“Bracingly honest, funny and rewarding, this is a book you can’t put down.” Sydney Morning Herald.
“Perfection. Sex, Drugs and Meditation is one of the best memoirs I have read in years. Humble, witty and so very, very true. All I wanted was for this book never to end.” –Walter Mason, The Universal Heart Book Club.
“Truth is more compelling than fiction.” Daily Telegraph.
Mary-Lou Stephens was lucky to make it into her forties. Therapy and AA helped her recover from her upbringing in an evangelical household; her habit of shoplifting through drama school; her addictions to food, drugs and alcohol; a string of failed love affairs and the break up of several bands. She has landed a dream job as a radio personality. Life is looking good. Except that Mary-Lou has a new boss, a psychopath in a suit.
Determined to avoid MORE therapy and desperate to cope with an increasingly toxic work environment, Mary-Lou signs up for a ten-day meditation retreat that requires total silence, endless hours of sitting cross-legged, and no dinner. For a woman who talks for a living, is rarely still and cooks for comfort, this was never going to be an easy task.
Darkly funny and beautifully told, Sex, Drugs and Meditation is a tale for those of us who confuse being busy with being happy; the story of a woman who dared herself to stop talking and start living – and loving.
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Why did I risk my job, my friends and the love of my family to write this book? When I used to read self-help books I turned straight to the case studies, the stories. I think human beings are hard-wired for stories, we love them. When I realised my life read like one of those case studies I wondered if other people would be interested in my story.
My first attempts to write Sex, Drugs and Meditation weren’t successful. A literary agent read some of it, saw potential but told me I had to get really, really honest if I was to continue. I wasn’t brave enough at the time so put the manuscript away and write a novel instead.
After a few more years and a lot more meditation, I found the courage and rewrote Sex, Drugs and Meditation. I knew when I’d finished the endless drafts that I had written a book worth reading. Pan Macmillan agreed and published it.
Sex, Drugs and Meditation has been described as a very brave book and that’s true. As a radio presenter I was afraid that the revelations about my past in the book might get me fired. There was a real danger that I could lose my job, my friends and my family because of the book. That was something I decided to risk when I signed the contract. In the end though everything was fine. I still have my job, my friends love me more than ever and almost all of my family are still talking to me.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
The one tried and true method I have for boosting creativity and for coming up with a million ideas, characters and story lines, is meditation. Especially a silent meditation retreat. No distractions and a monkey mind! The idea of meditation is not to stop thinking, that’s impossible, but in the process of observing the thoughts when they come up you’ll be amazed at the concepts and ideas that arise.
The vibrant green along the highway always surprises me. There has been no rain for months. Even in other parts of Queensland I’ve seen gum trees dead from thirst. But here, on the coastal fringes of the south-east, where I have lived for over two years now, the dry hand of drought has left the land untouched. The back seat of my car is piled high with pillows, bags containing clothes suitable for ten days of meditating, and, because I’ve been warned there are no washing machines at the meditation centre, plenty of underwear. I also have my favourite one hundred per cent cotton sheets. I never go anywhere without them. I went camping once. My sheets came too. I discovered tents don’t suit me. Instead I made up a bed on the back seat of the Kingswood with my sheets. My friends called it the Holden Hilton. I didn’t care. Even with my feet sticking out the end I was more comfortable than in a leaky smelly lumpy tent. I’ve never gone camping again. Can’t say I’ve missed it. Camping is an option at the meditation centre, clearly one I won’t be taking up.
The meditation centre. The thought makes my hands grow clammy on the wheel. A series of events have brought me to this point, events that might mean nothing in isolation but intersected, almost magically, to create the journey I’m on. Synchronicity is a gift for those who are brave, or foolish, enough to catch it by the tail. Right now I’m not sure which one I am. I shift restlessly in my seat and flick the radio off. The thirty-minute drive seems much longer with a head full of doubt and questions.
I remember the lounge room of a Darlinghurst terrace house. I was in my early thirties and in Sydney. My friend Amber perched on the arm of her couch. Damaged young, she had a raft of coping mechanisms that were more inventive than most. Including the way she could talk, almost without the need to draw breath. She could fill the room, plump out the cushions, blow the dust out of the corners and make the place sparkle with her words. Trinkets for the ears. One day she got on a train, took that train to the top of the mountain and, of her own free will, entered a meditation centre. Not just any meditation centre. A silent meditation centre, where she promised to sit still in total silence for ten days. Amber. The most garrulous, fidgety girl in the inner city.
She returned less than three days later. She was far from serene. She was angry.
‘What happened?’ I asked.
She took a deep breath and told me. She described a prison that kept her hungry, sleep-deprived and in pain. And when, quite sensibly, she decided to leave, she discovered it was a lot harder to get out through those gates than it was to get in. The staff took it in turns to try and convince her to stay. Amber was a formidable opponent in an argument – those poor schmucks never stood a chance. As far as she was concerned she’d made a dreadful mistake and had got out of it relatively unscathed. Plus she had another marvellous story to entertain anyone who’d listen.
I listened, I always did. And something, somewhere deep inside me, stirred. I thought one day I might take a train up that same mountain.
Amber wasn’t the only one to tell me about the meditation centre. In Sydney it had a certain cachet among the cool, black-clothed types who talked about spirituality with one breath and sucked in cigarette smoke with the next. They talked about being clean and sober but were addicted to cigarettes and the next spiritual high. This ten day silent meditation retreat was the best trip of them all, they told me. Painful but life-changing.
My Sydney days are long gone and Amber and I have fallen out of touch. It’s been almost ten years since that conversation in Darlinghurst. I have lived in many places since then, before moving here to the Sunshine Coast. Thoughts of the meditation centre were forgotten until a friend and I met for a cup of tea.
‘I have just had the most amazing experience of my life.’ Natalie beamed at me.
She laughed. ‘I wouldn’t exactly call it nice, but it was brilliant. I’ve been sitting on my bum in silence for ten days, meditating.’
‘I’ve heard of that, or something like it.’ Memories of Amber and the spiritual cigarette smokers came immediately to mind. ‘Don’t you have to sit still for hours? Isn’t it really painful?’
‘Other people complained a bit, after it was all over. I made myself a big couch of cushions up against the back wall. It was really quite comfortable.’
‘The place you go to do this, isn’t it somewhere near Sydney? The Blue Mountains?’
‘There’s a centre right here on the Sunshine Coast. About half an hour up the road.’
Something fluttered in my chest. The unfamiliar feeling of hope. Perhaps this could be my salvation. Amber’s experience had not been great, but others had told me it had changed them forever. Some of them had even given up smoking. I discussed my work ordeal with Natalie, as I did with all my friends. I was grateful to have any left.
She was sure the meditation course would help. ‘It’s based on Buddhist philosophy. The overcoming of suffering is a big one. You sound as though you’ve suffered enough. It’s worth a try.’
After Natalie left I rang the meditation centre to enquire about dates for the next course. I was told it started in a fortnight’s time, beginning on Boxing Day and ending on the sixth of January, my birthday. I can thank my mother for the knowledge that the sixth of January is the Feast of the Epiphany in the Christian church. The manifestation of the superhuman, the realisation that Christ was the son of God. Unfortunately the course was booked out and the best they could do was put me on the waiting list. I took it as an omen. If I was meant to do the course a place would be available. I was certain it would happen. Spending the new year becoming the new me? Ending the course on my birthday, my rebirth day? Surely it was my destiny. A week later I got the call. So on this sixth of January, after ten days of silent and painful meditation, I will revel in my own epiphany. I will put all the pieces of the puzzle that is my life together and finally see the complete picture. In a sudden burst of light, accompanied by the sound of angels blowing trumpets, I will receive insight and wisdom. The Hideous Master Purvis will cease to affect me. I will love my job and my life again.
