Dying cancer-stricken man rues drug past

PHOTO: Dying cancer-stricken man rues drug past

SINGAPORE - His frail frame rested on a sofa, his head on a pillow. He took a sip of tea and swallowed with difficulty, his face a picture of pain.

He breathed in and out very slowly, as though his airway was stuck, and his eyes looked dull. Mr Mahmood Salleh, 53, is dying from lung cancer, which has also spread to his brain. He has been given only a couple of months more to live.

While his 40 years of smoking could have sealed his fate, it was his 36 years of addiction to drugs that has robbed him of his freedom, his marriage and his family ties.

Now, with the end looming, he is racing against time to make up for his past by making amends to his father and warn others of the dangers of drugs.

He missed the chance to beg for forgiveness from his mother, who died of colon cancer on Dec 4 last year.

With only regrets to look back on in his final days, MrMahmood has a last wish - to share his story so that others do not follow in his footsteps.

He took his first puff when he was a Secondary One student at Bukit Merah Secondary School. He shared a cigarette with several classmates under a tree near the football field during recess time.

One puff

Said Mr Mahmood: "I wanted to try a whole new world. Once I had taken a puff, I felt as though I had grown up."

Soon, he graduated to smoking a stick a day, bought using his pocket money given by his parents. By the time he was 15 years old, he had dropped out of school, despite his parents' objection.

His parents later found out he was smoking as "they could tell from the smell of smoke" in his mouth. He even stole cigarettes from his dad, also a smoker.

He took up part-time labour intensive jobs such as kitchen helper and pot maker, which paid him between $2 and $9 a day.

He also started mixing with bad company in the Redhill Close neighbourhood, where he lived. Curiosity got the better of him and one day in 1975 at a staircase landing, he smoked marijuana for the first time.

He said: "I lost my memory temporarily. I felt paranoid while I was high for about half an hour." But he was hooked, and soon, he was taking drugs daily.

Getting high

"Once you have tried taking drugs even once, you can't kick the habit," he said.

It was cheap then - he could get a pack of marijuana for just $2. Then, marijuana came wrapped in newspaper or leaves.

He said he has never trafficked drugs and bought only for his own consumption.

He would hang out with a group of five or six school dropouts like himself. They would listen to rock music while they got high on marijuana.

""We would trade many stories with each other. We would also exchange information on where to get drugs," he said.

His parents were kept in the dark until a year later, in 1976, when he was caught for drug offences.

He said: "They were angry with me, though they didn't hit me. I think they were very disappointed. "They tried to dissuade me from taking drugs, but I've never listened to them."

On the day he was arrested, he was going downstairs to look for a friend.

He said: I was high on drugs and walking in a zig-zag manner."

He said neighbours had complained to the police about him and his friends taking drugs.

He was jailed for three months and fined $3,000. It was his first time in jail and he was scared. One by one, his friends were also arrested and were sent to jail at different times.

Jail didn't change him

Restarting the bad habit

The time in jail didn't change him. Mr Mahmood returned to drugs within six months of his release.

His friends were also released at about the same time.

He said: "We would ask each other if anyone is still pushing drugs. If yes, then we would restart our habit.

"Once we've tried one, we want to try another drug. When a friend said this drug is even stronger, we want to try too."

He was caught again the next year and sentenced to six months in drug rehabilitation centre (DRC). The year after, he was caught again. This time, he was jailed three years.

When he was released in 1981, he was determined to turn over a new leaf and he did, for 10 years. He said: "I told myself that I won't go back to drugs."

He became passionate about motorbikes, bought his own Yamaha bike, did hell-riding, went on biking trips and even met his first wife, a fellow enthusiast.

They got married in 1984 and she gave birth to a baby girl a year later.

Old friend

But his past returned to haunt him when he bumped into an old friend, who, he said, pestered him every day to try heroin.

He declined a few times but gave in after a while. He said: "I thought, it wouldn't do harm to just take once."

He was very wrong. "Once I had taken that one time, I yearned for a second time," he said.

That cost him his marriage. His wife asked for a divorce and took custody of his daughter, then six years old. He said: "I didn't look after my family. I spent all my salary - $700 to $800 - on drugs."

In and out of jail

In and out of jail

His mother-in-law, who worked as a gardener, had to support his family instead, as his wife was a housewife.

Mr Mahmood was caught again in 1991 and just before he went to jail again that year, the divorce was finalised.

Over the next 18 years, he was in and out of the DRC and jail five times.

His longest time in DRC was two years and his longest time in jail was 31/2years.

He also got hitched a second time, to a Malaysian woman, whom his mother introduced in a bid to make him stay away from drugs.

It worked for a while, but he asked for a divorce two years later, as the commute to visit her in Malaysia cost him his job.

He said: "I had to take three days of leave every time I went to visit her in Batu Pahat, Johor. My boss wasn't very happy with that."

As his siblings started shunning him, one person stood by him - his mother.

She never missed a chance to visit him in jail, even when cancer was ravaging her body.

He said: "She never failed to visit, till she was too sick to move about last year."

Once, out of desperation to break free from drugs, he suggested to his parents to tie him to the bed using cloth.

But within an hour, he had the urge to abuse drugs and he screamed and shouted.

His mother, who couldn't stand seeing her son in that state, released him.

But freeing him only chained him to a lifetime ofdrugs.

In January this year, Mr Mahmood was caught again for drug offences.

Before the court could impose a sentence, he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

The symptoms started last year.

Pain in the back

Pain in the back

He said: "When I was released from prison last year after serving 31/2 years in jail, I felt pain at my back. I thought I had muscle tear. Doctors gave me painkillers."

But he didn't feel better so he returned to the polyclinic for a second consultation. An X-ray showed a lump in his left lung. He was referred to the National University Hospital but he didn't turn up for follow-up checkups, even when cancer was suspected.

It was only in January this year when he was arrested again that he told doctors in jail that he was suspected of having cancer.

He was referred to the Changi General Hospital, where he was confirmed to have lung cancer. Treatment consisting of radiotherapy and chemotherapy started, and he lost his hair.

"The doctor told me that it was already stage four and had spread to my brain. He told me, 'Be prepared'."

By then, he had been charged in court for drug offences but because of his condition, he was released on Aug 3 this year on compassionate ground.

"Now, I spend my days praying for guidance and asking for long life. There's nothing much I can do now."

Today, he thinks of his biggest regret at not being able to beg for forgiveness from his mother. "I wasn't by her side even though I was out of jail when she died. I owed a lot to my late mother. Since she died..." His voice trailed off and turned into sobs.

"I want to ask for forgiveness because I realised that I never made her happy.

"She tried her best to me make happy, but I made her life difficult. I feel embarrassed, I did so much wrong.

"She sacrificed a lot for me, in terms of finances and love. I was always her priority. She seldom said no to me.

"But I took advantage of her. That's why I feel bad now. When I was staying with her, I would ask her for money whenever I needed to feed my drug habit.

"She disliked it, scolded me and grumbled, but she still gave it to me. She didn't want me to go around stealing things."

With his days numbered, he is racing against time to make amends to his father, who has multiple diseases, including heart disease.

He said: "Whatever he cannot do, I do it for him. I can't carry heavy things, but I can push his wheelchair and wash him up."


The strained ties between him and his siblings, have been mended.

His younger sister, Madam Junaidah Salleh, 43, a housewife, is looking after him. She said: "He's still our sibling. We don't bear grudges."

She also looked after her mother when she was suffering from cancer.

Mr Mahmood also has a palliative care nurse, Ms Amy Lim, from HCA Hospice Care, caring for him on his final lap.

She looked after his mum too, during her last days.

And it was she who floated the idea of doing more in his last days.

And Mr Mahmood, who is inspired, hopes to leave behind a legacy, in the form of a book, with the message to young people to stay away from drugs.

He is working with a freelance writer and photographer on the book.

His message is simple.

He said: "Don't try any drug, not even once. It doesn't matter what type of drug. Once you've tried it, you can't forget it."

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