Sense of a Beginning: True Stories of Drug Addiction through Literary Lenses

By Law May Ning (14S03O)
Photos by Aidan Mock

“A biochemist will tell you that the ingestion of heroin provides an addict with a transcendent state of euphoria, which occurs because diacetylmorphine is being metabolized into 6-monoacetylmorphine and morphine in the brain.

He cannot tell you, however, about the intense torment which grips you when you try to go cold turkey. He cannot tell you about the sleepless nights which seem to drag on forever, while sweat pours from every burning pore in your body, or the tortuous days you have to suffer through while your head threatens to explode. He can never imagine what it is like to have every single joint in your body ache while your legs shake uncontrollably.

He has not been to hell and back.

— An extract from Innocence Lost and Found, the fifth story in Sense of a Beginning

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On the 22nd May 2013, at a ceremony with various special guests such as President of the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association (SANA) Mr Poh Geok Ek, a group of literary enthusiasts from RI launched Sense of a Beginning, an anthology of five different tales of substance abuse – tales of temptation, capitulation but ultimately, redemption. The brainchild of 5 students from Raffles Institution, the book was created in collaboration with SANA, and under the guidance of their teacher-mentor, Mrs Nicola Jane Perry, the group of 5 Year 6 students conducted interviews with five former drug addicts – of which Mrs Perry called “a humbling experience”. The accounts were then passed on to a group of Year 5 volunteers that transfigured them into literary works, mostly prose pieces.

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Thanks to the sponsorship of the Raffles Institution 1823 fund and Mr Peter Lim, 1000 copies of the book will be disseminated to volunteers and clients of SANA in addition to schools and public libraries across Singapore.

“The book sought to showcase the courage and fortitude of the individual,” said Mr Poh, the president of SANA, at the launch of the book. “We wanted to feature the painful path to recovery and found youths most at risk, and this book serves as an avenue to create awareness of issues related to drug addiction.”

Certainly, the stories of five troubled lives, all linked inextricably by the often tabooed issue of substance abuse, makes for promising literary material. However, did our writers do them justice?

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The Pros

When the words “substance abuse” come to mind, one might think of school talks about questionable influence and succumbing to peer pressure. With five stories running on such a theme, one might hence be, in a typical situation, well-justified in opening the book expecting the trite cautionary tale. Thankfully, however, Sense of a Beginning manages to largely avoid the cliched pitfalls of a typical true story anthology — beyond the good-kid-gone-bad, rehab and turning over a new leaf plot line, the writers in the book develop the individual characters’ stories and situations. From broken families to sheer curiosity, we are believably shown the different motivations why one might possibly abuse drugs, and the reasons that they kicked the habit. And even when the story involves bad influence as a factor leading to drug use, the authors managed to bring it across in a way that seems authentic to a young teenager.

Lim was my first friend. He had introduced me to the rest of the group after our first meeting. Here, it didn’t matter what number was on your report card, whether it was blue or red, or what anybody else thought about you. As long as we stayed, we got each other’s “protection”.

— An extract from Shackled, the first story in Sense of a Beginning

Most importantly, the stories are convincing. Because each and every character has their own unique story, we feel for them, and we feel their joy when they get off drugs and they get through their troubles. The writers skilfully provide nuanced insights into the state of mind of the characters.

“I don’t want you to sing in here. I want to see you singing outside,” was what my superintendent in prison told me.

My name is Michael, an ex-drug offender, and this is my story.

— The opening of Sing On, the fourth story in the anthology

Yet, the greatest appeal of the book lies in the eclectic mix of personas it presents. The five characters come from all different walks of life: Eunice, in Comfort is Feeling at Home, at Home, is a university student who picks up drugs, Madeleine in A Father’s Love is a 24-year-old single mother cum part time student, Michael in Sing On ends up a successful musician, while Ali and Vijay in Shackled and Innocence Lost and Found are blue collared workers. The variety of perspectives which the book offers make for an extremely stimulating read that broadens one world view. And the stories are often moving, eliciting genuine response from the readers as we feel the raw fear and uncertainty the characters have of the future.

“The sight of those police officers, the fact of my father’s betrayal, the question of what would happen to my son and, perhaps most significantly, the rise of the fears of what would happen to me all left me in too shocked a state to react rationally. I remember screaming then, eventually, packing my things and changing my clothes before leaving with the two officers under the stares of neighbours who were curious to know what was going on but too afraid to ask. Most of all, I remember my father’s face as he watched me leave, weighed down by my 5-year-old son in his arms but also by his fear of the future.”

— An extract from A Father’s Love, the third story in the anthology

And no issue is too big to be tackled. From broken families, teenage pregnancies and deaths of loved ones, Sense of a Beginning addresses perturbing issues, made particularly poignant because they are all real.

In one particular scene in Innocence Lost and Found, the last story in the anthology, a caning scene is painfully written out, coming across horrifying and eliciting genuine shock from the reader. Vijay, the protagonist, compares counting the strokes of the cane he is meted out to learning to count as a child, and the sharp juxtaposition between the innocence of childhood and the tainted road he took by succumbing to drug use only serves to highlight the horror the reader feels when one reads the unsettling descriptions of his wounds later. The powerlessness that Vijay feels as he can only accept his punishment of being caned serves as good as any school talk a stern admonishing tale against drug use for any youth.

“When we were all young, inquisitive toddlers, we learned to count. Slowly and painstakingly, our preschool teachers made us all stretch out our stubby little fingers, and repeat after her. Little did I know, however, that these fond recollections would soon be brought back to life; this time with a sinister twist.”

“I was now sobbing uncontrollably, mucus streaming out of my nostrils as my whole body shook violently. The biting cold air in the room seemed to attack the open wound on my buttocks, grating against the broken skin. My head almost exploded from the torment, as the pain reached an unbelievably agonizing crescendo. This had to stop. I just could not take it any longer.”

“Please… please sir, may the next four strokes be postponed to a later date?” I managed a barely audible whisper.

— Extracts from Innocence Lost and Found, the fifth story in the anthology

Each short story is followed by a two page reflection written by the SANA counsellor attached to each former drug addict. The reflections offer a sort of mini epilogue for each story as we find out what happened to the character in the story, and end with a sort of feel-good closure for the reader, while showing us a slightly more detached perspective of a social worker.

The Cons

The authors of Sense of a Beginning are said to have provided “creative interpretations of the transcripts” in the introduction, and while one admires the skill they have at their craft, Sense of a Beginning can occasionally come across as confusing for the average reader, perhaps because of the literary depth of the pieces.

In the first story, Shackled, the writer employs an abrupt shift in point-of-view midway through the story, something that can come across as disorienting initially — the story shifts from Ali’s point of view to third person notes on a prisoner in a rehabilitation centre. This is particularly confusing because there appears to be a chronological jump of a number of years between the break, though this is never really addressed. Only on a second, closer reading does one realise that Ali the teenager from the first part of the story has now assumed the persona of a depersonalised, middle-aged prisoner much later in life.

“JW.

0700: It’s time for Prison Inmate No. 1786 to wake up. Name: Ali.

0730: 1786 appears to be exhibiting the usual symptoms. He’s still in a cold sweat. His heart rate is still manageable, although he is undergoing some palpitations. Help from the Medical Officer is unnecessary as of now, but will be needed in the event that he experiences difficulty breathing.”

— An extract from Shackled, the first story in the anthology

However, the complexity of the stories cannot be evidenced more than in the second piece, Comfort is Feeling at Home, at Home, which comes across more of an artistic exercise rather than a story. While it may certainly interest the more poetic, it can be a bit hard for the average teenager to get what the writer is talking about, and one can lose interest in the story. Comfort is Feeling at Home, at Home, is structured as a play with 3 Acts of 2-3 Scenes each, and we are shown, the life of Eunice, a student who took drugs in university, as though her life were a play on stage, complete with stage directions and director notes. While unique and creative, the employment of such a technique confuses the reader, more so because of narration to the play at the start of each scene, which is mostly philosophical musing. Even more confusing is the fact that the narrator is named as “Man” as though he were a character, and it takes a slower reading to realise that it is more an introduction and commentary on each Act and unrelated to the events in the story.

“Act 1 Scene 1

Man: What is communism? Prevailing official opinion would have the plebeian believe it is nothing more than a conspiracy cunningly crafted by people left behind by our “success story”. To borrow a phrase from Marx’s lexicon, academia would rather brand communism the opiate of the masses, parading them under a banner of equality. All of them are wrong. To substitute a cursory, speculative answer to this question with one well-grounded in empirical metaphysics, the answer is crystal clear. The academic position ought to be reversed.

