Author Paul Garrigan tells how Buddhist monks in a Thai temple helped him to drop his drinking, and even the very idea that he was an addict.
I went to Thailand in 2006 for an addiction treatment program. I did this in the hopes of curing a problem that had been making my life miserable for almost two decades. I saw the monastery as my last chance and I was full of despair. If the temple didn’t work out, I wouldn’t make any more attempts to quit alcohol.
A couple of years ago, I took a test to see if there was damage to my body. I suspected that I had left the world. I wondered if a lot of my misery was caused by my desire to escape addiction. I might have a few months of peace before the end if I just gave in to it.
I was raised on the south side of Dublin. In my teens, I started falling into difficulties. After attending my first addiction treatment facility, I moved to England and worked in pubs for a few years. I ended up begging on the streets of London in the mid-20s because I sank so low.
I was dragged down further and further into misery by alcohol. I stopped drinking for two years after I knew I had to change. I returned to alcohol before my training as a nurse was complete, even though I began training. I was still drinking even though I was able to qualify.
Alcohol continued to drag me down further and further into misery.
I knew I had to make a change…
I headed to Saudi Arabia to stop drinking alcohol, which is illegal there. I started making my own hooch, instead of quitting. I ended up in Thailand in a remote country village after that. I was living in this rural area for almost five years before I heard about the temple, which specialized in treating addiction.
On my first day at the temple, I was interviewed by a Swiss monk called Hans. I was able to tell him my story even though my withdrawals had already started. He told me that the temple could not get me sober.
I felt like I had been crushed. He continued to talk about how they would help me with my recovery and give me tools that I could use. They couldn’t give me the determination to quit because they couldn’t provide this.
Monk Hans explained the temple’s theory of addiction. The monks believe that people use alcohol and drugs to cope with their unhappiness with life. The tool works in the beginning, but later it makes things worse, that’s why we continue to use it.
I was promised by the Swiss monk that if I got sober, I would find my path again and not need to drink again.
I had to put on a temple uniform before I could be admitted to the treatment facility. It looked like something you would see on a convict in the US. My clothes, money, mobile phone, and passport were all taken away. I was taken through the gates of the treatment facility to the area known as “The Hay.”
I was surprised at how small and spartan it was, but I had not expected that. The guy in the next bed was a junkie from Dublin, the biggest surprise. Two other people from my hometown were also staying at the temple.
The monks brought me to a special ceremony before I had a chance to get to know them. I was going to make a vow not to drink again here. If you break the Buddhist vow, you will not be allowed to do it again. Only once can you go through treatment at the temple, there are no second chances. I didn’t want any more chances and that’s why the idea appealed to me.
One of the unique features of Thamkrabok is that those undergoing treatment are expected to drink a special herbal concoction each evening. The purpose of this medicine is to speed up the detoxification process, but it has other benefits as well.
This herbal drink causes projectile vomiting, which is the most noted effect. We had to take it as part of a group, with a crowd of onlookers singing temple songs for us. It was very strange to say the least.
The monk gave the medicine to us as we knelt in front of him. It was not out of respect for the monk that this supplication was made, but rather to make it easier to vomit into the gutter. I had to start drinking water as soon as I drank the medicine because I was vomiting so fast.
There is no doubt in my mind that this medicine will speed up withdrawal symptoms. I went through treatment with people who had stopped using heroin and they all claimed that their withdrawal symptoms had passed quicker than normal.
Humility is the most important element of the medicine for me. People who are addicted can be arrogant. I was homeless and still looked down on everyone else.
It is impossible to lie to yourself if you are vomiting into a gutter in a Thai temple, unless you have messed up badly. The medicine makes people addicted to it.
Recovery meetings and group sessions are not held at the temple. It is not like treatment facilities in the West. Instead, you work by sweeping the temple twice a day and spending a lot of time thinking. During times of high stress, the monks teach you a mantra that can be used, and they also teach you meditation.
The most motivating thing for me was talking with the other addiction sufferers. Drug users and alcoholics have their dreams. We spent a lot of time talking about our hopes and fears. We pulled each other through despite the fact that every member of the group had a low period during the recovery process.
There is no attempt to convert anyone to this philosophy at the temple. Many of the monks are ex-addicts themselves and have no pretensions or hidden agendas; they just want to give others the same help that was once given to them.
The treatment is free of charge as well. There is no pressure on donations to be accepted at the end. A couple of euro is needed each day to pay for food and flights to Thailand are required for addiction sufferers. For a single addicted person, addiction treatment in Ireland can amount thousands of euro.
There was something that happened to me. I left the temple convinced that my addiction was over, and I was done with it. I know that addiction isn’t meant to say things like that, but it is what I felt. I was not the same person as before. I had given up drinking and the idea that I was an alcoholic.
More than four years have passed since that time, and my views on this have not changed. The period since then has been very pleasant. I was strong enough to deal with bad times.
I was promised by the monks that I would find a path in life that was satisfying. I have a wonderful wife and son, and I enjoy my work as a writer, even though I still live in Thailand.
It is difficult to believe that things have turned out well. I gave up alcohol so that the pain wouldn’t get worse.
Inside my head is where the biggest change has been. The turmoil and negative vibes that I used to feel have been replaced by optimism and a faith in life that it will take me where I am meant to be.
It is never too late to start anew, because I am proof that change is possible. I don’t regret the past, that is the greatest gift. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for the way it all happened.
Originally published in the Irish Independent.