Mental Health

“I was left with nothing”: How a drug abuser left the lows and highs of a rollercoaster life

From Stories of Hope

by Gabriel Ong // October 25, 2021, 5:58 pm

Former drug abuser - Feat (NEW)

Years ago, Thomas would have never imagined he could be a father. All photos courtesy of Thomas unless otherwise stated.

TRIGGER WARNING: THIS ARTICLE MENTIONS SELF-HARM AND SUICIDE

Shortly after his first taste of alcohol at 11, Thomas Koh began using drugs, all the while chasing money and power as antidotes to the pain he had experienced all his life.

But after close to 30 years of substance abuse, Thomas’ world came crashing down when he lost his business, wife and nearly his life.

Today, the 46-year-old is a happy husband and a father of two who works at the Institute of Mental Health‘s (IMH) National Addictions Management Service as a peer support specialist. This is the miraculous story of how his life was turned around.


My childhood was chaotic.

I came from a family where my father is a compulsive gambler. Horse racing, poker, mahjong, casino, soccer betting, 4D, TOTO… he somehow had to do everything.

As a compulsive gambler, he wasn’t chasing a target. It’s different from being a social gambler.

He chased for that feeling of “striking”. So there was never a figure; he just wanted the feeling.

Compulsive gamblers usually go back home losing most of the time because they’re chasing that. And we had a problem because he would return with huge losses. 

WE WEREN’T ALLOWED TO STUDY

He was also a person with anger management issues. He was very abusive towards my mother and would hit us as well.

The hitting wasn’t for discipline. The hitting was for venting — venting his frustration at losing money.

He would come back home, get my mother to give him more money and go out to gamble again. Or he would come back drunk in the middle of the night, wake everyone up and beat them up. 

The physical pain was not as bad as the psychological pain of seeing your own mother being bashed up in front of you.

And the bashing was not like slapping. It was really punching, kicking — there would be blood on the floor.

Thomas’ mother was also featured in a recent video where he shared his story. Source: SGWonderwall

My brother was even thrown into the Kallang River by him one time. Luckily, he did not drown.

It was madness. We had to run barefoot in the middle of the night to seek shelter, while being chased by him with a chopper.

For us to go through all this as kids, it was traumatic. Ever since I was four, I remembered this being a weekly affair because horse racing happened on Saturday and Sunday.

And from young, we were not supposed to study. He was superstitious — 读书 (dú shū) sounded like “losing” in Hokkien.

So when we studied at home, he felt we were causing him to lose money and we would get beaten. 

10 CENTS WOULD HAVE BEEN NICE 

At 10 years old, my father was put behind bars because he took his company’s money for gambling. 

My mum was a homemaker at the time, so there was not much income from the odd jobs she did.

We were still able to go to school, but we would always fail to submit school fees on time. Most of the time, I also had no pocket money.

10 cents would have been nice! Then, I could at least buy one cup of coloured syrup water from the tuck shop.

I became an outcast in school.

Today, Thomas helps to care for his father, who has dementia. Thomas has also been able to forgive his father for his childhood. Source: SGWonderwall

“Your school friends can eat curry puffs, can buy chicken wing, can eat mee rebus (noodles in spicy gravy). You cannot.”

That was what I thought. In order to make friends, you have to do these things together.

But when my friends did invite me to eat at the canteen, I would have to turn them down.

Instead, I always went to the toilet. In order to fill up my stomach, I had to drink water. I just kept drinking water.

MY FIRST TASTE OF POWER

I realised I needed to fend for myself, as I had no money to pay my school fees.

So I thought maybe school is not for me, and I should go and work. 

The first job that I got was actually delivering newspapers to the neighbourhood. The boss would give me $1 for every household I delivered to.

I delivered to 80 households, so by the end of the month, I got $80.

My heart was never in my studies after that first paycheck.

Because of that, for the first time, I could pay my school fees. I could also have pocket money and give the rest to my mother.

