In the previous piece I discussed the personal impact of seeing the image of Venerable Quang Duc on fire. Profound as that was – establishing my idea of monks as formidable, righteous, worthy of great respect, and definitely onto something – it was only an underlying condition that subliminally prepped my way into Buddhism. It wasn’t a direct cause, since I didn’t just drop everything and hie me to a monastery on the strength of that. Why would I?
I had grown up in a liberal humanist/atheist household, and I suppose that my parents believed in progress as the key to human happiness. Both individually and societally – be it economic, political, medical, technological, educational, psychological – whatever. They had grown up during World War 2, and one of my grandmothers had been a refugee. Within their lifetimes the world saw the Nazis defeated, the National Health Service founded, smallpox eradicated, and the fall of the Berlin Wall (to name but a few dramatic milestones).
Progress seemed to be working – things were getting visibly better. They didn’t want old beliefs and superstitions. Actively rejected them perhaps – since they associated “oldthink” with many of the miseries from which humanity was struggling, apparently successfully, to redeem itself in the later 20th century. For those in need of transcendent experience, we had the arts. What need for spiritual comforts or hope of a better afterlife?
As I grew older and began to think more for myself, I still saw no reason to bring religion to the table. The material world seemed more than enough. It was very kind to me, in fact. With no particular plan, I stumbled into a career in music. It was the early 1990s – an exciting time for music, after the cultural desert of the 80s, when everything seemed tidy, bland and businesslike. Pop-stars dressed like bankers (or like bankers playing squash – two options there) and it seemed like the world belonged to Phil Collins. But now the strange, the difficult, the dirty, and the creative – all began to flourish again, across all genres.
Rock went grunge, or neo-proggy – losing the spandex and poodle-hair, anyway – and was then deemed hip enough to have a steamy affair with Funk, spawning misbegotten rogues with hybrid vigour, like the Chili Peppers. People like Prince made it fashionable again to be able to really, properly play that thing. Dance music outgrew its early idiot-child bleatings and bleepings, and entered a splendidly moody, spotty, teenage phase, complete with awful smells and ideas above its station. Eccentrically talented weirdos, like Björk, Beck, and Tori Amos were having in the mainstream pop-charts. Even jazz was arguably cool(ish), I was playing quite a lot of jazz at that time, and even making some money doing so. Yes! [okay, not a lot of money, but some!] and “World” music [as opposed to what??] properly busted loose upon our Western ears. To name but a few cool developments…
Downloading hadn’t yet killed record sales, so there was still plenty of money around to fund all this delightful madness. “Play the game of life and win”, I thought, and I seemed to be on the winning side. I was happy, I supposed – optimistic, reasonably fulfilled, or at least very well entertained. I was making a living doing something I loved, and that didn’t require getting up early. Score! So what messed it all up? Why am I now a nutter in an orange bedsheet?
Hint: rhymes with “hugs”
Sorry to be predictable, but it was drugs. Did anyone guess drugs? Clichéd as it sounds, I actually wasn’t – as you may have lazily assumed – a debauched Caligulan monster from the outset. I had initially been more the nerdy kind of musician, spending many solitary hours obsessively practising in my girl-free-zone of a bedroom, rather than wallowing in the filth, the fury, and the champagne-filled jacuzzi. I was goal-orientated – getting off on the music, wanted to be on top of my game. Quite sensible and wary, I was – didn’t even drink much. Not until my mid-twenties did I dip a toe in the water, but I made up for lost time. I didn’t spend too long paddling in the shallows with kiddie, hedonistic party drugs before finding my way to the deep end with a fine and handsome cocaine habit. Then, since a diet of raw stimulants gets a bit nerve-wracking, I balanced things up with an equally impressive heroin habit.
When you’ve got a life to demolish, these really are the power tools, so it took a mere three years to completely lay waste to everything. The music industry will tolerate that kind of foolishness to a considerably greater extent than many other professions, so it’s a tribute to my single-minded dedication to mayhem that I managed to become a complete pariah in such a relatively short time. I then had about a year at rock-bottom. Everything had ground to a halt. While I listlessly kept up some token activities, the truth is that I didn’t really do anything significant besides obtain and consume drugs. I could have easily continued the drift towards oblivion (which is inevitable, by the way – there’s no stasis in drug-world: if a problem isn’t getting better, then it’s getting worse), but I had only just turned thirty. Some part of me remained that wasn’t quite ready to say: “well that was it, that was me.” So I began to wonder about possible solutions.
Solution 1: Drugs are bad, m’kay? Don’t do drugs
The obvious one was to stop filling myself with noxious mind-bending chemicals. Seems eminently logical – what is the cause of a drug problem? Well, drugs, obviously! I would have to tough it out for a week or two, and then wait a while longer for everything to reset to “normal,” but it seemed perfectly do-able. I didn’t consider myself a weak person – I could be determined about goals, I could handle difficult stuff.
