Il miglior dottore
Stephan A. Hoeller:
Ⲡ·ⲥⲁϩ ϩⲟⲗⲱⲥ ⲧⲁ·ⲧⲁⲡⲣⲟ ·ⲛⲁ·ⲱⲁⲡ·ϥ` ⲁⲡ ⲉⲧⲣⲁ·ⲭⲟ·ⲟⲥ ⲭⲉ ⲉⲕ·ⲉⲓⲛⲉ ⲛ·ⲛⲓⲙ`
“Let one who seeks not stop seeking until one finds. When one finds, one will be troubled. When one is troubled, one will marvel and reign over all.”
-The Gospel of Thomas
“I guess Shepard came outta St. Cloud with a little ideology, some new way of thinking. A view to the future. Jesus this might be a mess.”
-The Hold Steady, “I Hope This Whole Thing didn't Frighten You”
I had a spiritual experience while laying on my bunk at the Hartford Correctional Center. I am far from unique in this. Spending high school and a good chunk of college as a militant atheist, rocking a Venom shirt, and blasting Burzum out the open windows as I drove past Sunday morning services may have put me at the far end of the bell curve of likely candidates for a cosmic epiphany, but jail's firm and unforgiving soil seems ideally suited for the cultivation of contact with the divine.
It happened on my third day in custody, just as the dope withdrawals reached their apex. Prior to that day I had counted myself among the millions of people turned off by all that “higher power” business at the NA meetings. However, the Buddha's message of liberation from the suffering that characterizes existence had struck a gong that very much resonated with my mindset during the previous five years spent shuffling my living space from my car to my parents house to detox facilities back to my car all while struggling with the day to day reality of heroin addiction. Starting about six months prior to my incarceration I had gotten into the habit of putting on lectures from a wide variety of Buddhist sects after I came back from my Hartford runs and then listening to expositions of the Dharma as I drifted off into oblivion.
At some point in this process, spurred on by an interest in “Blood Meridian's” The Judge and his connection to the Demiurge figure, I began to look into Gnosticism as well. When I discovered that Dr. Stephan Hoeller of the Ecclesia Gnostica had put audio of his sermons online, I decided to add them into my nod out rotation. While I was in possession of a lukewarm curiosity about both of these faiths, over a decade of nihilistic detachment had erected a seemingly unassailable wall between academic interest and personal connection. Nevertheless I found myself going back to my lectures night after night. Buddhism's architectural layout of Samadhi, Gnosticism's penetrating approach to the problem of evil, and both faith's recognition of humanities true condition and their meticulous efforts to alleviate it through introspective effort had stuck a barb in my worldview that my detached material empiricism could not dislodge.
I lay there on bunk 59 of H.C.C.'s dormitory four, flopping around, as a friend later put it, like bacon in a frying pan, staring at the thousands of ants my mind told me were scurrying about each of the flickering fluorescent lights, and existing in a perpetual state of panic and terror comparable to that of a gazelle the instant that the tremor in the corner of its eyes transforms into the shape of a lion. In this state of fear and absolute misery, my mind jumped from agony to agony: the reality of cold turkey jailbed withdrawal, the mystery of what was going to happen with my case, the viparinama dukkha that comes with an alien environment, and a mixture of absolute awareness of every difficult step in the journey ahead with ignorance of even the faintest possible joy. I suddenly found myself acutely aware of the exact depth in feet and inches to which I had fallen. While my relationship with the worldview and platitudes of Narcotics Anonymous is strained at best, in that moment I suddenly and instantaneously understood that they were 100% correct in their doctrine of a clear and demarcatable point where you realize that you are at your lowest. My ass had just plowed straight into rock bottom.
With that understanding firmly in place, and my pride residing somewhere deep within my lower intestinal track, it occurred to me that it could potentially be beneficial to divert my attention from whether or not I could tie one end of my pant leg to the triangular corner where the metal belongings slab meets the bedframe, stuff my knees into my shirt, and jerk myself off the top bunk with enough force to snap my neck, and instead give heartfelt prayer for help a shot.
