Joyful at 25
Spaces of Hope
It is difficult to contain my joy.
When I first met some Tokhang surrenderers of Barangay Subangdako in Mandaue City, they were unkempt and could not even look you in the eye, their eyes seemingly always downcast. They just mumbled their answers, in one to three incoherent words, whenever you asked them a question. Fear and suspicion were written on their faces. They were in a different world.
But that was Friday, Aug. 19, 2016 during our first Lectio Divina session with about 20 recovering addicts at the garden of Barangay Subangdako. Two Sundays later, on Aug. 28, we organized a family gathering of the surrenderees, which brought in about 90 of them. We offered them an opportunity to join a pathway to recovery–all of six months beginning with assessment and ending with reintegration. About 25 signed up, although our evening sessions ballooned to 50 or even 80 participants.
We decided to call the program “Labang” from “Lahat Bangon” a play on words mixing Tagalog (“Lahat Bangon” = “All rise up” or “All get involved”) and Cebuano (“Labang” = “to cross or pass over”). “Subangdako” seems to fit in nicely since it refers to “big river”. There is an exodus of sorts here.
Now on their sixth month of daily interventions from volunteer groups within and outside the barangay, the 25 “Labangers” are about to graduate from the program, all of them negative of drugs as their drug tests confirm. But more than that, they have found themselves and have found a larger family. After all, as one best-selling books on the war on drugs, Chasing the Scream, puts it: “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s connection.”
“Labang” is a Community-Based Rehab Program (CBRP). The 25 clients now belong to a different world. They have rediscovered the joys of neatness and of taking care of themselves. They look at you straight in the eye and a wide grin is never far from them. When they talk, they let out a stream of coherent words. They will soon undergo training under TESDA and job opportunities beckon. They plan activities and manifest hope.
Yes, it is difficult to contain my joy.
Every Friday evening, my Dilaab team and I conduct a Lectio Divina for “Labangers”. On first Fridays, we celebrate Mass. During these sessions, we divide ourselves into small group to listen to life testimonies. Members of the small groups belong to the same sitio so as to correspond to nascent BECs. I asked two of my team members to share what stories have touched them most.
One is that of a jeepney driver who has been an addict for 20 years. He was familiar with all the distribution points of illegal drugs. Oftentimes, his wife would be searching for him since he would not go home. He joined Labang but without the intention of mending his ways even if, in his words, there would be “five Dutertes.” But he found himself changing as he underwent the modules, particularly Lectio Divina. His craving for drugs ceased and his new “addiction” is attending the activities of “Labang.” He attends the sessions even if this means some loss in income since his body and mind craves the interventions.
Another story is that of a husband who was an addict and a wife who was sober. He had given up on his responsibilities for the family. The wife had called him “demonyo”, and his children referred to him as “adik”. His wife found it hard to believe that he was taking his recovery seriously when he joined “Labang.” There was an instance when he asked his wife to accompany him to Sunday Mass and she refused since she did not believe him. But gradually, she saw him transform. At one time during the program, he experienced a “lapse”. Because of this, she resolved to accompany him even during the sessions of the rehab program. This gained her a deep appreciation of the program. For the first time, they shall be celebrating Feb.14 as husband and wife.
There is also a woman who had neglected her children due to drugs. They, in turn, developed the habit of living their lives as if she did not exist. They did not call her “Mama”. With the changes coming out of her “Labang” experience, the woman started to take care of herself and her family again. Her children have forgiven her and they now call her “Mama.”
Finally, there is the success story of a young man who had dropped out of school due to addiction. When he joined “Labang” he underwent an ALS (Alternative Learning System) module of the Department of Education. He found out he was good in mathematics and become the regional champion of ALA in mathematics.
While admittedly these are still stories in progress and that “once an addict always an addict” and that having a support group is vital for sustaining sobriety, as members of the 12-step support group for recovering addicts are quick to point out, these brave souls have discovered the true light in their lives through the holistic interventions they undergo. This is reason for joy.
The present pause in Tokhang is a welcome development. While I continue to maintain that even before the so-called vigilante killings, the drug culture was already the culture of death in the country, the conduct of the war on drugs was moving out of control. We seemed to be replacing drug addiction with another form of addiction – blood lust. This is a terrible blind spot among public officials and citizens who are advocating for a return to capital punishment. This is a short-cut to the culture of citizens lusting after blood yet with no clear gains in public order and security. Only the poor will suffer.
Operation Tokhang had resulted in a Yolanda-like scenario where all sectors are overwhelmed and looking for an adequate response. It is clear that working individually in responding to the aftermath of Tokhang, the State and the Church have reached dead-ends in their efforts. Collaboration is imperative. We need to come together bringing in and sharing our core competencies and resources.
Although this is just the first run, the first graduates of Labang show that CBRP is indeed possible when the barangay chairman and the parish priest come together and form the nucleus of an expanded UBAS (Ugnayan ng Barangay at mga Simbahan) at the grassroots level. The recent “ceasefire” in the war on drugs should provide us a breather to replicate Labang and other similar CBRPs.
Sadly, the focus of the funds that government is sourcing for its rehabilitation program for drug addicts is for the building of rehab centers. While centers are needed, it is sobering to think that, according to medical experts, only 10 percent at most of those who use drugs need to be rehabilitated in centers. In our case, only about 80 recovering addicts who were assessed needed a rehab center.
In addition, centers necessarily create artificial environments for clients since their families are not with them. When they finish their rehab, they need to be reintegrated into their community and when there is no support, relapse looms high. CBRP provides a more natural environment. Centers are also quite expensive, understandably so. In Manila, a center that charges Php30,000 monthly is already considered reasonable. In Labang, the out-of-pocket expenses, mostly on food, was about Php3,000.