That’s the plan, but now it’s time for the reality. Students are asked to arrive at the meditation centre between three and five pm for registration and I’m running a little late. I couldn’t resist those Boxing Day sales. The bitumen of the highway turns into a semi-rural street and then a dirt road. A cow glares at me from behind a wooden fence. I scan for a place name, a sign to reassure me I’m not on private property but on the path to a new and happy life. The road bumps under my wheels and, with relief, I see the words Vipassana Centre and an arrow. I drive through the centre’s gates and find a spot in the crowded car park. What’s going to happen when I walk in the door? It’s a silent retreat. How am I going to work out what to do? Will there be signs everywhere? Will we play charades? Am I allowed to write down questions? Will they write the answers back? I have no idea what to expect as I lug my bags towards the front door.
Inside I’m assaulted by a wall of noise. A roomful of people talking and laughing. The sound bounces off the walls in a cacophony of accents: Australian, British, German and others I can’t decipher. Leaving my bags by the door I look around. At the far end of the room a young woman is sitting behind a table spread with official-looking pieces of paper. I weave through the throng and introduce myself.
‘I have your details right here,’ she says. ‘You need to fill in this form. Then bring it back and I’ll give you directions on how to find your room. Any questions?’
‘Yes.’ I hesitate, not wanting to appear stupid. ‘How come we’re allowed to talk?’
She smiles. ‘Later, when everyone’s settled in, we’ll go to the meditation hall. You’ll take the Five Precepts and agree to meditate in Noble Silence. After that there’s no talking, singing, whistling or humming. Just silence. But for now you are free to talk.’
I thank her and take one of the forms. Perhaps I should do some serious humming before the gates of silence clang shut.
Ten minutes later I’m still staring at the paperwork. I’ve answered the easy stuff: name, address, occupation, next of kin. But I wasn’t expecting questions about my drug and alcohol history. I gave up drinking years ago, I write virtuously. Or should I say drinking gave me up.
At the time a friend said, ‘I wouldn’t worry why you slept with your friend’s boyfriend, so much as why you’re drinking so much.’
She was being kind. Not only had I slept with my friend’s boyfriend, I hadn’t remembered it. I woke in his bed among splotches of vomit. I thought the sex had been a dream until I saw the used condom on the floor. Perhaps it was alcohol poisoning, maybe it was moral guilt, but ever since then even one sip of alcohol makes me nauseous and gives me a splitting headache. An instantaneous hangover without any of the fun. But I didn’t give up without a fight. For months I tried every kind of alcohol before admitting defeat. That was years ago and now, only occasionally, when those first hints of summer start to warm the air and lengthen the afternoons with promise, do I muse on the delights of a crisp, cold beer. But none ever bridge the gap between mind and mouth.
The drug history is not so easily dealt with. Marijuana? Hash? Everyone experiments. But my experiments went further. LSD, ecstasy, cocaine, speed. And I am loath to mention the big one. But I’m here to change the present. I can’t do that by lying about my past.
My pen hovers over the form. I take a deep breath and hold it in, pressing my lips tight. I write the word. Heroin. Instantly the fear erupts. Of so many secrets this is one I never let out of the bag. I keep it hidden in the dark places. But now it’s out in the light, cringing and squirming. I need to lessen the blow. Quickly I add, recreational use only, stopped many years ago. Recreational? Strange form of recreation, throwing up and nodding off. But smack made me feel as though nothing could hurt me. Wrapped up in my warm cocoon. I felt safe, if only for a little while. I haven’t spent much of my life feeling safe.
