“Pusat Pertolongan” means “Help Center” in Malay, and it was a drug addiction rehabilitation center in Malaysia. Founded by a former German Catholic priest who converted to Islam, it operated out of a former home for victims of leprosy or TB (I am not sure which) in the town of Batu Gajah, near the city of Ipoh.
And I lived and worked there from 1981-82, as a Henry Luce Scholar, on a one-year assignment.
The program was modeled on the highly confrontational, behavioral, sometimes psychologically brutal self-help program at Daytop Village on Staten Island. Mostly, therapists were ex-junkies themselves. Somehow, even though I was just 21 years old, the farthest thing from an ex-junkie, and the only non-Malaysian in the place, the management decided I should be the Officer in Charge and Therapist to the senior residents in the program.
I was not very effective as a therapist to Malaysian junkies. So I kept requesting that I be demoted. Finally, in a foreshadowing of my future career, I found my place as staff trainer and organizational consultant. (The story is summarized in my book The Sustainability Transformation.)
In April 2009, I found myself in Malaysia on other business, with an extra day or so before I could fly home. So I went to Ipoh, hired a car and driver, and went out to Batu Gajah, looking for Pusat Pertolongan. Thanks to the kindliness of the local residents, I found it.
It had been abandoned for many years. The buildings were still standing, but that was all. The sign at the front gate had been virtually covered over by a giant anthill. Broken glass, scattered papers, shattered ceramic toilets … it was quite a mess. Entire, huge trees had grown up in places where once were walkways. Nature is reclaiming the place.
I visited the cottage in which I lived. I visited my old office, roofless now. I even found the sign that once hung on the office door — lying in decay, being eaten by white ants.
Thanks to this visit, I retrieved many memories … names, faces, even songs and chants. Each “phase” in the program had its own cheer, and the Center had a theme song: “We are here because there’s no refuge from ourselves …”
And thanks to the internet, I am in touch with at least one former resident in the program, an ex-addict who kicked the habit for good (many don’t, can’t).
What I’ll do with these memories, photos, and the feelings that go with them remains to be seen. But for now, it is a gift indeed to have this feeling of closure on the most formative, difficult, challenging, devastating, exhilarating year of my younger life.