This is what we think we know; we’ve heard enough sides to know the truth. It is a primetime narrative summarized as incidents fueled by entwined destinies of noble intention and bloody execution. But the headlines and three-minute reports rarely ever tell us much. Besides somber faces caught on camera and the families whose lives have been changed forever, drug users have been reduced as minor characters of an ongoing war and numerical figures in statistics—yet there much more to their story that remain untold.
Woven in between the alternate rebuttals of the pros and the antis, are narratives that compound the tales of recovery, challenges, and the epiphanies of reformists who were once inside the walls of the rehab and on the receiving scourge of stigmas. Framing their experiences—with a lens that sees both the easy and the difficult, in a perspective unfiltered from a silk-screened storyline—the reformists tell a story that puts a human face to the country’s continuing war against drugs.
Mind the gap
*Joel’s answer was unambiguous: “I struggled to keep my own family.”
As the numbers of incidents and casualties in the drug war soars, those who have lived through it confront a different battle altogether: reinvention. Joel recounts the time when he and his wife were the brink separation. “When I entered [the rehab treatment] voluntarily, l wasn’t sure if could bring back everything, including my family. l surrendered to the fact that I was already powerless over my addiction. That I needed help.”
Taking place not at the center stage of public scrutiny, the real stories happen without the gold star of publicity. Inconspicuous among the heaps of other tailored, alternate versions of ‘truths’, their tales teeter in the area somewhere between personal and communal, existing in the grey area between taboo and familiar.
The stigma surrounding reformists is one is hard to shake off, as society has not always had kindest words to say about those who once surrendered themselves to addiction. “Submitting myself to the rehab was the hardest challenge,” shares Rita*. “When people think of drug rehab patients, they think of us as hopeless and worthless junkies.”
“The stigma has always been there for people like us who have undergone treatment. Comments like ‘once an addict will always be an addict’ and that ‘there’s no chance for change’ for recovering addicts like us. The stigma is always there.”
But there is also, they believe to be the silver lining of hope. For reformist like Rita, in reckoning with the struggles she has had to face, she picks through it just as precisely to learn and reveal the message hidden just below the surface, “Recovery is possible.”
“When I was discharged from the rehab, I made it my mission to share everything I learned in recovery,” shares Ronaldo Rivera, a former patient of a rehabilitation center in Davao, and now a speaker at community’s rehab program. Additionally, he offers help to others on their journey as well, saying that he wants to coach others who are in the phases of recovery. “In the rehab I met people who never had a functional family, education, or home. It pains me in my heart to witness their situation. These are the people in the grassroots who want to survive, but they’re also the recovering people who get killed or taken for granted.”
Conducting community rehabilitation volunteer reformists, Rivera presently participates in helping the municipality of Balanga in Davao Oriental for their community-based rehabilitation and aftercare program, and uses his story to amplify the voices of rehab patients and reformists. “We bring ourselves as mirror to support groups, because there…we serve as mirror images of one another. We’ve been there, done that, [so] we help. We support.”
As a public servant, he makes a broader emphasis on his advocacy to encourage the participation of the youth through community works like the National Service Training Program and the National Reserve Corps.
“I know many people who have given up with the hope that help will ever reach the masses. But I think we need to roll up our sleeves,” he comments. “The youth must learn that they play the most important role in community development.”
A firm believer in the importance of the impact created by leaming institutions, Rivera makes an invitation to criticality. “The killings are newsworthy, we see them in the front page, but there’s a more important revolution than that,” he says. “There’s revolution going on. This drug war [is part of it], but only superficially. The drug war is just a symptom of a more abhorrent malady about our being Filipinos.”
A new chapter
Rita looks at it as nothing short of life-changing. “I enjoy the feeling of [being back] to my old self,” she says meaningfully. “My family…amidst all these…they’ve been very understanding.”
Peeling themselves away from the crutches of rehab, the reformists rebuild their lives, brick by brick—their stories transmuting into testaments of self-discovery. And for Rita, Joel, and Ronald, rehabilitation gave them permission to do something that some people have been stigmatized for: be human—hopes, flaws, potential, shortcoming and all—but still be loved anyway.
“I needed to take a step for everything to work. I learned a lot from the nineteen months of treatment that I had,” Joel shares. “It was the most painful and the hardest decision of my life, but it turned out to be the best.”
As for Ronaldo, he remains unswayed by the surrounding distractions realizing the important lessons. “We have no power over other people’s perception. Stigma is a result of a misinformed society,” he reflects. “But when you choose to become simple, realize it’s not always about financial security, there’s no [such thing as] hard challenge.”
While some believe that the current measure taken to eradicate drug addiction in the country are justified, others counter that it’s traipsing on the extremes. Often denounced by the local and international community for its aggressive track and labeled as a dark era of violence, injustice and death, the country’s battle against drugs raises the question if a drug war is even ever winnable, and if so, at what cost.
But amid the tidal wave of alarm, carnage, and fear that surround the ordeal, reformists cling towards the balance of realism and being optimistic. “It’s long tedious process. For everyone, civilians, law enforcement agencies, government officials, but it is possible,” says Joel, referring to the chances of eradicating addiction successfully.
It’s an individual stance in the blur crowd, one among thousand others in the storied heap of opinions—but perhaps one that also articulates the thoughts many. “Death penalty is not the answer to all drug issues surrounding us.”
The drug war is, as its name semi-suggests, an attack. But the central question of these—what does one really fight in order to win a war against drugs—remains unanswered. Is it government against men? Men versus the system? Men versus other men? There are competing answers, each with a hint of truth, just enough to convince. Time ticks, blood drips, but the answers do not hide in easy places.
There are others sitting in the quiet, witness to everything in silent contemplation. There are some who raise their voice, unintimidated by the mob and their rabble, and then there are those who find their words, and in the process, convene language to form a prevailing truth.
Joel speaks for himself and the others, “We all deserve a second chance.”
*Names with asterisk (*) are pseudonyms