Q & A with Sr. Lilly Chunkapura on helping addicts to start life anew

Sr. Lilly Chunkapura at the Treatment Rehabilitation and Education of Drug Abuse center in Bengaluru, southern India. (Philip Mathew)

Sr. Lilly Chunkapura, 68, is the founder-director of Treatment Rehabilitation and Education of Drug Abuse, an addiction and counseling center, in Bengaluru, southern India. 

Chunkapura, a member of the Medical Mission Sisters congregation, founded TREDA in the early '90s with the support of a team of doctors, nurses, counselors and staff. The center aims to serve the victims of alcoholism and drug addiction in Bengaluru and neighboring areas. Since its inception it has treated thousands of addicts. Most have been rehabilitated and now lead normal lives.

The center's treatment comprises counseling, psychotherapy, education, yoga, meditation, prayer, group dynamics and recreation.

Chunkapura has a master's degree in public administration and several diplomas, including one in social development from the St. Francis Xavier University in Canada.

She spoke to GSR about her center and its work.

GSR: What made you start the addiction treatment center?

Sr. Lilly Chunkapura: I was challenged and moved by the broken families and the miseries that mothers, wives and other family members go through because of their children and husbands addicted to alcohol and drugs. I wanted to do something to help these people.

What are its goals and objectives?

Our goals are building a drug-free society. We strive to improve the lives of poor alcohol and drug addicts in rural and urban areas of Bengaluru. Objectives include prevention through building awareness on the ill effects of alcoholism and drug abuse. We try to promote social justice, economic freedom, community development and self-reliance among poor people. Mobilizing women and children for education and empowerment is also an important objective of our center.

How do you define alcoholism and drug abuse?

Alcoholism is a habitual consumption of intoxicating drinks in large and harmful quantities. An alcoholic loses control over his alcohol consumption. Drug addiction is self-administration of a drug for non-medical reasons in qualities, quantities and frequencies that could impair normal function of a person. This brings social, physical and emotional harm. Drug dependence is a compulsion to take the drug continuously to experience psychic effects.

How does addiction affect families?

Physical and psychological dependence on alcohol and drugs is not an isolated problem. For every addict, there are other victims like his or her parents, spouses and children. These codependents suffer silently, although they neither drink nor take drugs. Society does not realize that these people too need help and understanding. When the addict's problems grow, his codependents too suffer isolation, depression, emotional and physical illness. They sometimes develop suicidal tendencies.

So, how does your center help them?

We organize Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly. Recovered patients organize these meetings for those undergoing treatments. The meetings inspire addicts to overcome their problems and lead a sober life.

Our center offers opportunities for fieldwork, internships and placements for students pursuing master's and bachelor's degrees in social work and nursing psychology. We provide them good exposure and training to handle different situations and show the practical application of their courses. We also provide awareness programs to foreigners in Bengaluru about addiction-related problems, prevention and causes of drug addiction and treatment methods. People from Kenya, New Zealand, Norway, the U.S. and Uganda have benefitted from this program.

We conduct awareness classes on HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, youth crisis and addictions for secondary school and college students. We do regular follow-up on persons treated by us. Our staff visit them at their homes and guide and motivate their efforts to lead a normal life. We also network with other NGOs and health organizations. They include the Catholic Health Association of India, Catholic Medical Association of India, St. John's Medical College Hospital in Bengaluru and World Vision.

Outside view of the Treatment Rehabilitation and Education of Drug Abuse Center in Bengaluru, southern India (Philip Mathew)

How does your center treat addicts?

Our treatment lasts for three months. It could be extended depending on the patient's condition. We begin with a medical examination and follow it up by giving pharmaceutical drugs for de-addiction. The addict is taught to do yoga. Prayer, relaxation and recreation are also part of the treatment. We conduct classes on causes, stages and prevention of addiction, associated disorders due to addiction, impact on the family, stress management techniques, and awareness about HIV/AIDS. The treatment also includes counseling for individuals, groups and families. Our counseling has helped people break their psychological and emotional barriers and become competent in their work.

Who comes for treatment to your center?

Our target group is poor villagers and city folks. We stress improving the lives of backward, poor and substance-addicted people in rural and urban areas of Bengaluru. We have treated nearly 20,000 alcoholics and drug addicts. Most have quit addiction and now lead normal lives. We have conducted awareness for more than 100,000 people.

Could you share an example of how your center healed an addict?

One of our patients was a heavy drinker of alcohol, especially during 2007-11. He became fully addicted to alcohol at the age of 40. He lost his money, friends and his self-confidence. He used to run a café but closed it because of his heavy drinking that even affected his body. He desperately looked for a way to get out of alcohol.

One day, a friend advised him to come to our center. He got admitted and we took care of him like a baby. From the third day, he began to regain his self-confidence. He stayed in our center for 15 days and completely abandoned liquor. Today, he manages a successful construction company. Before he left our center, he told us, "My mother gave me physical birth, and TREDA gave me second birth. Now, I am a new person having faith in Jesus, ready to help others who are in need."

Do you charge for the treatment?

We charge only those who can afford to pay.

How can we keep the youth away from alcoholism and drug abuse?

We have to build a healthy family, by avoiding a disturbed childhood and practicing responsible parenthood. Some preventive measures are parent-teacher meetings, parent-peer group formation and awareness classes. We have to include the ill effects of addiction in the school and college syllabi and use media, songs, workshops, seminars and radio classes for awareness building.

Where do you get the inspiration to work with the addicts?

The inspiration has come from my congregation's charism that we must live out our mission with the people around us and be affected by them and give ourselves to them.

Do you face any challenges?

I want to hand over the leadership of the center to another person as it is time for me to retire. I have not been able to find a competent person so far. This is a challenge for me now.

Do you get support from the congregation?

Yes, I do get wholehearted support from my congregation. My colleagues and superiors have given me full freedom to run this center. The congregation has helped me with funds when we faced financial difficulties.

What prompted you to become a sister?

As a young person I was always interested in helping others, especially the less privileged. Worldly things never attracted me. During my younger days in Pala [in the southern Indian state of Kerala], where I had my Catholic moorings, I realized that becoming a sister was the best way to help others. I became a sister at the age of 18.

[Philip Mathew is a journalist based in Bangaluru, southern India. He edits Asia Pacific Ecumenical News and writes for Matters India, a news portal that focuses on religious and social issues.]

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