The high low : The Tribune India

The high low

Covid-19, and closing down of PGs, has brought to fore cases of substance abuse among women returning home to Himachal Pradesh. With no support system, they are facing a sterner societal backlash as compared to male addicts

The high low


Jyoti Sharma Bharadwaj

Thanks to COVID-19, our centre is bombarded with queries. Since hostels and PGs have closed down, students are back home. Parents panic when they see their girls going through withdrawals and call. They start of by addressing their ward as a male but later on come out clear,” shares Manni, a rehabilitation counsellor at Una, Himachal Pradesh. “Does your facility cater to women?” I ask. “There is not even a single rehab in Himachal that admits women. We suggest them to go to Delhi or Punjab,” he adds.

There is a growing trend among women in Himachal to use substance. Women often resort to using substance not just for pleasure but to deal with stress, overcome body image issues, break stereotypes or self-medicate physical and psychological pain. The commonly used substances by women in northwest India are sedatives, pain relievers, tobacco products, inhalants, opioids, cannabis and alcohol.

Invariably, women dependent on substance are trapped in unhealthy relationships and use drugs as an escape from an unbearable living situation. Some exhibit a strong desire to find freedom in recovery but carry on the toxic relationship and get harmed, even sexually assaulted. The key factors responsible for women normalising sexual violence are their socioeconomic vulnerability and intimate relationship with the perpetrator of violence.

Weeping wounds

Substance dependence has given a whole new dimension to teenage love. Many young women initiated substance use at the bidding of their boyfriend(s) with a promise to keep using it if they wished to continue the bond. These women shy away from seeking help for the fear of losing friendship. “I had led a very controlled life till I reached college. The whiff of freedom and extra moolah in pocket knocked me off my feet. I tried to fill the love vacuum from my childhood with substitutes, including chitta. Fighting the battle of recovery was tough but inspired me to help women waging lonely wars against substance dependence,” recollects Kirandeep, who runs a de-addiction and rehabilitation centre for girls at Noida, Delhi.

“My friends got me chitta and I simply loved the euphoria followed by the state of relaxation,” confided Shreya, who is in recovery for the last one year. “I continued chasing the dragon at my hometown but once I returned to my PG, I experienced serious withdrawal. Excruciating abdominal pain made me scream and kick frantically. To my relief, my roommate got me acquainted with a local peddler. I had progressed from impulsivity to compulsivity.”

“Our friends got us started on chitta (heroin mixed with other substances),” Nancy (name changed) from Baddi, Solan, said over the phone. “Friends?” I quizzed. “Ya, common friends.” “Where do you buy it from?” I dug deeper. “My boyfriend gets it for me,” she answered matter-to-factly. “Friend or friends,” I went on unabashedly. “Boyfriends, OK,” she disconnected in a huff.

“I face continuous threats from peddlers and fear for the safety of my siblings. I have tried quitting many times but chitta doesn’t leave me,” confessed Sheela (name changed) from Shimla, looking away from me. She has been serving as a female drug mule for nearly two years.

“Neelima (name changed) is an alcohol dependent. Her parents have completely given up on her. A boy living in her neighbourhood buys booze for her on a daily basis. If she has the money, she pays; otherwise, she sleeps with him. As simple as that!” narrates Veena (name changed), a counsellor at Police Drug De-addiction and Rehabilitation Centre run by J&K Police.

Women often shy away from disclosing their poly-substance dependence. Sharing partial information with family and counsellor slows the progression of treatment and increases chances of relapse. “During the first few family counselling sessions, raging hurt seeps out through the eyes of the patient’s family. They retell the stories of abuse and physical pain, lies and deception, loss and heartbreak,” Vikas, a counsellor working at a drug de-addiction and rehabilitation centre near Una, revealed.

There is a surge in the number of cases of newly weds filling for divorce on finding out substance dependence in their spouse. “In our society, women carry a bigger burden of the lack of physical intimacy in a relationship. It not only hurts their self-esteem but also is a cause of harassment by the in-laws, leading to marital discord,” said Manzoor Azhar, a counselling psychologist working at a drug de-addiction and rehabilitation centre run by J&K Police.

Multiple stigmas

In our society, women are often mocked at for not doing drugs, stigmatised if they use and face discrimination during recovery. Moreover, a mother suffering from substance use disorder may be seen as a failure and face more societal backlash than a man would. In most cases, women are the primary caregivers in the family, so they feel guilty going to rehabilitation centre for self-care. The chronic nature of substance use disorder means that for some people relapse can be part of the process. Women are more likely to experience intense cravings and relapse than men. Any traumatic experience like domestic violence, divorce, job loss, death in the family can trigger substance use in women. Since society has less understanding about substance use disorder, women in recovery are judged harshly and tend to face more negative social consequences.

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