Would you travel alone halfway across the world to spend a few hours on a sacred mountain, not knowing whether the experience will heal you or break you? This is the unspoken question facing Diane Esguerra (aka Diane Southam) at the start of her memoir, Junkie Buddha. Her journey to Peru is a touching tribute to her treasured son Sacha, who has recently died from an accidental heroin overdose and whose ashes she plans to scatter on Machu Picchu. Along the way we discover that Sacha’s drug addiction and subsequent schizophrenia began in response to serious sexual abuse by a teacher at his boarding school.
In theory, I shouldn’t have liked this book. I don’t read biographies, I don’t read travel memoirs, and my simple brain doesn’t normally handle stories with flashbacks. Junkie Buddha crosses all three boxes. But knowing that the author was a Nichiren Buddhist and a trained psychotherapist, I decided to give the first chapter a go and see if it gripped me. It absolutely did and 230 pages later I’m so happy that I finished this entrancing tale. I loved every word of it.
A two-trip journey
The narrative takes you on two trips, an emotional journey of grief and healing and a cultural exploration of the Inca Trail. It is a physical and spiritual journey depicting the mountains and valleys of both. Along the
way we meet witches, shamans, dodgy hoteliers and unreliable coach drivers plus would-be suitors flirting with our intrepid narrator. The whole adventure is laced with humour, dashes of exotic South American cocktails and occasional Buddhist chanting.
As Diane’s senses take in the sights and sounds around her, many of them trigger a memory of Sacha’s life, so we segué seamlessly from present to past and back again. I loved this flitting narrative, it somehow gave me a better sense of the eternity of life. For example she recalls a photo of ‘Sacha at Glastonbury, knee deep in mud in the pouring rain, his dreads flying around in the wind, laughing with a couple of friends. I wondered what drugs they were on.’ And it is his voice as much as hers that we grow to love, as she retraces his steps to Machu Picchu, with his ashes in her backpack and his words serving as a sort of spiritual tour guide.
Finding hope in despair
Junkie Buddha is a raw and searingly honest account of love and loss, anger and grief and the search for meaning in despair as Diane seeks to understand why the ‘vibrant energy of Sacha had morphed into a bag of gritty, grey dust’. This story pulls no punches, yet at the same time the prose is as colourful, finely woven and robust as a Peruvian rug.
Although this is the story of a mother’s unconditional love, the author’s first impressions of many people are sometimes quite negative. But by the end I even found her candid bolshiness strangely endearing, you feel you can trust someone who so openly shares with the reader what they are feeling.
The occasional Buddhist references are sprinkled in with a light touch – one or two quotes from Nichiren or Daisaku Ikeda plus plenty of anguished grappling with Buddhist teachings, for example: ‘As a Buddhist I believed in the preciousness of life and the concept of ‘turning poison into medicine’. But what value could possibly be created from this [death]? My daily mantra had become “Why me?”’
By the end of the book, Diane’s answer to the same question is to set up her own counselling practice for clients who have suffered through abuse, addiction or bereavement. From Sacha’s death, she says, ‘has come a deeper connection with and compassion for other people’.
And there’s no doubt that this book has touched many hearts – judging by the dozens of five star reviews and by the comments on Amazon, grieving parents in particular have found it incredibly healing. As Sandie Shaw eloquently describes it, Junkie Buddha is ‘an uplifting book about finding value in the painful experience of profound loss.’