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Recent reports of drug abuse among high-profile people in Indian metros left out some
of its darker aspects. Just how far will some women go to get stoned?
By Shilpa Rohatgi
he potent high of heroin was shortlived for Aruna Pathak*.On a muggy June day, her
partner in crime - some random customer who had picked her up for sex behind Mumbai's Taj hotel - pushed her out of his car and took off with all her possessions, down to her underclothes. But the thought that struck Pathak was tangential. Instead of cursing him for duping her, she "wanted to beat the bugger because he wasted one fix of mine, and
I didn't have even a rupee for another".Sex and drugs, despite a suspect compatibility, have managed to rough it out as bedfellows. A 2004 UNODC report on 'The Extent, Pattern and Trends of Drug Abuse in India' lists sex as one of the five most common means of supporting drug habits, along with legal personal earning, drug peddling, pocket money and selling household items.
"For women addicts, probably the easiest way to get money for their addiction is to engage in paid sex," says Shantanu Chowdhury, programme manager at Sahara,a Delhi-based NGO working with drug users and the HIV positive. "The crime rate among women drug users is much lower than among men addicts," he adds. Obsession, however, knows no gender Forced into prostitution by her husband, Pathak took recourse in substance abuse. For 14 years, she did hash, cocaine, alcohol and heroin. But paid sex was not all that she resorted to for her increased tolerance for substance: "I sold off all the gifts my Arab and European customers had given me -watches, jewellery, electronic gadgets.
I realised that one or two men a night were not enough.
So I started sleeping with up to five customers a day. I don't
regret what I did, but I wish it had never happened"
I also started picking my clients' pockets." It worked, until her craving for heroin and whisky escalated. "I realised that one or two men a night were not enough. I started sleeping with up to five customers a day." She'd venture out every night to Colaba to solicit men. "I don't regret what I did," says Pathak, 39, showing deep, dark injection marks on her neck, chest, legs and hands, "but I wish it had never happened." Why do women under the sway of drugs go to unimaginable extremes in their quest for its transient high? Sulakshana Mehra*, 34, has no answers. She was dependent on alcohol - "the perfect antidote to my problems and my boredom." Her banker husband soon found out about her addiction when he reached out to a make a drink one evening. "I used to add water to the whisky bottles so that no one would know that I had been helping myself," says Mehra. "I started believing that I was a bad, immoral woman.""Substance abuse shouldn't be looked at in isolation," says Suneel Vatsyayan, psychotherapist and chairperson, Nada India Foundation, explaining that a number of causative factors, especially low self-esteem, lead to drug dependence. The UNODC study confirms it. A majority of the subjects interviewed for the report indicated lack of confidence, poor goal orientation, a lack of trust and contentment with self and others. "The perception among women who do drugs is that 'even if I die, nothing will happen'. They don't realise that they are not abusing the substance;
it is their own self that is being abused," Vatsyayan adds. Lily D'Souza* didn't realise it long after she was caught in the abyss."I don't feel guilty that I sold off all myjewellery to fund my habit," she says."I had to go through it all so that someday I could help others." Battling the tag of 'divorcee' at 20, D'Souza took to rum and eventually brown sugar. Over seven months, she sold off all her family jewellery and subsequently began lying to her family and friends. "I used to concoct stories like wanting to do a computer course or buying
clothes, and they would give me money." Eventually, they saw through her lies and word spread about her addiction. I identified with NA's philosophy: one is too many, a thousand is not enough."It is a misconception that substance
abuse afflicts only a certain category and
class of women," says Ashok Rau, CEO,
Freedom Foundation, a Bangalore-based
voluntary group offering treatment
programmes for alcoholic, drug-addict
and HIV-positive people."Drug abuseis a malady and no illness has a class distinction." So for every Mehra and D'Souza, who hail from affluent families, there is a Kamla Chaubey*, 35, who was out on the streets after a fight with her mother who wanted to sell her When Chaubey could no longer take the beatings and abuses, she walked out of home and went to live near Delhi's Nizamuddin Dargah. .
1956: The year drug abuse was identified
as a disease by WHO
PRICKLY PUSHER: Injecting drug use is thought to be the main driver of HIV
infection in north India (UNAIDS)
10-15: Number of seconds in which
snorted cocaine takes effect
PREDISPOSITION: Children of alcoholics are four times more likely than others to develop alcohol problems
31: Percentage of women drug users
involved in drug peddling (UNODC, 2004)
GENDER DIVIDE: Women who use
sedatives and hypnotics are twice as likely
as men to become addicted to such drugs
40: Percentage of Maharashtra's
intravenous drug users infected with HIV
LOWER THRESHOLD: At similar or
lower levels of use, women develop
hypertension, brain damage, lung cancer
and bronchitis more rapidly than men
1977: Year in which the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare conducted a study on women drug users, one of the first such studies in India
13: The number of people, including
women, who died in a UP village last month after mistaking methyl alcohol for liquor
KILLER COCKTAIL: Alcohol is the most abused substance among women in India. Heroin is the preferred choice in the north east, and brown sugar and prescription drugs in Delhi. Cocaine and psychedelic drugs are used by the affluent classes
There she did what she had been running away from: sleeping for money and sustenance. Her addiction to smack did not help matters. "Apart from theft, I used to dupe men
with the promise of sex. I'd take money in advance and then make an excuse like 'give me a minute' and run off." Once she even knifed a man who was stealing her pudiya (pouch) of smack.Now detoxified, she says, "There was no one in my family to tell me that drugs are bad. I am not a bad girl." Dr Chinkholal Thangsing, Asia Pacific bureau chief of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, would vouch for it. "Women who do drugs are not bad, immoral or evil," he says. "They are sick and need treatment."
Once dependent on substance, the individual is governed by an obsessivecompulsive behaviour. "The only thing that matters is that the next fix should be available. Sensibility and rationale escape the person entirely." Rau recalls a young girl in a rehab hospice in Bangalore who jumped two floors to get to the nearest drug pusher. Citing the
example of another girl who was in anincestuous relationship with her brotherso that she could manipulate him and extract money out of him, Rau says,
"When it comes to substance abuse, there are no limits."
Which is why many junkies even mixdeadly drugs. In cities like Delhi, for instance, cocktail drugs are popular and
procuring serious drugs is easy. Crowded marketplaces are inundated with peddlers. A pudiya (or pudi and samaan, in street lingo) of brown sugar can be bought for as little as Rs 100-120, while ganja (marijuana) costs Rs 20 a pudiya. Pure heroin is steep - Rs 1,200 and more for a gram. Cocaine, of course, is a high-end drug and costs a minimum of Rs 3,500 a gram. No wonder it is not available off the streets and requires a reasonably good network to procure. And purity, as the Rahul Mahajan case reveals, is always suspect. Unscrupulous chemists sell Diazepam, Avil and Norphine without a valid prescription. Addicts mix the three (cost: around Rs 40) and inject them either intravenously or into their muscles. There is, however, always a way out. Pathak found hers in a social worker called Peter. "I haven't seen another angelic man like him," she gushes. "He would come and stay with us (sex workers) without lust. He only wanted to counsel us." Pathak was desperate to cleanse herself and went into rehab. "Some people who seek to get out of addiction either relapse or abandon their rehab programmes. But once you understand that drugs only retard your growth, potential and happiness, you will stay away," says Pathak. Chaubey couldn't. Twice she joined a rehab centre run by an NGO, and both times she left within a week. "Deep down, all addicts want to give up the habit. Yet, the withdrawal symptoms - fever, cramps, tremors, loose motions - are enough to give us goosebumps," she says. On her third time at the centre, Chaubey met a 'genuinely nice' counsellor. Now in recovery, she says, "No one respects a woman who is into drugs but I have earned mine." Loss of money and respect are not the only price to pay for addiction. A bigger mishap is the loss of relationships. Ask Mehra. Her husband left her once he learnt of her dependence on whisky. "But what really hurts is that my parents and I now share a strained relationship," she sighs. D'Souza's family is still suspicious of her movements. "I live separately. But my work gives me strength and hope." There is a lesson to be learnt, says Pathak, remarried and mother of a ninemonth- old girl: "The high of drugs is actually the low of life." The high of heroin was indeed shortlived.
HELPING HANDS: If you need help with an addiction, contactDELHI: Sahara Centre for Residential Care and Rehabilitation, Ph: 29219147 / 29222418. Sharan, Ph: 41642311 / 41642322. Narcotics Anonymous, Ph: 9818072887.Mumbai: Mukti Sadan Foundation, Ph: 9820094956.Ban gal ore: Freedom Foundation Ph: 25440134/ 25449766. Kolka ta: Calcutta Samaritans, Ph: 22298609 / 22295920.