I sat there and I called out to God as the terms and framework of Gnosticism describe him. While the precise wording changed every few dozen repetitions, “From within the muck and mire I call out to the fullness and I beg for aid.” is as good a representation of the whole as any. I sat there repeating the phrases, more out of desperation than any real expectation of result. All the same, after some time spent reciting the varied mantras, I experienced what I can best describe as a lifting of my consciousness from the shackles of mundane reality. It was not a severing of the relationship between mind and body. I was still fully aware of all the misery that the physical network of nerves and receptors were flinging about. However, it was a detached awareness, as when you walk too close to a plant and notice the sensation of its limb brushing against your flesh but are not particularly perturbed by it. Furthermore, many of the physiological phenomena associated with the brain, such as anxiety and hopelessness, immediately dissipated. It was as if a strong wind cleared years of built up misery, leaving only those well rooted elements of myself with the strength to stand their ground against the blast.
Unlike the handful of times I have been able to attain a state of detachment from my withdrawal symptoms through meditation, I did not revert the moment I stopped my prayer. While some of the sense of calm slowly faded away as time moved forward, I was able to go through the rest of the detox process without a sudden anxiety attack, aware of the symptoms but at the same time unperturbed by them.
In the days that followed, as the effects of withdrawal began to alleviate, I drifted from but did not forget my experience. I devoted a small portion of my day to repeating the prayers but spent the majority of my mental energy on adjusting to the experience of jail. Even when I did perform my daily ritual, the words were spoken out of a desire to not lose the gift I had been given (for some time afterwards I was terrified that my actions had merely delayed the inevitable) and they lacked the fire of their initial incantation. This is not to say that I entirely disregarded what had happened to me. From that point forward I had a will to resist heroin's siren call that had not been present at any point in the last six years, but the day to day activity of my conscious mind was focused on more mundane matters. I had no doubt that what had happened to me was both significant and outside the scope of my comprehension, but upon reflection doubts began to emerge. The moment of awareness I experienced bore similarities to phenomena described in a numerous spiritual traditions, from subitist schools of Buddhism to the lyrics of Matisyahu's “King without a Crown”.Was the experience simply the manifestation of a recurrent but scientifically undocumented cognitive phenomenon? I had always seen Buddhism in a similar light, with Gautama as an extraordinary man who was able to devise a means of hacking into a neurological structure that millions of years of evolutionary honing had whet into a misery machine. Where the most agitated, hostile, and troubled members of our species became the most likely to have their agony programming reproduced in future generations. After all, if there was a deity figure who neatly fit the descriptions of any of the worlds major religions why would he go around granting such boons in equal measure to those who did and didn't get the good news?
After considerable contemplation of such matters, I found myself no better equipped to answer them. Ultimately, I had made a request to something outside myself, and that request had been answered. That in and of itself was meaningful. Even if I assumed the most cynical of doctrines, two points remained that could not be rebuked:
1) That the very act of my request hinged upon a number of presuppositions that a wholly scientific outlook on the universe cannot produce justification for, and during the time period that I maintained a worldview roughly in orbit of the exclusively scientific, nothing bearing significant similarity to what I experienced on my bunk occurred. Contrastingly, the brief window where I rejected said principles produced a near instantaneous reduction in my suffering. Therefore, it seemed likely that the act of forcefully separating my plea from the effects that immediately followed it would lead to a reversal of said effects.
2) That while the doubt in my heart could not be entirely quelled, one thing I did have control over was my loyalty. I had made a heartfelt plea to something that then and now I cannot comprehend, and the reply I received, regardless of the processes underlying it, was very real. I had made the choice to call out to the beyond in my hour of need, and whether I responded to the reply in embrace or dismissal was a decision that was entirely mine to make.
When I was released, I did the best I could to move in a positive direction. I got a new phone to cut myself off from both my old contacts and the people I had gave my number to while locked up. I also charged into the byzantine process of getting medicinal treatment, i.e. the Vivitrol shot, whose minimum sobriety requirements I met for the first time in my life.
