By the time she was 14, Jess (not her real name) was knocking back shots of all kinds of alcohol and doing drugs like there was no tomorrow.
Her parents split and she was living from city to city hoping to get “as drunk as possible”.
She was going through an “experimental phase” – which she says on hindsight, actually reflected her desire to try everything she wasn’t allowed to.
Things got out of hand when she moved to Europe for her undergraduate studies.
“The biggest thing for me was my health, and it just went out the window. I had stomach ulcers, blood problems, heart problems and liver problems but I couldn’t see that alcohol and drugs were the problem”.
It was only after her parents admitted her to the Chiang Mai branch of The Cabin, a specialist addiction treatment centre focused on substance addictions, such as drugs and alcohol, that her life really turned around.
“Looking back I am definitely thankful that my parents sent me to get clean, even if I didn’t see it then. Now i’m almost 18 months sober,” said Jess, who is now in her early 20s.
The Cabin which has a branch in Singapore at Novena Medical Centre has seen hundreds of clients walk through its doors in recent years, with about 30% to 35% of them fighting an addiction to alcohol, and about 25% of them dealing with sex addiction.
Despite harsh drug laws in Singapore, about 15% of their clients are drug addicts.
The bulk of these clients are expatriates, although the number of Singaporeans seeking treatment is also growing.
This could be due to the evolving mindset and increase in discourse about mental illness, said Ms Eleanor Joan Ong, a counsellor at the facility.
“Conversely, with our expat clients, it’s definitely more normalised to see a therapist or a psychiatrist for medication, and therefore, a lot less shame and taboo around coming forward for help,” she added.
Yet, both groups (expats and locals) are equally concerned that their identity may be exposed in group therapy.
Ms Ong said that addiction does not hit one demographic group harder than another.
In fact, she has even had clients in their mid-teens coming in for treatment for drug or alcohol addictions.
When it came to sex addiction, her clients are predominantly men aged between 33 and 45, but this doesn’t mean that the addiction impacts this group more than others.
“It’s not so much that it’s affecting men of that age group but more that they are coming forward due to marital or relationship issues or some sort of crisis,” said Ms Ong.
There have also been cases where clients come forward for alcohol addictions and later disclose that they’re addicted to sex as well.
Preferring not to cast negative stereotypes on them, Ms Ong says the facility chooses to look at addictions as “diseases” as she she feels that an addiction is not by choice.
And there is science to back this up.
Ms Ong explains that studies have found that in a craving, there is no activity in the frontal cortex of an addict’s brain.
She said: “This just means that they are unable to make rational decisions”.
“Most addicts hate the idea that it is a disease, because then they think that it is out of their control. But it is about getting them out of the victim chair, and showing them that there is something that they can do about it.”
Many of her clients hold mid to senior-level white collar jobs. Common triggers they’ve revealed include high stress brought about by poor work-life balance as well as the need to entertain clients.
But while recovery isn’t an easy process, it’s about understanding that “addiction is only the top layer of your life”.