12 Steps to Freedom

“What has been America’s most nurturing contribution to the culture of this planet so far? Many would say Jazz. I, who love jazz, will say this instead: Alcoholics Anonymous.”

-Kurt Vonnegut

As I’ve touched on in previous posts, a huge part of travel is the people you interact with in the most random of circumstances. Those interactions can be as fleeting as a shared tuk-tuk ride where you get some advice on the next place you’re headed, but they can also reveal something about the human condition in a conversation just as limited.

One interaction which has taught me as much as any I’ve ever had has been the last two weeks with my Muay Thai training partner Glenn.

Glenn is an addict in recovery. He’ll be four years sober in a few weeks, he is still adamant that he is IN RECOVERY. He makes no illusions that his sobriety is permanent, any more than someone between bouts of Crone’s disease would say that he is cured.

Even the language that he uses to speak about his addiction is an important part of his sobriety. We’ve talked extensively about the 12 steps of abstinence based recovery.

1. We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10.   We continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11.   We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

12.   Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

I met Glenn as I was breaking my training regimen, having a few beer Leos with the trainers at an impromptu BBQ in the “break room”, a hand built shack a few meters from the gym. We were all laughing and joking, the English getting a little more broken as the Sangsum was poured and the jokes becoming a little more bawdy and physical with every drink.

Glenn walked up to ask about training at Lanta Gym, and since the best English speaker in the bunch wasn’t present, they sent him to the newly minted VP of Marketing, yours truly.

I quickly offered him a beer, as that is the polite thing that I’ve always been conditioned to do. He politely declined, saying he doesn’t drink. In their inebriated state, the trainers didn’t exactly understand this, and thought that he just felt bad about drinking our beer. He firmly declined again, explaining to me that he was in recovery and nearly 4 years sober. I called off the dogs, and convinced him that I really enjoyed training at the facility, so he signed up for a week.

It was nice to have another native English speaker in the bunch, as the only other one in the gym previously was Christian, a gigantic Swede who had been in serious Muay Thai training for nearly two years. While he is a spectacularly nice guy, he is Swedish, and from personal experience, I can attest that they are a funny bunch with outsiders.

Glenn and I became fast friends, taking most of our meals together as we were training at the same times. During our meals and through our conversations, he enlightened me about the nature of addiction in general and his specifically. He spoke with remarkable candor and confidence about his life both before and after sobriety. Those conversations quickly became among the most meaningful I’ve ever had.

I remembered reading the quote above in one of my many readings of Vonnegut, but the 12 steps had never really had an impact in my life. Aside from one family friend who broke the bonds of addiction through abstinence based recovery, my experience with them was incredibly limited.

One of the first things we talked about was the spiritual nature of the 12 steps. Growing up where I did, Christianity was the only game in town besides the handful of Hindu families that called Bedford home. I’ve often joked that I thought that Jews were like unicorns until I was 18; something you read about in books but never actually saw.

10 minutes after I arrived in NYC, I realized how comical that notion was.

The spiritual portion of the 12 steps is an integral part of the process. There has to be a submission to something beyond yourself, whether Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity or New Age Spirituality. The steps don’t discriminate, they merely require an acknowledgement of a higher power.

This is important, because the nature of addiction causes there to be an all-consuming focus on the individual at the cost of any relationship, job or connection to the outside world. The balance between ego and self-esteem becomes a inverted pyramid, perilously hanging like the sword of Damocles over loved ones all around.

Glenn spoke candidly about his life leading up to sobriety. From putting friends and relatives at risk by stashing drugs in their homes, to the absolute tunnel vision that addiction can bring about. At the time he decided to get clean, he was consuming a gram or more of cocaine every day, in addition to crack, heroin and downers to come back down from an amount of blow that could probably kill a quarter-horse.

I know that many of my readers have no concept of how much that is, (obviously anyone reading from the COMEX floor knows exactly how much that is, and are probably making bets on the over/under of the amount currently on certain individuals on the floor. REDZ put me in on the over, I’m good for $20.)

Glenn’s addiction led him into countless hospital beds, whether the result of overdosing, injuries from brawls, or the total destruction of his stomach lining from the amount of corrosive substances he was consuming. He said at one point, he was lying in a hospital bed. As he came to, his mother was at the side of his bed bawling. She told him, that every mother’s worst fear is receiving that knock at the door from a uniformed policeman asking if they are the mother of so and so.

Through her tears, she told him that he had made that fear a reality time and time again, and it was physically and emotionally destroying her. Yet, his addiction was so all-consuming that even this couldn’t assuage his need for the next fix.

Eventually he saw the light, and saw that the road he was on was leading either to death or prison. Forced to sell drugs in order to fund his own addiction, the numbers, amount and risk leapt exponentially higher and higher. He knew that at any moment he could receive a knock on the door that would be the police or worse, an armed intruder coming to steal his cash and drugs.

He was lucky, and as he said, addiction is a down elevator but you don’t have to go all the way to the basement in order to get off. He attended a meeting and never looked back.

