Mother on a mission:
Joan Wiles-Alleyne's personal fight against illegal drug use and abuse
Stabroek News
March 24, 2007

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Joan Wiles-Alleyne appears to be an unassuming woman but beneath that fašade is a woman with a passion, which drives her to work sometimes day and night to try to educate people about drug abuse and its consequences.

This passion sees Wiles-Alleyne, practically a one-woman army, going into some remote areas to get her message across and she ensures that when she does, people are cognizant of the link between drug abuse and HIV infection. She notes that these two societal ills have had a debilitating effect on human resources and the economy.

For the last five years, Wiles-Alleyne has been working quietly behind the scenes since being trained as a HIV and AIDS counsellor and educator at Lifeline Counselling Services, where she once gave voluntary service.

However, for the past few years, intent on getting the word out, she has been working in many isolated areas along the Linden-Soesdyke Highway including Kuru Kururu, Yarrowkabra, Kuru Kuru, Long Creek, Kairuni, Sliver Hill, Bamia, Linden and Maria Elizabeth on the Demerara River.

In addition, Wiles-Alleyne also does work with the Salvation Army's Men's Rehabilitation Centre and at Phoenix Recovery Project with resident recovering drug addicts. She has shoulders that many have cried on as she is viewed as a source of great comfort and she has a very good listening ear.

"I am like the secret worker," she rightly says as while there are others involved in the fight, there is no one else doing what she is doing.

Doing it for Phillip

But to be and do all those things one would imagine that there must be a driving force behind her. There is. Six years ago, she lost her 32-year-old son, Phillip Gordon Wiles to a combination of drug abuse and HIV and AIDS.

Wiles-Alleyne has had to watch her only son attacked first by drugs and later by AIDS. Though much time has passed, she still remembers vividly all the trials and tribulations she experienced because of her son's twin illnesses. But there were good times too that she remembers: her son was the first Guyanese to publicly state his HIV status and he had become an advocate, educating young people about the perils of drug abuse and about HIV and AIDS.

She remembers when her son would speak up and assist young people who were not strong to deal with the same problems he was experiencing. But in the end even he was not strong enough as after some time of being off drugs he succumbed to the temptation to use again and this, combined with his HIV infection, proved a deadly combination.

In the end, he died in September, 2000, following a serious attack of tuberculosis in the Georgetown Prison where he was serving time after selling a friend's bicycle to feed his drug habit.

As it is, she sees the work she is doing as a continuation of the work her son began before he departed this life. He is her burning torch and she plans to continue her work as long as strength remains in her body.

After her son died, Wiles-Alleyne said, she felt the need leave Georgetown. She and her husband, who had just retired, acquired a piece of land on the highway where they built a small house and moved there from their Prashad Nagar home.

"I had to get away because people kept calling. I knew they meant well but I needed to be away," she said.

They started doing a little farming with their only source of light at night provided through car batteries. It was in the comfort of her self-made seclusion and as she reflected on her son's life, that it came to Wiles-Alleyne that she must continue the work he began.

Never a dry eye

Wiles-Alleyne begins her education session by showing a 30-minute DVD on the life of her son. Before drugs consumed his life, Wiles had a promising career in the Guyana Police Force. The DVD refers to the battle he went through when he started using drugs and then when he became HIV infected. It has recordings of the speech he made at a World AIDS Day celebration, announcing his status and work he did in the area of drugs education. There is never a dry eye after the DVD is shown.

One of the other reasons she is continuing her son's work is because she feels that what he did was never really recognized, people saw only the drug abuse.

Wiles-Alleyne firmly believes that drug addiction is fuelling the spread of HIV and AIDS and she is not wrong as the results of a study released in February found that HIV prevalence among people who use illicit drugs is "alarmingly high".

Wiles-Alleyne is at a loss as to why the government is not doing more in the area of drug addiction. She pointed out that there are only rehabilitation programmes for men, none of which are free. She noted that there is no government run programme and is calling on the administration to see drug addiction in the same light as it sees HIV and AIDS.

The wife, mother, advocate and friend said she was very heartened by the 2005 drug master plan released by the government but is saddened that to date nothing has been done in the direction of implementation.

Rehabilitation facilities

In July of 2005, the government released the $650 million-a-year, five-year drug plan. The part of the plan that raised Wiles Alleyne's hopes was the promise to establish rehabilitation facilities both in-patient and out-patient, set up a detoxification unit, establish regional drug abuse prevention committees which would facilitate community support groups and establish standards for and monitor all rehabilitation and treatment service providers. The extant legislation mandates the setting up of rehabilitation centres but no government has ever set up any.

"To this date nothing has been done to set up any rehabilitation programme," Wiles-Alleyne said, even as she points to the promise in a copy of the story in the Stabroek News on the plan.

Wiles-Alleyne called on the government to put tackling drug addiction on the front burner as it does not only affect addicts and their families, but the society as a while. She pointed out that the drug addiction is a disease, since addicts cannot help themselves, which attacks mostly the young. And because this disease corrupts the mind and leaves the individual incapable of making sound judgement, they become involved in unsafe practices which leads to them becoming HIV and AIDS infected.

Support

But Wiles-Alleyne says she knows that it is not just the government, but also the support of family members that is needed. And even they too need support as they feel the full brunt of the consequences of the addict's actions. To this day Wiles-Alleyne says she needs support and she meets with other affected family members to share and to receive support. The support of her husband is invaluable too; Wiles-Alleyne describes him as a marvel as without him she would be unable to continue her work.

Wiles-Alleyne recalled that at one point in an attempt to really rid himself of drugs, Wiles moved to the highway where he worked on a farm and lived in solitude. But when he returned to the city after a few months he started using again and once again agreed to be a resident of Salvation Army programme.

Wiles-Alleyne noted that rehabilitation has a lot do with the person's strength. "It is a disease that can be treated and arrested but the addict has to want it."

She will probably never know why her son became addicted to drugs or why he returned to it after it appeared as if he was recovering and was making positive contributions to life. She sadly admits that her son was not strong enough even though he had all the support. On a recorded television programme, he is heard saying that he wanted to experiment and that was how he became a user. Asked by the interviewer if drug addition is a big problem in Guyana he said: "It is a very big problem just take a drive along the streets and you would see." He said he started to experiment at age 19 and at one point he knew he was sick and he stopped and sought help. He said he felt his purpose was to carry the message to all lost addicts. Unfortunately for Wiles, he was one of the lost addicts and he never even heard his own message.

Wiles-Alleyne said that if the government does not do something about drug addiction it would continue to worsen. "I will continue working until I die. But I hope before I die the government has one or two rehabilitation programmes for both males and females which are free."

That is the wish of a mother who is still hurting for her dead son, as she knows the pain he endured. She is also hurting for other sons and daughters of Guyana, who are experiencing what he experienced and for the mothers and fathers and other relatives like her. oday she has moved back to her city home, but continues to carry the word into the remote areas.