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How a Manila Cab Driver Changed My View on Addiction

He was the only driver to admit his drug use in my ten years of riding cabs in Manila.

It was high noon when I saw the empty cab. It was a rickety Toyota Corolla. Holding out for something better meant sweating more under the humid tropical sky. I flagged it.

I took the front seat. If a young Luis Guzmán played Oscar the Grouch, the result would have been the driver—Jerrick according to the mandatory ID hanging off the rearview mirror. He looked like he hadn’t shaven or taken a bath for days. A slight stench confirmed the latter. The seat covers were tattered and the aircon barely worked.

Savvy Manileño commuters wouldn’t even have hailed the cab, and would have gotten off immediately had they seen the post-apocalyptic dystopia inside. I’m in my business warrior mode when I visit Manila (nothing shall stand in my way!). And one of the core tenets of Filipino machismo is to commit to your stupid decisions. The moment I raised my hands to hail the cab, I was doomed to spend one hour of my life inside Jerrick’s taxi. Better men have done worse things in the name of Filipino machismo. What I didn’t realize at the time, was that this taxi driver was about to introduce me to a whole new way of thinking about addiction.

As we drove along C5 (famous for the U-turn flyover), we went past a taong grasa, one of the deranged, half-naked men (and sometimes women) that roam the mega city — a cross between classic slow-moving zombies and chimney cleaners of films set in the Industrial Revolution.

Our conversation about madness led to marijuana. I sort of dismissed it, implying the soft drug was for high school kids. Before you judge me, please understand that we were conversing in bro speak, that universal language spoken by 50% of the world’s population. Dismissing marijuana was my attempt to bolster my street cred. He countered with a detailed history of his drug use. Translated to English, this meant “you don’t know what you’re talking about, boy. I’m the real badass here.”

It turns out Jerrick was only 28 years old, although he looked like he was around 35. And tired, like his beat up vehicle. He is married and has two kids. Like most Filipino addicts, his drug of choice is Shabu (Crystal Meth). He had his first taste in his teens, when he moved to Manila. But his addiction blossomed when he became a full time cabbie. He told me his wife has been asking him to quit. He plans to one day to move back to his rural hometown to starve out his addiction. But not just yet. He obviously wanted to quit, but like most in America, Jerrick doesn’t have access to the treatment he needs. On top of that, there our some economical factors at play, he needs to work to feed his family, and as he rationalized to me, he needs to use drugs to make more money, so that he can save enough to quit. What a paradox, or most likely, a justification that his addiction keeps telling him.

He explained the ROI (Return On Investment) of taking drugs. ₱ is the currency symbol used for Philippine Pesos. Taxi operators rent out each unit to a pair of drivers who alternate in its usage, 24 hours each. The drivers pay a fixed fee called a “boundary” of ₱1,200  to ₱1,700 for each usage. Let’s put gas at ₱1,000. This means his total revenue per use must be around ₱2,500 just to break even. My cab driver said his average cab fare is ₱150. This means drivers do around 17 trips in one shift, and it’s not uncommon for taxis to have to wait as much as an hour between shifts. 

The normal cab driver could not drive for an entire 24 hours, but with the help of stimulates like methamphetamine, a cab driver can go on for much longer. I was told that one pop of Shabu (as it’s called) is only ₱300. To pay for the stimulant, it’s going to take close to 20 trips just to break even, and it takes about 24 trips to make the profit he needs to bring home to survive. And this is only at the beginning, as we all know, our bodies create a tolerance to the drug and as the months and years go on, Jerrick needs higher doses to have the same effect. You end up with a vicious cycle of taking drugs so that you could work more to pay for the drugs. The irony wasn’t lost to Jerrick. He delivered this conclusion like a punch line.

Business is never just about business. It turns out ROI was just a rationalization for Jerrick. The real story was his addiction. He tried to make me understand the strength of the desire for Shabu. He explained that the desire for women and the hungry man’s desire for food pales in comparison to the thirst for the drug. He said the only thing in your mind is your anticipation of the next time you get high.

Traffic through the innards of Mandaluyong was at its normal snail’s pace. Jerrick continued to build his résumé of badassery—his gangster friends, adventures with the police, and more drugs.

In the last 15 minutes of the ride (which spanned less than a kilometer), Jerrick became menacingly quiet, maybe he was “coming down” as he had described it. When we arrived, I mumbled some lame encouragement to quit his drug use.

I paid my bill and I gave Jerrick the largest tip I have ever given to a cab driver, even though I knew, it would probably be used on more Shabu. But it was during this hour long taxi drive that I was finally able to see the strength in which addiction can trump logic, I guess you could say that I was able to see how will power alone, may indeed not be enough. I’m not sure what options Jerrick has, especially living in such povershed conditions. It seems difficult enough, knowing that only 1 in 10 americans are able to obtain the treatment they need. 

Stereotypes and stigmas are almost always changed with personal experience, usually when we encounter someone who is able to put us in their own shoes. But we live in a culture fueled by superficial small talk, we miss the opportunities to learn from the people that surround us, if we just cared enough to listen.

I have heard a lot of people from the recovery communities talk about the need to destigmatize the notion around addiction. I look at how a meth addicted cab driver from the Philippines was able to change my thesis about addiction, and it was done through personal connection, a one hour taxi ride in Manilla can provide that. 

So for those looking to change the course of addiction sentiment, the next time someone asks you how your doing, or talks about the weather, maybe don’t think of it as an imposition. See it as an opportunity. As Jerrick helped teach me, it’s not that hard to build and establish connections in our everyday passings. You want America to change their view and eventual policies on addiction? Set the stage for potentially deeper relationships, their all around you.