And… like nearly everyone, I collapsed rapidly, utterly, and humiliatingly. And again, when I tried it again. Not that it was a complete waste of time, because I did learn something crucial: I learned that treating a drug-problem in isolation is futile and doomed to fail. A more fundamental restructuring is needed. That’s a very bold and categorical statement. Why would I say that?
Well, here’s my take on it. It’s subjective, and I’ll admit that I’m fleshing out some details now with the benefit of hindsight. It certainly wasn’t as clearly and coherently formulated as (I hope) it will be here. Still, even then, I had an inkling that it was something like this:
There is no returning to “normal.” Even if theoretically possible, returning would only reboot a personality that had been just about to get itself a major drug-habit in order to cope with whatever it couldn’t cope with. That may be just personal flaws – self-indulgence, frustrated narcissism, etc. It may be some kind of trauma. There may be genetic components. It may be complex, with no single cause, and I’m not sure that it’s worth spending too much time and effort trying to precisely pin it down since the initial remedy is the same in any case. But here’s the thing: even if you didn’t have trauma going into a major drug habit, then the habit will most certainly supply you with one. Drum roll please…
This trauma resides in coming face-to-face with who you are when presented simultaneously with something you want (drugs) and something you fear (withdrawal). And these two powerful reagents combine inside a fertile petri-dish of self-pity. With combined poisons like these acting on us – as in war, famine, or zombie apocalypse – the chemical reaction can usually be expected to deliver something rather appalling. Some steaming, fizzingly-toxic cocktail of weak, cowardly, selfish, narcissistic, dishonest, manipulative, ruthless, shameless, ridiculous, uncool, unkind… I could add more ingredients to that list, but those’ll do.
Once seen, you cannot unsee. You can try to retreat back into your habit, trying to look away from the horror-mirror you have glimpsed yourself in by maintaining a blurry state of mind, obsessing on the habit itself, and strenuously deny the feelings towards oneself that will arise in all but the most shameless sociopath. You could go on for years like that. During those years you could, and probably will, also create a plethora of associated dramas that can monopolise your attention, helping you to look anywhere but directly at that terrible Dorian Gray image, while still claiming to be “trying to sort yourself out”.
Another popular strategy, perhaps in addition to the first, when it has started to wear thin, is to focus on all the ways – valid or spurious – that the decay could be said to be not your fault. This can really keep you busy, and even be quite rewarding in its own way, if there are people around you who are sympathetic (and long-suffering) enough.
But if you want out, I’m afraid once you know, you will have to act on that knowledge.
What needs to happen is a reset to being a far better person than you were before.
Is that all? So what shall we do after lunch?
I encounter a remarkable amount of resistance to this idea of a moral component to recovery – it does sound a bit “judgy”, doesn’t it? But then there is also a remarkably low recovery rate from chronic addiction. Clearly, something is missing from most approaches that most people are taking to it, and that’s my take on what it might be.
Or to address that a little less glibly: There may be many reasons why a person has manifested a drug problem, and be unable to easily extricate themselves from it. Some of these might warrant a great deal of sympathy, but that really isn’t the point here. When trapped in a burning building, our priority shouldn’t be to first identify the cause of the fire, it’s to GET OUT! And tact is most definitely way off the top of the priorities list in such circumstances. Am I being overly dramatic making such comparisons? Well…
No, I’m not
Just how difficult is it to kick a major habit? You’ll never get truly reliable statistics, since addicts are generally less-than-honest about it, and people whose jobs depend on offering effective help may tend towards a certain optimistic bias. But even going just by government stats (from just about any government) – you won’t see many double-digits claimed for “enters treatment, remains drug-free one year later.” That’s pitiful. Tragic.
For context: a noticeably larger percentage of people will make it all the way to the South Pole on foot, unsupported (ie. dragging everything they need on a sledge). An even larger percentage will reach the summit of Everest without supplementary oxygen. A little Googling of statistics on a general theme of “things that are famously difficult and gruelling” will suggest that you might have a better chance of succeeding at almost any of them.
There are all kinds of ways in which those are arguably tenuous comparisons, but still, I’m making them to give a sense of what kind of territory we are in here. The person who succeeds at reaching such a lofty destination, with so many bleached bones littering the way, will have to find whatever part of them could be called, perhaps, the “heroic.” Even should they may fear that, at the start of the journey at least, this may not be a very large or impressive part.
