From teacher to zombie - the story of an ex-drug addict

From teacher to zombie - the story of an ex-drug addict
From teacher to zombie - the story of an ex-drug addict

Ten years have passed since Ramli Omar, a peer mentor for the National Anti-Drugs Agency (AADK) and co-founder of drug rehabilitation centre Rumah Sinar Kasih, broke away from his "love affair" with heroin.

Upon his release from prison, the 62-year-old former teacher was determined to quit drugs after being caught in its grip for 37 years.

In an interview with Malaysiakini at Rumah Sinar Kasih recently, he spoke of his journey from being a "zombie" on the streets because of drugs to helping rehabilitate others in the same situation.

Ramli, who is affectionately known as Pak Long, first took the illegal substance at the tender age of 15, when he was a Form Three student in a religious secondary school in Terengganu.

While noting that many drug addicts fall from grace for various reasons, Pak Long admitted that he only has himself to blame for getting into the vice in 1974.

"Some become addicted to drugs due to family problems, divorced parents. It is not due to one single reason but many. It could also be the influence of friends. But for me, it was actually my own doing.

"When you are too active in school, always the 'top student', you start wanting to explore your horizons and try new things. I was so excited about moving ahead.

"Such a feeling ultimately led to my addiction," he shared.

'Where did it all go wrong?'

Pak Long said his drug addiction stemmed from his own wrong choices as his parents had provided the best education for him.

Unlike some of his friends who became drug users due to broken families, he was raised in a loving home where his father worked as an imam at a mosque while his mother studied the Quran.

Pak Long has been jailed four times for possessing drugs and he has undergone rehabilitation three times in his life.

"So, where did it all go wrong?" Pak Long asked during the chat.

He got married while in his first year studying in Institut Teknologi Mara (ITM) in Shah Alam, where he was pursuing a diploma in Malay literature. The couple has been blessed with six children.

He expressed his gratitude to the woman who stayed beside him through thick and thin.

"Mak Long (his wife) is a gift from Allah," he said, adding that he was indebted to her, his family and in-laws for staying by him during his time as a drug addict.

"Our eldest child is pursuing a PhD at Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (Upsi) while the youngest is studying for a degree at Universiti Malaya," he said.

After graduating from ITM, Pak Long underwent training to become a teacher. When he was deployed to teach in Seloma, Perak, Pak Long was still using drugs.

Heroin - one of the many packets sold by traffickers that were seized by the police.
Heroin - one of the many packets sold by traffickers that were seized by the police.

Always chasing the next high

It was at this stage that heroin started seriously interfering with Pak Long's life, it ruined his career as a teacher and strained his relationship with loved ones.

During the earlier years of his drug abuse, he would only mix the heroin into a cigarette and smoke it. Then he moved on to a different method where he would burn the substance on a tin foil before inhaling it.

"As I became heavily addicted, I no longer used the 'cam' (mixing heroin and cigarettes) or 'chasing the dragon' (tin foil) methods as it took too long for the high to hit.

"These methods began to feel like a spell by a bomoh (witch doctor) which failed to work, it was then that I changed to needles," he said.

"There are stages in addiction. The dose needed will gradually increase to the extent of having to fork out RM100 a day to get that high," he said, adding that his monthly salary as a teacher at that time was merely RM600.

Eventually, his addiction gravely affected his work performance and in 1987, the District Education Office learned about his drug abuse and advised him to quit his teaching post.

Anything for a drug fix

When he was an addict, Pak Long said, he would do anything to get money for his daily heroin fix.

"I have done all sort of things. Drug addicts have no dignity or shame at all. Their brains are so creative in getting money, be it in a good or bad way, as long as they can scratch the itch" he added.

Drawing from his own experience, Pak Long said drugs could be obtained from anywhere - even inside the lock-up, rehabilitation centre or prison - because cunning syndicates had ways to bypass the authorities.

Drugs could even reach a 10-by-10-foot cell packed with 40 detainees, he added.

"The drug supply is like a magnet. It is either we are looking for it or the other way round. We would find each other at the end.

"It's like a miracle, as long as you see a path, you will find the drug you're looking for. That's how determined you are to get them," he said.

However, Pak Long is not certain whether the same thing is still happening in detention facilities now.

After losing his job in 1987, Pak Long ended up in the dark alleys of Jalan Haji Taib in the Chow Kit area of downtown Kuala Lumpur, which is known as a drug haven.

"Lorong Chow Kit was a hive of illegal activities. Even the police dared not to enter alone. They have to team up to patrol the area, where prostitution and drug activities were rampant," he said.

