The Cabin Chiang Mai: back from the brink of addiction

There's a scar on Jenny's* leg that will forever provide a reminder of the life the 34-year-old never wants to return to.

There are plenty of psychological scars from the time the one-time white collar worker descended into a life of sex work and ice addiction, but none quite as tangible as the deep hole in her shin that reminds her of the night it truly began.

It's a mark that came when she drank an entire bottle of vodka and passed out in front of her lounge room heater, unaware it was causing third degree burns to her shin.

"I was in such denial over having a problem with substances, I told people it was a white tail spider bite. I have held on to that lie for years," Jenny said.

It's a chaotic and dangerous place she may still have been in had it not been for The Cabin, a rehabilitation centre in Thailand's steamy north that has facilitated her five month sobriety.

Located just moments from the centre of Chiang Mai, where western tourists knock back cheap cocktails and beer in a country where responsible service of alcohol is a foreign concept, The Cabin provides a much-needed sanctuary for those in the grip of addiction to try to wrest back some control over their lives.

Set on the River Ping, amid high-end hotel hideaways, the serene centre, with its traditional Thai-style teak architecture sitting within lush tropical gardens, appears less treatment centre and more health resort.

Clients participate in daily personal and group training sessions, take yoga classes, read by the pool and eat chef-prepared health food, in between a punishing and highly regimented daily schedule of one-on-one and group therapy sessions.

Among those to have passed through the program is Jenny, who, like many, carries the battle scars of her addiction, both physical and emotional.

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On the cusp of 30, the petite blonde appeared to have it all.

She was engaged to a man she loved, had a well-paid job in the pharmaceutical industry and, thanks to the shrewd investment of inheritance money an aunt left her in her early 20s, owned a mortgage-free home.

Her dreams of being married with a couple of children by her early 30s prevented her from confronting the fact her relationship was dysfunctional.

At weekends she would binge drink to the point of requiring hospitalisation and she was successfully hiding the multiple shots of vodka she needed in order to have sex with her fiancé.

The daughter of a chronic alcoholic father was exhibiting some very familiar patterns but she simply did not recognise it at the time.

"I told myself I wasn't an alcoholic because I was a binge drinker, I wasn't like my father who to my mind used it as medicine, I used it because I had really low self-confidence," she said.

But it wasn't until the night her fiancé finally left that her life began its dramatic spiral.

After recovering from the massive burn on her leg, she went on a self-confessed "husband mission".

"It got dangerous because I was online, on everything, looking for someone, anyone, and I couldn't find it," she said.

"Out of nowhere I had this bright idea I would go and moonlight as a prostitute because it was the ultimate fantasy. 

"So, I'm working in pharmacy Monday to Friday and then I started working in a brothel.

"That is where I first discovered speed and ice. 

"That industry goes hand in hand with hard drugs. Some stereotypes exist for a reason."

It wasn't long before Jenny would quit her day job to work full-time in the sex industry.

For three years, she remained "cooked" on ice and continued to bounce from one dangerous relationship to another. 

Despite her drug haze, Jenny managed to sign control of her finances over to her mother but she also constantly manipulated her into giving her money for drugs.

"I don't know how many washing machines she thought I needed," she said.

It was when she was living in a dodgy caravan park south of Brisbane and her latest boyfriend stole her car, she finally rang her mother to seek the help she needed.

She signed Jenny up to a 28 day rehabilitation program at The Cabin and within days she was on her way there.

She smoked her last ice pipe in the disabled toilet at the airport before dropping it in a nearby bin and getting on the plane.

Five months on she remained clean and refocused on starting a new life in Thailand, teaching English.

At $14,000 for a 28 day program, treatment at The Cabin does not come cheap but the centre offers a unique, holistic approach that is based on a traditional 12-step method but without the emphasis on medicated withdrawal favoured by Australian rehabilitation centres.

Nowhere is there a white-coat to be seen, with the vast majority of counsellors and staff themselves reformed addicts.

Among them is The Cabin's program director Alastair Mordey, a British expat and long-time addiction counsellor, who co-founded the treatment centre in 2010.

Himself a successful graduate of a 12 step program, Mr Mordey is a firm believer it is the key to long term sobriety, and that addicts must exercise complete abstinence in order to remain free of addiction.

"I've never met someone who has got clean and sober without the 12 step program," he said.

However, while the original program developed by Alcoholics Anonymous advocates surrendering to God, The Cabin's more progressive approach advocates surrendering to a higher process, namely, group and peer support, which Mr Mordey said greatly heightens the chances of success.

"It's all about monitoring, somebody needs to be on them and that's traditionally been done by self volition. Go to Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous and they have sponsors. Mimicry is really powerful, you don't have to become a carbon copy of that person but, for a while, while you are learning, you kind of do an apprenticeship," he said.

Mr Mordey said Australians made up the majority of The Cabin's clients, with the average demographic being 27 to 37 year-olds and the majority men, though female numbers have steadily risen since the facility opened six years ago.

Alcohol addiction remains the number one reason people seek treatment, though they are often found to have co-addictions such as to love or sex, which fuels their substance use.

Mr Mordey also rejects the medical approach used widely in rehab centres in Australia.

"We advocate mindfulness, it's better to teach people to meditate rather than than medicate," he said, adding the Cabin's approach was somewhere in between the drug-prescribing psychiatrist and the "bible bashing 12 step counsellor".

Addicts who reach out for help are given a spot within days to heighten their chances of treatment success.

"Addicts get little windows of confrontation before their pre-frontal cortex closes up again and they will only want to come right now because that is how addicts work. 

They are compulsive and impulsive and if you don't catch them when they are in a moment of change, you might not see them again for a few years," he said.

As for relapse rates, Mr Mordey said worldwide they are high, due to the nature of addiction.

However, many of the clients who stay in touch with The Cabin post-treatment report continuing sobriety after 12 months.

"Most treatment centres will talk 80 per cent but that's just science fiction, it's a chronic, relapsing condition," he said.

"If five per cent of our clients were still sober after 12 months, it would knock the spots off almost every treatment service in Australia. In Tottenham (in the UK), we didn't have anyone clean and sober in five years, and that was with 2000 clients."

The completion rate of the 28 day program, however, is extraordinarily high. 

Just four per cent of clients leave before four weeks, among them UK rocker and long-time drug addict Pete Doherty, who Mr Mordey said he had to ask to leave because he was not committed to the program and was disruptive to others.

Many clients choose to stay beyond the initial 28 days, moving to a cheaper, less treatment intensive "sober house" facility in Chiang Mai, designed to help ease the transition back into normal life.

Among them was Jenny, who continued to live in the Sober House three months after leaving The Cabin's treatment centre.

She continues to battle regrets over her behaviour while in her raging ice addiction.

From screaming at her "dignified" mother for loving her too much to carrying an ice pipe in her pocket to her grandmother's funeral, to that ever-present scar on her leg, all serve as reminders of the chaos she does not want to return to.

But she knows the battle is only beginning.

"I've obliterated my nest egg doing this. This is the biggest investment I'm going to ever make and I'm terrified of relapsing," she said.

"This has been the greatest investment in self-discovery I have ever had.

"What I hope for honestly overall now is just a life of peace. In spite of the fact it throws curve balls at me.

"I just hope for a long interesting life and I've got that opportunity now."

For further information about The Cabin, go to www.thecabinchiangmai.com

*Not her real name

  • The author was a guest of The Cabin at Chiang Mai.
This article The Cabin Chiang Mai: back from the brink of addiction was originally published in Brisbane Times.

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