Nima Tshering: Leaving the Black Hole Behind

By Ben Byrne  /  May 4, 2017;

Nima Tshering
Photo: Contact/ Lha

Nima Tshering is the secretary at the Kunphen Centre for Substance Dependence, HIV/AIDS and HRD in Dharmshala. He is sitting opposite me in his office, smartly dressed in blue jeans and a crisp white shirt. The power is out in town and the room is dimly lit by the light from outside. We’re discussing his lifelong addiction to various opioid pain medications available without prescription in many parts of India.

“At the height of my addiction I would drink six bottles of cough syrup a day”, Nima recalls, “the initial effects were blissful, a heightened interest in anything I was doing and a feeling of immense self confidence. Long term I was going crazy, I could feel that it was damaging me physically and wrecking me financially. My relationship with drugs put an end to all my other relationships. Cough syrup became my wife, my companion; I couldn’t imagine my life without it.”

Nima’s late father, Dhendup Sonam, came to India from Tibet on the heels of the Dalai Lama in 1959. He settled in Kalimpong, where Nima was born in 1974. Nima studied at Roman Catholic school and remembers a strong western influence on the culture in his hometown, “Duran Duran, Boy George, The Sex Pistols, these bands were all popular among the youth when I was growing up”.

Drugs arrived in the area along with civil disruption which rocked the region with massive violence in the mid 1980s. “Arms, ammunition and drugs were flowing in like an epidemic”, Nima remembers, “the young generation was swept away by it all”. By the age of twelve Nima had tried marijuana and would drink chang[an alcoholic Tibetan barley or rice beer] regularly after school. He soon discovered Phensedyn, a pharmaceutical cough syrup new to market and available for just 9 rupees a bottle. He neglected his studies and quickly dropped from the top of his class. He supported his new addiction by selling Phensedyn to other classmates at school.

His first stay at a rehabilitation clinic came after he was expelled from one school and dropped out of another due to his habit. His father sent him to a Kripa foundation centre in Darjeeling. Kripa is the largest non government organisation (NGO) in India and works with people suffering from chemical dependency and HIV infection. Nima completed the six month rehabilitation course but the difficulty for him came, as for so many, when he had to readjust to normal life afterwards: “I stayed clean for six months after I came out. I relapsed on my sober anniversary.” He has been in and out of rehab several times since, but has been clean since meeting Dawa Tsering and starting work at Kunphen in 2013.

Recovery group and Kunphen staff based in Dharamshala
Photo: Kunphen

Dawa Tsering is a pragmatic Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) official who took the reins at Kunphen in 2013. He talks like a freight train and it’s difficult to keep up with him but his passion is obvious. “Drug addiction is a community problem”, he declares, “it should be solved by the community”. Dawa says that the Tibetan society in exile wants to hide its drug issues from view because it is under the microscope from China. “Believe me, the Chinese already know”, he states categorically, before adding “avoiding the problem is destroying the community. We Tibetans need to clean up our shit, not just cover it up and hope it goes unnoticed”.

Drug abuse is rife among displaced populations worldwide due to limited socioeconomic opportunities within their communities. A 2003 study by Kelsang Dolma documented drug abuse by Tibetans in exile. One addict from Dhasalni village, Dharamshala, said people in the community “generally made fun of him and looked down on him as a bad guy”. “Palden”, a respondent in a separate study conducted by Catherine Carlson in 2003, documented his use of opioids, hashish and heroin around Dharamshala, saying, “this tablet thing, it ruined my life”. Another of Carlson’s interviewee, “Kalsang”, a cough syrup, tranquilizer and heroin addict who had been clean for ten months, said “I pity myself for being a refugee”.

Nima says that in the Tibetan exile community, drug addicts are frequently referred to as “Bangkyira” – meaning useless wastrels who have driven themselves to destruction and deserve no sympathy. With the help of the Health Department of the CTA, Kunphen is dedicated to changing attitudes towards drug addiction in Dharamshala and helping those who suffer from it. Eleven patients are being treated in the aftercare programme currently based at the Yongling School in McLeod Ganj. They are employed in a bead making factory and engage in community service. Nima provides motivational counseling to the patients and listens to their problems during thrice weekly cross-sharing sessions. Nobody who seeks help is rejected for treatment. The centre also distributes pamphlets to raise awareness, offers acupuncture sessions and provides Tibetan health checkups.

Several lives have been changed by the services at Kunphen. Nima and one other former addict are currently employed by the centre. Two others have gained employment outside of Kunphen and one was recently given financial assistance to travel and gain employment in Nepal. Another just had a marriage ceremony arranged by the recovery group. The centre is always looking for qualified volunteers who can offer Buddhist philosophy classes, counseling, therapy or medical assistance. Donations are welcomed.

In 2003, Nima, then 29 years old,speaking to Catherine Carlson at the beginning of an eight year clean spell, said “Society won’t re-accept the addict, it is really hard to make a comeback”. The efforts of the Kunphen centre and Dawa Tsering in recent years appear to be changing perceptions. “Mr Dawa’s personality can convince people that drug addiction is a disease”, Nima tells me.

Nima speaks of his role at Kunphen giving him the courage to stay clean. “‘When you see people changing, coming out as clean, humble people, this gives you hope. As a recovering addict, I have to use my experience to help others”. Nima has seen the raw end of life in exile and, like many others; he’s lived through periods of bleak despair. But right now he’s clean, and he implores others who are struggling with addiction: “Don’t linger in a black holewhere there is no future”.

If these issues affect you, contact Nima:
Phone him on : 790 -631-7112
Email him at : [email protected]

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