I recently got back from four months volunteering in a mindfulness based recovery centre in Thailand. New Life Foundation was set up in order that those recovering from addiction, who had completed the detox at Wat Thamkrabok monastery, would have a safe place to go to continue their recovery. Though New Life now welcomes people onto its programme who are suffering from a range of mental health problems, not limited to addiction, I did meet and connect with many addicts there.
My direct experience with addiction is limited to cigarettes, though I kicked the habit fairly easily back in 2008 after 10 years of smoking between 10 and 20 a day, but I guess I had a similar idea to most people of what a junkie was; after all, I'd seen Trainspotting.
Then I met Luke*, a very talented, young and good looking artist from the US, who was in the early stages of getting himself clean from heroin. He mostly kept himself to himself and seemed as quiet as a mouse until I introduced myself to him unannounced one day and made him laugh. After reaching out to him, I saw a new side to Luke and think of him now as someone who actually talked A LOT. He was extremely knowledgeable and as logical as he was creative. Persistent and patient, he worked tirelessly over intricate pencil and ink line drawings filled with symmetry and movement. He was gentle too, and surprising; I remember a female resident recounting a time when she'd broken down in tears in a sharing group and he'd reassured her openly, saying, "It's alright, it's ok to cry".
Then there was Rick*. Also American, but in his early 40s, Rick was passionate, motivated, endlessly silly and one of the most caring individuals I've ever met. One resident christened him 'Uncle' because he was always looking out for everyone else in the community. When my good friend, colleague and mentor died suddenly from cancer, I made last minute plans to swap the community in favour of Chiang Mai's urban living for a weekend to pay my respects to a man who I'd cared for deeply. Rick, who coincidentally was also going to Chiang Mai, cancelled plans in order to be with me while I grieved and joined me in honouring my friend's memory. Formerly one of the homeless and unwashed, Rick has done it all, and I hope to ride on the back of a motorcycle with him again one day.
Bjorn*, another older man in his 40s, was drawn to me, he said, before we even met. Having been reading my blogs for New Life Foundation prior to his arrival, he was generous enough to praise my work when he had the chance. Such a calming influence on me, so softly spoken and hard working, on improving himself and at a wide range of tasks, I cried when it was time for Bjorn to leave the community.
Why am I telling you all this? I watched an interesting TED Talk by Johann Hari recently, which I'm sure many of you also saw, entitled 'Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong'. Do you remember the rat experiment with the two water bottles, one drugged and one not? Well, the latest version of this experiment, which replaces the lonely, empty cage for a fun and friends-filled one nicknamed 'Rat Park', leaves some interesting conclusions about addiction and community to be drawn, but in my mind at least, the question it also got me thinking about, was 'is addiction just another manifestation of depression?'
I know from my work with male suicide prevention charity, CALM, that men can behave very differently to women when experiencing a mental health problem; they are less likely to exhibit what one expects as 'depressed' behaviour, like being miserable and bed bound, and may instead resort to recklessness, become very angry, or 'self-medicate' with alcohol and other substances.
This leads us into the classic 'chicken and egg' debate that has been a part of psychology circles for some time: Does depression/anxiety cause addiction, or is it the other way around? I think of Luke, Rick and Bjorn, and the many others I met and became friends with during my stay at New Life, and I wonder, did anyone think to ask them?
*Names have been changed to protect individuals' identities