In Kashmir, Addicts Grapple With Religious And Chemical Dependency

By Parul Abrol
TMP Guest Contributor

There was nothing about the young man’s appearance that gave an indication about his life or the plans he was making. 

The lanky 19-year-old in a pair of faded blue jeans, a smart tweed pheran (traditional Kashmiri overcoat) over a hoodie, and sneakers looked like any another Kashmiri college student. But in fact he’d dropped out of school after ninth grade saying, “I just want to have a small business, a little shop maybe, and perform namaz five times a day. That’s all I want to do.” 

Sahil (name changed) had been battling an addiction to Spasmo Proxyvon, an opioid-based painkiller, at the Drug Rehabilitation Centre run by Jammu and Kashmir Police Department, inside the Police Control Room campus in Batamaloo, Srinagar, for about a month. 

This wild swing from chemical dependency to life of devotion in the span of a month is not unheard of, but it is a dilemma for counselors all over the world who aim to prevent risks of addiction to substances but also addiction to religion.

Studies have revealed that addicts early in their recovery have a tendency to form a relationship with God that often becomes dysfunctional – overdoing just like they overdid substances. Most of these studies have been done on recovering alcoholics who followed the Twelve Steps for recovery, based on a Christian notion of a higher power. The righteousness, the relief, and initial euphoria – which professionals term as the ‘pink cloud’ – followed by the absence of substance can lead many to believe that this connection with God is the only relationship they need to invest in to stay clean. Fervor for religion takes the place of exploring the depths of their problem and learning to bond with human beings around them.

Kashmir is a conflict zone, and the peace is always only temporary. Years of living under militancy, armed forces, night raids, disappearances, and killings have taken a toll on the society. In a perverse way, the violence has preserved its close-knit structure. Religion has also played a big part in keeping the community together in this conflict. The majority of the population in the Kashmir Valley is Muslim, and with the expulsion of Kashmiri Pandit community (Hindus) in the late 1980s when the militancy broke out, Islam has become the dominant religion with a significant impact on the local culture. 

I met Sahil along with Dr. Muzaffer Khan, who heads the rehab center, and a young woman who works at the center as a social worker and counselor. Sahil sat down in front of us, anxious and wary. With a nervous and slightly shaky voice, Sahil explained that the disconnect with his family started quite innocently when he got interested in rap music. Eminem was his favorite artist. Once a brilliant student in class, suddenly all he wanted to do was "be cool," wear loose denims and hoodies, hang out with the boys from neighborhood, listen to music, and rap with his friends. His parents were at a complete loss. They considered his activities un-Islamic, which riled up the teenager. According to Sahil's parents, their religion did not permit him to wear those clothes or to listen to that music. While he admits that he wasn’t very good at rapping, Sahil also now agrees with his parents’ argument, “Hamare religion mein yeh allowed nahi hai (This isn’t allowed in our religion).” He reached a point today where he had no interest in music anymore.

At the time, however, things got worse. Like any other teenager, Sahil was rebelling against his parents, their beliefs, and what he felt were the conservative and rigid norms set by the society. He was around 14 years old when a friend handed him a couple of tablets of Spasmo Proxyvon “for fun,” and it did not take Sahil long to get hooked. He explained that the medicine kicks in a lot of energy and fills one with euphoria. 

This turned out to be a bonding moment for Sahil and me as I shared my experience of taking that same medicine some years ago. I explained I had to ask my doctor to prescribe something else because Spasmo Proxyvon was putting me to sleep. Sahil lit up at the mention (for the only time during the conversation) and quite excitedly asked me the color of the tablets I had. Dr Khan explained that after initial few drowsy spells, Spasmo Proxyvon starts giving a rush, since it is an opioid-based medicine. The conversation with Sahil flowed smoothly from there.

Most people with addictive personalities find it difficult to fit in, and so tend toward antisocial behaviors. Sahil’s first tryst with rebellion was stone pelting (Kashmir has a long history of throwing stones in protest) with the neighborhood kids when he was only about ten years old. He explained, with a rare look of pride, that he did so because of his jazba (fire) for azadi (freedom). A reporter came to their colony, and the kids happily posed for him with stones in hands, without covering their faces. So did Sahil. The next thing his family knew, Sahil had been slapped with charges under the Public Safety Act (PSA). 

