In the days before petri dishes, electron microscopes, the theory of relativity and the somewhat regrettable atomic awakening after World War II, people were faced with all the same mysteries and conundrums we’re fighting today and then some, but their arsenal of answers was riven with wrong ideas and metaphysical speculation.
From the supposed superiority of a modern perspective, we often look back at their wrongheaded ideas and scoff, shake our heads at their misunderstandings, and generally pat ourselves on the back for intellectually outgrowing those dark times.
Bloodletting, for instance, may have killed more people than it ever helped. Leaching? Mercury poisoning as a means of therapy? Searching out smart and assertive women to peg as witches when something unfortunate or unlucky falls out of the sky? If they swim, they’re guilty. Drown, though, and they’re exonerated. Admittedly, their line of reasoning sometimes lacks logic, and many lives were lost or damaged as we slowly evolved our current approaches to medicine and psychology. And even now these sciences are far from perfect.
But other times, their logic was unassailable if simplistic, and even today — at least with addiction — it seems that some of their thoughts were as on point as their limited understanding would allow.
You hear people often comparing the methamphetamine scourge in Humboldt County to the zombie apocalypse — the streets often do seem inundated with cadaverous faces, hollow-cheeked predators walking through the residential streets sharpening sticks and looking for potential smash-and-grabs to fund their next adventure. While we understand that these people really aren’t zombies — they have hearts that beat, if quicker than normal, and likely parents that either worry to death about them or are the ones who initially turned them on to the drug — the comparison seems so apt as we observe their often thoughtless, crazed and hurtful behaviors, as well as the slow decay of their bodies and souls under the drug’s perverse sway.
But with addicts, having been down that road myself, the more appropriate comparison is spiritual possession.
When I was at my worst, strung out and desperate to keep the chemical ball rolling to as to stave off the absolute misery of withdrawals, I often found myself in less than desirable company, waiting with ex-convicts and prostitutes, thugs and thieves, for a drug delivery in one of their noxious apartments or in some garbage-strewn garage under the cold light of a single bulb.
One night in particular, I waited at the apartment of a woman I’ll call Sandra. In her mid-fifties, she had lived the first three decades of her life mostly drug and alcohol free, while her husband at the time — a local businessman of some repute — sold massive amounts of cocaine out of their home. He encouraged the worst sorts of traffic through the halls of his house if it meant a slight increase in profits, and if she ever raised a fuss about the activity, he would shamelessly beat her with his fists and anything else that was handy. Eventually, he also took up a heroin habit. For kicks, and to get her to shut up her now incessant complaining, he got her addicted to the drug, as well.
When she first found heroin, she had a young son — we’ll call him Nick — and he went from being the focus of her life and love to being an inconvenient afterthought. Sandy’s husband’s reign of terror eventually included also turning his 11-year-old son, now wild and ill-behaved for obvious reasons, onto the drug, as well.
I met Sandy years, decades even, after her ex-husband had died of an overdose. She walked hunched forward from the weight of those many beatings, and coped as best she could with the son who came around every few years when one of his debts to society got paid.
She wasn’t a friend, or someone I dealt with often, but hers was the point of delivery one evening as we waited to cop. This night, her son was fresh out of prison, still clad in the clothes they supply when you emerge from those dark spaces with a bus ticket and a few bucks for a bus back to wherever it is you came from. He was waiting, as well, to beg a few crumbs of the drug off his mother so he could nod out on the couch while watching cartoons on cable. As we sat there, and the expected delivery kept getting delayed, Nick rambled on and on to himself about the devil inside his head.
“I can’t do right even if I try,” he said, then grinned toothlessly. “Born under a bad sign, damned by my parents and God to be a fucking drug addict and criminal.”
Occasionally, his voice would drop an octave and he’d adopt a devilish persona as if channeling one of Hell’s heroes.
His monologue fairly creeped me out, and I half thought his diatribe was simply meant to intimidate me, or present some front of moral equanimity in the face of a looming drug relapse. Whatever the purpose, I wished he shut the hell up and whispered as much to Sandy when the kid was distracted. She looked at me, wide-eyed and afraid, and shook her head.
“He won’t listen to me when he’s like this,” she spat. “He’s in his own world.”
His relapse went off without a hitch and I was soon afterward able to find my way into the rooms of recovery. The saddest part of his story, however, had yet to be written. Three months after his devilish monologue, he died of a drug overdose, one of the many lives lost locally to opiate oblivion. The saddest part? Everyone I knew who knew him said good riddance.
Yet I thought of a child once loved bereft of his mother even as everything he knew burned in a constant chaotic conflagration. Though I wouldn’t have trusted him with a toothpick, I mourned his passing and wondered who he would have been if he’d ever had the chance to live differently, if his parents hadn’t invited those demons into his head before he had the wherewithal to fight them off.
I’m not trying to launch any kind of theological debate here, but anyone who’s lost themselves to drugs or alcohol understands perfectly how the condition reeks of possession. You lose your sense of self, even your hard-wired ability to judge what’s right and wrong, because you fear. From the moment you crawl out of bed until you pass out alone in the dark, you carry around a writhing beast of terror, a critter so petrified of looming dope sickness and despair that they turn into a beast bent on simply staving off the worst of the day’s miseries. You are not yourself.
In fact, the only true way to battle back into your body as pilot and navigator is to undergo what psychologist Carl Jung describes in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous as a transformative spiritual experience. This is not something you can find on the Internet, or scrawled on some bathroom wall somewhere. Often it involves complete degradation and collapse — what they call hitting bottom. And in that low moment, when everything that made sense in the world suddenly vaporizes in the face of a bleak wind and a broken mind, some — not many — can scratch and crawl their way back to the land of the living. A resurrection of sorts on the other side of Hell.
It is through this breaking of the spirit that one allows for a rewritten mind, an open heart that can finally find the peace it has so desperately sought.
Unfortunately, many, like the man-child I described, never find the humility or strength to shake the monkey off their backs. They are not bad people. They do not deserve to suffer and die. They’ve just learned to cope with the fear and hopelessness of a broken life by wiping the mental slate clean with a chemical bath. Rather than getting angry at their weakness we should grieve their condition and offer whatever we can to help them find a way to rid themselves of a fallen mind.
Even now, I see them walking the streets, eyes on the sidewalk, faces pale and bright with a sheen of sweat as they struggle from one high to the next, fully aware that the chase will never end, and happiness may well stand forever out of their reach.
James Faulk is a writer living in Eureka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.