‘To cease and abstain from evil forbearance with respect to intoxicants, and steadfastness in virtue. This is the highest blessing.’
Gautama Buddha, Manggala Sutra
Jennifer Tan who came to see me knowing she had a drug problem. She first came to see me eight years ago. 21 years old, she was barely five feet tall, very thin and frail. Her lips appeared dry; her skin was sallow and lifeless. When she stepped on the scales, she weighed 42 kg.
She was accompanied by her boyfriend, Adam.
When she finally settled into the chair, I asked her, “What’s the problem?”
“I have to lose weight.”
I thought she was joking. But her tone was resolute and I could tell that she meant every word.
“I want to be 35 kg. I have to be 35 kg.”
I decided it would be better to find out a little more about her. So, for the next hour or so, she told me a story that was sad and horrifying in equal measure. It all started one night when she was 13 years old and her mother did not bother to pick her up from school.
By then, Jennifer’s parents were divorced and she didn’t know where her father was. Instead, a boy from the college opposite the school offered to take her to his home. He then offered her a can of beer. After another three cans, she asked him to find her a taxi and requested he pay the fare with a promise that she’d pay him back later. He agreed.
When she arrived home, the first thing she saw was her mother sitting on the sofa with her new husband and their baby.
“They looked so happy together. When my mother looked up at me, all she could say was ‘Oh, you’re back.’ As if she was surprised I lived with her.”
From that day onwards, Jennifer began to dissociate from her family. She spent more and more time with the boy. Soon, they became lovers and he introduced her to his other friends from college. When they broke up, she started dating his friends one by one. By the time she was 18, she was drinking hard liquor and on drugs.
“What kind of drugs have you been taking, Jennifer?”
Jennifer stared at me for a while. Then she said, “Drugs-lah. You know. The usual ones.”
I didn’t push her for an answer. Instead, from the scratch marks on her hands, I guessed that she had at some time taken cocaine. There was no pigmentation on her tongue. So she was probably not on heroin. What she did have was a lot of acne and I suspected that this was because of repeated use of the drug Ecstasy.
Once this part of the examination was over, I leaned back in my chair. I took a deep breath and said, “OK. I can treat you. But you have to stay here for at least 14 days and go through the detox programme. Maybe more.”
Jennifer’s response was immediate. “Detox? I can lose weight.”
“Hmmm…” I replied. Actually, the aim behind the treatment programme was to cleanse her body of the drugs she’d been taking. She readily agreed to be admitted.
Jennifer was a challenging patient. She found every excuse to break the programme and was irritated all the time. Much later, she confessed that for the first five days, every morning, after taking the medicated ghee, she would go to the toilet and vomit it all out. But, she also noticed that other than the weight loss, she was sleeping better. She wasn’t crying at the drop of a hat. To my joy, she could see some benefits of our treatment and agreed to stay with us.
At that point in time, her mother telephoned me.
“I am so glad you called,” I said to Jennifer’s mother. “Can you tell me about your daughter?”
“What do you mean?” she replied.
“I want to understand her a little more. She’s going to work for her father soon, yes?”
I heard laughter at the other end of the line.
“Sorry, Dr. Siby. Jennifer is lying to you. Always causing trouble for everyone.” She sighed then said, “I haven’t seen or heard from her in three months. I heard that she was in your place.”
I was stunned into silence. Here was I thinking I could find out a little more about Jennifer’s history from her mother. Instead, she was calling me to find out about Jennifer. It was depressing to know that it had taken her two weeks to call me. There was a complete absence of maternal love. That’s when I fully understood that Jennifer had been forced into her situation by the environment she grew up in. I also learnt that her father would take her into his company was false. Clearly, Jennifer was unwanted. Mercifully, the call ended soon after this.
I had to be careful, though, what I said to Jennifer. One way was to ask her why she had lied about her father wanting him to join her company. Instinctively, I knew that this wasn’t going to work because she would see this another attack on her and probably withdraw into a shell. All the work we had done so far would be undone.
So, I decided that the best course of action was to talk to her. Restoring her self-respect was only possible if her physical health was regained. I didn’t know if I could achieve this, but I was determined to try.
Jennifer obviously sensed something because one of the first things she said when I saw her that evening was, “Something is different about you today Dr. Siby.”
Although I wouldn’t tell her what I’d learnt, I decided not to shy away from the topic and said, “Yes. I spoke with your mother.”
Jennifer started to breathe heavily and began to fiddle with a stray thread on her blouse.
I put my hand on hers and said, “Calm down. It’s OK. I am not interested in her. I want to help you. Are you ready to listen to me?”
She took a moment before saying, “Yes, Dr. Siby. Tell me.”
What a relief. I took a deep breath then started, “I have told you before to forgive your parents. I still think you should this. But, from now on, I want you to learn to love yourself.”
I reached out and placed my hand on her palm. “Listen. Don’t get upset. I want you to never to be afraid. You must be brave and don’t be scared of the future.”
Her tears started to flow. I handed her the box of tissues, but I had to finish what I wanted to say.
“You are never alone. Adam is here. I am here. God is here.”
She lifted her head, a spark of anger in her. “God? He has abandoned me. He has forsaken me.”
I dropped my voice and spoke to her as though I were speaking to a child. “No, Jennifer. God doesn’t abandon anyone. You just have to ask Him for help. Pray.”
The good thing is that she didn’t baulk at this.
“But, Dr. Siby,” she said in an anxious tone, “I don’t know how to pray.”
I smiled gently. The aim of any prayer, I advised Jennifer, was not to follow a ritual, but to become aware of the present moment. One should not think of the past or the future. Instead, one’s aim should be to connect one’s body with the present moment.
Naturally, as Lord Dhanwanthri is referred to as the Physician of the Gods and the founder of Ayurveda, many ill people worship Him. For those who are not keen on reciting a Sanskrit mantra, there is another secular form of meditation that I teach my patients. Jennifer chose the latter and recited the prayer daily.
In a short space of time, I noticed a marked change in her. At the end of the third week, she underwent Virechanam, which was induced purgation. In Weeks 4 and 5, she underwent a rejuvenation programme.
Day by day, I could see that she was gaining her vitality and she built up her stamina, thereby, making her feel confident and courageous to face all the challenges that came her way. By the time she left our centre, she was set to rebuild her life. I am happy to say that today, she’s happily married to Adam and they have a baby of their own.
(27 June 2017)
This story is an excerpt from Knowledge of Life: Tales of an Ayurvedic Practitioner (ISBN 978-967-415-4004) by Vaidya C.D. Siby and Aneeta Sundararaj. It is an enlightening book published by MPH Publishing that dispels the myths surrounding this ancient medical system.