Although children under 18 years of age may not in fact be charged under the law, doing so is routine in Kashmir, and numerous kids have spent time in jail as a result. Sahil’s father bribed the local policeman to get rid of the case, a practice that is again routine in Kashmir. The incident did scare Sahil, and he stayed away from violence after that. Once the addiction kicked in, Sahil said there was no energy or mental space for anything else anyway. Members of civil society in Kashmir allege that the armed forces have a hand in the supply of alcohol and illegal drugs in the state to ruin the youth and to crack the backbone of the society.

Meanwhile, as Sahil was busy getting high, the price of his daily requirement of one strip (eight tablets) went up from Rs 50 ($0.76) to Rs 150 ($2.29). Coming from a middle class family of limited means from the Dalgate area of Srinagar, it also meant demanding more money from family and more fights. Each fight required a larger dosage for numbing his emotions down, and to get back to a euphoric state. 

About two years ago, after another fight over money, Sahil bought three strips. While his daily ritual consisted of four tablets in the morning and four in the afternoon, supplemented with hash in the evening, on that day he gulped down all three strips with only half-hour breaks in between. Suddenly his heart was palpitating, and he was vomiting. He rushed home, where he began having seizures. He had overdosed, and found himself in hospital when he opened his eyes. The episode was followed by a month-long stint at a private rehab in Khanyar, north Kashmir. He went back to pills within a few days of his return.

The moment of reckoning seldom comes for an addict, but societal pressure did get to Sahil – with a touch of religion in the mix. Since intoxicating substances are haram (sin – forbidden) in Islam, social rejection of addicts as sinners is common. The disgrace is also felt by the families. Sahil said he was tired of it all, and had lost his izzat (honor) and sehat (health). The izzat factor is so intense that the center takes special care to keep the identities of its patients secret. Special permission is required from the Inspector General (IG) of the police to speak to Dr. Khan, even before you get a chance to talk with the patients.  

Dr. Khan detailed the daily schedule of the patients, which included medical rounds, sessions with counselors, meetings with psychiatrists, yoga for exercise, along with breaks for prayer in the prayer room in the compound. Religion is not officially a part of the curriculum at the center. Dr Khan, who is a practicing Muslim, has his own issues with the society’s – and in turn – his employees and patient’s relationship with religion. He said, “Every Friday I start getting excuses from work or programs for Friday namaz from 10:30 am, and people don’t return till 3 pm at times. There should be a time set for the namaz – no wasting time in its name.”

The period of early recovery is critical, Delhi based experiential counselor Vijay Simha says, and is the most crucial time for a patient. “The brain just starts healing. It starts functioning, and it is thinking. Early recovery mind wants answers,” Simha notes. 

After a time of recovery, the person starts seeking knowledge. He will think about the purpose he has in life. It is very easy to fill this vacuum with religion. This is the predicament that waits Sahil and many like him: to return to society sure, with all the answers. 

Another patient at the center, who was also recovering from Spasmo Proxyvon dependency and wanted to be a good Muslim in recovery, shared how he used to deal with guilt while using and wouldn’t offer namaz. For Fridays’ mandatory namaz at the local Masjid, he would wait to have his dose till after the prayers. Dr. Khan joked about him breaking his Roza (fasting during holy month of Ramadan) after the namaz. 

The young man had told his fiancée that he was on a pilgrimage and couldn’t be contacted as an excuse for his stay at the rehab center. True recovery comes with honesty, knowledge, and acceptance, however. Simply “replacing rituals of drug with religion” is a highly risky business, as Simha puts it.

Right before joining the rehab, Sahil had a huge fight with his elder brother over money. The brothers had come to blows and still were not talking at the time of this interview. Before leaving I asked Sahil whether he needed to work on his relationships in recovery, to forgive those who have hurt him while asking forgiveness from those he’d hurt. 

The question unsettled him. With a flushed face and tears slipping from the corner of his eyes, Sahil nodded. There were no words, only quiet acknowledgement. In that moment, Sahil was beautiful and young again.

Parul Abrol is a freelance journalist based in Delhi, India. She writes on politics, conflict, and development issues. Currently, she is working on a book on Kashmir's political history and recently spent five months in Srinagar, including the period of one of the most violent uprisings against the Indian rule.