A Thamkrabok Diary
The following is an account of my time at Wat Thamkrabok and the reasons why I ended up there. I have changed the names and details of the other patients at Wat Thamkrabok in order to protect their identities and to avoid embarrassment.
© Paul Garrigan – September 2007
JOURNEY TO WAT THAMKRABOK
I had left Mai Sot at nine that morning and the trip to Wat Thamkrabok lasted about seven hours on my Honda Wave. A journey of that length would normally have taken me a lot more time, due to regular stops for beer, but that day was an exception.
The beer stops occurred due to two reasons; the first was that I enjoyed riding my motorbike in an alcohol induced semi-haze but the most important one was that I was a habitual drunk. That day I felt like I had a huge excuse to get drunk but physically felt unable, although a large part of me was screaming out for it. I had already tried back at my Mai Sot hotel as soon as I awoke but I just couldn’t keep the beer down. As soon as it hit my throat I retched. This was a huge disappointment for me as I had wanted a last bash at the sauce before swearing off it forever.
The plan was to get as drunk as needed before midday and then stop, I would have the rest of the trip to the temple to sober up a bit and give a good first impression. It never occurred to me that the fact that I was admitting myself for detox probably told them everything they needed to know about me. But I was also terrified of them not admitting me although I did consider spending the night on the beer in Lampang and checking in the next day but the patient’s of my girlfriend was wearing thin and I was genuinely afraid that another night on the beer would kill me.
If I was to say that I got sober for my girlfriend I would be lying. Her disapproval certainly didn’t make things easy and I hated letting her down but this wasn’t enough of a reason for me to stop. If I am brutally honest, the truth is that if it had been a choice of the joys of intoxication or her she would have ended up dropped like a shot. She wouldn’t have been the first either. I have been lucky enough to have had some amazing women in my life and there isn’t one I regret being with. What they saw in me I have no idea but I always managed to mess things up eventually. I was devoted to alcohol and everything else was secondary.
I suppose that was the main reason for me wanting to quit this time was that I physically felt unable to continue. It felt like my liver was screaming out to me. I had been told a few years previously, after a blood test, that my liver function was compromised but I continued to drink none the less, only now with the added guilt that I was slowly killing myself.
I was in Ireland at the time and needed a medical for a job in Saudi. The blood results came back showing elevated liver function results. The doctor wanted to send me straight away to a liver specialist but I convinced her to redo the test. I told her that I had just come back from Koh Samui and had been drinking particularly hard.
I felt devastated. I had previously cared for patients in liver failure and it is not something that I would wish on anybody. I felt like the thing that scared me the most was not just that my life could be in danger but that my drinking had been given a death sentence. I left the doctor’s surgery and hit a nearby bar. My immediate worry was that I wouldn’t be able to take the nursing job in Saudi and that I would be stuck unemployed in Ireland with a dodgy liver. Although there is a big demand in Ireland for nurses I wasn’t registered there and didn’t particularly want to be.
I saw my future in Saudi where I planned to get off the alcohol and make tons of money so that I could spend years travelling before settling somewhere exotic, most likely Thailand. This plan was now being jeopardized and I didn’t like it one bit. I already had an idea that the new blood test would also be disastrous as I had continued drinking heavily since my return to Dublin.
It turned out I was right. The next lot was even higher but I convinced the doctor to complete my medical form. She noted down the LFT results on the form and her recommendation that I see a liver specialist. I rang the agency and was delighted to be told that this would not be a problem and that I was on my way to the Magic Kingdom. The night before my departure I celebrated by getting drunk knowing that my drinking problems would be over once I hit Saudi.
A further four years of damage had accumulated before the trip to Wat Thamkrabok. The last few years in Thailand was spent mostly drunk so I was fairly sure my liver was a lost cause. I had avoided blood tests since and ignored the more or less constant abdominal pain. This however was not enough to stop me drinking; it was the fact that when I ingested alcohol I vomited it back up. A good day for me was when I could get a few beers down me. If I could get past two big bottles I would escape the vomit and I could happily get pissed but there was no way this was happening on that trip to the temple.
Nevertheless I spent the whole trip looking out for bars but somehow managed to make it past them all and arrived at Wat Thamkrabok.
WELCOME TO WAT THAMKRABOK
I can’t remember exactly the type of reception I was expecting at the temple but it certainly didn’t turn out as I imagined. I suppose it is common among most drunks and druggies that our mind constantly fluctuates between us thinking we are the lowest of the low to believing that the universe revolves around us.
This was a big day for me and I was expecting a hero’s welcome. I failed to realize that I was just another lost soul among many and my arrival was no big deal. I suppose the only thing different was that I had been crazy enough to go there by a glorified scooter from Phitsanulok via Mai Sot but I’m sure they were beyond being amazed by the antics of the likes of me.
The temple seemed to cover a huge area but it looked deserted as I rode around on my motorbike. There were many empty buildings and it actually felt a bit spooky. I eventually saw some monks who gave me directions to a reception area.
I had an interview with a Swiss monk who patiently listened to my story. He had a really healthy glow about him which is so often missing from the people I would normally associate with in bars. He also seemed very kind and serene and listened to my story without any signs of judgement.
I felt that I needed to convince the Swiss monk of my sincerity to quit the booze but this was hardly needed. The interview was more of an orientation and I’m pretty sure they would never turn anyone away. I listened as he told me about the temple routine but I wasn’t taking much in as I was suffering the affects of alcohol withdrawal.
This wasn’t my first time entering a treatment facility but instead part of a long treatment history which began when I was twenty. My first appearance in one was in Dublin in 1990 where I attended, as an out-patient, a day service which catered for alcoholics, druggies, schizophrenics and manic depressives. We all received the same treatment except us alkies were given abstem, which makes you really sick if you touch alcohol, and we were expected to attend AA meetings.
I attended a few AA meetings but didn’t really take to them as I didn’t like associating with the drunks who were mostly much older than me. I actually felt less stigmatized spending my time chatting with the schizophrenics, manic depressives and druggies who I thought were much more glamorous. As you can imagine my attitude meant that the treatment centre didn’t do much for me but I suppose I did stay off the alcohol for a few months.
One problem was that I attended the treatment centre for the wrong reasons. My family had suggested it and my ex-girlfriend said she would consider getting back together if I sorted out my drinking. It was really her that was my motivation for attending as well as the desire to leave Ireland again. I was only back a few weeks and already had enough. At the time I genuinely thought I loved her but I also saw her as means of escape.
I had met Val two years previously in Oxford where I was working as a barman in a pub called the Westgate. I had loved it there and it is here that my drinking had first become a noticeable problem, but not really noticeable to me. I had started working there at eighteen and had spent the couple of years before meeting her constantly drunk and sleeping my way through as many of the available women as I could.
I would often make an arse of myself when drunk but just put this down to high spirits. It was at this time that I had my first blackout and during it split up with a girl I was seeing. I couldn’t remember a thing about it and was amazed when I heard but again I made a joke out of it. I really enjoyed it when people talked about my drunken escapades as it made me feel like a bit of a celebrity.
Val soon came to the conclusion that Oxford was no good for me and suggested we move with a vague plan of eventually going to Germany. We decided to hit Dublin first but any hopes she had of my problems with alcohol would resolve were shattered when I discovered the joys of the ‘early house’ where you could get drunk at seven in the morning. I thought it was the best idea ever and it added a whole new disturbing element to my problem.
My main memory of that time in Dublin was living in a bleak bed-sit and having very little money, we once ended up eating Alpen muesli with mayonnaise for dinner. My family lived on the outskirts of the city but I wanted to show them that I could cope on my own. The lowest point came when I sold a load of Val’s cassette tapes to buy booze. We decided that Dublin was probably not the best place for me and moved to Scotland and her home in Dumfries.
We spent that Christmas in her mums and on New Years Eve her mother, whose bed we were sleeping in, needed to act as nurse as both me and Val took turns vomiting into a basin. It was unusual for Val to be drunk and thought it was great fun at the time. We got a room in a house in Dumfries town but to Val’s horror there was a drunk writer/poet living there with who I became bosom buddies with. I had gotten a job in a local club but after the first night I never went back because I was too busy drinking scotch with my new friend. We decided to move to Glasgow where things further deteriorated to a stage where she finally had enough and kicked me out.
I had no money and even as I hitched my way to the ferry terminal on the other side of Scotland I was convinced she would tell me to come back. She didn’t. I finally needed to get my dad to pay for my fare from Ireland so that I could make my way back there. I was expecting a lot of sympathy from my family but the best they could do was tell me to get help. This was why I ended up in my first treatment centre.
After a couple of months sober I returned to Glasgow and Val. In my time away she had discovered the Jehovah Witnesses and after a few more months I gave up the idea of us having a future together. I worked briefly as a security guard for £1.50 an hour but left after I was caught asleep at my post. I returned to Oxford where I tried controlled drinking for a while before going back to Glasgow and resumption of my previous drunkenness and working in bars. This lasted about a year before moving back to London.
The next time I needed treatment was at the age of twenty-five in London. This time I spent a full year in a dry house and stayed sober for two years but now is not the time for that story.
So as I said previously this was not my first treatment centre but what had occurred before was completely different from Wat Thamkrabok.
Two monks escorted me to a curtained area where they provided me with a laundry basket and told me to remove my clothes. They suggested that I consume any alcohol in my bag and I felt cheated because I didn’t have any. The only things that I was allowed to keep were my underwear, a few books and my toiletries. All money, clothes, passport, mobile phones, cameras and everything else were locked away. I was given two red prison-like uniforms and some food vouchers and taken by the monks inside the locked area of the temple where my kind were kept.
It had been explained to me that the red uniform which I was now wearing was well known in the Louburi/Sariburi area and that if I ran away the local people, and the police in particular, would know where I belonged. Fleeing was the last thing on my mind, especially as I had no money, motorbike key or passport and my home was about 400KM away but it did happen regularly. It was mostly Thais who escaped but apparently the odd Farang did as well.
Inside the gate I was asked by a monk what drug I was coming off and how long I intended to stay off it. I informed him of my intention to quit alcohol for life. He told me that I needed to attend a ceremony in the afternoon and I was to begin the medicine that afternoon. I was a bit surprised as I thought I would have at least the day to settle in. I was escorted to my room which contained three empty beds.
It was obvious that the bed beside me was occupied from the belongings scattered around it. I also noticed lots of mattresses in a larger room which I had passed on my way to this smaller back room. Apparently this small room was where they kept us new admissions. The room was very basic and the bed hard but I hadn’t been expecting much.
There was a sort of bed side locker where I shoved my books, which are things I can never travel without. I had only taken a couple with me, one a Buddhist meditation manual and the other was a bit of light fiction. I hoped that there would be more books available as I suspected that I would have plenty of reading time available in the near future. The rest of my belongings consisted of underwear, a towel, and some toiletries which I left in the basket. I also had a spear uniform and a sarong which had been supplied by the temple.
I lay back on my bed and wondered what the future here had in store. I was eager for my room-mate to appear so that I could get some information but I was also nervous about meeting a stranger, I am actually a fairly shy type of guy. I had no idea where everyone else was and I was too anxious to go look for them. I tried to read a bit as I had a few hours to spare before the ceremony but I was unable to concentrate.
I was soon joined in the room by Matt who unbelievably came from the same city as me in Ireland. What are the chances of me checking into a detox in Thailand and ending up in a bed beside another person from Dublin? I suppose though that the chance of it happening is higher than I would expect seen as so many of my country have drug or alcohol problems.
Matt was twenty-six and was here with his wife Sharon as they were both trying to get off heroin. She was also from Dublin so I was beginning to feel like I was right at home. Matt was impressed by the fact that I now lived in Thailand and could speak a bit of Thai. We chatted a bit about Dublin but Matt soon began to find the talk a struggle as he entered withdrawals.
Matt and his wife had only arrived in that morning from Dublin and according to him they had their last hit of heroin in the plane toilets and this was now well out of their system. I had heard that heroin withdrawals were nasty but when he started rolling around on the bed moaning I though he was putting it on a bit. It is hard to feel sorry for someone else when you have your own withdrawals to worry about.
I have been lucky enough to never have experienced serious withdrawal complications from alcohol. I know some people have seizures and many have died during the DTs. I have milder symptoms which are far from pleasant but bearable. The main things I have experience are, sweating, inability to concentrate, anxiety, minor hallucinations, general body pains and vague flu like symptoms. The worst part was knowing that they would disappear with a few beers.
I was glad that Matt had already had his initiation ceremony as his moaning on the bed was increasing my anxiety levels. He began shouting that he couldn’t cope with the withdrawals and all I could do was tell him that he didn’t really have much choice. I reminded him of how unlikely it was that he would score heroin in the Thai countryside, especially as he had no money and was wearing a uniform which identified him as a drug addict. I was glad when the time for the ceremony arrived so I could get out of the room.
I was taken outside the locked area of the temple to where a senior monk was waiting to give me my Sajja, which is a vow which in this case was to stop drinking alcohol for life. I noticed that there were a lot more people around as I passed through the complex.
The ceremony took place kneeling in front of a Buddha statue and I was accompanied by a young Thai who was obviously suffering badly from drug withdrawal. The whole process was conducted in Pali language and both me and the other addict repeated when required as best we could. I was struggling to fix my attention on anything but got through it somehow.
It was the use of the Sajja that really appealed to me when I had read about Thamkrabok on the internet. I wanted to make a total commitment to quitting alcohol and this felt like the perfect chance to do it.
Buddhism had become a very important part of my life and I am convinced that it saved me from self-destructing completely. I had been able to stop drinking for a month or two over the previous few years with the help of meditation and I’m sure my health would have deteriorated a lot more if it were not for those breaks. Buddhism had also given me a reason to quit as I saw how my life could have meaning.
My first real contact with Buddhism occurred when I was about fifteen and practicing a Chinese martial art. At the time I was also interested in Taoism which is another religion connected to Chinese Kung Fu. My ideas about these two great Faiths were probably very naive and I am sure that I would mix the teachings of the two religions up. It was also at this time that I had my first encounter with meditation and was immediately fascinated with it and all the possibilities it offered.
I do not have many memories of my early childhood, particularly before the age of seven. One memory though is of my fascination of two wooden Buddha images that stood above the fireplace in my parental grandparent’s house; I think that these had been put there by one of my aunts or uncles who had visited Thailand. I am not claiming any great meaning in this but I do find fairly prophetic.
Before the age of fifteen I would have considered myself a devote Catholic; or as devote as a teenage boy can be. I was an altar boy, would frequently do readings at mass and was even a member of the choir for a brief period. I was very interested in Christianity and devoted time to reading the Bible. It was during these investigations that serious doubts arose in my mind which quickly lead to me losing my faith completely.
These doubts, in my case, were irreconcilable and this was the end of my membership with the church. This decision of mine to abandon Christianity caused a good deal of stress for my family in particular my grandmother. This was not helped by my bitterness towards their faith, which I felt had let me down, and for many years I would never miss an opportunity to criticize them for their beliefs. I now feel shame about this behaviour but have no regrets about abandoning Christianity.
Due to major upheavals in my life I was unable to continue my martial arts practice and my meditation practice soon faded out too. My discovery of alcohol soon replaced these pursuits and my investigations into Buddhism were put on hold, although throughout the following sixteen years my interest would occasionally be rekindled; but never for any real length of time and never with any serious effort to follow the path.
I became interested in Buddhism again just before my move to Saudi and by the time I moved to Thailand I was devouring every Buddhist book I could get my hands on. The message inside these books screamed out at me and it all seemed so obvious. I could see a way out of my addiction which would work for me.
It ended up taken a further three years to finally escape but it was such a relief to know there was a way out of the hell that addiction was making of my life. During those next few years I would often feel desperate but there was always the hope that it would soon end and when the pain got too much it was this that got me to Wat Thamkrabok.
The Sajja vow is a serious business and this is especially true for the Thai people who are convinced that breaking it will lead to horrific consequences. Oa had been quick to provide examples of people who had gone to Wat Thamkrabok and later broke their vow. These people died shortly after or their lives became unbearable. I wasn’t completely convinced that these events occurred because of breaking the vow but there is no way I wanted to find out.
Wat Thamkrabok is unique in that you are only allowed to go through their treatment program once; there are no second chances. The reason for this is the Sajja which can only be made one time. This was another aspect of the temple which appealed to me as the revolving door policy of most treatment centres didn’t seem to work for me and I had seen how it had failed many others. I really felt this was my last chance and it was with this in mind that I took the vow.
After the ceremony I went back to my room to await the medicine which makes you vomit, knowing that it was this stuff that the temple was most famous for.
THE MEDICINE THAT MAKES YOU VOMIT
When I got back to the dormitory almost everyone there was wearing a sarong and one of the monks told me to do the same. I soon found out this was necessary for the medicine ceremony which was about to take place in a few minutes; after all you didn’t want vomit on your day clothes.
I had been told already that I was not allowed eat anything between midday and the evening when the medicine was given. We were also not allowed fizzy drinks for the first five days and real tea and coffee were not available in the compound. These restrictions were in place in order to stop the effects of the medicine being made worse than they already were.
I was nervous about the whole vomiting business even though I regularly did this when I drank, it was not something I looked for but saw it as a necessary part of being a drunk. We walked over to the area where the medicine was to be given. Six of us in sarongs and another three in the normal red uniform. The guys in the red had already finished their course of Wat Thamkrabok’s specialty and were busy given us advice about how to make it less unpleasant.
Myself, Sharon and Matt were first-timers and had no idea what to expect. The other three westerners who were to receive the medicine would be taking it for the last time, as they had already had four doses, but they also seemed nervous and withdrawn as we made our way to the big event.
I was surprised by the number of people in the square where the ceremony was to take place. There was a line of tin buckets on one side and already about twenty Thais kneeling in front of them, we were led to the last vacant buckets as the old-timers gave us there final bits of advice. “Drink as much water as you possibly can”. “Try and go as long as possible before getting sick”, and “kneel on your sandals”.
We were all in place in front of the buckets. My anxiety levels were through the roof and I felt very self-conscious. There were a big group of people in front of us including a improvised musical band, a group of western monks, a large group of Thais who had finished their course of medicine and various temple helpers. Behind us walking up and down were the Thai monks who were keeping on eye on us like anxious mothers.
The medicine man began walking down the line of buckets administering a shot glass of a dark brown liquid to each person as he went. As soon as they drank the medicine each person began knocking back scoops full of water. He had started at the other end from me so I had a bit of a wait. I was glad for the advice about using the sandals under my knees as kneeling on the concrete was painful.
The band was playing and everybody began clapping and the Thai’s who knew the words began singing;
Krao nii, dtong lerk hai dai
Ta lerk mai dai, dtong daay ner ner,
Lerk sep-dit sia dii tii ter
Dtit pai jon ger, kong yer sak wan
Krai hen gaw ruu gan tua
Taa kuin pai mua
Dtong cha jabaan
sa-tii tua gan
taa lerk mai dai nan dtong daay ner ner
Now is the time to quit,
If we can’t quit we are sure to die,
It is truly great to quit our addictions,
If we keep doing it until we’re old, it will get us some day,
Doesn’t matter where or who, everybody knows,
If you start doing drugs,
You need to make a vow,
to quit drugs forever
because if we can’t quit we are sure to die.
The medicine man came to me and I knocked back the slimy brown liquid and as soon as I tasted it knew that this was not something that belonged inside a human. I copied everyone else and frantically began drinking scoops of water from the large bucket in front of me. A monk standing behind me was shouting out encouragement ‘gin, gin, gin’ which means to drink plenty. I was vaguely aware of others vomiting around me.
I had been told to try and finish the whole bucket of water but was only on my second scoop when I began vomiting violently. There was a gutter running in front of us and it was into this that we were to aim but this was difficult as it was projectile vomiting.
Soon there was nothing left to vomit up and I began retching. The monk pointed to the bucket and I returned to drinking scoops of water, although it was difficult due to continued retching and vomit running out my nose but soon I had something to vomit again. This continued for about fifteen minutes until the monks were satisfied that I had drunk enough. I knew that there was still more vomit to come but just wanted to get away.
When I got back to the room the other medicine takers were out the back vomiting into a sewage pit. I grabbed a couple of bottles of water to drink and joined them around the hole to continue vomiting. The amazing thing was that it didn’t feel strange to be standing there vomiting with a group of strangers. It is amazing how quickly we adapt.
THE FIRST NIGHT
After about an hour all that needed vomiting had been vomited and I was surprised to find myself hungry. I hadn’t eaten anything since the day before but this was not unusual for me as I would often miss a day’s food when on the beer.
There was a restaurant beside the ladies dormitory which was in the neighbouring building to ours. It was very basic but exactly what you came to expect in Thailand and the variety of dishes available was surprising given its small size. There were a couple of large tables and three smaller ones where you could eat your food.
Matt wasn’t hungry but needed to get out of the room so he also came along with me to get some food. The rest of our Farang group were already tucking into their meals with the exception of Matt’s wife who like him was in no mood for eating.
Sharon was six years younger than Matt but the withdrawals were making her look a lot older. She was very pale and her eyes were blood shot and puffy. Underneath you could see that she was an attractive woman but heroin had done a good job of hiding this beauty. We had only had a brief conversation so far but she seemed a typical Dublin girl no different from the ones I grew up with. I immediately became fond of her in a brotherly sort of way.
I ordered some food from the lady in the kitchen and went back outside to sit with the rest of the group as I waited. With the exception Of Matt and Sharon I hadn’t had a chance to learn much about the other members of the group but they soon began filling me in on their backgrounds.
Bill was a tall Canadian with a goatee who reminded a bit of an American Wrestler. He was one of those larger than life guys who automatically become the centre of attention in any group. He had come to Wat Thamkrabok to get off cocaine and had been there three weeks already and was due to leave the next day. He seemed like he was great fun to be around and I thought it a pity that he was going.
Joseph was Greek and appeared to be in his early forties. He spoke excellent English and it didn’t take long to realize that he was very well educated. He had been very helpful and encouraging at the medicine ceremony earlier but he too would be leaving the next day.
George was the oldest of the group and he was an alcoholic Glaswegian in his late fifties. He had been through many treatment programs in London and like me had also lived in an Alcohol Recovery Project ‘dry-house’. It turned out we shared many similar experiences despite the age difference. I was glad to hear that he would be staying a while longer at the temple.
Unlike me George turned up at the temple with a full bottle of whiskey and when the monks told him that he needed to get rid of it he knocked back almost the whole bottle. Apparently he spent his first night wandering around the treatment facility singing, dancing and trying to create a party atmosphere. The monks were amused by his antics and continued to make references to it. I could tell that George was ashamed about the whole business but I found myself envious of his last dance with alcohol.
Matt and Sharon were both showing signs of withdrawal symptoms as they puffed away on their cigarettes. I suggested they try something to eat but they weren’t very enthusiastic but Sharon finally agreed to try some French fries. Matt decided he had enough and wandered back to his room and bed.