However, changes have taken place in Chow Kit since then, he said, pointing to the cleaner streets and the area now serving as a commercial and community centre benefiting the homeless and urban poor.

In order to afford drugs, Pak Long was also involved in the drug trade on a small scale.

"I would sit on a bench surrounded by barrels, which were filled with drugs. Every morning, youths on their way to work would drop by to hold their arms out for an injection.

"They hired us to buy them the drugs and we were getting rich. But as more money came in, we found less comfort.

"Instead, we became like zombies as we needed to take seven to eight doses of heroin every day when others only needed one," he said.

During his time on the streets, Pak Long slept on pieces of cardboard along the corridor of the alleys, where he saw many addicts die due to poor health, drug overdose or crime.

"If one of them died in the morning, the body would only be taken away in the evening the next day," he said.

Pak Long explained that if someone took drugs for 10 years, they will need another 10 years to recover from the addiction.

As such, Pak Long is still unable to consider himself as a recovered drug addict.

"I have repented, but I'm still in the recovery process. I've certainly had enough of being a drug addict, living like a zombie and without a direction in life," he said.

After his release from prison in 2011 and once again relapsing, he decided to turn himself into the AADK for help.

This was how he began his methadone treatment to put an end to the addiction.

"The AADK office helped me a lot, in terms of counselling. In fact, recovery is easy, maintaining it is the difficult part.

"Many addict friends and drug dealers are out there plying their trade, they will look for us even in wormholes until they get us," he said.

Working with AADK

After he was freed from the bonds of heroin, Pak Long was appointed by the AADK as its peer mentor to help other addicts undergoing treatment and rehabilitation.

"Under the peer mentor concept, we work in as many groups as possible. At least 10 to 15 individuals in a support group.

"We teach them the rehabilitation process so they can admit they are chronic drug addicts who need help," he said.

Pak Long has moved to Cure & Care Clinic along Jalan San Peng, Kuala Lumpur, after one year with the AADK's Federal Territory branch. He, however, continues to serve AADK as a peer mentor.

Cure & Care Clinic, which is under the supervision of AADK and the Home Ministry, provides voluntary treatment for drug addicts via Section 8(3)(a) of the Drug Dependants (Treatment and Rehabilitation) Act 1983.

Seeing light in Rumah Sinar Kasih

To help former addicts, Pak Long decided to set up a support group of his own. He wanted a shelter where training and continued rehabilitation could be given to them. A place where people with the same fate could gather.

According to him, NGOs and shelters for former addicts are mainly run by churches, non-Muslim NGOs and Christian missionaries.

As a Muslim, he felt obligated to set up Rumah Sinar Kasih in 2017.

"I faced many challenges in setting up the shelter. I'm not well off but my spirit is high, especially when I remember how my friends fared in the alleys," he said.

Rumah Sinar Kasih residents earn their own living partly through farming, including raising chicken and catfish, as well as planting vegetables. Some of them are involved in breeding ornamental fish while others partake in furniture making.

"There are many activities at the shelter. There are seven people here - six of them under rehabilitation and one psychiatrist," he said.

Pak Long said what the drug addicts need most is not cash aid, but support and guidance for them to be able to live independently and return to society.

"We are aware that we have done a lot of bad things to the community, but let us return to the right path. As former addicts, we want nothing except moral support from the community.

"If you see any of us at the mosque, just extend a hand. Do not discriminate against us and think we want to steal shoes," he said, adding that former addicts are sensitive to society's negative views of them.

"None of us intend to become addicts until the day we die. We need to help each other. If a sibling or family member takes drugs, hug and help them," he said.

Pak Long's Rumah Sinar Kasih planned to work with Universiti of Malaya Centre of Addiction Sciences (UMCAS) and a few other parties to get involved in agriculture.

This, he believed could train the former addicts to live independently.

"If you see a drug addict in the alley, do not desert them, send them to us at Rumah Sinar Kasih. Don't be afraid, we will not torture people.

"God willing, many who turn up will recover," he added.

In 1994, the International Classification of Disease, a globally used diagnostic tool for epidemiology, health management and clinical purposes maintained by the World Health Organization, stated that addiction to a substance is a mental disorder. This included the dependency on alcohol and drugs obtained illegally or by doctor's prescription.

Heroin addiction has been a major drug abuse problem in Malaysia from the end of the 1970s to the early 2000s.

Malaysia has imposed harsh penalties for drug-related offences - capital punishment or life imprisonment - against the abuse and trafficking of drugs, including heroin under the Dangerous Drug Act 1952.