A voice in the dark: From the wreckage of his life as an addict, Thuan Nguyen found a way to heal others
Thuan Nguyen, the wellness manager at addiction treatment center Mountainside in North Canaan, has remarked that an addict’s journey from a life of addiction to a life of service and spiritual fulfillment is a testament to the transformative power of the human spirit.
Nguyen created Mountainside’s signature Spirituality in Recovery curriculum, which many of the treatment center’s alumni have said helped them begin their own journeys to the peace of mind and self-knowledge necessary for sober living.
Nguyen’s own life began in tumult. Born in South Vietnam during the war, he was just 11 months old when his father, a pilot for the South Vietnamese air force, received word that Saigon was on the brink of falling.
Nguyen’s mother fled via motorcycle with her four children and “just the clothes on their back,” said Nguyen. The men were destined for mainland Thailand, but in a desperate bid to be with his family, Nguyen’s father and a friend stole a plane off the air force base and deserted. Reunited, the family ended up in a refugee camp in Pennsylvania, received sponsorship from a church in Pleasantville, New York, and finally came to settle in Westchester County.
“I’ve been told that I thrash at night sometimes, so I think it’s still in my body somewhere,” Nguyen confided. “I probably have some trauma from it, but I don’t know consciously.”
Struggling against social anxiety, Nguyen began drinking in high school. “I’d been so anxious, and I used it as a tool,” he said. “I wanted to fit in. I was an introvert. I was really shy. But when I drank, it was like, ‘OK. Now I can be like everybody else.’ And I wanted to be like everybody else.”
In sobriety, Nguyen has come to realize that at the time, he simply didn’t like who he was, and alcohol offered him the illusion of transformation.
Asked if alcohol eventually “stopped working,” as many alcoholics report, Nguyen laughed: “I don’t think it ever stopped working. It was the crystal meth that took me down.”
A driven and successful student, Nguyen went from high school to Vassar College to Cornell University into a successful professional life in New York. One night out at a club with colleagues, a work friend’s dealer offered him crystal meth. “The sense of euphoria was unbelievable,” said Nguyen. “Crystal meth made me feel like Superman. I felt like I could do anything I wanted.”
And for a time, he was indeed Superman. In a turn of events that many people with addiction experience, promotions and raises flowed.
“I thought, ‘No one needs to know as long as I can control it,’” he said. “I controlled it for a good three years, and then the last year was just horrendous. I was doing it at work, around the clock. I thought people didn’t know, but people knew.”
He was fired. “I couldn’t stop,” he explained. “I kept telling myself I’d stop if my partying life got in the way of my professional life, but when it actually happened, I was like, ‘Well, I can’t stop now.’”
He moved to Seattle, hoping that, in a more relaxed life, he would be able to stop drinking and using drugs. But he couldn’t.
In the throes of his addiction, convinced he would die, with the police showing up at his door, no job, and the threat of homelessness looming, Nguyen finally checked in to High Watch, a 12 step-based treatment program in Kent.
I remember walking into the dining hall and seeing the 12 steps on the wall and thinking, ‘Oh god. I’m in one of those places. How did I get here?’” Nguyen decided he’d get through the 21-day program, get his family off his back, and get back to his life.
“That was the plan,” Ngyuyen explained, “Until I realized I couldn’t live without drugs and alcohol.”
One night at High Watch, a blizzard came through the area. The campus was covered in crystal rock salt to prevent slipping. Alone in his dorm room, Nguyen mistook a chunk of rock salt for crystal meth and thought this must have been a test of the program.
It was then that he realized, “‘I am obsessed. When I’m not doing drugs, I’m thinking about doing drugs.’”
This total acceptance is what people in recovery sometimes describe as “surrender”—and for Nguyen, it enabled him to commit to his recovery and to Alcoholics Anonymous. He found himself surrounded by a community of people who were spiritual and peaceful, and he shared, “I wanted what they had.”
Three years since he had last held a job, Nguyen left rehab and secured a position in housekeeping at High Watch.
“I couldn’t exactly pick and choose,” he said of his then-new position. “It taught me humility.” He told himself, “‘I’m just like everyone else here. I’m just gonna do my job and be okay with that.’”
Through his work at High Watch, he became a 12-step coach. Fueled by a deepening connection to spirituality through meditation and yoga, Nguyen became a certified yoga and reiki teacher, in Yoga of the 12 Steps, and special training in qigong.
This path eventually led him to Mountainside, where he could explore an array of healing modalities. Here, he revels in the opportunity to share his journey and the wisdom he’s gathered with clients.
“I think self-love is the holy grail of the entire program. Because if you can learn to love yourself, you will never do anything to harm yourself,” said Nguyen. He said that working at Mountainside helps to keep him sober day to day, and to find immense gratitude for his journey.
“Most of it is knowing how hard it is to get sober, how painful the beginning is and getting to be a voice for people because there were voices of hope for me,” he said. “I want to be around to help somebody when they finally say, ‘OK, I’m done. Now what do I do?’ and to be one of those people that gets to help.”