Sideways

Cannabis and the Addictions of Disguise

img.alt
Athena: goddess of wisdom, war, and prophecy; mentor to the son of Odysseus.

This page is part of the addiction series, which provides recovery resources for specific addictions (hallucinogens, opioids, stimulants, alcohol, and cannabis) as well as material on trauma, personal healing, and the journey of recovery. View all of the pages by clicking on the Addictions link in the Categories menu or by scrolling to the bottom of this page.

Each page in this series is structured as a series of stories derived from my professional work. That’s what addiction is, ultimately: a complex, layered, interwoven story of human frailty and resilience.


Dark inside the dark. Grit and damp. Dank air squeezed thin in this place. My breath gasping and ragged. Wet soil falls from above, spatters my neck and face, falls into my nostrils, abrades with black dirt the smooth and shiny surfaces of my eyes. I gaze upward, blinking and sputtering, the taste of mold in my mouth. But no longer is there anything to see. The faint stars are gone, and with them the slate sky and sliver of moon, and I am left only with the ghosts of my retinas, flashing and bursting upon my eyelids as my oxygen dwindles.

My upturned face presses into the accumulating soil. I inhale dirt as I prepare once again to shout for help. My consciousness begins to fragment. Part of me drifts into a disjointed stream of childhood nightmares – of being devoured by a swarm of spiders, of a monster crunching its way in the dark, of countless fears edging toward me from beyond the rim of my world. These images are accompanied by a wet and sliding gravelly sound, which I cannot precisely identify but which seems crucial to this business. Elemental, unquestionable. Rotting and seething things.

I hear it, muffled now, drawing my attention back to this shallow grave in which I can no longer feel my legs or move my head. The pressure of the soil, layer upon layer packing and pushing down, will soon immobilize my right arm, the only part of my body with space in which to move, to scrabble in the dirt, fruitless.

I cannot make a sound. I cannot breathe. I can only listen to that sliding and gravelly sound, that distant and repetitive echo made by the shovels of the men who are burying me.

I recognize that I will remain conscious for three more beats of that rhythm, a trio of shovelfuls into the hole. Then I will die. The decay has already begun. I am aware of roots spreading across my belly, insects crawling upon my ribs. The surface is impossibly distant, survival an absurdity. My lungs surrender the last of my warm breath. A shovelful of dirt falls into the hole, heavy, tamping down the weight upon me.

My life force – which has been trackless, devoid of center, flimsy – cannot muster a thread of resistance. I recognize that I should have died long ago. I give myself over, finally. I hear the scrape and thud from above as a second shovelful falls. I let it go, all of it, and I slide away into the dark.

In the vacated space of my consciousness, within the presence composed of my absence, something beyond me makes itself known.


But that was long ago. The evening of another day. An undercurrent of warmth, winter fading, the brightening of trees along the creekside. Perhaps the hush of the day was the same, then as now, or the dampness of oncoming twilight, or the sounds of water lapping in the distance. Yet it is none of these impressions that reminds me. Instead, I am drawn into this reverie by the scent drifting back toward us along the sidewalk, trailing in the wake of the boy who walks twenty paces ahead, a joint held between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. He swings that hand and arm as he walks, makes a small bouncing movement with each step. It’s as though a swagger is trying to emerge from him, a bubble of confidence that might suffuse the presence of this boy, perhaps fifteen, as he looks back furtively – to make sure I am not a neighbor, a teacher, a stodgy adult who might blow the cover of his cool.

The swagger is not coming. He’s tight, and cautious, and he holds the joint low, almost hidden in the crook of his hand. He raises the hand, takes a quick toke, and glances sidelong down the street. I glimpse a halo of thin smoke – a wisp, a straightening of his spine, a stuttering movement of his shoulders as he exhales – then he pulls inward again, his budding defiance not yet strong enough to temper his anxiety at being caught. I wonder what he would do if his mother pulled up in the family car.

The scent grows more pungent as the smoke makes its way back to us. On my right, Rowan is quiet. She looks to the side, occupying her attention elsewhere, her lips tightening. Anxiety and censure and uncertainty are mingled together in her face. At eleven, she knows what she is smelling. I look toward her and raise my eyebrows and wait for the question that I can see forming in her mind. Substance use is a domain of inexhaustible questions.

She wants to know if she will get high by breathing the air. She asks quietly, so that Avery – who is on my left – will not hear. She’s not sure how much he knows, she wants to protect him from the complexities of adolescence, she does not want to expose herself to sibling ridicule in the event that he knows the answer and she does not. But Avery seems not to have noticed Rowan’s question. Instead he’s leaning forward, sniffing the air, trying to recognize the smell. I tell Rowan, in a voice loud enough for Avery to hear, that she will not get high simply by breathing this air. Avery listens, and pauses, and looks quizzically toward me. I ask him if he knows what the smell is. He makes a guess: cocaine? Then another: crystal meth? No, I say, it’s cannabis. Marijuana. Pot. He takes this in, considers it for a moment, then looks forward to the boy with the joint. Rowan asks if the smoke will harm us. I tell her no, not unless we were to inhale it often.

I keep my explanation simple. After all, the kids don’t need a lecture, or a warning. At least not today. They don’t need me to discuss with them (again) the risks associated with cannabis use among teens: anxiety, anger, depression, mental illness. They don’t need to hear the statistics involving cannabis use and a variety of harms. We will not deconstruct the politics of pot on our way to school. Besides, they already know much of what they need to know. What remains, in the years to come, is for them to make their own negotiations – under the pressure of peers – with regard to the role that substances will play in their lives. On their own terms, in their own time.

What I can do now, what we can do together, is to keep the conversation open.

We’re close to the school now, and Avery’s attention begins to be diverted by his search for friends on the playground. The smoking boy turns at the last intersection before the school and is gone. Rowan shrugs off her anxiety and begins to talk about the day ahead: gym class, band practice, the science fair next week. But the boy’s absence has left a void, a momentary disruption in the flow of our daily walk. I feel the turbulence left by him, I sense the questions that will remain unanswered today.

I gaze across the playing fields that separate the elementary and high schools. The wet grass is beautiful and smooth in the distance. We fly kites there, and slide down the small hill when snow is falling, and sometimes we ride our bikes across the sward on our way to the trails above the shore. I think of the high school boys who came across that intervening space the other day, during lunch hour, to sell pot to elementary kids on the playground. I wonder how many of Rowan’s friends have already started using. Probably some have discovered alcohol. They will be from homes in which at least one parent is addicted, or mentally ill, or in which domestic tension overwhelms the child’s capacity to cope. Some will be isolated and withdrawn, kept from themselves and their relationships by interpersonal awkwardness, or appearance, or any of the countless slight differences that kids at this age learn, from their parents, to use as wedges of exclusion.

We say our morning farewells. Avery and Rowan make their way toward their classrooms. I remind them that I will pick them up for lunch, as on most days. I remind Avery to tie his shoe. Then I make my way back home. When I reach the juncture at which the smoking boy turned, I enter again into the turbulence of his wake. I imagine him walking ahead, carried forward by his furtive defiance. I sense the ways in which he has begun to seal himself off. I intuit his growing distance from his emotional life. This momentum is not caused by his substance use only. His community has begun to fail him, and he has turned to the only solace he can find. He is, most likely, a boy without adult mentorship. He and his peers are mentoring one another, finding novel ways of expressing their disaffection. His parents and teachers are unavailable to him, or out of touch with his challenges, or dismissive of his vulnerability. He is coasting, floating, searching, not finding the means of support that might carry him through what will be – and is for almost all adolescents – the most stressful years of his life. He enters the wider world alone. His method of coping with this betrayal is reasonable, is more prudent than other paths he might choose. He is not yet suffocating, not yet buried alive.


One shovelful remains. I hear the strike of the shovel blade as it pierces the ground above. Then the leverage of the wood handle, the remote scrabble of shifting dirt, the final draw and lift. But these are distant events, I am almost removed from them. And I am no longer aware of the others, the boys on the boat, their laughter, the smells of their smoking, the ways in which they cast their shadows along the pilings of the wharf, black upon black. I move sideways, disembodied, sliding away from them and the dwindling twilight glow in the west, the light ascending from behind the horizon, the illumination of the dark sea. The slack wind. The slow rocking of the boat. And behind these the stillness stretching out, streaming beneath the spine of the world. I recognize that when the next shovelful falls my departure will be complete. I will die, and the boys will carry my body up the ramp to the shore.

Strange to be thinking of this now, as I follow the gently curving sidewalk back home. My life today seems so remote from that moment when I seemed to be drawn away from the world, cajoled by cannabis and alcohol into a waking dream of being buried alive. There was nothing hallucinogenic about the experience, no sense of the imaginal or unreal. No, it was simply that my immediate reality – boys on a boat, moored to a swaying dock – was swept away and replaced by a world of grim gravediggers, the sliding sounds of shovels upon gravel, and the pristine clarity of knowing that I was about to die. But that too was replaced, by something else again, something impossibly distant and yet intimately entwined with my experience. I could feel it filling me, leading me.

That evening I first smoked cannabis – on the boat, when I was fourteen – was the beginning of a series of escalating and ultimately unsuccessful experiments in escaping the world. I was not aware of what I was doing, of course. I simply felt that I did not belong. Perhaps now, in the illuminated glow of hindsight and experience, I might contextualize those feelings as deriving from my early experience as an adoptee, from the temperamental distance between my brothers and peers and me, from my mother’s alcoholism and my father’s emotional absence, or from any number of other developmental factors. But such psychological explanations are always incomplete. Beneath what can be articulated, behind what can be divined by cultural and intellectual models, there lies something else. The part of us that knows, decides, and acts.

In any event I survived. That day and the days after. At the last moment, when the vision – or dream or hallucination or drug-induced fever – seemed to indicate that I would die as the last shovelful of dirt was tossed, something intervened. I remember seeing the dirt as colored layers, yellow and blue and brown, and glimpsing these as though from the side, watching them surround my body. Upon completion of the seventh layer I would be sealed in, mummified, gone. I recall the feeling of being poised between terror and relief. Now, as I approach my home, as I watch crows tracking their way toward the shoreline and the fields along the river delta, I feel a great sympathy for that lost boy who was ready to surrender his life. Who would have surrendered, and departed. He was sad, beneath the disguise of his charm, and alone. Adrift in a world that did not seem to offer him a place. Years later, when he would read of the experiences of shamans, when he would discover the precise details of his burying, of the layers, of a guiding force, almost invisible, in the teachings of many ancient traditions – then, when he is older and has decided to live, finally, some of what he experienced that day on the boat will make sense. But when he is fourteen, when the experience comes upon him as a final reckoning of his failure, he knows none of this.

He is aware only of the sudden imperative to breathe. And does so, and struggles, ambivalent, toward consciousness. The vision scatters, the gravediggers vanish, the final shovelful does not fall but seems to become motionless in the air. Perhaps it is poised there still. He awakens, cold with sweat. The others are boisterous, laughing at some joke he has not heard. Their silhouettes lie against the backdrop of the night. They are not aware that anything has happened, and he does not tell them. He rests against the hull and tries to collect himself. Later, when he begins to read Joseph Conrad, when he discovers the enigmatic Marlow, the sea wanderer, the boy will think of this moment, of the shadowed figures on deck, of the smothering weight and mood and of the light behind it. Marlow will become an icon for him, a literary guide in other journeys, an imagined man who comes to have a profound influence on a real boy. Twenty years later he will rediscover the underlined passage in his copy of Heart of Darkness, the place he must have marked when he first read the book: “We live in the flicker – may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday.”


After that night my health declined. I became listless, distracted, withdrawn, prone to headaches. My mother took me to the doctor. He found nothing. My grades plummeted. Sometimes, as an escape from my discomfort, I joined the group of kids who smoked pot behind the gymnasium after school. And I retreated, over the ensuing days and months. I pulled into myself, I felt as though I had stepped inside a tunnel and perceived the world by way of distant and muffled echoes. The center of my consciousness shifted to the back of my head. My vision grew unreliable: flashes of color came without warning, strange shapes migrated across my eyes. I had disjointed dreams of fear and suffering and poignant, disconsolate loss. Sometimes, pulsating swaths of light filled my visual field and erased the world.

