This is the last article in the series ‘What I Want to Tell You About Heroin’ from VICE friend and contributor Hannah Brooks. Hannah is a Melbourne-based writer and musician, who has spent the past several years battling a heroin addiction.
I arrive in Chiang Mai on a full moon. I have a suitcase; a framed photo of my puppy, Mr Bojangles, who is still back in Australia; a motorcycle helmet; an orchid that is either dying or resting, and a tall Russian boyfriend called Nikolai. I’ve never been to Chiang Mai before, but after leaving rehab in Southern Thailand and travelling for a few weeks, I have decided to move here.
Chiang Mai is called the Rose of North Thailand. Shadowed by mountains and founded in the 13th century, it’s home to one million people and 300 Buddhist temples. Its city centre is fortified by ancient crumbling walls. There’s a strong recovery community here: old men on retirement visas who are 20, 30, 40 years sober, and younger recovering addicts and alcoholics, who, like me, went to rehab in Thailand and are looking for somewhere neutral to stay while learning to live without drugs.
I want to build a life here: become better, carve a future. I’ve gotten clean and now it’s time to try living clean.
I came to Thailand eight months ago with a heroin habit I couldn’t handle. I wanted to stop but I couldn’t. In four years I had, mostly willingly, checked into 18 different rehabs, clinics and detoxes. I had attended hundreds of 12-Step meetings, I could quote passages of the Big Book and explain the science: the way drugs affect dopamine, the midbrain, and hippocampus. I could argue the the disease model of addiction—that, as the American National Institute on Drug Abuse says: “Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disorder characterised by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences”. I could do these things, but after detoxing, once heroin had left my body and I was no longer physically dependent, I would still start using again.
The adverse consequences had become extreme: car accidents, overdoses, other people’s overdoses, septicaemia, convulsions, kidney infections, being arrested, eviction, destitution, degradation, and fear. As I lurched closer to death, I became increasingly numb to the ramifications of my addiction, but stopping meant I would have to face them—something I was terrified to do. It was preferable to keep using. Rehab in Thailand was my 19th official attempt to stop. I agreed to come here for six weeks but refused to delete my dealers’ numbers. This wouldn’t work, nothing worked, and I would need them when I returned home to Australia.
I still don’t understand what happened, but something changed. I got clean. The desire to use faded. I worked on myself. I put on weight, I started smiling. I cancelled my flight home. I tried to do what I was told, and I stayed clean. That I am alive is remarkable. That I am eight months clean is extraordinary. My mother calls it a miracle and while that word is so laden with hallelujahs and images of Jesus-freaks with tambourines, I can’t find a better one to describe what’s happened.
Before the miracle, my relapses looked the same: I’d go home, to the same city, to heroin, to the familiar agony of addiction. Detoxed, clearer, full of good intentions, I’d put my key in the front door and review my recovery plan: “Spend the next hour unpacking and then get to the 12PM meeting”.
I can do that.
I’d start, but the stillness, the unsettling difference of being home and not being high would frighten me.
If my dealer answers, I’ll get on. If he doesn’t I’ll stick it out.
He always answered.
I have relied on drugs for comfort, company, and relief for most of my adult life. Learning to exist without them – how to make a cup of coffee without heroin, how to answer the phone, how to deal with downtime – is like teething. For four years, I gave in when things got too uncomfortable. Heroin gave me immediate relief. Long-term desires were like dreams I’d forgotten I ever had.
Recovery, I am told, has no end point. There is no finish line. I will never be “recovered”. It’s a process. A new way of life. Going back home, to what I know and have tried before, won’t work. I need a fresh start. I need time.
Within a week of arriving in Chiang Mai, Nikolai, a recovering heroin addict I met in rehab and fell in love with, and I move into a condo. It’s in Nimmanhaemin, the hip part of Chiang Mai, which we don’t really care for, but the bathtub, which is a rarity in Thailand, overrides our hesitation. From our condo we can see Doi Suthep, a large mountain that frames the western side of the city. Nestled towards the top is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a 14th century Buddhist temple. At night, its lights are comforting.
We spend a lot of time drinking coffee and smoking Camels in the bathtub. It’s nice to have a home but I struggle to pay rent. I need more money. I need sheets, new sandals, towels, shampoo, conditioner, saucepans, a broom, ashtrays, washing powder, bras, a new toothbrush, Wi-Fi, an iPhone screen that is not so shattered that it leaves flecks of glass in my cheek. I need food.
When I was on drugs I stole everything. All my money went on heroin. Life things that humans need were secondary and had to be secured by non-monetary means. I would walk into stores and take whatever I wanted. I was good at shoplifting. I was never caught, and I never felt bad. I ran on junkie entitlement: I need it more than you. My life is harder than yours. Would you prefer me to starve? Would you prefer to give me some money?