But heroes don’t necessarily have to be big and tough and good with swords and hurting. It was Hobbit-courage that saved Middle Earth. The heroism that keeps on trudging on stumpy little legs, and keeps perfectly still when Black Riders come sniffing around. Self-pity has to go, excuse-making has to go. Fear and fatigue must be mastered, and it will require sacrifice. I only started this LOTR analogy for fun, but I think it’s turning out to be quite apt. You start by sacrificing your familiar hole, and then mosey all the way to the crack of Mount Doom, and finally you have to chuck the precioussss in (and Gollum will most definitely be lurking around).
And if that isn’t enough, then there’s the whole “dark forces are gathering, so don’t hang about too long” aspect. Meaning – the additional damage, complication and hopelessness racked up by a persistent habit tend to get exponential after a certain point, after which the odds a wise gambler might place on a successful schlep to Mordor begin to dwindle out of sight.
Solution 2: Drugs are good, m’kay? Do drugs
I quickly decided that none of the medical professionals’ services seemed likely to do the trick. There were basically two ways to go. There was the psycho-pharma approach, in which “bad” drugs are replaced with “good” ones. You can end up taking medications for anxiety, depression, insomnia, pain-control, etc., in addition to drugs specifically for relieving withdrawal symptoms. Rather than, say – heroin, which ticks all of those boxes simultaneously.
A fistful of pills is obviously equally (very) attractive to an addict and to the pharmaceutical industry, resulting in a tacit conspiracy to pretend that this “works”. If the flaws in it are not immediately obvious, then a little time spent around detox facilities will reveal them in the form of large numbers of people struggling with addiction to prescription pharmaceuticals. Coming off them can be no less hellish – in fact frequently worse – than traditional “bad’ drugs, particularly since there can then be multiple interacting withdrawal syndromes. I didn’t bother much with this – if I was still going to be an addict, then I knew which drugs I favoured.
Solution 3: Wasting nice people’s time
Then there was the counselling/therapy approach, which I spent a bit more time with. I admittedly used it mainly as an opportunity to satisfyingly vent towards a kind and patient person about how difficult things were for me. Occasionally they’d slip in some very mild, very tactful attempt to steer me towards some more positive outlook or some modest goal. It was all very pleasant, and I left every session feeling a little bit better. But no less likely to go and score drugs. If truth be told, I would generally score immediately afterwards, since I would then be already in town, and I lived a little way out in the countryside, so it made for an efficient round-trip.
I don’t want to sound too critical, because there are many excellent people working in those fields, and usually for pretty scant rewards. Undoubtedly they do a lot of good, but I think mainly in terms of harm reduction, and stabilising the lives of those who are probably never going to be free of their addictions. These being, sadly, the vast majority, this probably is indeed the most efficient way to allocate state funding in terms of net benefit to society. But these are not waystations on the hero’s lonely path.
Frodo didn’t have a therapist. Okay, he had Gandalf. And Sam. And Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli. And the rest of the Fellowship. Okay – and Elrond. He had plenty of people offering practical help, guidance, encouragement, inspiration, and friendship. But not one of these was interested in discussing why it was difficult and scary for him, and how he felt about that. They all knew it was hard, and that he wasn’t sure if he was up to it – that much was bloody obvious, so why dwell on it? It was the Fellowship of the Ring, not the mummyship. There certainly is a time and place for unconditional, non-judgmental positive regard, or suchlike. But that’s not when you’re embarking on a desperate quest, with fates in the balance, and orcs on your tail.
Note: I am currently in the process of reviewing these pieces, as well as expanding my knowledge of other approaches to getting clean. For now, I would like to emphasize that these are my personal experiences, which were not extensive in this area, and furthermore that I am beginning to be aware that therapeutic techniques with addictions may have made some progress in the two decades that have passed. No offence is intended to anyone, and in fact – Note 2: I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has had constructive experiences with any “talking cure” therapies.
Then there was the 12-step thing. That seemed more along the right lines (it calls itself a “fellowship” for a start) and it certainly emphasises the moral dimension of recovery. And it is undoubtedly successful – wherever you are in the world, you’re probably not too far from a 12-step meeting. And it is probably true to say that the largest group of people you may meet who have serious drug or alcohol dependency firmly in their past will have taken this route out of it, or some variation thereon. Here though, I had a “God problem.” The 12 steps begin with admitting that we are powerless over drugs, and then asking God or some “higher power” to deliver us.
Strangely, I might be alright with that now [which is whole other discussion that could open up…], but back then, it really was a non-starter for me. Despite a lot of well-meant efforts to not scare modern atheists away, saying “It doesn’t have to be like – GOD-god, it can be… [etc.]” it was very apparent to me that all the doctrines and practices would work much better if god was just God. And I wasn’t acquainted with God, and so I couldn’t begin with faith. And I couldn’t begin with powerlessness. That was contrary to my vibe. I had a foreboding that if I said those words, they would feed the demon, whereas I wanted to laugh at the imp. Less poetically – I needed to believe that it wasn’t the strength of addiction, but rather my own weakness, that had me trapped – because that was something I stood a chance of doing something about, even if it was initially a more bitter pill to swallow.
