What's it like to go to drug rehab in Malta? Everything you imagine and much more. Read the story of a young man's journey to recovery at San Blas.
A couple of years back, I made some bad mistakes. I’d smoke a ton of weed during the week, and on weekends I’d drop pills and other psychedelics like Skittles.
Then one day, aged 18, I got arrested.
There I was, sitting opposite my lawyer, my statement in his hands and my mother crying her eyes out.
“If you don’t want to spend your best years behind bars, you have to go to a program NOW,” my lawyer said.
So I went straight to Caritas.
Gone was the daily ‘wake and bake’, the stoned adventures with my friends and those weekend ganc fests (Maltese for ‘so fucked on stimulants you just can’t feel your face’).
Instead, every day I sat in the circle while a member of staff explained the intricacies of The Program. The Program was almost like a metaphysical force, a deity that all the other former junkies revere as the framework for how they stay clean.
At the time I couldn’t give less of a shit. I was dying inside. Nine months locked in with a bunch of hardcore junkies and drug fiends, all of them over 10 years older than me (some were even in their 40s).
I had no clue how the hell I was going make it through this.
After a month of orientation, my induction date at San Blas was set. Many of the recovered addicts of Caritas consider their first day as their second birthday. Salvation. For me it was a punishment.
The thing is, you can leave San Blas whenever you want. I could have just packed my things and gone home. The point of the program is, it’s all up to you. You have to be the one who makes that change, and for many of these guys it really was their last shot at a good life.
Me? I guess I stuck it out because I wanted to cut the bullshit out of my life before it destroyed me.
My mother took me right to the door of San Blas and hugged me tightly before I walked in, her tears dripping on my shoulder. That feeling of guilt you get when you realise all the pain you’ve heaped on those closest to you, is too much. My mother reluctantly let go, knowing the rest of this path was one I has to walk alone. Now, for better or worse, my journey of a thousand miles had to make its first step.
For 18-year-old me, those nine months ahead looked very daunting indeed.
"At the time I couldn’t give less of a shit. I was dying inside. Nine months locked in with a bunch of hardcore junkies and drug fiends, all of them over 10 years older than me (some were even in their 40s)."
San Blas is a community in the fields between Rabat and Zebbug. It’s practically next door to Gianpula, one of Malta’s most iconic nightlife spots. Trust me you can hear the parties loud and clear.
It’s a big place by Maltese standards, big enough that you’ll never get tired of exploring the grounds, but small enough that you long for the real world.
My first stop was the head office; the administration facilities. There I was introduced to my Big Brother. Upon arriving at San Blas you are assigned a Big Brother who will help you adjust to the system for that first week. Me? I needed my Big Brother for just a tad longer than that.
The guy took me in like the older brother I never had. He helped me out and stuck up for me like no other and to that I owe him more respect than I could possibly give. The first thing my Big Brother does is search my belongings (you have to bring all your own clothes, sheets, pillows, toiletries etc.) just in case I’ve secretly tried to smuggle in drugs or other contraband.
Remember, some of the people here have the worst cases of addiction you’ll see on the island. Drugs are like blood to a shark for them.
Upon searching through my belongings, my Big Brother takes me to the dorms. In San Blas you sleep four to a room, with everyone having their own bed, side table and wardrobe. I remember I left my belongings in the dorms and made my way towards the dining area. There I got my first glimpse of the other residents. At this point I’m just shitting myself. I spent all those druggy days living in fear of the Valletta and Gzira gangs, guys my age or a couple years older who had a penchant for getting into some dust-ups, with the numbers tilted significantly in their favour. In my young days these guys used to strike abject terror into the hearts of us Sliema folk. Now here I was stuck with the types that these guys suck up to. It’s like running away from a pack of piranhas only to bump into a great white.
I sat outside the dining room and noticed all the residents here were ignoring me. Big Brother told me I was not yet part of the structure, the invisible framework of the program. Everything and everyone here is organized into this overarching structure which dictates how you live your life. Basically these addicts live very erratic lifestyles that have little to no stability, no plan except this incomparable desire to get their next fix. The program gives them a new lifestyle, to structure them, to give them the ability to plan and not fall into old patterns. For now everyone goes into the dining room whilst I’m told to wait outside. Soon I get called in to make my introduction, its how things roll here. The resident walks into the dining room, stands at the front of the room and says “Jien Jisimni ……, u ghandi bzonn l’ghajnuna tghakhom”. On account of my (limited) skills in the Maltese language, I chose to say “My name is John Doe, and I need your help.”
