Mike Sarson, the founder of East West Detox, is an unassuming, quietly spoken man, with a slightly faltering rhythm to his speech: a vicious assault, at the age of 25, left him with brain damage which affects his short term memory. He has a power point presentation on his computer screen to ‘fill in the gaps’ in our interview. But he doesn’t use it. Not once. The injuries he sustained may have stopped him leading a ‘normal’ life, but they have caused him to lead an extraordinary one.
His charity, East West Detox, sends drug addicts from the UK to Thamkrabok Monastery in Thailand, for what may be the world’s toughest drug rehab programme. Patients are told that this is a once-only chance: if they relapse they cannot come back. New arrivals take a vow of total abstinence, their possessions are confiscated and their communication with the outside world is cut for the first five days. The treatment is not easy; a 5 am start and the consumption of herbs, which cause instant, projectile vomiting. This is complemented by herbal steam baths, nutrition, counselling, work, art and mindfulness meditation for relapse prevention.
TV documentaries on the programme have tended to focus on the vomiting, days of no sleep and the agony of withdrawal. But Sarson is keen to point out that this is more than aversion therapy. ‘There is also a ritualistic element. The first time you take the herbs the projectile vomit comes out black. You take them for five days – but the fifth one is clear. So there is a symbolic cleansing. It’s really powerful; a letting go of all the negative stuff that you’ve held onto for years.’
Another important factor is the distance from home. Sarson sees the trip as ‘the journey of the hero’. ‘It has parallels of going on a pilgrimage to somewhere special like Lourdes. In the UK you could just escape rather than fight. But at the monastery you can’t do that. You have to go through a certain amount of discomfort to become the hero. No pain, no gain.’
Before founding East West Detox in 1997, Sarson worked with the National Health Service as an addictions counsellor, using drama therapy and meditation to help addicts to talk about their relationships and childhood experiences. This was a holistic approach that dealt with the causes of the addictions rather than just the symptoms. He found himself becoming increasingly disillusioned with the ‘over-medicalised’ system in the UK. ‘We were told to get them fast tracked onto medications, as it was more cost-effective. The whole thing was geared around putting heroin users onto methadone, which is more difficult to withdraw from than heroin. Everybody working in drug/alcohol services had to work like that.’
He encountered the programme at Thamkrabok during a holiday in Thailand and saw in it the holistic approach he was seeking. It was radical but seemed to be very effective; well over 100,000 people have been through the programme during the past 50 years, from all over the world.
East West Detox sends around 80 people a year to the programme. Although it is notoriously difficult to research the long-term effectiveness of drug-treatment programmes, anecdotal figures suggest that out of all the patients sent to Thamkrabok by East West Detox, 60 per cent are still drug-free after a year. The figure for UK-based programmes ranges from 4 to 12 per cent.
Sarson talks about addiction with a familiarity that comes from personal experience. After the attack in 1975, he spent weeks in hospital and had several operations. He was put on painkillers, tranquillisers and eventually anti-depressants. ‘Before the attack, I had a really promising career as an actor. After the attack I was traumatised for such a long period that I became addicted to these medications. Underneath there was all this anger and resentment. Why me? I became the victim. Then I started self medicating.’
The turning point was an encounter with Nicholas Broadbridge, a Benedictine monk who was running healing workshops at Douai Abbey near Reading. Broadbridge told Mike that unless he forgave the people who had attacked him, they would affect him for the rest of his life. ‘I could really see his point. I didn’t want to carry on with all this anger and resentment, blocking it all by taking all these drugs. So I went through this process with him, healing the memories.’ After that, he says, the negative energy and emotions went away.
I tell Sarson that I’m interested in this connection between forgiveness and addiction. I had a preconceived image of elderly monks, tucked away from the modern world, shuffling around in the shadows of a dark monastery. So I am pleasantly surprised when, five minutes later, I am talking directly to Broadbridge, now in his eighties, via a video link on Sarson’s computer. ‘Every addiction has a spiritual starting point and a spiritual conclusion,’ Broadbridge says. ‘By spiritual I don’t mean religious but each one’s inner spirit.
‘The starting point is primarily a lack of love, from whatever cause. This means that the adult addict is always looking for the love which he or she missed out on in earlier life.’
He mentions how most people in recovery follow the 12 step program and the 11th step is meeting God through prayer and meditation. But although he sees the meditation as a vital step, he adds another stage, ‘the healing of memories’. In his workshops he gets people to talk about their early life, to find out who they have been blaming, however subconsciously.
Broadbridge teaches that by not forgiving, we block our ability to receive love. This causes pain, anger and an emptiness, which we try to fill with external things, and this, in turn, becomes the addiction. ‘The answer will always be forgiveness and love,’ he says. ‘That will set you free.’ Sarson talks of asking God – or a higher power, ‘if you don’t have a God’ – to forgive those who have hurt you.
Broadbridge says, ‘It is important to realise that it is the love that does the healing, not the forgiveness. The latter unblocks one’s relationship with God. Addicts are trying to take love but you can’t take it, you just receive it.’
Broadbridge’s workshops now form an important part of the post-rehabilitation of people returning from Thamkrabok. So does meditation. ‘Taking chemicals affects the chemistry in the brain which becomes busier, so people get stuck even more in their heads,’ says Sarson. ‘When you have cravings, your mind is constantly going off thinking about your next fix.’
Meditation helps them to live more from their hearts than their heads, and to observe and accept thoughts and emotions without trying to control them. ‘By practising every day, when you come off the drugs, you don’t go back to the pit, to the despair.’
Sarson realises that opening oneself up to love again through forgiveness, accepting experiences without judgment, in the moment, is an incredibly useful tool. Not just for former drug addicts but for everyone. ‘In the West we are all constantly dwelling on the past and projecting into the future. By connecting to the here and now, learning to live more in the present moment, we are all able to connect spiritually to our daily lives.’
He has started teaching mindfulness meditation in several schools, not just to the pupils, but to teachers and even to the children’s parents. ‘We teach children how to keep calm, how to keep things simple. We are all living in our heads too much and the kids really get it. Teachers have noticed that the children listen and concentrate more, behave better, and interact better.’
I ask Sarson how he now feels about the appalling attack that nearly killed him all those years ago. ‘I can look back on it now and accept it as a life changing experience. Through forgiveness I can reconnect to the love. I can accept everything even more because that experience has led me to where I am now.’ Against all odds, Sarson picked himself up and started a new life. Over the last 20 years, through his charity and working with people like Broadbridge, he has helped more than 1,500 other people to pick themselves up and start new lives.