How I Accidentally Quit Drinking (in Thailand)

By Nathan A Thompson 06/22/16

I didn’t expect to learn any more than I needed to file my story. But, by the time I left, I would know how to quit drinking.

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How I Accidentally Quit Drinking
Immersive journalism about sobriety got me sober.

The drug users lined up at the gutter. The few English-speakers at the Thai temple had started calling it “the vomitorium.” Each was handed a shot glass full of green gunk. They swallowed it, followed by copious scoops of water straight out of a bucket. Some even threw their heads back and drank directly from the bucket. 

They were mostly young, dressed in red jumpsuits with the word “winner” emblazoned on the back in Thai. A pale, thin girl was the first to start; then a boy. Within five minutes they were all bent double, fingers stuffed throatwards, emptying their stomachs. 

I had come to Wat Thamkrabok, a Buddhist temple in Khun Klone, Thailand, to write about its famously tough drug and alcohol detox. It lasts for 28 days and involves, apart from the purging, hellish steam room sessions and hours of sweeping. Dimitri, a Russian monk who had ordained following his own detox, had been given the job of press liaison officer for the duration. I didn’t expect to learn any more than I needed to file my story. But, by the time I left, I would know how to quit drinking.   

I stood to the side of the vomitorium with a group of concerned-looking schoolchildren. They had come to the temple for an anti-drugs lesson—“this could happen to you,” was the key message. Dimitri moved his mouth close to my ear so I could hear him over the sound of retching.  “You want to try the detox yourself?”

I’m all for immersive journalism, so I said I would.  

“Ok,” said Dimitri. “But first you have to take sajja.” In most Buddhist traditions, “sajja” describes the virtue of truthfulness—but at Thamkrabok it refers to a ceremonial vow that is required before detox can begin. Participants usually swear off drugs for life. But, as a visitor, they offered me a gentler option: no alcohol for a year. 

I didn’t intend to keep the vow. I needed to try the detox for my story and if I had to jump through this hoop to get there, well, that was justifiable. Besides, I didn’t have a problem with alcohol. Not like these poor sods. Sure, I had spent my early 20s infatuated by the deadbeat glamour of heroin, but I was over that.  

“I’m a crumb-begging baghead, baby yeeeaahh,” went the Babyshambles song I listened to on my way to score in the rain-soaked housing projects of London, Manchester or wherever the winds of my addiction had blown me. In Britain, heroin addicts are sometimes called “bagheads” because smack is sold by the small, pistachio-sized bag. 

But that was several years ago. There had been much recovery since then. Much self-development. And much relocating to Southeast Asia. These days, I was a social drinker. I didn’t use drugs anymore and the desire to insert heroin into myself had all but disappeared. 

I mean…sure, there was that time I got drunk and scored meth from a Cambodian taxi driver. And yes, I did end up reading Ginsberg’s “Howl” in its entirety to an audience of one passed-out girl, but that was a one-off. I was fine drinking. Okay, there was a bit of cocaine. But a smidgeon. Hardly worth buying Bicarbonate of Soda, wild-eyed and restless on a Sunday morning, intending to “cook me some crack.” 

“Vomiting is only a small part of the treatment here,” Dimitri explained. We were sitting on the faux leather sofa in the monks’ hall of residence. Well, sticking to it more like (only the abbot had air con). “Drug users purge twice a day for the first five days of treatment,” he continued. “But it’s the sajja vow that really helps them.” 

I nodded as he spoke. But I wondered if it was unrealistic to expect drug users to flip a new leaf based on some magic words. What if they slipped? Wouldn’t breaking sajja deepen their despair? I was still pondering this when we peeled ourselves off the sofa and went to arrange my ceremony. 

You know you are at a Buddhist ceremony if your knees are aching from sitting in a mermaid-like pose and your ears are numb from the continuous chanting of Pali, the liturgical language of Buddhism. The abbot, a wizened man in a brown robe, dipped a lotus bud in water and flicked droplets over me several times. After that, he took my hands and pressed a scrap of paper into my palm. He had written me a mantra in English and punctuated it with a doodle of a flower. The mantra was to be chanted mentally or out loud whenever temptation struck. “Keep this vow,” he said. “It will be good karma for you.”

I left Thamkrabok a couple of days later. The vomiting and steam baths had not resulted in more than a light-headed sensation I put down to dehydration and the probable presence of tobacco in the purgative (the recipe was a secret). I shouldered my bag, thanked Dimitri, and left to find the road back to Bangkok. 

**

The decision to take the vow seriously happened of its own accord, floating into my life like a cooked piece of tortellini. It felt different to previous attempts to relinquish my baby-tight grip on the bottle. Before, I was forcing myself, but now I was letting go. The change was happening in the mental depths. As if a long-sunken stone was moved, releasing trapped air. It happened quietly. There was no Facebook post. No big announcement to my friends. Sajja demanded no attention to validate its authenticity. “I just don’t feel like drinking,” was all I told people. 

