The Yaba Frenzy
In the last few weeks, the word yaba has bounced around frequently in Dhaka society. Parents claim loudly and proudly that their children would never involve themselves in such 'stuff,' and wives breath a sigh of relief thinking that their husbands would never 'stoop so low,' while others stand at a distance looking down on the population of drug addicts, believing that it is not 'their problem.'
The reality, however, is that all these people are kidding themselves. Because yaba, a derivative of methamphetamine, is very much our problem. In the span of about five years this stimulant has found its way into every crack and crevice of society, starting from our elite classes to our rickshaw-wallahs. Users include people from either gender from all age groups ranging from 14-45. And contrary to popular belief, most addicts are not scary people dressed in ripped clothes, who look murderously at everyone, spitting and vomiting all over the place. The more seasoned users are people who function normally up to a certain point; people who go to work and chair meetings, people who go to school and get straight A's, people who have lots of friends, people who lead conventional every day lives -- people like you and me.
Some people claim that drug addiction is a personality disorder, while others think of it as an illness. Some of these users get into drugs because they want to fit in, while others have a fascination for living on the edge. Some unknowingly tried yaba without fully understanding what it is, while others researched it, studied it, knew its effects and then tried it. One thing that all these users do have in common, however, is that they started yaba thinking that they could handle it, and possibly control the effect that it had on them. What ended up happening instead was that yaba took over their lives.
Forty-two-year old Kamal spent the better part of his life battling drugs. He started doing drugs when he was 12 years of age, trying ganja, or marijuana. After a few years he got into mandrax, or methaqualone, which is a potent tranquilliser, used in the 1960s and 70s as a muscle relaxant and a sedative and phensidyl, commonly known as 'cat,' in which the active ingredient is codeine phosphate, and gradually began using heroin at the age of 15. He stopped in between for a few years and got married and had two children, during which time he still drank and smoked ganja regularly, occasionally doing recreational drugs on the weekends, before he started up with yaba four years ago. He has now been a recovering addict, clean of all substances, for a little over a year.
“The thing with me is that I suppose I have always had a superman complex,” says Kamal. “I also grew up glamorising drugs. I guess it had something to do with growing up in the 80s with the rock star fantasies and everything. I also have a very low threshold for boredom and I always needed something as a stimulant, be it alcohol, drugs or even work. I liked living on the edge, and knowing that I was pushing myself beyond my own limitations. The funny thing is that I was also always a good student and very successful in my career. That is a huge misconception that parents have -- they think that if their child is doing well in school that they cannot possibly be doing drugs, but good students also do drugs.”
It was only when Kamal lost everything; his job, his family and his financial support, that he realised that he had to get help. Unfortunately, in the case of most addicts, it only takes a loss of this degree, meaning they have to hit rock bottom, before they admit that they have a problem. This was the case with 32-year old Miraj. A previous smack (a crude form of heroin) user who had been doing ganja and 'cat' for over 10 years. Miraj started using yaba not long after he got married. It was not long before he too, lost his job and his family before he began seeking professional help. He has now been clean for two years.
“The thing about yaba,” says Miraj, “is that it completely messes up your pleasure centre. It artificially produces dopamine in your body, which causes those intense spikes or highs. Your brain basically then gets a taste of being happy beyond belief, but it is artificially happy, so when you start to come down from the drug, the depression you feel is ten times more. Most people also get what is called the speed bug, in which they think that there is a bug inside their skin crawling up your arms. This is obviously your imagination, but it feels very real. In addition long-term usage causes damage to smaller blood vessels in your brain. The main reason that people keep using yaba is because the intensity of the withdrawal is so much that most people cannot take it and keep doing it to avoid the withdrawal.”
Twenty-three-year old Nupur thought she was dying the first time she experienced withdrawal after using yaba. She then promised herself that she would never touch the stuff again until her boyfriend started using it regularly. At first she did not use it with him. After a while, however, she thought she would try it again.
“It took me a few tries before I actually got the hang of it,” says Nupur. “Possibly the reason it messed me up so much the first few times was because I popped the pill. When I learned to start chasing it, rather than popping it, the high was much more mellow and controllable. The thing about chasing the pill is that you can take it little by little rather than taking the whole thing at once, and that helps you kind of control your intake and your high.”
'Chasing the dragon,' a term originally derived by heroin users, in order to avoid intravenous needle sharing and also direct injection of the drug into your veins (thereby avoiding overdoses), is more commonly used in Bangladesh for both smack and yaba by placing the drug on a piece of aluminium foil and 'chasing it' with a lighter, inhaling the fumes with a rolled up bank note.
“The thing about chasing yaba,” says 28-year old Ruhi, “is that the high is much less intense than it is when you pop it, so people prefer it because it is not that strong a hit to your system. However, the problem is that because you are slowly getting high, you don't realise the effect right away so you can do it for a longer period of time, and therefore do more damage in the long run.”
Ruhi first tried yaba 10 years ago, but withdrew when she found that she was getting too hooked on it. She has been clean for over four years now. “I guess I am the type of person who likes to have control over my life so when I felt like yaba was controlling me, which it inevitably does at some point or another, I withdrew. It makes you crazy and erratic, and because you are sleep deprived you are super paranoid about everything and the fine line between reality and what is in your mind becomes completely blurred. That's another reason why chasing is so bad because it takes a long time for people to understand that they are changing. And because you yourself feel completely confident and on top of the world when you are on yaba, you can't even recognise how crazy you are becoming. Half that craziness comes from not eating because you completely lose your appetite, which is why you lose so much weight as well as lack of sleep because you haven't slept for four of five days at a stretch.”
