Nothing could have prepared Su-Yin for the day she found out that her son, Alan, took drugs. “It was my birthday when I got the call from his grandparents that he’s acting strange. Since I was on leave, I decided to drop by,” Su-Yin shared.
“I went into his room and saw him curled up on the bed. That was also when I noticed the bong. When I asked, to my utter dismay, he readily confessed that he took Meth and GHB.”
GHB is an initialisation for Gamma Hydroxybutyrate, otherwise more commonly known as club or date rape drugs. GHB is a depressant compound that acts as a sedative and tranquilliser. When taken, users report a pleasing state of relaxation, tranquillity, and increased libido.
It was not the first time Su-Yin felt as if her world was crashing all around her. When Alan was 14, Su-Yin found some chats on his phone, which confirmed for her that her son is gay.
“It was very daunting—I completely didn’t see it coming. It’s not the social norm, Zat. As a mum, I thought his path in life would have been so much easier if he were straight. As a divorcee, on the other hand, I wondered if all this happened because he didn’t have a stable father figure. Was I the reason he’s gay?”
The Greenhouse Caregivers Support Programme
Su-Yin is one of the three mothers I spoke to, who, with several other caregivers, forms part of The Greenhouse’s Caregivers Support Programme (CSP).
Executive Director and founder of The Greenhouse, Alaric Tan, shared that the CSP was inaugurated to support the needs of friends, family, and partners of those who struggle with substance use and addiction.
The Greenhouse is Singapore’s only substance addiction recovery centre dedicated to rehabilitating individuals from marginalised and vulnerable communities. Often, people from these communities find it challenging to seek help for their addiction issues due to shame or fear of discrimination.
Some of the clients The Greenhouse serves include sexual minorities, racial minorities, gender minorities, those who are HIV positive, and formerly incarcerated or trauma survivors, including those who were physically abused or sexually assaulted.
Together with a team of counsellors and psychologists, the charity-registered centre provides bespoke care programs that are holistic and integrated and in an environment that is safe and supportive.
To date, The Greenhouse has served 291 clients and trained 21 volunteers.
“Do you think mommy loves your brothers more than you?”
“Actually, my boss was the one who told me about The Greenhouse. He’s also the only person outside of my immediate family who knows about Sam’s addiction recovery,” Mary, a healthcare executive, shared.
Mary is a mother to three sons, one of whom is gay and currently in recovery from substance abuse. “My son doesn’t come here for counselling, though. I think he worries that what he shares during his counselling session might reach me,” she explained. “So he attends counselling sessions at another treatment centre instead and comes to The Greenhouse for the recovery support group.”
According to Mary, Sam has been very independent since young; he knows how to take the bus from his school to her workplace. As a teenager, she recalls that Sam doesn’t like to talk much and seldom socialise or bring his friends home.
“To me, everything seems normal. There was nothing special that stood out for me. Maybe that’s why I didn’t show him much attention. Looking back, I do feel very guilty. I don’t know if I’m the reason why he’s gay or why he started taking drugs,” Mary reminisced, her voice tinged with regret.
“I feel like I’ve not taken very good care of him. I did ask him before: Do you think mommy doesn’t love you? Do you think mommy loves your brothers more than you?”
Mary remembered the day she found out that Sam was taking drugs. “I’ve always suspected. I can tell from the way he behaves—he doesn’t sleep, he doesn’t eat, and on more than one occasion, I saw him peeking his head out of his door as if checking if anyone was there. Maybe he heard voices and was hallucinating.”
It was the day before Sam’s birthday when Mary knew for sure. She saw vials of normal saline (usually used to dilute meth) in his room along with needles and syringes. She also noticed a locked drawer that was typically left open.
“I saw the key to the drawer on his table and decided to open it. That’s when I saw drug paraphernalia inside. When Sam came home, I confronted him. I remembered that he was angry and unhappy that I violated his privacy. While that is true, I never regretted doing it. If given a choice, I wouldn’t do anything differently.”
The next day, Sam sent Mary a WhatsApp message admitting that he suffered from substance abuse. He confessed to taking Meth and shared that he was introduced to it by a friend.
I asked Mary if Sam had told her why he took drugs. “So far, he hasn’t shared any reason. But I know he had exceedingly high expectations of himself. He would feel utterly demoralised if he can’t reach the goal he set for himself. I think he could be using drugs as a way to numb himself of all these feelings and expectations,” Mary rationalised.
The lifelong effects of gay conversion therapy
Unlike Mary, Alice knew why her son, Ben took drugs. “Actually, it was only recently that Ben shared the reason with me. Before that, I knew of it in bits and pieces through the interviews he’s given and the articles he’s written about his substance addiction recovery journey.”
“It all started when he first came out as gay to his late dad and me. Not knowing what to do, we decided to send him for conversion therapy. In hindsight, and after speaking at lengths with Ben, I know it’s not the right thing to do. But back then, it was the only thing I could think of to try to get him to change,” Alice shared.
“The experience made him feel shameful, worthless, and dirty. Insecurity plays a big part in it, exacerbated by the fact that he was living independently and could do anything he wanted without supervision. Maybe he thinks being with other drug addicts made him feel like he belongs somewhere.”
Alice now knows and understands the adverse effects conversion therapy could have on an impressionable young boy. “There’s a lot of regrets and a lot of pain. But I did what I thought was good for him then. I know better now,” said Alice, her eyes downcast as she struggles with knowing that she and her husband were the reason behind Ben’s trauma.
