Getting Sober Means Learning to Feel Bad
Heroin is an escape, a relief, a safe space. Giving it up means facing all the fear, rage, and terror you’ve been running from.
‘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.
There is a gibbon that lives in a cage not far from Hope, and on certain parts of the property you can hear it cry. It’s a high-pitched whistle; a wail, and when I hear it I shiver. A man keeps the gibbon in a cage because he believes it will bring him good luck. Simon, the founding owner of Hope, has offered to buy the gibbon, but the man will not give it up. Even if he did, it would not likely survive on its own.
I am supposed to be writing about what I’ve experienced and learnt during my time at Hope, but my thoughts stray to the gibbon that lives in a small cage. Each week that passes, I plan to visit it, to take it a bunch of small, sugary bananas, but I am afraid to, so I just listen when it wails and whisper mai-bpen-rai, it’s ok.
We all come from somewhere.
I was a child with golden hair who wore floral dresses and tights in the snow and who carried a plastic chicken’s foot in her pocket for protection.
For the first five years of my life my family lived in the Snowy Mountains of Australia. Home was mostly self-sufficient. My mother grew vegetables and read Good Earth magazine. She would turn our goat Flossy’s milk into butter in an old wooden churn, and spin wool on a wheel. I remember her wrapping my sore thumb inside a comfrey leaf. My father would hunt and fish. Occasionally, he’d bring home young animals, whose mothers were dead or injured, for us to care for. Joey the kangaroo hopped around the house. Wombie the wombat and I had tea parties.
My mother often sang a self-soothing mantra:
“ I’m a brave, brave mouse, I go marching ‘round the house, and I’m not afraid of anything”.
But I was afraid.
I worried endlessly.
The setting was idyllic but I lived in quiet terror.
I remember praying the doctor who gave me an injection to hell. I remember the Grim Reaper ad campaign and pretending to be a statue. I do not remember my mother telling my sister and I to pack our bags, or why we were leaving. I remember running down a dirt road to catch my sister and the trade winds. Everything was wild and alive. My golden hair whipped my eyes and I couldn’t see my sister but I heard Flossy gaining on me and then the wind blew me over and when found by my family I told them I had “bit the dust”.
I was worried and frightened, but I made a joke.
I bit the dust.
I know I am courageous; a brave, brave mouse.
But I am still afraid and wonder if I always will be.
When I arrived at Hope I was afraid that I couldn’t stop using heroin. I was also afraid of not using heroin and of the physical pain of going through detox. I was afraid of the painful feelings that would arise from withdrawing from my drug of choice and of the actions I might take if I couldn’t handle the physical distress. Mostly, I was afraid of the consequences of my actions.
I used heroin to dull my fears; to take the sting out of them. I felt more powerful with drugs in my pocket. They were my secret weapon, something that could puff me up; make me larger, and for a time, they helped me cope with a world I found impossible to deal with.
Hope’s meditation teacher, Mindful Paul, tells me: “The driving force behind your obsessive thinking is an underlying sense of being unsafe. You don’t trust life, so you need to be always on guard”.
That feeling of unsafety in the world; the plastic chicken’s foot.
Heroin provided me with what Buddhists call a false refuge: a perceived safe place.
The gates of Hope are not locked. I am free to leave any time I like, but I choose to stay.
“Many rehabs in Thailand would lock the gate,” says Simon. “I don’t. I want that gate open; I want the clients to see it. If they don’t want to be here: go! No one does, or rarely, but it’s so important for the clients to acknowledge to themselves: I want to be here, it’s my choice, I’m doing this for me.”
For a long time, I didn’t believe it was worth “doing it for me”.
I am not enough.
I couldn’t identify a point to getting clean or a point to anything. What had previously given my life meaning was gone. Creativity, writing, music, contributing to the world and human connection had all been lost during my last relapse. Hustling money, driving, waiting, scoring, gathering more, more, more, gave me something to do on a daily basis. But it was empty. I existed in the Buddhist realm of the Hungry Ghosts: creatures with tiny mouths, long, thin necks and huge round bellies, cursed with insatiable desire. I was an ouroboros devouring its own tail.
Like my pupils, everything had shrunk into a permanent state of unconsciousness.
Counsellor Doug and I smoke cigarettes by the pool.
“When I was a little boy, my dad said to me: ‘Life’s not fair’. My response was: ‘That’s not fair!’.”