Perhaps it was a year that I remained this way. It was long ago, and I do not recall the precise details of that extended fugue. But eventually I began to spend long periods in the forest near my school, and I found great solace among the trees. The solitude, the quiet, the simmering life. I began skateboarding – late in the afternoons, along the eastern edge of the forest, down the hill to where I caught the bus home. I had become a child apart, trying to find his way back.

At home, my mother’s drinking began to escalate. I stayed away, seeking refuge in the forest or at school or in the relative safety of my locked room. Her growing desperation frightened me, and yet I recognized in myself the same drifting and inarticulate frustration, the urgency combined with a sense of being thwarted, the bewilderment and fear of collapse. Our pitched battle, that of mirrored enemies, would continue for years.

During that long summer, as I grew increasingly afraid of my mother’s violence, as my rancor toward her blossomed into something akin to hate, I asked my parents if I could spend a few weeks with my grandmother. I conceived of this as an escape, a time of respite during what would turn out to be the last of my summers before employment. It was, I suppose, the final season of my childhood.


North and west of the city, within the shelter of scattered islands, my grandmother kept a summer place. It was quiet there. The small cedar-clad house fronted the beach, the land behind climbed in terraces toward young peaks still sharp and defiant in their outlines. A small rowboat was tethered to a red buoy offshore, and the rocky point nearby was good for fishing.

I slept on the lower floor of the house. The window of my room looked across the water to sunrise in the east. Most mornings I would ramble with friends I had made, or comb the beach for curiosities, or swim out to the small raft with its diving board. And every day during that summer my grandmother and her sister and I played cards. They were very similar, those two: small, frail, with white hair and stooped posture, their faces creased and furrowed with age. And they were the most vibrant people I had ever known: illuminated, somehow, beneath the carapace of their age. We played various card games, none of which I now remember, and we talked. Much of our conversation involved books, for they were both voracious readers. I recognize now, as I recall those days of immersion in the gentleness of their care, that they perceived the nature of my drifting, my lack of purpose, my fundamental sense of not belonging. And they committed themselves to the task of helping me. It seems simple to describe it this way. And perhaps it was simple, after all, for them to offer kindness and clarity and wisdom to a lost boy. Perhaps it was just in their natures; this is how I came to see it later. They never spoke about helping me, or asked me questions about my difficulties, or made the kinds of generalized statements that children are supposed to recognize as being the imparted wisdom of adults. They played cards with me, they made sure I completed my chores, they introduced me to the wider world of ideas. In the company of those two old women I was planted, and given root, and offered light.

In the second or third week of my visit, my grandmother’s sister – who had climbed the Matterhorn, which seemed to my young mind an achievement of inestimable merit – gave me a book by Mary Stewart called The Crystal Cave. It was a book about the Arthurian legends, a retelling or revisioning of that collection of tales from the perspective of Merlin. I believe now that my great-aunt offered me the book because it described a lost boy who finds purpose. But she could not have known that the descriptions of Merlin’s hallucinations, his waking dreams, his protracted bouts of illness, were almost identical to what I had been undergoing for the months leading up to that summer. I read the book on the beach, between two large logs that offered some measure of privacy. I tossed smooth pebbles absentmindedly as I read, ran the stones through my fingers, buried my feet in the layer of sand beneath the shingle. And as I read, as we played cards, as we ate meals together and gazed across the wide sea, it was as though my life, which had come to feel cracked and fragile, began to break open, finally, so that I could emerge, raw and blinking, into another world.


Near the beginning of Merlin’s journey, his mentor – an aged man, wizened but hale – guides Merlin in a vision. The old man says, “Think of nothing. I have the reins in my hand; it is not for you yet. Watch only.” My grandmother and her sister held those reins through all of that long summer. They guided me so gently I did not know I was being led. They urged me forward with delicate and caring skill such that later, after I had concluded the struggle with my mother and was able to take up those reins myself, when I could do more than watch only, I was capable of understanding the gift that was given me.