High-Me to a Monastery
Although I hadn’t been impressed by available treatment options via NHS drug services, I had become friendly with one of the counsellors, Mike Sarson (thanks, Mike), who seemed a bit of a maverick within the system. He told me about a place he had a feeling might appeal to me.
There was a residential detox, completely independent and unaffiliated – he said – in Thailand, with treatment offered free of charge to all comers of any nationality. It had been built and was staffed entirely by Buddhist monks and nuns at their monastery, Thamkrabok. He had been there and said it was pretty cool. He told me a few more details, but I’m not sure how much it sank in at that time, partly due to my bio-chemical state, and partly due to how unexpected, outlandish, and frankly unlikely this all sounded.
Then over the next few days, the idea began to take hold, and I suppose this was where that dormant image in my mind of Quang Duc in flames began to exert an influence. Of the little that I knew about Buddhist monks, I knew that they might know a thing or two about dealing with the tough stuff. About going through with their intention despite anything up to, and including, being on fire. Of course, they would know how to get through the comparatively mild inconvenience of cold turkey.
Note 3: I realise now, of course, that this was my “higher power” – DUH! So again – no offence, hopefully, taken by any 12-steppers.
And then weird serendipity kicked in, as it so often seems to once a decision has been taken. Just a few days later, the Saturday Guardian newspaper ran a photo-feature story on the very self-same place. I opened my usual weekend read to a large colour photograph of two chaps standing inside a circle of big, black Buddha statues, having what looked like a most pleasant and cheerful conversation. One late-middle-aged, in the tawny robes of a Thai forest monk who, the caption said, was Phra Hans, originally from Switzerland; and the other younger, dressed in red pyjamas, who was Stuart from Scotland.
I don’t recall a single thing from the accompanying article, and obviously I had no idea what they were actually chatting about. But it looked a lot more interesting than me droning on at some professionally nice person about predictably petty resentments in my own boring little life, in the faint hope that they might magically fix themselves.
“Of course” I thought, (although probably not quite as snappily and all-at-once-eureka-moment as I’m re-phrasing it here) – “that’s how it’s done. Drug addiction isn’t defeated by endlessly, half-heartedly wrestling with it, or making yourself the tragic hero in a narcissistic melodrama. It’s by putting it down, and leaving it behind, to engage with the many far more important stories there are in life. Perhaps I’m not the most interesting thing in the room…”[I know, bear with me – thought experiment in progress]
I wanted to be in that circle of Buddhas saying, “But enough about me – what are you doing here, Phra Hans? What’s the story there? How do you spend your days? How’s that going for you?” I wanted to be in the company of people who – provided there were no matters that might require setting themselves ablaze on any given day – would be good-humoured, big-hearted, able to be interested in others, and in the welfare of others. And if there were, then they’d just fill up the petrol-can and stoically, unsentimentally, get on with it.
Subsequent experience of meeting many monks, and later being one, has taught me that I was setting quite a high bar there for what I thought the average monk should be, but I now had an alignment and a trajectory. I wasn’t just stuck at the bottom of a deep dark pit, wondering whether it was worth attempting to climb out towards I-knew-not-what. I had an example of human potential, which I had photographic proof was attainable (thanks, Malcolm Browne). To mix and mismatch my climbing metaphors: now, getting drug-free no longer looked like the summit of Everest. It was more like Base Camp 1 (or 2 maybe, let’s not get too cocky), and I was already looking beyond it. Getting there still seemed daunting, yes, but also exhilarating.
I am convinced that the dismal rate of failure with giving up drugs is not due to the difficulty of the thing per se. I think a large component might actually be fear of succeeding, in case life is now just emptier and harsher without our old familiar comfort. Like climbing to Base Camp One just to be tired, bloody cold, and not have anything very appetising to eat. With no higher goal, no reason to keep climbing, yep – you’d probably just want to scuttle straight back down again ASAP. Put more succinctly – actually I’m not very good at putting things succinctly, so I’ll ask Nietzsche to help out here – “When you have a why, you can live any how.”
So I went back to see Mike and find out more about this place. It turned out there wasn’t really any application process – you just get in touch with this monk, who turned out to be Phra Hans of the Buddha circle. He asked me only the most rudimentary questions about my condition and history, and said to come as soon as I liked – no waiting list, no messing around. I asked what I should bring with me, and he said “as little as possible” maybe mosquito repellent (for me), and salami (for him). A week-and-a-half later, I arrived at Thamkrabok.
In loving memory of my cousin, Lisa de Sousa, who did not make it to Mordor.