Sharon was unable to touch any of her food when it came but I happily finished mine. It normally takes a few days for me to get my appetite back after coming of the alcohol so I looked on this as a bonus which I put down to the wonders of the Wat Thamkrabok medicine.
Sharon was beginning to feel that her symptoms were getting worse and she began to doubt her ability to last the course. This was her first time attempting getting off heroin and didn’t feel that her problem was nearly as bad as Matt’s one. She only smoked the stuff while he injected which apparently is a lot more serious.
I told her that she would be a fool to not take this opportunity to get off that dirty drug and that she was young enough at twenty to still have a great future ahead. She agreed but I wasn’t sure she was doing this to shut me up or because she genuinely believed it. We talked for a bit more until she had enough and headed to the girl’s dormitory where she would suffer her withdrawal symptoms in silence.
The restaurant was closed for the day and everyone had left. George, Joseph and Bill had gone to watch a movie in a sit-down area near the entrance. They invited me along but I didn’t feel that I had the concentration to watch TV. I went back to the room even though I was wide awake and tried to read but soon gave up.
One of the alcohol withdrawal symptoms that I suffer from is insomnia which is not helped by a slight night fever that also seems to occur along with it. I am not sure how much my lack of sleep that night was due to these symptoms or due to the fact that Matt didn’t stop moaning and shouting all night. Lack of sleep can make me feel like I am close to insanity, especially in a situation like this when I am helpless to do anything about it. I knew that Matt was probably just as helpless to stop. The morning eventually came.
I managed to drift off to sleep eventually near morning but it didn’t last long as Bill woke me and Matt up for morning chores. It wasn’t even six yet and still dark outside. I dragged myself out of bed but Matt refused to move despite Bill telling him it was expected and part of the treatment. There was no way he was getting out of the bed so we left him to it.
We made our way back to the square, where the medicine show had been the day before, and a large group of Thais busily sweeping the leaves that had fallen over night. Myself, Bill, George and Joseph grabbed a bamboo brush from a rack and joined them. Each of us found our on spot and made our way slowly around the temple sweeping as we went.
I quickly became grateful for making the effort to get out of bed and do some work. I tried to treat it as a moving meditation and it felt very therapeutic. Nobody was talking during the work but instead focusing on what they were doing as they swept from side to side. The only time we made contact with each other was when we moved our leaves together to make mini-mountains in order to make it easier to scoop up.
I thought we had finished our work when we had reached the gate out of the treatment area but was surprised when they opened it to allow us to continue sweeping the rest of the temple compound. I didn’t mind one bit and this was probably the most productive thing I had done in a while.
Sweeping became a bit harder as we hit pebbles but it now seemed that more people had joined in and it could actually be difficult to find an area to sweep. I found myself become possessive of the area I was sweeping and actually got slightly irritated when others invaded it to help me out. It was a bit ridiculous really.
We reached a small shrine which contained a Buddha statue. I was later to find it that it also contained the body of one of the temple founders which had been mummified. People had already begun showing their respect in the form of a triple bow in front of the Buddha image. I grabbed three incense sticks which were left for this purpose and joined the others in this simple act which has been performed for nearly two thousand five hundred years by Buddhists around the globe.
People who are not familiar with Buddhism often view this act of respect as idol worship but this is not the case and it certainly isn’t the reason why I perform it. I use it as a chance to remind myself of my beliefs and as a chance to practice humility. I always try and bow mindfully, the first bow thinking of the Buddha, the second thinking of his teachings, and the third vow thinking about the community of monks he left behind. The three incense sticks also serve this purpose.
When we had finished paying our respects we made our way back inside the locked area of the temple. It had only taken half an hour to complete and was far from backbreaking work. This sweeping of leaves needed to be performed twice a day and the purpose was to prevent malaria and to remove a favourite hiding place for spiders and other nasties.
I made my way back to the room but didn’t get too comfortable as I knew we would need to get up again in an hour. I picked up my book and managed a few chapters before we were called for the National Anthem.
The Thai National Anthem is played twice a day at eight in the morning and six in the evening. I first saw this ritual performed when I began teaching English in a Bangkok government school and was now very familiar with it as I heard it each morning from the school near our house. In cinemas across Thailand a different anthem is played prior to the main film, that one being the King’s anthem.
Matt said he wasn’t going to attend the National Anthem as he didn’t see the point of it and wasn’t physically up to it. I told him that he was being very disrespectful but he just didn’t get it and wouldn’t listen, he rolled over in his bed and ignored me.
I knew he was suffering from his withdrawals and understood him not wanting to sweep but I didn’t think five minutes paying respect to his hosts was asking too much, especially as they were treating him for free. His attitude was beginning to irritate me and I felt that his lack of respect made all us Westerners look bad.
I joined everyone else in front of a square statue dedicated for this purpose and we stood to attention while the anthem was played. The Thais sang it with great pride and I joined in during the few bits I remembered. I felt a bit self-conscious doing so and worried that the Thais may view me as an over-enthusiastic Farang who was butchering their favourite song and that the other Westerners might think I was showing off. I ended up just mumbling a bit. I looked around and was pleased to see that Matt had been escorted out by the monks to join the rest of us.
THE TEA CEREMONY
After the National Anthem we were each given a mug of a special herbal tea produced at the temple. The first time I tried this I thought it was really disgusting but quickly developed a taste for it. I had been told that this mixture was great for de-toxin the body and there were also other claims that it lowered cholesterol levels and importantly for me helped heal the liver. During my stay at the temple I never missed an opportunity to drink the stuff.
As I mentioned earlier the condition of my liver had been of great concern to me for a few years. When the doctor in Ireland had warned me that it was being damaged I thought that this would act as a ‘wake-up’ call but it didn’t. Even before hearing this news I had decided to use my move to Saudi as a chance to take a break from alcohol. The fact that alcohol was banned there had been a major factor in the decision to take the job.
As soon as I arrived in Riyadh it became apparent that any idea I had of alcohol being unavailable there was wrong. The Saudi whose job it had been to collect me from the airport and deliver me to my villa in Medical City was quick to inform me how alcohol was obtained and when we arrived one of the first things in my villa he pointed out was the alcohol being distilled by one my neighbours. He obviously saw in me somebody who likes a drink. Alcohol was illegal in Saudi Arabia but was very easy for foreigners to brew there own and most Westerners did.
I did manage to stay off alcohol for the first few weeks in Riyadh but fear of destroying my liver could only stop me short-term and in the end the alcoholics friend, denial, won out and I was back on it again. I had plenty of justifications but none of them were reasonable and would probably sound insane to somebody who hasn’t suffered from addiction. I told myself that a few weeks was plenty to allow my liver to heal and that I would be more careful in future. I saw life as dull and unbearable without my drug and that ‘controlled drinking’ was the best way.
This attempt at ‘controlled drinking’ was not a new idea to me but rather a method I had been attempting since the age of twenty and failing miserably each time. These failures never deterred me from trying it again, even though during moments of lucidity and sanity I would know that I was deluding myself.
The truth was I had no real desire to control my alcohol intake and from the very first time I drank alcohol my goal was to get drunk. I never drank for the taste and saw anything less than intoxication as a waste of times. I would see people leave a drink unfinished or spending hours sipping it and I would think they were crazy; I can’t even sip water. What I really wanted was to be able to get drunk whenever I felt like it without suffering the consequences. This of course was an impossible task.
I think that it is almost impossible to describe to someone else what it is like to be an alcoholic, or drug addict, unless they are one. The best definition of insanity I have heard was in AA and it described it as constantly repeating the same mistakes but expecting different results each time. This is what we do, it doesn’t mater how messed up our lives become or how many resolutions we make the insanity tells us that this time it will be different. We continually forget the basic law of nature which states that if we keep on doing the same things, the same things will keep on happening. This is our problem.
I knew from the first time I got help for my alcohol problem that the only real solution was complete abstinence but, as Buddhists learn fairly quickly, knowing something intellectually doesn’t really mean you know it. It was easy for me to bury this information in the depths of my mind and continue on with the madness that things would improve if only the conditions were right; no alcohol before six in the evening, no strong lagers, no spirits, only spirits, eat before drinking and only twenty-one units of alcohol a week.
The insanity of the belief that I could somehow escape the consequences of being a habitual drunk was ruining my life as well as my health. I had finally reached my limit and had taken all I could take. I needed to stop now and forever. This really was my last chance and even if the Wat Thamkrabok monks told me I needed to run around Thailand naked in order to get sober I would have done it. Like alcohol I didn’t like the taste of Wat Thamkrabok tea at first but unlike alcohol I knew it was benefiting me. I only hoped that it wasn’t too late for my liver but suspected it was.
Shortly after receiving our tonic we needed to go to the main reception to receive our Thamkrabok currency which we could use to buy things such as food and drinks inside the temple. These vouchers actually looked like money and came in different denominations. We were allowed to get any amount of this currency we wished so long as it was a reasonable amount but I never needed more than 100 Baht each day. We were expected to pay for these vouchers at the end of our stay. Real money was not allowed.
The routine at Wat Thamkrabok was far from strenuous but there were regular activities throughout the day. I found a daily itinerary posted on our dormitory wall behind Matt’s bed; I am not sure how we missed it the day before. It was a lucky find as it stopped the need for me to be continually asking people what I should be doing next.
The daily routine involved waking up at six to sweep the temple and then free time until the National Anthem at eight followed by the collecting of vouchers. There was free time until about one in the afternoon during which we could wash anything that needed washing, have a shower, eat something or get a massage. I was quick to put my name down for a massage when the masseuse turned up in the morning for bookings.
I later heard Matt and Sharon say that they wouldn’t mind a massage so I had no problem delaying mine until another day. The masseuse could only fit a few in before her noon finish and it was obvious that their need was greater than mine. I was hoping that a massage would help settle Matt a bit. He seemed pleased about the idea and it was the first thing I had seen him positive about since meeting him.
Sharon had looked a lot better at breakfast and even managed to eat something. She appeared to be beginning to believe that she could make treatment work for her and I was pleased for her sake. We began discussing possible future career plans and she mentioned that she wanted to return to education. I thought this was a great idea. I began to wonder what would have happened if I had remained sober at her age.
One of the promises made at Wat Thamkrabok is that if you keep your Sajja vow great things will happen in your life. I had no problem believing this and already had personal evidence of how just quitting alcohol could magically turn my life around.
When I was twenty-five I entered treatment for the second time. During the period prior to this had been living in South East London and had reached what I thought was the lowest place I could possibly reach; begging for money in an area of London known as Elephant & Castle. This period of my life was very brief but it can still fill me with deep shame.
I had reached a stage where I felt unable to function and was regularly suicidal. I had spent much of that year going to bed and just hoping I wouldn’t wake up. This was also the year that Kurt Cobain had committed suicide and I envied him his courage to end it all.
In my view of the world at the time, suicide was cool and I have no idea how many drunken suicide notes I wrote during this period. A doctor later told me that I had suffered a breakdown and diagnosed me with alcoholic induced depression.
I am sure the doctor was right in his diagnosis but it was not what I expected depression to be like. During these episodes I would feel intensely awake and everything would seem very clear. The idea of suicide was exciting and made the world appear less hostile as I now felt in control. Death has always been a terrible fear of mine but during this time I viewed it as my friend and saviour. I look back now and think I was incredibly ‘lucky’ to survive this dangerous time.
I actually had quite a few things going for me at the time. I had just completed an ‘Access to Social Science Course’ and was due to start my degree in a few months. It had been my aim to get out of bar-work and return to full-time education and had spent the last years up to this studying for ‘A’ Levels and GCSEs by distance education. My ‘A’ level results were far from fantastic but alright considering the fact I was drunk throughout that period and was also regular using amphetamine.
My breakdown occurred on the day my exam results came out for the access course. I had passed everything, my dreams were well on track, and I should have spent the day proud and happy like everyone else who passes exams. Instead my mood turned completely black and I found myself unable to function and terrified that I had gone completely mad.
My mind was racing and I couldn’t get any control over it. I was working in a friend’s bar part-time, and was expected at work that day, but there was no way this was going to happen. I couldn’t even get my thoughts straight enough to telephone him and tell him I was too sick to come in. All I could do was drink.
I remember very little else about that day only that I ended up begging for beer money in an underground walkway, a couple of hundred meters from the University I was due to be attending. One of the few clear thoughts I had was that I wouldn’t be going to University anytime soon.
The next day my mood was the same. I had consumed an extremely large amount of alcohol the day before but didn’t even feel hung-over and for the first time in years I didn’t even want to drink. I took to walking the streets of London hoping that this would somehow slow my thoughts and allow me to think straight. I considered admitting myself to a psychiatric ward but didn’t know how to do this.
It is funny really, I was hoping for my mind to return to sanity long enough for me to get myself admitted to a mental hospital. I somehow ended up in New Cross and noticed the Alcohol Recovery Project (ARP) office. I don’t know how I achieved this as the ARP office doesn’t even have a sign on it; just an anonymous shop-front. A few days later I had entered one of their dry houses and began a very happy time of my life.
I stayed sober for two years after this and completely turned my life around. My mental condition was completely altered as my depression disappeared and I had no more suicidal thoughts. I began to love waking up in the morning and the days just weren’t long enough for me to fill everything I wanted to do into them. I also found that real joy occurred when you thought about other people and this motivated me to train as a nurse.
The greatest thing was knowing that all the time my life was improving. As a drunk my life was deteriorating in a steady progression as time passed but the opposite occurred when sober. The most amazing success stories I have ever heard occurred when drunks got sober.
So I had no problem believing the Wat Thamkrabok promise that my life would continuously improve as long as I kept my vow. I knew this would also happen for Sharon if she kept hers. I tried to explain this to her that morning but sometimes it is hard to put things the right way; especially in a situation where one drunk in withdrawals is trying to convince a heroin addict in cold turkey.
THE GRAND ENTRANCE
After breakfast I had a shower and washed the uniform I had worn the day before. When I say shower, I actually mean a large tank full of cool water from which you used a plastic scoop to pour it over yourself. After a few years in Thailand I was familiar with this arrangement but was curious as to what Matt would make of it.
It was ten o’clock in the morning and this meant that I still had two and a half hours before the next item on our schedule. Matt and Sharon both had their massage to look forward to while Bill and Joseph were both busy preparing for their departure. I returned to my favourite position which was lying on the bed reading.
I fell asleep at some stage and woke up to the noise of a pick-up truck reversing outside my window. I was amazed to see another westerner being lifted unconscious out of the back of it but a group of brown robed monks. This was not the sort of thing that you see everyday and I suspected that this new admission was going to be a very interesting guy indeed. It turned out I was right.
The unconscious man looked to be in his late thirties, although it is hard to tell when somebody is in such a state. He was covered in vomit and he appeared to have both wet and shat himself. I immediately put him down as a fellow drunk and was pleased as I was beginning to feel outnumbered by the heroin addicts; especially since Bill was leaving.
The monks carried our new neighbour into our room and deposited him on a mattress which had just been put on the floor in anticipation of his arrival; somebody had obviously phoned ahead. As well as the monks were two female farang volunteers who were both ex-addicts who had recovered at Wat Thamkrabok a few years previously. They were a great help around the temple because they could act as translators and knew how to meet the specific needs of their fellow Westerners. They also knew the answers to most of our endless problems.
The vast majority of monks at Wat Thamkrabok are ex-addicts themselves and it has always been my conviction that it is only alcoholics/addicts who can really gain the trust of their suffering fellows. This explains the lasting success of AA which despite have fairly low long-term recovery rates (if you believe the available figures), they do help many people achieve long periods of sobriety and there are a significant number of members who managed to maintain this sobriety for the rest of their life.
I would imagine that AA has helped more people than any other organized recovery method. But having said that, I tend to believe the majority of problem drinkers recover without any outside help, but I have no way of proving this and it could easily be argued that these people’s problem weren’t that big to begin with.
It is known though that people did recover from alcohol addiction before the arrival of AA and still do recover without it today. I have great respect for Alcoholics Anonymous because they have really helped me in the past and they were definitely a necessary part of the path that got me where I am today. I have many fond memories of my involvement with them but I no longer attend their meetings and have developed some different views in regards to how best I should recover. I still benefit from the wise things they taught me though, much of which is compatible with my Buddhist beliefs.
I must have read hundreds of recovery books over the years and the ones that really appealed to me were those written by fellow drunks. Those written by non-addicts would always feel a bit dry or else it would feel like somebody was trying to sell me something and automatically make me suspicious of the value of their writings and their motivations for writing it.
The books written by fellow drunks would be full of the insanity which I was also dealing with and reading them would reassure me that somebody else understood. Hearing about their recoveries would lift my spirits and provide hope; I would devour this type of book. Probably the best book of this type is the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous which has helped so many. Unfortunately some zealot people have used this book as a bible, from which to preach from, and this has turned others off it.
I know that professionals in the recovery business have helped many but at the end of the day it is a business and from what I can tell a very profitable one. As I mentioned earlier it is very easy to get caught up in their revolving door policies. There are plenty of theories available about how to cure alcoholism but some of these have turned out to cause more damage than benefit.
I don’t think people who get addicted to alcohol or drugs tend to be very trusting people; they probably were at one stage but coping with an addiction changes things. When I was young I was very naive but years of alcohol abuse had made me very cynical of professional helpers. It would be very difficult for me to be open with them but somebody who was previously a drunk, but now recovered, could quickly win my trust.
The crowd around the new arrivals bed departed as soon as they were satisfied that he was safe to be left alone. They had sensibly turned him on his side and I was urged by the nurse in me to frequently peak over at him to make sure he wasn’t choking on his own vomit. He remained unconscious.
At one in the afternoon we all went for a communal sauna in a different part of the temple; outside the locked treatment area. We were escorted by about six monks and when we arrived at the first sauna we were divided into two groups; Thai and Farang. There were over thirty in the Thai group but only four westerners in our group. We were also later joined by two Thai women. I felt a bit sorry for the larger group as it looked like we were getting special treatment.
The Sauna was under the control of a tall African-American monk who apparently was an ex-GI who had been at the temple for years. He was very loud and very funny. The sauna was made of concrete and if I hadn’t know what it was beforehand I would have assumed it was a toilet. The sauna was heated from a fire at the back of the building.
We were directed to a large tank of cold water and followed the example of the two Thai women who were completely soaked through scooping it all over their bodies. The water was a welcome relief from Thai heat but it didn’t last long as we entered the cramped dark room that was the sauna. There were two benches on each side and another tank of water at the end of the room. There was a strong smell of what I assumed to be eucalyptus. We were separated from the outside by a curtain which was kept wet in order to trap the heat inside.
One of the monks had joined us and I made the mistake of commenting to him that it wasn’t that hot. He began scooping more water and the room was soon full of steam. We were only expected to stay in for ten minutes each time but it seemed like an eternity. Matt quickly escaped the room but I forced myself to stay.
Soon there was only myself and the monk left inside and I was convinced his colleague, who was meant to be checking the time, had forgotten about us; it now seemed a lot more than ten minutes. I commented in Thai to my companion but he just laughed, he looked like he could stay in there all day. At last I was relieved to hear somebody shouting ‘awk pai’ which means out. I burst out of the room and scooped some lovely cold water over myself.
We were allowed to take a break for a few minutes and then the whole process was repeated. We had three sessions inside the sauna that day and I felt really good afterwards. My body felt clean and I felt relaxed but really awake at the same time. We were taken back inside the locked area.
When we got back to the room the new arrival was thrashing around on his mattress and moaning in his sleep. A group of monks soon arrived having decided that this was the time to remove his vomit covered clothes and get him inside the red uniform. He was more alert now and didn’t seem too happy about being touched and began kicking out at the monks. He still hadn’t opened his eyes so I was sure he had no idea where he was or who was touching him.
The monks persisted and managed to get him down to his soiled underwear. It was at this stage that he opened his eyes and began screaming at the monks in a broad Welsh accent to ‘get the f**k away from me’. The two female western volunteers had now arrived and tried to explain to him that he had arrived safely at Wat Thamkrabok. He didn’t seem to comprehend this information as he continued to scream and kick out at the monks.
Matt, in the bed beside me, was loving the action and seemed to think the whole thing was hilarious. The monks were probably seeing the situation as less comical as some of the Welsh guy’s kicks and punches made contact with them. He had begun screaming that he wanted his stuff back and was accusing everyone of stealing his drugs. He didn’t look like he was going to calm down anytime soon, if anything he was getting worse.
He was now on his feet and consequently more of a danger to himself and everyone around him. The monks rushed him and managed to get him out of the room and into the swimming pool. Matt was now cheering the action and shouting out advice.
When I had arrived at the temple the day before I hadn’t even noticed the swimming pool, probably due to the fact that it was the strangest swimming pool I have ever seen. It was only about a meter and a half across and about ten meters long. On first sight the water looked very dirty and when Bill had jumped in it for a swim the day before I was surprised. I had a dip myself and found it wasn’t that bad at all. The water was up to about chin level and the water was cleaner then it had seemed from above. I noticed a filtering device at one end of the pool and this further reassured me.
The new guy was in the pool and surrounded by monks who weren’t going to let him out until he calmed down. He had stopped screaming but was still accusing people of stealing his stuff and occasionally making a swipe at a monk’s leg in an attempt to pull then into the pool.
After a few more minutes of this he seemed to accept the fact that the monks were trying to help him and they agreed to let him out of the pool if he agreed to stop attacking them. They helped him out of the pool but as soon as he returned to our room he became aggressive again and resumed screaming that he wanted his stuff. The monks eventually managed to restrain him and took him to a room across from our dormitory where he was locked in. He continued to scream for another half hour but was calm enough to be released soon after.
In the afternoon we needed to sweep the temple again. Myself and George were now the only foreigners helping out. Matt had again refused to leave his bed and Sharon hadn’t joined us either; maybe she didn’t know about it as she was in the women’s dormitory and nobody there could speak English. She had complained earlier that she was finding it difficult because of the language barrier between her and the Thai women. The monks didn’t seem too concerned about their absence.
I was a bit annoyed with Matt because he didn’t seem to be putting in, what I considered to be, the required effort. I judged him to be not taking things in the temple serious enough, and it was my opinion that if he didn’t change his ways quickly he would fail in his attempt to quit drugs. I knew that this was his business but it still bothered me because I could see that underneath his bullshit he was actually a decent guy. He was also from my home town and so he sort of felt like family.
If I looked deep at the reasons for my irritation with Matt it is obvious that the real problem was we had very similar personality flaws. His self-absorption and selfishness were so obvious to me because I had spent so much of my life being self-absorbed and selfish. When I noticed these faults in him it reminded me of what I am really like and this is far from the way I like to picture myself.
I have always viewed myself as a really nice guy who has had bad things happen to him over the years. I have no problem admitting that I have made many mistakes but can easily explain this away as a response to previous bad experiences or things beyond my control.
