Tobacco and alcohol addiction is a disease, says Shanthi Ranganathan, who believes in a point of return. The rehabilitation centre she started in her husband's name, after his death, is helping many kick the habit.

Most people know of Shanthi Ranganathan through her work in treating alcoholism and drug dependency. Ask her what set her on this challenging path and the answer comes without a trace of self-pity. “Brought up in a traditional family, I was married at the age of 20. Nobody drank in my house but, in my husband's house, drinking and serving alcohol were quite common. When my husband became an alcoholic, we were desperate for help. No one knew how to handle withdrawal symptoms when he tried to stop drinking. Only when we took him to the U.S. for treatment did I understand that alcoholism was a disease and had to be treated.”

She came back from the U.S. wanting to make people aware that alcoholism could be treated; a resolve strengthened by her husband's death. With her mother-in-law's support, Shanthi put her background in social work to use and underwent training in the U.S. on addiction rehabilitation. Then she started the TT Ranganathan Clinical Research Foundation for treatment of addiction, of which she is now director. “My mother-in-law insisted we name the centre after my husband to show that we were not hiding anything; were not ashamed of him; to make people realise that the problem struck at all levels. Initially, things were tough; people and doctors wouldn't accept that alcoholism could be treated”.

Shanthi started work from home and, as the few who came for help went back believers, more people began arriving. Today the 100-bed centre in Indira Nagar, Chennai, is well known. Beginning with alcoholics, the centre now treats patients dependent on other drugs as well.

Ask if she's faced any ethical dilemmas in her work, she responds, “Not really an ethical one but a dilemma all the same. Almost all our patients are heavy smokers and it's very difficult for them to quit both smoking and drinking at one go. So till 2001, we allowed them to smoke. Then our Resident Counsellor, who was a recovering alcoholic and a smoker, developed cancer and died. Around that time the Ministry of Health also banned smoking in hospitals. With that ban, they went through a terrible time. Fortunately now, medicines are available to control the craving but I still feel bad when see them struggle.”

Family matters

Shanthi points out that dealing with addiction involves more than just the patient. “There has to be a recovery programme for the family as well; especially the wife/mother. They have to be empowered to look after themselves and their children.” To this end, she has a shelter at the centre where the women can spend a few days taking stock of their lives and figuring out their next step.

The high points in her life are related to work as well: “At the age of 50, I got my Ph.D. from Madras University in Community approach of treatment for alcoholism; this while continuing to run the institution and looking after my in-laws.” Another high point was developing a treatment module for rural areas. “Manjakudi is part of the Thanjavur rice belt and the women are needed during planting season. The children are left with the men and would wander away or be neglected/ abused because the men were drunk and couldn't look after them. We developed the camp approach; a highly cost-effective model where treatment is provided at the door steps. This is now being replicated in other places.”

In many cases, recovered patients do not just walk away from the centre. It is literally the start of a new life; “The day they give up alcohol becomes their new birthday so they come back to celebrate with us. They share their recovery experiences and the benefits of giving up alcohol with new patients. I find this very gratifying; it provides some meaning to my life.”

Ask about the negatives and she sighs. The TASMAC shops everywhere are a sign of a downward spiral for her. “Today, the age for experimenting with alcohol is as low as 14-15 and they become addicted by the time they turn 25. Where are we going and, worse, what are we doing to the next generation?” her voice is anguished.

Apart from her work with the centre, there is another facet to Shanthi: an educationist. She supports a government-aided school in Manjakudi. Starting with infrastructure, Shanthi began to work with the kids. “Now I go there every year to conduct treatment camps and also to manage the school. The school has 2,400 children totally,” she smiles. Thanks to her help, the school now has language labs apart from science and computer labs. She brings in resource people to conduct workshops for teachers and students. What has her beaming with pride is that there are very few drop-outs. “Even girls finish their schooling,” she says. “And many go on to college too.” She is particularly thrilled that one girl from the school went on to do medicine and has been appointed as the doctor in a nearby Primary Health Centre.

Taking a break

And what about her free time; how does she unwind? “Sudoku,” she smiles. She enjoys making scrapbooks of events in the family or of the countries she's visited. “Each time there's a wedding in the family, I make an album that introduces the bride/ groom to the extended family.” Her honours and awards sit lightly on her. “I've learnt to be thankful to God for every small thing; even if it's just good weather that day.” Her motto: Live one day at a time, which is also the philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous. Just focus on what has to be achieved for that day.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012