“It felt like worms were burrowing into my joints”: He tried quitting drugs 15 times and thought death was the only way out  

TRIGGER WARNING: This story contains mention of suicide ideation. Reader discretion is advised.

by Christine Leow // April 4, 2024, 7:32 pm

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In prison for the sixth time, Gideon Goh saw addicts who were in their 70s. "Some had been in prison 17 times, from the time they were 13. I felt very scared. I thought: Is this going to be my life? Will I be in prison till I am old?" All photos courtesy of Gideon Goh.

Gideon Goh was 20 when he was forced to go cold turkey to break his drug habit.

He had been addicted to heroin for six months when he was arrested in a house raid and sent to a drug rehabilitation centre for three months.

“The craving was so great, I felt I was going crazy.”

“It was my first time going without drugs. I felt like I had gone mad, like I was lost. My whole body was hot and cold, then hot and cold.

“When it was hot, it was very, very hot. It would get so unbearably hot that I would pour water down my body to cool it. It was like pouring water onto hot charcoal. Then maybe I could sleep for about three to five minutes.

“When it was cold, it was so cold, even when there was no wind. My whole body was in pain,” the 55-year-old told Salt&Light in Mandarin.

“I had stomach aches non-stop and also diarrhoea. My head ached and I couldn’t stop yawning every minute. At night, I couldn’t sleep. I would toss and turn. In the morning, I could only sip a bit of tea. I couldn’t eat. I was vomiting all the time.

Gideon at age 20, when he was first arrested for drug use.

“My joints felt like worms were burrowing into them. I had to keep moving to alleviate the pain. Some who go through these symptoms actually slam themselves into walls just to get a bit of relief.”

The physical suffering was matched only by the mental anguish of yearning for drugs.

“The moment I was released from prison, I didn’t even go home. I went straight back to drugs.”

“I had hallucinations that the drugs were coming. I saw lots of drugs beside me. The craving was so great I felt I was going crazy.”

The torment lasted a week.

But when he had served the three months, Gideon returned to his gang and to his drug habit. The harrowing withdrawal symptoms were nothing but a faint memory.

“In prison, I was already planning how to get the drugs when I got home. The moment I was released, I didn’t even go home. I went straight back to drugs.”

Over the next decade, he would be in and out of prison five times. But during his sixth imprisonment, something happened to make it his last.

Looking for love in all the wrong places

Gideon grew up in a huge family, the seventh of 10 children. His father was a forklift operator while his mother was a homemaker.

“My father almost never spoke to me. My mother only scolded us and beat us. The house was always full of quarrelling. There was no love, no concern, no communication.

The seventh of 10 children, Gideon sought from gangs the acceptance he did not receive from his family.

“At times, when she was frustrated, my mother would tell me, ‘If you don’t listen to me, then go and die. Don’t come back!’

He travelled deep into the jungles of Sabah, Malaysia, to swear allegiance to the gang with a blood oath.

“My parents were not educated. They really didn’t know how to raise us.”

So Gideon preferred hanging out in the parks and lanes of Geylang with his friends and neighbours, staying out till late in the night.

When he was 15, a gang member approached him and his friend at their usual haunt and invited them to join a gang. At the time, Gideon did not realise he was being recruited to be a gangster.

“I didn’t know what a gang was. I just sat with them and did what they did – get involved in fights, illegal activities like loan sharks and worked as a look-out at their gambling dens. Then I realised they were a real secret society.”

Gideon even had to travel deep into the jungles of Sabah, Malaysia, to swear allegiance to the gang with a blood oath.

“I didn’t know how to be scared then. I just felt protected and stronger when I was with the gang.” 

One sniff that changed everything

His first experience with substance abuse came not long after.

He was waiting to sit for an ‘N’ Level exam paper when a gang member entered the school and gave his friend a can of glue to sniff.

When his friend was done sniffing the glue, he put the can into Gideon’s school bag. The glue spilt all over the bag.

One sniff turned into a nightly experience and before Gideon knew it, he was hooked.

“I wanted to clear away the glue. But the more I wiped, the more I smelt the glue. The more I smelt the glue, the nicer it smelt to me.

“I was high and I didn’t even know it. It got to a point where I put the entire school bag over my head so I could smell the glue.

“I remember walking into the school hall like I was drunk.”

Gideon ended up sleeping through the entire paper. After that, he simply did not turn up for any other examinations and dropped out of school. His life was now devoted to his gang. Days were spent working at gambling dens. Nights were whiled away at night clubs drinking and smoking marijuana.

National Service hardly put a dent in his gang life.

Gideon now runs his own mobile phone business.

One day, Gideon was told that the supply of marijuana had run out. Would he like to substitute it with heroin instead?

“The first time I tried it, I vomited. It was so very disgusting. Very bitter, very smelly. But the second time, I didn’t vomit. Instead, I was overcome by a strange feeling. I felt drowsy; it was like there was no pain and I was invincible.”

One sniff turned into a nightly experience and before Gideon knew it, he was hooked.

Stuck like chewing gum

After that first arrest at the age of 20, Gideon would be arrested another four more times.

“But I never wanted to give up drugs. I never thought whether it was worth it or not. The drugs had gone into my brain.

“When I came out of prison, the first thing I would do was to celebrate with smoking and drinking. Next, I would go to the gambling den. Then the drugs would come in.

“That was how I enjoyed my life. It became a lifestyle. There was no one to teach me otherwise. The environment made a very big difference.”

In 1997, the laws against drug abuse became stricter. Recalcitrant addicts caught for the fourth time or more would face stiffer punishment – at least five years imprisonment and three strokes of the cane.

“I was about 30. I calculated that if I got caught this time, I would be in prison at least five years. That was not worth it.”

Gideon first met Esther at a church event.

So Gideon tried to give up his habit. By then, he was already heavily addicted. While most smoked a stick or two of heroin a day, he was doing 10 every day.

“I was very thin, all skin and bones. With drugs, I didn’t need to eat or sleep. The high could sustain me for a very long time.”

Then came October 1999. He got arrested for the sixth time.

Despite this, Gideon deluded himself into thinking that he could quit when he set his mind to it. The first time he tried to go cold turkey on his own, he locked himself in his room and attempted to ride out the symptoms.

But the craving was too strong. In less than two weeks, he was back on drugs. He would do this at least 15 times, failing each time.

“I realised I could not give it up and I was scared. Why are drugs like chewing gum that stick to you? No matter how hard you try to fling it away, it still sticks to you.

“More than the physical suffering, I was suffering mentally. I wanted to give up drugs but I could not.

“All the money I earned from trafficking drugs went to feed my habit. Yet I was afraid of being arrested.”

He even tried to drink himself to sleep in the hope of numbing the craving. It only made matters worse the next morning.  

Then came October 1999 when he was arrested for the sixth time. He was 32.

On hindsight, Gideon said: “This was God saving me. Thank God.”

Can Jesus help me quit?

But at the time of the arrest, gratitude was far from his mind. He was sentenced to six years in prison and three strokes of the cane. He told himself that he was finished with drugs.

By the time Gideon married his wife, Esther Yap, he had been in and out of prison six times. But she saw past the man he was to the man he would become by God’s grace.

“While in prison, I saw addicts who were in their 70s. Some had been in prison 17 times, from the time they were 13.

“I felt very scared. I thought: Is this going to be my life? Will I be in prison till I am old? I had so many examples before me of failures.”

“He was in and out of prison nine times, but now he’s married with a family. My heart wanted a life like his.”

At his most hopeless, Gideon even thought that the only way out was to kill himself. He started to plan how to end his life.

“But I thank God because what I thought was the end of my life was actually the beginning of God’s grace.”

It was a chapel session in prison that was the turning point. He had been to chapel sessions during previous incarcerations. But this one was different. This time, a pastor shared his testimony.

“It was Ps Don Wong from The New Charis Mission. When I heard his testimony, I thought: His background is similar to mine. In and out of prison nine times.

“But the difference is that now he is a pastor. He has a proper life. He is married with a family and he is here sharing his testimony. How did he do this? My heart wanted a life like his.”

Gideon with the family he had always yearned for.

