A day in the life of a de-addiction centre worker in Chennai

Rescue workers in de-addiction centres across the city have a thankless job. It entails a fair amount of physical risk, and yet they remain underpaid and have no medical insurance.

The clock strikes four on a December afternoon. A group of four muscular men speak in muffled voices inside a SUV, planning a rescue operation that is set to take place in half an hour. The vehicle comes to a halt before a spacious farm house in Chittoor, 150 kilometres away from Chennai. In the next three minutes, a series of shocking scenes are enacted and troubled voices rent the air.

The team of four hailed from a de-addiction centre in Chennai and had arrived for the ‘rescue’ of a hardened alcoholic, who was sleeping. The victim’s family members left the scene, after showing the team his room. It took the four of them exactly three minutes to execute their strategy, manipulate the victim and bring him to the SUV.

The victim had attempted suicide a day before the rescue — this piece of information provided by the family helped the team pose as volunteers from a suicide helpline. “He was frightened to see strangers in his house. We used the time to take him to the car. He did shout for help, but the family was asked to remain strong and stay away,” said R Kiruba (name changed), a volunteer with a de-addiction centre in Chennai.

There is no harsh treatment. They hold his hands and walk him to the car. But it is not over yet. The rescue team can call their day off, only after admitting the patient in the hospital. During the four-hour journey to Chennai, the team meets a torrent of abuses and threats from the victim.

The victim’s family was not allowed in the same vehicle; they had to follow at a distance. “The victim’s anger would be uncontrollable if he saw the family. An addict never admits his problem. He is always mad at the family for admitting him to a rehabilitation centre, without his consent. People can be uncontrollable when they are aggravated,” said a therapist from the rehabilitation centre, who was also part of the rescue.

Life-and-death situations

Such situations, however, are an everyday affair for the rescue team. They are the ones who plan strategies for a smooth rescue, counsel family members and are often at the receiving end of the victims’ outburst. Braving threats to life, they rescue an alcoholic or a drug addict or a technology/ social media addict, and are witness to angry outbursts, helplessness and distress on every mission. “We take pride in what we do, after all we are helping victims who cannot decide for themselves. Of course, we step in only with the family’s consent,” said Kiruba.

How effective is rehabilitation, when done without the patient’s consent? “These are patients who were in denial about their addiction. Once we induce the will in them through counselling, they would be willing to change. The success rate is around 60 percent,” K N S Varadan, founder of Freedom Care, a de-addiction centre in Pattipulam said. 

For the workers, however, the initial steps pose stiff challenges. An alcoholic lorry driver in Perambur broke the door of the rescue vehicle on one occasion, despite five members of the rescue team trying to pacify him. “He was a tough addict and could not come to terms with the fact that someone was controlling him. Strangely, when not under the influence, he was a responsible and sensible man,” recalls K N S Varadan.

Rescue workers have hundreds of such stories where they have escaped grievous injuries by a notch. There are cases where the victims have hurled sharp objects at them or whatever was within reach — a television, chairs, tables and even a grinder stone. “Your job is to persuade or manipulate the patient and make him drop the weapon. It is not advisable to take any short cut, for example by sedating the patient without knowing his/her medical history,” says Sunil Kumar, Founder, Mindzone, a specialist de-addiction and counselling centre in Chennai.   

Sometimes, the rescue staff also look back upon the incidents with humour. A 55-year-old patient who was rescued from the outskirts of Chennai travelled with the rescue team to Bengaluru. En route, he was extremely upset and requested the three-member team to give him alcohol. The team poured him a glass, just to pacify him and hold him back. “What followed was a barrage of curses and unparliamentary words. He cursed not just us, but even our forefathers,” chuckles Varadan, remembering a case from two years ago.

The patient had another demand — he wanted to visit a lavish resort. Only after entering the ‘resort’ did he realise that it was a ‘rehabilitation centre.’ The end result proved to be satisfactory, as the patient did not hit the bottle after the treatment.

Unsung change-agents

Multitasking is a regular demand on rescue workers in their field of work. They are caretakers in the rehab centres and sent to rescue patients only when a situation arises. While the recovery rate in a rehabilitation programme for an unconsenting patient is only 60 per cent,there seems to be no better option.

“Addicts, in many cases, are seen to be the head of the family. It is the dangerous combination of toxic masculinity, patriarchy and behavioural problems that make them abusive too. Even families, especially partners and children of such patients, go through depression,” said Manimeghalai M, a psychologist.

Noted psychiatrist, C Anbudurai says that it is chance that shows them the right path. “Being in a disconnected environment tend to enable the patients to realise their addiction problems. It is for this reason that addicts who are in denial and have not changed despite repeated counselling should be rescued and rehabilitated for some time,” Anbudurai said.

The rescue teams act as a bridge between the families and the rehabilitation centre. They are well trained to handle the regular challenges of their profession. But those working in unauthorised de-addiction centres are often paid peanuts and are left in the lurch, especially when there is a medical emergency. “It is our responsibility to be careful. There have been instances where I suffered injuries during a rescue and the centre blamed me. I had to bear the expenses for my treatment,” says a rescue worker, seeking anonymity.

Each worker is paid not beyond Rs 700, for the work that includes rescuing the patient and admitting them in the centre, at their own risk. A quick chat with a few rescue workers revealed that they rarely have medical insurance. “We are not aware of such options. We spend money from our pockets, even if we are injured during a rescue operation,” shares Damu (name changed), who works with a private de-addiction centre.

This is a relatively new profession, that has seen steady growth over a decade or so in Chennai, thanks to the rapid rise in reported cases of addiction and substance abuse; but precisely due to that, rescue workers do not have an union or association yet. 

“There are only a few centres that admit patients into rehabilitation without their consent (only with the family’s approval). That’s the reason why we are a minority and hardly given any thought,” says Kiruba.

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