Another item on the list of NA truisms that turn out to be accurate is the whole “one day at a time” business. Prior to my incarceration, the realization of how much misery is involved in the life of an addict. But living out of my car, waking up each morning in the parking lot of a Wal Mart, and having the question of how I was going to cop embedded on my eyelids like the burning image of the One Ring were never enough to get momentum moving in a sane direction. All it produced was a feeling of hopeless guilt that lasted until the next time my mind called up the thought of the high in all its overwhelming glory, followed by the thought of having to live the rest of my life without it. The next thing I know I'm back in the south end of Hartford calling right down my list of numbers to find out who would be able to serve me the fastest.
After what I experienced on that first day in H.C.C., however, I've felt and thankfully continue to feel no desire to return to heroin. At the same time, the idea of complete sobriety was just as agitating as it had always been. The thought of total sobriety had taken over playing the role that the memory of the dope high had given such a masterful performance in previously.
The exact drug combination I fixated on varied. Sometimes it would be just booze, other times it would be weed and alcohol with the occasional crack night thrown into the mix. While incarcerated I would often enter a particular thought chain where I would first encounter some stimuli I associated with heroin, I would then swat the thoughts about dope away with relative ease, but in the process my mind would briefly dwell on the concrete reality of my plans when I got out, which of course led to a minor bolt of terror (compared to the old heroin thoughts at least) as I contemplated going every day for the remainder of my existence without any of my big four highs. Next I would do my best to shove those thoughts back into the pits that spawned them and move on to something else. Perhaps I recognized that heroin was the true priority, and that everything else could be taken care of later. Perhaps the human mind only has enough strength to deal with kicking one drug at a time. All I can say with certainty is that when I was finally let out I found myself in possession of a sizable drive to remove dope from my life and a jittery ennui about everything else.
It should be of no surprise then, that my first week out of jail found me going to bars and drinking while holding back from anything harder. Then when I found out I could not drink after getting the Vivitrol shot, I rewarded myself for blocking heroin from my life that month by treating me to a special day out, just my crack pipe and I. Then I found out that my probation wouldn't reinstate for another three weeks, so I used my next weeks cheat day to smoke some weed. I was able to spend the next two weeks sober in light of my imminent probation visit, and I interpreted the ease in which I was able to keep everything in check as evidence that I was out of the woods. That while there were a couple slip ups I had everything under control and I could keep things up without much difficulty. Little did I know each of the urges I had indulged in that past month had responded to my situation by forming together like Voltron under the head of the one drug that didn't interfere with my medication and left my system quick enough to dodge drug tests. They had merely gone into hiding so as to await an ideal location to launch their attack.
Its shocking just how quickly a well ordered existence marching in the direction of sobriety can get routed and end up fleeing panicked back into the ravaged countryside. I had progressed from living out of my car and stealing or hustling to maintain a robust daily regimen of heroin and crack rock, then came the incarceration enforced sobriety, followed by a handful of irregular relapses into lesser drugs “in the service of the greater good of heroin abstinence”, and then finally a decent stretch of total sobriety. I would not have believed it if you told me that on this particular Monday morning, once I given my urines to both probation and my doctor, a horror would emerge from my depths as cruel and vicious as the ones that tormented me in those bygone days of absolute depravity.
By the time I was walking out of the courthouse I found myself having to suppress a significantly greater number of problematic thoughts than usual. When I had given my urine to the doctor those thoughts had reached such a cacophonous crescendo that the act of not calling one of my connects seemed as absurd as not wiping your ass after a shit. The whole ride home the voices raged. Since the state of Connecticut considered me unfit to operate a motor vehicle, trips to both probation and my doctor were provided by my very supportive family, and while I was teetering on the verge of coating my crack pipe in a brand new layer of fire and oil, I had not fallen back to the point of being willing to do so publicly. This fact, the persuasive little demon said, was clear evidence that things were not as they used to be. Given that I had probation breathing down my neck and regular tests from a doctor (a doctor I was seeing willingly after all), I could only get high once in a while anyways. And don't you remember how it was when you started? Just getting high on the weekends and keeping your shit together for the rest of the week. Things were bad for a while there but were you ever truly happier than those days? And what is once a week anyway? Your problem was that you were doing it every day and couldn't keep a normal life together, and now, look at this, you have an opportunity to go back to the way things used to be in the golden days. You remember how great that high felt. Picture it in your mind right now. Wasn't that feeling worth so much more than any bullshit idea of total sobriety? In any case, you know it's gonna happen so the sooner you get it over with the less likely that it will show up in your urine.
