“My deadly dance with the dragon”

Nadia* reveals how drugs ruled her life in her teens and 20s – and the steps she’s taking to rebuild it now at 32. BY DAVELLE LEE

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Nadia* reveals how drugs ruled her life in her teens and 20s – and the steps she’s taking to rebuild it now at 32. BY DAVELLE LEE

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“I was a rebellious child. Growing up, I always wanted to break the strict rules my parents set for the household. I wanted freedom. That’s why I started partying and staying out late in clubs with my friends. It made my father furious.

“It was so unfair. My brother, many years my senior, had been on drugs for as long as I can remember, and my parents let him get away with it. So I defiantly partied on and partied hard. I wasn’t interested in school and eventually dropped out.

“In 2000, I turned 16. And that’s when I discovered ecstasy. Everyone I partied with had tried it. I wanted to feel included. I wanted to be able to say, ‘Yes, I’ve tried ice, too. I know what it’s all about.’

“I started to use ice frequently. Back then, I was a telemarketer earning $10 an hour – enough to get by and pay for the drugs. Pretty soon, I was getting high at work but I was discreet and no one ever realised it.

“My parents knew though. Ecstasy has a smell that is different from cigarette smoke, and they could smell it in the bathroom where I sometimes lit up. They would go through my bedroom, and search my wardrobe and bags, but they never found anything. I always kept my drugs on me, tucked into the pockets of my jeans or jacket.”


“I eventually got caught in 2003, when I was 19. I was charged for consumption of ice and sentenced to 12 months in prison. When I was released in 2004, the Singapore Prison Service put a black ankle tag on me so it could keep track of my whereabouts for the next six months. The moment that tag came off, I went back on drugs.

“A year after, I was at a party and ready to get a hit, but I couldn’t get my hands on any ice. Instead, there was heroin. And so began my destructive spiral of addiction when I was 21.

“Soon, I was hooked, and for the next three years, I would stab needles into my hip, trying to find a vein to fill with the drug. My insides would feel like they had been set on fire. I swelled and burned, but it did not stop me. I did this for years.

“On heroin, I lost my sense of reality. My brain would be shrouded in a thick fog, from which emerged voices belonging to people I loved, and others I did not recognise. I couldn’t hold down a job and could barely leave the house because of the physical effects of my heroin use.

“During festive celebrations, I would simply stay at home. I was so ashamed. What would my relatives think of me, this sickly good-fornothing junkie?

“I tried many times to quit, but withdrawal felt worse. I would vomit, have seizures, tremble and cry. It was so awful that many times, I wanted to end my life.

“One day, I threw all my needles away. The nausea, depression and paranoia that followed kept me in bed for days. I felt so sick, I could barely breathe.

“I ended up learning to smoke heroin, known as chasing the dragon, instead of injecting it. It didn’t stop or suppress my addiction. Instead, I carried on using the drug, struggling to let go and failing repeatedly.”

“The day my father called the police on me was the day he saved my life.”


“I met Ben* somewhere along my drug-addled path and we fell in love. In 2008, we got engaged. I was 24 then and everything seemed to be working out, except for one tiny detail: he didn’t know about my heroin addiction. I secretly smoked in the bathroom.

“He only found out two years into our engagement. We were at home and I was in the bathroom, chasing the dragon as usual. My body and mind would slow down to almost a standstill during these sessions, so I barely registered it when Ben kicked the door down. I had been in the bathroom for such a long time that it worried him.

“Ben was no angel himself. He used ecstasy regularly. But heroin, he said, was pushing it too far. After that incident, our relationship began to sour, and friends told me they had seen him with someone else.

“I hung on for two more years until 2012, always wondering if he was cheating on me. I finally confronted Ben and ended our relationship. That was the lowest point of my life. My health was in shambles and my engagement had been called off. These only fuelled the monster that was my heroin addiction. I was ready to die.

“My mother looked after me. She let me sleep with her each night when I could not bear to sleep in my own room surrounded by the ghosts of my drug abuse. “She took me to the Institute of Mental Health where I stayed for one night under the care of the National Addiction Management Services.

She took me home when I felt I was not strong enough to stay there for another night. She taught me to pray and said only God could help me. And perhaps it was God who intervened through my dad. The day my father called the police on me was the day he saved my life.

“I was writhing in bed, sweating profusely and shivering uncontrollably. I shut my eyes because, when I opened them, I would have double vision. In my head, voices were whispering things to me. I was having one of the worst bouts of heroin withdrawal ever.

“The police came to my house and found my stash of heroin in my room. My brother claimed it was all his. “‘Leave my sister out of this! ’ I remember him saying. But the voices in my head whispered to me, ‘They’re yours, they’re yours! ’ So I blur ted out, ‘No, the drugs belong to me.’ The police arrested both of us.


“I made the decision to start over as I sat in the police station. This would be the last time, I told myself. I was charged for possession of heroin and sentenced to close to four years in prison.

“In prison, I applied to study for my ‘N’ Levels and was accepted. For a year, I studied hard with the other girls in the prison’s academic programme. Some days, I’d bury my head in textbooks for up to eight hours without a break. My effor ts paid off and I passed my exams.

“I was already 30 when I got out of prison. And I was determined to do better. I wanted to fur ther my education and accomplish something I could be proud of. I set about finding a job, although education remained on my mind.

“A year after I got out of jail, I reconnected with Nazir*, whom I used to hang out with as a teenager. We had lost touch, and he had gone to prison as well for drug use and had just been released.

“Nazir couldn’t have reappeared in my life at a better time. He was done with his life of substance abuse, and also looking to star t afresh. While in prison, he had passed his ‘A’ Levels, and was now working towards a bachelor’s degree.

“He encouraged me to apply for the Yellow Ribbon Star (Skills Training Assistance to Restar t) Bursary to fund my education. The programme provides bursaries in vocational and skills training to financially needy ex-offenders.

“I went for the interview, got the bursary to study for a double diploma in business, and went to night school, while working just as hard at my stable job in retail. It felt good that my life was back in order.

“At the beginning of this year, Nazir proposed and I accepted. My hear t is the fullest that it has ever been. After all those years of chasing a high, this is the first time I truly felt euphoric.” SH

*Names have been changed.

Nadia will be taking part in the Yellow Ribbon Prison Run on Sept 4. These individuals who supported her during her rehabilitation will also be taking part. The run is organised by the Yellow Ribbon Fund (YRF) for rehabilitation and reintegration programmes for inmates and ex-offenders.

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Chief Warder 1 Siti Hawa Binte Ahmad Salleh, personal supervisor, Singapore Prison Service

“Nadia is very helpful and eager to learn. I hope she will continue to shine and be a positive role model to those around her.”

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Masadi Bin Masdawi, YRF Star bursary case mentor

“As Nadia’s case worker, I have monthly meetups with her to check on her progress both academically and in daily life. Her sheer determination and grit will help her to succeed in recovery.”

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Charlotte Yew, YRF Star bursary committee member

“I interviewed Nadia and assessed her bursary application. Granting her the bursary was a natural choice, and she has proven to be determined and committed to positive change.”