Even at this stage, nearly four years after he smoked, drank or consumed any pill with a narcotic effect, he is still working through the steps daily. Several times, I’ve knocked on his door to see if he is ready to go to dinner and he is standing there with his 12 steps workbook in hand, still working daily to beat an addiction which at any point could overcome his will to control it.

He spoke about the different individuals who have helped him. There have been sponsors who have held him from the abyss in moments of weakness as well as those who have bravely shared stories at meetings that continually affirmed the fact that he was stronger than his disease.

He’s spoken about the meetings he’s attended while on travel, from Thailand to Cambodia, with men and women who have been IN RECOVERY for up to 25 years, but still attend the meetings religiously as they believe that it is both necessary and to re-commit themselves to helping others looking to take control of their condition.

My hometown has a drug problem to rival any in the nation. One of my best friend’s father has been our county sheriff for years, and he has been on the front lines of a battle that has morphed from alcohol, to CAT to that most insidious of proletariat drugs, meth.

Sisyphus himself pities that endless struggle, but God bless that man for suiting up every day and trying to push the rock up that hill.

I can’t open the website of my local newspaper without seeing the skeletal faces of those addicts who have not made the decision to confront the disease. Former Boys Club kids of mine, who I remember as 3rd and 4th graders playing dodgeball and pranking me behind the counter, looking older than me by a decade as the drugs have destroyed their youth. One of my best childhood friends is currently behind bars for heroin, a good man whose personal life spiraled out of control while he found temporary solace in a drug that sought only to destroy him.

I can’t even count the number of dead that attended high school with me, both from prescription drugs and street.

Glenn has also talked at length about the additional reading he’s done outside the meetings, trying to understand the true nature of addiction. He’s found some interesting things, both about addicts and the human condition in general.

One thing that I’ve found interesting is the various ways that addiction manifests itself. Addiction is more than a drug or alcohol problem. It can show up in gambling, shopping, eating, or even seemingly positive things such as working out.

Glenn spoke about the fact that after he got sober, that his addiction manifested itself in a manic devotion to the gym. While most people would be ecstatic to have the drive to be at the gym for three hours a day, Glenn eventually realized that it was just a substitution effect. His relationships were still suffering because his addiction was stealing away the time that he needed to nurture them.  This was still the disease driving his behavior, whether the outlet was “healthy” or not.

Many Americans have found themselves with hall passes for addiction. Somehow a scribbled note on a piece of paper reading Rx allows people to believe that they don’t have a problem.

As the friend of several men cut down long before their time due to prescription drugs, please let me disabuse you of that notion.

That nightly ritual of a half bottle of white wine and a Zanax is no less an addiction than the man injecting heroin on a street corner. The fact that a “respected doctor” sanctions it does nothing to change that fact.

Addiction is without question a disease, but it is one that most people are terrified to talk about.

My family has had more than our fair share of struggles with alcohol. My father has spoken often about the familial carnage that an alcoholic leaves in their wake. He found respite in Al-Anon as a young man and he credits that with helping break a cycle which sees so many children of addicts struggle with the same issues that ruined their own childhoods. There is a cycle of co-dependence and childhood trauma which can run destroy generations of otherwise loving families.

I thank God that my father had the bravery to confront the painful issues of his childhood before they came to affect my brother and me. I’ve seen others in my family who never did deal with those issues, and even when the cork was in the bottle or the fork was in the drawer the effects of addiction were never fixed.

Glenn’s own father put the cork in the bottle some 20 years ago. He did it the hard way, through sheer piss and vinegar, steps and God be damned. While he’s been stone sober for the past 20 years, his addiction is no less a problem today than it was when he was drinking. He merely let his addiction manifest itself in work instead of the bottle. The problems, while fewer, were never truly gone.

There was never the submission to a higher power, never the rebalancing of ego and self-esteem, and never the painful but necessary amends made to those who fell victim to the addiction.

That’s what the 12 steps are about, a full and continuous recovery from a disease that can strike anyone, regardless of circumstance or social standing.

There should be no more shame in addiction than cancer. Addiction is not a moral failing, it is a disease that affects those from all walks of life. An addict is neither good nor bad, merely one who suffers from a disease.

The only shameful thing is to not acknowledge it for what it is; a disease to be battled, every single day.

Horror and Hope in Cambodia

On a trip like the Conquest, there are countless moments that take your breath away. Whether a sunset on a deserted Australian beach, a pristine waterfall in the middle of no where in Vietnam, or a 9 year old firebreather on the streets of Saigon, the world has endless wonders with which to surprise and amaze.

Young firebreathers

Young firebreathers

Unfortunately, the cosmic scales don’t tip endlessly to the wonderful. The other, darker side of the coin exists, balancing out the good with the most reprehensible evil imaginable. Here in Cambodia, I saw one of the most horrific atrocities that humanity has ever perpetrated against itself.

A few levels of bones, they go 17 levels high.

A few levels of bones, they go 17 levels high.

I still remember vividly the day that Pol Pot died. It was my 11th birthday, and I was in the car with my dad who invariably had NPR tuned onto the radio. In the crackling monotone of AM radio, a voice came across and said “Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge and perpetrator of one of the worst genocides in history is reported dead in near the Cambodian border with Thailand.”