Curiosity is a powerful lure. I was in my early twenties and living in Melbourne away from the judging eyes of family back in Hobart. I wanted to try it, just to see what it was like. It made me throw up. Even after I’d emptied everything out of my stomach, I still felt sick. The merest sip of water ended up in the toilet. What was all the fuss about? I’d tried it and I didn’t like it. End of story. But then I moved to a share house where the mysterious murmurings and late-night wanderings got the better of me. I had been using speed intravenously for about a year – shooting up was so much more fun than snorting. Speed was a party drug and I was running with a group of gay boys who loved to party. But I made new friends in that share house and it was a smallish step to switch over to something a lot slower. I became accustomed to the nausea, I even used it to my advantage. I’d tried to be bulimic in the past and failed, but with this, no trying was necessary. Using was a once or twice a week event at the house. The anticipation was palpable when it was time to score. Speed was a social drug and I shared it with a large group of friends. Heroin was a different beast. I kept it contained to the small group who visited the house. Hidden from my other friends. A recreational user, that’s all I was. For years. But when I finally decided to stop, and stay stopped, it took at least eighteen months before I could hear the words taste, hit, fit, smack, score or dope without a pang of desire rising from my centre where that insatiable hole resides. It was another year before I stopped looking at spoons with suspicion, checking whether the handle had been bent backwards to allow the bowl to sit flat.
Fortunately the form is designed so that all the easy stuff is visible on the outside while the secrets stay hidden, folded out of sight. But, before I hand it back to the young woman behind the table, I have to ask. ‘Who reads the forms?’
‘Only the assistant teacher reads the information inside.’
And I know she’s been asked this question many times by people like me, with respectable jobs and respectable lives, who are terrified that their less than respectable pasts are going to reach across time and bite them hard. And I know she knows I’m one of them.
I’m advised to hand over my valuables for safekeeping. I hesitate. When Amber wanted to leave and they tried to make her stay, she told me one of the cards they held was the fact they had her keys and wallet. She threatened to leave without them. She told them she’d walk all the way back to Darlinghurst and break into her own home if she had to. Will that be me in a day or two? If it is, I’ll be copping out of more than a ten-day meditation retreat. I’ll be giving up on myself and my job. The Hideous Master Purvis will win. I hand them over.
There aren’t any luxuries here. Leaving my shoes outside as requested by a sign at the door, I inspect the room I’ll be sleeping in for the next eleven nights. Two beds, two small wooden bedside tables and a pedestal fan in the corner. The communal bathroom is outside along a gravel path. One of the beds has a small suitcase sitting on it and a towel hangs over the fan. My roommate has arrived already. There’s no wardrobe, no chest of drawers, but I find a couple of old wire hangers on a hook behind the door and hang the clothes I can; the rest stay in my bag at the end of the bed. The door faces out onto bushland. A walking track leads up the hill for those in need of solitude and exercise, or downhill towards the dining hall for those who need company and sustenance. I choose the dining hall.
During the short walk I take in the beauty of the landscape around me. The meditation centre is on the outskirts of one of the many country towns that spread out like beads on a string, along the coast and through the hinterland. This town has one dominant feature, a small but dramatic mountain. One peak sticking out of the ground almost vertically. The sun is setting and the result is picture perfect. A few wispy clouds, wafting around the mountain, glow orange in the fading light. . A small flock of kangaroos graze on the stretches of short, dry grass between the buildings. They’re unfazed by the closeness of humans. Vipassana meditation is a Buddhist practice; they know we’re no danger. Before I enrolled in the course I was asked to read the Introduction to the Technique and Code of Discipline, a single piece of paper printed on both sides in small type, crammed full of information and instructions. Number one on the list of precepts is to abstain from killing any living creature. The introduction also states what Vipassana is not – a rite or ritual based on blind faith – and what it is – a technique that will eradicate suffering. I hold that hope close.
