‘What I Want to Tell You About Heroin’ is a new series 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. These articles were written while she was a guest of Hope Rehab in Thailand.
Content warning: This article deals with issues around addiction and suicide.
On arrival at Hope, new clients turn up wasted.
One last hurrah.
We arrive clutching a bottle of vodka, reeking, cigarettes falling from lips. We tumble down stairs. We snort or shoot lines, hours later nodding off and drooling all over our intake forms.
We get wasted because we’re frightened. We are riddled with doubt.
We know we have a problem but do not know if we can change. We are heady with denial: “I thought this was a health retreat”; “I only have a problem with cocaine, of course I can drink.”
“I run a company,” we protest.
“And,” says Henk, the senior Hope counsellor, “you’re in rehab”.
No one gets here by accident.
The following day: gravity. Detoxification begins.
The drugs wear off and we’re left with ourselves.
I’m in rehab. I’ve ruined my fucking life.
How did I get here?
How do I get out of here?
My first 10 days at Hope, I drink bitter, yellow methadone to detox from heroin without having to go through the horrors. I have been through them too many times. I am tired of shitting and spewing at the same time. I am tired of the putrid stench of sweat and the overwhelming compulsion to use, use, use because if I don’t, I will die.
“The turkey,” Julia, a pretty, bottle-blonde German junkie with one feather earring calls it, shuddering.
Not that coming off methadone is easy. After four days without it, I’m a wraith. I have no energy—my bones are lead. My knees and calves murder me. I spend nights praying at the feet of a large, stone Buddha, overjoyed if I get three hours sleep.
The weather in Thailand is hot, in the mid to high 30s, but I am freezing. Marcus, a Dutch cocaine and GHB addict, gives me a black Adidas hoodie I wear to stop shivering in the air-conditioned group rooms. Even in full sun, I am covered in goosebumps. I drag my limbs from A to B. One night, in the dining room, I vomit. I cannot get to the bathroom fast enough and am sick right beside a big bowl of ripening bananas. I cry.
I gravitate toward the heroin addicts. There are only a handful of us at a time because any problems Hope has ever had has been because of the junkies. Irish Christopher—Hope is his 14th rehab—encourages me, “PMA”, he smiles. Rado, the Bulgarian, is also detoxing off gear and has the same attitude as me: I’m done. We are the same age and agree that we cannot do this again. We either get this now or we stop trying. Suicide is the only other option.
Jester, a gay, half-Jamaican heroin addict from London is my neighbour. We live in twin 100-year-old traditional, dark wood Thai houses down the back of the property. The first time we meet she is wearing Rastafarian-print pyjamas and a paper flu mask. She is also clutching a large lump of wood, black electrical tape wrapped around its end like a handle. It’s her Monkey Stick. “Next time they come for me I’m not running”, she yells, waving her baton.
I do not let myself slip into misery. I am insanely positive. I smile as I fall asleep in a beautifully carved, uncomfortable wooden chair as my mantra, this is my last detox, ever, washes over me.
We are a strange bunch: 30 addicts living and functioning together as Hope’s community. Clients stay one to three months depending on funding, work, family commitments, and levels of denial. Many change, deeply. Others leave with little more than a suntan and a confidence that they’re “cured” now they’ve been to rehab. This spooks me.
There’s a cyclic quality to the community—it shifts constantly as clients leave and arrive. Some days are good, others, after a large influx or exodus of clients, leave everybody feeling edgy, until things settle again.
Minus the drugs and alcohol, we look okay on paper. Among us—ages range from 20 to 64, men outnumber women more than three to one—is a physicist, computer programmer, Broadway producer, stock broker, industrial developer, environmental scientist, advertising executive, Michelin chef, police officer, a crack and cocaine dealer, and two escorts, one 20 the other 21. Most pay their own way, others are here because a loved one has paid for them to be.
We all need to be in rehab, but why are we in rehab in Thailand? Why didn’t we just check into a clinic back home?
The affable weather is a drawcard but more than anything, this place is a fraction of the price of treatment in our home countries. Over the past decade, Thailand has become an international centre of medical tourism—dentistry, cosmetic surgery and rehab—a Mecca for the middle class, who may not be able to pay $50,000 a month in the US, UK or Australia but who can afford $5000 to $10,000 a month here. The other reason is proximity. For those of us who have been to rehab previously, being away from our triggers is vital. Sure, if we really wanted to, we could score in Thailand, but being further away from our regular dealers, who would gladly drop off drugs to us in rehab or detox, increases our chance of finishing the program and of survival.
Hope’s population includes clients from Honk Kong, Holland, Ireland, Taiwan, Thailand, Germany, The Netherlands, Wales, Scotland, Canada, New Zealand, Bulgaria and Belgium, but the majority can be divided into three categories based on their mosquito bites: the British have welts on their legs covered in Elastoplast. The Americans are vocal, moaning and spraying repellent. The Australians don’t get bitten.
