Family, Health, Relationships

Addicted to drugs for 40 years, he felt no hope of change … until an encounter in a garden

By Gracia Lee , 15 July 2022

Samuel Wong, now 65, knows too well the cycle of addiction drug abusers go through.

After taking his first puff of marijuana at age 13, he spent 40 years desperately wanting to change. He would make good progress, then plunge right back into the lifestyle he swore to keep away from.

Many people had given up on him. Even he had given up on himself.

Samuel said: “I would look at others who had changed and think, ‘No way I can be free like that. I cannot don’t smoke. I cannot don’t take drugs.’”

Cleaning blood off weapons

Growing up with an uncle who was a leader of a gang, Samuel was exposed to the dark and violent underbelly of society at an early age.

“The shophouse that I stayed at in Balestier Road opened up into a lane where gangsters would fight and clash. We used the back of the shop to hold weaponry,” he recalled.

When he was in primary school, he was given the job of cleaning blood off metal pipes that had been used in fights.

The fifth of seven children, Samuel grew up in a shophouse in Balestier Road and was exposed to gang activities at a young age. All photos courtesy of Samuel Wong unless otherwise stated.

But it wasn’t gangsters who introduced him to the world of drugs. Instead, it was the hippie culture that he got involved in while in secondary school.

“The hippie movement involved long hair, rock music, that kind of party lifestyle. I liked how that felt,” Samuel said.  

He also liked the sense of belonging in the community. As the fifth of seven siblings, Samuel had always felt out of place in his own family.

It wasn’t gangsters who introduced him to the world of drugs.

Camping was a common activity in the hippie lifestyle. At one of these camps, he was offered a stick of marijuana to smoke. He was just in Secondary 1 at that time.

“I still remember that day very clearly. It was a rainy day and we were under a big beach tent. I took my first puff and it spiralled into a realisation that I really loved the feeling,” Samuel said.

Marijuana soon turned into methaqualone (MX) pills, which then turned into morphine.

His family was too busy to notice, let alone guide him back onto the right path. They were desperately trying to make ends meet and coping with the death of his father, who had passed away when Samuel was just 14.

“No one asked me how I was doing. They just let me do what I wanted,” he said.

“They thought I was going to die”

The law eventually caught up with Samuel.

Towards the end of his National Service, he failed a urine test. He was sentenced to 18 months in the detention barracks. He spent his 21st birthday there.

It was the first time taking drugs had led to any kind of consequence. Struggling with having his freedom taken away, he decided that he needed to change.

“But the desire to change was because I didn’t want this life spent in prison,” he admitted.

“It wasn’t about the drugs – the drugs, I still liked.” 

When he was released from the detention barracks, he enrolled in Teen Challenge, a centre providing rehabilitation for alcohol and drug abusers with addiction issues. But it failed to keep him clean.

“I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t breathe. My face was black and blue.”

Over the next few decades he found himself in and out of prison and the Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC) seven times. He was caught in the same pattern of wanting to change, only to lured back by the pull of drugs.

There was once he successfully weaned himself off drugs, cigarettes and alcohol for a season. It was while staying at The Helping Hand, a halfway house.

But after an unhappy encounter with his supervisor, he turned to drugs to cope with his feelings of resentment.

He suffered from a drug overdose and was rushed to the intensive care unit. “I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t breathe. My face was black and blue. I was choking, gargling. They thought I was going to die,” he said. 

When he regained consciousness in the hospital, he felt not relief that he had survived – but fear of being arrested.

Pulling out all his tubes, he escaped from the hospital.

“That afternoon, I relapsed again,” he said.

Hearing voices in his head

Looking back, Samuel believes it was a sense of loneliness and inferiority that had driven him to drugs time and time again.

“I just didn’t feel at home in the real world. The drug world was more appealing than the actual world,” he said. He also took sleeping pills and drank cough mixture to destress.

“This is your new life from now onwards. Live it.”

Things came to a head when his family kicked him out of his house. That was when he started hearing voices in his head talking to him. He was paranoid to the point of scolding strangers on the MRT.

“But I felt good because at least there was somebody to talk to. I was so lonely,” he said.

Once, the voices in his head challenged him to break into a particular home in Flower Road while the occupants were away. So he did, and even took a bath there.

“When the owner came back, I quarrelled with him and started asking him what he was doing there,” Samuel recalled with amusement.

In and out of lock-up seven times, Samuel struggled to kick his drug addiction.

Samuel was arrested and admitted to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH). He was diagnosed with mild schizophrenia caused by body substance abuse, and was warded there for six months.

“That was a really frightening experience,” he said. “I thought my life was gone.”

With treatment, the voices slowly started disappearing and he was eventually discharged.

He went back to The Helping Hand, hoping the six-month programme would help him cleanse his system.

“But when I came out, I went on a rampage again,” he said. “I felt stressed about life and felt I couldn’t function unless I was high.”

A new dawn

Despite Samuel’s addiction, his eldest brother took Samuel into his own home, where their mother lived. During this time Samuel met drug pushers outside his brother’s home, and did drugs in his toilet.

Breathing in the cool morning air, he realised that he had never felt so free.

“I felt really sick and lousy about that. If people are bad to you, it’s okay because then you can blame them. But if people are good to you, you can’t blame them anymore. They gave me a house to stay, food to eat, a place to bathe. But I made their house a drug place,” he said.

Disgusted with himself, he enrolled in another halfway house, HCSA Highpoint, even though he had no real hope of changing.

But the morning after he checked himself into Highpoint – June 17, 2011 – something unexpected happened.

When he woke up at dawn, he felt strangely different. It was the first time in a long time he did not feel an ache for drugs, alcohol or a cigarette.

Puzzled, he walked out of his dorm on the second floor. He found himself looking out over a big green field. Breathing in the cool morning air, he realised that he had never felt so free.

He felt and overwhelming sense of peace, forgiveness and newness. “It was just like someone was telling me, ‘This is your new life from now onwards. Live it.’

“I think that was when I met God,” he said.

“It was like someone telling me, ‘This is your new life from now onwards. Live it.’

During his time at Teen Challenge and at The Helping Hand, he had been introduced to the Christian God who loved him, gave His life up for him and could make all things new (2 Corinthians 5:17).

But now he finally experienced it.

“I realised then that I would love to have this new life and that I was willing to do difficult things to live it,” said Samuel.

What might have led to this divine encounter? Samuel believes that God had answered the prayers of his mother.

“I always believed it was my mother’s prayers for me that made the biggest difference. It was not my faith, but her faith that God would do something.”

A band of brothers

The journey back to sobriety was tough, but Samuel found a group of three friends at Highpoint who encouraged him to stay on the right path.

“They were Ah Bengs and Ah Sengs, but they were committed not to touch drugs and cigarettes,” Samuel said. “I bonded with them and felt safe and affirmed in their company.”  

He had not known this feeling of acceptance and security in past relationships. It had led him to build walls around himself.

“Guilt can be very crippling. So those who have been forgiven much will love much.”

But with this group, he felt no fear of rejection. He knew he could be himself. He did not fear that they would leave him at the slightest offence.

Samuel also drew strength from his newfound faith.

“If you are at a place where you really want to change and you’re willing to put in the effort to recover, God can be your enabler to give you the strength through the community of believers,” he said.

Samuel (left) is now a programme manager at HCSA Highpoint, the halfway house where he turned his life around.

Knowing that Jesus has forgiven him for all his sins, thankfulness welled up in his heart.

“Guilt can be very crippling. So those who have been forgiven much will love much. Every day I started to invest myself in doing good, in seeing who else my life can touch,” Samuel said.

“I started to see that there is a purpose in my life, that there is something bigger than myself.”

Never too old

Since that morning of June 17 morning 11 years ago, Samuel has not turned back to his old life.

He now journeys with other men through their addictions. Today, he is a programme manager at Highpoint, and a recovery coach and trainer in the Singapore Prisons.

“I always wanted to be a soccer player or a musician. But I realised, my football sucks and my music is also not so good.

“But one thing I’m good at is that I’ve spent many years with drugs,” he said

Over the past decade, he has worked hard for a diploma and a higher diploma in social work. He now hopes to earn a Masters in Counselling “at the ripe old age of 65” to be better equipped to help those caught in addiction.

Samuel (left) at his graduation ceremony after receiving his higher diploma in social work from the Social Service Institute.

“I want to be an example not just for ex-offenders but also to inspire people that life doesn’t have to be over once you reach a certain age. It can still be meaningful.”

Samuel still remembers the scent of the air and the feeling of freedom during his first morning at Highpoint. And this spurs him on each day.

“That was the freedom of Christ. And this freedom is not for me to keep, it’s for me to live out,” Samuel said.

“The grace of God can transform anyone who seeks His face – or even if they don’t seek His face.

“Why did God seek me out? I also don’t know. It’s all His grace.”

A version of this article first appeared in Salt&Light.

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