Gideon returned to his cell, the question lingering. Talk in prison was that believing in Jesus was the way to quit drugs.

“I have worshipped a lot of idols,” he thought doubtfully. “But I have never heard of a god that can help us quit drugs.”

In 2001, during a Christmas celebration, when Ps Don gave an altar call, Gideon decided to respond.

A vision in the halfway house 

But Gideon still wondered how Jesus could help him quit drugs.

“My body was okay. No more withdrawal symptoms. But my mind had not quit.”

Within a month of conversion, he was selected to be part of an early release programme. He became eligible for serving out the rest of his sentence at a halfway house.

His daughters are now aged 13 and 12.

He was sent to The Hiding Place where there were morning devotions every day, sermons preached twice a day and worship services weekly. Gideon was immersed in God’s Word for a whole year.

When he completed the programme and was allowed to be released, he hesitated.

“I had heard of people who went out and within three months were back on drugs. One was out only a month and went back to drugs again.

Gideon with his daughters and wife. Because of his powerful testimony, his parents and four siblings also became Christians.

“When I heard about it, I was like, ‘Why like that? What about me? When it is my turn, would I change for good?’”

As he struggled with his decision, he flipped open his Bible and saw a verse highlighted in yellow. It was Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

“My body was okay. No more withdrawal symptoms. But my mind had not quit.”

“I kept thinking about the ‘pattern of the world’. Then I had a sort of vision; I saw my pattern. My pattern was every time I got out, I would meet my gang, celebrate, drink and smoke. Then I would join them to take drugs. Finally, I would end up in prison. I even saw myself holding onto the bars. That was my pattern.

“I became very scared. I told myself, ‘If I have to serve time till I am old, I would rather die.’

“I asked God, ‘What should I do?’

“Then I read further – be transformed by the renewing of the mind. The verse helped me to make the decision to stay back in the halfway house and not leave. I wanted to stay back and continue pursuing God’s Word to build up my foundation in Christ and to continue hearing the Word because faith comes from hearing.”

Gideon ended up volunteering for two years at The Hiding Place.

A new creation 

When the two years were up, Gideon had no problems leaving the halfway house.

“This time, there was joy. I was very happy to move forward with my life. I know I can carry out the Word of God in Jeremiah 29:11. He has a plan for me to prosper, to give me hope and a future. I wanted to get out and head towards God.’”

“When a person is a new creation in Christ, he is a very different man.”

Just as he had heard in prison, Jesus did indeed help him quit drugs for good.

“My drug addiction was not only in my body, it was in my mind. Only the blood of Jesus could wash away my addiction.

“It has been 20 years. Till today when people ask me how I maintain these 20 years without going back to drugs, I say, ‘I would not have been able to do it if the addiction was still in my mind.’

“I don’t have to maintain anything because the addiction has been washed away.”

The life that he had always wanted – a wife and a family – is now a reality. Gideon is married to Esther, a Hokkien pastor at Bethesda Bedok-Tampines Church (BBTC). They have two daughters aged 12 and 13. He runs his own mobile phone business.

As for his parents, they became Christians two years after he was last released from prison. His mother is now 87 and his father is 93.

Gideon, who struggled repeatedly to break his addiction, has not touched drugs in 20 years.

“They don’t say it but I think seeing how the God I believe in is so good made them open to Christianity.”

The man that Gideon was all those years ago is gone.

Once someone who would “wait for heaven to drop me money”, he is now diligent because “God says you must use your hands to work diligently”.

The swear words that used to liberally pepper his speech now “don’t come out”, he said. He has even helped his old friends quit smoking.

“When a person is a new creation in Christ, he is a very different man.”


“God, if I don’t change, I just want to die”: Rev Don Wong’s children recall a childhood fathered by the “ang moh pai kia” turned pastor

“We thank God for a different childhood”: Rev Don Wong’s children, Daryl and Vivienne, on growing up with the halfway house family

About the author

Christine Leow

Christine believes there is always a story waiting to be told, which led to a career in MediaCorp News. Her idea of a perfect day involves a big mug of tea, a bigger muffin and a good book.