of a Personal Opium War

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LAVINIA CHANGWhile waiting at a bus stop near my home in Singapore recently, I was drawn to a poster. It was a photograph of a hand half-closed into a claw. It clearly belonged to a person in extreme agony, trying to claw his way out. The words on the poster warned against the use of heroin. It reminded me of my late grandfather.Grandfather was a gentle, kind and generous person. He was a skillful, self-employed mason. Every first-time visitor to our house praised his lovely workmanship in constructing our kitchen and bathroom. When he got paid for a job, he would come home with the best pastry treats. If it was a well-paid job, he would give his six grandchildren $0.50 each for our piggy banks. Then he would sit and tell us about the wonderful things he had built, the friends he had made at the job site and the interesting news stories that had been read to him since our last gathering (Grandfather was illiterate). Those were the good memories.The bad ones were of him shivering under a blanket at midday, with mucus dripping from his nose and saliva drooling from his opened mouth onto his perspiration-soaked pillow. When no adults were around, I took turns with my sisters and cousins to peep into his curtain-drawn room to check on him. Several times we emptied our savings onto a handkerchief, tied it up and put it into his hands. He always pushed it back, though we pleaded with him to take it. In our naivete we had hoped that our small fortune would buy him some relief.You see, Grandfather was an opium addict. Nearly everything he earned was spent on feeding his habit. When he had money, he would smoke better-grade opium; when funds were low, he would buy the poor-grade pellets that he swallowed several times a day. With no savings, there were times in between jobs when he could not even afford the pellets. That was when the withdrawal symptoms kicked in.It would start off like a cold, with teary eyes and a runny nose, followed by involuntary twitches in the face. His hands would start to shake, so he could not even have a drink without spilling it. At the full-blown cold turkey stage, he would lock himself in his room and push the key out from under the door. We could hear his desperate groaning from within but knew there was nothing we could do to help. I don't know how long he stayed locked up; it seemed like a very long time. When he became quiet again, my mother or one of my aunties would go in and help him into bed. And that was how we always found him. Though he seemed barely conscious, I knew he was fully aware of his sufferings. Watching him, we suffered too. That's one of the most cruel side effects of substance abuse. It produces a host of silent victims: parents, siblings, partners, children, grandchildren and friends. But somehow, he always lived through it. Perhaps one of his children had risked Grandmother's wrath and slipped him some money for a fix. Or he just got better after a few days of withdrawal. If it was the latter, he never seized the opportunity to rid himself of the habit.PAGE 1  |  
Grandmother died without forgiving him for the addiction. They had traveled to Malaysia from China in the 1920s in search of a better life. But when Grandfather started smoking opium he burned every dream they had together. My mother, as the eldest of five children, started working at age 12 to help put food on the table. My aunties couldn't stay in school for long either; only my uncle finished secondary school. To Grandmother, her opium-addicted husband had condemned their children to a life no better than their own--another generation lost to poverty and hardship.When I was 12, I asked Grandfather about his habit. I was foolish and thought I was buying a happier life, he explained, his voice heavy with regret. It was an escape. Twenty cents a day helped me get through the horrible working conditions. I thought if I could work harder and longer, I would earn more for my family. But the price shot up once I became dependent. It has cost me my life. I never dreamed I would become addicted.Those last few words stayed with me throughout my teenage years. It forever put to rest any curiosity I might have had about addictive drugs. No amount of peer pressure could have persuaded me to try a puff of marijuana, a dose of lsd, or any of the other drugs that followed.Grandfather died of respiratory problems at the age of 78. He was an opium addict for more than half his life. I will always have fond memories of him, but they are inevitably tarnished by the image of him shivering in bed. The saddest thing about his addiction was the irony of it. Grandfather was attracted to opium because it promised a better life. In the end, it robbed him of any possible happiness he could have had. It alienated him from his family and stripped him of his dignity. I now recognize what I saw in those eyes when he declined the small bundle of coins we offered. It was shame and humiliation, and my heart breaks for him once more.  |  PAGE 2