In this way of thinking my alcohol problem is not my fault because I am a victim of alcoholism and all the bad things that I do when drunk is due to this, so I shouldn’t really be held accountable. If I do something bad when sober I can blame this on poorly suited coping methods I learnt as a child.
If somebody doesn’t like me I can reassure myself that they haven’t really seen the real me. The problem with this type of thinking is that it means that nobody is really responsible for anything although I usually don’t to see it this way. In my world I make mistakes because of circumstances beyond my control but others do so because they are bad people. An ex-girlfriend summed it up beautifully when she said, “Paul, you expect so much from other people but so little from yourself”. She was absolutely correct but at the time I thought she was just someone else who misunderstood me.
I was twenty-two when I met Barbara in London bar, off Tottenham Court Road, where she was working as a part-time barmaid. At the time I was also working as a barman at a nearby pub called ‘The Marlborough’. I had spent that day on a pub-crawl from my favourite part of London at the time, Camden Town.
These solo pub-crawls were due to my belief that somewhere out there was the perfect bar and if I just found it everything would be just right in my life. This bar would be frequented by other fantastic customers with who I would bond with immediately and we would become life-long friends, and all these new friends would help sort my life out. They would see the locked talent within me and perhaps see that underneath I had the potential to be a rock star, or a movie star or even a novelist. This bar would be a mixture between the Sam Malone’s ‘Cheers’ bar and Santa’s magic grotto.
I know that this sort of thinking is completely ridiculous but I continued to look for this perfect bar right up until the time I entered Wat Thamkrabok. I never managed to find it and never even came close; it was just the alcoholic version of ‘the search for the holy grail’ although I would imagine that those searching for the grail got a lot more exercise.
It was about nine at night when I came to the bar where Barbara worked and I must have been very drunk, although I didn’t really feel it, because I had been drinking since midday. I was sitting at the bar and somehow managed to get into conversation with her. This was unusual for me because I normally kept quite due to shyness and the fact that when drunk I could easily upset strangers, so I had learnt to avoid contact. It was especially unusual because she was very attractive and I rarely make the first move in this type of situation. I somehow managed to get a date and we arranged to meet the next evening in another local bar.
At work the next day one of the other barmen, Geoff, was pleased for me but advised that I take it easy on the alcohol, on this first date, and avoid getting drunk. He had seen me in action when drunk before and realized that this wasn’t going to impress anyone. It was Geoff’s opinion that the reason I got so drunk was because I drank so fast and he suggested that I switch to an alcoholic drink which I didn’t like the taste of. Cider was the second drink I had gotten drunk on and it caused me to be violently sick at the time and I had avoided it since.
I was very nervous about meeting Barbara so had a couple of pints of cider before our date. I was quick to lose these nerves when she arrived not just because of the alcohol but also because she was so easy to be around. Barbara only worked as a barmaid part-time and was studying to be a chiropodist at the University of London the rest of the time. She lived in nearby student accommodation.
The idea that drinking cider would slow down my consumption rate turned out to be false. I was knocking them back but Barbara didn’t seem to mind. She wasn’t drinking as much as me but she had a few. She seemed to enjoy herself and must have seen something she liked in me because we ended up in bed together.
I went out with Barbara for about nine months and at the time was convinced I was in love. I would still look at other girls and wonder if I was missing something but this was normal for me and I had no intention of being unfaithful.
During our time together I was often critical of her student friends but this was more to do with jealousy than anything else. I envied their student life and I soon became aware that my life was going nowhere and I felt worthless in comparison to them. My answer to this was to be very arrogant around them; I was very good at looking down on people while lying in the gutter.
In the beginning she didn’t seem too bothered with my heavy drinking but as the months went by she became aware of just how serious my problem was. The final straw occurred on a trip to Liverpool to visit her family. I had literally just walked through the door of her families’ home and I was insisting she take me to the local pub. I saw nothing wrong with this at the time but her family was very shocked and her mother warned her of what she would be getting into by getting involved with a drunk. That weekend in Liverpool was enough to convince her that we had no future together.
Over the next couple of weeks Barbara pulled away from me but the harder she pulled away the more I tried to hold on to her. I had handed in my notice at the bar and was due to quit the next week. My accommodation came with the job so I needed to rent a new flat and I was hoping that we would now live together full-time. I had gotten a job in a supermarket on the night shift so that I could go to college during the day.
Barbara used the excuse of her exams to suggest we have a break from each other. I was completely devastated and used it as an excuse to hit the alcohol even harder. We weren’t allowed to drink behind the bar but I no longer cared, I was leaving anyway. During one of these drunken episodes I pretended to collapse behind the bar in order to get off work but I suppose the real reason was attention seeking. I secretly hoped Barbara would hear about it and come rushing to see me full of concern, but of course she didn’t.
The boss of the bar had reached his limit with me and made it quite clear his disappointed. He had asked me to reconsider leaving ‘The Marlborough’ but now thought it was for the best. He said he just couldn’t understand me; when I first began to work there I was like a ‘diamond’ but now my work had deteriorated to such an extent that I was a liability. It was obvious he wanted me to leave right away but he obviously felt sorry for me and allowed me to finish the week out.
A couple of days later I saw Barbara walk past ‘The Marlborough’ with some college friends. I ran out after her and she genuinely seemed shocked at the state I was in. She agreed to meet up with me for a chat a few days later. I was so relieved and became convinced that we would get back together.
Any hope of a reunion was destroyed that night. I would get a one hour break from the ‘The Marlborough’ in the evening and I would use this time to travel to another bar and knock back a few pints of larger. I had finished my break and was returning to work when I saw Barbara walking with another man who had his arms around her. I shouted out her name and she looked at me in surprise. I am sure she felt sorry for me but they just kept walking.
I can’t remember much of the rest of the night only that I drank myself into oblivion. I started knocking back beers as soon as I returned to the bar and soon entered blackout mode. I left the next morning for Ireland and gave up any ideas of starting a new job or moving into my new apartment. I lied to the landlord that a family member had just died so that he would quickly return my deposit.
I was angry at Barbara for quite a while after this and hated what I saw as her betrayal. When I left for Ireland I sort of expected her to plead with me to come back but I never saw her again. It took me a long while but eventually my anger wore off and I realized that she had really tried to make things work and it was me who kept letting her down.
Now I look back at my time with Barbara and feel immense gratitude because it was her that motivated me to return to education. Not long after returning to Ireland I began studying for my ‘A’ levels via distance education and this path led to seven years later entering City University to study nursing and later obtain my degree.
My lack of qualifications had been a big disappointment in my life as I was expelled from school without any significant exam results at sixteen. When I entered secondary school I was in the top stream but my parents went through a very messy separation and I reacted badly to this.
In a period of two years I went from top stream to being put in a non-academic class which concentrated on work skills. None of my family seemed too worried about this as they were too caught up in their own problems. In between I had changed school as I had moved to Cork to stay with my dad and his new girlfriend. My behaviour continued to deteriorate until I was finally expelled from school.
As I say, I could give you a convincing list of reasons why I’m so messed up but if I’m honest selfishness & self-absorption should be top of the list. I could see these defects in Matt and didn’t like being reminded of them.
DANNY GETS HIS MEDICINE
The noisy new neighbour was Danny from Cardiff and when I got back to the room he was busy chatting away with Matt. He looked more relaxed now but was still not happy with his predicament and was insisting that he be given his stuff and be allowed to leave the temple.
Wat Thamkrabok had sent a pick-up to collect him from the airport; which is situated about three hundred kilometres away in Bangkok. Two of the female volunteers were waiting, with a placard bearing his name, in arrivals at Don Muang airport. He told us that he had changed his mind at the last minute about coming straight to the temple and decided to spend the weekend getting wasted in Bangkok first instead.
He had drunk a bottle of vodka on the plane so was really in party mode. Unfortunately for Danny’s plans he made eye contact with the two volunteers waiting for him and, according to his version of things, they conned him into getting into the pick-up truck.
George had been through a similar experience but unlike Danny he had somehow evaded his greeters to spend the weekend drunk in a sordid area of the Thai capital called Patpong. I later humorously suggested that this proved that we alkies were far more cunning than our junkie counterparts.
Danny had finished another bottle of vodka on his way to the temple and this accounted for his state when he arrived. Surprisingly he had not come to the temple to get off alcohol but instead to quit heroin. He felt that alcohol was the least of his worries but I wasn’t convinced.
Danny was threatening to go on the rampage if the temple didn’t return his stuff and allow him to leave. At one stage he leapt out of the bed and kicked the door open and this annoyed me because he broke the mosquito frame. I was worried that Matt was making things worse by ridiculing him and accusing him of attention seeking; like he could he talk.
Matt grilled him about his heroin use and accused him of exaggerating the amounts he claimed to take and then proceeded to question his sexual orientation and made very derogatory remarks about the Welsh. Danny was no easy target and was throwing equally insulting comments at Matt. It was very juvenile but they actually both seemed to be enjoying the slagging and although what they were saying was fairly offensive stuff it wasn’t bothering anyone else.
When I was growing up in Dublin I was very familiar with this type of banter and would often use it among friends. Our way of showing affection was by saying disgusting things about the other’s mother or sisters. A favourite was to stick your middle finger in the air and invite your friend to smell his mother. It was very offensive stuff but we didn’t really know any better. It was a type of humour that I thought that I had left behind in my teens but this was the level of communication now between the two; but to Matt’s credit it was taking Danny’s mind off his lack of mood altering chemicals.
The time arrived for our evening vomiting session and when the monks arrived to escort Danny he surprised us by willingly coming along. I am not so sure that if he knew what he was getting into that it would have been so easy. Whatever buzz he was still getting off the alcohol would soon be removed as he vomited into a Wat Thamkrabok drain.
The action with Danny had kept my mind from thinking too much about the upcoming vomiting ceremony. I was actually more anxious about the whole thing this time as I now knew exactly what it involved. Danny was kneeling by the bucket next to mine and he was surrounded by three Thai monks, two farang monks and the two volunteers; they obviously weren’t taken any chances with him. The music started up, the clapping started, we knocked back the medicine and once again I was puking my guts up into a Wat Thamkrabok drain.
I had been told that the aim of the medicine was to reduce the time in withdrawal by quickly removing all the impurities from the body. I am not sure about the science behind this but I definitely had milder withdrawal symptoms after just one dose. I am convinced though that it has a lot more benefit than just reduced withdrawal symptoms and I feel that the ceremony itself was just as important as the medicine.
As I said before we drunks and druggies are often self-absorbed and selfish and generally lacking in any type of humility. This means that it can be hard for us to learn life’s lessons as we are not very teachable. In my view projectile vomiting in front of a group strangers is probably one of the most humbling experiences there is. When you are sick like this it makes you completely vulnerable to the world and this instils a willingness to learn and change.
Danny seemed to be following the yelled out instructions appropriately and was managing to get a lot more water into himself than I was. Like the previous day I was struggling to get it down because my stomach was cramping. I did the best that I could but escaped back to the dormitory yard as soon as I thought I would get away with it. I struggled to avoid vomiting as I made my way across the court yard to clean and tidy away my bucket.
The other vomiters soon joined me around our dormitory sewer. Danny was far from happy and in between pukes he demanded that we give him back his ‘f**king stuff and get him the f**k out of here’. In between vomits we tried to let him know that it wasn’t really up to us. I started to break into hysterical laughter as the ridiculousness of our situation hit me. As John Lennon famously said; ‘nobody told me there would be days like these…strange days indeed’.
WE WEREN’T PRISONERS
It wasn’t true to say that we were held prisoner in Wat Thamkrabok but it was true to say that the monks would use every trick in the book to keep us there. The monks knew that the first reaction many would have when the withdrawals began was to want to flee. As I mentioned before the majority of the monks were ex-addicts themselves so they knew what the deal was. They knew what we were going through because they had been through it themselves. They also knew how manipulative and devious we could be because they had been this way themselves.
The monks must have seen every type of crazy over the years and it is a credit to the temple that it still continues to help so many seemingly hopeless cases. I would say the majority of westerners who go through the temple have already been through some if not many treatment centres in their home countries and Wat Thamkrabok is often their last chance. The services of the temple are offered for free and the monks don’t get paid for their work. The temple offers help with no strings attached but for some even this isn’t enough.
Pete Doherty is a famous rock star and drug user in the UK and is credited for bringing Wat Thamkrabok to the British media’s attention. He stayed at the temple for three days before fleeing and according to press reports claimed to have been beaten with bamboo sticks and forced to drink the medicine that induces vomiting. I had never heard of him before staying at the temple and I still know very little about him but I think it is a shame that he has been so negative about the temple.
The failure of Pete Doherty to quit heroin should be seen as his failure and not the temples, at least that’s my view. I don’t think he gave it a fair go if he left after just three days; perhaps he was disappointed with the lack of five star accommodations and the fact that he wasn’t treated like a star. I can only speculate and maybe I’m wrong about him. It could easily be the media who have exaggerated everything he said.
I do know that it was very bad publicity for the temple and I can only hope that it hasn’t turned anyone off going there. It would be horrible to think that somebody lost the opportunity to get well because of the story of Pete Doherty’s brief stay there.
There was another source of embarrassment in the form of a popular magazine whose journalist pretended to be a patient in order to write a story about how he survived the ‘toughest treatment centre in the world’. The Thai’s are a very honourable people and so would not expect somebody to enter the temple in order to make a quick buck by making a joke of their hard work. This article full of photos has probably further damaged the temple’s reputation in the west.
Despite the betrayals and criticism, the temple continues to function and willingly offer help to those in need because they know their methods work. When somebody turns up at the temple with the intention of quitting everything that can be done will be done to help them achieve their goal.
The medicine had worn off and I had managed to eat something. Despite his complaints of unbearable withdrawal symptoms Danny had managed to eat a whole plate of ‘Khao Phad’ which is a Thai fried rice dish. Matt didn’t touch any food again and Sharon had managed to eat only a little.
Danny was continuing to argue with anyone who would listen that he needed his ‘stuff’ and wanted to leave the temple immediately. He even threatened to smash up the restaurant but only managed to half-heartedly throw an empty plate. One of the monks informed him that there was no way he could now leave as the office where his stuff was kept was now closed.
I also tried to explain to him that even if he did get his stuff where was he going to go? The temple is in the middle of nowhere with no public transport nearby and very little traffic. I doubt even in Thailand that anybody would stop to give a lift to a foreigner who was so obviously a junkie; especially when that person was hitching a lift outside a famous drug treatment centre.
The monks were wisely reacting to Danny’s pleas by either ignoring him or delaying him, something that I have found the Thais to be particularly good at. A monk would pass by and Danny would complain that he wanted to leave right away and needed his belongings. The monk would listen patiently until he had finished and then either walk off and ignore him or walk off with the promise to ask someone more senior but not return. This continued until about ten o’clock.
I remember from attempts to detox by myself the temporary relief that comes when you reach the point in the day when you know that even if you wanted to you now couldn’t get drunk. This often occurs when it is too late and all the bars and off-licenses are closed, you know that you have made it for that day. The hours of struggling to fight the urge to drink are over for a while and it is like a great weight has been lifted. I could see this happen to Danny. He suddenly realized that he wasn’t going to get anymore drugs that day and so he gave in. He decided to stay the night but he would definitely be leaving in the morning.
As I said we weren’t kept prisoner at the temple and if we really wanted we could leave at anytime. The gate at the entrance was locked but the wall was fairly easy to climb and the opposite end of the courtyard wasn’t fenced in. The reason most of us stayed was because or geographical position and the state of our lives meant we had nowhere else to go.
BUILDING SANDCASTLES AND KICKING THEM DOWN
When I got back to the room I saw that the two boys were in no mood for sleep, as they were both sitting up in their beds chatting and joking away together. I hadn’t slept hardly at all the night before, and felt a bit exhausted, but I realized there was no point in even trying to sleep until Matt and Danny had settled down a bit. I wasn’t in the mood for conversation so I took my book and went out to the back yard where the toilets and showers were.
On my way out I was cornered by George who was far from happy about the noise coming from our room and the fact that the light was still on after ten o’clock. I wasn’t really sure what he wanted me to do about it and suggested that he have a word with them himself. He didn’t seem willing to do this and seemed to think that because I also shared the room with them that I was somehow responsible. I agreed to have a word with them if it would keep the peace.
The temple had three dormitories; one for male Thais, one for male foreigners; and one female. Our male dormitory was divided into two; the smaller section was dedicated to us new admissions while the larger section was for those who had completed the five day course of vomiting. The sections were separated by a chalk-wall partition which didn’t reach the roof so wasn’t sound proof and the light from our room spilled into the next and visa versa. Now that Bill and Joseph had left George had the large room all to himself while myself Matt and Danny shared the smaller one.
I returned to our room and asked Matt and Danny if they would mind turning off the light and keeping the noise down as George was trying to sleep. The two of them immediately took umbrage accusing me of trying to take away the only distraction they had from their withdrawals. I pointed out that I was just passing on the message. Danny demonstrated his irritation by shouted out, ‘there is no f**king way I am putting the light out and going to sleep at ten o’clock and if that grumpy old f**ker doesn’t like it he can just go f**k himself’. Well I tried and if George wanted to complain again he could do it himself next time. I actually think that he should have kept his annoyance to himself because the complaint had made the two boys nosier if anything.
I did agree that George could be a bit of a grumpy old git though. He reminded me of what my future had in store if I continued to drink and it didn’t quickly kill me. I met many like him before and he was a product of the revolving-door policy of treatment centres in the UK. There are a whole group of men and women who spend their lives going from treatment centre to treatment centre with gaps in between in which they rebuild their lives only to return back to the sewer that is active alcoholism.
It seems to me that addicts and alcoholics love building sand castles and kicking them down again. What I mean by this is many will get periods where they can walk away from addiction and begin rebuilding their lives. During this sober time they are extremely productive and amaze people at the huge change in their whole persona. Many substance abusers have hidden or neglected talents which can now blossom. Their lives continue to get better and better as time passes, people now respect and admire them instead of pity and loathe them. They have regained their self-respect. Then it happens.
I call it the ‘f**k-it’ button. Life is great but there is a part of us that misses the excitement of living in despair. All the horror and desperation of being an active drunk suddenly doesn’t seem so bad. Rebuilding our lives was great and kept us active but what now? Our loved ones long ago stopped praising us for all the progress we have made and now take it for granted that we are sane productive humans. We look back at all our achievements and think how we would previously reward our successes with a few beers. We start to miss that reward.
An example of this phenomenon is American painter Jackson Pollock who managed to quit alcohol for two years and had the most productive period of his life. During this time he became famous and produced the art which was to ensure his place in history. He was praised by the media who made the bold claim that Jackson was the greatest American painter in history.
All this acclaim wasn’t enough for Jackson Pollock and after two years off alcohol he returned to the bottle and never managed another period of sustained sobriety after that. His art deteriorated, the fans turned to critics and his health deteriorated. In a few years he developed ascites but was spared the misery of death by liver failure when he died in a drunken car crash aged forty-four. A passenger in his car also died. There is an endless supply of stories like this.
Watching somebody close to you drink or use again, after a long period of sobriety, must be incredibly hard. It probably took a long time for trust to develop and now that trust is smashed and there is no logical explanation for it. Why would somebody choose to exchange a happy productive life for the life of a useless addict? I am not aware of any sane answer to this question and can only offer my theory that we enjoy building castles and kicking them down again.
Inside the mind of a relapsed addict is the conciliatory thought that they can always stop again when things get bad. They reason that if they did it before than of course they can do it again. This is the most dangerous delusion that an alcoholic can ever have because they have forgotten that conditions needed to be a certain way for them to be able to stop the last time. There is no guarantee that these conditions will ever arise again and for many they don’t.
It had taken me many years and many failed attempts to reach the gates of Wat Thamkrabok and when I arrived there I brought with me the willingness to do absolutely anything to quit alcohol. I had never been so desperate before and it was this that allowed the temple to work. I strongly believe that it was these two things together that made me recovery possible; the unique treatment offered by Wat Thamkrabok and my complete surrender to their program. The chance of these conditions arising for me again in this life must be exactly impossible.
While I was with the Alcoholic Recovery Project (ARP) in London I met many people, who like George, had been in and out of treatment facilities for thirty years or more. The ARP is a fantastic organization and I really hope that it is still up and running and I will always owe it a great debt. The problem though is that the ARP, and organizations like it, are open to abuse. They are offering services to master manipulators and people who know the system inside out and also know where the weak points lay.
ARP offers a full rehabilitation package or at least it did twelve years ago. The normal procedure was that you entered detox for a month after which you went to stay in a ‘dry house’ for a year. After the year you received a council flat, which are incredibly hard to come by in London. All this time you receive long-term sickness benefit and social welfare pays all your treatment costs. Many of us were also lucky enough to receive a transport pass which meant we could travel anywhere in London for free; the purpose of this was so that we could attend AA meetings. During the year we were financed to attend any courses we wanted and encouraged with any hobby we had an interest in. The only demands on us are that we remain sober and attend the in-house meetings and those in the ARP office.
This was a fantastic program because it allowed you to slowly rebuild your life and insured that everything was in place to make the whole process easy. There are enough success stories in my opinion to justify the expense of ARP and similar recovery programs.
As well as the success stories there were also those who abused the system. These were people who liked the idea of a council flat and saw it as an ideal way to get off the streets, save some money and dry out before the next round on the alcohol. They would sober up for the year, watch their health improve, save some money, get a council flat, return to drink, stop paying bills, end up back on the streets and then repeat the whole process. It was a very easy cycle to get caught up in.
The majority of relapsers didn’t intentionally set out to get locked in the ‘revolving door’ syndrome they just enjoyed building sand castles and kicking them down. Many were institutionalized and just couldn’t cope with life outside the treatment centres. Some like me just couldn’t cope with life being so good.
THE LONG NIGHT
I stayed out by the showers reading until near midnight before deciding to give up on my book. I was tired and also fed up with being constantly bitten by mosquitoes. On my way back to the room I noted that George was sitting up in his bed and staring at the partition wall, he seemed to be trying to mentally will Matt and Danny to shut up. I felt sorry for him because I could tell that he was a guy who liked things a certain way so this must be torture. The light was still on in our room and the two boys were just as lively as when I had left and they looked like they weren’t going to stop anytime soon.
My only knowledge of ‘cold turkey’ was what I have seen in the movies such as ‘Trainspotting’; although I have met a few recovering addicts in treatment. The picture that I had of the junkie detox process was, a sweating man, or woman, in obvious pain rolling around on a bed hallucinating and making the occasional delirious comment. I had not expected the people going through ‘cold turkey’ to be able to give a continuous running commentary on what they were experiencing and comparing it with the fellow in the bed across for them. I had always seen detox as a solo event and not a group activity.
I wanted to go to sleep but considering the reaction to my last attempt at quietening things down I decided to not say anything and just let them talk themselves out. They had been chatting away for a few hours now and I was fairly confident that they would soon lose steam.