On Wednesday evenings every other week we meet in a room in the basement of the college and discuss our plans to transform the world. By the time students attend these practicum meetings they have completed their course work and are taking the first tentative steps toward professional practice as counselors in the community. Many have found positions in addictions treatment centers, youth programs, or shelters for traumatized women. Most have come to this work by way of personal experience or because they have struggled to support a family member through crisis. A few have worked in the field for many years and are only now pursuing formal training. They are all idealistic: some more obviously so, others fronted by a veneer of wariness or cynicism. This idealism is essential and nourishing. Unlike most professions, in which idealism comes to be equated with artlessness, in which ethics tend to be eroded by slow exposure to the exigencies of daily experience, counseling is a field sustained by idealism. The belief in positive change, the devotion to a vision of a better world, the commitment to supporting people in turmoil: these values constitute the core of character for those in the counseling professions. No one is in it for the paltry income or the low social status. Most simply feel a need to help, to give back, to make available to others what was once extended to them. Perhaps it’s a calling.

Sometimes, in my introductory counseling class, when students ask me about the greatest rewards of my profession, I tell them that counseling is one of the few fields in which one is privileged to experience, every day, the feeling of having changed the world. By slow degrees, yes, and with setbacks and frustrations and bewilderment at society’s indifference. Yet each day brings a client drowning in pain, or anger, or despair, and for whom the counselor’s care becomes a balm, a shield against that indifference, a defiance of anonymity and meaninglessness.

By the time students arrive in the practicum seminar they have begun to understand how difficult change can be. They have learned to be patient, and to exercise empathy in place of judgment, and to temper their ideals. They have emerged from training warm with purpose; now they must clarify its aim and direction. And I am gratified to interact with them at this formative stage, when their compassion is strong and their enthusiasm high. I learn a great deal from them, and I try to offer whatever reciprocal contributions I can. We’re involved in something greater than ourselves, something that carries us forward in mysterious and surprising ways. In these conversations students often remind me of what it is we’re doing: not simply the application of skill, nor any single method, nor the enactment of a specific professional role. We are witnesses, guests invited to glimpse the lives of others and be changed ourselves. Our task is to be present, to honor the invitation, to open ourselves to the sharing of humanity with all its difficult and shining contradictions.

One of those contradictions involves the nature of denial. It’s a frequent topic of conversation in our seminars: how to help the substance user who is not yet prepared to acknowledge the full impact of addiction, who offers complex rationales or minimizing explanations or who simply refuses to recognize the corrosiveness of the habit. And the question has arisen tonight, in a presentation from Nicholas, a student who works with teens. He was himself an addicted teen, a dealer, a boy whose impulsive violence shielded him from his own vulnerability. Yet he was stopped: by the growing sense that he might waste his entire life, by the deaths of many of his friends from substance abuse and crime. After too many near-fatal overdoses and stints in jail, after extricating himself from his addiction and from the community of criminals, Nicholas made a final break from his old life and is now working in a residential program for youth at risk. He was a member of the same criminal gang as Trench, and is the type of man Trench might have become. Perhaps still might become. But Nicholas is many strides ahead of Trench now. By confronting, finally, the abandonment and trauma of his early life, by finding mentors and guides who have helped him swim out from the whirlpool, Nicholas has removed the facade of his old self; he has replaced his disguise with the face of someone who has always been waiting for him.

He speaks to us about the current group of kids with whom he is working. Most are struggling to remain free of crystal meth, cocaine, or alcohol. They have left home, spent time on the streets and in juvenile detention centers, have been courted by drug gangs and rejected by their families. Few attend school regularly. Recently, Nicholas has had to deal with a boy who came among them for the express purpose of selling drugs. It’s an interesting environment Nicholas has chosen, with many challenges and rewards and unexpected turns. If his experience is like that of many other students I’ve known, he may find that his work with youth becomes a devotion. He may come to wonder how he might have considered anything else. After all, he will see immediate and tangible changes in these youth as he mentors them, as he offers them commitment and guidance. Some will transform their lives as a result of his work with them. They will complete school, and find sustaining relationships, and move forward. And some will fall: back into the old life of drugs and crime, back toward violence and confusion and the false indifference of the lost. Nicholas will search for these kids on the streets; he will think of them as he passes the park at night. He will feel a brittle breaking inside of himself every time one of them dies.