“It was harrowing for me. To think we, his parents, did that much harm to him.”
The role of trauma in sexualised drug use
Very few Singaporeans know of the drug crisis facing the GBMSM community (Gay, Bisexual, and Other Men who Have Sex with Men) locally. Even fewer know the reason why this is happening.
Very little literature explains the context and root of the substance abuse problem faced by GBMSM in Singapore, a situation further exacerbated by national bodies that struggle to understand the significant role trauma plays in forming the narrative of why GBMSM take drugs.
Dr Rayner Tan’s paper, ‘Exploring the role of trauma in underpinning sexualised drug use (‘chemsex’) among gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men in Singapore’, aims to shed some light on the issue. Rayner is a postdoctoral fellow at Project-China, Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a visiting research fellow at the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health and the National Centre for Infectious Diseases in Singapore.
Dr Tan is also the Chairman of The Greenhouse.
In his study, Tan outlined four broad themes gleaned from participants that explain the motivation that leads GBMSM to participate in sexualised drug use (SDU):
1. In the first theme, participants articulated positive and desired aspects of SDU, such as achieving positive emotional states, sexual enhancement, and feelings of connectedness and intimacy.
2. In the second theme, participants interviewed recounted their experiences of engaging in SDU and described how these experiences, in contrast, also helped them cope with feelings and situations that they were facing, which Tan termed ‘precipitants’.
3. In the third theme, participants articulated how such precipitants were underpinned by experiences of trauma, including those relating to HIV-related stigma, racism, sexual violence, death and loss, neglect, as well as internalised homophobia.
4. In the fourth theme, participants illustrated how such trauma was in turn reinforced by several ‘preconditions’, including the accessibility of substances, emphasis on sexual capital, and lack of access to mainstream support structures in the gay male community, alongside general sociolegal barriers to accessing care.
Tan posits that in this study, ‘trauma emerged as a strong, recurrent theme’—a narrative that universally underpins the participants’ experience with SDU.
Relapses and taking it a day at a time
According to research referenced by The Greenhouse Director of Training, Dr Maha Yewtuck See, Psy.D in Clinical Psychology, chances of relapse lessens with the length of recovery. It usually takes up to five years of abstinence for recovery to be sustained—a fact the mothers in The Greenhouse’s CSP know all too well.
Mary likens the recovery journey with Sam as a rollercoaster ride that never seems to end. “He’s had three relapses in two years and was admitted to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) twice. The last relapse happened in January this year. It wasn’t an overdose, but he readily confessed that he relapsed and asked me to bring him to NAMS (National Addiction Management Services).”
Mary went on to share that she feels Sam has thus far been lucky in that the two times he was admitted to IMH, he was treated for the primary problem of depression and not substance abuse. So the police were not involved.
“The one time the police was involved was when Sam tried to commit suicide by knocking his head on the wall,” Mary said. “Thankfully, he wasn’t charged. But I had to call for the ambulance because there was a danger of him seriously hurting himself. He’s now seven months clean, but with substance recovery, we’re always stepping on eggshells.”
Su-Yin recalled the initial days when Alan moved back with her after she found out that he was taking drugs.
“He was still using when he moved in with me. I could always tell. He will perspire a lot; his voice goes high. You can just tell.”
One night, Alan took more than he could tolerate. He came home late and started talking loudly and acting strangely. The past few times he overdosed, he’d break glass and hurt himself.
“I had to remove his bolster and quilt so he didn’t have anything he could swing around,” said Su-Yin when recalling that fateful night. “Sometimes he’d wake up, and I’d see cuts and bruises on his body. He’s now nine months clean.”
“With our sons, we always worry about saying the wrong things,” Alice chimed in. “Even if we meant it in the best way, we’re worried how they would take it. We’re perpetually anxious. Things might be going well now, but you never know when the next episode might be. It’s a chronic condition.”
“On the outside, they might look okay, but inside they may be going through turmoil. It’s anybody’s guess,” said Alice, to approving nods from Su-Yin and Mary.
Solidarity, support, and steadfast hope
Throughout the conversation, the three mothers often quipped about the times they called each other on the phone to rant and express their frustration when something terrible happens to their sons. There’s a strong sense of solidarity here—strength in numbers if you could call it that—between these caregivers who find their shared experience to be the perfect bond as they navigate through the murky and unpredictable waters of substance recovery.
For Su-Yin, having other caregivers who are in the same predicament has helped her tremendously. “We need sounding boards who know what we’re going through.”
Mary chimed in: “At least when we talk to each other, we’re not judgemental. It’s hard to tell my friends and relatives about this. It’s not that I care how they see my son or me. It’s just that the more we tell them, the more we have to explain. But to the other mothers here, I just say one word, and they know what I mean.”
For Alice, peer support is essential both for the parents and the person undergoing recovery. It helps to know that we’re all on the same journey. Her advice for other caregivers going through what she, Su-Yin, and Mary are currently facing is to seek support and not try to do this alone.
“It is also important that the caregivers look after themselves first. It’s something we tend to neglect. Sometimes, I know we feel guilty for taking care of ourselves,” Su-Yin shared when asked what advice she’d give to a parent just starting on this substance recovery journey with their child.
Though candid, Mary’s advice is to shower the child with unconditional love and stop nagging. “It’s really no use. Accept what has happened and help them to move on and get better.”