I started reading my book again but after half an hour I was beginning to feel desperate for sleep. I tried to ignore the noise but I just couldn’t stop myself from listening to their conversation, not because it was interesting but because it was so loud. The strobe light above the bed was also beginning to make me feel a bit nauseous. I was beginning to get really irritated and so asked them if they would at least turn out the light. They reluctantly agreed.
I do enjoy sleeping but I don’t think that I am overly concerned with it. I have gone long periods without sleep without any noticeable problems, except perhaps for feeling a bit dopey. I also worked night shifts for a few years and can manage with just a few hours during the day. I have never bothered with lie-ins except for those occasions when I was to hung-over to get out of bed, but this was rare as I usually woke up early after heavy drinking so that I could continue drinking.
I have heard that sleep depravation can drive people insane and I would have no problem believing this. Sleep is not something that most people need to think too much about and we usually just take it for granted. It is only when we can’t sleep, or get enough sleep, that we really think about it and realize just how vital it is. We can then become obsessed by sleep and this can exacerbate the problem further. My mother has suffered with insomnia for years and I have seen how damaging a condition this can be to mental health.
It was obvious to me that both Matt and Danny were suffering from their withdrawals. Danny was not only in the temple to kick heroin but also methadone, which is apparently far harder to quit and has worse side effects. I was told that the temple advises people to get off methadone treatment before arriving at the temple. It was now day two for Matt and he was complaining of terrible cramps while Danny was still in the early stages of his withdrawals. In comparison to them my symptoms were very light and it had been the easiest detox I had ever gone through, at least so far. I realized that this talking together was probably helping to distract them a bit from their problems so decided to leave them to it.
I took my pillow and blanket and moved into the big room with George. I could still hear them talking but it was more bearable and I was beginning to think that I might get a few hours sleep after all. George wasn’t happy about me being there though as I hadn’t completed the five days on the medicine. He suggested that I go ask permission from the monks but I wasn’t going to wake them up at one in the morning. I returned back to the party room.
It was coming up to two in the morning and it seemed like Matt and Danny were beginning to settle a bit. The gaps between their comments were definitely getting longer. This reprieve was ruined however when Alex decided to drop in and pay them a visit. Apparently he couldn’t sleep either, due to jetlag, and had gone for a walk around the temple. He had heard the noise from our room and had decided to check in on us. The fact that he could so easily wander into our locked treatment area is further evidence against those who think that patients are kept at the temple against their will.
Alex was an ex-patient of Wat Thamkrabok who was doing really well. He had managed to get off heroin and had now been clean of all intoxicants for a couple of years. He was back in the temple because he had accompanied Matt and Sharon over from Dublin, where he was also from. He wanted to use the opportunity of this return visit to drink as much of the temple tea as possible as he believed it would help his hepatitis-B. He was a very interesting guy with and a good example of how to get off drugs. I had chatted to him a few times and he carried a good message. He was staying in a room in a different part of the temple as only patients were allowed in the treatment area.
My heart sank when Alex entered our room. To be fair he did try and converse in whispers but at this stage I was annoyed and this only further irritated me. I began to childishly give occasional ‘tuts’ and rustle my bed sheets but nobody seemed to notice. If I was more grown up I could have suggested to Alex that he and the boys conduct his impromptu teaching session somewhere else but I decided to suffer in silence instead; as somebody who had spent years of his life drunk I had become accustomed to playing the victim.
Alex stayed until well after three and the Danny and Matt continued to chat till daybreak. At about five in the morning I gave up all hope of getting any sleep as I now knew that even if I did nod off it would be fairly pointless as I needed to get up to sweep at six. It was at this stage that the two of them went to sleep.
I tried to avoid George as we both went out to sweep. I was sure that he saw me as partly responsible for the noise due to staying in the same room, guilt by association. As I began to sweep I was amazed to find that I didn’t really feel that tired and anyway it wasn’t like I had work to go to. The long night was over and I was beginning to feel positive again.
At breakfast time Sharon informed us that Phra Hans, the Swiss monk, was willing to provide meditation sessions if we were interested. I was delighted with this, as I had already decided that meditation was to be an important of my recovery. I had seen what a powerful tool meditation could be and was convinced that not only would it keep me away from alcohol but more importantly give my life meaning and purpose.
As I mentioned previously, I had first began meditating at about fourteen years of age whilst learning Kung Fu but the practice fell away as I stopped martial arts and began my drinking career.
In my teens I had some, what I consider now to be, strange ideas about meditation. I liked to completely stop all thinking as I believed the emptiness was exactly like death and that if I could do it often enough my fear of death would fall away. I also had the typical teenage fantasies of meditation giving me supernormal powers and I suppose I must have occasionally wished that I could use these powers to get lots of girlfriends. Importantly though it helped me cope in the early stages of my parents break-up but unfortunately as the marriage further fell apart so did my meditation practice.
During the sober times of the next seventeen years I would often return to meditation in one form or another. These periods of practice were too brief to provide much benefit but my belief in the potential of meditation never wavered. I also practiced Thai-Chi, a type of moving meditation, during the two sober years I had in London.
Two and a half years prior to my attending Wat Thamkrabok I had revived my interest in meditation by attending another temple, called Wat Rampoeng in Chiang Mai Thailand, for a twenty-six day meditation retreat. It had been my hope at the time that this retreat would cure me of my alcohol problem and I suppose it did; it just took a lot longer for it to work than what I had expected it to.
The meditation course at Wat Rampoeng was intensive and was based on the Mahasi technique of Mahasi Sayadaw, who was a Burmese monk. The meditation involves both sitting and walking practice and focuses on the four foundations of mindfulness. During sitting practice you use the rise and fall of the abdomen, as well as touch points around the body, as an anchor to which you return after acknowledging when the mind wanders. The walking meditation involves mentally noting the slow movements of the foot; rising, lifting, moving, lowering, touching and putting.
The meditation started off on day one with about six hours of alternating walking and sitting meditation and then built up from that. After the first few days this was increased to above ten hours and continued to increase most days after. All of us at the retreat were discouraged from talking and socializing and we were asked to remain mindful at all times; reading, watching TV and other forms of entertainment were not allowed. We had daily meetings each day with Ajahn Suphan where he would usually ask us to increase our meditation time or reduce our sleeping time. I would often turn up to these interviews convinced that my problems or progress would amaze the teacher but his response was always, ’this is normal’.
The day at Wat Rampoeng began at four in the morning when we began meditating in our kuti. The bell would ring at six for breakfast which would consist of alms food which had been donated by the local population. After this we would go back to tidy our huts and wash and then meditate till ten-thirty in the morning when we would have our last meal of the day. After this we would meditate for the rest of the day, in whatever part of the temple complex we desired, except for the short period when we needed to report to Ajahn Suphan.
I fell in love with the routine of the temple and all my worries and concerns disappeared as I focused on the practice. I was eager for the retreat to end but this was more to do with the fact that I wanted to see what the results of practicing so intensively would be like when I returned to the real world. I was eager to test whether or not my alcohol addiction had been cured. Near the end of the retreat I also began to fantasize about what food I was going to eat, what books I was going to read, what women I was going to meet, as well as what movies I would watch when it all finished.
At the end of the twenty-six day retreat at Wat Rampoeng is what is called a ‘determination’ which is a three day period where you are not meant to sleep or leave your kuti except for a half hour to report to Ajahn Suphan. The bed is removed from your hut and your meals are left outside your door. You are told not to bother even washing as your soul objective is to constantly meditate. When you leave the room for the brief meeting with the teacher you wear a sign around your neck so that nobody will be tempted to talk to you.
During the previous weeks I had looked at those undergoing the ‘determination’ with awe. They were only ever glimpsed briefly on their way to their daily interview where they were rushed straight through to Ajahn Suphan without needing to wait like the rest of us. I was excited when my turn came but also nervous about my ability to successfully complete it. I had heard that many failed to last the full three days but I was determined and I believed that this would cure my addiction.
The seventy-two hours flew by in a blur with the only thing to mark the time being morning meals and the afternoon chat with the Ajahn. I would like to say that I was having amazing insights during this marathon session but I wasn’t, it was just hour after hour of sitting and walking meditation, which at the time was all that mattered. I did have expectations of some great event upon completion but it was more subtle than I expected. Somewhere near the end of the ‘determination’ my perceptions changed and this lasted for a brief few days and during this time the world was a very different place.
I left Wat Rampoeng the day after completing the ‘determination’ and got the night bus to Bangkok and from there to Hua Hin, which is a beach side resort in the south of Thailand. For the whole of this twelve hour journey I looked at the world from a different perspective than what I had previously. The activities of the mind were more noticeable and less personal, they were just processes; I had been taking myself far too seriously.
I spent a day in Hua Hin enjoying my post-retreat buzz before deciding that I was now so well, spiritually speaking, that it would now be OK to treat myself to a few beers. I reasoned that it was important to test my full recovery by picking up the alcohol and being able to put it down. I ended up on a bender in Hua Hin which was made far worse by the knowledge of the clear mind I had stupidly thrown away.
Sharon and Danny arranged for Phra Hans to come and teach us beginners’ meditation. I arrogantly said that I didn’t need beginners’ meditation but would go along anyway. I was pleasantly surprised when Matt said he would also like to give it a try.
Phra Hans was one of many western monks who stayed at Wat Thamkrabok. They came from all over Europe and America, with many coming from England. The majority of foreign monks had only ordained for a short while; they had either finished their treatment and decided to stay on for a bit longer, or were ex-patients who returned to spend a few months in the brown robes, which were the type worn in the temple.
The foreign monks stayed in a different part of the temple but they would drop by to see us most days. They were very supportive and always willing to listen to our problems as well as share their own experience. Some weren’t particularly interested in Buddhism but had ordained out of gratitude to the temple and to strengthen their own sobriety. A few planned to stay in the robes for the remainder of their lives.
We would normally see a few of the western monks at breakfast time when they would bring us some leftovers from their daily meal. I liked the food in the restaurant but others seem to prefer what the monks would bring. They would sit down for a chat and inquire into how everyone was doing and they would pay particular attention to those who seemed to be struggling with their withdrawals or otherwise having a bad time. That morning they had spent a lot of time talking to Danny about his doubts in regard to remaining at the temple, they shared that they had their own misgivings when they first arrived but they stayed and it worked, they encouraged him to stick with it. One of them even gave him a loan of an MP3 player to help pass the time.
The foreign monks would also attend the medicine ceremony in the evening to offer their support. Some of these monks had only been clean for a few months but it was amazing to see how much they were willing to help their fellow drunks and junkies. They appeared far inwardly stronger than people I had previously met in early sobriety. Occasionally they would also turn up in the late evening if there was a good film on in the TV area at reception.
When the monks weren’t visiting us they were kept busy around the temple complex on one of the many projects which were in progress at the time. Unlike a lot of other temples I have visited in Thailand the monks at Wat Thamkrabok were involved in a lot of manual labour. There was a lot of new building work underway around the complex and they were also involved in making large sculptures, statues of the Lord Buddha, and even a yacht which had been made especially for the King of Thailand. There were also other projects involving music and all the monks were expected to attend evening chanting. With the exception of Phra Hans, nobody seemed very interested in meditation but I suppose their work with us and around the temple was their meditation.
The temple also had its own vegetable garden which was tended to by the Mae Chi, who are laywomen who have taken eight precepts, and this is the nearest thing in Thailand to a Buddhist nun. The Mae Chi wear white and like the monks shave their heads.
As far as I’m aware Phra Hans never had a drug or alcohol problem but was exceptionally good at winning the trust of us alkies and druggies. He had impressed me at our first meeting when I was being admitted to the temple and although my concentration hadn’t been that great at the time some of the things he said really touched me and made me rethink my views on certain issues.
The most significant thing I remember him saying was that he believed that substance abusers should look upon their former addiction as a tool which got us where we are today. This tool has already served its purpose so now is the time to put it down. He also shared his view that the reason people became addicted and stayed addicted was due to the fact that they had lost their purpose in life and the way to regain sobriety was to discover our purpose.
These explanations given by the Swiss monk made perfect sense to me and helped explain much of my experience with addiction. Addicts often describe a feeling of a ‘hole in their soul’ which they try to fill with chemicals. I had this feeling for years and it would become really noticeable when I was sober, the exception to this was my two years in AA and my time at Wat Rampoeng. The thing that both these occasions have in common is that on both occasions I was making a determined effort to improve my self and sincerely trying to follow a moral code. I am now sure that my purpose in life is to continue improving both morally and as a person and in my case I am convinced this involves following the path laid out by the Buddha. I am confident that I am on the correct path for me because that feeling of ‘a hole in the soul’ has gone away.
A life without some sort of purpose is not attractive enough to keep me sober for long. When I put down alcohol all the reasons why I picked up in the first place are still there so unless I can work to improve my ability to cope with them I’m going to be in trouble. In my view no development occurs during the years we abuse chemicals and this leaves us emotionally retarded. It is not all bad news though as my years of abusing alcoholism has given me a lot of insight into how craving works and it has provided direct evidence of the Buddhist idea of a non-personal mind causing havoc.
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
It wasn’t long after eleven in the morning and myself, Danny, and Matt were resting on our beds. I was really tired from the lack of sleep the night before and could feel myself drifting off. The two boys were quite for a change with Matt dozing and Danny listening to the MP3 player he borrowed. Our peace was disturbed by a commotion outside in the yard in front of our dorm.
They seemed to be setting up for a vomiting-show. This was a surprise as it wasn’t due for another six hours. I began to worry as I had just eaten my lunch and dreaded to think how this would affect my performance with the medicine, it was unpleasant enough even on an empty stomach. I was relieved when a monk came in and told us that this was a demonstration for some visitors to the temple and so we wouldn’t be expected to join in the puking. They would like it though if we would go out and support the demonstration.
The vomiters were people who had already finished the five day course of treatment but were willing to go through it again in aid of a good cause. The visitors were all wearing army uniforms and looked like new recruits. These novice soldiers would have been selected from the draft which takes place each year in Thailand. A Thai monk later told me that the purpose of their trip to Wat Thamkrabok was to show them what could happen if they got involved in drugs or indeed alcohol. We were used as examples of how bad their lives could become.
I must admit feeling a bit piqued about being identified so publicly as one of life’s losers and a part of me wanted to scream out that I’m not as bad as them lot, I’m different. This of course would have been a lie and ‘terminal uniqueness’ is another one of my character flaws. I often had similar thoughts during the two years that I had spent in Alcoholics Anonymous and it was these thoughts that led me out the door of their meetings and back to the bars.
I sat in many an AA meetings thinking, ‘I’m not as bad as this lot’ or my favourite, which was ‘I’m too young to be here’. The ‘I’m too young to be here’ thinking lasted from the age of twenty to well into my thirties when it was replaced by,’ I’ve wasted too much of life already and is there any point in even trying to change now’. This type of thinking was very close to my ‘if only they knew the real me they would see what a nice guy I am’ and was equally futile. I would sit in AA meeting after AA meeting thinking ‘I am here because of a misunderstanding but this lot are here because they are drunks’. Another member summed up my feelings at the time perfectly when he said; ‘some people are in AA for mass murder while others are only in for parking offences’. I am actually being a bit unfair to both myself and AA here as there were long periods where I did feel I belonged and this was when my sobriety really progressed.
I suppose this type of thinking is fairly common and most of us are the hero in the internal commentary of our lives. The most influential idea for me in Buddhism is annata or non-self and this is a perfect remedy for ‘terminal uniqueness’, I like the term ‘terminal uniqueness’ because believing this way can get us into a lot of trouble in life and easily hasten our death. When I start considering the possibility that maybe this whole ‘me, me, me’ thing is getting out of hand and start realizing that this over fixation on self is part of the problem, then progress can begin.
The Buddhist idea of non-self can be truly life altering. Before the Buddha became enlightened he is said to have turned inwardly through meditation in search of a self but no mater how hard he looked he was unable to find this ‘self’. He looked at each aspect of what makes up a person separately and was able to discount each one as containing anything resembling a self. He looked at the body but saw that he had no power over it as he couldn’t tell it not to get sick or die, so this couldn’t be self. He looked at feelings and saw that these too came and went without his permission so they weren’t self either. He examined thoughts, perceptions, consciousness and objects of the mind and saw that these too were not really under his control so couldn’t be called self. The Buddha ended his investigation when he realized that the reason why the self was so hard to find was because it wasn’t there. This was truly an earth shattering discovery.
I had been aware of this idea of non-self for years but only as an idea which I liked and that made sense to me. My attempts to use this knowledge in practice were very rare and so it didn’t stop me from being completely self-obsessed and it didn’t stop me getting drunk; although it did lead to occasional ‘dry spells’. My favourite pastime in the last few years of my drinking was devouring a Buddhist book while at the same time devouring bottle after bottle of beer Singha, a local Thai brew.
For the idea of non-self to have any value it needs to be really seen and applied to how we view things. It is when we over identify with our ideas, feelings, cravings that the problems really start. I can easily remember the many afternoons I spent trying to stay off the alcohol. The idea would appear in my mind that a beer would make me feel better or a beer would soon get rid of these withdrawal symptoms. If I looked at these ideas as being me I would quickly be desperate and no doubt off to the shops to get some bottles. On the rare occasions when I didn’t do this, but instead just looked at these ideas as just something passing through my head which weren’t mine, I was able to easily beat the urge to get drunk.
When cravings are viewed as just passing states of mind which don’t belong to anyone they become much easier to manage. In meditation I was able to see that thoughts, feelings, perceptions and mental states were constantly changing and when noted quickly passed. It would appear to me when desperate for alcohol that this was all there was but that view was wrong. The idea of wanting to drink would often appear but only seemed to last such a long time because the mind was obsessing about it. I would be having millions of thoughts, ideas and perceptions but the ones about alcohol would stand out because I was attaching to them.
This idea of non-self not only solves the problem of alcohol addiction but also gets completely rid of the selfishness and self-absorption that led to becoming an addict in the first place. Many addicts, including myself, will talk about turning to their favourite drug because they couldn’t cope with their feelings. These feelings are easily coped with when they are viewed correctly as things which aren’t us and that will soon pass. Even physical pain can be dealt with when it is viewed as just phenomena and not taken too personally. At least that is my understanding.
The vomiting ceremony began in the yard in front of our dorm and we westerners joined our fellow Thai addicts in demonstrating to a group of young Thais the dangers involved in following the same path as we did and where it could easily lead them. The music started up, the vomiting began and the feeling of ‘terminal uniqueness’ left me as I realized that I was exactly where I belonged and where I needed to be. Instead of shame I felt pride in the fact that we were changing our lives for the better and we were part of the success story that was Wat Thamkrabok.
It turned out that these extra vomiting shows, provided for the public to see, were quite common and there were visiting tours most days at the temple. I never saw any farang take part in the actual puking but then again the Thais were far better at it and could really project their vomit. We westerners would always attend though to show our solidarity.
Phra Hans arrived in the afternoon to give us an introduction to meditation. The session took place in a small room across from our dorm in the Thai men’s section. There was a small raised platform where the Swiss monk sat and there was a statue of the Lord Buddha behind him and a small altar where candles and incense sticks could be left. We were provided with some cushions to sit on and each of us arranged ourselves in a position which was most comfortable to us. I wanted to show-off so I tried to sit in a full-lotus position.
Phra Hans began to speak and I was once again impressed by the calmness that seemed to radiate out of him. His English was perfect but he was very soft spoken so it was necessary to pay close attention him if you wanted to follow what he was saying. He also spoke very slowly, without it seeming unnatural, and it was obvious that his words were well thought out.
He began by explaining the meaning behind the offering of the three incense sticks and the three bows that Buddhists normally make in respect to the; Buddha, the teachings and, the community of monks. He then went on to explain the significance of the lotus flower which was born in the depths of darkness but as it grew it reached the surface of pond and later was able to rise above the pond altogether and open to the light. He then went on to demonstrate a simple form of meditation which focused on the breath. I decided to use the technique which I had been shown at Wat Rampoeng as I was reluctant about swapping and changing methods.
This reluctance about trying different methods of meditation was not because I believed that the method I had learned was any way superior to any other form, but more to do with the fact that I wanted to progress and felt that the only way to do this was to select one method and stick with it. I wanted to give the Mahasi technique a proper try as I already had some modest success with it.
After leaving Wat Rampoeng I had ended up partying very hard in Hua Hin and consequently lost the concentration which had built up from the meditation retreat. I saw this as a temporary condition and told myself that once the alcoholic bender was over I would return to intensive practice and likely return to Wat Rampoeng for another retreat. I was planning on ordaining as a monk and this drunken partying was going to be my farewell bash. I also planned to get any sexual desire out of my system while I was at it and what better place than Hua Hin Thailand.
This farewell party lasted over a month in Hua Hin. I met another Irish guy called Gerry who accompanied me for a lot of this drunken time. He was a good guy and although a heavy drinker you could tell that he could stay away from it when he needed to. He was drinking so much because he was on holiday but I was drinking so much because it was my normal routine. I rented a motorbike for the time I was there and although I would often ride it in ‘blackout’ I somehow managed not to kill myself.
During my time in Hua Hin I would also regularly pay for the company of women. It is not something I am particularly proud of and not something that I would have even considered when I first came to Thailand. I thought the whole thing was very sordid and desperate when I first encountered it but after spending some time in Thailand it began to seem normal and something that everyone here did. I began to see it as no different than some of the women who I had gone out on dates with back in Europe who expected me to pay for their beer. It didn’t seem particular immoral but it continued to feel a bit desperate.
During this time I managed a couple of visits to a local temple and had a chance to speak with some of the monks. I don’t know what they made of me as I would turn up to meditate half drunk and accompanied by a bar-girl. One of the monks demonstrated the dynamic meditation technique of Luangpor Teean but I didn’t pay much attention to him as it seemed a bit strange to me at the time. I later became very interested in Luangpor Teean and now see that this was a missed opportunity to learn from one of his followers.
The party in Hua Hin ended on St Patrick’s Day in a local bar which was run by a fellow Dubliner. I’m not normally very patriotic and tend to critical of those who live abroad but insist on broadcasting their nationality. When drink is involved though I am easily led and soon found myself swept up in the whole thing. I began drinking at about eleven in the morning and kept at it till late the night. I ended up talking loads of nonsense and boring everyone to death and in the end it was obvious that everyone had enough of me and thought I was an idiot; even my drinking buddy Gerry had tired of me. I decided to go back to Chiang Mai the next day and to go back on retreat in Wat Rampoeng.
I did make it back to Chiang Mai but instead of going to stay in the temple I continued to drink for a few more weeks but at a less hectic pace then in Hua Hin. I went on a visa run to Mae Sot and on the way back stopped in Chiang Rai and I was able to stop drinking for ten days and during this period was able to meditate for a few hours each day in my hotel room. It had a pleasant time there away from the alcohol.
I then hit the booze again and continued moving from place to place. I went to Phitsanulok for the first time, and this later became my home. I spent the Thai New Year in Bangkok and then moved on to Kanchanaburi and finally arrived back in Chiang Mai to make another attempt to enter the temple. I managed to stop drinking and it was during this ‘dry spell’ that I met Oa who is now my wife; as I said before amazing things happen in my life when I put down the beer.
The meditation session with the Swiss monk lasted about twenty minutes. It was relaxing but I was tired, my concentration was poor and my thoughts kept drifting into speculations about how Danny, Matt, and Sharon were experiencing the whole thing. Matt seemed to be having problems getting into a comfortable position and Danny seemed to have nodded off. Afterwards we all agreed that it was beneficial and asked if he would mind coming again if he had free time. He also agreed to have a private chat with me about problems I had been experiencing in my meditation practice.
AA AND THE ‘DISEASE MODEL OF ADDICTION’
My reason for wanting to talk privately with Phra Hans was that I had experienced strange phenomena during my meditation practice, which I needed advice about, but didn’t want to talk about in front of the others. I also wanted his opinion on how to make my meditation as effective as possible during my life away from alcohol. I had no plans to attend any sort of support group after my departure from Wat Thamkrabok. When I left the temple I not only intended to live alcohol behind but also alcoholism.
There are many who would scoff at such an idea and would insist that once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. They would claim that while somebody, with a history of alcoholism, may stay away from alcohol for the rest of there lives they are never cured of the condition. It is even argued that when the alcoholic is in recovery the disease continues to advance and if that person were to drink again they would have far worse problems then they did prior to putting it down.
This ‘disease model of addiction’ has widespread support and is closely linked with Alcoholics Anonymous. It is based on the premise that alcoholism is a chronic disease which can’t be cured but only held in remission. Sufferers of this disease are seen as having an allergic reaction to alcohol which causes them to become addicted to it. This disease is seen as occurring through no fault of the sufferer and he is no more responsible for his condition than a oncology patient is for their cancer.
This model of addiction is held firmly by many recovering alcoholics who believe that they have a daily remission from the disease dependent on their following the program set out by AA. This program is comprised of the twelve steps which offer a spiritual solution to alcoholism and has successfully worked for many people; not only helping them stay off alcohol but also helping them become morally and spiritually far better and happier people.
I had witnessed first hand the effectiveness of the twelve steps and many of them are consistent with my Buddhist beliefs. The Christian roots of AA are easy to see when you read the ‘Big Book’ or look at the twelve steps and there is a lot of talk of God, but the option to just view God as any power greater than yourselves is made clear from the first meeting. Some people see the ‘power of the group’ as their higher power and AA doesn’t exclude people who don’t believe in god. There are Buddhists in AA and they seem to have no problem practicing the program even with its emphasis on God, but I suppose it would be perfectly suitable to see karma as your higher power.
I have no problem with the spiritual program of AA and to be honest would have difficulty faulting it. My path away from addiction is also spiritually based and it too necessitates my living a moral life. My path separates from AA in that I do not see myself as having a chronic disease which could return any day if I am not careful. I agree that I must avoid alcohol, and indeed all intoxicants, for the rest of my life but don’t believe that this is due to my being allergic to it. I believe that alcoholism was a symptom of my living a life for which I saw no value or purpose. I was walking on a wrong path and the further along this path I walked the more pain I felt.
It may sound like I’m being pedantic, any why should it matter if it is a disease or isn’t one as long as I don’t drink. The problem for me is that I have already spent a very large part of my life focused on my alcohol problem and have used the idea of having an incurable disease to justify unjustifiable behaviour and as an excuse to return to alcohol. My favourite excuse has always been, ‘of course I’m drunk, I’m an alcoholic’. I am convinced that the disease model can have a ‘paradoxical effect’ and in some cases making somebody’s alcohol problem deteriorate even further; instead of it being a reason not to drink, it can be used for an excuse to drink. As I said, this is not true for everyone and for many the disease model works beautifully.
During my mid-twenties, when I was sober in AA for two years, I was convinced of the disease model. I lived in fear of picking up alcohol again and felt certain that the only hope I had was frequent attendance at AA meetings, usually at least one a day. I believed that it really was ‘one day at a time’ and my sobriety could be snatched away from me at any second. I really felt like a sufferer of a chronic condition and it sometimes felt that I should be walking around in pyjamas.
During this time I believed that I belonged to this special group, known as alcoholics, who were completely separate from everyone else. Every fault, mistake, and difficulty in life could be easily explained away by my alcoholism. When I shared at meetings there were plenty of people to reassure me that all was due to my being an alcoholic. I remember feeling very distant from non-alcoholics because I was sure they couldn’t possibly understand me. When they discussed worries and concerns that were similar to my mine I would be briefly confused but then quickly dismiss them as not the same as my alcoholic worries and concerns.
My arrogance continued to reign supreme and I was convinced that any alcoholic who didn’t attend AA was doomed to a nasty alcoholic death, and there were plenty of other members to support me in this view. I became very evangelistic and felt that now that I had the answer I should save those who didn’t. I didn’t just reserve my judgments for those not attending AA but also those members who I felt weren’t following the program properly. I began to admire those whose response to every question was to quote the ‘Big Book’ of AA.
I had always been told that, ‘meeting makers make it’ but despite almost daily attendance I drank again after two years. Many of those who I judged not practicing the program properly or doomed to failure because they weren’t in AA remained sober while I returned to my alcoholic sewer. I reasoned that ‘of course I’m drunk, that’s what the disease does, and relapse is a normal part of recovery. Many of the friends I had made during the previous years were completely stunned when I told them that I had drank again but we all agreed that you never know with this disease.
My love of AA remains but our paths have diverged. I realized that treating my alcohol problem as a disease was now part of the problem, at least in my case. Buddhism had taught me that all conditioned phenomena were impermanent and not self so how could I be suffering from a permanent condition called alcoholism. Alcoholism had been a very important part of my life and it had taught me a lot but when my time was finished at Wat Thamkrabok I was determined that part of my life would also be finished. As Phra Hans mentioned, it had served its purpose.
I explained my plans, in regard to using meditation as my main support in my sober life, to Phra Hans as we sat outside the temple restaurant. He listened attentively and seemed very approving of my idea. We talked about my belief that the purpose in my life was to improve as a person using Buddhism as my guide. I explained some difficulties I had been having in meditation, and like Phra Ajahn Suphan before him, he reassured me that this was normal and to just observe without becoming attached to anything that occurs during meditation.
Later on that third day we were joined by two new fresh admissions, another married couple but this time from Germany. Oscar and Raphael were both alcoholics who had been competitively trying to drink each other into the grave. I had been asleep on my bed when Oscar had arrived in our room and he had already set up shop in the bed on the other side of Matt by the time I was awake. Oscar looked to be in his mid forties with a shaved head and at first glance he looked like a bit of a football hooligan.
Neither of the boys seemed to be paying too much attention to the new guy so I shouted over a hello. He replied with what sounded like a grunt and got up off his bed and left the room. When he was out of ear-shoot I asked Matt and Danny what his story was. They said that he was German and couldn’t speak any English and Matt also added that he had arrived with his wife who was a real stunner.
I sat on the bed chatting with Matt and Danny for a while and we had a good laugh about our experiences in the temple so far. My anger with them for the previous sleepless night was forgotten and I could see that they were actual fun to be around. Matt was still critical of everything but he was now being humorous about the whole thing and I could tell that he didn’t really mean half the things he was saying. He was looking a lot healthier than when he first arrived and was complaining less about his withdrawal symptoms.
Danny had forgotten about his planned last party with drugs and alcohol and had decided to make the temple work for him instead. This was his first real day in withdrawals and it was obvious that what he was going through wasn’t very nice. His skin was very pale and clammy and like Matt his major problem seemed to be cramps. Methadone is regarded as a very hard drug to come off but he seemed to be dealing with it very well. Danny enjoyed discussing his exploits the day before and also seems to enjoy the celebrity he had now earned among the monks who would joke with him about it every time they saw him. It was obvious that the Thai inmates also saw him as a bit of a character as well.
It was getting near time for the medicine show so when Oscar returned to the room I tried to advise him on how best to prepare himself. He did speak some English but it was obviously limited and he was likely struggling to understand me as I tend to speak fast and have an Irish accent. He didn’t seem eager to hear any advice but I wasn’t sure if this was because of his level of English, my rapid accent, shyness or just not wanting to communicate with me. I made sure that he had some bottles of water for after the medicine and showed him the where his sarong was and indicated that he was expected to wear it. It also turned out that Phra Hans had already provided much of this information in German.
This was to be my third dose of the medicine and I was less apprehensive about the whole thing than previously. I wasn’t looking forward to it, but knew that after this next dose I would be over the half way point. I was beginning to feel like an old pro, at the medicine game, and this likely explains my eagerness to coach Oscar through the whole thing.
I often think that it can be quite humorous the way our minds work when we stay in a controlled environment such as Wat Thamkrabok. We quickly fit ourselves into the system around us and start to feel we own it. I remember my prior stay at Wat Rampoeng and how it quickly began to feel like ‘my world’. I began that meditation retreat with a group of about twenty people who I quickly began to see as my cohort. As per the temple rules we didn’t really speak to each other and only occasionally bumped into each other at meal times and afternoon meetings with the Ajahn but still they felt like we were connected somehow.
Unlike me, the rest of my Wat Rampoeng cohorts were only staying for ten days. I remember on the day they left really feeling lonely and it felt like they were deserting me. It was comical really, here were this group of people who I had hardly spoken to but because they arrived at the temple the same time as me I felt especially connected to them.
That afternoon a whole new bunch a people arrived and in my mind this lot earned the title ‘newbie’ and all that this entails. They weren’t like the old lot, who were my companions in the search for truth, but more like invaders of my space. I had been there a week and a half and it felt like I was now a long-timer. Everything that this new group did irritated me because in my mind the old group did things far better. I was horrified their first morning when I entered the canteen and saw a group sitting where I normally sit. The serenity of my hours and hours of meditation was temporarily put on hold as I considered ripping this persons head off for sitting in my spot.
A similar thing was happening at Wat Rampoeng. I had now been at the temple for three days and felt that I was an old-timer along with Matt, Sharon, George, and despite only being there just over a day, Danny. Oscar and Raphael were the newbies and until I knew them better would be viewed as outsiders.
I found the third puke session to be the easier than the other two. I still ended up in a lot of pain with vomit running out my nose and wasn’t able to drink nearly enough water. I knew though that the unpleasantness would only last about an hour and I was fairly confident at this stage that it wasn’t going to kill me.
Oscar and his wife Raphael didn’t react to well to their first dose of the medicine. I don’t think they realized just how much it would make them vomit and Raphael in particular seemed very upset by the experience. Oscar later told me that he had heard about the temple from the internet and as I found out myself reading about Wat Thamkrabok and actually experiencing it were two very different things.
Later Oscar joined myself, Matt and Danny around our sewage pit in the back of the dorms and we initiated him in the art of communal projectile vomiting. He now seemed more open to advice and I believe he would have done anything we suggested if it would stop the vomiting. He was now one of the gang.
After the vomiting stopped, we all went to the restaurant and I learnt a bit more about Oscar and his wife. They hadn’t been married long and he was a bit older than her. He had quite a high-powered job in the media in Germany and didn’t feel like he had a drink problem until he got together with Raphael. She had taken to spending the day drunk on vodka in his apartment, afraid to go out, and he had begun to join her. He was at Wat Thamkrabok for his wife and she was there to save her marriage.
SHIT ON MY FUR
Oscar and Raphael didn’t sit with us for long before moving to their own table. Danny had been chatting away with Raphael and this seemed to bother Oscar as he continuously kept looking over at them distractedly and wasn’t really following the conversation with the rest of us. I suppose that another reason for moving was that they both were finding it hard to keep up with conversation in English. I know that I prefer to speak in my own native tongue when I’m ill or overwhelmed by circumstances.
Sitting around the table with my new friends I suddenly realized that for the first time in ages I was just happy to sit there and enjoy things as they were. This was a rare experience for me as I usually couldn’t relax because I always thought that I should be doing something else. When I drank this restlessness would be accompanied by a voice inside my head which would drag me from bar to bar or even town to town. I would be drinking in one bar and the thought would come this would be more fun if I was in another bar with music. I would go to a bar with music and I’d want to be drinking at home with the TV. I would be drinking at home in front of the TV and I’d want to be drinking in a quite bar reading a book.
This restlessness didn’t stop during my sober times but instead would feel more intense. I would be sitting at home surfing on the internet and I will be thinking that I should be practicing my Thai, I would begin looking through some Thai books and a voice inside will tell me that I really should be meditating, I go to meditate and the same voice would tell me that I should be sending emails. The most constant restless thought though would be that I should be drinking; it never seemed to stop.
I remember hearing the story of how this restless mind was similar to the wild dogs you often see in Thai temples. Many unwanted dogs and other stray animals end up in Buddhist temples because it is known that they will be fed by the monks. The fact that these animals have been neglected prior to their arrival at the temple means that many of them have fleas. It is common to see these dogs who are lying relaxed in the heat begin to scratch, they react to this by moving to a different area of the temple where they again lie down for a minute or two before scratching themselves and feeling the need to move again. They continue to do this all day, every day. The never realize that the problem isn’t where they are but the fact that they have fleas. There is also another very similar story but instead of moving because of fleas on their fur they move because of the smell of shit off their fur, this is the version I prefer.
This restlessness seems to be always accompanied by an internal monologue that begins every sentence with the words; ‘I should’. I should be doing this, I should be doing that, I should be doing anything but what I am doing now. In meditation I try to observe this ‘monkey mind’ but it can be very difficult to stop from getting caught up in it. This restless mind is a mind out of control and for me it seems to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks not only in my meditation practice but also in life in general.
I know from speaking to others that this restless mind isn’t a condition that I alone suffer from; it is not even a condition unique to alcoholics and addicts. It seems that many people from all walks of life suffer from this in various degrees. I do tend to think however that druggies and alkies suffer from it more than most.
This restless mind seems to serve no useful purpose that I can see and the only function I can ascribe to it is to make life miserable. If it was just the case that this voice only act as a motivator for doing something constructive then I wouldn’t see a problem with it, but that is not the case, at least not with me anyway. In my case this voice tells me that no mater what I’m doing that I should be doing something else.
The most relaxing situation I can think would be lying in a hammock reading a good book near the beach with nobody else around, no work to go to, and no worries about friends or families, and no financial concerns. It really is a relaxing picture but I know that that despite these favourable conditions my mind would be looking for things to make it better because nothing is ever good enough for it. The voice inside my head would also soon begin to say that you can’t be doing this because you should be doing that.
I know that the Buddha had the perfect solution for dealing with this voice and it involved not being fooled into thinking that this voice belonged to a self. When I can see that it is my mind that is restless and not me then it becomes manageable. It becomes easy and when the restless voice begins it is easy to just say ‘ah, it’s you again, what do you have to say?’ This is usually enough for the restlessness to disappear or to at least become bearable. The problem is remembering this and when I am caught up in this restlessness it is usually too late to stand back and be objective. My ability to stand back and see these thoughts as non-self seems to be very tied in with my levels of concentration developed through meditation.
Another set of conditions that is also excellent at keeping the ‘I should’ at bay is when I am making an extra effort to improve morally and spiritually or when I am thinking about or trying to help somebody else. In both these cases the focus has moved away from selfishness and self-absorption and maybe this is all the restlessness really is.
In Buddhism they talk about ‘tanha’ which is generally defined as craving and I think that this is what the restless, ‘I should’ mind really is. This craving can’t ever be satisfied by feeding it and this will likely make things worse. This is probably what really happens with us alcoholics and addicts, we feed the demon tanha but instead of satisfying its hunger we just increase its appetite. The solution then would seem to be to not feed it and stop believing that when the demon tanha speaks that it is us that is speaking. If we live in fear of tanha or even hate it then this too will give it power. The only solution seems to be that we see tanha for what it is and when it comes just observe it, aware that it is an impermanent condition and not a self.
As I sat with my friends that evening my restlessness had disappeared because for that short while I wasn’t struggling to satisfy the insatiable needs of a phantom I had been fooled into believing was me. I was now on a path that I was intended to travel and was leading me away from selfishness and obsession with me, me, me. I knew that I had a very long road ahead of me but it was nice to just bask in the knowledge that I was now finally heading in the right direction. As I looked around the table I felt a great deal of warmth towards everyone and felt good because they too were sharing my path.
JOY ON A BUS TO LEWISHAM
The settled and happy feelings continued for the rest of that evening. I joined everyone else when they went to the TV area but I didn’t really take in much of the movie and I was happy to just sit there enjoying the silent company of others. I remained there for about an hour but the plastic chair began to feel comfortable so I bought some snacks from the small shop near reception and sat out to read in the shower area at the back of our dorm. I marvelled at the fact that I was so content considering that only three days previously my life had been such a complete painful mess.
The most amazing and unexpected experience in my life thus far occurred on a red double-decker bus in London while travelling from Bromley to Lewisham. I had been sober about seven weeks at the time and had been living in a ‘dry-house’ in Catford for a week less than that. It would have been around august 1996.
The ‘dry house’ was run by the Alcoholic Recovery Project (ARP) and we needed to take part in their recovery program in other to stay there. The house we stayed in was in a respectable area and there was no evidence that it was anything other than a normal suburban home. This anonymity was very much part of the ARP ethos and even the offices we attended for meetings were without signs to identify their purpose.
This house in Catford was shared with five other guys who were also recovering from the affects of long-term alcohol abuse. Unlike me, all the rest of them had gone through a month in detox before being accepted to the house. When I first got in contact with ARP there had been no detox place available and I just attended their office daily and spent the rest of the day attending AA meetings. When they saw that I had gone a week and through the worst of the withdrawals they decided that I could skip detox and enter straight away into one of their dry houses; of which they had many scattered around London.
When I first moved into the house in Catford I was blown away by its neatness and cleanliness. My home back in Ireland was also in a nice neighbourhood and my mum always kept it clean but since leaving home eight years earlier I had been living in much poorer conditions. For the majority of that time I had lived in bar accommodation which usually involved a room to sleep and shared toilet and bathroom. Prior to my move into the ARP house I was living in a bed-sit on the Old Kent Road above a Laundromat. This was the poorest place of the lot and was full of cockroaches.
During the week before my move to Catford I would spend as little time in the bed-sit as possible. When I did need to be there at night I would be extremely anxious and unsettled due to rats and cockroaches everywhere. I was never sure how many were real and how many were due to withdrawals. I would turn on the gas to make some tea and the kettle would be covered in cockroaches. When I left there I lost the majority of my belongings as I just couldn’t face returning there.
The ARP house provided us with a structured life but it also allowed us a lot of freedom within that structure. This was important as the majority of people had come straight from living on the streets. There were rules and the most important one was no alcohol, there were people who broke this rule but they were almost instantly evicted. We all had rotating duties for work around the house and there would be big trouble at house meetings if somebody wasn’t pulling their weight. We were almost all on long-term sickness benefit which meant that we were given time to recover from our health and decide what we wanted to do with our lives.
We were expected to attend our local ARP office at least twice a week for meetings and interviews with our key-worker. During weekdays we would have daily house meetings and group therapy sessions facilitated by our house counsellor and she would also conduct in-house progress interviews. During the rest of the time we were encouraged to become involved in voluntary work, attend courses and other healthy pursuits. I would also attend daily AA meetings, usually two a day and sometimes three. AA recommends ninety meetings in ninety days but I wasn’t taking any chances and probably nearly doubled that amount.
The AA meetings were like my new bars and I travelled all over London to go to them. There were hundreds of meetings everyday, with new ones opening up all the time, so I never had a problem finding something new. There were meetings in rich areas and poor areas, there were meetings full of mostly young people and mostly old people, there were meetings full of the homeless and meetings with celebrities. I loved them all. For the first time in my life I felt I belonged somewhere and didn’t feel inferior to everyone else. I was trying to put right the mess my life had become and could now look people in the eye.
The way I was feeling that day on the bus to Lewisham was very similar to how I was feeling that evening at Wat Thamkrabok. My life was going forward in the right direction and I was doing my best to follow a program of morality and spirituality which was leading me away from my obsession with self. I was completely comfortable with myself and my surroundings and for a brief while I didn’t need to change anything. I was happy just sitting on the top floor of the double-decker bus staring out the window.
What happened next is difficult to put into words but I’ll try my best. I suddenly felt a shift in perception and the world was suddenly full of light. I suddenly knew with complete certainty that everything in the world was exactly as it was meant to be and I had no need to fear anything. I was a small part of something much bigger and my worries and concerns were insignificant and pointless. This was something outside of me that made the idea of me nonsense. The nearest example to this shift in perception I have experienced is when tripping on drugs but this experience was a completely different league.
I have never been very interested in hallucinogenic because I trip very easily and the loss of control terrifies me. This experience was not frightening in any way but instead it was warm and safe. I have no idea how long this lasted and at the time it didn’t mater. For days after I walked around in the afterglow of this experience and I can still feel the ripples today.
I could spend a lot of time speculating about the causes of this experience but the one thing I do know is that I can’t force it to reoccur. I have felt very close to it in meditation but always seem to stop just before reaching it. I guess it can’t be forced to happen and seeking for it can push it away. Maybe it was a once in a lifetime experience and maybe experiencing it again would serve no purpose. The fact is though that this event changed my life and although I have made many mistakes since then, and completely lost my way, it did act as a lighthouse to lead me to Wat Thamkrabok. It has also filled me with certainty that there is a purpose in trying to be honest and selfless.
I didn’t experience such an intense feeling of joy that night at Wat Thamkrabok but I wasn’t aiming to. I was completely satisfied to be just sitting there reading my book and eating my snack.
OUR THAI FRIENDS
The next morning myself and George were joined by the rest of the foreign in-mates in the morning sweep around the temple grounds. I had been nagging Danny and Matt to participate, as I was sure the monks were getting fed up with them and were about to say something, but I hadn’t really been expecting this to have much effect so I was pleasantly surprised that they were awake and ready to go. I don’t really know why their non-participation bothered me so much, a part of it was that I taught it reflected badly on the rest of us westerners, another reason was that I thought it was an important part of the treatment program, but I suppose a lot also had to do with the fact that it irritates me when I thinking people aren’t pulling their weight.
The morning and afternoon sweeps were the only real time when we could socialize with our Thai male counterparts. We did group together for the few minutes of the national anthem, we were also briefly together for collecting our vouchers and of course the medicine show and we saw each other on the way to the sauna but other than that we seemed to be on different programs and theirs seemed a lot stricter than ours. They were only allowed to go to the restaurant at certain times and these visits only lasted half an hour. We would vacate the restaurant at these times because there was a lot of them and few seats so it wouldn’t be fair to take up the seats when we could eat anytime.
The majority of the communication between the two groups tended to be smiles. I had lived in Thailand for the majority of the previous three and a half years and had spent a lot of time learning the language. I could hold a conversation but suffered from shyness and unless drunk didn’t like to talk much around strangers because I speak very fast and mutter when nervous. Native English speakers would have trouble understanding my English when I’m like this so understanding my Thai would be very difficult. Another problem was that I was using the sweeping as a form of meditation and was worried that if I began having chats in Thai then this would be ruined. I avoided making eye contact with anyone while sweeping around the temple and instead just focused on the path in front of me.
