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Former user offers hope to scared Filipino drug dependents

Counselor Nato Caluag believes drug addicts must be healed and purified not shot and killed

Buena Bernal, Manila

Buena Bernal, Manila

Published: April 10, 2018 04:09 AM GMT

Updated: April 10, 2018 04:20 AM GMT

Former user offers hope to scared Filipino drug dependents

Nato Caluag, a "psycho-spiritual counselor" at the Center for Family Ministries of the Society of Jesus, has been counseling drug users for ten years. (Photo by Buena Bernal)

It was the 1970s and Jimi Hendrix's instrumental solo blasted through the speakers. Nato Caluag, a Filipino teen in his signature jeans, swayed to the improvised jam of acid rock.

He was part of the so-called counterculture movement of the time.

If there were substances available that were widely spoken about during that time,Caluag sniffed and smoked them. The high, however, withered each time.

"It was the culture of my generation,"Caluag said as he recalled how he first got a taste for drugs at the tender age of 14.

He named them one by one, at least those he could recall: marijuana, LSD, downers, barbiturates, uppers, speed, benzedrine.

"A lot of that was available because the Americans were here,"Caluag said. "Remember Subic and Clark," he added. These were American military bases in the country.

After nine years, Caluag was into crystal meth. He said one rarely admits one is hooked.

"All told, I was doing shabu for five years. You know, you'll reach [your] limit right away with crystal meth when you get paranoid, when you get delusional," he said.

Caluag was later confined in a hospital under the care of a psychiatrist. 

"I never relapsed back into it after that," he said.

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Fast forward several years, to the time of the Philippines' so-called war against drugs that has killed more than 12,000 people according to human rights groups.

Caluag sat in a room across from a sobbing girl who confessed about her struggle against prohibited drugs. 

It has become an all too common scene for the "psycho-spiritual counselor" at the Center for Family Ministries of the Society of Jesus — or the Jesuits — in Manila.

He specializes in counseling recovering substance abusers. He is no longer the man he used to be. 

He told the young woman that, "there is always hope."

"There is nothing more fulfilling than witnessing a drug user recover," Caluag later told ucanews.com.

"It's always nice to observe and to help and to guide," he said. 

He cautioned against "the injustice of classifying drug addicts as if they were broken objects."

"The road back will take a long, long time," said Caluag. "As they say, recovery is for life."

Many drug dependents seem to have been deprived of the way to recovery.

The Philippine government has launched a bloody anti-narcotics campaign that has already killed thousands, mostly from poor families in Manila's slums.

Most of the victims died at the hands of motorcycle-riding vigilantes, some of whom have been tagged by witnesses as policemen.

The killings continue despite an investigation by the International Criminal Court for possible crimes related to the war on drugs. 

One of those who died was Emily Soriano's 16-year-old son, who was allegedly killed by policemen in December 2016. 

"I did not expect my son to be a victim of the war on drugs," said his 49-year-old mother.

Unlike many of the victims, Caluag was not a poor boy during his heydays. He was never in a place forced by circumstance to sell drugs.

During his time, using drugs was just "cool and hip." These days, Caluag tells users that getting into drugs only feeds cursory desires. 

He subscribes to Pope Francis' message in 2013 that substance abusers have personal histories that must be heard and understood and who must be healed and purified.

Redemptorist priest Flavie Villanueva, who has been helping widows and orphans of those who died in the anti-narcotics war, said drug addicts are "wounded people."

"Any wounded person needs to be assisted in their healing," said the priest. He said turning a blind eye to drug users "is tantamount to condemning them."

Father Villanueva said the church and the government have the "sacred duty" to accompany and restore victims of drug abuse to their "sacred nature."

Redemptorist priest Flavie Villanueva washes the feet of families of victims of drug-related killings in the Philippines during the Holy Thursday ritual. (Photo by Vincent Go/ucanews.com)


Karen Rose Vardeleon, a psychologist at the non-government Childfam-Possibilities, said it is difficult to overcome the stigma that impedes the effective rehabilitation of those suffering from drug dependence.

"It's tempting to paint addicts with one broad stroke, classifying them as criminals not worthy of saving," she said.

"But it is more accurate to see them as people struggling with an illness, people who with proper support can find their way back to recovery," Vardeleon told ucanews.com.

She said recovery entails developing skills "to quiet down one's mind to have the strength to manage the cravings."

"If society would change its mindset against those who suffer from addiction, it can start giving them what they need, that is, informed and evidence-based physical, psychological and community care," said Vardeleon.

Back in the counseling room, Caluag listened to the lady crying. He handed her a napkin. It goes on for an hour.

She spoke of how she could hardly get out of bed in the morning and how difficult it was to go to sleep.

Caluag told her to consider physical exercise, maybe to consult a doctor and take some medication, and to always strive to think of good things.

His words have given many others in the past ten years a lot of inspiration and hope. 

The former drug user said he was able to do all the good things he has been doing now because he was given the chance to recover from the addiction that gripped the person he used to be.

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