This story is by Greg Tan and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Squatting by the side of the drain, I retch and vomit repeatedly, expelling load after load of gunk from my insides. In between throwing up, I scoop water from an aluminium bucket at my side ; gargle, vomit, rinse and repeat – there was a rhythm to this grim exercise. This constant puking of one’s guts is simply awful, draining and degrading. All thanks to Jack Frost – that accursed drug pedlar of an Englishman! How will I ever get through this mess?
The sides of the drain are stained black with over 50 years of constant purging from the guts of generations of addicts lined up along the drain. Slim, brown-skinned young monks are on hand to lend a supporting hand if your shuddering hunched body should collapse. An enthusiastic group of locals bang drums, clap and sing to cheer you on with every herbal-induced emptying of your stomach into the drain.
Every afternoon, we queue up to imbibe a small glassful of dirty-looking brown herbal liquid handed to us by monks who brew the stuff. The concoction tastes like the mother of all bitter-cum-sourness mixed together in one hell potion. A burning aftertaste stays in your throat – you try to wash it out with filtered rainwater from your bucket but wave after wave of nausea hits you, leading to a splitting bellyache and constant purging. What was inside the brew? Reputedly 108 types of herbs and plants from the surrounding forest, but what were they, their portions and brewing method were a closely guarded secret.
I’m Kathy White. I have been in rehab for a week now. No Betty Ford-style clinic for me. Couldn’t afford it and even if I could, I don’t believe in Western-style drug rehabilitation, which is just another drug regime to counter the drug of your addiction. Been a hard-core heroin shooter for almost a year now before I landed in this far-flung monastery. I have lots of company here. I’m from Alabama, while my fellow addicts are a few other Americans, some are British, Dutch, Russian, Canadian, but the majority are young local Thais. Yup, misery sure loves company. Other than the monks and temple helpers, the twenty-or-so patients here are a ragtag bunch of drug and alcohol addicts seeking salvation by doing cold turkey Thai-style. We are in Wat Thamkrabok, or Bok, a monastery located 150 km north of Bangkok in Saraburi province.
I was teaching English in a private school in Bangkok when I met Jack Frost, a 28-year old Engineer from Bristol who had been posted to Thailand to work on an irrigation project up north of Bangkok. I must have been attracted to Jack’s red-headed rakish good looks, seemingly fine manners and his English accent. Jack was five years older than me and seemed so much more sophisticated than me, a shy country girl from the American deep south. Other than the occasional sex, Jack also introduced me to heroin. We met up only when he came down to Bangkok every fortnight ; we would have sex and shoot the dragon with the white powder he had procured from a drug dealer in Sukhumwit. Jack became my lover, heroin supplier and partner in crime.
I rented a studio apartment in Bangkok. When my Thai landlord Khun Pom found the syringe with the few packets of heroin left in my room drawer, he evicted me. I then called Jack on my cell phone, only to hear his voice trailing off abruptly : “You’re on your own now, Kate,” the bastard intoned ; static followed by silence. I broke down and collapsed outside my room with my scant belongings all packed into a suitcase. Khun Pom revived me, gave me water and spoke some Thai words which I did not understand. Out of pity, he dragged me with my lone suitcase to his SUV and drove all of three hours to Bok, where he left me with the temple abbot. Before he walked out, Khun Pom’s last words to me were “You be good. Get cured, or die in Thailand”.
If you have ever experienced the all-embracing psychedelic high of heroin in your veins, the detox programme at Bok is one hell on earth after descending like a dragon from heaven. This place is the toughest rehabilitation clinic in the world. On my first day at Bok, the temple abbot Luangpor Charoen gave me a talk on self-discipline and extracted from me a vow known as a sajja – “truthfulness” in Pali – in this case, a solemn and holy promise never to touch drugs ever again after rehabilitation. The Thai language was not a problem here, as there were at least half a dozen foreign monks who could translate Thai into English for you whenever the monks spoke. Luangpor himself spoke a simplified form of English. His gentle voice still echoed in my mind : “You stay here at least fourteen days. We fix you. Always remember your sajja. We help, but only you can save yourself. Only one time, no allow come back again.” For the duration of my stay, I was to join in the daily temple rituals and adhere strictly to the detox programme. Luangpor also taught me to recite a mantra should cravings beset me during my rehabilitation.
Life is Spartan here. No group therapy sessions and hand-holding, no feel-good recovery meetings with medical staff. We wake up at 4.30am, help with the temple chores, do recreational exercises and partake in the one morning meal a day with fellow addicts, monks and temple helpers. Besides the afternoon vomiting ordeal, there are the herbal steam rooms where you sit in, roast and sweat it out in the vicious burning dampness of lemongrass and eucalyptus-infused steam generated from a huge vat of herbal water bubbling over a slow wood-burning furnace. After our vomiting bouts and some rest, we would all file into the saunas. It was a happy time, both men and women in sarongs sitting and sweating together, gossiping and slapping wet thighs and shoulders while the chokingly hot pungent steam induces your body to purge out toxins discharged through your body fluids. Your nose waters along with the rest of you. You walk out of the herbal sauna and the 35-degree-C tropical heat outside seems like air-con relief to your sweaty body.
Cut off from people closest to my heart, my 24th birthday had passed by during my 21-day detox ordeal. Outside I was calm, but inside, I was weeping as I thought about my parents back home, my favorite students and best friends in Bangkok ; they seemed so remote, so out of reach. Too high a price for finding my lost self? Facing the grated drain every day and baring my guts out also bared my soul, my lies. Lies like ‘I need Jack as much as I need heroin to be happy’. Bullshit! Cold turkey breaks down the tormented addict in you, bit by bit, vomit and sweat, till what remains is only the essential self – the jewel beneath all that dross. As if awakening from a deep drug-induced torpor, I gradually came to accept the consequences of my actions and muster the confidence to fulfill my sajja. At the end of it, I felt exhausted but cleansed. My experience was strangely liberating – I was freed from the poison of heroin, freed from the man who used me, and surprisingly, I no longer hated Jack nor blamed him for my addiction. I’m healed. I’m filled with a deep sense of relief, achievement and a new purpose in life : I will care for other addicts just as I was cared for. Thank you, Kun Pom, Luangpor, and all the other monks, lay helpers and the few friends I made in Thamkrabok.
Forty-year old Grace is one of my closest friends in Bok. She hails from Amsterdam and got hooked on methamphetamine while waitressing at a bar. One of her customers slipped her crystal meth, telling her it will make her less tired on her feet and promised more if she did him certain ‘favours’. Grace might have died from a lethal combo of meth and alcohol, but for her Thai lover Kon who persuaded and brought her to Bok. She’s been here for 10 days now. Grace asked me why I stayed on here even though I had completed my rehab.
“It’s not so bad here, this tranquil place amidst giant Buddhas and golden stupas surrounded by sprawling granite cliffs. I have gotten used to the morning mists, the temple pond and my chats with the monks and friends here. It’s time I gave back to this small community and help my fellow addicts. I will stay for as long as I am needed. That’s why I asked Luangpor to ordain me as a nun. You don’t have to believe in any doctrine, but you must believe in yourself. You and the others will get through this, just as I have done, Grace.”