I did get to know a few of the Thais at the temple though. Nit and Flower were aunty and niece and we got to spend a lot more time with them than any of the other Thai inmates. Nit was in her forties and was one of those friendly motherly types who I can automatically get along with without being nervous. She had become addicted to cannabis and according to her this was due to a series of failed relationships. Flower was in her mid-twenties and was addicted to yaa-baa and opium.
Yaa-baa is Thai for crazy medicine and it is the seen as the drug which causes the most damage in Thailand. It is meta-amphetamine and when it first became popular in Thailand it was referred to as yaa-maa, or horse medicine, due to the fact that you could work all day and all night while taking it. Yaa-baa addicts are seen as responsible for much of the crime in Thailand and it is seen as responsible for a lot of them performing self-mutilation and committing suicide. Meta-amphetamine causes hyper paranoia and delusions and rapidly leads to mental illness which is often irreversible. I had tried this drug on two occasions and knew what a dangerous drug it was.
The majority of Thai patients at Wat Thamkrabok are there to get off yaa-baa. Many of these make a full recovery but a substantial number never fully regain their mental health. While I was at the temple you would see a few of these hopeless cases who would wander around like zombies unable to interact with anybody just stare. These affects are not caused by yaa-baa alone but are also due to the fact that the majority of yaa-baa users sniff paint-thinner to come down when speeding too much on yaa-baa. This paint-thinner can really fry the brain and I heard from the monks that this was actually worse than the meta-amphetamine.
Flower didn’t seem to be suffering too bad with after-effects from her yaa-baa use. She said that she didn’t use it all the time and preferred opium. She was a plump girl with a fantastic smile and I found her to be quite sexy. Like her aunt she was very easy to get along with and fun to be around. If I hadn’t been completely happy with Oa I suspect I would have been sniffing around Flower as she was exactly the type of inappropriate girl I was frequently attracted to. I have a thing for ‘bad girls’ and it is amazing that most of my girlfriends have been the opposite.
Flower and Nit shared a dorm with Sharon and really went out of there way to help her fit in. Nit decided to adopt Sharon and began washing her clothes and generally made sure that she was taking care of herself. Nit spoke no English and Flower very little so I would often act as interpreter. I enjoyed talking with the two of them and much of the conversation was good natured leg-pulling.
Another Thai we got to know was monk Gop as he was given the task of keeping an eye on us westerners. He was giving this responsibility due to the fact that he spoke excellent English, as he had spent twelve years living in Australia while working as a car mechanic. When I first met monk Gop I assumed he was quite senior but as time went by we found out that he hadn’t been there long himself and apparently had been just as desperate to leave when he first arrived as Danny had been.
Monk Gop had been tricked into entering the treatment centre by his family and he still seemed a bit resentful about this. When he first arrived at the temple he believed that it was to ordain as a monk in order to make merit for his elderly mother. Instead of this he was led into the treatment part of the facility and his family asked him, for the sake of his family, to take the Sajja to stop using drugs. He had been getting heavily involved in drink and drugs in Australia and news had got back to his family who decided to take action.
It is customary for Thai men to ordain as Buddhist monks for at least a short period of their lives and most do. They may only ordain for a few days or even one day but it is often for a few months. Not only is this seen as a great way to learn more about their religion but it is also viewed as a chance to make merit for their families, especially their mothers. Gop’s family had used the excuse of wanting him to make merit for his mum to get him back to Thailand and into Wat Thamkrabok. He took the Sajja vow for five years and he once confided in me that once this was over he would return to his former ways.
The other two Thais that I had contact with were the cook and the masseuse. The cook could speak fairly good English but Danny, Sharon, and Matt couldn’t understand her and would constantly ask me to translate what they were saying into Thai. I enjoyed this role for a while, as it fed my ego, but soon realized that this would irritate the cook who could understand them perfectly well in English and didn’t need translations. I didn’t mind ordering their food for them during the first couple of days but I began to insist that they start doing this themselves. I tried to explain to them that the cook had worked there for years dealing with English speakers and had never needed an interpreter before.
The masseuse was a bubbly character who despite not having a word of English would happily babble away to her foreign customers in Thai. I was often asked to translate what she was saying and it was usually fun stories about her family. I still hadn’t managed to get a massage from her but she would always make the effort to come find me and tell me she hadn’t forgotten.
It was now my forth day at Wat Thamkrabok and I was beginning to worry that my girlfriend would be concerned because she hadn’t heard anything from me since my arrival at the temple. Mobile phones weren’t allowed and there were only two days a week when we were allowed to use the office phone and this was only possible after we had completed the five days vomiting. It was now Friday and I would be having my last dose of the medicine the next day but the next available phone day wouldn’t be till Wednesday. This was a long time to be out of touch and for all she knew I could be drunk somewhere or dead.
She knew that I probably wouldn’t be able to use my mobile phone at the temple but she wasn’t expecting a complete communication blackout. I enquired with the volunteers and apparently if she phoned the temple they weren’t allowed to give out any information or even confirm that I was even there. I felt concerned because I had already been the cause of a lot of worry and pain in her life.
There are a lot of people who claim that the only reason Thai women go with western men is because they are seeking financial security. If this is the case then Oa certainly made a poor choice with me as my finances are precarious to say the least. I have always been bad with money and as soon as I get any I spend it. The only finance that was ever secure with me was beer money. I suppose that if I had of been more career minded in regards to my nursing I probably would be relatively secure but I didn’t. Instead I came to rely on agency nursing work which meant that I only needed to work at most for three months of the year and so could spend the rest of the time in Thailand. Agency work is never guaranteed so every year I went to Ireland I was taking a chance that there might be no more work. I had taught English briefly in Bangkok but I couldn’t earn enough to pay off my debts back in the UK.
This three months working in Ireland helped clear the 7,000 pound sterling borrowed on my credit card each year so that I could start borrowing all over again. I also had a student loan when we met, no pension because I cashed in my NHS pension from the UK and no savings, unless you count one pound fifty in a Barclays account which I had lost the savings book for. Financial security was far from secure with me but Oa didn’t seem to mind.
Oa isn’t a big spender and any clothes she buys is from the local market or one of the hypermarkets in the city. She doesn’t have any vices and all of the food she eats is cheap and often free as her family likes to get stuff from the jungle. I have also been very lucky with her family in regards to finances. It is often the case that that the wife’s or girlfriend’s family will turn to her for assistance and this is especially true if she has a western partner. Oa’s family have never asked me for money and they haven’t showed any disappointment when I haven’t given them any. Like Oa her parents don’t seem to need much money. They are both elderly and Oa’s older sisters seem to provide well for them.
Instead of getting financial security with me, Oa inherited a drunken basket-case with no ambition. Like other girlfriends before her, she didn’t like to drink so it must have been doubly difficult to constantly watch me drink myself into unconsciousness. If she was lucky I would just drink myself into a coma but often I would decide to lecture her on whatever my chosen subject was that night. She would patiently sit through this and was probably lucky that she couldn’t understand half of what I was saying. I really was a bore. Oa’s father also has a history of being a drunk so maybe this explains her tolerance of my crazy behaviour.
We had moved to Oa’s village two years prior to my trip to Wat Thamkrabok. History repeated itself and here was another girlfriend who believed that if only she could get me in the right environment then things would change. She reasoned that if she could get me away from the city and the bars then things would improve. The village had no bars within a 40-km radius and there were no other westerners to drink with. I think the main reason though, for her wish to return to her village, was that she is a country girl at heart who loves being close to her family. We were living in an apartment in Phitsanulok city at the time and I had nothing to keep me there. I was too embarrassed to go to the only western bar in the city as I had made a drunken fool of myself on a couple of occasions and I didn’t like the other bars around. I too felt confident that village life was the panacea for my ills so we wasted no time moving there.
Despite the lack of bars and drinking buddies I had no trouble continuing my drunken downward spiral. My front room became my bar and the great thing about this one was that it never closed. Oa even ended up building a little bar for me out in our back garden when I started using a local restaurant as my drinking sanctuary. I am sure the beer sales in the village soared and Oa’s mother made a nice little bit of money on the side selling my empty bottles. I occasionally became angry when the locals commented on the amount of beer I bought, or my collection of empties, or the fact that I had been seen drunk somewhere.
I spent many days on drunken expeditions through the Thai countryside on the back of my Honda Wave stopping along the way at restaurants and shops to top up on beer. My favourite journey was my weekly trip back to Phitsanulok when I used the excuse of wanting to get western food as a reason to go on a pub crawl for the 120 km trip each way. I somehow managed to complete these drunken trips without crashing the motorbike but this wasn’t due to any particular riding skill of mine. Hurting or killing myself would have been one thing but I have no idea how I would have lived with myself if I had of killed somebody else or Oa who was frequently on the back of the bike when I was drunk.
Despite the mess my life had become and the grief that I was causing her, Oa remained with me and hardly ever complained. There were no ultimatums to change-or-else and she constantly forgave my appalling behaviour. I doubt very much that I would have been so forgiving if it was her whose life was in such a mess. I owed her a lot and was determined that now the drunken times were behind me that I was going to make it up to her.
I spoke to some of the monks about my situation but they made it clear that there was no exception to the phone rules ever. I cornered one of the volunteers and repeated my tale of woe. She felt sorry for me and agreed to text Oa to say that I was safe and still at the temple. I was relieved and thankful.
Matt was looking a whole lot better by this stage and he had stopped complaining about withdrawal symptoms. He was now happy to admit that it had been his easiest trip through cold-turkey ever, so the techniques used at the temple were definitely having some benefit. I could only agree with this and whether it was the vomit-medicine, the herbal tea or just being at the temple that was the cause I had found my symptoms to be very minor compared to my other experiences with detox.
Sharon now looked like a different person with a fresh face which was more fitting for her age. Looking at her I found it hard to imagine that she had been addicted to heroin and if it wasn’t for the fact that she chain-smoked cigarettes I would have said she looked very well adjusted. I had spent quite a bit of time talking to her during the last few days and could easily see that she was a caring, intelligent and light-hearted individual and these were not attributes I normally associated with junkies.
Danny was also feeling better and now had some colour in his face. He had taken to wearing sun glasses all the time and walking around the temple with the top of his uniform off and tied around his waist in an attempt to get a tan. He constantly went everywhere with the mp3 player blasting music into his ears. Himself and Matt went everywhere together and looked like they had been friends for life. They were even planning on going on a trip together around Thailand when their time at the temple was finished. Sharon was a bit surprised when she heard this as Matt hadn’t mentioned it to her, his wife. I wasn’t sure it was that great an idea because there would probably be a lot of temptation to use again when they got outside and if one relapsed they would likely take the two others with them. I shared my worries with them but didn’t push it as it was up to them at the end of the day.
George kept mostly to himself and even preferred to sit alone when eating. He had now been there the longest out of us foreign lot at over two weeks, and he was thinking of staying another month. When he did talk it was nice to listen to him because he was very positive about the future. He realized that although he had wasted a lot of years he could still have a great future. He started to show an interest in Buddhism and talked about returning to Wat Thamkrabok in a year or two to ordain for a short while. He planned to go back to attending Alcoholic Anonymous meetings when he got back to the UK, which I thought was a good idea. His wife was coming to meet him in Bangkok when his time at the temple was finished and he was pleased with this.
It was now the second day for Oscar and Raphael and they continued to keep their own company. They were both friendly when approached but it was difficult keeping them in a conversation. Raphael seemed much more out going than Oscar who could appear a bit gruff at ties although I am sure that this was due to his limited English vocabulary. He didn’t spend a lot of time in the dorm and only really went there to sleep.
There was nobody at the temple that I disliked or felt the need to avoid. This was unusual for me as most large groups of people there will normally be one or two who rub me up the wrong way. My usual reason for disliking people was that I feel they have slighted me somehow or suspect that they viewed me negatively. I have always been a bit childish in that I can’t bear people disliking me. It goes back to my belief that I am really a wonderful person who is just misunderstood. My usual reaction to people who I thought disliked me was to try and make them like me or completely loath them and hope that their life was suitably horrible. How dare they not like me, the good guy, I bet they will feel disgusted with themselves when they find out what a nice person I really am.
I don’t have many friends and no lifelong ones. My oldest friend would be George who I trained as a nurse with ten years ago. We were good drinking buddies during the three years we shared nursing accommodation together and we shared an apartment for a short while after qualifying. After that we saw each other only on rare occasions when we would meet up to get drunk. We still kept in touch through email and I would hate to lose contact completely. I no longer needed drinking buddies but still enjoy George’s wit and original outlook on life.
Another friend who I still kept in contact with was Brian. He was also a nurse and drinking partner who I worked with in Oxford. Brian came from Northern Ireland and is one of the few people who are even more insulting than me when drunk. He is another funny guy who loves practical jokes and these got me in trouble on a few occasions. He once got into my email account and sent love notes to my boss and his girlfriend at the time. Like George he is someone who I now only spoke to via email but I enjoyed keeping in touch. The only other people I occasionally heard from was another guy I trained with called Con and Kerry who I also worked with in Oxford and with who I went on holiday with when she came to Thailand a few years back.
In Thailand I tended to keep to myself and the wife most of the time. I had made a few friends in the village and they sometimes dropped by for a chat. Oh would sometimes come in the afternoon to watch me get drunk and join me in a few bottles of Singha beer. Phra Tong is our local monk and he would drop by for a chat and to practice his English. Khru Saiyan is one of the senior teachers in our village school and she also liked to drop by for a chat, watch a bit of TV or when there was alcohol in the offering to join me in a few beers.
There are only another two other westerners, that I’m aware of, living in a ten kilometre radius of my house. One of these lives in a nearby town and we socialized on a few occasions but I found him too boring and he found me too drunk. The other foreigner is an old guy who has completely blanked me anytime we bumped into each other at the local market.
This probably sounds a pathetic number of friends to have after thirty-six years on the planet but I never really thought about it too much. I often had plenty of drinking buddies around me and always found these easy to find. Other times I enjoyed drinking in my own company.
I would refer to my drinking buddies as friends but at the end of the day I didn’t have much use for them if alcohol wasn’t involved. So it isn’t hard to find a reason for my relatively friendless state. I have never been much of a friend so it is no surprise that I don’t have many. Another excuse I could give is that I have spent my life moving from place to place and when I changed address I also changed acquaintances. This pattern of being constantly on the move began in my childhood when my parents frequently moved house and I carried the tradition on into adulthood. Yet another reason is the fact that I was often insulting, intense and out of control when drunk and moody and withdrawn when in a forced period of sobriety.
The scheduled activities at the temple weren’t that many and this meant we had plenty of time to chat to each other and to reflect on the events which led us to where we were today. In my experience a favourite hobby of those of us who are newly sober is to try and find some reason to explain how their lives ended up in such a mess. When we are drinking or using, the immediate future and getting or next fix was our main concern but a sober mind soon begins to dwell on missed opportunities, regrets, shame at our behaviour and an almost desperate urge to grasp some reason or meaning behind our self- destructive former life.
Those who have found salvation in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous may find some solace in the idea that they were born with a disease and this accounts for what has transpired. The ‘why me’ can be blamed on some inherited disposition for the disease or just bad luck. Another approach is to view yourself as a victim of an alcoholic culture or an unfair media campaign which has brainwashed you into believing that alcohol was the key to enjoyment. The ‘why me’ can be transformed into anger at the evil drinks industry who have manipulated us from a young age and a culture that glorified the drunkard.
Another approach is to view the reason for our fall into habitual drunkenness as Kamma which we have accumulated in either this life or, if we believe in them, past lives. Here the culprit for our misfortune is ourselves and we are merely reaping what we have sown. An easy way to sum up this belief is to say that, if we keep on doing bad things then bad things will keep happening to us. Luckily the reverse is also true and if we do good things we are investing in good things happening at some future date.
I loved alcohol from the first moment I was aware of its existence. I remember hearing people in AA saying that they never even liked the stuff but that certainly wasn’t me. It seemed to me that people were just more fun to be around after they had been to the pub. I would see complete transformations in people who would normally ignore us kids but after they returned from the pub on a Sunday afternoon would be out playing football with us. I loved the fact that after a few beers people would be telling jokes, singing songs and generally doing things which seemed fun. I loved hearing stories of the drunken escapades of my uncles and in my world these adventures wouldn’t have been more glamorous if they were about safaris on the moon.
The Ireland I grew up in the seventies and eighties seemed to be based around alcohol and the pub. In this world ‘drunken Paddy’ was not viewed as an insult but instead a compliment on our enjoy-life approach. Many might take offence at being called a ‘Paddy’ but less would object to being labelled a drunkard. Getting drunk seemed to be an expression of our national identity.
One of my early heroes was a writer called Brendan Behan who, although I completely disagree with his Irish Republican sympathies, I still see as one of the greatest English writers ever because it wasn’t his politics that impressed me so much but his ability to manipulate the readers emotions. He was the stereotypical drunken Irishman who brought his typewriter to the pub with him to write his stories. He ended up in a borstal in 1939, when at the age of sixteen he got caught with explosives in Liverpool while he was on an unauthorized mission to blow up the Liverpool docks. This experience led to him writing an amazingly touching novel called ‘Borstal Boy’ which caused me to cry when I read it in my teens. He continued to write with some success but his drunkenness which was so much part of celebrity was also his downfall. Eventually drink meant that he needed to use a tape recorder as he could no longer type and his health continued to deteriorate until he died at the age of 41 years old. Rather than seeing his life as a lesson in the dangers of alcohol, for many years I viewed it as a great way to go and came to believe that alcoholism was a sign of great artistic depths.
During the eighties I also really enjoyed the music of ‘The Pogues’ and thought their mixture of punk and folk was brilliant. They had also written a song about Brendan Behan called ‘streams of whiskey’ which I particularly liked. Many of the lyrics of their songs were a celebration of active alcoholism. At the time I considered myself a punk and liked being able to listen to a band that encapsulated both the spirit of punk and drunkenness.
Another one of my heroes was my paternal grandfather and although he died when I was seven and I had few memories of him, still had an impact on my imagination. He was another drunk who according to reports could sometimes terrorize his family. I saw his problem with alcohol as a family legacy which he had kindly passed onto me and it was my duty to carry on his good work. My father grew to become fearful of the damage of alcohol and worried that I might follow his father’s drunken path. I later stupidly blamed his concern about my alcohol intake as a reason for my developing alcoholism, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
The first time I remember drinking alcohol was one Christmas at my father’s family home. I can’t remember my exact age but know that I was still in primary school, so probably about eleven. My uncles had allowed me a taste their beers but, too soon for my liking, decided that I had enough and so I resorted to sneaked drinks when they weren’t looking. I ended up half-drunk and vomited all over the back of my dad’s car on the way back to our own house. He was furious.
My involvement with martial arts distracted me from alcohol for a few years. It was still around me and I still thought it glamorous but I managed to keep away from it. On the way over to England for a competition one of my Kung-Fu team mates, who was only sixteen, needed to be taken off the boat by an awaiting ambulance in Holyhead due to drinking a bottle of vodka. I thought this was hilarious and envied him his notoriety.
The first time I got really drunk was during my parents break-up when I was fourteen. I was coping badly with events around me and when I was left baby-sitting my younger sisters I took the opportunity to steal a bottle of gin from my parent’s drinks cabinet. I remember drunkenly stumbling from one chair to another thinking it was great fun until eventually I began vomiting everywhere.
I think that it would be a mistake for me to try and pin my alcohol problem on my environment as there are plenty of other people who went through similar conditions but didn’t end up where I did. I was attracted to alcohol from the beginning and this was the reason it was such a big feature in my perception of the world around me, at least that’s my view. In the same way that somebody interested in nature will notice its wonders all around, my interest in alcohol meant I noticed it and its effects everywhere. From an early age I liked the idea of a substance that could change me into the person I wanted to be or could alter the way I feel. It is like I was born looking for an escape.
I have come to see Kamma as the explanation for the ‘why me’ question. I tried the blame game and the victim game before and they don’t work for me. A time had to come when I stopped blaming events in my childhood for the mess I was now in. This blaming and playing the victim doesn’t get me anywhere as I can’t change what occurred in the past. My belief in Kamma allows me to take responsibility for my present circumstances and in this present moment work to improve things. While there may be many who dismiss the theory of Kamma, I think that most of those would agree that trying to improve the conditions here and now is going to be more beneficial than obsessing about the past.
A HISTORY OF VOMIT
It was now my forth dose of the vomit inducing medicine and even though I didn’t think much about it during the rest of the day I still found the actual event to be unpleasant. This unpleasantness was easily offset by the benefits which I knew that I was getting from it and I would have been prepared to do it everyday for the rest of my life if I thought it would keep me sober. In fact some of the long-term monks did take it everyday and claimed great benefits from this. I remember the story of one who monk who used the medicine following a poisonous snake bite and this led to him suffering no ill effects from the venom. It was credited with miraculous health benefits and I easily believed them.
In a way it was suitable that vomiting played such a significant part in the treatment to end my drinking career as it had been very much a part of it from the beginning and throughout my relationship with alcohol. In the early days the vomiting was the finishing line which I was trying to push further away. I viewed myself as been similar to a long-distance runner who needed to increase his stamina but in my case beers were my distance markers and not miles. My friends would jeer me and call me a ‘lightweight’ because I would vomit after only a few cans of larger or flagon of cider. Vomiting symbolized my failure but drinking was a skill I was determined to master and like a weight-watcher who can come to dread the weighing scales, but rely on it to chart progress, vomiting became my measurement device as well as my nemesis.
Many people view alcoholics and drug addicts as being ‘weak-willed’ but I completely disagree with that assertion and feel that the complete opposite is true. I was willing to do almost anything to get my hands on alcohol. There was no possession I wasn’t willing to lose and no relationship I wasn’t willing to sacrifice. I was prepared to die for alcohol and was well on the way to achieving this before arriving at the temple. I don’t think this is the type of behaviour typical of a weak-willed person. If my problem had been this I wouldn’t have developed an alcohol problem in the first place because it took an awful lot of determination for me to develop a tolerance for it.
I viewed my weak constitution in regards to alcohol to be a major flaw and thought it very unfair. I blamed it on my small size as I was five-foot-eight and skinny. Others felt that my problem was that I drank too fast but in my mind I wasn’t drinking much faster than anybody else. The problem was that I hadn’t been drinking long before I began spending my time with hardened drinkers and it was with these guys that I was comparing myself with. I was seventeen and trying to compete with people who had been heavily drinking for a decade. These new heavy-drinking friends treated me like an apprentice and enjoyed making fun of me when I failed to keep the pace with them.