"At this point I’m just shitting myself. I spent all those druggy days living in fear of the Valletta and Gzira gangs... Now here I was stuck with the types that these guys suck up to."
San Blas is a complicated place; it’s so complicated it takes over a month just to wrap your head around how things work. The community is structured with a pseudo caste system, from top to bottom, responsibility being the power here. Addicts only have mind for the chase when they are out on the street. San Blas gives them responsibility, and in my interpretation the power from one’s own personal responsibility serves as a replacement for the thirst of the next hit.
You feel good about yourself because instead of ruining the lives of everyone around you, you are helping those around you and living as positive a life as possible. The structure of power here runs like this: Gdid < Resident < Head of Department<Chief<Staff). For the record Gdid’s (people in their first month at San Blas) are never allowed to wander by themselves. They’ve got to have at least a regular always watching over them. In San Blas you get assigned to a work department which rotates monthly, so people are assigned responsibilities that can be out of their character. You get sorted to cleaning (ugh), gardening (nice), maintenance (cool stuffs) or kitchen (the bomb).
Everybody starts out in my bane, cleaning. Towards the middle and end of your journey you become a head of department, earning you even more responsibility as you progress through the program. Some even get to become chief: the executive of the residents and director of the structure. He even gets his own office. Thankfully in my time all the chiefys were good; anyone carrying an ego registering anything more than .01 Trumps never gets anywhere close to the keys. People like that have to interpret the program in a completely different way. Everyone has their own journey and must find the path that works for them. San Blas has a rule book with a ton of rules. So many rules in fact, that it’s almost impossible to remember all of them, ranging from the common sense (no alcohol or you get suspended and have to start over) to the passable but still eh (no party music like house or techno, or anything that makes you want to rave) to the downright WTF (no leaning on walls, yeah I’m serious). Hell, one time I left the lights on in my dorm when I ran to dinner, the night staff made me carry around a socket all week as a punishment (I still keep that socket in my memories box #goodtimes). If a resident sees another resident break the rules, they have to confront the offender. The resident walks up to the offender and tells them they are going to be confronted: You put your hands behind your back, as do they and you tell them what they did wrong.
For example, I’m going to confront you on a lack of awareness as you left that packet of cigarettes on the floor. I tell you why that’s bad: a lack of awareness means you aren’t there 100% and you need to be there 100% if you want to stay clean.
If a resident breaks enough rules, he’ll get a dealt with. Guy gets called up in front of a staff member and gets his tell off, and consequences ranging from waking up early to do menial labour like cleaning up the kitchen and dining hall after everyone eats, to the dreaded Off Structure. In the Off Structure, you spend up to a week exiled from the rest of the residents, by yourself and working all day on some sort of task, almost always something that seems mind-bendingly pointless. Once a guy had to clean a mirror for 12 hours straight, with necessary bathroom and lunch breaks of course. That might sound like insanity at first, but then you realise the point behind it. You spend hour after hour staring at yourself in the mirror as you clean. You notice every single imperfection in your face, you look in your eyes, you realize how much you hate yourself for fucking up, how you got yourself in this position, you confront those very demons that fester inside you, the rage boils and slowly you come to accept the reality that you’ve tried to hide from yourself.
One of the things you notice about most drug addicts is that they don’t know who they are; they lack awareness of the self.
They’ve built up this image of themselves on the street, names to the tune of Charlie il-Fire or Nik ir-Redeemer (100% fictional, but wouldn’t be surprised if these were actual people). These guys more often than not tend to hate the real versions of themselves so much that they bury the guy in some sort of grave deep in their subconscious. Many of these guys are going through depression and need to take anti-depressants and other garbage like that to keep them straight.
Through various individual and group therapy sessions the residents slowly discover who they are.
"One time I left the lights on in my dorm when I ran to dinner, the night staff made me carry around a socket all week as a punishment (I still keep that socket in my memories box #goodtimes"
One of these groups is a weekly one called the Expression Group. All the residents form a circle and sit down opposite each other, throughout the week should you take issue with another resident you write a slip on that person, you write down why you have a problem with them and what emotion it triggered and you put the slip in the box. Your slip comes up, you sit opposite the offender, and you can express yourself however it comes out naturally. You unload, you scream, you swear, you put them in their place and tell them in intricate detail what a dickhead that person has been, the person isn’t allowed to respond, so you keep going, expressing that pent up rage.