I had never heard of him, and when I asked Dad who he was, he simply replied, “Crazy bastard in Cambodia who killed almost half the population. Sure as hell didn’t deserve to die of old age.”

It was a sparse but totally accurate depiction. 16 years later, after exiting the boat in Phnom Penh after a 3 day ride up the Mekong from Saigon, I found myself in a position to deepen my understanding of one of the most nightmarish periods in human history.

Pol Pot was born the wealthy scion of an upper class family in Phnom Penh. Educated in traditional French Colonial style, he was sent onto further his education in Paris, where he studied Radio and Electronics. During his time in Paris, he became enamoured with the local Communist group, and took up their ideology.

After his failing his exams 3 consecutive times, he was forced to come back to Cambodia. There he took up teaching, a profession which he would later attempt to exterminate. He kept in contact with a close set of associates that he had come upon in Paris, and worked to further Communist aims back home.

In 1963, the French language and history teacher was voted the head of a Communist organization of less than 200 members. From this humble beginning, he forged the ferocious killing machine known as the Khmer Rouge.

S21. Former school turned torture facility. Barbed wire to keep prisoners from killing themselves.

S21. Former school turned torture facility. Barbed wire to keep prisoners from killing themselves.

The aims of the Khmer Rouge were to throw off the yoke of colonialism/monarchy that they felt through King Norodom Sihanouk. They held the peasant farming class as the ideal of a Communist society, and actively fought against modernization of any kind, which they felt only exacerbated class distinctions.

After waging guerilla warfare against the monarchy and subsequent democratic government, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. An estimated 3 million Cambodians would be killed over the next four years.

Rooms and rooms full of the faces of the victims.

Rooms and rooms full of the faces of the victims.

Cambodia’s total population was approximately 8 million when Pol Pot seized power.

Choeung Ek was merely one of many “killing fields” where the Khmer Rouge disposed of “enemies of the regime.” Enemies of the regime included urbanites, the upper and middle classes, the educated, anyone with glasses, and towards the end, those whose hands were not “hardened from honest labor.” As a part of the Khmer Rouge’s rural utopian plan, the cities were totally depopulated, and citizens of every stripe were forced into near slavery conditions, laboring unproductively in the countryside.

In 1990, Choeung Ek was designated as the primary memorial site for those lost in the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. Now a “stuka,” with the bones of the dead stacked in 17 levels, stands in the center of the now peaceful countryside which saw so many horrors a mere 35 years ago.

Sunset near the Killing Fields

Sunset near the Killing Fields

This was not merely men, but women and babies as well. A popular propaganda phrase among the Khmer Rouge was “to destroy the grass one must dig the roots.” Tactically this translated into bashing the heads of babies against a tree before throwing them into a mass grave.

The tree where they dashed babies

The tree where they dashed babies

The horror of that can’t be overstated. To stand next to a tree where men held babies by their feet and smashed them head first was one of the most guttural and brutal feelings I have ever received.

This was pure, unadulterated evil on the most base level.

The Khmer Rouge was eventually overthrown after 4 years of genocide by the Vietnamese, however the rest of the world still treated the Khmer Rouge as the government in exile until 1990. The perpetrators of this horror were granted a seat at the UN, strolling the streets of NYC with diplomatic immunity.

Justice apparently only has a place in the world of international politics when it is convenient.

Cambodia has largely recovered after losing 2 generations to the nightmare that was the Khmer Rouge. Phnom Penh is the most modern city I’ve seen since leaving Singapore, and the unfailingly positive attitudes of the Cambodian people is a big reason why. Like Vietnam, they refuse to let the past define them, but they demand acknowledgement of the horrors that happened in this beautiful country.

See the Killing Fields stuka in the background

See the Killing Fields stuka in the background

The day after I went to the Killing Fields, I took a sunset 4-wheeler ride around the area. The peaceful serenity was punctuated with the smiling faces of little Cambodian children, waving and screaming hello as if I were some movie star. There were women in brightly colored headscarves driving cattle, and groups of men huddled around laughing at the Cambodian dubbed version of Baby Got Back.

As we neared the end of the trip, I noticed a large group of kids playing soccer with some homemade goals. I pulled off the road to stop and watch, and snap a few pictures. Within a few minutes, one boy, named Chanra, came over and asked if we’d like to play. I’m certainly not my brother’s equal with a soccer ball, but I figured what the hell.

Damn it was hot

Damn it was hot


We played with the kids for about a half an hour, sweating our brains out in the slowly dropping sun. I looked over, and saw the stuka at Choeung Ek looking back at me.

Of all the moments I’ve had on the Conquest this far, this was the most powerful.

Literally in the shadow of a place which saw some of the most gruesome crimes against humanity a mere 8 years before I was born, we played soccer together. Khmer, American and British Indian, laughing and horsing around.

The soccer crew

The soccer crew

It was yet another lesson in not letting the past define the present.

There is only one day that we have control of, and that day is today.