You may have been beaten down, but you are not broken. Even if you have suffered and lived through a life-altering trauma, if you still have a beating heart and air in your lungs, you can get back on your feet.
Addiction is universal to the human experience. Whether we are addicted to harmful substances or destructive thought patterns and limiting beliefs, each one of us is familiar with the vicious cycle of suffering created by the craving mind. The Buddha taught that life is suffering, but he also taught that the way out of suffering is through the noble eightfold path. To this day, the 2,500-year-old wisdom of the eightfold path can help us break free from the addictions, cravings, and compulsions that keep us stuck in a state of pain and dissatisfaction.
In Chiang Mai, I met Digga, an Australian man seeking rehab from his gambling and drinking addiction. When he was 18 years old, his parents got divorced. At one time, his mum blamed him as the catalyst for the divorce. He avoided facing his pain by gambling.
Could you share a little about your recovery process and what led you to Refuge Recovery(RR)?
My friend introduced me to a rehab center in Melbourne. I found it really expensive, so I did my own research and my Google search showed a lot of results on holiday rehab in Thailand. I found that Chiang Mai is one of the top 3 affordable places to seek recovery. When I was in Chiang Mai, I came across Refuge Recovery. They host weekly meetings for addicts, and they spend time sharing their challenges and stories of their own recovery. We even did meditation at the meeting.
Tell me about your trip to Chiang Mai. You are leaving today, right?
Yes, I’m leaving in the afternoon. I arrived in September. I was supposed to come earlier, but there was a bit of a slip-up back home. You know, I’ve always struggled with drugs and gambling. It has been a problem since I was young. I just got into a very bad headspace. I started to drop the ball on the healthy things I was doing, and the negative mindset increased, the momentum dropped, and I found myself back to gambling again. I was painfully aware and so I decided to come back to Chiang Mai to find that good headspace.
Mindfulness and awareness help me with noticing this negative headspace. There is no way I could stay in that bad headspace for long once I notice how damaging it is. What tools have I learned; how can I pull myself out? So logically, I ask, “How do I move on and proceed? What can I do now to help me the most?”
Self-Discovery and Recovery
I chose Chiang Mai when I was in the worst part of addiction. I didn’t know how to get out of it. When I told my friends and family that I was stuck in a negative mental space and getting worse, I needed someone to hold my hand. I needed to know how to work on it.
Knowing and admitting that I needed help, I started to search for help and realized rehab was where I needed to go. I realized that these slip-ups happen, but I’m able to pull myself out quicker and better. So the rehab center is the hand I needed to hold for a month or 2 to live again. I came to know Refuge Recovery when someone from the rehab center took me to one of these meetings.
Chiang Mai puts me into a space where I can stop my damaging activities like gambling. I feel the pressure from society, the expectation of what they want you to be. All my friends are settling down and having a family, and life for them is about their positions in their line of work, how many children they have, and somehow it causes me anxiety.
When I reflect on staying in Australia for too long, it confronts my emotions. When I’m in Chiang Mai, I don’t care what I wear. Back home, I was bombarded by advertisements on shoes. When I saw someone wearing that shoe, it made me want to have that shoe and I had to work for it. It’s like being locked in a system of materialism and surrounded by superficiality.
We can learn from the past, and I’ve learned valuable lessons from the past, but I don’t want to relive in the past. Some of the meetings tend to do that.
Do you think mindfulness helps in your recovery?
In the past, when I was upset about something, it was hard to shake it off. It might be anger, frustration, or sadness, and it would linger for hours or days before I got over it. Now I’m able to take the step and acknowledge that the emotion is only temporary, look at how it makes sense to feel this way, and it can be over in a few minutes. Once you understand and make sense of it, these emotions no longer have the power to control you. It’s like once you have the desire to take the drugs, the power is gone when you realize it’s not something you want to do. It makes sense that you are thinking about it and wanting about it out of habit. Mindfulness is a way of life, taking a step back from any situation in life and addressing the strong emotions.