You’re finished, you calm down, the staff then looks at you and tells you, “What makes you feel that way John? Why are you so angry at Bob? What is triggering this anger?” He was taking the piss out of me so bad, making me look like a goddamn disabled person in front of everybody, god damn it he won’t stop making me feel pathetic, I can’t control this rage. “Why do you feel pathetic?” I feel pathetic cos I can’t fight back, I just panic, I panic and I don’t know what to do “Why can’t you?” I don’t have any confidence in myself, I’ve been like this from day one, I was always that kid everyone used to look at funny, made me feel like a piece of shit. “When Bob takes the piss out of you in that way, does it bring you back to that moment?” Yes, yes it does, I get the voices of those playground pricks still ringing around my head. You see what I mean? It’s a group where you discover who you are as a person through how you express yourself. You hear some messed up things in that group, stories of violence, stories of child abuse, stories of death, stories of longing for better days, stories of loneliness. One thing that you learn over your time at San Blas is that most of the guys here use and abuse drugs as an escape from reality, an escape from the self. Its less that they want to get high and more that they want to bail from reality, get away from it all into that lovely cloud of Euphoria. They want a reprieve from the bullshit that life’s thrown at them. Someone molested you as a child? The pain and humiliation is horrible, and many of the abused resort to the hit of the hard drugs in order to make that pain go away.
Every individual in San Blas is assigned a care worker. Mine became a second mother to me, I will always be grateful for the delicate care she bestowed upon me; she treated me like a son. Her children truly are blessed to have a mother as kind and gentle as her. Your care worker helps you on an individual basis; they keep a check on your progress and make sure the program is working for you. Every individual is different and has their own needs. Thankfully, all the staff at San Blas, and all of Caritas for that matter are some of the best people you can have the pleasure of meeting. If these guys got paid even a fraction in proportion to the amount of good that they do, they’d all be millionaires. You can tell that the staff work at Caritas because they really and truly believe in the cause of good that they are marching towards. Many of the staff are former addicts themselves. Who better to lead a man out of the barren wasteland of darkness than a man who was in that abyss himself?
"Many of the staff are former addicts themselves. Who better to lead a man out of the barren wasteland of darkness than a man who was in that abyss himself?"
Random things happen at San Blas. Here are some stories I remember.
- One time a freight container came containing a donation of over 200 mattresses. After making a fortress out of them in the football pitch, we proceeded to replace every single bed in all of the homes and shelters of Caritas, as well as donating all the leftovers and old mattresses to other charities.
- Once a week some of the residents go to a religious group called the Alpha in Birkirkara. Somehow through magical means a bottle of Jack Daniels appeared, and despite these guys being hardcores, they really couldn’t handle their drinks. Eight months of total sobriety leaves one’s tolerance somewhat lacking. Hilarity ensues. Picture three guys blind drunk walking into a Jesus convention.
- We once had a couple of priests-in-training living with us as part of their seminary experience. We made such good buddies with them that they threw a disco barbeque for us, which turned into a rave that lasted well into the night with some heavy 90s classics being dropped. Sober or not, these guys sure know how to party!
- I once had to read in Mass. (We go three times a week: Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. If you don’t go, you clean instead. Sorry atheists.) I was reading a passage when the phrase “Gesu qal, u iz-zopp qabez u qam” came up. This can’t be in the Bible, I thought, as I read it as “Iz-zobb qabez u qam”. Thankfully the congregation found it funny as opposed to offensive, and even the priest burst out into laughter.
- Whenever there’s a party at Gianpula, we hear it. In fact when Avicii came down we were told not to go to the windows and listen to the music on pain of waking up at 4.30am the next day to plough the grass. I snuck up at 2 to hear the party and saw people partying in all the other dorm windows.
"I was reading a passage when the phrase “Gesu qal, u iz-zopp qabez u qam” came up. This can’t be in the Bible, I thought, as I read it as “Iz-zobb qabez u qam”."
After five months at San Blas, you get to venture out on weekends for what is called The Request.
Starting with four hours on Sunday, this slowly expands till it reaches the maximum of Friday 9am till Sunday 6pm. After months of being in a stable environment, its nerve wracking to say the least when you are walking the Sliema front past tons of people: social anxiety and paranoia to an extreme.
You get used to it though. After a couple Requests you pretty much re-adjust to society.
After you’ve maximized your Request and finished all special groups, you begin the final process at San Blas. You write a report on what you’ve learnt in your stay at San Blas. Then you get a job and spend a month living at San Blas midweek, working and going to your job in the day, and going back home on weekends.
