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09/11/2013

In western Bhutan, a refuge for drug addicts and alcoholics

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                                                                                                                                                             Jennifer Yang/Toronto Star

Meet Sonam Tshering he is the 38-year-old tattooed fellow in the bright red pants. Sonam lives in the beautiful kingdom of Bhutan, a country often referred to as the world's "last Shangri-La."

Bhutan is perhaps most famous, however, for its commitment to Gross National Happiness and being one of the happiest countries on earth. But for Sonam, it is the place where he has spent many unhappy years as a drug addict.

Today, Sonam is clean. He also runs the only drop-in centre for drug addicts and alcoholics in Paro, a town of roughly 40,000 people in western Bhutan. Sonam opened the centre with the support of Dr. Chencho Dorji, Bhutan's first psychiatrist, and operates it out of his own home, where his daughters can sometimes be seen running in and out the door.

Addiction runs deep in Sonam's family. His mother had problems with alcohol and died when he was two. His only sister was an alcoholic and died of liver cirrhosis.

For Sonam, he began smoking at the age of 11. When he turned 15 or 16, he moved to India for school and that's where he began experimenting with drugs everything from marijuana and pharmaceuticals (like Spasmo Proxyvon, also known as SP, and Nitrosun 10, or N-10) to cocaine, LSD and morphine.

"I felt that after getting high, I could do anything," Sonam recalls. "I could speak, I could fight, I coudl approach girls. I could be a hero."

When Sonam was 20, he was expelled from school for fighting and returned to Bhutan bringing his drug addiction home with him.

The next decade and a half was a haze of knife fights, arrests, convictions, relationship dramas, suicidal thoughts and more drugs. During his stints in jail, he also began drinking heavily; alcohol was easily smuggled into prison, Sonam says.

In 2009, Sonam's father died. Soon after, he hit his nadir.

"We have a phrase called 'rock bottom,'" he says. "Sleeping in the streets, getting overdosed and being in hospitals are not rock bottoms realizaton is the rock bottom."

Sonam began to take his first stumbling steps towards sobriety. He went into rehab and found the Chithuen Phendey Association in the capital city, Thimphu, a non-profit organization established with the assistance of Dr. Chencho. Sonam became a peer counsellor and outreach worker for other addicts and last summer, he returned to Paro and opened a centre there too.

Today, the Paro centre is essentially a meeting room filled with furniture bought on credit and inspirational messages printed from Sonam's computer phrases like "Here and now" and "Never give up." The centre survives mostly on Sonam's dedication and funding from US donors secured by Dr. Chencho donations that are now running out.

But in just one year, the centre has hosted hundreds of drug addicts and alcoholics, according to Sonam. They are mostly young men between 17 and 34 who come to the centre to hang out, attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings, or even to sleep, if they have nowhere else to go.

Some addicts have relapsed after getting clean; others have died from overdose. But there have been many success stories too and some of the newly-sober young men continue returning to the centre as volunteers.

When I visted the Paro centre in June, a shy 17-year-old drug addict was living there. The handsome young man with the faint mustache and ripped jeans is a former monk he actually began abusing drugs while living at the monastery. After dropping out of the monkhood, he went home to his parents but could not get along with his father, who the boy describes as a profligate gambler and alcoholic.

Before meeting Sonam, the young man had overdosed and landed in the hospital after popping 14 N-10 pills, which he washed down with mango juice (sweet beverages apparently help boost the high) and alcohol. He was discharged, went home, and overdosed again.

He eventually came to the centre because he had nowhere else to go, the young man said. When I met him in June, he had been living there for two weeks and sober for 10 days. I have since heard from Sonam that the young man got into rehab and is now doing quite well.

"This place has helped me a lot," the 17-year-old told me at the time. "If I had not come to this place, I would be using more. Or dead."

Jennifer Yang is the Star’s global health reporter. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar

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