Med School Musings, Travel - Asia, Travel - Indonesia

The Other Side of Substance Use

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In our last week of neurology/psychiatry module, we covered substance use disorders. The lectures went from 8am to 12pm and they focused on the symptoms of intoxication, symptoms of withdrawal, and treatments. It was rather dry, and while the professors tried to do their best to have us understand that substance use is a disease, the message fell short.

In that cold classroom with my addiction notes in front of me, I was transported back to the coolness of Bandung and the tables outside the treatment center where I would hang out and share coffee with the “druggies”.

I will admit that the area of substance use and addiction was a topic I was very unfamiliar with before I signed onto the Indonesia Initiative project. For those of you just reading this, I worked with Rumah Cemara (RC) this previous summer. RC is a community-based organization that focuses on fighting stigma against HIV/AIDS and substance use. I spent my summer interviewing and learning the stories of the clients at the treatment center. In lack of better terms, my time there changed the way I view this population.

It’s so easy for society, whether it’s Indonesia or America, to take a look at these drug-users and immediately judge them and cast them aside. These kind of reactions are some of the reasons why many drug users relapse again and again. Society does not accept them, and they are labeled as outcasts. They are seen as people who did this to themselves. They walk around experiencing discrimination everywhere – family, community, and the workplace.

Regardless of the motives behind their initial drug using, these “druggies” are still humans. Addiction is a disease characterized by constant relapse and horrific withdrawal symptoms that can really push the human body to the limit. Many of them struggle with mental illness and mood disorders. A majority of them lack a home, a support system, money, and love. So tell me, if you were in those circumstances, wouldn’t it be so easy to pick up drugs again?

I write this specific blog just to bring some more emotion and shed some humanity onto the dry substance use lectures we receive in medical school. These “druggies” made me laugh and smile and so welcomed. They had amazing stories of trials and hope. They all had a fighting spirit that was so admirable.

Now many would argue with me that not all drug users are like that – motivated and hopeful – and I agree, but it does not give us the right to stand from afar and judge and pretend like we know their background stories. Cast them off as hopeless and not worth the time.

My time and work with RC has not only opened my eyes to the world of substance use, but it has given me a newfound respect for this population. I hope to be able to carry this demeanor into the clinical setting when I rotate through psychiatry and beyond the grounds of medical school.

And I challenge my friends to do the same. Don’t just walk out of a room with a substance use patient shaking your head. Take the time to truly ask how they are. Shed a little compassion.

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Once again, I thank Rumah Cemara and my amazing Indonesia team (Teresa, Anum, Omer) for inspiring this blog.
-M

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