From drug addict and gangster to counsellor

Standing in front of the bathroom mirror one morning in 2007, Mr Johnny Chin was jolted by an image he could never forget.

His eyes were sunken, with dark circles imprinted under them, a stark contrast to his pale complexion. His cheekbones seemed to jut out from his scrawny face.

He was then working for a maid agency and living at a shophouse where the agency housed maids waiting for employment .

"That day was different - I spent a good 15 minutes looking at my reflection. I just could not recognise myself," he said. Then 33, he thought: "Why did I choose to destroy my life with drugs?"

Mr Chin, the middle of three boys, said he grew up in a loving family with a businessman father and housewife mother who had always "tried their best" to provide for him.

His struggle with drugs had started when he first got hooked on smoking and glue sniffing at age 13.

Longing for a sense of belonging after entering secondary school, the former Nan Chiau High student joined a gang after some senior schoolmates approached him.

Under their influence, he skipped classes for gang activities, took drugs and later left school.

His parents tried but failed to get him to change. When he tattooed his thighs with a gang symbol, for instance, his father paid about $3,000 for it to be removed by laser. But even before the scabs healed, the teen had another tattooed on his back.

And when he was 27, his parents spent around $7,000 to send him to a rehabilitation programme at a hospital. But he returned to drugs the same day he was discharged.

After many disappointments, his family turned their back on him, dismissing him as "a good-for-nothing" and "hopeless".

Those words only made him more rebellious, Mr Chin believes.

To get a new "high", he relied on the gang's connections to get hold of stronger drugs.

"After glue sniffing, I 'graduated' to marijuana, sleeping pills, heroin, Ecstasy and 'Ice' (methamphetamine). I was not satisfied and I became more daring."

And when the veins in his arms and legs collapsed, Mr Chin injected the drugs into his neck veins.

Despite passing through several halfway houses, he could never find the will to stay clean for long. At the height of his addiction, he injected himself with a cocktail of drugs - Subutex, heroin, cough syrup and sleeping pills - up to 15 times a day.

"I was just too badly addicted," he said. "I continued to see drugs as an enjoyment and I was not willing to walk away from the bad company."

But that day in 2007, the man in the mirror gave him pause.

He nervously rang up a pastor at a halfway house he had once stayed at and said: "I need help."

To his surprise, Mr Ivan Lim, a former drug offender turned pastor at St James' Church in Holland Village, replied: "Where are you? How can I help you?"

Nearly a decade later, Mr Chin, now 42, has freed himself of his addiction to drugs, earned a diploma in counselling psychology, and become the father of a three-year-old girl.

Rather than hiding his past, Mr Chin, a counsellor at The New Charis Mission for six years, readily shares his experiences.

The charity, set up in 2006, runs workshops for at-risk youth in schools and a halfway-house programme for former drug addicts at its Jalan Ubi premises.

St James' Church's Mr Lim, 50, recalled: "I never thought of rejecting him. Someone gave him a chance, so next time, he will give others a chance. It is only natural."

Mr Chin was moved. "I had disappointed so many people before, including my family members and counsellors. I did not think that anyone would believe in me again."

He resolved to check himself into a halfway house one last time. At New Charis, he took religious and basic counselling courses.

In 2010, his mentor at New Charis, pastor Don Wong, registered him for a diploma course in counselling psychology.

Although hesitant at first, as he had only primary school education then, Mr Chin completed the course and became a qualified counsellor.

It was also about that time that he met his wife, an accounting graduate, through a friend. She spent some of their first dates editing his essays, he joked.

Looking back, Mr Chin believes it is important for people to avoid labelling drug addicts and at-risk youth negatively.

That is why New Charis is organising the Unlabelled Run, a charity run, on Saturday at East Coast Park to spread the message.

"Insisting that someone is hopeless will not contribute to his self-worth. It will be very difficult for him to believe in himself," he said.

In particular, he wants to inspire hope in parents who feel embarrassed and lost after learning that their child has been abusing drugs.

He shows them old photos of himself as he shares his story. "They start to believe that change is possible. A more positive mindset makes a difference," he said.

Mr Chin, who will begin a master's degree in professional counselling in August, sees it as his mission to help others who face similar struggles with drugs.

"I want to continue helping others and pay it forward," he said.

This article was first published on April 11, 2016.
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