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.
In 2006, I entered an addiction treatment program in Thailand. I did this in the hope of curing a problem that had been making my life miserable for almost two decades. I felt full of despair and saw the monastery as my last chance. That first day, I came to a decision: if the temple didn’t work out, I would make no further attempts to quit alcohol.
A liver function test I’d taken a couple of years earlier had shown there was damage. I suspected I didn’t have long left in the world. I wondered if a lot of my misery was caused by my yearning to escape addiction. If I just gave in to it then maybe I would have a few months of peace before the end.
I grew up on the south side of Dublin, mostly in Shankill. I started falling into difficulties in my teens. I attended my first addiction treatment facility at 20, before moving to England, where I spent a few years working in pubs. In my mid-20s I sank so low that I ended up begging on the streets of London.
Alcohol continued to drag me down further and further into misery. I knew I had to make a change, and I managed to stop drinking for two years. During that time I began training as a nurse, but I returned to alcohol even before my training was complete. Somehow I managed to qualify, but I was still drinking.
Alcohol continued to drag me down further and further into misery. I knew I had to make a change…
In another attempt to quit the booze I headed to Saudi Arabia, where alcohol is illegal. Instead of quitting, however, I started brewing my own hooch. After that I ended up in Thailand, in a remote country village. I’d been living in this rural area for almost five years before I heard about the temple — it was called Thamkrabok, and it specialized in treating addiction.
On my first day at the temple I was interviewed by a Swiss monk called Hans. My withdrawals had already kicked in, but I was able to tell him my story in between the fits of shaking. He began by telling me that the temple could not get me sober.
I was crushed. I thought this meant they were refusing to treat me, but he continued to talk and explained that they would help me detox and provide tools that I could use in recovery. The determination needed to quit, however, would have to come from me; they could not provide this.
Monk Hans went on to explain the temple’s theory of addiction. The monks believe that people use alcohol and drugs as a tool to help them cope with their dissatisfaction with life. In the beginning, the tool works — that is why we continue to use it — but later it just makes things worse than ever.
The Swiss monk promised me that if I got sober, I’d once again find my path, and there would be no need to drink again.
Before I could be fully admitted to the temple’s treatment facility, I had to put on a temple uniform. It looked like the sort of thing you see on convicts in the US. My clothes, money, mobile phone and passport were all confiscated. I was taken through the gates of the treatment facility into an area known affectionately as “The Hay.”
I had not been expecting anything fancy, but I was still surprised at how small and spartan it was. The biggest surprise, though, was finding that the guy in the next bed to me was a junkie from Dublin. It turned out that there were also two other people from my hometown staying at the temple.
Before I had a chance to settle in, the monks arrived to bring me to a special ceremony. This is where I was to make a vow never to drink again. This Buddhist vow is taken seriously by Thai people; if you break it, you are not allowed to take it again. That is why it is only possible to go through treatment at the temple once — there are no second chances. This idea appealed to me because I didn’t want any more chances.
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.
The most noted effect of this herbal drink is the fact that it causes projectile vomiting. We had to take it as part of a group, with a crowd of onlookers offering us their support by singing temple songs. It was surreal to say the least.
The medicine was administered by a monk as we knelt in front of him. This supplication was not so much out of respect for the monk, but rather so that we could more easily vomit into the gutter — you don’t get much warning. As soon as I drank the medicine, I had to start scooping water, drinking it as fast as I could to speed up the vomiting.
There is no doubt in my mind that this medicine does indeed speed up withdrawal symptoms. I went through treatment with people coming off heroin and even methadone, and they all claimed that their withdrawal symptoms passed quicker than usual.
For me, though, the most important element of the medicine is that it teaches humility. Addicts can be unreasonably arrogant. I ended up homeless and still looked down on everyone else.
When you are vomiting into a gutter in a Thai temple, it is impossible to lie to yourself anymore; nobody ends up doing such a thing unless they have messed up badly. So the medicine makes addicts teachable.
There are no group sessions or recovery meetings at Thamkrabok temple. It is nothing like treatment facilities in the West. Instead, you work by sweeping the temple twice a day and spend a lot of time thinking. The monks provide instruction in meditation, and they also teach you a mantra that can be used during times of high stress.
The most enjoyable thing for me was talking with the other addicts; we motivated each other. Even the most hardened drug addict or alcoholic has their dreams. We spent a lot of time discussing our hopes and fears. Every member of our little group of addicts had a low period throughout the recovery process, but we pulled each other through.
Although Thamkrabok is a Buddhist temple, there is no attempt to convert anyone to this philosophy. 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 also provided free of charge. Donations are gladly accepted at the end, but there is no pressure about this. Nevertheless, addicts do need to pay for their flights to Thailand, and a couple of euro is also needed to pay for food each day. Addiction treatment in Ireland can amount thousands of euro, just for a single addict.
Something happened to me at Thamkrabok. I left the temple convinced that my addiction was over. I know that addicts aren’t meant to say things like that, but it is just how I felt. I wasn’t the same person anymore. I’d not only given up drinking, but also the idea that I was an addict.
More than four years have passed since that time, and my views on this haven’t changed. The period since then has been wonderful. When there were bad times, I felt strong enough to cope.
The monks had promised me that I’d find a path in life that was satisfying; this is exactly what happened. I continue to live in Thailand, but now I have a wonderful wife and son, and I enjoy my work as a freelance writer.
Sometimes it is hard to believe that things have turned out so well. I only gave up alcohol so that the pain would stop — I’ve been given so much more.
The biggest change though has been inside my head. The turmoil and negativity I once felt have been replaced by optimism and a faith in life that it will take me where I’m meant to be.
