Just before 6 AM on the first day of 2019 my boyfriend wakes me. He kisses me and pulls me upright. He folds my hands around a cup of coffee. I ask him for a cigarette. He lights one and passes it to me. I inhale and realise how happy I am to see him; how happy I am that it’s a new year.
I am 197 days clean and sober and, these days, when I open my eyes, my first thought is not of heroin.
In the four weeks we’ve been together, Nikolai and I have developed a routine.
“What’s today?” he says in his thick, Russian accent.
I play dumb, like I always do, and widen my eyes blankly.
“Yes, what is today?”
I draw in more nicotine and look to the ceiling for answers. “Oh!” I turn and smile at him. “Today is the best day of my life!”
“Yes,” he laughs. “It is.”
My hippocampus lays down new memories.
I begin to see a future.
I know the drill: in early recovery from drug addiction you’re repeatedly told to not get into a relationship for at least 12 months. Rehabs, sponsors, and 12-Step groups all agree—just don’t. Newly sober addicts are too fragile. Intimacy is a trigger. We confuse lust and love. It’s simply switching addictions from a drug to a person. We don’t know who we are or what we want and that’s not a great space from which to pick a partner. We’re damaged goods. “You don’t go to the wreckers to buy a car,” they say.
If the relationship fails, can I deal with those painful feelings without reaching for a chemical substance?
I did not intend to get into a relationship. I never do. When packing for Thailand, I told myself: No nice lingerie. You’re going to rehab, you have no need for anything other than sensible cotton underwear. I don’t care how lonely you get, or how much you need a cuddle. I don’t care that, post-detox, your libido, like everyone else’s in rehab, will start working again. It’s not the time. Plus, I had a boyfriend – even though I knew before I got on the plane that I had to break up with him.
In the battle between logic and desire, logic lost and I lean on my intuition that Nikolai is not a danger to be around. Recovery is not for those who need it, they say, but for those who want it. Like myself, Nikolai wants it.
I am sitting with him when he finds a small bag of heroin in the pocket of a pair of jeans he hasn’t worn since arriving in Thailand. He goes pale. So do I. We look at the bag.
“Help me get rid of it,” he says.
We give it to a counsellor, who flushes it. It is the first time either of us have thrown away drugs and it seals something between us. We do not want that; we want something else.
We joke about what we’d tell our mothers.
“Mum, I’ve met an amazing, big Russian junkie who’s fucked up his life as bad as me!”
“Mum, I’ve met the girl of my dreams! She’s a bad Aussie junkie that’s done more rehabs than I have. Oh, and she’s writing a column about all the awful shit she did on heroin!”
We keep it quiet, until we can’t anymore. We decide to leave Sriracha and the rehab community; to go to Chiang Mai, via Bangkok and Laos. I am aware that I may be making a mistake. I barely know Nikolai. I am in early recovery and barely know myself, clean. The rehab staff and clients shake their heads, smiling grimly. They hug me goodbye as if I am already dead.
I am not arrogant enough to say I know what I’m doing. I don’t, but I roll the dice knowing I’m prepared to pick up the tab.
I have been to 19 treatment centres in the past four years. I spent seven months of 2018 in rehabs. As much as quitting drugs is about getting my freedom back, I am institutionalised; I have forgotten how to be free. I am used to being cooked for, not cooking. I do not find it abnormal to be chaperoned at the supermarket. Mail or debt collectors cannot find me, and no one gets angry when I ignore them. How can they? I am in rehab.
In Bangkok, it becomes clear I am unpractised at being responsible for myself in the real world. I function clumsily. I ask teenagers working in 7-Elevens to help me top up my phone credit. I never drink enough water because I forget to buy it. I discover toilet paper does not refill itself. I get lost despite Google maps always being open. I know how to say: "Go to hell" in Thai but not practical phrases like "How much is that?" Dirty laundry no longer returns neatly folded. Food is a chore. I can't get it together. Breakfast never happens and Nikolai’s seafood allergy makes other meals complicated. Our Thai is not good enough to explain that if he consumes even a small amount of fish sauce he will go into anaphylactic shock. His heart will stop, and he will die. He asks if I’d mind carrying his second EpiPen and shows me how to stab him in the thigh. I start eating convenience store cheese toasties and learning the coordinates to the nearest hospitals.
People are “concerned about me”. I receive messages asking if I am really ok. I have transgressed. These things are not supposed to work out. Couples who meet in rehab are common but ones that stay clean are not. They are as rare as a Kadupul Orchid. Yet weeks pass, and we don’t use. We have fun. We stay in a nice apartment in a Bangkok slum, which we only find with the help of a female Yabba addict and her family. At night we sit in the streets, watching life around us: drunk tourists in elephant-print pants, old sexpats on scooters, Thai women standing outside clubs, flicking their hair. We shoot BB guns at a market; watch people throw rubber balls at women in lycra dresses who balance on perches above tubs of water. We pinch tubes out of fluorescent lights and smash them on each other’s legs like light sabres. We collapse often, our laughter mixed with tears. Everything is new. It feels good to share it with someone.
“Sometimes I have so much fun with you that I don’t even realise we are at the supermarket buying soap,” he tells me.
Sometimes I get better than what I imagined.
We are lovers and we are friends, and it makes me sad that people expect us to fail.
I worry about the future. I long for reassurance. I wish for guarantees. In the AA Big Book, I find a promise I cling to: “So long as I follow this way, I have nothing to fear”.
It does not tell me I’ll get what I want. It does not tell me that my life will be wonderful. It just tells me that I don’t have to be afraid anymore.
