Puking Myself Clean - Page 2

By Steven Martin 09/13/12

After realizing with horror that I'd become a full-on opium fiend, I needed a private and cheap way to kick. The infamous "Thai puking rehab" turned out to be my best bet.

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A Wat Tham Krabok resident—having second thoughts? Photo via

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It was during this time that I met Saundra, a forty-something former heroin user from England who had completed the detox years before and then decided to take the vows of a Buddhist nun and extend her stay at the monastery indefinitely—something all successful participants in the program have the option to do. With a shaved head and eyebrows, and wrapped in a white robe, Saundra described to me how the vomiting cure was supposed to work. 

I was to take this most important part of the treatment over five consecutive days. A secret elixir, the ingredients of which were said to have come to its discoverer in a dream, had to be downed from a shotglass in a single gulp. The potion was a purge and not to be digested. The articles I had previously read about Wat Tham Krabok were illustrated with photos of spectacular bouts of projectile puking—but this was not typical. Saundra told me that I might have to stick a finger down my throat to get the vomiting started. I would be joined by a number of other addicts who were also on their first five days of the cure.

I then jammed two fingers down my throat and, as though priming a pump, this act brought forth torrents of rust-colored puke.

The treatment was the main event of the day and very much public. In fact, busloads of schoolchildren were sometimes in attendance—in hopes that the nauseating spectacle would be a deterrent to future drug use. “The trick is to stay relaxed and focused,” Saundra advised. “Block out the noise around you. As long as you stay focused you’ll not have any problems.”

I might have backed out of the program had I known beforehand exactly what I was getting myself into. The purge was done outdoors on a wide concrete patio, where I kneeled with a handful of other addicts over a shallow cement trough. There was no doubt about what function the reeking pit was going to serve. 

Without ceremony, a monk poured the muddy potion from a bottle into a shot glass, and then handed it to me. I did not stop to think about what was about to happen or sniff at the glass, but instead knocked back the dose like it was a shot of tequila. The taste was absolutely vile, and I shuddered. But despite the withering vapors venting through my nostrils and the burning lump sliding into my gut, I did not immediately vomit. A monk instructed me to drink as much water as I could hold, and I gulped down cup after cup until I was woozy. Still there was no urge to vomit. As Saundra had advised, I then jammed two fingers down my throat and, as though priming a pump, this act brought forth torrents of rust-colored puke. 

I vomited until the deluge became dry heaves. Exhausted, I wiped the strings of saliva and snot from my mouth and nose and tried to catch my breath. Saundra shouted at me over the noise of the crowd: “You’re not finished! You have to get all the medicine out of your body. Drink more water! Just like before, drink until you are going to burst!”

Addicts on either side of me were doing the same, all while a crowd of spectators sang songs to conga-drum rhythms and cavorted about while we gagged and retched. All of it was meant to be encouragement, of course—moral support from the addicts who had already completed their five days of vomiting. In the end Saundra was right: Staying focused on the goal of breaking my addiction got me though a week that was as demanding as it was miraculous. 

Except for food and drink, treatment at Wat Tham Krabok is free, and, like all Buddhist monasteries, it relies on donations. Anyone contemplating a visit should remember that the place is not a day spa. Show up expecting to be waited on hand and foot, and you will not last long. Living conditions at the wat are very typical of Buddhist monastic life, which is to say they are decidedly rustic. 

Statistics on how many are able to stay clean and how many have relapses vary widely, but at Wat Tham Krabok one thing is certain: You can only do the cure one time. Once you check out of the monastery’s drug detox program, you will not be allowed to check back in, no matter how unique your excuse for having had that setback. 

On my last day at the wat, I met with the abbot. He placed in my hand a ring with the monastery’s name engraved around a blue stone, and a slip of paper with a short Buddhist mantra written on it. Both were to remind me of my time at Wat Tham Krabok, and to help me fight temptation. The abbot made it clear that the week I had just completed was the easy part—that the real test lay ahead. In my jubilant state, newly free of my 19th-century addiction, I failed to take his warning seriously. 

Freelance writer Steven Martin was born and raised in San Diego, and has spent the past three decades traveling and living in Southeast Asia. Steven’s memoir, Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction, was published in July by Villard, an imprint of Random House.

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Freelance writer Steven Martin (1962 - 2015) was born and raised in San Diego, and spent most of his adult life traveling and living in Southeast Asia. Steven is the author of the memoir, Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction.