Coming Out of the Shadows: Punjab’s Women Drug Addicts Find Help

Hermitage, Punjab's first de-addiction centre exclusively for women, was started because women drug users' problems and special needs are often ignored.

Representative image. Credit: kenzie campbell/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Representative image. Credit: kenzie campbell/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Amritsar: It was love at first sight for Roopinder (name changed). A new job in Chandigarh brought her freedom and the attention of a man she had begun to trust. Her boyfriend introduced her to alcohol and cigarettes. To blend in and please the man she loved, Roopinder took to smoking and drinking, till she couldn’t do without them anymore. Much against the wishes of her family, she married him after a brief courtship.

But her daily fix of alcohol and cigarettes was opposed by her husband, who was responsible for getting her hooked in the first place. Things got steadily worse after the marriage and in less than two years she was abandoned by her husband, had become an alcohol addict and developed suicidal tendencies. Roopinder is now 26 years old and a shadow of her former self. Her parents have admitted her to Hermitage in Amritsar, Punjab’s first de-addiction centre built exclusively for women. The rehab facility, inaugurated on May 22, 2016, is run by Dr Jagdeep Pal Bhatia, an Amritsar based psychiatrist who has been running the Bhatia Neuropsychiatric Hospital and De-Addiction Centre for the last two decades, treating both men and women.

Located in the Majitha-Verka Bypass in Amritsar, Hermitage has 25 beds for patients and makes it mandatory for one family member to stay during the entire course of the rehab programme – one to three months followed by regular follow-up visits in the out-patient department (OPD).

“Less than a month of its opening, Hermitage now has six patients. We get about two or three women patients every day in the OPD, which gives you a fair idea about how widespread the problem is amongst women in the state. Women between 18-25 years from urban areas who go to study in colleges and universities are easily influenced and openly use hard drugs,” said Bhatia.

According to him, it begins with smoking weed with classmates and attending hookah parties and then graduates to heroin and cocaine – all persuaded by male classmates or love interests who promise the unsuspecting women that doing drugs is cool and very much in fashion. “My patients are told by their male friends that beer and low alcohol drinks are ladies’ drinks and spike them with drugs. In a few months, they graduate to taking hard drugs to get the kick. Together with alcohol dependency and chain smoking, the hapless women, in their quest for upward mobility, are trapped. Always in a stupor, they resort to all kinds of illegal activities to fund their addiction. A lot of women also fall prey to drugs to escape from domestic violence, acts of incest, physical and sexual abuse, and low self-esteem,” Bhatia continued.

The idea of starting a women’s rehab facility came to Bhatia when a high profile case of a young girl from Delhi came to him about ten years ago. The girl belonged to a very well known family and had become a cocaine addict when she went to study in Los Angeles. Her addiction was such that she would go to any length to get her family to arrange for her daily fix, like take off her clothes in public and even attempt to jump from the top floor of one of Delhi’s well known five-star hotels. Watching her total recovery after a two year detox and treatment programme gave Bhatia the idea to start a women’s facility, as he felt women drug users’ family often live in denial or are more eager to get male members of the family treated first.

A special session for women drug users at Hermitage de-addiction centre. Credit: Anasuya Basu

A special session for women drug users at Hermitage de-addiction centre. Credit: Anasuya Basu

Hermitage runs a programme called Women Integrated Treatment or WIT with an all-female 15 member staff, including security guards. “In the WIT programme, family members of women addicts take part as it is not only important for the addicts to be accepted by the family, but also informed family members should spread the word amongst others to help other addicts seek medical attention. The fee for treatment varies according to their addiction level – from nothing for poor families to Rs 15,000 to Rs 60,000 a month,” Bhatia added.

Considering the fact that Punjab has 31 government run de-addiction centres, yet they have not catered to the unique requirements and privacy of women drug users. “I used to go with my brother and sometimes my uncle to one of the government clinics, but was often shouted at by the doctors for my alcohol and hashish addiction. I would be subjected to rude stares and comments by clinic staff or total strangers and would have to wait for long hours just to meet with the counsellor. I felt low all the time and stopped going to the clinic. Now I come to this special clinic for women and it is so private and the doctors are very good to me,” said Pooja (name changed) who visits the OPD of Hermitage every week.

With the Bollywood movie Udta Punjab’s frank and brutal depiction of physical abuse and forceful drug dependency of the female lead, it will serve the cause of counsellors and psychiatrists like Bhatia who are trying to pull back Punjab’s youth, especially women, from the abyss of drugs and crimes. For the patients at Hermitage, a new beginning awaits but not without the challenges of overcoming the hurdles of social acceptance and leading a drug free life.

Anasuya Basu tweets at @anabee588

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