FOR 19-year-old James, the path to alcohol and drug addiction began innocently enough - with a sense of loneliness and a nagging feeling that he didn't belong with the other kids he knew. ''I guess I always felt that I didn't fit in with the people around me. So I looked for a kind of escape - a way to get into my own little space for a while.'' At 12, he took his first tentative steps into the world of substance abuse when he began sniffing paint thinner. By 14 he was drinking heavily at weekends. ''Alcohol was so easy to get,'' said the young Briton, who moved to the territory with his family 16 years ago. ''We would buy loads of beer and have beach parties. We would have drinking competitions to see who could drink the most without passing out. ''There were night-clubs that kids as young as 13 could go to and there were beer banquets where you could drink as much as you could hold down.'' He turned to alcohol out of boredom and the instant sense of ''maturity'' it offered, admitting it created a buffer against that constant feeling of being the outsider. ''But every time I went out to drink I had to get pissed. It was never just a couple of beers with the guys.'' Alcohol, says James, opened the doors to the abuse of other substances. At 16, he took the next step and began to dabble in hash, accepting a few puffs on joints that friends would pass around. ''I saw some friends who were doing it and I thought, 'look at them they're hip people'. They were having a really good time. ''I asked them one night to give me a bit and they did. But it didn't do anything.'' However, by the last year of Form Seven at one of the territory's international schools, James had begun hoarding his supply of drugs, now expanded to include speed and acid. This, addiction counsellors say, is the mark of an addict rather than a recreational drug user. ''All day in school I would be thinking about dope and then to get money for it I started to deal to people at school,'' James says. ''I would rip them off and keep half the stuff for myself.'' A year studying computer science at a British university ended in disaster when James gradually stopped attending classes and retreated more deeply into drug abuse. ''My first day at college I bumped into a guy who smoked dope and it was off we go again. I never attended lectures and if it was a choice between scoring some drugs and writing an exam, I'd take the joint.'' When the hash began to produce an overwhelming feeling of paranoia, James dropped out of university, prompting his parents to cut-off his allowance. He fell back on the generosity of his few addict friends before finally signing on the dole. ''But if I had only GBP15 in my pocket and it was a choice between drugs and food, I would always take the dope which would of course cause munchies. ''But it wouldn't put me off. The relief I felt when I would score my drugs was worth it. I felt I really had something then.'' His parents never suspected his drug problem, James says. Although they knew something was wrong, they were too preoccupied with their own troubles as James' father also struggled with an addiction - to alcohol. Finally, when he could no longer survive in Britain, James came back to his parents' house in Hongkong. It wasn't long before he hit rock bottom. ''I bumped into some old friends who were now into heroin. They asked me to join them and I didn't hesitate. It was so easy. ''It was cheaper than hash, it didn't make me paranoid - it made me feel on top of the world with no worries at all. ''I was stupid. I associated heroin addicts with skinny people who were wrecks and because I was able to continue eating at first, I thought I was invincible.'' But James quickly developed a dependency on heroin and began to snort increasing quantities everyday. He refused to inject the drug, finding the very idea repulsive. ''Then I started to have withdrawals in the morning and this was a complete shock to me. They were just mild ones but it felt like my head was going to explode and I felt like I was going crazy.'' It wasn't until the withdrawal symptoms made him fear for his sanity, that James finally broke down and confessed to his mother. ''My mother was not surprised. She knew there was something going on but she didn't suspect it was heroin,'' he says. His father, however, reacted with understanding and forgiveness, taking him to an addiction counsellor and to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Four months later, James says he is drug and alcohol free and he hopes to stay that way, although he knows it will be a hard battle. But the people he has met through AA have taken the edge off the pain and loneliness of rehabilitation, he says. ''When the drugs were taken away it was like a big hole in my stomach. The programme [AA] fills that hole.'' James says his slide into substance abuse was helped along by the wide availability of alcohol and drugs in the territory. ''These days more young people - 14 or 15 years old - are drinking and doing drugs and I don't see any solution. ''More education might help, but there were drug education programmes when I was at school and that didn't stop me because I thought it would never happen to me.''