Australian ice addicts are increasingly turning to extreme vomit treatment in Thailand, but can it break their habit? Dateline looks at how a shortage of treatment at home is driving some to reach this last resort.
JULIE: Courtney was very hyperactive, shall we say? But he channelled all that energy into playing sport.
COURTNEY: When she found my box of needles that was the worst thing I’ve ever had to explain.
JULIE: I was in shock. I just didn’t understand, and it was all so new to me.
COURTNEY: Um, pretty much went downhill pretty bad the last 12 months. Pretty much threw my job in, my wife kicked me out.
Ice has been called the most dangerous and destructive drug of our time and its one of the hardest addictions to fight. Courtney started out as an experimental user.
COURTNEY: The first couple of years was good, it was fun, I was really good at hiding it.
But 7 years down the track, he was injecting ice daily.
COURTNEY: It's like you don’t realise you're going downhill.
JULIE: On nearly any major streets on Grafton, they can go and get ice. It’s just so readily available. From the moment we found out about Courtney's addiction it has been a roller-coaster ride, it’s been an absolute nightmare.
This story of slow decline is shared by more than 70,000 dependent ice users across Australia and the fallout from an addiction, spreads to the entire family.
JULIE: We were trying to get him detoxing and ready for rehab - we’re talking about being told there would be a seven-month wait to get into a rehab.
GOVERNMENT COMMERCIAL: Ice tears families apart.
JULIE: It's all well and good for the government to be putting on commercials about ice, but they need more rehabs. I had a friend who actually suggested I go on Google rehabs in Thailand, it was a last resort. From a mother's perspective, I just had to do something because I could see him slowly killing himself.
Courtney’s Mum Julie came across Hope, a rehab clinic two hours from Bangkok. It was able to accommodate Courtney straight away.
COURTNEY: When I first saw this place I thought, wow this is a rehab? You’ve got the pool. I pretty much felt I was on a little holiday until all the counselling started and, you know, the come down.
At least half of the clients at Hope are ice addicts from Australia, all the counsellors are former addicts themselves including Simon who started the clinic.
SIMON MOTT, HOPE REHAB CENTRE: It's just there’s so much demand for this service. You know I need to be grateful for the Australian government for not providing adequate treatment because we’ve been able to sort of build a strong foundation on having a lot of clients coming from Australia.
COURTNEY: The night before I left to come to Hope here in Thailand, I had my last bit of ice, it was probably a four day bender. I really want to get clean, I want to be a good husband and I have got a baby coming in six weeks, so that was another big factor.
Courtney tells me he is ready to put an end to his addiction, his wife, aunt, cousins are all supporting him, so are his parents – they have dipped into their retirement savings to cover the cost, around $10,000 for a one month stay.
COURTNEY: One life was the addict drug dealer and other life was the family man.
Courtney is settling into the mostly western style program, he is going to do a lot of group therapy and a lot of talking.
SIMON MOTT: We try to get them all to come out of their shells as it were and be honest to each other.
GROUP LEADER: As a meth user, did that inhibit your goals that you would set with your wife?
COURTNEY: Oh, definitely. I was a bit hazy, I was living a little life and not caring about the wife. I wasn't there for her.
GROUP LEADER: You have a child on the way, right?
GROUP LEADER: How is that going to be affected?
COURTNEY: Well, I’ll just have to get my shit together and be the husband and family man I say I'm going to be.
COURTNEY: Week 1, the first week I was here, I was fucking hating life. I’d walk out of half the classes, I actually rang up my mom, I said have you just paid for the rehab yet because fuck, I’m about to leg it!! Slowly got better.
It's early days and Courtney 's sticking with the treatment. But is 30 days of therapy enough to kick an ice habit.
SIMON MOTT: He has his work cut out. On one hand he's come here willingly and he wants to change his life he wants to be clean, he wants to get back the things he lost. But on the other hand, he’s got so much entrenched behaviour and thinking patterns, it's going to be a lot of work for him to make that happen.
To succeed the recovery plan requires extraordinary will power and total abstinence from drugs and alcohol long term.
JULIE: There were lots and lots of times where he said ''I'm never touching that again. No, I've had it. I won't do that'' And he always went back. He just could not keep away from it.
His mum hopes the 30-day rehab program will help him turn his life around.
JULIE: The first phone call I got from Courtney, he was acting like a spoilt child who didn't like where he was, to be honest. The stakes are huge. But it’s all up to him.
SIMON MOTT: Do you have a difficult time with conflict let’s say? If someone had a go at you…
As Courtney continues his treatment at Hope, I head four hours north to a very different rehab centre. This temple is called Wat Thamkrabok, it’s also known as the vomiting temple. Its run by Buddhist monks who’ve helped more than 100,000 people get off drugs for the past 55 years.
