Friday, June 05, 2009

The drinking epidemic

Kerala has more than one million alcoholics. The Emmanuel Love Community provides a seven-day programme that enables victims to get over their addiction

Photo: M.C. Bhupathi and wife Girija

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, labourer M.C. Bhupathi, 57, was so drunk he tried to hit his neighbour, a magistrate. The magistrate’s spouse called Girija, Bhupathi’s wife, and asked whether she would be able to control her husband in future.

Girija pleaded helplessness. “It is impossible to hold him down when he is drunk,” she said. So the magistrate gave a written complaint to the police. When Bhupathi heard about this, he got scared and went into hiding for two weeks.

Girija was at her wit’s end. Her husband had been an alcoholic for 30 years. They had tried several treatments before, but none had worked. Through a nun she got in touch with John Kutty, a long-time volunteer of the Emmanuel Love Community, which holds retreats at Kanjirapally to cure alcoholics.

John met up with Bhupathi and urged him to attend a retreat. Bhupathi agreed.

It was a seven-day programme, which consisted of counselling sessions, training programmes, group therapy and psychiatric treatments.

“The mental, physical, and psychological dangers of alcoholism were explained,” says John. “It was an eye-opener for most of the participants.”

For Bhupathi a video showing the ravaged bodies of those who had drunk for too many years had a powerful impact on him. “I realised that one day I could also become like that,” he says. “I had to stop drinking.”

In March, 2005, he took his last sip. Ever since then, on every Sunday, along with Girija and their son, Bhupathi attends a counselling session at the house of Varghese Kandathil, the state coordinator of Emmanuel Love Community at Vazhakala, Kochi. There, reformed alcoholics talk about their experiences.

“We went through hell for so many years,” Girija says.

Bhupathi would head for the bar at 6 a.m. to have his first peg. When he returned, after a couple of hours, he would be swaying from side to side. There were several occasions when he would fall into a roadside gutter and lie there for hours together. In his neighbourhood, Bhupathi was treated as a social pariah.

“There are several families living near our house in Palarivattom, but it seemed to us that we were staying all alone in the Lakshadweep islands,” says
Girija. “Bhupathi’s brother and sister live nearby, but they would not talk or offer any help.”

The family would have starved, but for Girija who had a job as a tailor and used her salary to make ends meet. Today, a chastened Bhupathi admits he has spent a few lakhs of rupees on liquor.

“There is an epidemic of drinking in Kerala,” says Varghese. “I know of doctors, bank officers and other professionals who have lost their jobs, because of their drinking and become bankrupt.”

Among the poor, there is a mistaken notion that if they drink after a hard day’s work, their tiredness will vanish. “This is not true,” says John. “If you work for eight hours and then start drinking, you will have the lethargy of a man who has worked for 16 hours.”

Apart from the poor, John says that 70 per cent of the youth are prone to liquor or drug addiction.

“The problem is that nowadays there is a social acceptance of drinking,” he says. “For any occasion, like a wedding or a birthday party, drinks are served. Boys start drinking by the time they are teenagers.”

When these youngsters grow up and become alcoholics it has a shattering impact on the family. Suddenly, there is no money to pay the rent or to buy food.

“Most wives told me they would have committed suicide, if they had no children,” says Varghese.

Apart from the mental and financial trauma, many women are also beaten up by their husbands in front of the children. “A wife once told me she did not have a single bone that had not been broken by her husband,” says John.

For Varghese, it has been his life’s mission to help these women by saving their husbands. But out of the 3000 people who have attended the programme over the past ten years, nearly 30 per cent have relapsed.

Most go back to the same drinking environment. Their friends force them to start drinking again. “Because of this, follow-up has become more important than the initial treatment,” says John.

Fast Facts

There are more than 1 million alcoholics in Kerala.

The per capita consumption of alcohol in India is four litres while it is 8.3 litres for Kerala.

The age at which youngsters consume alcohol for the first time in Kerala has gone down from 19 years in 1986 to 14 years in 1994.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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