I started thinking: Instead of being a liability to my family, I could be an asset. So why study? 

My heart was never in my studies after that first paycheck. Money was more important.

That was the first seed that was planted in my life, which would become an issue later on: money equals to power.

DANGEROUS FIRSTS

I first tasted alcohol at the age of 11 at a getai (live stage performance) in the neighbourhood I was staying in. 

Kallang Airport was quite notorious at the time. There were a lot of gangsters and drug addicts. The kids would do glue sniffing; the adults would shoot up heroin. 

When I ingested my first drug at 15 years old, it felt so good.

Source: SGWonderwall

My whole childhood was about fear, pain and suffering.

So when I put these things into my system, I realised that this was the feeling I never had! This euphoric feeling.

Some of these drugs came from bad influences at school and outside. Nobody forced me. They just showed me.

Everyday kena (get) beaten. Everyday low mood, bad feelings.

But drugs became my solution. This “medication” made me feel good.

MONEY EQUALS POWER

I eventually did my N-level exams as a private candidate and came out to work after National Service.

I became a salesman making door-to-door sales. I found that the more I practised, the better I could express myself.

Because of my poor background, I became more hardworking than my peers. I was forced to be mature, to work harder because I needed money.

I did very well for myself. But that was also when I developed one big shortcoming in my life — I became very competitive.

… It was never sufficient. I just wanted more and more of everything.

If my someone went and got a credit card, I would make sure I had a better one. If he rode a motorbike, I would make sure I drove a car. If he bought a car, I would make sure I drove a sports car.

I didn’t know that kind of mindset was unhealthy. 

Nevertheless, I eventually rose to become a sales manager at a listed company.

Even then, it was never sufficient. I just wanted more and more of everything.

Money, attention, recognition, girls… I just didn’t want to lose.

Source: SGWonderwall

Around that time, I was introduced to Christianity at the age of 23 and was baptised a year later.

I was focusing on my career and doing very well, getting lots of promotions at work. I was also involved in church activities.

I started my own F&B business too, supplying food products to restaurants and setting up cafes and canteens for industrial areas.

And after running a few outlets like these, a lot more money started coming in.

Though I was doing so well, I didn’t know how to use it. After buying watches, after buying cars — what next?

So I picked up sports, and I was active right until injuries piled up. They were serious ones, like a fracture and a dislocation. 

But because of the pain, I remembered something: I could go back to pills.

I had been using drugs recreationally all that while, and the injuries became my gateway into full-blown addiction.

A DOWNWARD SPIRAL

When I was 27 years old and realised I might have a problem with addiction, I approached my friends and church friends. 

The best advice they could give me? “Just don’t use. Just distract yourself. Pray harder.”

It was well-meaning, but none of them actually knew how to help me.

Eventually I left church because I didn’t want to be a hypocrite.

I felt I was still a good person in some ways, but I had become a bad person in many other ways. I was far away from God.

I wasted 22 years in bondage to Heroin and Ice

I was also fully addicted by then because without the drugs I would always feel like something was missing. 

I started to forge prescriptions. I started to buy from the black market even though it was 10 times more expensive. I just needed it to feel normal.

From that point, I started to neglect my business as well.

I had initially been doing well in the good days after the Lehman Brothers crisis.

I was loaning about six figures. It included my personal expenses, which were parked under business expenses.

But I took a lot of cash to maintain my lifestyle like going clubbing, using substance and changing cars.

I also started to get involved in a lot of car accidents because I would be drunk. I could not claim from my insurance policies, so I would pay cash — $60,000 at a go.

ON THE BRINK OF DEATH

Time passed and because of numerous car accidents and heavy financial losses, I was in a lot of debt by the time I was 39 years old.

My ex-wife decided that since there were so many problems, it would be better to part ways.

I also developed a lot of medical problems.