PRAH VICHIT, MONK (Translation): My name is Prah Vichit and I’ve been ordained for 39 years. After I was ordained, I realised that what we get from being a monk is priceless, Buddhism can relieve human beings from suffering.
The monks will offer help to anyone who needs it, for free and a growing number of Australians are braving the extreme rehab method for which Wat Thamkrabok is famous, including Steve from WA.
STEVE, RECOVERING ADDICT: The Thais swear by this place but there’s only one chance at Thamkrabok, if you don’t succeed that time you can’t come back.
The treatment relies on secret medicine used to purge the body of toxins. In the surrounding forests I see scenery - the monks see ingredients.
PRAH VICHIT (Translation): We’ll put this in the medicine pot, this very effective plant. You can’t leave this one out. Do you taste?
REPORTER: It’s the most bitter thing you could find in western food doubled. What did you give me to eat?
PRAH VICHIT (Translation): Medicine, medicine.
REPORTER: I’ll guess we’ll see what happens when this is mixed with 120 other herbs and given to recovering addicts”
In 1956, Opium became illegal here, leaving millions of Thai addicts suffering from withdrawal. One addict stumbled across the temple and the monks boiled him a lotus flower, which through placebo, willpower or magic, made the addict feel he was cured. This lotus flower potion has evolved into a concoction of over 120 ingredients.
PRAH VICHIT (Translation): It takes a long time to prepare, almost a month. We treat people with this medicine as part of our duties, to help cure these people.
Like Australia, Thailand is going through its own ice epidemic. New addicts arrive daily.
ADDICTS (Translation): I wish to offer words of truth….with narcotic drugs, like opium, heroin, morphine…
Before they’re given treatment, they take a sacred vow, called a Sajja, where they swear off a list of drugs, the Sajja is taken extremely seriously. The breaking of it just once is said to carry a curse.
PRAH VICHIT (Translation): If they believe in Sajja, or the Truth, they’ll be above any narcotic drugs.
Otherwise, they’ll go down the path to drugs again.
Immediately after taking the oath, they get their first taste of the medicine.
THAWATPONG, ADDICT (Translation): I’ve been taking ice for less than a year.
Thawatpong is an ice addict from Bangkok. He’s tried other mainstream treatments without success and he is about to experience the vomit ritual.
THAWATPONG (Translation): I received treatment in public hospitals before but I wasn’t completely cured. So I thought I needed Buddha’s teachings to help me as well. I’m still scared, I have to say I’m scared.
PRAH VICHIT (Translation): The medicine tastes salty, spicy and bitter. Then you drink water. Water will bring everything up. If you don’t vomit, you suffer from dizziness and stomach pain all day.
Encouragement comes from people who’ve already been through the ritual.
MAN (Translation): Throw up! As much as you can. Good. I’ll help you. Get it all out. Good.That’s right. Throw it all up. Throw up that meth. Right! Done! Yes! More! Yes! All done? Wash your face.
THAWATPONG (Translation): I’ll do whatever I can to get rid of that toxic stuff. That’s why I spent more time vomiting than other people.
STEVE: It's pretty intense to watch but it’s intense to be on the other side of the bucket. The medicine is horrible they swear by it. I feel terrific now, I feel better than I’ve have for a long time, saved my life, mate, saved my life.
Addicts Like Steve go through 5 days of intensive vomit therapy followed by a 10-day recovery period.
STEVE: You’re just ridding yourself of the negativity really within yourself. It’s like a, maybe it’s a bit of a metaphor for acknowledging that your expelling the badness out of yourself you know. But I definitely felt better after the 5 days.
Steve’s recovering after completing his 5 days of vomiting, his story of ice addiction and the effect on his family, is very similar to Courtney’s.
STEVE: The turning point for me was 7 weeks ago. I was injecting drugs in the bathroom of my home. My wife came in and caught me, I always lock the door - forgot this time, probably the best thing I’ve ever done and when I saw the look of fear and the worry and the desperation on her face, pretty shocked me a fair bit you know.
Steve’s Thai wife knew of the infamous Vomit Temple and the family sent him here straight away.
STEVE: Thamkrabok is famous amongst the Thai people. They’re that confident that it will work and so am I. That’s my bed, I get two mattresses because I’m bigger than most. Here’s where you come to get a bit of quite time, where when you finish vomiting, after we vomit for the first few days, it’s good to come out the back here to relax and you probably find you end up vomiting a few more times. If you decide to come here you’ve got to commit to giving up drugs for the rest of your life. If you break the Sajja it can lead to your end.
