Inside a Shenzhen methadone clinic

Patients known only by numbers struggle to overcome heroin addiction

By Iris Lang

April 2018

There are only five chairs in the 650 square-foot clinic, and they aren’t for patients. Every day, five doctors occupy the five seats and treat their patients, who have numbers instead of names and are not allowed to sit. When the treatment is over, the patients must leave immediately.

There is a sixth chair, but it is usually in the storage room. Sometimes Liu Dagang can use it, but most of the time he must stand.

Liu’s blue uniform is faded, the word “security” sewn in yellow wraps around his left arm so only the letters “secur” are visible from the front. He has been the security guard of this methadone clinic, near the Liu Hua Hospital in Shenzhen, since it opened in 2008.

The clinic treats people addicted to heroin. Methadone is a prescription opiate that relieves the pain of heroin withdrawal. There are only five chairs, because the clinic does not want patients to mingle.

Liu,48, from Sichuan, is about 1.7-meters tall and wears a pair of black glasses. When he smiles, the wrinkles in his eyes gather like two folding fans.

Over the past 10 years, he has met all the 268 patients here, even witnessing two of them getting married and having babies. The couple often bring their 14-month-old twins to the clinic when they come to take their methadone. The babies know Liu, and they smile at him as soon as they enter. Liu grins and picks up one of them called Huan Huan and turns in circles. The little girl can’t stop giggling, envied by her twin, Xi Xi who holds Liu’s legs and sways while her eyes fill with tears.

Liu picked up Xi Xi and said, “You’re the most adorable baby in the world, aren’t you?” Liu takes care of the children until the parents finish.

“They remind me of my son, though he already 18 years old,” said Liu. His son is in Liu’s hometown and will take the college entrance examination this June. Liu is worried about his son’s grade, and sometimes he will ask the doctors’ opinions about Shenzhen University during the breaks. If his son were in Shenzhen, he could take care of him.

The clinic is divided into six rooms. From the glass entrance door, there is an L-shaped corridor with a whiteboard and two shelves on the right, displaying dusty volumes on the harm of drugs, how to get rid of drug addiction and stories of people who have been through detoxification successfully.

 Liu knows the stories of all the patients, and he puts on a different face for different people.

 Patient number 132 was a former gang member and has two tattoos on his shoulder。There’s a scar on the bald man’s face. Liu always gives him a serious look, staring at him until the man swallows the medicine. “I must make sure they have swallowed the medicine, or they might take it outside and sell it again,” he said.

Liu remembers long ago when patient 132 escaped the doctor’s check and spit the medicine into a plastic cup after getting out of the clinic. At the corner of a nearby street, the man sold the liquid cup of methadone, which still had his spit in it, to another man. In the clinic, it costs 20 yuan, but he sold it for 100 yuan.

The whole process was filmed by the monitor connected to the police station. Now, Liu checks patient number 132’s mouth every time he finishes. The door and windows of the dispensing room are also protected with steel pipes. A half-meter white dustbin is used for collecting plastic cups after people drink their methadone. Patients can’t take anything away from here.

Methadone maintenance therapy is a relatively safe and widely used method to treat heroin addiction. The Chinese government set up the first pilot clinic in 2004. Now, there are 767 drug treatment clinics in 28 provinces in China according to the latest statistics published by Ministry of Public Health in 2015. Five of them are in Shenzhen, and the one Liu works in is the oldest. 

From 2010 to 2015, there has been continuous growth in reported drug addiction, according to an organization in Shenzhen. But, the source says, the real situation could be much higher.

The prevailing international ratio of caught addicts to hidden addicts is 1:5, meaning for everyone one reported case, five more addicts were not caught. The ratio in Guangdong province could be about 1:7, said the organization, with only 21,948 addicts caught by police.

Number 143 is a 36 year-old mother with a 10-year-old daughter. Now she is a model patient who has been heroin free for five years. She used heroin to relieve pain after a difficult childbirth. “I didn’t feel pain anymore as long as I took it,” said 143.

Number 112, a former gang member, also called “Shark” by others, was beset by a toothache, he said. “My face was swollen like a pig’s head. I’d try anything to relieve my pain,” said Shark.

His friend gave him fingernail size amount of heroin and promised Shark just once was not addictive. But that turned out not to be true, Shark said.

Clinic doctor, Qin Fenglian, said he particularly remembers one patient. After drinking the methadone, he didn’t leave immediately.

“He said he want to talk to us; then there was silence,” said Qin.

The man used to be a policeman and was undercover in a drug gang, he said. With his help, the local police captured many drug dealers successfully. But in the last case, in order to win the gang’s trust, he had to use heroin. He was fired from the force for his drug use, the man said.

“Before being a policeman, he is a human,” said Qin.

Methadone, a pink liquid, is addictive and even harder than heroin to quit, some say. Treatment can last years.

Qin says the clinic is hard to escape, not just for patients for doctors too. She was assigned here after losing her job as a gynaecologist in a hospital. The methadone clinic gave her second chance.

“It’s hard to say I like my job. Facing these people means I have to put myself in danger; the office environment is dark and I repeat the same work every day,” said Qin, acknowledging that this job will most likely be the rest of her career. “But I still want to have a try.”

At the door, Liu doesn’t have time to sit or take a rest. His chair stays in the storage room. He paces back and forth in the hallway, staying alert.

“There he comes. Hope everything goes well,” Liu mutters. A wizened man wearing rubber slippers jumps and runs in. “Hey beauty! Here I am!” number 132 said laughing and shouting at doctors.

Most of the time, doctors will keep a serious face and don’t look in the patients’ eyes. “Watch your attitude! You hurt my feelings!” the man shouted. Liu heard the voice and went into the office, standing beside the doctor. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“My doctor, she never smiles to me. What do I owe her?”

“Doctors have to meet others and they treat everyone equally. It’s not about you. They’re quite busy, so you’d better take your medicine and leave,” Liu said.

“How dare you talk to me like that!”

The man tried to punch Liu and failed. Liu’s jaw clenched tightly, and he glared at the man before him. Suddenly Liu grasped the man’s left arm and twisted his wrists together, forcing him down.

“It hurts! I’m not the normal person just like you! How can you do it me! I’ll sue you!” the man shouted.

“I’ll say it for the last time, take your medicine and leave, understand?”

“OK, OK, I will leave. Let me go. It hurts!”

The man glared at Liu, drank his methadone and, jumped and ran out of the clinic, almost losing his slippers.

“Thanks to Liu’s protection, he helps us to handle troubles,” said Qin. Drugs can cause irreversible damage to the brain, so some addicts are more sensitive, Qin said.

Liu is not sure how long he will stay in the clinic, maybe another ten years; maybe he will leave tomorrow.

Liu sometimes sighs when talking about the patients. He has seen many people come and go, some of them never come back again or they die; some open new pages of their lives, but there are always new numbers coming in.

Liu frowned and pointed to the logo of clinic, a man in a bottle, and said, “You see, there’s a man trapped in the flask and drowning in the liquid.”

“He will never escape, never.”

A patient takes her methadone treatment in the clinic while her daughter waits.

You see, there’s a man trapped in the flask and drowning in the liquid.

The methadone clinic’ s logo is a man in a flask. “He will never escape, never,” clinic security guard Liu Dagang says.