Due to the way I drank, my eyes started turning yellow because my liver couldn’t tahan (withstand) the effects of alcohol anymore.

I had fatty liver. I had hepatitis. I had diabetes. 

Both my legs started to swell because of water retention. I had problems holding my bladder. My gallbladder was also removed.

I realised I was on the brink of death.

And yet that wasn’t even the worst of it. The straw that broke the camel’s back was still to come.

ALL I HAD LEFT WAS A MATTRESS 

I didn’t know the banks were so powerful. Creditors can apply for a court order, engage a locksmith, enter your business and residence, and confiscate all your belongings. 

When it happened to me, the only thing that was not confiscated was my mattress. They took the bed frame, but left me my mattress and personal effects. 

I came home and wondered why my lock was in a different position and the door was ajar. Then I saw the court notice. 

I didn’t know what to do. I was in a daze until the middle of the night. 

I was drowning in depression when I found an anchor for my life

Finally, I came up with a solution. I needed to stop the pain because all I had was gone. My business, my marriage… I was left with nothing.

No matter how much drugs and alcohol I poured inside myself, I still felt the pain.

In order to stop that, the only thing I needed to do was kill myself. I tried to end my life.

But I couldn’t. I didn’t dare to.

WHEN THINGS STARTED TO TURN AROUND

That was November 30, 2014.

I remember it so clearly because the next day, December 1, was when I went to see a doctor at IMH’s Block 9.

I was admitted on the same day — which is quite rare — and went on to complete the programme for the fourth time.

I had attended this rehab programme three times between the ages of 30 and 39, but this time I believe it was the gift of desperation that made the difference.

The first week was a detox phase, where my body had to be cleared of the drugs. It was a slow process, involving a lot of diarrhoea and headaches.

But when I was there, I met a few people who had been discharged and completed the programme.

These people came back to the ward and shared their stories with us. Most of them were Christian. 

How could they be happy?

When they shared their testimonies, I realised this: I had been focusing too much on myself.

Because my childhood was bad, because I wanted to prove myself during my adulthood, a lot of the things I did were all about me, me, me.

Although I was facing bankruptcy, divorce and medical issues, two people actually helped me to look at things from a different perspective. One of them was missing a limb, the other was HIV-positive.

I looked at these ex-addicts and wondered why they were so happy.

Learning to forgive my absent father

I wouldn’t be happy with HIV. I wouldn’t be happy if I had lost a limb. How could they be happy?

I wanted to know more, so I spoke to them. And I realised it was because they found recovery.

They found how to deal with their addiction. They found how to help others in the same shoes.

So I told myself, I want to be like them. I wanted to live bravely like them and have a life that is meaningful.

BUT LIFE WAS SO FAR FROM WHERE I WANTED IT TO BE

After I was discharged from the ward, I went to get more help from social services.

They had given me $300, so I could afford to spend $10 every day.

But one time, I was standing at the Tampines bus interchange trying to fix my next meal when it suddenly struck me that life was so far from where I wanted it to be.

It was so shameful. I didn’t want this kind of life.

Most people don’t have a financial issue eating at McDonalds. I wanted to, but I couldn’t.

So I went to the coffee shop and saw that they had $2 chicken rice. I ordered that — without a drink because it would have cost me another $1.60.

After I finished the chicken rice, I was thirsty. So I went to McDonald’s again, but I didn’t order a drink there. I went to the toilet and drank from the tap.

But as I was drinking from the tap, my mind flashed back to when I was nine years old and drinking from the toilet tap in school.

At the age of 39 — after 30 years — I was still drinking from a toilet tap.

Drugs, sex and prison: How a HIV diagnosis led a prodigal son home

There in my heart, I realised that if I didn’t take care of my life, if I didn’t invest thought in my life for the next 30 years, at the age of 69 I would still be drinking from the toilet tap.

During the early stage of my recovery, I could not even hold my bowels and bladder.