The 12-steppers are right when they say the first 90 days are the toughest. I remember one of the first parties I attended not long after leaving Thamkrabok. It was a birthday shindig at a renovated villa on the coast. I couldn’t relax. Conversations went array. People drifted away from me and I took it personally. I found myself floating on my back in the pool looking at the stars while old feelings of alienation and shame simmered inside.  

“What’s your name?” asked a man as I dried off. He was fortyish, Australian and wore an expensive shirt. I told him. “And what do you do?” I told him. His face was twisted with cocaine and his jaw tense to the point of making his speech sound like air escaping a pressurized tire.  

“I’m speed dating everyone at this party,” he explained. “Tomorrow I want to see how much I can remember about each person.” I expressed skepticism that this was the right occasion to pursue self-improvement. He laughed and slapped my back, a little too hard.

The party happened over a weekend and when I arrived at the villa the next day, the Australian man was holding his head in his hands. He looked up at me, his bloodshot eyes bearing no hint of recognition. It was then I realized the trade being offered. That, as a sober person, I would no longer find myself doffing a traffic cone to a grinning wench while singing sea shanties at 3 a.m. Instead, I would have peace of mind. 

After all, drinking only mollified my anxiety; it was no cure. As soon as I put down the drink the emotions I was escaping popped up. Luckily I had my meditation teacher, Brianne to guide me. She taught me how to become intimate with those shameful feelings. The psychoanalyst, Carl Jung said, “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” I learned the truth of that. Some discomfort demands to be felt. The project was not to stay sober, but to befriend the demons I was silencing with booze. 

“What if I just took some MDMA?” I asked Brianne over the phone. “It’s not booze and it would only be a little bit.” My voice was becoming shrill with anxiety. It was a few months since taking the vow and my housemates had organized a party on the large terrace we shared with our neighbors. The entrance to the terrace went through my room. There was no avoiding the binge it would become. 

I didn’t mind going to other people’s parties because I could leave if I started getting bored or having a bad time. But this time I had no escape. I was certain to become bored and grouchy. The thought of showing that side of myself to the guests was terrifying. Everyone would be there: friends and neighbors… People would be there who had heard of me but never met me, what would they think? MDMA offered the guarantee of being happy, talkative and attractive. It made me feel safe. 

It was the closest I came to cracking. “If you need to take drugs to get through something like this, it’s questionable whether you should be there at all,” she said.

“But I can’t leave…”

“Can’t you stay at someone else’s house?”

“I guess so…” 

“It’s not in the spirit of your vow,” she continued. “After the year is out you can take all the drugs you like, but until then you have to stick to it.” I thought back to the abbot of Thamkrabok. I’d long forgotten the mantra but I remembered his promise, “It will be good karma for you.”

By 9 p.m. I was on my third drink. Ok, it was matcha tea. I had taken to playing the party photographer. The camera was a mask to hide the parts of myself that I found unacceptable. I was able to dance self-consciously and try to get laid. Just after midnight, I walked to my friend’s house hoping my saucer-eyed housemate would be able to prevent someone vomiting in my room (she wouldn’t). 

The way I approached sex began to change. The first time I tried to do it sober, rare and awful insecurities broke the surface, pressure toned my brow and paranoia welled up in my chest. Usually, a few beers or shots would be enough to drown those demons, but there was no escape. 

When I was younger I learned that it was unmanly to be vulnerable. Better not to have fears and insecurities and if they were there, better hide them. Ever since I lost my virginity as a teenager, I had lashed them with booze and covered them in cocaine. Now I had to find a way to lull the crying orphans in my psyche. So I had to become more vulnerable. Accept myself and find someone to accept me. My libido began to channel in a different direction: the search for a partner. 

With each change that happened, the sense of peace that I had first felt at the birthday party deepened. It began to feel permanent. My baseline consciousness became more balanced and when drama and upset occurred, I returned to peace quicker. By the end of the year, my only anxiety was how to continue being sober after finishing my vow.

I had no reason to start drinking again. I had found a beautiful girlfriend who has never seen me drunk or high, I network over business lunches and still attended parties—I just tend to leave around midnight and enjoy the rest of my weekend. 

Rather than becoming isolated and boring, I have found interest in new hobbies and curiosity in new acquaintances. Drinking buddies and party animals have dropped out of my life and have been replaced by people who support my choices. I guess the monk was right. And Dimitri was right too. For all the media fascination with Thamkrabok’s vomit cure, it was the sajja vow that held the real transformative power.

I remember watching the drug users purge at the temple’s vomitorium. Participants who were near the end of their treatment encouraged those going through the detox by banging drums and singing songs. The gutter filled with a mix of water, herbal purgative and that half-digested rice and mango. The detox might cleanse the body but the mental poisons that bind us in patterns of suffering are better treated with a brew of sajja.

Nathan A. Thompson is a writer and poet based in Cambodia. He has written for The Guardian, Slate, Salon and the Telegraph among others. His debut poetry collection “I Take Nothing Strong, Only Lightning” is available on Amazon. Follow him on Twitter @NathanWrites 

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