The farthest fall
A friend's recent fate reminds our columnist that hard drugs make for a hard landing
I once attended a birthday party at a house in Soi Ari where I was introduced to a middle-aged man with a rotating jaw.
It's hard to describe it any other way. His jaw wasn't chewing anything … it was more a mashing movement, round and round. It certainly looked ridiculous.
"Hi, I'm Jake," said the American, shaking my hand, in between rotations. "I've just taken some MDMA. Would you like some?"
Dear reader, I consider myself a man of the world. I may not be a genius, as this column should certainly attest, but I believe I am well-read.
Just this week I finally finished Don Quixote. What a hard slog that was -- 942 pages of dense literature, since Cervantes didn't believe in paragraphs -- but what a joy to read. And while written 400 years ago, it still holds relevancy to today, for hardly a day goes by when somebody in government doesn't seem to be chasing windmills. Oh, but we are off track.
The point of all this literary self-aggrandising is this: when Jaw-Mashing Jake offered me MDMA, I had no idea what he was talking about.
MDMA … wasn't that the name of an album of Madonna's from her early hag period? A quick google in the bathroom a few minutes later revealed that album to be MDNA, released in 2012, but I reckon I get points for a close guess.
A further search told me MDMA was short for methylenedioxymethamphetamine, better known as ecstasy. Ah, so that explains the jaw!
If Jake were a 20-something hipster in his third year of college, I'd have forgiven him for his behaviour. But Jake was no millennial in his experimentation stage. Jake was well and truly a baby boomer.
Wearing glasses, a bushy moustache and an outfit that would have turned heads had this been 1987, Jake looked like any hipster's father or weird uncle. And the only thing sadder than a weird uncle is one who's on drugs. I politely excused myself and made my way quickly to the vodka bottle in the kitchen downstairs, and yes, the irony did not go unnoticed.
This week my tolerance level for all things narcotic is at a low thanks to being part of a rescue team for Stephen, an old friend from the United States, who last Wednesday caught a circuitous route back to his hometown.
It was a sad ending to his 14-year stay in Thailand. Stephen, being in finance, has never been short of a quid and spent the last decade-and-a-half flying business. Not any more. Last Wednesday his rock-bottom economy flight took him home via Guangzhou, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Chicago, then a short hop to his home city. That's all his single mother could afford, in order to get him out of Thailand and into enforced sobriety.
At 38 years old, Stephen has spent all his money. His condo and car, in his ex-girlfriend's name, are gone. His career is down the tube. "I always figured I'd retire at 40," he said the night before he left. "Instead I'm back to square one."
For as long as I've known him, Stephen has been the feel-good guy at the party. He's the one who greets you with a big smile, really thrilled to see you, before guiding you off to a side room to invite you to try all manner of different new drugs (though never, as far as I can remember, MDMA).
This was one reason I tended to steer clear of him, because chatting to him gave you the feeling you may as well have been chatting to a brick wall.
Stephen was constantly high. And again, here was a guy on the cusp of his 40s. A guy off his face at 20 years of age is kind of expected. At 40, it's just pathetic.
In my life I have lost three good friends to alcoholism and one to drugs. As I get older it becomes clear that constant heavy use of any drug leads you inescapably to one of three endings -- hospital, jail or the morgue.
Lucky for Stephen, it was hospital. I got an impassioned phone call from Stephen last month, after having heard nothing from him since the beginning of the year. Bawling his eyes out, he'd been committed to a hospital ward and didn't know who to turn to.
"What about your friends?" I asked him.
"What friends?" he answered.
It's funny how drug addicts are constantly surrounded by friends while the drugs last. The only people calling him now were his drug dealers, unaware he'd crashed, hoping Stephen would keep them in the lifestyle they had been accustomed to.
Stephen's addiction had finally spiralled out of control. In hospital he was distressed, but because of anti-psychotic medication. He'd been unemployed for three months. Instead of going to work, he'd been doing meth every morning followed by a couple of lines of coke, some weed and a Singha to "take the edge off". That was breakfast. Like Jake and his jaw, sad old Stephen was middle-aged and on the skids.
For decades I have held a very tolerant and open view towards illicit drugs. First, I believe legal drugs like alcohol and cigarettes can be far worse. And also, our crackdown on the hard stuff has been a complete failure.
There was an excellent book a few year's back called Chasing The Scream by Johan Hari, which explained succinctly that we had lost the 100-year war on drugs. Hari advocated decriminalisation. He explored those countries in the world where hard drugs had been either legalised or controlled -- Portugal, Uruguay, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada -- and concluded that decriminalisation seemed to be more effective than prohibition.
I have always agreed with this line of thought. And yet at the same time, I see the likes of Stephen have their lives collapse around them like a house of cards thanks to those drugs, and I begin to think twice.
Would Stephen have had that druggie breakfast had all those drugs been legal? There are studies such as in Colorado that show that marijuana use has reduced since it was legalised. Was Stephen doing it for the thrill of it?
I don't think so. If he was 20 years old, maybe. But there is nothing quite as sad as a middle-aged person on drugs, because it isn't about the thrill of it any longer. It's about escaping some terrible reality.
I don't know what Stephen was trying to run from for all those years I saw him high as a kite. But it came to a crash, and he spent the last five weeks in a well-known rehab facility outside of Bangkok.
When I saw him this week, before he headed off to Suvarnabhumi, he looked so much better. He was more lucid and had gained some much-needed weight. But you could see the fear in his eyes, because "every single organ in my body has been demanding the drug cocktail I've been feeding them for a decade".
It's been a difficult two months, but he has got through it, and as you read this, he has already arrived home to live with his mother. What a thought; to go from high-flying financier back to living with mother at age 38.
I too have made a radical change in my tolerance towards hard drugs. I still think they should be all legalised. I just don't want kids to do them. And as for the Jakes and Stephens of this world -- just stop. Such is the conflicting irony of my belief or, perhaps, my hypocrisy.
An interesting final note: recently I ran into Jake at an informal farewell party for a friend.
"I don't think we've met," he said, shaking my hand. "I'm Jake."
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