Instead of a water bottle or normal things inside my bag, I carried tissue and underwear.

And if I wanted to go from Tampines to Redhill, I would have to stop at Paya Lebar, go to the toilet and continue the trip.

It was so shameful. I didn’t want this kind of life. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

DETERMINED TO CHANGE

The common belief is that once an addict quits drugs, the person will be fine.

But to truly get well, it takes more than just being clean. It requires a change in thoughts, attitudes and behaviour. 

I eventually got to know many believers who were also in recovery, and they led me back to God.

God also placed the right people in my life at the right time. 

Thomas with his wife and daughter, as well as his brother’s family.

My then cell group leader was one of few people who was willing to be there for me. He also continued to follow up with me during the early stage of recovery.

He didn’t even have to open his mouth and talk to me. It was enough just having a person there.

I had 285 names on my mobile phone at that time. But when I scrolled down from A to Z trying to think of somebody whom I could talk to, he was the only one.

I realised that for the rest of the other 284 names, there was not even one person whom I could call and talk about how I feel.

Yet the problem was not them. The problem was with me!

I didn’t have meaningful relationships with people whom I could to talk to about heartfelt things.

So I realised I had to deal with a lot of stuff, and making meaningful relationships was one thing that God clearly wanted me to do.

In every sermon I listened to at that time, it felt like God was talking to me and teaching me what I should do.

THE GOD OF MIRACLES

From age 39 to 40, I focused on my recovery full-time, while depending on financial assistance.

I also went to a place called WE CARE, an addiction recovery centre, which helped me a lot. 

I then went back to my sales job for two years, but did not experience the same sense of job satisfaction as before. 

It seemed like God was telling me to go and help those who are still chained by their addictions.

Not long after, I was offered a job with the same team that helped me get clean, and I joined them in 2017 at the age of 43.

Now I’m married and have a kid — with another one coming on the way! 

Thomas and his wife.

Every time I see my daughter, I can’t help but think it’s a miracle. 

How could a man with as many health problems as me have children? 

I was a man who could not even control my bowels and bladder, but God healed me.

God has turned my whole life around. I’m even working in the same place where my life was saved!

I don’t have to ask God to come down from Heaven or come down from the sky to say: “Yes, I believe You.” Because I can see what He has done in my life. 

There has been a lot of pain in the past. But whatever tears that have dropped, I want them to glorify God and not me.

This God is Jesus Christ.

By His blood, whatever I’ve done — every shameful and illegal thing — has been cleansed. When I face Him, I will not be worried.

I need to give glory to Him. 

A MAN WITH A HISTORY CAN STILL HOPE FOR THE FUTURE 

I learned a lot from my mistakes and failures. In fact, I realise failure and mistakes are a better teacher than success.

I just hope that through my daily actions, I can help people to get closer to God.

My family members have seen that I’m a changed person, even though I’m a man with a history.

Thomas celebrating his birthday in 2018 with his extended family.

I hope society at large will come to see addiction as a disease and not as a moral failing.

Addiction does not discriminate.

In my work at the National Addictions Management Service as a peer support specialist, we have seen the uneducated and unemployed, criminals, pilots, doctors, lawyers, bankers… all of them suffer from some form of addiction.

If you are struggling, whether it’s with gaming, pornography, gambling, alcohol or drugs, be courageous.

Talk to somebody you trust, somebody who won’t judge. I think that’s the first step.

Then let God do a miracle for you. He will come through for you, just as He did for me.

This story was first published on Stories of Hope.

THINK + TALK 

  1. How has your family of origin shaped your values/perceptions?
  2. Are you struggling with any form of addiction? Have you explored the underlying causes/root issues that might be linked to your behaviour?
  3. What have you done to seek help? Do you have any one whom you can open up to and journey with you on this?
About the author

Gabriel Ong

Gabriel isn't a hipster, but he loves his beard and coffee. In his spare time, he'd rather be on a mountain.