I have never liked “not fair”. I have raged against it, spent years beating my fists against the world, hoping that if I pushed hard enough something would change. Chaos would become order. Injustice, justice. When nothing transformed, I ingested my rage.
“Hannah,” Doug says. “Yes, you are an addict. But first and foremost, you are a human being.”
I am startled. No one has called me that for the longest time.
There is a sign near the dining area that says: “Together We Are Stronger”.
Alone we are fucked and die.
A message from an ex-boyfriend:
“Had a massive shot whilst by myself, died, face was blue, body grey when friend found me. He resuscitated me three times in casino car park. Was in intensive care for a week, dragged to psych ward – they said no one who has drugs at such high levels intends on living. I just said: that’s how I party”.
A post on Facebook:
“Every day is like survival”.
“Why does being dopesick make you yawn heaps?”.
Answer: “Because life is boring without drugs”.
I sift through memories:
Age seven: we pretended to inject ourselves with pacer pens.
13: Dave was in a coffin.
Francis: “This is how you tie a tie – practice”.
He was dead in his bed and they had to break the door down.
Phillip and I singing “Famous Blue Raincoat” under a black umbrella in the rain.
He died on a park bench and “enjoyed cooking pasta”.
Francis sobbing at my birthday party because Phillip was dead, and he’d decided it was his fault.
My mother declaring: “I get guilt”.
Francis offering my mother Valium.
37: when I returned to the car he wasn’t breathing.
And all the ones in between.
I have a bad day. I feel ungrounded. I clutch a white rock I found at Koh Sichang beach for protection, like I used to with the chicken’s foot. Feeling bad comes as a shock because increasingly I feel great. I am sullen, I shut down, exit, disassociate. The urge to take it out on myself physically strikes me. I pull Chris, one of the counsellors aside, and tell him I have to leave group.
I feel like smashing something, I tell him. I have to go.
It’s the fear.
Sharon finds me by the pool smoking Camel after Camel and tells me to come to Women’s Group. I follow her because I don’t know what else to do.
Inside, surrounded by women, I break down.
“I hate this feeling,” I yell. “It petrifies me.”
My voice rises like an escalator: “I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to be in bed, I don’t want to write, I don’t even want to smoke, I don’t want to be anywhere. I don’t want to fucking exist. This is why I use heroin! All I want is fucking oblivion.”
I am embarrassed and uncomfortable, and so I make a joke.
I bit the dust.
“We’re going outside,” says Sharon.
Everyone follows her.
“Start screaming,” she orders.
We look at each other and giggle.
We follow her lead and let out long, gurgling howls.
I am a gibbon in a cage.
I am an addict and a human being, and I am fucking traumatised.
“This is your thing,” says Simon when I tell him about my bad day. “We all have something we use drugs over, and this is yours. You don’t accept feeling bad.”
No, I don’t. I am terrified of feeling bad; it’s why I control my feelings with drugs. Bad is unacceptable.
Another message, another ex: “ Write a fucking Vice episode about how you treated someone who loved you like shit, and it wasn’t about heroin”.
It wasn’t about heroin.
It was about my fear, my rage, my reverential terror and inability to exist within that.
I feel like the void is wide open. Everything is uncomfortable and new. I stumble around on Bambi-legs. I fantasise about things that could make me feel better; something to fill the “God-Shaped Hole”.
The sense that something is missing is what is tripping me up, says Mindful Paul.
“The ‘hole in the soul’ is a misunderstanding about the nature of reality,” he says. “It is the mistaken belief that now should be different than how it is. I realised that I not only needed to give up alcohol but also the endless quest to fix myself. The reason I failed to fill the hole in my soul was because there was no hole to begin with.”
There is no hole.
The acceptance of what is here now.
In group, we talk about our pasts. We become sombre, get down on ourselves about time wasted.
“This is to all of you,” he says.
He looks at us, one by one.
“Many clients say to me: ‘I have wasted my life’, and I disagree with them all. Your life is not a waste. You have learnt things through living, things that other people will never experience or learn. It is not a waste. It is only a waste if you go back to using.”
I make a vow.
I promise to start again.
May I be happy, may I know peace.
I am leaving rehab and I do not know what will happen next.
I am a human being.
I come from somewhere.
I am going someplace else.
This article originally appeared on VICE AU.