I always thought that it was miraculous the way heavy drinkers gravitate towards each other. When I started my nursing training I was in a cohort of over two hundred people but on the first day managed to sit next to the other two hardest drinkers in the group. This would happen all the time and I always ended up in the company of other drunks and this is probably a major reason why alcoholics can fool themselves into believing that their drinking is normal for so long. If everyone around you is doing the same then it becomes normal.
I suppose a significant reason for surrounding myself with drinkers was that I thought non-drinkers, especially male non-drinkers, were freaks and I didn’t trust them. I saw heavy drinking as a sign that somebody was a deep-thinker or troubled artist while non-drinking symbolized shallowness, weakness and dullness. Maybe this was a type of reverse-snobbery and part of my ‘lying in the gutter while looking down on people’ routine. It was true to say that not only did I sneer at them but also lived in fear of their judgments about me and would always feel dirty in their presence. I suppose it was a bit ironic that my girlfriends tended to be non-drinkers.
Throughout my late teens and early twenties my persistence paid off and I learned to compete with the big boys or it least that is how I saw things. I remember one winter afternoon in Dublin meeting my then girlfriend Val, who had just finished work for the day, and proudly tell her that I had drank twelve pints of larger that day but she failed to realize the significance of my achievement and was more concerned with the fact that I was yet again drunk in the afternoon and that I had spent all our money. I remember thinking that she was a real party-popper.
Although I had now developed quite a tolerance for alcohol my drinking buddies would still make fun of the fact that I would vomit so frequently but I now saw this as a sign of a good night out. I saw puking as part of what being a heavy drinking lifestyle and had decided that the best thing was to make it as fun as possible. In the same way that a group of lads will boast about it when they fart, I saw no shame in admitting that I had just needed to up-chuck and would put a positive spin on things by saying that I had just made room for more beer.
At the end of my drinking career my vomit sessions were more lonely and desperate affairs. It was now something I needed to get past in order to get the precious alcohol inside me. Many mornings as soon as I put the alcohol to my lips I would begin retching. When this first started happening I would be in a bar and would be so full of shame that people would see me vomit back into my glass and be so desperate that I would continue to drink it. What was I going to do? Walk out and leave an almost full pint of beer behind. I would kid myself that nobody had noticed but I wouldn’t ask for another drink in that particular bar that day for fear that they might refuse to serve me. I soon became quite good at vomiting back in my glass but by that time most of my first drinks would be taking at home.
My ability to fight my nausea would determine the tone of my day. If I couldn’t get past it I was destined to have a day stuck in bed or on the sofa feeling sorry for myself and my predicament of needing alcohol inside me but being unable to hold it down. The withdrawal symptoms would be particularly unpleasant as I wasn’t even trying to quit. On a good day I would make it past three pints or large bottles and know that I was in for a bearable day and that was as good as it got.
I suppose that by the time I reached Wat Thamkrabok vomit should have held no surprises for me. It has been almost as much a backdrop to my life as my favourite music. This induced vomiting was different though because not only was it purifying my system but it was also putting me in a position of being completely weak and helpless while sober and it was to escape from this that alcohol had appealed to me in the first place.
It was now my forth night at the temple and I was able to sleep a bit better. Danny and Matt continued to chat for hours before turning off the light but they would now be asleep by midnight and this was fine with me as I enjoyed reading out in the back of the dorms till late. It still seemed to annoy George but I think he knew that there was nothing he could do about and was thankful that at least they turned out the light and went to sleep around midnight.
It had been Matt and Sharon’s last dose of medicine that day and by rights Matt should have moved out to the bigger room but he didn’t want to go. George had mentioned it to Matt but he had just been ignored. I think George thought by separating them it would lead to a reduction in night-time noise but Matt didn’t want to be separated from his new friend. Somebody complained to the monks but in the end they decided that as there was no new admissions expected we could stay where we liked.
I have always found that sleepless nights can be times when I am most honest with myself and aware of my deepest fears. I tend to sleep well but there are also occasions when I have just laid there with thoughts turning to my own mortality because since childhood my biggest fear has been death and this is a subject which frequently pops up if I am lying awake through the night.
I can remember the first night this happened as a child, the first time I became aware of death. It seemed so unfair and terrifying to realize that we were completely powerless to have everything we knew and loved snatched away at any instant. It scared me even more when I came to the realization that this was not something that my parents or any grown-up could prevent and that it was going to happen to them too. I remember lying in my bed crying about the unjustness of the whole thing. I was probably around seven or eight at the time and this was the first fear that I didn’t share with my parents. I somehow knew that it was not something they had an answer for or would be happy to talk about.
I had apparently witnessed another child die in front of me when I was six. I was staying in my maternal grandmother’s house and had gone to the library with my mum. I can still remember that the book I got that day was a large hardback full of children’s bible stories. It is so strange that I remember this as I have very few memories of my early childhood. I somehow ended up at the back of the library with some other children and it was here that I am said to have seen him die. He was inside a large concrete pipe and was being pushed by some other kids when the pipe cracked in two and killed him on the spot. I remember nothing of this incident except getting my book and talking about it later in my granny’s house. I have wondered about how much I actually saw, and wonder at the accuracy of my family’s recollection of the event.
The first dead body I remember seeing was when I was fifteen and living with my dad and his girlfriend in Cork. It was in the river Lee and I was with some friends when we looked over the bridge in the city and saw it floating below. The dead man was being chased by a group of Garda (Irish Police) with a long pole in a boat as the current pulled it along. It was black and bloated and we later found out that it had been under water for a few days and that the body’s owner had committed suicide. The image haunted me for weeks after and at the age of fifteen I needed to return to sleeping with the light on. It was the complete lifelessness that shook me so much; it acted like any other type of debris carried along by the river.
I managed to avoid the sight of death for almost ten years after that until beginning my nurses training when it became a familiar sight. It was very odd but as soon as I began my training I lost my fear of dead bodies. Maybe the fact that it was not part of my job to deal with death meant that this change was essential and occurred naturally. These deaths were usually busy affairs which didn’t leave me much time to dwell on my fears. If the death was unexpected we would need to be involved in resuscitation and here adrenalin would be high and minds completely focused on the task at hand. If it was expected we would have our thoughts on keeping the patient comfortable and comforting the relatives.
Although I became very familiar with the sight of death I never lost my fear of dying and if anything it became harder to ignore. I had consoled myself with the belief that when the time came to die I would be ready for it. I came upon this belief from movies where you would see the dying man or women lying serenely, surrounded by his or her loving family. I reasoned that there must be inside us some process that makes our deaths not only bearable but actually quite peaceful. My experience of death through nursing soon put an end to this fantasy and while many people do have a relatively peaceful departure others don’t.
The fact is some people never accept the fact that they are dying and will fight to the end and some even leave this planet screaming and begging to stay. This is an extremely upsetting thing to watch and you can only wonder how it affects the families. I have a bit of experience working in palliative care and found it to be very emotionally draining and have great respect for those who have devoted their lives to this task. It is hard facing the effects of death day after day and it takes a special type of person to be able to deal with it.
Some people’s faith seems to give them great strength at the end while other people’s faith crumbles in front of this enormous event. Some have hope till the end and it can take them a lot longer to die than expected while others lose hope immediately and die quickly. Some people want to be with family at the end while some want to go it alone, many have no choice but to die with no friends or family around them.
This time spent around death only increased my fear of it. There had been a period in my life when I would have welcomed death and it could be argued that alcoholism and drug addiction are slow forms of suicide so I suppose what is really fearful is the complete powerlessness with which we face it. If I was suicidal and died that would be one thing but knowing it could happen on a good day when I wasn’t ready is another.
At this stage I have seen well over a hundred deaths. When I first began spending time around the dying I suppose I thought that it would provide me with some answers to questions that bothered me. Perhaps I would feel or see some energy leaving the bodies or some sign that there was something more but this never happened. One minute there would be a living human being there and the next there would be a dead carcass. No last words at the end about bright lights and everything was alright and no signals from the recently departed.
The answer to my fear of death is easily available when I am willing to listen to the teachings of the Buddha. The fact is that I have spent my whole life dying and being reborn. The person I am now is not the same person who picked up alcohol because he couldn’t bear his feelings, we share a history but he is dead. The person whose body dies at some future date is not me either. He knows my story but has changed and is now someone else. This is one problem I have with the idea of heaven, who would go there, the me now or the me when I was seven. If it isn’t the me when I was seven where did he go? What about all the other versions of me? I often wonder what the me of seven would think of me now. Would he like me? Would he understand about the mistakes I made.
So the ultimate truth for me is that I will never die because I never really existed in the first place. It is all been an elaborate illusion. It is a convincing illusion though and easy to be drawn back into, but when I hold onto this idea of ‘me and mine’ less tightly my fear of death and dying lessens.
THE RAGE INSIDE
It was now day five and my last day on the vomit inducing medicine. After the morning sweep around the temple I returned to my bed and tried to practice meditating while lying down. I would have liked to sit in an upright position but I was sure the two boys would make fun of me for doing this. I always found it difficult meditating while lying down as I found it impossible to stay awake for long in that position but I reasoned that it was better than nothing.
During the two years prior to arriving at Wat Thamkrabok I had been able to stop drinking for a few weeks at a time and spend this sober time meditating. I would meditate very intensively during theses dry spells, sometimes as much as eight hours a day. My aim during these marathon sessions was to meditate my alcohol problem away. I reasoned that if I could raise my concentration level to a very high level I would gain insight which would cure my ills. I was hoping that meditation would make me a good person but I was forgetting that for there to be any chance of these insights to occur I would already need to have a sound moral basis and even then chasing after insights can push them away. I also reasoned at the time that these periods of meditation were helping to slow down the damage to my liver and I secretly hoped that it was somehow magically reversing the damage.
The first marathon session like this lasted two weeks and I ended it by meditating twelve hours through the night. I was hoping to recreate what seemed like a high level of awareness which I experienced after the Wat Rampoeng meditation retreat. I did have a feeling of joy at the end of the two weeks but this peaceful feeling didn’t last long as I celebrated its return by getting drunk. My sister Elaine had arrived over on holiday and I went to meet her and her friend in Pattaya. I drank heavily and within a day was back drinking and not getting any fun out of it. Temporarily easing the despair in my head made it that much worse to bear when it returned.
The next marathon session lasted a month and there was no repeat of the joy experienced in the previous one. I was meditating eight hours a day but I began to relive experiences which occurred in my youth. In the mahasi meditation method I practice the aim is to just note any phenomena that occur without becoming attached to it but I couldn’t seem to stop these memories and I really felt like I was reliving bad experiences in my childhood. As these memories continue to take over my meditation I found myself becoming increasingly angry, upset and full of guilt.
For years I had returned to my parents break-up for an explanation for why I became so messed up in later life. It was an easy event to blame because anyone I ever told about it agreed that it was traumatic. The problem was that I had always seen myself as purely a victim in the whole affair and never realized that I too had caused people pain.
The first time I found out that my father was having an affair was when he brought me away for a weekend with his girlfriend. I was fourteen at the time and the aim of the trip had been to attend a martial arts competition in which I was participating. I had no reason to suspect that my dad was seeing somebody else because although my parents often argued they never talked about splitting up. When we stopped to pick her up in a bar along the way it came as a total surprise. He introduced her as a friend called Margaret and I was naive enough at the time to believe him.
We took the car-ferry to Wales and made our way by car to Birmingham where the competition was taking place. It is a long trip and they stopped the car along the way for a rest and they also took the opportunity to make out in the front seat. Like a complete coward I pretended to be asleep while my world fell apart. We arrived in Birmingham the day before the contest and I shared a room with some friends. On the day of the competition Margaret decided that this was a good time to let me know that her and my dad were very serious about each other and that the night before they had sex for the first time. I become upset and she told me that I was a spoilt brat. My father tried to calm me down but I just wanted to get away and back to some type of normality.
I returned back home and kept the affair secret for the next few months until my father felt the time was right to finish with my mother. He worked as a sales representative and worked away Monday to Friday and this meant he had no problem maintaining his two relationships. In the end he allowed me to decide if he was to stay or go. He volunteered to ‘live a lie’ and be miserable and stay with my mother if that’s what I wanted. He knew that I would agree he go.
I had been secretly blaming my mother for the break-up and now that it was all out in the open I could openly show my hostility to her; talk about kicking somebody when their down. I didn’t want to stay with her and my father said he couldn’t take me with him, at least not at the moment. I had been close to my father’s younger brothers and sisters and would spend my weekends with them. They were all in their early twenties and they were my heroes. I wanted to stay with them but there was no way they could take over the responsibility of a teenager full-time. I saw this as another betrayal.
I needed to stay with my mum who was falling apart due to the break-up. In 1980’s Ireland you married for life, as there was no divorce, and separation was still a great shame. I made my mother’s life hell and despised her for what I saw as weakness in her inability to cope with my father’s departure. My maternal grandmother tried to help but I no longer wanted anything to do with that side of my family. I constantly screamed and shouted and threw things until eventually I was allowed to go stay with my father.
I saw living in Cork with my father and his girlfriend as my new start in life and a chance to be a new me with better friends and girlfriends. The newness didn’t last long and for the first time in my life I started getting into trouble. The first shock I got when I went to Cork was that Margaret’s daughter called my father ‘dad’. I found this irritating as he already had two young daughters who he just deserted. This irritation was intensified when I was asked not to call my father ‘dad’ in front of Margaret’s father because he would be upset if he knew she was with a married man. I needed to pretend to be his brother.
I did make new friends but I also began breaking the law and drinking. We stole altar wine from the church, tapes from cars and bicycles from railings. I had been in the highest stream in my other school but was now in the lowest where we were allowed to walk around with shovels most of the day. We would meet before school to drink whatever alcohol anybody had managed to steal from their parents. One evening I fell off a ten foot fence when drunk but only had scrapes.
Eventually the police caught up with and wanted to charge me with breaking into cars and breaking into the school and vandalizing it. My father got a social worker involved and they agreed that they would let me off with a caution if I testified against my friends and went back to live with my mum. I turned traitor to my pals and got off with everything. It was just as well that I was being sent back to my mum as I was no longer welcome.
All this came back to me during that month of meditation. I hoped that maybe it was exorcising my demons but the anger, sense of betrayal just increased. During this same period my dad and Margaret had decided to marry after many years together. I wished them well but inside I seethed. I had thought that this part of my life had been recovered from long before but it hurt now the same as it did at the time. Shortly after this personal retreat was over all my feelings poured out during a telephone conversation with my father. He already suffered with guilt about what had happened so I felt bad about reopening old wounds. It also cost him a fortune as we spent hours talking by mobile with him in Ireland and me in Thailand. I got no sense of release from sharing my feelings with my father, just guilt that I was bringing it all up again.
The most painful revelation was realizing that I had been far from blameless in the whole episode. I had been willing to betray my mother and sisters so easily. Why had I agreed to go along with the trip with his girlfriend when I realized what was happening? Why had I kept it a secret? Why had a blamed my mother? Why had I turned against my grandmother? Why had I left my mother to go live with my father?
I had been close to my two younger sisters but I failed to consider them at all during the break-up. They not only lost their father but also their older brother. I was to busy focusing on me to spare them much of a thought. Over the years I never even considered the possibility that they went through a shitty time too. My meditation brought this very much into my awareness and I felt sorry and ashamed.
I came to see that even at that age all the seeds of my future addiction were present. My willingness to sacrifice and betray others if I thought it would increase my happiness and most telling of all my instinct to hide or runaway from problems instead of confronting them.
The last vomit was physically the hardest one of the lot for me. I just couldn’t drink enough water and this meant that my stomach cramped painfully and I didn’t have enough liquid inside me to flush the medicine out. I had been able to get my camera out of the office and had asked Sharon to take some pictures of me during the ceremony but all thoughts of posing for pictures was gone though as I concentrated on puking. I sensed her snapping away in the background somewhere but I just couldn’t bring myself to look up from my bucket.
It was a relief to have finished the full course of the medicine and although still unwell I felt a sense of accomplishment. The hardest part of the treatment was now over. The band was still singing, people were still clapping and Danny, Karl and Raphael were still vomiting as I stood up walked across the courtyard and put away my bucket for the last time. I passed one of the western monks who had also taken the medicine but was allowed to vomit it up away from the rest of it, I admired his dedication.
Now that I had finished the five days of vomiting I would be allowed fizzy drinks and be able to eat during the day. I had been really looking forward to drinking a coke but it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. I would also be allowed to tour around the compound if accompanied by one of the monks. We had decided to wait until Danny also finished the medicine so that Monk Gop could take us all on a tour of the temple grounds outside the treatment area. Even though we had been there less than a week a trip outside the locked area sounded like a great adventure.
One of the Western monks named Steve joined us later at the restaurant for a chat. Steve had already spent six months at the temple; one month as a patient and five as a monk and during this time had recovered from a serious cocaine addiction. He was excited because he was due to disrobe soon and planned to spend some time in Bangkok before heading back to England. He wanted to buy some cheap clothes and asked me if I could recommend a good market. I remembered one in the Pratunam area from the time I worked in Bangkok and recommended this to him. I decided to show off my ability to write Thai by writing down the address for him on a piece of paper but unfortunately I somehow mixed up the name of the market and wrote ‘Pakanam’. I didn’t realize till later so I hope he didn’t rely too much on my directions.
Talking without thinking has been a problem for me since I can remember. I always found silence uncomfortable and would fill it with whatever nonsense would come into my head. I would like to think that most of this talk was harmless but I know that I sometimes upset people with my careless chat. The problem is compounded by the fact that I see myself as a bit of a comedian but this humour can lead to people feeling insulted or otherwise hurt by my comments. I am usually oblivious to the effect my words had and later wonder why people were upset with me. I had learnt very early in my drinking career that talking nonsense when drunk would often get me in trouble but I felt helpless to stop myself.
The Buddha was very aware of how dangerous careless speech could be and emphasized that people should be mindful of the words they say and avoid using it to hurt others. If care is not taken our words can cause a lot of suffering in others and further enslave our own minds in stupidity and ignorance. We needed to take responsibility for our words as well as our actions and be aware that harmful speech will have painful consequences for us at the time or we may suffer because of it the future. I had seen the damage that harmful speech can cause and due to it had lost many friends and made many enemies.
I have only resorted to physical violence on a couple of occasions in my life because I am quite small and don’t like being hit. I learned to be verbally aggressive from a young age when I realized that screaming your head off meant most people would back down in an argument or walk away. I had seen my mother use this technique for years and thought it effective. I continued to use the screaming and shouting method until I was twenty-five when I realized that it didn’t really work as well as I thought and that it was eventually likely to get me badly beating up. While some people react to being shouted at by walking away, others react by punching the person shouting at them in the nose.
Although I had used the raised-voice method to win arguments for years I actually hated listening to people shouting at each other. As I young kid I would fold myself up into a ball in an attempt to block out my parent’s shouting matches. I continued to feel like this as the years past and my first reaction to hearing people shouting is to want to flee the area. This shouting approach to disagreements is still used by some members of my family and I can only hope that they too learn another way of dealing with conflict.
Although I managed to outgrow the shouting method of debating with people, I still continued to say the wrong thing and offend people in the guise of humour. I would lecture people in bars about whatever subject had managed to attract my drunken mind that day. Most people don’t go to the pub for lectures so they soon learnt to avoid me. My girlfriends probably suffered the most from these drunken tirades but they had learnt to humour me and that any attempt to argue with me would likely prolong the lecture.
I found that being mindful of speech was particularly difficult for me. I talk compulsively and the only quite time was when I was reading, sleeping or meditating. I did realize that it is a very important part of the Buddhist path and that failure to improve in this area would likely hinder progress in others.
I think the trick is to devote the time previously given to talking nonsense to listening and to treat this listening as a form of meditation in which all senses are focused on the speaker. I had developed the bad habit of planning what I was going to say next rather than listening to what others are saying. This meant that I never really heard them and so it is not surprising that misunderstandings occurred so frequently. When I treat what others say with more importance my own words seem to become more thoughtful. It is not an easy skill to develop but focused listening not only helps me avoid hurting others but minds that I can also sometimes even help them.
It was now day six and the fact that I had completed the full course of vomiting meant that I had lost what had previously been the focus of my day. I was still expected to attend the ceremony but in the position of supporter rather than participant. It had only taken up about an hour of the day, between the actual ceremony and the after-effects, but I would still view as the day’s main event. It was nice going along to cheer Oscar and Raphael; and Danny, who was now on his last day, but it was not the same.
We had a visitor to the temple called Kim who was using her trip to Thailand as an opportunity to visit the temple. She had heard from a friend about the good work performed there and was eager to see for herself. Kim was training to be a social worker and was involved in some voluntary work in a different part of Thailand; I admired her enthusiasm and was yet again amazed at how different people could be from me. She was in her early twenties and I thought how there would be no way I would have considered travelling around the world helping people at her age.
Kim must have seen us ex-alcoholics and druggies as a strange lot as she told us that she that she never taken drugs herself and only drank alcohol on rare occasions. There was also no history of substance abuse in her family. My first thought upon hearing this was to suspect that she was some type of bible-basher but was soon proved wrong and it turned out that she was just one of those people who didn’t need to be intoxicated to enjoy herself. She reminded me of Ann.
I had met Ann at the start of my second year of nursing training. She was a first year student and had just moved into the nurses’ home where I also lived. At the start of my training I had a nice council house, which were really hard to get in London at the time, but decided to give up when I started drinking as I thought my social life would be greatly improved by living in student accommodation and that I would have more money for alcohol as it was very cheap to stay there. Another reason was that I felt guilty about staying in a house that had been given to me on the premise that I had stopped drinking alcohol. I had also thrown away my disability travel permit as I knew that I never deserved it.
I had wanted to move into a nurses’ home in a more central part of London in an area where I had stayed with Barbara so many years before but ended up living in the East-End of London instead in a place called Bromley-by-Bow. It was located next to an old Victorian hospital which was about to be closed down and the accommodation itself was very decrepit. Many of the nurses came from wealthy backgrounds and you would often see the look of horror on them and their parent’s faces when they first arrived. It was located in a ruin-down area next to a motor-way. It was very grey with few amenities but I loved it.
I spent a lot of my three years training to be a nurse drunk but it was also a period where I showed some control. I never turned up to a placement intoxicated and I managed to pass all my assignments and exams. I enjoyed nursing and was determined to qualify and I also saw it as a way to redeem my past mistakes. I seemed to have a talent for the job and interacted well with the patients. I found that I could cope in stressful emergency situations and enjoyed the adrenalin rush they provided. I also quickly found that I could face sights that previously would have given me nightmares.
Living in student accommodation seemed to suit me fine and I loved being surrounded by so many potential drinking buddies. During my whole time living there I never had difficulty finding somebody to go out drinking with. There were a few hard drinkers in the group and these I immediately befriended. The local bar scene was very basic but we didn’t mind roughing it and brushing shoulders with the occasional wannabe East-End gangster. We only received a student bursary of three-hundred and fifty pounds a month but somehow I managed to stay drunk on this although in my third year I needed to do some part-time work as a nurse’s assistant.
I had made friends with some of the Bromley-by-Bow crowd before moving into the nurse’s home. Prior to this my main buddy on the course had been a guy called Mike who didn’t really drink and had heard enough from me to know that I shouldn’t be drinking either. I had lasted the first few months of the course not drinking and continuing to attend my AA meetings but I began to feel left out of student life. I also had remained celibate for the previous two sober years because I found it difficult to meet women when sober and AA wasn’t teeming with available women anyway and this was where I spent most of my time.
Mike was a great guy and a fantastic guitar player. We socialized a lot together in the first few months attending live music events, comedy shows and social gatherings involving the student nurses. Drink would often be available at these events and I began to feel left out, even though not drinking didn’t seem to spoil Mike’s fun. I began to feel sorry for myself and how unfair it was that I couldn’t enjoy the student life. I was bitter because sobriety was preventing me from getting laid and meeting a girlfriend.
Unsurprisingly I ended up in a bar on my own one evening and this ended my two years sobriety. My world didn’t immediately fall apart so I reasoned that this meant my alcohol problem was no longer such a big deal and I even managed to control my intake for a few weeks with only one or two pints of larger at a time. I did return to AA after picking up again but I now distrusted them as my world hadn’t immediately fallen apart after drinking.
People who had come to know me before picking up alcohol again noticed a big change in me very quickly. I had started the course as someone who was trying to live a moral and decent life and who even thought about others occasionally but I reverted back to an addict whose only concern was myself and my drug. I drifted away from Mike because he didn’t enjoy spending his life in bars with someone who so obviously shouldn’t be drinking. I fell in with the drinkers even though many were alarmed with my behaviour when drunk.
My new status as student nurse brought me into contact with lots of women but most were repulsed by my drunken behaviour and less than convincing chat-up techniques but still I managed to sleep my way through a few women. I never really came close to having a proper relationship the nearest being one girl who ended up being a lesbian and another who was looking for a more traditional type of boyfriend. These relationships were very brief but I didn’t mind at all as I was enjoying myself.
At the start of my second year Ann moved into the room next door to mine. I didn’t pay her much attention as she seemed too young and girly and sounded very posh. I also saw that she had a boyfriend. She was too nice and normal for me to be attracted to her.
A group of us went to a bar in the West-end of London and for a change I wasn’t drinking. I had recently made a fool of myself when drunk and people were getting tired of me so I decided to try sobriety while socializing until things cooled down a bit. Ann came on to me in the bar but I tried to ignore her as she had a boyfriend and I was sober. She wasn’t used to drinking so got tipsy quickly and wanted me to take her back to the nurses’ accommodation. I agreed as I was finding it difficult being in a bar and not drinking alcohol. She came on to me again on the way back and we ended up in bed together.
I didn’t want to get into a relationship with her as I still thought her too young at nineteen but she persisted. I spent the night with another girl and when Ann found out she ended it with her boyfriend and persuaded me to try going out together. We lasted together nearly two years and at the time this was the longest relationship I had stayed in.
Ann was a fantastic girlfriend and like Oa she constantly forgave my outrageous behaviour because she wanted us to stay together forever. People around us were getting fed up with my antics when drunk and she would constantly need to defend me. She began talking about marriage and children but this wasn’t something I was even willing to consider. She didn’t push it. She offered me unconditional love but I began to get bored with her and saw her getting in the way of my drinking even though she never complained about my regular drunken sessions with my drinking buddies.
In the end I slept with another girl who was a good friend but I didn’t fancy. I think it was a way of bringing things to a close. Ann didn’t find out about this unfaithfulness, at least not at the time, but I was too guilty to stay with her and so ended the relationship. She was very upset and I could hear her crying across the corridor. I decided that I deserved a break and talked my friend George into accompanying me on a drunken and stoned weekend in Amsterdam. I hadn’t even realized that it was Valentines weekend until we returned and I found a card from Ann.
Ann waited a year before meeting someone else but I wasn’t interested except on one occasion when I slept with her again. She eventually met somebody else and I suddenly realized that I had made a big mistake and wanted her back. She agreed to meet me but despite my drunken tears and pleading she decided to move on with her life.
On the day after Danny’s last vomit Phra Gop brought us on a tour of the temple as promised. Myself, Matt, Sharon, Danny and George were also joined by visitor Kim. We started our tour in a nearby cave which was full of golden Buddha statues. There was also a shrine which had recently been erected in memory of a westerner who had been a patient in the temple but used heroin again and quickly died. His father had visited the temple a few days before and I had noticed him being shown around but at the time assumed he was just somebody on a tour. I later found out he had been arranging this tribute to the memory of his son. There was a picture of a young man who seemed perfectly normal and it was a real reminder of where our addictions can lead us.
I often wondered why some drunks or addicts get to recover from their addictions and lead more constructive lives while others don’t. Some people, such as me, are even given more than one chance. Is it just luck? I have speculated in the past that it is like there is a struggle in our bodies between the desire to live a life free of intoxicants and the desire to self-destruct in a hell of our own making. This struggle often involves periods when the addiction is dominant and other periods where the desire to be clean is dominant. If the conditions are right during a period when the desire to quit is dominant then we will be able to stop, at least for a while. It seems to me that the answer to winning this struggle is either to somehow defeat this self-destructive side of us or, as the Buddha would seem to suggest, stop allowing ourselves to be drawn into the battle by believing that it is us who are fighting it.
The best answer I have found as to why some people recover and others don’t is Kamma (Karma). Many people are uncomfortable with this word and believe that Buddhists who believe in Kamma also believe that people with disability are that way because they are being punished for some wrong they have done in the past. I don’t see Kamma as being about punishment and reward but instead see it being more to do with the fact that our actions will have consequences.
It is our intentional actions which we are referring to when we speak about Kamma. If I get drunk one of the results could be that I have a hangover. I don’t believe that this hangover is punishment for getting drunk but rather just a result. Although I believe all actions have consequences it doesn’t mean that I believe that there is some great judge in the sky handing out rewards and punishments but instead I see Kamma being similar to ‘the law of gravity’ which is value-free. ‘Bad’ actions do produce bad consequences and ‘good’ actions do produce good consequences but this is just the way things are in the same way that that the ‘law of gravity’ demonstrates that bigger objects attract smaller objects, it doesn’t mean that bigger objects are somehow better than smaller ones. I suppose what I am trying to say is that I don’t see the results of Kamma as punishment but instead as just facts of life.
As they say in AA, ‘if you keep on doing bad things then bad things will keep on happening to you’. This is what I understand by Kamma. If I perform a ‘good’ action a good result will follow either now or at some future date. The Kamma will bear fruit when the conditions are right for it. A simple example of this could be helping an old lady with her heavy shopping bags. I may get an immediate result from this action by feeling good about myself for my good work or I may think back at a later date and remember my good deed and this then lifts my spirits. While I am feeling good about myself I might perform more good actions and this will lead to more good feelings.
It is easy to speculate on how Kamma could account for our fall into addiction. In an attempt to escape painful feelings I take an intoxicant which may temporarily improve my mood but ultimately leads to me feeling bad and due to the debilitating effect it has on judgement, I perform bad actions. When I am sober I feel bad about these actions and again use alcohol to escape these feelings. This cycle continues until I am trapped in full blown addiction.
Just as Kamma can explain our fall into addiction it can also explain how we escape. All of us have performed good actions at one time or another and some of these actions are awaiting the appropriate circumstances so they can bear fruit. When I was younger I enjoyed meditation and was able to see the good results it produced. One of the karmic consequences of my meditation practice in the past could be that when the conditions were once again appropriate I returned to the practice and can now use it as part of my escape from addiction. Similarly, if we previously liked to help people the circumstances might reoccur when the fruit of this Kamma can ripen. So this tells me that the reason why some people recover and other’s don’t has nothing to do with them being better or worse or luckier or unluckier but more to do with the correct circumstances are not present for their recovery.
All this talk about the correct circumstances being there for Kamma to ripen may sound like I am being fatalistic but this is not what we mean. If we believe in Kamma we also need to accept responsibility for our actions and know that we need to create appropriate circumstances for our own development. In my opinion in order for me to escape alcohol abuse these conditions involved my mind being clear enough to see that my addiction wasn’t me.
As we continued our tour around the temple grounds I saw that it was a lot bigger than I realized when I first arrived on my motorbike. It was like a small town with different areas devoted to different activities. We saw the gardens where the Mae-Chi grew fruit and vegetables. We saw monks involved in carpentry, bricklaying and forging Buddha statues. We saw a huge statue of the Thai king which apparently had caused quite a stir in Thailand previously as it is illegal to make a statue of the king without permission. We saw a yacht built by the monks which they intended to present to the King for his sixtieth anniversary on the throne. I also noticed that there was a lot of new building work going on. It was all very impressive.
Phra Gop pointed out some large concrete balls and I was surprised to learn that these were the final resting place for monks who died at the temple. These balls were filled with a type of embalming fluid to preserve the monk’s body for prosperity. We also got to see where the preserved body of the founders of the modern temple were kept.
On the Wednesday we had another tour party come to visit us at the temple. This group was made up of schoolchildren from Bangkok. They belonged to a private school which focused and the arts and groomed the young for stardom and it was obvious that they all came from privileged backgrounds. In Thailand they would be referred to as Hi-So which means ‘high society’ and the opposite of this would be low-so or ‘low society’.
The monks informed them that I could speak Thai and that I had previously worked as a teacher in Bangkok and a large group of them formed around me firing questions. They were curious as to how I ended up in the temple but how could I explain a lifetime of mistakes to a group of young rich kids. I just told them that I was ‘kii mao’ which means a drunkard and tried to make light of the whole thing. I am sure they just saw me as yet another farang who was a failure in his own country but ended up teaching in Thailand as a last resort.
There is the perception in Thailand that there are a lot of foreign unqualified teachers who somehow struggle along with their small salary because it is enough to keep them in beer and sex. Many of these likely fell in love with a bargirl and because they had nothing to go back to in their home countries they became teachers. I have met some teachers like this but it is not the majority and they don’t tend to stay in Thailand long. I suppose if I’m honest some of my reasons for originally getting into teaching were similar to these stereotypical drunken sex-crazed ‘farang’ teacher.
I left Saudi Arabia for a three week holiday around Thailand and Vietnam and during it decided that there was no way I wanted to go back there. There were lots of reasons for this; I hated the fact that the hospital kept my passport and this made me feel like a prisoner. I hated the restrictions and the felt that the religious police looked for any reason to bully us. Most importantly I had gone there to get away from alcohol but was not only drinking more but was drinking home-brew which was far stronger than what I would normally drink. I could see that my alcohol problem could only get worse if I remained there.
Despite the Sun, I found Saudi to be a dark and dull place. I knew that the place wasn’t going to change for me so the best thing was to leave. There were quite a few people who I had met during my stay who were determined to remain there, despite hating the place, until they reached whatever financial target they had set for themselves. I didn’t think I could do this, it just didn’t seem worth the sacrifice, and if I was going to die from liver failure I wanted to at least be somewhere that I liked.
The final straw was that one of my flat-mates was supplying alcohol to the Saudis, who were frequent visitors in our apartment, and I was convinced that it was only a matter of time until we got caught. Although I never gave them alcohol the fact that we shared an apartment would be enough to ensure a long stay in prison, we wouldn’t be the first to be arrested for this. I also never felt safe in Saudi and sensed a mood of hostility against us westerners. This was also not long after September 11th and there were rumours that America would invade Iraq.
Halfway through my trip I rang my ward to say that I wouldn’t be coming back. I don’t think they were that surprised as it was quite a common occurrence to have nurses not return after holidays. A few people knew that I wasn’t happy there and had asked me before leaving if I intended to not come back. A part of me felt bad about not returning as I liked the work itself and the staff were a great bunch. I hated not giving them much notice but I was afraid that if I returned to Saudi they would make me finish the contract and I wouldn’t have much choice without a passport.
I was now jobless but had a bit of money so decided to spend the year travelling. I finished my tour of Vietnam and then moved onto Laos before returning to Thailand. I ended up on Koh Chang and fell in love with the island lifestyle so made it my base. I made some drinking buddies and we spent the majority of the next few months drunk together. It was also during this time that I met Sao.
Sao was Cambodian and worked in the bar of a guesthouse where one of my new drinking buddies, Rob, lived. We soon became friends with the owner of the bar, who was a Thai called Joe, and we made it our regular bar where we did most of our drinking. I never paid much attention to Sao when I met her because I didn’t really find her attractive and she was already seeing another English guy. The English guy moved on and left a depressed Sao behind. I somehow found myself alone in the bar with her at the end of a very drunken night and we ended up in bed together. A couple of days later I moved in with her.
Although Sao worked in a bar I didn’t consider her a bar-girl because she didn’t charge for sex. I knew that I was far from her first western boyfriend but I convinced myself that this didn’t mean that she was just after my money. I quickly got over not finding her attractive and soon found myself infatuated with her. It soon became apparent that she was looking for someone to support herself and her two kids and was willing to go to any lengths to achieve this. I took a trip with Joe, the owner of the bar, and my English mates, down to south Thailand and Joe’s home for the Thai new year. I was hearing bad things about Sao and when I tackled Joe about her he admitted that she was bad news and that I should keep away from her. Instead of being grateful for this information from someone who knew her a long time, I suspected him of lying due to some unknown motive.
When we got back to Koh Chang I found out that Sao had been sleeping with somebody else. It turned out that the reason why Sao had been so eager for me to go away with my friends was that she had been expecting an old boyfriend to come back. This should have been enough even for me but I allowed her to convince me to give her another chance. I hated everybody knowing that I had been made a fool of and thinking that I was an idiot for staying with her so I decided that the best thing was to leave Koh Chang.
With the help of an English girl, who had been friends with Sao, I got my first teaching job. It was a bit of a pirate outfit and it wasn’t long until it closed down. I got a better job teaching English with ECC. They sent me to a secondary school near Mo Chit and they also gave me private teaching work in there Central Plaza office. I didn’t have any teaching experience prior to Thailand but found myself in front of classes of up to fifty schoolchildren with a microphone in my hand. I coped by staying drunk most of the time.
Myself and Sao had a bed-sit on the other side of Bangkok in a place called On-Nut. We would spend a lot of our time arguing, with me frequently throwing insults at her for her unfaithfulness on Koh Chang. She would frequently get phone calls from foreign men and these would drive me berserk with jealousy. She agreed to change her sim card but sent messages to her old boyfriends with her new number. I had previously been a lousy boyfriend in my other relationships but never as jealous and insane as I was in this one. It seemed that the worse things got the more I wanted to stay with her. I was no longer even pretending to control my alcohol intake and would begin drinking from the time I woke up.
She let slip her email password and to my shame I checked it and found that she had being emailing her ex-boyfriends saying that she was alone in Bangkok with no money and could they send some. This did nothing to improve my mood and it now became impossible for me to stay sober enough to teach and so I gave up work. I blamed her for my jobless drunken state and we spent a full weekend in our bed-sit with me shouting at her, insulting her, throwing beer over her and although I am fairly certain I never actually hit her, I know I came very close. I do remember that she would hit me and I would restrain her and give her a shake. The only time I left the room was to go to the shop for more beer. It was a nightmare in hell and I shudder to remember it.
She left to stay with a friend for a few days but agreed to come back if I would stop drinking. I lasted for about three weeks. Goy who was the person who originally hired me asked me to come back. She promised me better pay, work nearer to home, a work permit and even a travel pass for work. I really liked the new school and thought the kids were great and I seemed to be good at the job when sober. I realized though that unless I was willing to default on my debts back in the UK I would need much better paying work. I couldn’t even afford to pay the minimum monthly amount on my visa card. These concerns were overshadowed though by my drinking and the fact that I didn’t trust Sao to go to the shops by herself.
A friend of mine called Kerry, who I had worked with in Oxford, arrived in Bangkok with her sister and we ended up going out on a drunken pub crawl. The next day I felt too ill to work and decided to quit yet again and go on holiday back to Koh Chang with Sao and the two girls. I was once again jobless but used my visa card to stay on Koh Chang and nearby Trat for a few weeks until eventually returning to Ireland. Kerry and her sister left after a few days and I spent the next weeks arguing and making up with Sao until it was time for me to leave. I promised her I would be back in a few months when I had earned some money. Surprisingly Goy sent me a text message to say that she was once again willing to offer me my job back with ECC but I declined.
After three months back in Ireland I had saved enough to go back to Thailand. The break had given me a chance to regain some sanity and see that if I returned to Sao it would likely end up with one of us dead. I also realized that I didn’t even like her that much and it was probably the dysfunction that I was attracted to. I returned to Thailand but never saw Sao again. She would telephone me sometimes until I eventually changed my sim card.
Although I ended up being a stereotypical drunken farang teacher I also found out that I liked the job and could be quite good at it. I decided that I needed to get some proper qualifications and was doing this right up to my arrival at Wat Thamkrabok. I had also been teaching voluntarily in two local village schools. I continued to feel bad about the way that I had let Goy and the crowd at ECC down by throwing the second chance they gave me back in their faces. I needed to add them to the growing list of people who had tried to help me but had been hurt for their efforts.
It was now coming to the end of my time at the temple. Most people stay up to a month but I had come with the intention of only staying there ten days and this seemed reasonable. My purpose had been to make the Sajja not to drink again and to complete the course of vomit-inducing medicine. I had grown to love staying at Wat Thamkrabok and didn’t want it to end but I also realized that I had probably gotten all that I needed from it already. I also thought it would be unfair to Oa if I stayed longer, especially since I had been in any contact with her in over a week. I really missed her and my dog Cola and was keen to begin my new sober life.
The last few months before arriving at Wat Thamkrabok had been full of attempts to quit alcohol and I was getting desperate. My health had deteriorated and I spent many nights drunkenly trawling the internet for solutions to my problem. I joined an online AA group and stayed sober for a few weeks with them but got irritated by what seemed their constant urging to attend a live meeting. I explained that the nearest meeting was hundreds of kilometres away as I lived in rural Thailand but it was all they could suggest. The prevalent attitude on the AA site seemed to be get on their program or I was doomed to alcoholic misery for the duration. I had once thought the same way as them but didn’t believe that AA would work for me again. I knew there had to be another way.
I found another online support group called ‘we quit drinking’ and found this lot to be much more open to different approaches to quitting alcohol. They had many members who endorsed ‘Rational Recovery’ and I could see that much of their techniques made sense in relation to things I had witnessed during my meditation and I had learnt through Buddhism. The one thing that put me off Rational Recovery though was what seemed there complete hatred of AA. I also talked to people who supported the solution provided by Alan Carr in his book ‘The easy way to stop drinking’ but this seemed to involve blaming the drinks industry for the mess we found ourselves in. I didn’t want my recovery to be about hating anything or blaming anyone as this was what I had done for most of my drunken life. I knew that my recovery could only be about me taking full responsibility for the mess my life had become and it was completely up to me to escape from it.
I got to virtually meet many good people on the ‘we quit drinking’ forum and I would stop drinking for a few weeks at a time. I realized though that while these breaks were likely given my body a chance to heal itself a bit, I also realized that I wouldn’t last long using this stop-start method. Even after being off alcohol a month I would automatically feel ill again as soon as I took the first drink. In the past I would have gotten a feeling of a relief on my return to alcohol but now there was only pain from the first drop.
A part of me had given up all hope of ever recovering from my addiction but another part of me wouldn’t give up. Inside I knew that if there was a solution it would need to involve my Buddhist beliefs. I was once again trawling the internet when I somehow came across the Wat Thamkrabok website. I had lived in Thailand for a few years already at this stage but had somehow missed hearing about this magical place. As I looked at the website and read about the services provided I was full with excitement because this is what I had been looking for years for. This was the solution, I was sure of it.
I made arrangements to arrive at Wat Thamkrabok the next day as I needed to go on a visa run to Myanmar first. These visa runs were something us non-retired or work- permit holders needed to do at least every three months so that we could remain legally in Thailand. It involved crossing over the border into a neighbouring country and immediately coming back to get a new entry visa. I made the three hundred and thirty kilometre motorbike journey to Mae Sot and the Myanmar border and the next day I made the four hundred odd kilometre journey to Wat Thamkrabok.
On my last full day at the temple I renewed my Sajja not to drink again and made another Sajja vow to remain a Buddhist for the rest of my life. The renewal of the vow wasn’t really needed but I had been in such a state when I originally made it that I wanted to redo it now that I was sober and could properly appreciate the significance of the occasion. This time there was only myself and the monk in charge of given the Sajjas. I would like to think that I made a better effort at repeating the Pali phrases on this occasion. The monk also provided me with a secret Pali mantra which I could recite in times of high stress. He told me to memorize it and after twenty-four hours to eat the paper it was written on.
My reason for taking the vow to remain a Buddhist for the rest of my life was that I wanted to make a more formal commitment to my beliefs. I realized that there is a lot of wisdom in other religions out there but I also felt that life is too short to be swapping and changing beliefs. Theravadan Buddhism works for me and so I decided to devote the rest of my life to learning about this one branch of the Buddha’s path.
At the last vomit ceremony I attended the medicine-monk presented me with a parcel full of a secret medicine that would help heal my liver. He had heard that I was worried about my health and had gone to the trouble of making it for me. I was delighted to receive his help.
On the last night it was hard saying goodbye to everyone and I actually felt a bit weepy although I managed to hide it. I went around swapping email addresses and collecting hugs. I had arranged to leave at five o’clock in the morning because I wanted to get as much of the long journey out of the way before the sun got too strong. The monks would be up at this time and would be able to open the area where my Honda Wave was locked inside. It was soon time to go to bed and I said goodbye to Sharon for the last time. I told her that I really hoped she would make it off the drugs and live the fantastic life she was meant to.
I didn’t think that I would be able to sleep but I did and didn’t wake up until my alarm clock went off at four-thirty in the morning. I had already been given the rest of my stuff the night before but asked to promise not to use my mobile phone until I left the temple. I didn’t see this as too much of a hardship.
I changed into my normal clothes and it felt strange to be wearing them. I said goodbye to Matt who was still half asleep and Danny decided to accompany me to the gate. While we waited for my motorbike to be released the morning sweep began. I really wanted to join them and I was suddenly filled with a desire not to leave. I knew I had to go though.
My bike was slow starting because I hadn’t used it in ten days but I eventually got her going. I gave my final farewells to Danny and monks who had come to see me off and I rode away through the dark through the grounds at Wat Thamkrabok and out onto the main road.
I wasn’t riding long when sunrise began. I was suddenly overwhelmed with tears of gratitude and with joy. I knew for a certainty that my alcohol problem was now behind me and that all those years of suffering had not been for nothing. In the words of Phra Hans they were a tool which got me where I was today. My life was going in a different direction now and who knew where it would eventually lead. I knew that although I was leaving Wat Thamkrabok behind me it would remain apart of me forever and that I would spend the rest of my life thankful for its existence.