Drugs are communism. Under the common experience of a ‘high’, people start to believe that their lives are getting better but in essence, they are living under the oppresive thumb, or tongue if you prefer an oral ingestion of the unhealthy vitamin: drugs. Party drugs which induce the constant pivoting of a human being’s head upon its axis, symbolize a constant denial of reality…”

“Act 3 Scene 1

Man: Hope and faith are the anchors of humanity in its bawling infancy. That is to say that it is strongest when people are first exposed to such a thought, and alternative experiences have been found wanting. If an individual experiences a late conversion to religion, it is usually the result of a traumatic experience, or a deep sense of isolation due to the loss of positive human contact. in such cases, the human in question will be reconnected with the metaphysical fabric that binds society together. Other caveats are also required to complete the healing process, including a renewal of familial ties.”

— Extracts from Comfort is Feeling at Home, at Home, the second story in the anthology

The piece tends to come across as esoteric as even the characters in the story do not seem to follow the conventional customs of a play – for example, the protagonist, Eunice, at one point breaks the fourth wall and starts speaking directly to the audience after an earlier conversation with a friend, who may or may not be actually alive. It is unclear whether Eunice is hallucinating, talking to herself, or if the other character, Marg, is actually in the scene at all.

“Eunice: Work lately has been really… what’s the word. Tiring. Exhausting. Fatigue inducing… Burn out? There’s nowhere to turn. People don’t understand, no, they really don’t. Do you want to know what happened to Marg? Do You?

Enter Marg. The prevailing mood is austere. She sits atop the table, but Eunice does not explicitly acknowledge her presence, nor does she give any signals as to ignoring Marg’s presence.

Eunice: They say Marg committed suicide —

Marg: I did!

Eunice: She was under all the stress, her colleagues said

Marg: I was!”

— An extract from Comfort is Feeling at Home, at Home

Eunice’s spiritual awakening at the end of the play is also addressed extremely vaguely and leaves the reader wondering what really happened to her beyond the end of the book, after she found religion.

“Eunice:…. But one day, I found God. There are people who say that He is a lie, an evil fabrication, but to me, He is my shepherd – He led me back to Pa, to Ma, to things that I once held dear. And I will be held dear, dearly.

No longer fatherless. No longer rootless.

I am home.

Fade out.

— The end of Comfort is Feeling at Home, at Home

Of course, it could be interpreted as a very literary piece and as a whole, it does certainly make for a very different read altogether.

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The Verdict

For a book targeted at 15-19 year olds, the stories in Sense of a Beginning hit home and are not afraid to tackle issues of betrayal, desire for acceptance, and ultimately love. However, given the target audience, the style of some of the pieces, particularly the play Comfort is Feeling at Home, at Home, may seem a little too inscrutable. Nonetheless, at a mere 83 pages, Sense of a Beginning is a tiny book that packs a punch, and is definitely a thought-provoking anthology much worth a read.

Yet regardless of how the book conveys the specific messages or what we think of it – it is undeniable that this project is taking the first step in raising awareness to the risks of drug addiction, “something other than a pamphlet, leaflet or information sheet to get across the marginalised elements of society”, as summarised by Mrs Perry. On what she hopes this project will achieve, Mrs Perry believes that “if one person reads this book, and as a result can help himself, or someone else, then it’s been worthwhile. Obviously we want to help more people, but at the bare minimum, one person means this book already has made an impact.” We certainly believe this project can inspire others to do more, to initiate more community projects, and will definitely make an impact on our wider community, in the fight against drug abuse and addiction.

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Sense of a Beginning: An Anthology
1. Shackled (By Bradley Yam 14AO1C)
2. Comfort is Feeling at Home, at Home (By Lim Wei Khai 14AO1C)
3. A Father’s Love (By Tan Kuan Hian 14AO1C)
4. Sing On (By Sng Geng 13AO1A)
5. Innocence Lost and Found (By Lee Chin Wee 14AO1B )

Interviews by Chan Kai Yan, (13AO1A) Chua Jun Yan, (13AO1A) Koh Hui Kai, (13SO3E) Koh Liang Ping (13SO3I) and Sng Geng (13AO1A)

A copy of this book can be borrowed from the Shaw Foundation Library.

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