At a 12-step meeting in Bangkok, I meet an American woman with long green hair. We smoke a cigarette and she asks how long my boyfriend and I have been together. I tell her, sheepishly, that we met in a treatment facility.
She laughs: “Oh don’t worry! My boyfriend and I got together in rehab too.”
She flicks her butt into the gutter.
“He died about three months ago. He was 15 months clean when he relapsed. One shot and he was dead.”
She tells me she really loved him. It was the first relationship she’d had clean. It was different. They were present. It was beautiful.
A few weeks after he died she relapsed too. Even though she’d never done it before, she started using heroin. Today she's ok but she’s not sure about tomorrow. She’s back to being amazed if she can get a day up.
She frightens me.
Just before coming to Thailand, Nikolai had one shot of heroin, after being clean for a few weeks. He overdosed and came straight from an ICU in Portugal to rehab.
It could happen to me.
My faith - in myself, in Nikolai, in the program, in a Higher Power - is not solid enough yet to quell my terror.
Like me, Nikolai worries he’s a bad person. Drugs turned us into monsters. He worries that I’d judge him if I knew the things he’d done. He writes his life story and sends it to me, but I decide not to read it. I don’t want to know him on drugs. I don’t want to know me on drugs. I choose to go off how he is, now, clean, with me.
“I am nicer to you than I have been to anyone in my life,” he says.
He tells me this as we shop for stationary, our preparation for returning to work. We buy more than we intended and are encumbered by several large, heavy shopping bags.
“I forgot!” he yells as we step outside. “We need a lightbulb. You stay with the bags, I’ll go back.”
I sit by the scooter and smoke. After 10 minutes, I'm bored. I watch the sunset. After 20 minutes, I'm worried. I can’t carry all the bags. I’m stuck waiting for a big Russian with a lightbulb. Worry becomes anxiety. He’s stolen something and was arrested. He found a dealer lurking by the paperclips and bought a bag of dope. He’s an asshole and has left me here.
When he appears 40 minutes later, I’m furious.
“What the fuck?”
“I’m sorry. I took your lamp in to get fixed. I know it’s been bothering you.”
He pulls my lamp, and a lightbulb, out of his backpack and shows me.
What I want to do is hug him and tell him I was worried but what I do is fall quiet. I put on my helmet and ignore him as we ride back to our hotel.
I am not angry he kept me waiting. I’m angry because I care, and I don’t know how to express that.
“Nikolai?” I say, quietly.
He smiles, and the tenderness astounds me.
The ground does not open up. The sky does not fall.
We catch a small plane to Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of Laos, to do a visa run. We spend the days exploring dirt roads and villages on a rented scooter. We follow the Mekong as far as we can and toss coins to decide where to go next. We accidentally wander into an English school. Nikolai speaks to a young Buddhist monk who loves Eminem but keeps getting in trouble for playing it at the temple. I talk to three teenage boys about how studying English and working doesn’t leave much time to meet girls. They giggle and one of them stares at my breasts.
Later, Nikolai takes me to a surprise destination. We drive for two hours to another village along the Mekong. A man takes us across the river on a long, thin boat to a majestic cliff face with stairs carved into it. We walk, up and up, until we reach the entrance of a large cave, where we are given torches. The cave is filled with hundreds of golden Buddhas. It reminds me of Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers:
“ Because I have been to the middle of our planet; at any rate, have suffered the tribulations such a journey might inflict…And listen, Florie – I have met Unspoiled Monsters! Spoiled ones, too.”
I too have suffered and searched, and I can see that the “tribulations such a journey might inflict” have been necessary. Without them, perhaps I would not be here now, in a cave on the edge of the Mekong river with someone I am beginning to love. I am glad that we found each other. “The odds of not meeting in this life are so great,” wrote Yoko Ono, “that every meeting is like a miracle”.
Nikolai grabs me and smothers me my whole body in a giant hug.
“If someone had told me a few months ago as I lay on my single, red-striped mattress with no sheets, shooting dope, that I’d be exploring caves along the Mekong with a beautiful Australian, I would have laughed at them,” he says.
Sometimes we get better than what we expect.
Now that I have stopped using heroin, I worry about dying. I find a lump in my right breast and assume it's cancer. After an X-ray and ultrasound, the doctor assures me it’s not. I secretly read statistics on Thai road fatalities. I see myself hurtling through the air in a scooter crash. Nikolai is always tightening my helmet strap.
“If it’s too loose, when you fall, it will break your neck,” he says.
I think of an ex who crashed his motorbike in Thailand and obliterated his leg. I think of a man I met as a child who was almost decapitated and used an electrolarynx to speak. I think about a friend who also met a man in rehab. They stayed clean and she was 37 when she became pregnant. I was eating green olives at a restaurant in Melbourne when I got a call from her partner saying that she was dead, at 39, from lung cancer. The baby had to be terminated.
Dusk falls and the Mekong glistens. We drive through villages, along bumpy dirt roads back to our hotel. The wind is cold, and I cling to Nikolai like a koala. He slows down as we approach a village where cars and bikes have stopped in the street. I see chunks of plastic and metal and shards of glass scattered on the road. We stop. To my left is a dead man. He is on his back, strangely straight, with his hands by his sides. His head is a mess. Burgundy blood seeps out of him, making small rivers between the glass and metal islands.
We move on, not saying much. Both of us have seen dead bodies before, but this one seems pathetic, broken like a cheap toy.
I tighten my helmet.
I finger the EpiPen.
Some of us drop and some of us don’t.
I roll the dice.
So long as I follow this way, I have nothing to fear.
We cling to a small machine made of metal and hurtle towards the sun.
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