I’m proof that change is possible, and it is never too late to start anew. The greatest gift is that I don’t even regret the past. If it all didn’t happen exactly the way it did, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Originally published in the Irish Independent.
That's great! Addictions are so very harmful. To you, your friends, family. It is wonderful to know that I am part of a religion that can impact human lives in such a way as to make them manageable again. To drop all the stress and negativity and get back to the core of human awareness and free one's self from bondage. Great story. I'll look for your book.
Paul Garrigan says
Thank you Solidity and Karen for your comments on my article. I really do believe that Buddhism has a lot to offer addicts of all types and stripes. I agree with Karen that the attachment to the idea of a separate self is a type of addiction that brings us a lot of misery.
Alcoholism and drug abuse are such a destructive form of addiction that progress along a spiritual path is impossible until they are defeated – that has been my experience anyway.
But what happens when you become addicted to a spiritual path?
Self abuse comes in many forms, many subtle forms – and a great deal of them are pleasant in their own way. Its not quite the form of the abuse that's important, however. Its just the fact that it happens in the first place that really seals the deal.
The personal significance of any issue is personal, just as the universal significance of any issue is universal. Confusing the significance of personal issues with the significance of universal issues is only possible without a clear view of both – however, this is a necessary state for many aspects of the self image to remain supported.
When the means is the end, justification is not necessary. Practice for its own sake is at the heart of the four noble truths, although this meaning is often lost in the treasure hunt for enlightenment and nirvana. When this goal-oriented methodology is finally and completely dropped, space itself becomes alive with infinite possibility. The self image is revealed as the entirely transparent projection it is and the intelligence of awareness is set free. For what can be contained when there is no container left?
That is when you are prepared a table in the presence of your enemies, and your head is anointed with oil. That is when your cup runneth over.
Paul Garrigan says
Hi Mahakala, you make some very interesting points. I am sure it is possible to get addicted to a spiritual path and get caught up in the hunt for something to make us feel better. I tend to use Buddhism as a set of practical tools; everything that moves me away from my previous waste of a life is beneficial to me. The monks at Wat Thamkrabok encouraged me to trust that my path would take me to where I need to be; I trust in that. My approach to Buddhism might not be bringing me any closer to enlightenment but so long as it moves me away from my previous mental torment I'm satisfied with that.
Hi Paul, very interesting reading.
I just would like to add one little thing, but very important in my opinion. Unfortunately not many people even realize they have a problem with alcohol and even more people are not willing to admit it. Like solidity mentioned, it can destroy friendships and ruin families (this is my case by the way, my father is an alcoholic), but most people are not blaming the alcohol but the person.
I wish there is an easy way to show people how harmful alcoholism is. And I still do not understand how everyone knows that drugs are bad but alcohol is OK. In some families parents even encourage their children by saying "OK, one bear is OK". Nope, it is not OK.
Thanks for the article again and best of luck!
Paul Garrigan says
Hi Chris, I agree with you. I think in some ways getting loaded is glamorised in ways that hard drugs aren't – even though alcohol does the most damage to society. I once believe that alcohol addiction was a sign of an artistic temperament or deep thinker; the reality is that it robs people of whatever gifts they might have. A famous quote describes it well – alcohol gives you wings but then it takes away the sky.
I like this quote Paul, I like it very much. Thank you.
Collin R says
Hi Paul, you're story is very important in showing that anything can not only change but have a complete reversal. Thank you!
In a merging of East-West, I have recently found learnings that coaching techniques here are able to help one go from addict to ex-addict to non-addict. I see so many people that identify with the ex-addict and are stuck there. I wish that we can show them all that this does not have to be so.
Also, the coaching only works on those that truly want to quit for themselves. Successfull quitting depends on it.
Paul Garrigan says
Hi Colin, you make a very good point. I remember during my twenties that I stopped drinking for two years, but I still considered myself an addict in remission – I was afraid that my addiction could return at any time and I lived in fear. At Thamkrabok I gave up all that and began a new life; I no longer live in fear of addiction. It is good to hear that you have found a new life too.
ruth renwick says
I enjoy your writing Paul and have subscribed via my email. I was an esl teacher and never felt totally comfortable in any of my classes (from small kids to seniors) for 30 years..if youre doing a good job youre always cognizant of becoming better for the students which helps keep us on our toes and free of addictions, at least it did me.
nick flower says
Hi paul,my son robbie age 21 is addicted to heroin,he was a nice lad,skilled bricklayer,bmw,every thing has been distroyed in the past year.I would move heaven and earth to take him to this temple before we lose him,would it be possible to email me travel directions,we live in the uk,thankyou,nick.
here is the website for the temple:
An ex monk send me a message through someone asking me to stop drinking. I googled for similar situation and ended up finding your article. Thanks for the article. I am not an hardcore alcoholic yet . but I wont be surprised be ended up as alcoholic or chain smoker based on urge to those things. Its time for me to look into those bad habits agains and get rid of them permanently.
I wonder why we have to have the dichotomous thinking of all alcohol is bad–again I think for most people this might be true but not for all–I think what I have learned from Buddhism is that there is no right or wrong unlike other religions teach–everything is in context and if you come from heart, from love and are kind to yourself and others then you are on the "right" path–no a path which brings love and peace to others
I welcome feedback to get me to think about this for myself and others thanks
our website says
Hi, when people are suffering from various ailments, and not just from alcoholism, deny their own diseases. It can be very frightening for someone to admit what is happening to him. An alcoholic becomes spiritually degraded and, therefore, cannot see what he has turned into. It is frightening to admit that you have lost your family and work; to admit that no one loves you.