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June 26, 2014

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Tortuous journey from drugs to finding new hope

ZHANG Kaifa is not his real name. He is too ashamed to make that public. But he is willing to tell the story about how he made millions in the clothing business in southern China, only to blow his fortune, lose his family and sink into the depths of despair as a heroin addict.

Zhang, now in his 50s, and six other former addicts who have been helped by the Zhabei branch of the non-governmental Shanghai Ziqiang Social Services Council, have come forth to talk about their sordid pasts as part of a campaign to encourage others to say no to drugs.

“They are really brave to do this,” said Xu Chao, a social worker at the Zhabei branch. “We hope their stories will alert people to the dangers of drug use and will encourage addicts in rehabilitation now not to give up hope.”

Today is International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1987.

In Shanghai, there are an estimated 75,000 drug users, according to Shanghai Police.

Social workers of the Ziqiang Social Services Council have been encouraging addicts to share their sorry tales as a “self-help” approach to encourage each other to continue rehabilitation. This year, the organization began to encourage them to go public. The “brave” voices beg to be heard.

Zhang was the envy of his friends in the 1980s. He had made a pile of money in the rag trade in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province. He had a lovely wife and daughter.

The future looked bright, until that fateful day when one of his business clients took him to a hotel in the city and offered him some heroin.

It seemed like a lark at the time, and Zhang was game. Heroin seemed to diminish his craving for cigarettes and booze.

“A gram of heroin cost 70 yuan (US$11.2) at that time, and I was spending 200 yuan a day on smoking and drinking,” he said. “So I saw it as a good way to save money.”

When he returned home to Shanghai, he experienced great discomfort without the drug. The more he turned to drugs to ease the unwell feeling, the more difficult to kick away the new habit, he discovered.

In the next 10 years, he gave up his business in Guangzhou and borrowed money from his parents and siblings to finance his secret drug habit. But heroin is no silent partner. Eventually, his addiction came to light. His wife divorced him in 2000 and migrated to Australia with their daughter. “My daughter hated me for destroying the family,” he said. “She refused to answer my calls or come back to see me.”

Zhang was caught by police using heroin in 2003 and sent to a state-run rehab center in Qingpu District. When he was released three months later, social workers encouraged him to find a job — however menial — and stay away from the drug scene.

That was 11 years ago; 11 drug-free years. At work, people now call him shifu, or “master worker.” He has regained his self-esteem. His daughter, now a college student, has forgiven him and visited last year. Zhang has remarried.

“I have walked a tortuous path to new hope,” he said. “I don’t want others to go through what I have suffered. That’s why I am willing to stand up publicly and talk about my dark past.”


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