Across Thailand Wat Thamkrabok is notorious and for half a century Thai kids here have grown up fearing it. Today a group of local school children have arrived for a Thai version of Scared straight. They’re here for a lesson in what taking drugs can lead to.
GIRL (Translation): I felt... frightened. And I felt I didn’t want anything to do with narcotic drugs of any kind. Narcotic drugs are bad and we should have nothing to do with them. They put our society, our family and ourselves at risk.
Far from home, and put through the physical hell of repeated vomiting. It’s as though they’re jolted into recovery.
THAWATPONG (Translation): I felt dizzy and felt like vomiting. I felt like a fever was coming on, hot and cold. I could only think...Pardon my language... “I won’t fucking use drugs again.”
REPORTER: What have you struggled with?
STEVE: Struggled with? missing my family, missing my wife and my daughter very much and I’ve struggled with the vomiting really. That was the hardest part, physically struggled with that. But emotionally it’s the family that I miss but I’m doing this for them too. The commitment is for them as well as me, so to save everyone.
Figures on long term recovery are sketchy but the temple claims that among foreigners the success rate is 90%. If that’s true it would make it the most successful drug rehab programme in the world. Spending a few days at the vomit temple makes western style rehab look like a walk in the park, I want to see how Courtney’s getting on now that his stay at the Hope clinic is nearly over. Here, there’s no physical hell to rival the temple, but there is confrontation. Its Courtney’s last day and the group is challenging him on his long term recovery plan.
GROUP LEADER: What will happen when the baby is crying and doing your head in and you can’t take it anymore? Or you had an argument with your missus, what are you going to do?
COURTNEY: Regardless of what happens now, I’m not going back to ice use? I know. I know people that have been here and relapsed so I really listen to what they have to say.
GROUP LEADER: What do they say?
COURTNEY: They tell me not to drink at all as well, but that’s my choice. I like having a social drink with my family.
GROUP LEADER: So you’re hearing them but you’re not listening. You’re in denial. Bad denial. Don’t you understand that?
COURTNEY: I’m not going to fucking sit here and lie to youse that I’m gonna go home and not drink, because that’s the addict coming out of me that’s me lying, why lie again and that me starting my relapse already, just let it be.
COURTNEY: It got a bit intense, because I said I’m going home to have a drink, I’ve never been an alcoholic or never been a big drinker and they reckon it can lead to relapse. I came here for a month, I’ve done my treatment, I’ve had enough you know, I’m ready to go home, I really am.
SIMON MOTT: As you all know Jordan and Courtney are leaving us today, I want to wish you all the best, your family is coming, I wish you all the best, your family is coming and I want to wish you all the best with them and have a good time and go to the meeting back in Australia.
COURTNEY: Can’t believe the good friends I met in here, at home I would have told you to fuck off. I’ve never had such a best group of people around me.
Courtney’s month long treatment at Hope is officially over and he’s preparing to continue his recovery at home. But he’s not returning to Grafton just yet.
COURTNEY: I wish they were here already.
He’s waiting for his aunt and cousin to pick him up for a week-long holiday in Bangkok.
COURTNEY: A bit of a reward, we’re going to a Temple, do a bit of shopping, check out Thailand whilst I’m here. About time, hello.
AUNT: You look good. You look great.
COURTNEY: I feel great.
REPORTER: What are your concerns about Courtney going to Bangkok?
SIMON MOTT: Well, were very concerned. In the end we allowed him to go with his auntie who absolutely will not allow any drinking or partying of any description. So I felt safe with his family arriving and actually, I felt safe with also the change I started to see in Courtney. So, at the moment it seems like that’s the plan. That he will spend time in Thailand with his family and they will take responsibility for that.
REPORTER: Any last words?
COURTNEY: Catch ya.
After experiencing the monks' vomit therapy Steve's is committed to staying clean.
STEVE: I’m confident to continue as I am now, I’m dead set serious about my journey in the future to get right from the scourge that I’ve been dealing with, for the family for me for Chang, to be the man that she married. I’d say to anyone you must take the trip to Thailand and spend time at Thamkrabok it will save you, it’s turned me around in a matter of months.
Courtney’s taking some time out before reuniting with his pregnant wife.
COURTNEY: I was anxious to get out of there I was scared at the same time. Getting home will be another test itself.
He may not have taken all of the rehab advice on-board but he’s feeling optimistic.
COURTNEY: I’m really looking forward to going home, being sober and going back to work and being a dad and a better husband. I’m feeling confident, stay clean when I get home and sober, feel good in my recovery, I shouldn’t have a relapse in me. Anyone that needs help I’d recommend it.
THE MONKS OF WAT THAMKRABOK
29th September 2015