Few people could believe that Xiao Bao, with her rosy cheeks and fit body, was once a drug abuser and had been twice sent to the Kunming Mandatory Drug Rehabilitation Centre in Southwest China's Yunnan Province.
The 28-year-old will soon finish her six-month abstinence programme at the centre as she was in a healthy condition.
"I hope I can start a new life," she said.
Police first caught her when she was injecting heroin with some of her drug-addict friends in 2000, five years after she took heroin for the first time.
She was immediately sent to the centre to kick the habit and the six-month abstinence programme she took at that time did help her get off drugs for two years.
However, her father sent her back to the centre last October because she was found taking heroin again.
Xiao Bao said she did not blame her father but instead regretted and felt guilty about the harm she had done to her family and herself.
"I am looking forward to the day when I go back to my parents and the first thing I will do is to find a new job so I can take better care of them better," she said.
She said she felt grateful to the centre's staff, who give the addicts medical treatment, teach them new skills and rebuild their confidence with patience, care and love.
Around 2,000 drug addicts are given both physical and mental treatment there to quit drugs. Zhang Yuzu, the centre's director and one of its founders, said it is run by 260 people, including doctors, police officers and other skilled staff.
"The addicts come from all over the country, with 40 per cent of them locals from Yunnan Province," he said.
Established in 1989, the Kunming Mandatory Drug Rehabilitation Centre is the largest of its kind in Asia and can handle 4,700 addicts at a time, he said.
"Altogether, 50,000 addicts have been treated since then through abstinence programmes lasting at least six months. Among them, 15 per cent have stayed off drugs at least for one year after leaving the centre," Zhang said. Yet he admitted that there is still a long way to go.
It did not take Xiao Bao much time to get addicted to heroin, but it has taken her eight hard years to kick the habit thoroughly.
"I first tried heroin when I was 20 and, within two days, I was addicted," she recalled. Like many other addicts, she was talked into taking heroin by friends.
Within two years, she had spent 20,000 yuan (US$2,400) on heroin, using up all the money she had saved through her job selling cigarettes.
She said her parents felt forced to give her money to buy drugs when she ran out of cash because they could not bear to see the pain she suffered without drugs. They tried several times at home to help her kick the habit but without success.
Shen Jie, who is the centre's vice-director in charge of medical treatment, said: "Getting off drugs of any sort is not easy, whether it be heroin, cocaine, marijuana or 'ice' (mephamphetamine) or amphetamine-type stimulants."
Shen majored in medical science at college and began to study drug dependence after starting work at the centre in 1993.
Drug addicts usually experience similar symptoms during their first 15 days of quitting: watery eyes, a runny nose and sneezing, night sweats, insomnia and muscular pain, according to Shen.
Xiao Bao recalled: "You feel as if tens of thousands of worms are crawling inside you, biting you in the beginning."
Shen said a medicine now used in the centre could greatly relieve the pain and it has proved effective in helping addicts break their drug addiction.
The medicine, called the 6.26 Drug-abstinence Capsule, is a kind of herb medicine developed in 1993 by the centre's researchers.
"It's safe, convenient to use and has no side effects," Shen said. He added that all the addicts have physically tackled their addiction with the medicine.
After the patients physically break free from drugs, the rest of the rehabilitation programme is relatively peaceful but with a regular and strict schedule, according to Xiao Bao.
The regular daily schedule includes time for activities such as listening to lectures on the harm of drugs, doing physical exercise, learning skills such as cutting hair and repairing machines. Such activities are designed to help addicts establish a better way of life, Shen explained.
Xiao Bao said: "The evening is the most exciting part of the day. We can watch videos and have some dance parties."
"I will never 'eat' again, never!" she said, using the local addicts' sense of "eat" to refer to heroin abuse.
Director Zhang said: "Every addict here claims they will stay away from drugs completely but, once outside these walls, most of them forget their pledges and start taking drugs again.
"The toughest part of quitting drugs is eradicating the psychological addiction."
Xiao Bao admitted that it was not so easy to live up to her pledge when she returned to society for the first time.
She found that the only friends who wanted to talk with her were those still addicted to drugs.
At first, she resisted the temptation to take drugs again and even tried to persuade her friends to kick the habit.
But, when her parents saw she was still with those friends, they lost trust in her and scolded her for going back to her old ways.
"I cried, and my line of defence and my confidence in fighting for my pledge were broken by the distrust and unjust treatment," she said.
Xiao Bao's parents now go to the centre, 16 kilometres from central Kunming, to visit her once a month. Her excellent mental and physical condition is a great comfort to them.
"Mum was happy to learn that I have put on 4 kilograms since coming to stay here," she said. "With their love and trust, I will not be scared of fighting for my pledge."
Xiao Bao said she hoped to find a job after leaving the centre but added: "I am still not so sure about whether people can accept me if they learn about my history with drugs."
Shen said it was crucial to foster a tolerant social environment with a broad understanding of vulnerable groups and their needs.
He asked: "Why do some rehabilitated addicts resort to drugs again, even after giving them up for five or more years? Because they lack the support of friends and a smooth channel of communication with mainstream society."
Most addicts who have undergone the centre's six-month programme still prefer to stay at home after the end of their stay at the rehabilitation centre, Shen said.
"Social acceptance is vital to keep former addicts away from drugs or else they will be pushed back to the abyss," he said.
Ministry of Public Security statistics show that, of the 901,000 drug addicts registered in 2001, 85.1 per cent were between the ages of 15 and 35.
The same trend was found in the Kunming Mandatory Drug Rehabilitation Centre, said Zhang.
"Some addicts are still in high school. Juveniles, with their short memories and strong curiosity, who are immature and more easily manipulated, are the group most vulnerable to drugs, especially since amphetamine-style stimulants have become so easy to obtain," he said.
Zhang has been invited to more than 30 high schools to give lectures against drug abuse. The centre has also been used as an education centre for students. Zhang also established an exhibition at the centre on the perils of drugs, with explanations on rehabilitation treatment.
"There are about 30,000 students visiting the exhibition during the winter and summer vacations every year," Zhang said.
"'Yes to life, no to drugs' -- the centre's slogan -- should be in the minds of not only addicts but also of children and everybody else in society."
The name of the addict has been changed to protect her privacy.
(China Daily April 15, 2003)