I can’t do it clean. The temptation is there but it feels wrong. I can’t let the fear of not having enough dictate my actions. I need to try the opposite of what I did in addiction. I need to try living on faith, not fear.
Nikolai—more pragmatic, more logical, more Russian—struggles with my things-will-be-ok approach.
“I am not from your Byron Bay,” he says.
“Yeah, and I’m not from Volgograd,” I remind him. “All I know is that when I try to control everything to get what I want, I get stressed and fearful and I end up back in rehab.”
“Hippie,” he scoffs, throwing a handful of bubbles at me.
“Oh come on!” I yell. “Has your way ever worked out that well for you in the past?”.
He laughs. “Look”, he says, “We’re doing ok for two junkies fresh out of rehab”.
It’s true: we’re clean, we have a home, we have each other, we are putting in the work. But I resent the “for a junkie” qualifier. I’m tired of being a junkie. When will I get to the point where I can just say: I’m doing ok, as a person?
Faith is vital, but positivity and affirmations won’t pay the bills.
Most Westerners in Chiang Mai teach English for a living. I look into it. Some companies want a resume, which when you’ve been a full-time drug addict, can be problematic. I have plenty of professional experience, but there are gaps:
2007 – 2009 Heroin problem, quit job, on welfare, played rock and roll
2009 – 2010 In rehab for seven-and-a-half months
2010 – 2012 Post-rehab exile in Byron Bay, not working, trying to get my life back together
2014 – 2018 Four-year heroin relapse, in and out of rehab constantly
On drugs, I was great at hustling. I could bluff my way through any obstacle. Clean, I’m clumsy. I don’t want to necessarily lie about my past but the truth, when trying to secure a teaching job, will ruin me.
I decide I’ll just write, freelance, look for new publications to pitch to, until I realise I’ll need to send out writing examples. I have years of published work, but nothing recent, except these columns, which all come under the title: What I Want to Tell You About Heroin.
I need money and I need friends. A woman in AA invites me to the Yoni Monologues, the Chiang Mai version of the Vagina Monologues. After the performance I sit on my scooter and smoke. One of the performers, a British woman with short blonde hair, walks towards the bike next to me.
“You were great,” I tell her.
“Thanks,” she says.
We chat, and she invites me to join her and a few other women for a drink nearby. I don’t really want to sit with a group of people getting drunk but it’s only 10pm and I don’t feel like going home because all I ever do is go home. And I’m craving some female company. So I go.
They’re nice. They drink wine and I sip a Coca-Cola through a bamboo straw and chain smoke. I feel self-conscious. I don’t desire alcohol but I’m jealous of the effect I think it gives them—the softened inhibitions, the ability to relax, to switch off, to chit chat.
They ask how long I’ve been in Thailand.
“Eight months,” I reply. “I’ve been in Chiang Mai for three weeks but was down south previously.”
“Oh cool. What were you doing down there?”
Tell them you were teaching, my brain suggests, but surprisingly I tell the truth.
“I was in rehab. I had a drug problem.”
“Fabulous!” they coo. “Good on you!”
They move on to planning next week’s Zumba and dinner while I get stuck in my head. I feel exposed.
Why did I tell them that?
I guess I don’t really give a fuck anymore. I’m an addict, and I’m doing ok, for a junkie.
One of the girls leans towards me. She spills wine on her bare knee.
“You know, I called that rehab recently. I think I need help”. She lights the wrong end of a cigarette.
Time to go.
I thank them and promise to see them at Zumba. I buy an ice cream from the 7/11. I’ve never felt so awkward making friends.
A fresh start is an illusion.
I am plagued by the adverse consequences of my addiction. Being clean doesn’t wipe my record.
I do my tax and when the return I am owed never arrives, my accountant informs me that it was claimed by the Australian Government. I have a debt from when I was using and on social security. He sends me a bill for $176. My old mobile phone company emails me to say that my debt of $1540 is being sold to a recovery agency. Nikolai’s family receive a call from the Swiss police regarding outstanding warrants. He panics, and I panic for him and because it reminds me that I have outstanding court fines: for heroin possession, for possession of a spoon, for not wearing a seatbelt. I am not sure if having ignored them for months will result in accrued interest or a warrant for my arrest, or both.
Time for a bath.
Slowly, I talk to some of my old friends and family. Most are supportive, except my father, who I’ve not heard from since I’ve been in Thailand. Just because I feel better, doesn’t mean people feel better about me.
Not long before I went to rehab, my father got angry and told me I had screwed up my life.
“You had everything going for you,” he shouted. “You’re a fuck up.”
On his birthday, I send a message. I say sorry for the way I behaved in my addiction and for the stress it caused him. I tell him I am eight months clean and doing well. The following morning I feel excited, like a child, as I check to see if he’s responded. He’s seen my message, but I never get a reply.
Burning Season arrives.
