Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Lost in the high

Behind the gray walls of a drug rehab center in Saigon, Vietnam, 25 young men were undergoing their second day of detox. All were heroin addicts, some as young as 16 years old. All were city boys, many of whom started on ‘hàng trắng’ because they wanted to be seen as ‘dân chơi’ and ‘sành điệu’ by their friends. They came from different family backgrounds, some poor, some rich; but on this second day when their bloodstreams had run dry of heroin, all were suffering from the effects of withdrawal – excruciating pain, hot and cold sweats, sleeplessness, nausea, and the horrible feeling of ‘dòi bò’ in which it felt like there were worms crawling inside their very bones. One boy who needed a lot of medicine to lessen the pain became delirious from side effects. He kept stripping off his clothes and staggered around the room, his naked body were marked by numerous tattoos that testified to the kind of life he’s had.

I came to the bedside of Tuan, who was groaning from the pain that surged in his body. Normally, Tuan’s day consisted of two ‘cử’ of heroin – one in the morning, and one in the evening. But today, he had none. When he saw me, he moaned, “Anh ơi, em đau quá!”

I reached out to hold his hand, only to find in his sweaty palm a folded strip of paper containing the 15 Mysteries that people used when praying the Rosary. “My mum gave me these,” he said. “Can you read them to me?”

I took the wrinkled paper from his hand and started to read. Half way through the Our Father prayer, tears started to well up in Tuan’s eyes and rolled rapidly down the sides of his face onto the white hospital bed spreads. “It’s been nearly ten years since I’ve stepped inside a church,” he said under his breath. “Why’s that?” I asked.

Tuan turned onto his side facing me, readjusted the saline solution bag being administered on his arm, and recounted his story. For the first three years, when he had embarked on the adventure with heroin, he was rebellious and having too much fun to think about church or going to confession. But the fun didn’t last. He got arrested for pushing heroin and was put in prison for the next three years. After he got out, he found his ways back to heroin. Sometimes church entered Tuan’s mind, but suffering from guilt and the firm grasp of heroin, he couldn’t get himself to go to Mass. And when he did, he only stood leaning against the fence on the churchgrounds. As close as he was to Jesus waiting for him beyond those walls, Tuan could not find his way inside. He was lost and trapped in his world of grabbing purses and mobile phones from unsuspecting people on Saigon’s chaotic streets, deceiving friends and family, and endless searching for the next heroin high.

In our world of several billion young people, Tuan was only one of countless more who had lost their ways and didn’t know where to go next. He was pushed, pulled, and ravaged by fun that turned into suffering, highs that became dark abyss, and rewards that became punishment. From the streets of Saigon to the housing projects of southside Chicago, from the high school classroom of Tokyo to the suburbs of Sydney, young people are turning to clothes and car, internet porn and premarital sex, crystal meth and heroin to fill up their days and nights. And few realize that these things are only fun until something goes awry – an unwanted pregnancy, a deadly accident, or an overdose.
But those who do find themselves struggling to resist the current sweeping at them with tsunami strength force. That’s why we can’t help but ask ourselves the question: When we are being tossed in this world of a million attractions, all promising to be the thing that we need and want above all else, which way do we go?

And what if we refused to listen to any of the messages bombarding our ears and eyes like email SPAM that won’t go away, which way do we go?

And if we refused to get caught up in material things and short-lived amusements, which way do we go?

My experience with Tuan in the Saigon rehab center keeps telling me that he had the right idea when he decided to make his way to the front gate of the church. He knew that there was something beyond those church doors that could save him from the nightmare that was his young life. Unfortunately, he didn’t have enough faith, confidence, or courage to take those heavy steps beyond the fence, to walk inside the church, where he would encounter the only person who was powerful enough, who was loving enough, who was merciful enough, and who was forgiving enough to set him off on an entirely new way of life. And that person was Jesus Christ.

Tuan didn’t know that if anyone were able to heal him of his pain and suffering, it would have been Jesus. And he didn’t realize that if anyone were going to free him from his heroin addiction, it would also have been Jesus.

The way to Jesus was never meant to be such a difficult path. It is as easy as walking into a church. But Jesus isn’t just waiting for us inside the church, He is also reaching out to us through friends and strangers, whispering to us in the middle of a sleepless night, and listening to us every moment we care to pray to Him. The way to Jesus is so near, yet can be so far. But He is far only because we choose to ignore Him at every turn, shut our ears to every mention of Him, and close our minds at every thought of Him.

Only one day after I read to Tuan the Our Father prayer, he jumped the gate of the rehab center and escaped, still in his white hospital clothes. The withdrawal symptoms were too much for him to bear. And my guess is that once he made it past the gate, his next stop would be some place where he could get a desperately needed fix. But Tuan wasn’t the only one who jumped the gate during those days, a few more followed suit. By the end of the 10-day detox program, only 20 of the original number remained. Of those 20, over 10 tested positive for HIV – the virus that has made its way into the body of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, most of whom are from the ages of 15 to 30.

I still often wonder what happened to this young man who held on to my hands and cried one day, only to flee the center the next. If he is like many of his peers, he might have been arrested and sent to government camps, or perhaps caught HIV from sharing needles and would eventually die of AIDS, or suffer an overdose in some dark karaoke room or under a dirty bridge.

I never heard from Tuan again after that. But in my heart, I always carry a small hope that Tuan would no longer just lean against the fence looking towards the church but didn’t dare to take the potentially life-changing steps inside. I hope that he would somehow work up the courage and determination to find his way to Jesus. And if he were to choose that way, it would make all the difference!

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