You do a month of this and you are ready to leave San Blas, and begin the real program, life itself.
You spend a few months to a year in re-entry. It’s the sort of after program where you go to sessions with your new care worker, and once a week have a group meeting. I personally loved the individual sessions and got on very well with my care workers, especially my last one. She gave me understanding to the great complexities of life and opened my eyes to a functioning understanding of reality.
You continue this part of the program till the next graduating ceremony. There you receive your graduation certificate that you’ve completed the New Hope program (insert John William’s soundtrack, bonus points if you get the reference) from the Archbishop and Monseigneur. I have a great respect for the Monseigneur Victor Grech and what he’s done for these downtrodden people of our country.
I myself am Agnostic, but if ever there was a man of god who truly had good in his heart, it would be him. I gave the man a well-deserved bear hug when I graduated.
Oh graduation, of all of the festivities and celebrations they throw at San Blas, it is hands down the most insane. Just to give you an idea, the residents of San Blas perform a synchronized dance to one of the latest commercial pop tunes in front of an audience of hundreds including the President, Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, as well as your family, friends and your fellow resident’s friends of family. Oh what fun to perform to Mariah Carey’s tunes to the old President, that Prime Minister, and the other guy just before he became the big boss.
"Oh what fun to perform to Mariah Carey’s tunes to the old President, that Prime Minister, and the other guy just before he became the big boss."
There are so many stories from my time at San Blas, however many are of a personal nature to either myself or my fellows there. Some of these guys are no longer with us. Most of the residents end up relapsing.
It is incredibly hard for these people to shake off the disorder that is addiction. I’ve known three who’ve passed since my time there, one of them had left his family behind.
It’s terrible to see the destruction that addiction can bring to people’s lives.
Everyone has a story, and no matter the sins of the past, inside each of these people is a broken man, a man (there's a separate rehabilitation centre for women too) who now strives to fix himself so that he can finally walk the rest of his days a master of his own fate, able to lead a normal life again according to his desires, and accept the person that he is so that he can be himself.
Even the vilest of villains… I’ve had men who’ve mugged grandparents move me to tears with their self-hatred on how they became what they are, hopefully soon what they once were.
"Our society shames these people into living as the underclass that lurks in the dark, when we must help these people so that they can become productive members of our society."
Maltese society has a long way to go towards creating a climate that can reduce this. Our society shames these people into living as the underclass that lurks in the dark, when we must help these people so that they can become productive members of our society. We must build a society that will not shun a man or woman based on the sins of his past. We must also readjust our views as to what is truly right and wrong.
For example, many lump simple kids smoking cannabis into the same picture as heroin addicts. Frankly, this is foolish and only leads to distrust between the individual and the authority that he perceives as lying to him.
We need a society that is open about this topic and treats the situation with a glass of reality. We can no longer treat people who take drugs as criminals. All of this nexus of crime will be eliminated if we cure these people from their addictions and focus the efforts of law enforcement on the heroin dealers and coke pushers.
Without putting too fine a point on it, the full legalization of cannabis will go a long way towards this. Some may decry it as a drug like all the others, but a vice that is inherently less harmful than the two other vices should be treated based on this fact.
Instead of boxing it up into a corner and preventing research and discussion, imagine all the tax revenue that currently just goes to dealers. They estimated the tax windfall from doing this in the United States could put every single child in the country through two years of pre-school, something that would solve an order of magnitude more problems than prohibition could ever solve.
"It is incredibly hard for these people to shake off the disorder that is addiction. I’ve known three who’ve passed since my time there, one of them had left his family behind."
My experience in San Blas helped me grow as a person; I went in as a petulant spoilt brat. I matured. I grew up. Sometimes I feel that the world would be done a service if everyone had to go through what I went through. They don’t call San Blas the University of Life for nothing.
I can’t give enough thanks to the staff of San Blas, especially my care workers; I owe my new life to them, especially my first and last care workers. My first set me on the road to fixing my life, and my last for setting me on the right path to the future.
One of the lessons you learn at San Blas is giving back.
San Blas is an organization that runs off donations. The Catholic Church provides for much of their needs, but they desperately need more so as to keep up with all that is happening in their world. If there is any way you can conceivably help these people, be it donating money, giving away food, or even volunteering, it would do a world of good.
Caritas needs help in order to continue fighting the good fight, and saving the lives of people.
You can help them fight that fight and save many lives in the process.