9 MIN READ
The rock bottom looks like a typical government office. An ordered room with men in formal shirts typing one key at a time on their computers, the logo of the Nepal government framed on the wall, and uncomfortable sofas that make sure visitors don’t extend their stay. It smells like musty carpets and men's cologne. The sounds of quick paper flips follow the thumps of decisive paper stamps. You wouldn’t even realize it’s a narcotics police station until you saw me seated in the corner — thin body, long hair, gaunt face, moist eyes — handcuffed. That’s how my father saw me when he entered the police station, for the first time in his life. Since then, the moment has been frozen in time and branded with hot iron in my mind. Why did this image of him perceiving me in that state bother me so much?
I’d always hated the idea of being perceived — through my pictures, writings, voice messages, or even in person. It’s something so mundane and quotidian — being visible to and perceived by others — and yet, the realization of this gaze was crushing to me. I felt like my identity was bound to get distorted through these perceptions. More frighteningly, I would have to resign the control over my image to someone else. The anxiety induced by this gaze is best expressed by Jean Paul Sartre who argues that upon being seen by someone, we are stripped of all our subjectivities and become an object tied to fragmentary and misleading narratives about ourselves in someone else’s mind. The fact that we don’t know what these narratives are only breeds more anxiety. Thus, in everything we do, our experience comes filtered through the knowledge that we are mere objects in someone else’s world.
Hence, even as an adult, I was perpetually playing hide-and-seek, hoping I’d win the game by never being found. Being perceived was a pain, and avoiding it, a joy. Then, is it any surprise that the drugs I fell in love with — heroin, opioids — did just that? Apart from flooding your brain with happy chemicals, what opioids do so well is that they inhibit your pain receptors. And pain is a very complex phenomenon. There are all kinds of layers of pain: physical injury, emotional distress, anxiety, loneliness, and even the sting of the gaze. It’s fascinating to stop and think for a moment just how good human beings are capable of feeling if only they didn’t suffer so much. When my brain gets overrun with opioids, it invites a large amount of dopamine to come out and play with it. This amalgamation of dopamine and opioid gives me a warm syrupy sense of wellbeing. Suddenly, everything is pleasant. The sun is warmer, birds are chirping, people are nicer, and the world, a better place.
But now, back at the police station, the day was rather gloomy and there were no opioids to make the sun shine. Just me, the officer, my father, and eyes that felt like bugs crawling over my body, defiling my identity and drawing vile interpretations. I’d never really been an ideal son. I almost always failed at academics, never brought home any medals, and nor was I very helpful around the house. But now, I was the worst son, worse than a murderer. That’s what the officer in charge of my case implied. I’d have an easier time getting parole and a shorter sentence if I killed somebody, he said.
Right before we were allowed to leave the police station, the officer offered me an unceremonious glimpse into my future if I chose not to quit drugs. He summoned an assistant and ordered, “Eh! Sameer lai lyaa ta!” Within moments, a young man in handcuffs limped behind one of the junior officers. Long hair, glassy eyes, an expressionless face covered in acne. An abscess had developed over his left leg due to excessive use of intravenous drugs. The officer told us everything about his drug habits — What did he use? How did he use it? How much? What were the consequences? Would he have to amputate his legs?
The way this scene played out, you could tell it had become ritualistic. And perhaps Sameer had grown desensitized to his own humiliation. As the officer began answering these questions, I zoned out and formed my own: What’s his favorite meal cooked by his mum? Does he have pets waiting for him back home? What gives him hope? Does he have any left to spare? But none of it mattered. Here, all his quirks, flaws, likes, dislikes, dreams, all of his identity was compressed and packaged into the image of a stereotypical junkie. All his life had culminated into becoming a living, breathing scarecrow for the police station.
A murderer is better than a user. That’s the established, unwavering backdrop of the legal system which departs its wisdom as the ultimate Truth to the social level. This wisdom, then, forms a patronizing, disdainful, unforgiving gaze that pierces the souls of users. In her essay Postcards from Imaginary Tibet, Tashi Rabgey is concerned about a one-dimensional Truth on Tibet that’s being manufactured by Hollywood. She’s aware of the influence wielded by Hollywood, and grieves the loss of “competing accounts” on Tibet’s history that would “…over time, simply fade into the background din.” In this case, the accepted Truth tightly ties drug abuse with weak morality. Consuming drugs is seen as an attack on the moral sanctity of society. Competing beliefs are quashed as a single Truth holds dictatorship over an entire society. The Philippines took this idea of Truth to its logical conclusion when it allowed, encouraged and rewarded the killings of unarmed drug users in broad daylight. Societies are willing to go to extremes to preserve this sanctimonious spectacle.
I knew all of this. And it made it that much worse. Back at the station, I knew that my father wasn’t perceiving me as Nischal, but a Sameer in the making. I was marinating in my own shame. I had let my entire family down. I was selfish, stupid, and irresponsible. But more than that, I felt dirty, as if I’d been bathed in mud and no one wanted to come near me. While walking out I never looked up. My eyes remained fixated on the peaceful patterned cracks over the concrete floor. I didn’t want to be in the human world anymore. Please, God! Melt me into the cracks and make me an object incapable of feeling. I promise I’ll be better than this.
Once this nefarious notion against a certain group of people is rooted in the social system, it doesn’t take too long before it latches at a personal level. Self-hatred becomes an appendage to addiction. Society deals with its prejudice and the users swallow it, inhale it and inject it. Bell Hooks touches upon this idea in her essay In Our Glory, where she talks about how the narratives around her shaped the way she viewed herself. “I could not see myself beyond all the received images… those ways of seeing myself came from voices of authority,” she said.
As you keep hearing it over and over again, the accusatory voices don’t just come from authorities; they come from inside of your head. It’s like the movie Inception where a team of dream heisters plant a thought inside someone else’s mind. You don’t even need to be an addict for your head to be hijacked. These alien thoughts can come from anywhere — comments on your Instagram post that tell you you’re not pretty, raised voices from your parents that suggest you’re not good enough, eye-rolls from your partner that imply you’re annoying, or your friendly neighborhood police officer who makes a scarecrow out of you. That’s hell screaming its council from inside of your head. You can’t avoid listening to your head. And that’s where the peril lies. Of course, you know you’re not unworthy of love. Of course, you know these notions are coming from structural biases inherent within our social systems. But then again, how do you not trust your own voice? When you keep hearing the same thing over and over again, the lines between truth and lie get blurred. In gradually heating water, the frog doesn’t just sit there, waiting to be boiled alive. It tries to leap and escape once the water gets too uncomfortable. But making the leap isn’t that easy, especially when the frog has an abscess on its legs.
I remember visiting my partners I did drugs with at a newly opened rehab in Panauti. The day coincided with a visit from one of the neighboring residents, who had finally built up the courage to investigate what this building was, and what kind of sinners was it sheltering. For her, rehab and addicts conjured images of a grimy mental asylum inhabited by foul, hostile lunatics — definitely not something she wanted in her neighborhood. She had never before been to a rehab, and she had never before encountered a user either, and yet, the images of a hellish rehab were set firmly in her head. These images couldn’t have come from a vacuum, so, where did they come from?
John Berger in Ways of Seeing suggests that such images stem from our socio-historical contexts. In the middle-ages, when people believed in the physical existence of hell, the sight of fire must have brought a different set of imagery. “Hell owed a lot to the sight of fire consuming and ashes remaining,” said Berger. Similarly, the beliefs of our neighbor were formed by the Truth that had trickled down to her from the legal and social levels.
A short tour around the facility, however, was enough to lay her fears to rest. Teas were offered, dialogues were exchanged, angry overtones were erased and perceptions were changed. The violent images were now overwritten by glimpses of recovering users playing carrom boards, steaming rice, and doing the dishes. Two distinct epiphanies were had that day. “Eh! Hami jastai manchey riachan ni,” the woman ruminated. “So, perceptions are subject to change,” I pondered. What makes the gaze so horrible is that it’s rarely ever communicated. Maybe, if we only talked about it more often, we could all get used to being seen, maybe even enjoy it. If the users are portrayed with their humanness intact, instead of mascots of fear, perhaps frogs wouldn’t have to sit inside boiling water.
We don’t exist in isolation. Being perceived is a symptom of existence. Perhaps René Descartes was misguided in claiming “I think, therefore, I am.” Perhaps George Berkely explained it better with, “To be is to be perceived.” Perhaps, the phenomenon of perception in itself isn’t good or bad. Perhaps I’d been looking at this idea of perception from a narrow dimension. Perception, after all, is a double-edged sword. It’s what makes being alive worth being alive. Being perceived is what allows for affection, admiration, respect, for being loved. With this realization came a whiff of warm breath that thawed the thick veneer of shame and self-hate. Opioids never made the world a better place. All they did was change how I perceived the world.
Suddenly, the creepy, crawly bugs over my body turned into fluttering, healing butterflies. With some effort, I could easily become a good friend, a supportive partner, and someday, maybe even an ideal son. But it wouldn’t be like a movie where you wake up one day, and nothing hurts. It would be more like losing weight or learning a new skill. It would require baby steps. So, cue the montage with Gymnopédies No. 1 playing in the background — cycling, trekking, conversing, apologizing, crying, laughing, living. I can’t prevent being perceived but I can leave behind so many images that it would be impossible to tie me down to a single narrative. Only then could me and my family safely reinterpret the past and maybe even laugh at my misadventures inside the four walls, where the gaze can’t penetrate.
Nischal Niraula Nischal Niraula is a former journalist who now works as an online content creator. He’s also a student of social science who’s interested in learning how the popular media shapes our cultures, beliefs and identities.
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