“People get so violent when they are on yaba,” says 34-year old recovering addict Farida, “because it completely impairs your judgement. The psychosis comes from a combination of sleep deprivation and the drug. Interestingly enough, people in Dhaka, especially the younger generation of girls, think it's like a fun pill -- that is how it is marketed. It is a cute little pink pill that smells like vanilla, so it is almost made to look like candy. It is like this candy that smells nice that helps you lose weight -- that is how guys turn girls onto it. In reality though, this so-called candy does a lot of harm to your body -- it damages your lungs as well as your heart, because it artificially increases your heart rate, which may lead to a heart attack.
“Once you get the hang of it, you can do no wrong. In your mind you are that much more witty, you are more social, you can talk more to people, you sound more intelligent and you're sharper. You have this feeling of invincibility, but it is actually all an illusion. In reality yaba is a waste product of heroin and it cooks up a false level of energy. And chasing it is important to the ex-heroin users because a lot of them are trying to get off of smack and instead do yaba, and they get addicted to the rituals and the movement of chasing.”
One such addict is 38-year old Sohel, who tried to give up smack and substituted yaba for it a number of times. “I went to countless detox centres to get off of the smack, but all they would do was give me bad medication and sleep medication. When I woke up and was allowed to leave I would be like a total zombie and totally feeling like crap so yaba was a good pick-me-up. What ended up happening was that I started doing smack to cancel out the effects of yaba i.e. to sleep and then I would take yaba to cancel the effects of smack, which is called speedballing. The problem with yaba is that once I started, I just could not stop doing it. I couldn't control my intake at all. I also found that when I had to go out and meet people and need to be social, I took yaba so that I could handle myself. When I came down, however, I got really aggressive and stuff, because the feeling is worse than anything you can ever imagine.”
In fact, the symptoms of withdrawal are one of the main causes for people doing yaba so frequently. The euphoric rush, false sense of confidence and sharpness all add to the attraction of using it regularly to the point that people cannot function normally without it. Interestingly enough, although most people by now know that yaba is a drug, they do not really know what it is and what it does, not even the users themselves. Many people, for example, suffer from the misconception that yaba is a sexual stimulant. In reality it is not one, but is often mistaken for one because it intensifies all the senses in your body.
“When you do yaba,” says Nupur, who has now been clean for three years, “it feels like all your senses are heightened, so you feel everything more powerfully. For example, If you like listening to music, music will sound amazing to you. Another thing is that you seem to get very focused. A lot of times what happens is that you get stuck doing a certain thing for hours because you are concentrating so hard on it. That's when you know you have gotten locked, because hours will go by and you will have no idea.”
In addition, many yaba users suffer from the misconception that they are much more charming on the drug, which makes it very appealing to people with low self-esteem who may not be comfortable in crowds.
“You can always tell a yaba user,” says Farida, “from the way they talk constantly and seem to be talking in circles, constantly repeating themselves. Other symptoms are rapid jaw movement, sweating, agitation, hyperactivity, belligerence and aggressiveness. People are also more prone to getting into fights and being extremely paranoid about even their closest friends and loved ones.”
Kamal is no stranger to drugs coming in between his loved ones and him. “When I relapsed,” he says, “I completely detached myself from my wife and my kids. It was almost as if there was someone else in my life. The only thing I cared about was the high. But this pattern of behaviour started from a long time ago. I never had a real relationship when I was a teenager. It's like the drugs killed all the emotions that I would feel for other people.”
On a similar note, Miraj, whose marriage fell apart because of yaba, adds that, “Your entire being is focused on the next time you get high. You are always looking for that instant gratification and pleasure. You are completely averse to discomfort and you cannot handle that feeling that something is missing. In addition your entire perspective changes and you start forgetting what is really important to you. Also the more you use it, the more yaba makes you negative and sceptical. You lack the ability to generate positive thoughts and positive energy.”
Sohel, who has relapsed a number of times, claims that his relapses always followed the same pattern in the sense that in the beginning, yaba kept him happy and he felt good, but the more regularly he started using it, the more it got him down. He has now been clean for a year and a half. "Initially it was great and lots of fun,” he says, “but once it started becoming a habit again it totally made me down and I felt very negative about life in general.”
The truth is that the yaba culture has found its way to every part of our lives. The person next to you at work could be on it, your brother could be on it, your student could be on it. It is all over Dhaka city.
“People think it's cool to do drugs,” says Ruhi. “That is our biggest problem, that these young girls and boys just want to do it to fit in and it is really sad because it is not worth all the trouble. In addition your entire body gets messed up as a result -- regular usage can lead to kidney and lung disorders and also, people are more prone to get heart attacks. What is even worse is that they get hooked on it because they cannot handle it. Half of their parents don't know how to deal with it, so they are even more alienated.”
Kamal also feels that parents should be more educated in the drug scene in Bangladesh so that they can act accordingly if their children are involved in some way. “Parents need to give their kids a hard message without making them feel like they are lepers. The problem is that so many drug addicts are either shunned by their families, or they are given more money as a kind of placation. The truth is that parents have to make it harder for the kids to get these drugs. It is so important to show tough love.”
Aside from showing tough love, it is also important for parents to realise that their children, whoever they are, are at risk. What was once known around town as a 'rich man's drug' is now commonly used by people of all different backgrounds. In addition, it is important for people to recognise that there is no shame in falling once in a while, in taking the wrong path, in losing your way, as long as somehow, someway, everyone finds their way back again.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007