On and on he whispered in my ear until I arrived home in a mad frenzy. I paced about the house frantic and alone trying to find the strength to withstand the urges that were assaulting me. After ten minutes of setting a track through the carpet with no relief in sight, despair and acquiescence overtook strength, courage, and resolve; I called the only connect I had who was willing to drive out to where I was in the boonies and I asked him how long it would take to get here. He told me that he was out of town and that I would have to wait until tomorrow.
One of the few strategies that I had found success with during previous scouting runs into the land of sobriety was the regimentation of my daily activities. Having a clear and well defined list of things to accomplish on a particular day helps to keep your mind occupied and trying to see how many items on a checklist you can cross off gives a sense of purpose. Because of this, one of the first things I did when I got out was to write down as many constructive activities as I could on a sheet of grid paper. These activities ranged from playing musical instruments to working out to listening to my lectures. In the twenty hour gap between when I got off the phone with my guy and when I could realistically call my him again I threw myself into these activities. I did the last of the work on rearranging the furniture in my room (a move to try and break years of negative psychological attachment). I decided that then was as good a time as any to check out the album Craig Finn dropped when I was locked up. I spent some time working through the Tripartite Tractate and a Pali Canon anthology. While my mind wasn't as craving-wracked as it had been when I was on the dope grind, it wasn't that much better either. Rather than literally not being able to do anything but devotionally fixate on my next high the moment all the dopamine had drained out, I would focus on my current task for ten to thirty minute stretches at which point my thoughts would return to the subject of how great crack feels and how great it was going to feel tomorrow. I would then spend nearly as much time mentally ensnared in this fashion as I had spent on what I was trying to distract myself with. Every time I tried to break the psychological shackles that chained me to samsara they would loosen for the briefest moment only to grind me into the cold dirt even harder than before. By the end of the day I found my situation to be hopeless.
Back when I was still in jail, as the withdrawal symptoms began to taper off, a slow awareness of the full scope of my depravity began to take hold. My own terrible choices, the many threads of human life cut short by overdose that had assembled themselves into a tattered, makeshift cloak around me, and the dead alienation that had marked my reaction to both. Slowly this all began to dawn on me. While it came with a reasonable and well deserved share of guilt, remorse, sorrow, and self hatred, it didn't hit me with the profundity that I felt the events merited. I continuously expected some grand catharsis where the seas pulled back and a surge of emotions engulfed me. When said moment never came I found myself ducking my head beneath the armpit high stall door while taking a shit and trying with all my might to force out something commensurate to what a normal human might experience. This attempt ended in failure, and as I left the stall and sent the internal filth that at least my sphincter was able to purge spiraling into the network of pipes beneath the hard ground of H.C.C., I was certain that all those years of forcefully repressing even the slightest hint of humanity and affection had ruptured the neurological tracks and sluices that allowed a normal human being the ability to flush the failures and tragedies of their existence away, leaving my brain doomed to wallow in the waste and misery that had been building up steadily through the years.
I woke up the next morning with my mind in the same place it had been the night before. During my two very brief stints attempting sobriety I had discovered that commitment was the point of no return. Once you had make the decision to go get high your mind transforms into something that cannot be slowed or stopped. The only way to survive the battle for sobriety was to continuously deny that terrain to the enemy. Some dim part of me held out hope that a nights rest might function as a reset button on my mindset, but when that failed I resigned myself to what was to come. One concession I made was that I would not resort to blowing my dealers phone up from the moment I was awake until the moment he answered. I figured at bare minimum I would wait until 10:00 before I called him. If, between the time I woke up and then, I somehow got things under control that would be great. If, when 10 am rolled around, I felt that I had the strength to push things to 10:30 then that would be good too. Deep in my heart, however, I had all but given up on both of these scenarios.
