Turning Three Years Clean in an Opium Field

By Nathan A Thompson 03/25/16

I'm standing in Myanmar holding a ball of opium. My old counselors would tell me this isn't a good place for a former junky to be... but I'm here for work.

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Turning Three Years Clean in an Opium Field
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I’m holding a ball of opium the size of a grapefruit. It smells fresh and earthy. I shift it from hand to hand, feeling its weight. Even after all this time I know it’s enough to make around 200 grams of pure heroin. If I cut it at 50%—much purer than your average street bag—and allow one gram per day, it should keep reality from smashing down my door for a good year. 

Preempting the typical smart-assery in the comments section, I will add that, yes, my tolerance would build until the allotted gram per day wouldn’t be enough. So let’s just say it would last around nine months. Doesn’t have as good a ring to it now, does it? Well, you only have yourselves to blame.

I’m in Shan State, Myanmar—formally known as Burma—to interview opium farmers for a different feature for The Fix about the opium trade. These crumply, Bible-black mountains mark the center of the Golden Triangle, as the opium-growing region of Southeast Asia is known. This mountainous region covers areas of Myanmar, Laos and Northern Thailand and once supplied the vast majority of the world’s heroin until America and a handful of other nations decided to bring democracy to Afghanistan. After the resulting devastation, opium production soared, and now Afghanistan is number one but Myanmar and neighboring Laos still account for an estimated 28% of the world's supply. 

I’m now three years clean from heroin. To the day. I didn’t mean to mark this event by smelling a ball of fresh dope like some screwy birthday cake. I doubt my old counselors would recommend this as a good place for a former junky to be. But I’m here to work. Not get high. Just a little bit? No… Definitely not to get high.

But I’d be lying if I wasn’t also fulfilling that old junky dream of walking through fields of bobbing poppies, watching fresh opium ooze from gashes in their bald heads. I’ve been fascinated with opium and heroin since childhood. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I was a stressed child and, when I learned that there were these things called drugs that could calm my raging head, I was captivated. Still, I didn’t try heroin for real until I was 24. 

Back then I lived in a small town not far from London. Mike the squatter scored for me. He smelt of rotten grass and bonfire. Inside the deserted hospital where he lived with a small group of anarchists and ne’er-do-wells, the walls were camouflaged in soot from the open fire they burned to keep out the winter darkness. Sometimes there was a blackened pot of baked beans simmering in the embers. 

I inhaled smoke from a mercurial blob of smack as it ran down the tin foil. At first, I felt stoned. Then I felt nice. Really, really nice. I stopped caring about the damp, filth and soot. I didn’t care about the job I hated. I didn’t care about the nameless fears that fermented in my guts. It was a beautiful release. 

The ball of opium is still in my hands. I smell it a second time. Heroin smells like this. A little urge lands like a soft punch to the stomach. Why not just break off a little bit? For old time’s sake? I hand the ball back. It’s a familiar pattern of thought and, after three years, it has little power. I don’t know if I’ve grown strong or if it’s been weakened by abstinence. The opium farmer, an earnest Burmese man with a kind smile, returns the ball to the only other room in his rough, wooden house. I check my Dictaphone and press “stop.” The interview is done.

The last time the urge to get high proved irresistible, I was at a screening of a documentary about the poet, Amiri Baraka. I had just returned to London after a stint in the countryside where I had managed to claw three months clean. As the crease-faced poet bawled lines to the sound of a squalling saxophone, I felt my phone vibrate. I pulled it out and angled my eyes down, “Banging gear, 10/10 quality, delivery on orders over two,” it read. I knew my dealer didn’t really have “10/10” quality stuff, but it was enough to start an eruption in my amygdala.  

I tried to force myself to focus on the documentary. But it was too hard. When I left the screening I was trembling in anticipation. If I could just make it to the Underground I could put some distance between myself and the dealer’s area… But the phone was already out of my pocket. I disassociated—watching someone else dial. It felt good to stop fighting. As if I had been clinging to a rock and was now weightless in the torrent. “Nath? Long time, bro!” said the dealer.

My fixer and I are leaving the opium-growing village. I’m on the back of his motorbike. The road is red and winds through the mountains. As we round a Precambrian cliff, I see miles of rice fields below, glowing green in the sunset. That final smack session after the documentary lasted three days. I’m passing through those dates like the sun might pass through the Zodiac sign of the smackhead. 

When I did eventually quit, there was no epiphany. No sense of being a dancing Scrooge on Christmas morning. I just kept trying to improve my life. It was painfully slow but eventually the scales tipped in favor of staying alive. I also had to make peace with the world. My addiction occurred at the dog-end of a protracted adolescence where I was struggling to come to terms with the society I was part of, a society engaged in what Chris Hedges has called “Apocalyptic Capitalism”—war-mongering, greedy and stupid. Powerless to change things, I turned my anger inwards. In an immature way, my addiction was a protest. I would show them, with each hit I would show them.

These dates do feel like a quiet birthday because, in order to recover, I had to bring to life a new self to replace the identity bound up in drugs. Like most life markers, there is a tendency to reflect on what it all might mean. It was Kierkegaard who said that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” So why not? But I’ll spare you all that. Recovery writing is riddled with doggerel about “being given a second chance” and “learning to live life on life’s terms.” I will simply say that I’m happy I survived. I’m happy to be here.   

The sun has almost completely melted into the rice fields. We’re driving down a long, bisecting road. The mountains are dark purple behind us. In their rough folds are the opium fields where poverty forces farmers to live lawless and churn out the raw materials of the drug that enthralls and destroys. I’ve managed to escape, but what about them? I couldn’t help but wonder what might become of them as they run their fingers through the dry seeds of next year’s crop. 

Nathan A. Thompson is a writer and journalist. He has written for major outlets like the Guardian, Slate, Telegraph, Christian Science Monitor, Gawker, Vice, Independent, Salon and many more. He lives in Phnom Penh, Cambodia where he writes news, features and travel covering Asia. Follow him on Twitter @NathanWrites

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