At the dining hall I step around a collection of shoes, left in an untidy row near the entrance, and open the sliding door. Along one wall trestle tables are laden with herbal and black tea, milk and soy, sugar, honey and a tray of Anzac biscuits. I help myself to a cup of tea and stare at the biscuits. The old compulsion rises. I was eight years old when I realised food was more dependable than people. Up until then I’d felt safe and loved. But something shifted in my family and in my life. A change of schools left me friendless and at home I was ignored. It was if I’d become invisible to everybody around me, except when they wanted someone to pick on. I was the youngest of six children, the easiest to disregard, the easiest to taunt. It set me up for a life of desperately wanting love and attention but angry and defiant because I’d learnt I would never be given it. Chocolate became my best friend and anything with sugar in it was surrogate family. I didn’t need anyone or anything else. If alcohol or drugs had been available to me at that age, I would have been an alcoholic or drug addict at eight. Instead I became an addict of a different kind, resorting to stealing from my parents to feed my habit. When I finally got sprung my parents sat me down in their bedroom for a talk.
‘Are these yours?’ My dad pointed at the chocolate wrappers crammed into an old school bag.
‘Yes.’ There was no use lying. It was clear what had happened. My older sister, who shared a bedroom with me, had been snooping in my wardrobe.
‘That explains it,’ said my mother. ‘I wondered how you’d put on so much weight with just the food I’ve been feeding you.’
Then why didn’t you ask? Why didn’t you show some concern? Why did you ignore it? Ignore me? I’d gone from a slim happy child to an obese miserable kid in less than a year; loving parents would have wanted to know what was wrong, surely? These were the questions I asked many years later in therapists’ rooms. But my mother was never there to answer. My mother had her own battles with weight. Acknowledging mine would have forced her to acknowledge her own.
‘Where did you get the money from?’ asked my father.
I didn’t want to answer. I stared at the carpet, grey with darker flecks of charcoal.
My eyes flicked over to their built-in wardrobe. I knew it intimately. Every time I snuck into their room the adrenalin rush almost overpowered me. Stealthily I would open my father’s wardrobe door and begin my search. Slipping my hand into the breast pocket of his suit jackets would usually yield his wallet. Brown and worn, full of neatly folded notes snug within the leather. I would steal a couple of small notes and, with clammy fingers and pounding heart, get out as quickly as I could. I never bothered with my mother’s side of the wardrobe. There was nothing there I wanted. Her handbag was where she kept her money and she left it in various places. I would track it down and relieve her purse of coins and dollar notes whenever the opportunity arose.
My parents waited for an answer.
‘I stole it from you.’ There was nothing else I could say.
They sighed and nodded. ‘Will you promise not to do it again?’
But I lied.
My mind starts up its infernal chatter as I stare at the tray of biscuits. Perhaps I could have just one, or two, or even three. Tonight doesn’t count – after all the meditation doesn’t really start until tomorrow. I shake my head to free my mind of the all too familiar line of thinking. I don’t want to spend my entire time at the meditation centre obsessing about sugar. It’s ironic that it wasn’t the drugs or alcohol that found me in the rooms of Twelve Step programs for years, it was my addiction to food, my first, my last, my everything.
Four tables with benches on either side take up the rest of the space; they’re not as interesting as biscuits but I force myself to look around. Most of the benches are occupied by women either talking intensely to each other while chewing on, yes, biscuits or filling out their forms while chewing on the ends of their pens. The men have their own dining hall on the other side of the wall. I wonder how many biscuits they’re eating. I take my cup of tea, find a spare seat outside on the verandah, where the view is better, the air fresher and there are no trays of biscuits. I introduce myself to the three women already sitting at the table, one of them barely out of her teens, and thankfully none of them eating biscuits.
‘So what brings you here?’ I ask the youngest as I sit down.
‘My sister,’ she smiles shyly and inclines her head towards the young woman sitting beside her. ‘It was her idea.’
Her sister sits diagonally opposite me. The family resemblance is subtle but it’s there. But while her younger sister is soft and rounded, she is angular and annoyed. ‘It’s the holidays,’ she says. ‘What else is there to do?’
‘My priest told me about this place,’ says the woman on my left. She has black curly hair, blue eyes with long lashes and a sprinkle of freckles on her nose. ‘I’m Bernadette and, yes, I’m Catholic. But I’m okay, really I am.’ She laughs and turns towards me. ‘And just as well, because I think we’re sharing a room.’
‘Really? That’s great.’ And it is. I like her.
‘Your priest?’ asks the older sister, with a look of disdain.
‘Yeah, he’s been a couple of times. He told me it doesn’t interfere with any belief systems or religious points of view. It’s just a great way to clear your head of anything that’s bugging you. I wouldn’t know, though, I’ve never done it before.’
‘Me neither,’ I say and turn back to the sisters. ‘Have either of you done this before?’
They shake their heads.
‘That girl has.’ Bernadette indicates a twenty-something woman sitting alone on a chair near the railing. Her short bleached hair is mussed up, dark roots showing. She gazes out at the tree line chewing on a thumbnail with little left of it to chew.
‘She told me she’s done Vipassana five times,’ Bernadette whispers.
‘Five times!’ I’m impressed. She must be very spiritual.
‘Yeah, five times and she still can’t stop smoking.’
‘Apparently lots of people come here to give up smoking,’ says Bernadette. ‘It’s supposed to work well on all kinds of addictions. And of course you can’t smoke or drink while you’re here, so it gives you a kickstart.’
‘Is that why you’re here?’ I ask Bernadette with a smile. ‘Did your priest send you here to give up the evil cigarettes, or perhaps the demon drink?’ I’m teasing, and although I’ve only just met her, I know she can take it. Besides, I want to know, as do the sisters. All eyes are on Bernadette.
‘Well . . .’ She hesitates.
We lean towards her, poised for a juicy titbit.
She laughs. ‘No.’
We take a breath and laugh with her. But I’m a little disappointed. I’m hoping we’ll be friends and I like my friends to be as flawed as I am.
‘I’m at a bit of a crossroads with my work,’ she says. ‘I just need some time-out to decide what to do next. What about you?’
She looks at me and I tense. Why am I always defensive when people ask me a direct question? Scared I’ll say the wrong thing, wanting to impress but also wanting to connect. I’m so desperate to be liked that I try to second-guess what I think other people want to hear. I am left in no-man’s-land. I decide to do what I usually do. Dodge. Avoid. ‘I gave up smoking years ago,’ I say with an uneasy grin. ‘Last one I smoked made me sick to my stomach. Like a cartoon kid trying a cigarette for the first time; the nausea bubbles floating above my head as I turned a sickly shade of green.’ I laugh, hoping they’ll laugh with me. ‘I haven’t had a cigarette since.’
Bernadette cocks her head. ‘So why are you here?’
How can I tell her? Her work is at a bit of a crossroads. My work is being attacked by a shark. A vicious cold-eyed killing machine in black pointy shoes. Despite this, I am still in love with my job. It’s a dysfunctional relationship, I know, but I can’t let go. Before it came into my life I thought I had no future. My only tertiary qualification was a diploma in performing arts and, although I loved playing in bands, I’d done it for too long. At the age of thirty-five, with no skills to stand me in good stead in the corporate world, a series of dead-end jobs was all I could envisage. When I discovered radio, my life fell into place. But first I had to fall.
Mary-Lou Stephens studied acting and played in bands before she got a proper job -in radio. She writes whenever she’s not behind the microphone or heading off to a meditation retreat.
Mary-Lou has garnered rave reviews for her memoir Sex, Drugs and Meditation, the true story of how she changed her life, saved her job and found a husband, all with the help of meditation. She lives in Australia with that very same husband, their dog and a hive of killer native bees.
How To Stay Married is the sequel to Sex, Drugs and Meditation and is the truth behind the happy ending.
For a free copy of 7 Tips For Your Best Relationship Ever join Mary-Lou’s mailing list at www.maryloustephens.com.au
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