Volume 16 Number 6
Addict's Journey of Hope
01 December 2003

Neichu Angami describes a young man's fight against addiction and his campaign to help HIV/Aids sufferers.

Peshia Lam was 32 when he died earlier this year. During his short life he had suffered many hardships, been a drug addict, recovered, contracted Aids and lived life in such a way that many remember him with pride.

His native village, Pathso, lies in Nagaland, north-east India, close to the border with Myanmar (Burma). He belonged to the Khiamniungam tribe, which is split by the border. Most of his childhood was spent in Tuensang town, which is considered to have the highest rate of HIV in the region.

It was during his teenage years that Peshia was introduced to drugs. He told me that you could exchange heroin for salt in that part of the world, which lies close to the ‘golden triangle’, a major source of illicit opium. He reckoned it was curiosity and peer pressure that first drew him to drugs. He soon realized that he was craving to be ‘high’ at all costs. Anything that stood in the way of the ‘high’ was unbearable. Family relationships and study were the first casualties. He dropped out of school and left home a number of times, only to return when he had nowhere else to go.

Like all addicts, Peshia ran into trouble with the law and the security forces many times. ‘Lock-ups and jails are regular features of an addict’s life,’ he often remarked.

According to his father, Peshia and his friends were considered the most notorious gang in Tuensang. They were involved in all kinds of trouble, and deeply feared.

His father heard about Mount Gilead Home, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre run by the Naga Mothers Association (NMA) in Kohima, which advocated the 12-step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous. He took Peshia there for treatment in 1992. Jonathan Zingkhai, the resident counsellor at that time recalls the father’s question, ‘Is there hope for my son? Can he ever be normal?’

The hope that his father sought emerged as Peshia’s life changed drastically. He proved that recovery from addiction is a gift available for those who humbly and desperately seek it.

Through the process Peshia refound his lost faith, although it took him some years to trust again and surrender unconditionally to that one and only Authority.

Peshia’s rehabilitation took eight long months. He then went back to his studies, passed his matriculation and decided to dedicate the rest of his life to the care of addicts.

In 1994 the NMA merged with Kripa Foundation to work jointly in drug and alcohol treatment programmes in their de-addiction centre. They sent Peshia to Mumbai for a year’s training in counselling. On his return he took an honours degree in Education. He began legal studies but had to stop because of his declining health.

Knowing the risks of having shared needles with other addicts, Peshia decided to be tested. He learned that he was HIV positive. In 1995 he developed an Aids-related skin disease. He feared that if he went to a skin specialist and revealed his condition he would face rejection and predictions of imminent death. But, in the event, he was accepted and assured that, with proper treatment, he would recover from the episode. This gave him hope for a healthy, positive life with HIV/Aids.

Some years later Peshia became a care-giver and counsellor for HIV/Aids patients at the NMA HIV/Aids hospice in Kohima. With his family’s backing, he felt that he must go public about his own status in order to fight the stigma and discrimination suffered by Aids victims.

He became involved with the Indian Network of People Living with HIV/Aids (INP+) and, in 2002, he and some friends who were also HIV positive set up a Naga branch (NNP+). He was elected president.

NNP+ has representatives from all districts of Nagaland and works in partnership with NGOs and the State Aids Control Society. They are involved in networking, advocacy, prevention, care and support as well as the daunting task of fighting the stigma of Aids. The state government recognized his outstanding leadership and awarded him the Governor’s medal for services to the state.

At the peak of his activism, Peshia was struck with throat cancer. An elder recalls, ‘He had great fear and he struggled, but he did not give in.’ Within a few months Peshia’s health deteriorated drastically. He became very sick during a meeting in New Delhi and his INP+ colleagues took him to hospitals in New Delhi and, later, Bang-alore. But he was eventually sent home because he was too weak for treatment.

Back in Kohima, he rallied in spirit. But, despite the care and attention of friends and colleagues, his life was slipping away. His last spoken wish was to go home, and he died in Tuensang, surrounded by friends and family.

The last words whispered to him on his final night in Kohima were, ‘Your story will live, and we will know the fullness of life all the more because of your story....’

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