Farmers burn their fields and the air becomes thick and toxic. Everyone wears a mask. Chiang Mai temporarily becomes one of the most polluted cities in the world. The haziness triggers a latent anxiety. I feel like I can’t breathe so I pull off my mask and light a cigarette.
The following day I feel terrible. I walk to a meeting but can’t bear to go in. I’m teary and don’t want to cry in front of the old men. I sit in a gutter and decide to catch a taxi to Warorot Market. I need to be distracted.
My driver is an old Thai man who introduces himself as Mr Ammo.
“You visit Chiang Mai?” he asks.
“I live here now,” I explain.
He brakes to avoid hitting two Westerners attempting to ride a scooter.
His next question startles me.
“Are you happy?”
I know it’s a language blip, that he is actually asking if I like it here, but I take it literally.
I think back over the past eight months, to how out of my mind I was before coming to rehab, to the detox I went through, the physical pain, the purging—the hope that has started to appear. I think of Nikolai doing pushups on our condo floor with a Camel balancing on his lips. I think of Mr Bojangles, who I miss terribly. I think of the people who have stuck by me and encourage me.
I want to cry, but I force a smile.
“Yeah, I’m alright, Mr Ammo.”
He gives me a thumbs up.
I am on a train from Hong Kong International Airport to a hotel. I am broke and cannot afford to be here, but I need to leave Thailand and re-enter on a new visa. The Thai Embassy in Hong Kong is the most reliable for a quick turnaround. A cheese sandwich and coffee at an airport café cost more than my budget for two full days in Thailand. I’m worried.
Nikolai is asleep beside me. A woman is speaking loudly on her phone in French behind us. For privacy or because she realises she is being obnoxious, she moves back four or five rows, to the opposite side of the carriage.
She forgets her purse. It’s shiny, patent leather, Louis Vuitton, and the potential it holds is exquisite.
The woman is oblivious. She’s the type who carries hundreds as loose change. She’d have multiple Platinum credit cards.
A debate rages.
I need it more than her.
I hate that I still think this way.
I am so close to reaching for the purse that I feel sick, but I can’t do it.
I wake Nikolai and we get off the train. I’m shaking. Junkie Hannah is furious: You chicken! You’re an idiot.
I know I’ve done the right thing. I can handle being poor and hungry, but I can’t handle anymore guilt.
We walk among the other passengers in our rehab rags swallowed by a wave of Gucci.
Hong Kong is awful. I get sick and vomit for three days. We can barely afford to eat. We run out of cigarettes. We argue. I feel intensely homesick. For the first time, I am unsure of my relationship with Nikolai. I sit outside the hotel and call my sponsor in tears.
“Why can’t things just go well for a while?” I sob. “The last few years have been hell and now that I’m clean I thought maybe, just fucking maybe, I’d catch a break for a while. That things could just go smoothly. It’s not that I want to use drugs or anything, but this life on life’s terms shit is too hard!”
My sponsor is 60. She’s been in recovery from heroin addiction for decades. She’s lived it.
“Hannah,” she says gently, “There is no happy ending. There is no point where things are just ok. Life keeps happening and it’s how you deal with it. That’s the adventure.”
Back in Chiang Mai, the air has cleared. I can see my temple again.
“Let’s go to the mountain,” I say to Nikolai.
“Let’s take the BB gun,” he says.
I put eight empty Pepsi cans in a bag and Nikolai finds the ceramic bullets.
We climb Doi Suthep mountain on our blue scooter. The air is cold and the corners tight. We arrive in 30 minutes.
The temple is not what I imagined. Tourist buses are everywhere; people carrying backpacks and selfie-sticks, stray dogs scratching by sausage stands. It’s not the majestic, decaying sanctuary I romanticised it to be.
Recovery is not what I imagined. I’ve done it before, a long time ago, but I’d forgotten how hard it is. I didn’t expect a parade or instant forgiveness, but I did expect a reprieve. I think of a man I know who also finally got clean. In his first year of recovery, he had to appear in court on trafficking charges. He was sentenced to five years in prison. It seemed cruel. But the amazing thing is: he did his time and he stayed clean.
The memory makes my problems shrink.
Nikolai and I look at the temple, then at each other: no way. We keep driving until we find a clearing. There are pine trees and small tables with chairs that look like mushrooms. Dusk rolls in. We line up the Pepsi cans and take turns shooting. For the first time in weeks I have energy.
I shoot, and I pray.
Pop pop pop.
Let me succeed!
Pop pop pop.
Let me have a life!
Pop pop pop.
Let me be happy!
Nikolai puts his arm around me.
“We’re doing well,” he says.
I wait for him to say “for a couple of junkies” but for once he doesn’t.
“We’re doing alright,” I agree.
We shoot until it’s too dark to see the cans. My eyes adjust, and I see the view has changed. I look out. Below is my new city, and its neon lights look beautiful.