The minutes ticked by just as slowly as they used to. I found myself fixating on not just the momentary glory of that smoky exhalation, but also countless 2 am wake ups and bedridden clock-stare sessions. I would draw my mind into every miserable ripple that one moment of joy would produce. The knowledge that even as I smoked the rock I would spend my time flipping between two minutes of pleasure and five to twenty spent waiting impatiently for the next hit. The three hour comedown half an hour after I finished. The cravings coming back more and more often as I re-acclimated myself to a schedule of regular use. The inevitable re-violation and return to jail as I started playing looser and looser with those drug test dates. Yet none of these facts dissuaded my will from its beloved.
When 10:00 finally hit I had every intention of making that call. I had spent the past four minutes staring at the clock like a stray dog stares at a butchers table, so when the nines and fives rolled into ones and zeroes I dropped my arm off the side of my bed and felt around for my phone. When I realized that I left it on the charger in the other room an odd halting-ish effect happened. Essentially, when my mind was nudged out the “clock watching rut” it had lodged itself in, the control of the habitual addiction thoughts was very temporarily broken. For a moment I found myself in a position of greater control with a very small sense of agency over my actions. The effect was so fast that by the time I realized what was happening it was already over, but while my thoughts returned to the pipe, somewhere within a tiny fire of resistance had been sparked. The cumulative effect of this was that I still felt resigned to the series of actions I had spent hours rehearsing, but now suddenly the voice that had been warning me against it had the gag tied around her mouth loosened ever so slightly. Just enough to be noticeable above the crack smoke cacophony.
A secondary effect of the mental stoppage was the awareness that I needed to defecate. I am not totally sure if I realized I needed to shit when I was staring at the clock and ignored it in favor of higher priorities, or if this awareness came with the mental reset. Regardless, the bound and gagged Voice of Ascendance saw an opportunity for escape, and as I began moving towards the door an internal struggle took place. The Voice of the Almighty Exhalation urged a direct run towards the phone, while Ascendance sang a beautiful hymn of freedom that just barely emerged from her smothered throat. In the end, the Voice of the Void, seeing both actions as utterly unavoidable biological processes, cast his lot with Ascendance, with the understanding that this trip to the bathroom would be a final pointless effort, and that once it was taken care of I could tell myself I had done everything I could, and make my call with a slightly clearer conscience.
My time in the bathroom was somehow worse than any of the preceding day. It would not surprise me in the slightest if I found out that I had not spent a single moment thinking about anything but the hard and its relative proximity. I was no longer resigned to getting my phone; I was now hellbent on stampeding straight from the toilet to the table that raised it off of the ground like an ancient alter of the most unspeakable sacrifice.
I wiped my ass, flushed, knifed my hands under the water and walked out the door. For reasons still unknown to me I continued moving forward instead of banking left towards the charger. Even as it was happening, I can remember thinking “What is the purpose of this?” Going back to my room just meant another five minutes of delaying the inevitable. Still I walked straight to my door. As I twisted the knob I can recall that same sense of total futility that had been growing over the past twenty-four hours. I can recall thinking that another pointless fuckaround did nothing but make the rock stay in my system longer when I did purchase it. That the best imaginable scenario would be gritting my teeth for another five or ten hours and raising the odds just a little higher that it would show up in my urine. I walked through the doorway, the winch began to move, and the curtains lifted. In its immediate aftermath the best description I could come up with for what I experienced was a weight being lifted from my mind, but that expression has been thrown around far too often and in too wide a variety of circumstances to effectively hone in on what happened. While there was a palpable sense of lightening, I think a better way to describe it would be to say that all of the currents, undercurrents, tides, and undertows of conscious experience suddenly halted, leaving me for a brief moment enthralled in the beauty of absolute silence.
I stood there in unbridled vacancy for a moment, and then two thoughts struck me. That at a deep level I really didn't want any hard and that within those walls I would have the strength to resist. I cannot say with certainty that the effects of my rearranging the furniture did not produce a psychological “safe zone” distinct from the years of drug association dripping from the walls of the hall and bathroom, though it seems odd that said organization didn't do me any good the previous night. I have no means to contradict the idea that my brain simply has a finite amount of whatever biochemical cocktail has been misappropriated from various neurological mechanisms to harangue me with visions of sugar crumbs and carpet surfing, and that my trip to the bathroom amounted to burning it all up. However, if there is anyone who is familiar with the nuances of brain chemical burnout it's me, and a sudden stoppage seems massively inconsistent with everything else I am familiar with. All these thoughts and more crossed my mind in the reflections that followed, but I had switched teams back in H.C.C., and none of them prevented me from laying down on my bed and in rare sincerity earnestly thanking whatever divine force was responsible for the reprieve.
I sat in prayer for a little while until my thoughts began to drift away on their own accord. As is often the case when my mind drifts off, I began to click about my computer guided by habit alone, with no conscious awareness to speak of. Rather than the usual Reddit refresh loop and the eventual realization that I had just wasted twenty minutes of my life typing three letters into my address bar, scanning my front page, and then typing that very same URL upon discovering that the content had not changed since my last check-in, I minimized the open Firefox window and came back to myself with the realization that I was looking at the cover art of the Craig Finn album I had listened to the night before. Much in the way Blake's “The Four and Twenty Elders...” pulls the eye from all directions toward the source of the great emanation, my sight was led to the song “God in Chicago”.
I've always found the fickle nature of music appreciation to be one of the more intriguing mysteries of the human condition. You can hear a song thousands of times and find each repetition as dull as the one before. Then one day some set of invisible circumstances will trigger something and in an instant it will transform into a manifestation of high and ineffable beauty. It didn't take a thousand repetitions or even ten for my mind to shape “God in Chicago” into a masterpiece. Only two. The night before the opening chords were a string of letters just persuasive enough to coerce me into turning my head towards the monitor and noting the title, but on this day those same chords could have asked me to carve their name into my chest with a serrated knife and I would have done so unquestioningly.
Craig Finn's voice cut through the single pointed uniformity of my shitty built in monitor speaker like a carnival barker when he sees an easy mark. As he spoke of a young woman finding herself in possession of her recently deceased brothers stash, I was overwhelmed with images of the dozens of friends whose window into the sights and sounds of existence was slammed shut after a negligable and agonizingly significant mathematical error in how much dope to load up into their spike. He told me about a house rendered uninhabitabley oppressive by a young man's fatal decision and I felt that same torment in the very room I sat in as my mother made a final inventory of the stems and empty bags I had gone to so much trouble to keep hidden. He described the two protagonists singing along to a busted boom box as they drove to Chicago and I could not escape the images of a beautiful young woman whose voice would rise in pitch as whatever frantic scheme we were working on that day took shape into an actionable plan. Who one day sat in the passenger seat of a Chevrolet Impala aged beyond its years by repeated blows from baseball bats and hurled bags of metal bolts, and forced me to pull to the side of the housing development we were cutting through so she could hold my hand and insist that my jaded monotone voice join her lamenting cry in an earnest and desperate prayer to a god of deceit, jealousy, and the perpetuation of human misery. Who ended up dead in a parking lot in Rhode Island, the news of which caused me to do nothing more than add one more check to the list of people I knew who had metamorphosed into corpses. Then Craig sang of finding God in the monuments of a few million people who sought refuge from suffering in their proximity to each other and I wept for the first time in nearly a decade.
The tears kept coming as the music finished, but after a while the images that had been evoked were placed back into the storage unit that had held them locked and welded shut for so long. My mind returned to the visceral now and the endless chatter came with it, but this time it latched onto a different subject. I realized that I had been provided all the incentive I could get, save an even lengthier jail term, to resist the tortured call of the abyss. I had not been given a pardon or a transfer to a less dangerous theater, but I had been given the favorable terrain to launch an attack against an enemy that vastly outnumbered me.
Ave Sophia, nos liberi te salutamus!