“In Germany,” says Julia in her slow English, “we would say: Hope is ‘multi-culti’”.
Day by day, I establish a rhythm. Four AM: coffee, Camels, write. Yoga, mangos and muesli. Meditation, gratitude, smoothie, group, lunch. Afternoon activities vary: massage, Mauy Thai, homework, counselling, NA, AA. We count our prayer beads and practice Nonviolent Communication. We chant Om. Outside the schedule we have no option but to "sit with ourselves" and our feelings, no matter how unbearable that may be.
Like Christopher, I’ve done a lot of rehabs. I’ve been to private ones where all I was required to do is swallow medication at 7.30, 12.30, 4.30 and 8.30. I’ve been to a therapeutic community where I was banned from wearing black so that I “soften”. I’ve been to a public rehab where I was given a Bible and told to cover my shoulders and legs lest my womanly flesh distract the male clients.
Hope is unlike any of these. It is unpretentious. The staff are almost all recovering addicts themselves. They ride scooters in flimsy shorts and T-shirts. Barefoot, they eat and smoke when we do. They talk to us. They are aware that being staff does not give them immunity; we are all addicts and stay clean and sober a day at a time.
Hope’s program is unique: a mix of 12-Step and Buddhist philosophies, CBT and ACT, plus elements of Smart and Refuge Recovery. An integral part of it is meditation and mindfulness. Unlike other treatment centres, mindfulness at Hope is not coloured pencils and photocopied mandalas. Here, it is taught by an Irish recovering alcoholic named Mindful Paul. With his guidance, we sit or lie on cushioned mats, noticing our thoughts with curiosity. We recognise that our minds are like the screeching monkeys that sit on Hope’s kitchen roof, scratching and eating eggs they’ve stolen while the cooks are not looking.
Mindful Paul explains the concepts and practices that helped him recover from addiction. His knowledge is esoteric and, at times, mind-bending: he explains lucid dreaming, impermanence, non-self, cessation, equanimity, infinite space and no-thingness. He tells us about ill will, which, as addicts we have an abundance of and how the solution is Metta, or Loving Kindness meditation. Addiction, he says, causes suffering and the cause of addiction is repetitive craving. It is our relationship to craving which needs to change.
Henk is my six-foot-four Dutch counsellor, a recovering cocaine addict who’s been clean seven years. I see him twice a week. He introduces me to Mr Green, his plant, who he encourages me to talk to. He stares at me a lot, completely silent, for minutes at a time. I learn to be still and not stomp all over the quietness. He bans me from “doing” over the weekend. I am not to write, open my laptop, or do any homework. I am to practice self-care. Initially, it’s excruciating, but by Sunday, even though I am still detox sick, I’m in a bikini drinking pomegranate juice and feebly playing pool volleyball. The goal is self-love. I do not need to “do”. I am enough.
Simon, the British co-owner of Hope, calls this doing malady “catch-up quick syndrome”.
Now that I am clean I must make up for lost time.
Eventually, Simon stopped trying to prove something. After doing 12 rehabs, he got clean and decided to become a gardener. For five years, he pruned wealthy families’ hedges. He knew nothing about plants or gardening and, when the lady of the house would float towards him with questions about the geraniums and agapanthus, he would simply turn the mower on.
Fifteen years later, he’s still clean.
He leans forward in his leather chair and looks at me, junkie to junkie. “If you go straight back home after here, you’ll die,” he says.
I don’t find this comment dramatic. I’m a 37-year-old heroin addict—that I’ve stayed alive this long is a wonder.
In groups of three, we are permitted to ride mountain bikes through the streets of Sriracha to the local petrol station, Thai Oil. “Toil”, we call it. British Alan and I, along with American Dewey, a producer who tells me that the Boston Symphony Orchestra are way looser than The Who, ride. I buy five packs of Camels and weigh myself — 58.3kgs — on Toil’s one-baht scales. It’s hot, and the guys tuck their Hope T-shirts into loops, like bras. We ride past the Thai girls who work in the kitchen and they cover their mouths, giggling at the guys’ bare, white tummies.
I laugh at Alan and Dewey, at my wobbly legs, barely strong enough to push down on the pedals. I feel the breeze dance on my burnt shoulders and smell the sweet incense trailing out of the Buddhist shrine. I am sick, but I know it’s almost over. I am letting it pass—I do not have to fix the way I feel. I am filled with a deep gratitude that I do not have to stab myself with syringes filled with heroin all day just to feel “normal.” Using, the days are always the same. Here, each day is different and, right now, that’s beautiful and that’s enough.
The writer was a guest of Hope Rehab Thailand at the time of writing this article.
If you, or someone close to you, is battling addiction help is available through the following resources: