Photo: Akarat Phasura/Shutterstock

How 12-Step Slogans Helped Me in Phnom Penh

by Lauren Quinn Dec 14, 2011
Lauren Quinn uses 12-step recovery program slogans to help navigate her first week as an expat in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
“First Things First”

LIGHT THROUGH THE WHITE CURTAIN, across the white sheets of a white room. It’s my first morning in Phnom Penh, and I’m not in a hospital. I’m in Fairyland Hotel, which, despite the name and the whiteness and the sign on the wall advising against late check-outs and child prostitution, is actually quite nice.

I feel my body’s floaty confusion—what time zone am I in? What continent am I on? What did I eat last night?

But my brain knows where I am, and it’s off and running, scribing a to-do list so long it could reach out the window and down the seven stories to the motorbike-honking, food-stall-lined street below.

I need to:

    1. Find an apartment


    1. Get a SIM card


    1. Get a part-time job


    1. Learn Khmer


    1. Call the three friends I have left in town


    1. Write a book


    1. Write two articles


    1. Write a blog post


    1. Email my parents


    1. Understand the Khmer Rouge


    1. Do laundry


    1. Buy sunblock


    Get a visa extension

I feel the scroll of tasks lengthening in my brain, filling me with a kind of buzzing panic. I’m not even out of bed yet. I roll over, watch the curtains waft in the air-conditioning. Suddenly three words cut across the mental list: First Things First.

Before anything else, I need to eat breakfast. And drink coffee.

And I need to go to a meeting.

“One Day At a Time”

The 12-step meeting is small, plastic chairs in a sweaty little circle that slowly cools in the breeze of the fan. We read literature and share. I see some familiar faces, from my last stay in Phnom Penh, and it feels good to be recognized—to feel like I’m back, somewhere I half-belong.

As per usual, I don’t remember most of what is said during the hour – I’m thinking of myself most of the time – but I did notice someone say the age-old, One Day At A Time.

Right, I think, I don’t need to tackle my to-do list or figure this all out today.

When I’d first come into 12-step programs, “one day at a time” had just been about staying clean. I’d thought it was a clever way to trick yourself into long-term sobriety. But over the years, it’s become a way of life—staying in the present, not getting caught up in the What Ifs and What Could Have Beens. Cause, as a salty old-timer once told me: “If you’ve got one foot in past and one foot in the future, you’re spread-eagle pissing on today.”

If you’ve got one foot in past and one foot in the future, you’re spread-eagle pissing on today.

I sigh. I’ve been in recovery over 11 years. You’d think I’d have this down by now.

Back on the street, I think of an itinerary for the day. What needs to be done? I need a SIM card, first and foremost. I do not need to find an apartment or a job or even learn Khmer today.

All I need to focus on is what I can do now, in this 24 hours—not more, not less. It’s my first day back. Maybe I’ll even take it easy.

No, I shake my head. Not my style.

“Easy Does It”

Day Three. I’ve got a SIM and I’ve emailed my parents and written a blog post and seen a friend and worked on a few articles. I haven’t found an apartment, or a job.

But I have laid in my underpants in the air-conditioning and watched serial episodes of Banged Up Abroad, the trash highlight of the international programming at Fairyland Hotel. I’ve gone to a few cafés and whiled the time away, staring at the street traffic.

See, I tell myself, I’m relaxing.

But I’ve used up my self-determined relaxation quota, and now it’s time to go on a run. I haven’t run in nearly a month, and my gut still feels bulged with the food trail of my meandering journey here: Italian pizza, Albanian byrek, and Egyptian koshary. It doesn’t matter that I’ve had trouble sleeping, or that I’m not used to the heat yet and have gotten dizzy walking around, searching out “For Rent” signs. It doesn’t matter that I feel a low, liquid grumble in my stomach.

I’m going on a run, goddammit.

I get back to the hotel an hour later, sweaty and shaky. I spend most of the night on the toilet. At some point the next morning, when I’ve turned off the AC because I have chills so bad I’m shaking as if I have the DTs, it occurs to me that maybe I need more rest than I’m giving myself. Maybe the readjustment – to the heat, the food, the reality of my new life – is taking more out of me than I’d like to admit.

Easy Does It, I think. It’s always an option. Or, you know, I could keep pushing myself.

“Don’t Take Yourself So Damn Seriously”

I’m walking down what passes for a sidewalk on Monivong–a wide, six ‘lane’ street constantly swarmed with bicycles and motorbikes and SUVs.

“Tuk-tuk lady!” a man shouts from across the road.

I ignore him. It’s taken me four days to go from a polite, “Otay au kon” to completely unresponsive. (It took me two weeks last time.) He starts clapping his hands at me, to get my attention. I snap. I’m hot and dirty and I haven’t had coffee. I turn sharply and clap back at him. He grins and laughs, throws up his hands.

I hate the slogans. They’re so cheesy. They hang framed on the walls of dingy little basement rooms, heavy with the permanent smell of Folgers coffee and cigarette butts.

And I laugh too then. And remember: Don’t Take Yourself So Damn Seriously.

Goddammit. I hate the slogans. They’re so cheesy. They hang framed on the walls of dingy little basement rooms, heavy with the permanent smell of Folgers coffee and cigarette butts. They’re Recovery 101, and I’ve been around far too long to need them.

Or not. Phnom Penh, I think, crossing the road, you’ve brought me back to basics.

As if we ever really outgrow them.

“There But For The Grace Of God Go I”

It’s dusk along the Riverside and the whole city is out, it seems. The evening breeze has kicked up, sliding off the river and over my arms, and the smooth stone feels good under my shoes. The Riverside is still one of my favorite places to stroll, despite the touts and hustlers and beggars and starving-eyed ice addicts.

And the old burned-out white dudes.

They’re everywhere in this town—red-faced and bone-thin, in tattered shirts that are missing buttons. They’re the kind of guys who’ve been floating around Southeast Asia for years, decades even, and they’ve lost teeth and hair and visas and the ability to ever really go back.

They’d be bums in the States or in Europe—minds wrecked, talking quietly to themselves on the benches facing the river. But this is Cambodia, and they’re white and Western, and they can still kind of coast here.

Some of them sit with young Khmer girls. The girls have short skirts and jumpy hands; they smile and cross their legs, and look impossibly small and fragile beside these Western men.

I feel the judgment wheel start to turn in my head.

I’m young and Western and of a feminist persuasion, and this scene, which I witness nearly every day, bums me out severely. You can’t escape it, even if you stay out of the sexpat bars and girly clubs, places with names like Heart of Darkness.

I pass a man. He’s sitting on a bench, looking about as thin and flimsy as cane sugar stalk. His pink skin is stretched over his bones, so taut it hurts to look at. He has sores on his arms and cracked old feet.

I watch him put his head in his hands.

It’s one of those moments when I’m filled with, not pity or repulsion or even compassion, but humility. I know what an addict looks like; I know that soul-sick look of incomprehensible demoralization.

He’s just a different version of me, I think. Same illness, different symptoms.

There, But For The Grace Of God, Go I.

I resolve not to judge.

“This, Too, Shall Pass”

I’m walking down an alleyway, dodging motorbikes and chickens and puddles of muck, craning my neck up at balconies and doorways.

I’m seeking “For Rent” signs.

It’s not the big stuff – the deaths or break-ups – that have made me feel closest to a drink. It’s the trivial, mundane annoyances of life.

Tomorrow I’ll have been in Phnom Penh a week, and I’m not any closer to finding an apartment than when I first arrived.

I know what I want. I want my own place, and I don’t want to pay more than $200 a month. I want AC and hot water. I want something secure, that no one could break into. I don’t want to live in BKK1, with the highest concentration of expats and thus armed robberies. But I don’t want to live by the Russian Market, a $2 moto ride from center.

I don’t want to use a broker to find an apartment, because I’ve been told they won’t show me anything under $250. So I’m doing it DIY style—walking the parts of town I’d like to live in, calling the cell numbers on posted signs.

“For Rent,” one reads in English. I dial the number.

    1. “Hello?”


    1. “Um, yes, hello. English?”


    1. “Hello?”



A muffle, the sounds of the phone changing hands.

A new voice: “Hello?”

    1. “Yes, apartment?”


    1. “Hello?”


    1. “For rent?”


    1. “Yes, yes, for rent!”


    “Can I see it?”

A muffle. A pause. Silence.

“Hello?” I ask. Nothing.

I just want to find an apartment, goddammit. I just want to unpack my bag and feel like I live somewhere. I just want to make my own breakfast.

It occurs to me that perhaps the DIY approach is out of my reach—too mad local for someone who’s just arrived and doesn’t speak the language.

It occurs to me also that this is part of the process. As long as I keep looking, I will find an apartment. Before I know it, I’ll be settled and happy and I’ll sit on a terrace with a cup of coffee and I’ll smile when I think about this first week—how special and almost precious the arriving can be, the uncertainty.

This Too Shall Pass, I think.

I smile. I text a friend for advice.

“Don’t Quit Before The Miracle Happens”

The online forum Bong Thom has about 1000 listings for apartments, and most of them fall outside my specifications—too expensive, wrong part of town, or vague and shady-sounding.

I stretch, circle my neck around a few times, and continue to scroll through the listings.

I see one for $200—one bedroom, on the 3rd floor, near the Central Market. I like it up there, with the blooming trees and local markets. I make a call.

And holy shit, homeboy speaks English.

Soon after, we meet. I follow him down a narrow alley, up cement steps, and through his apartment. He opens a metal door covered in plastic sheets and wire mesh. I climb another set of steps.

I look around. A skinny hallway opens into a larger living room, with an equally large terrace. Sunlight gleams off the white tile floor, and the leaves of trees rustle in the breeze.

It’s the daily living that’s always been hardest for me, and even after this many years in three different 12-step programs, I still find myself fighting circumstance. Living Life On Life’s Terms—I’ve always sucked at that. It’s not the big stuff – the deaths or break-ups – that have made me feel closest to a drink. It’s the trivial, mundane annoyances of life. It’s finding an apartment, getting hassled, getting wrapped up in other people’s behavior instead of keeping the focus on me.

This is the kind of shit makes me want to pull my hair out. It’s the kind of shit that keeps me coming back to 12-step programs, and relying on cheesy tools like slogans just to make it through the day.

I look over the railing of the terrace, see the frenzy of motorbikes beneath. I feel the breeze on my shoulders and nod.

I’m home, I think.

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