What’s the difference between the normal rehab program and the rehab program based on Buddhism?
The rehab program based on Buddhism is not 12 step-based or requires higher power. Each one of us has the potential to realize freedom from suffering, including the suffering of addiction, by our own efforts, but first we must be aware of it. The meetings benefited me a lot. The key aspect of AA is that you are told you are powerless, and you are told to admit you are powerless, and you need help. RR says you have the power; you just have to learn to be in control of your power. For me, that resonates a lot more because I don’t want to be powerless. Taking control of my own life makes a lot more sense to me.
Really, I think RR is about becoming more mindful of your life and learning to sit with the emotions that you run away from. I don’t necessarily know what I was running from. All I know is that it was feelings of anxiety, and I was never able to sit with it. I repeatedly avoided dealing with it and chose to gamble or take drugs to escape from it.
When I got clean and first joined NA meetings, I was told to come back to the meetings and talk about my feelings as long as I didn’t take drugs. I couldn’t do anything with the anxiety. I couldn’t use anything to help me. It felt like I was fighting with myself. Restraining myself. I had to force myself to go to the meetings. RR is different. It is about feeling the feeling and knowing that it’s okay, just another experience of life. Let’s acknowledge the feeling; let’s sit with the feeling. In time, we can try to understand the feeling instead of being scared of it or avoiding it.
That’s the fundamental difference. More mindful and more aware. Once I’m aware of it, I’m no longer afraid of it or craving it. That’s why the Buddhism way of dealing with anxiety is more powerful to me because it’s like a moment of enlightenment when I realized I wasn’t trying to reject it or wondering if there was something wrong with me. Instead, you say, “It’s okay, it makes sense that I’m feeling this way.” Facing it gives you so much power over it, and yep, that makes perfect sense.
I started gambling at the age of 17 and I lost a lot of money. I stole money from my father and gambled it all away. My mum broke up with my dad angrily. It was just at the beginning of my gambling and smoking period. She said to me, “You are the catalyst, the reason for our breaking up,” and left my dad and me by ourselves. So I always had negative thoughts about her as a person ever since I was 18. And only recently, I started seeing her a lot more and connecting with her. I realized she is quite level-headed, and I can actually talk to her about anything. When I share with her about my experiences, she has no judgment. We understand that we are the way we are, sometimes influenced by our surroundings, but I never blame anyone for what I have gone through.
What part do the Refuge Recovery meetings play in your own recovery?
It’s still growing from within. Although there’s still so much to work through, there are times I can sense my anxiety but I’m more aware and I can easily pull back. RR meetings have given me the ability to offer kindness, compassion, and eventually forgiveness to myself.
What’s your favorite part of the Refuge Recovery book?
One of the things that helped me a lot throughout the whole process is to do the 2 fold thing: take a step back to see how far you have come and don’t be too hard on yourself. When I have a moment, thinking, “Why am I feeling like this?” or “What am I going to do next?” or “Where is my life now?” I’m able to take a step back and say, “Hold on, look at what you have done for the past couple of years,” pat myself on the back and know that I’ve done well. Nothing positive will come by beating yourself up. That’s something I’ve been practicing a lot. As humans, we expect perfection, and when it’s not, it causes anxiety.
The understanding of Buddha’s teachings and compassion enable those struggling with any form of addiction to become more aware of their mental processes while also developing a deep understanding of the suffering that addiction has created and compassion for their own pain.
Coming back to the breath as a marker for the present moment, exercising the constancy of choice at that moment and every moment, allows us to break free of the bonds of this supreme state of attachment and begin to climb out of the pit of suffering that we put ourselves in. Most drug users or alcoholics had profound experiences, but when they returned to normal consciousness, they could barely remember any details of their experience. They weren’t changed in any lasting way, and the experience was short-lived. The proof of real change is in how we live our lives.
What’s your plan for the future?
I hope to write a couple of books.