Tonight he wants to talk with us about the peculiarities of denial among cannabis users. For within the culture of youth there exists a belief that pot is harmless, or even beneficial. The argument is straightforward: if kids are using pot, instead of alcohol or cocaine, they are less likely to become violent or to pass out in the park at night in winter. Or to drive a car into a utility pole with such speed that the car is sliced in half, and the passengers are ejected, and the best friend of the driver is killed but the driver herself, who is blind drunk and knocked senseless, survives with hardly a scratch (as happened to one of my former students, the driver). The pot smoker, so goes the argument, is almost immune to these risks, is involved in a healthy harm reduction and stress management strategy. Nicholas, understandably, is frustrated by the illusion of innocuousness that surrounds cannabis use. For it is a substance like all the others: medicinal, perhaps, and with a powerful ability to reduce tension, but also possessed of a momentum, a sliding and subtle tendency to inhabit more and more of the life of the user. The management of stress, the capacity for personal insight, the imaginative faculties: all come to be subsumed by the substance, falling within its domain, so that the user grows dependent on the substance to provide fundamental personal skills. The user barters away what must not be sold.

Nicholas wants to know how it has come to be that for many other substances – alcohol, in particular, but also cocaine and heroin and others of that clan – users will acknowledge the crippling effects of their addiction. They will have moments of clarity, sometimes infrequent, in which they will resolve to break the habit, or get help, or simply reduce their use. In the fortunate circumstance that a supportive person is present during such a moment, the user might decide to stop altogether. But those who habitually use cannabis rarely experience this doubt and questioning and final resolve. They are freed, somehow, from the self-reflection that other substances allow. And, I suggest to Nicholas, that freedom – or at least its illusion – is what gives cannabis its subversive power. Cannabis allows us to slip away from the self, to surrender our responsibility for managing our emotional lives, to abrogate our obligation to seek beyond the surface for meaning and purpose. Habitual cannabis use removes our capacity to nurture our own imaginations, replaces that capacity with a disguise – a facsimile of ease – and convinces us that we have made a sound bargain.

It has been difficult, says Nicholas, to watch the youth in his care persist with steady cannabis use after working so diligently to discontinue other substances. When he speaks to them about his concerns, they act as though cannabis is like chocolate, or coffee: just something to take the edge off, a tincture of harmless pleasure. I’m familiar with this response. I hear it from adolescents who depend on the substance to get them through the day, and even from people in my own peer group who smoke up at social gatherings. Usually they do this furtively, somewhere in the back, collusive and conspiratorial. Their secrecy seems more injurious, almost, than their using. Perhaps such social uses of cannabis are less harmful than what otherwise might take place: freebasing cocaine, injecting smack, sniffing gasoline. And yet the very illusion of safety that surrounds cannabis, its consistent exclusion from membership in the cadre of so-called hard drugs, is what concerns me most. A substance that is capable of promoting dependency among its users, drawing them into its orbit, offering them states of consciousness they could not easily achieve without chemical facilitation (but could achieve, with careful and mindful practice), convincing them of its fundamental usefulness in their daily lives – such a substance is powerful, and persuasive, like the characters in many ancient tales who whisper poisonous words into the ear of a gullible king.

I remember those whisperings from the year of my wandering, the quiet promptings that became silent if I focused on them directly. It was the same year that alcohol became a crutch. Between them – the cannabis promising, but not delivering, a final sense of safety and relaxation; the alcohol promising empowerment and delivering bluster and sickness – these two substances led me ever farther from fealty to myself, from the careful nurturing of my fragile inner life. My mother’s reckless desperation, her habit of getting drunk and shouting at my friends, her tendency to be abusive at night and to pretend, in the morning, that nothing had happened: these circumstances contributed, yes, to my plight. But they were not the sole cause. Behind the surface features of my troubled home life lay something – someone – deeper, a boy lost and meandering, young and unready, surrounded by the distant and frightening lands of his inner kingdom.

I suggest to Nicholas that he is doing all he can do: by being present, and listening, and offering his perspective without demands or conditions. The kids in his care will stop using or they will not. Finally, it will be up to them. But his mentoring of them, his habit of keeping the conversations open, of demonstrating empathy and clarity, is perhaps the best chance these kids will have to form a context for the questions they face. I think of my grandmother and her sister, and of their compassionate mentorship, of their age and beauty and the ways in which they led me forward without ever passing judgment. They never spoke unkindly about my mother, not even when I described the fights and the shrieking and the violence. It would have been easy for them to do so, to have taken sides in the struggle, to have assigned blame, to have attempted to rescue me from the complexities of my situation. But they saw, I think, that my mother was as lost as I was. And though at times it must have been difficult, they extended their empathy to her also, they understood her underlying vulnerability and humanity. She had become disoriented in her own wilderness, subject to the false counsel of her addictions, led in circles by those voices.

She never made it back. Not then, and not later. And I am left, even now, with a sadness for her, with a quiet love that I could not feel when she was alive – or that I surrendered long ago, as a child, and can no longer recall. But this love has come back to me, now that she is gone. I think of her, and I wish for her deliverance from that wilderness, and I carry aloft that love, lost and found again.


Tales of Merlin are ancient, and legion, and were once the core of a robust cycle of myths in Britain. The traditional conception of Merlin has nowadays become quaint: a caricature with starry robe and pointed hat who has come to inhabit children’s tales. It’s difficult, as an adult living in the age of cynicism, to resist making fun of such characters. Yet the symbol of wise counsel that Merlin represents is persistent, and continues to exert influence on the modern mind. Among the most vibrant of his recent incarnations are Gandalf and Yoda, wanderers and sages in touch with the forgotten magic of the world.

The Merlin of Mary Stewart’s series of Arthurian books (after I read The Crystal Cave, my great-aunt gave me the next book in the series, and the next) is not a caricature but a man who strives with his own frailty. As I read about him on the beach that summer I came to identify with his struggle, his strangeness, his redemption by means of service and introspection. He became more than a symbol to me; a key, somehow, that might unlock a great mystery.

When I returned to the city at the end of the summer and began what became the worst year of my home life, the year in which I eventually would decide to live with my grandmother, I came home with two gifts of inestimable value: a dawning awareness of the power of books; and a feeling, warm and permanent and profound, of being loved. Two old women on summer holiday had fundamentally altered the course of my life.

That autumn my great-aunt suggested I read Tolkien. And in those pages I found the old mentor again. As my imagination framed him, Gandalf was Merlin with a different name. I read about him in the den at my grandmother’s house. On one of the bookshelves lay a small bough of arbutus that I had carved for her.

More books came later: Joseph Conrad, Ursula Le Guin, C.S. Lewis. Books became a refuge, and an articulation of what might be. They allowed me to understand the imagination as the heart’s instrument. Reading became my habit. I stopped smoking cannabis. Instead I returned again and again to the page, seeking the literatures of magic and mentorship, discovering the underlying unity in Marlow and Ged and Aslan and Gandalf. Much later, when I studied depth psychology and learned of the archetypes described by C.G. Jung, I came to understand these characters in the context of universal human principles and as symbols of my emerging self. But those are adult considerations. The boy reads for pleasure, and encouragement to face his struggle, and for the silent nurturing of his imaginative life. He understands – slowly, for he is a plodding thinker – that the active imagination is a well, that he may follow it down, that it might guide him. And perhaps, if he follows, he might become akin to those old mentors he has discovered in his life and in books. He might join them someday, in a place beyond disguise. This becomes his secret purpose.

Sometimes I speak to my students of the years of my wandering, of my mother, of the people who came to my aid. The students enjoy, I think, the image of me smoking up behind the school in the seventies. But they also enjoy hearing how much my story is like most of theirs, how difficulty during youth was the context in which mentorship became a catalyst. Their ages and circumstances are different but their stories are the same. They recognize the days of drifting, and the desperate thoughts, and the one who came, sometimes awkwardly and at other times with great grace, to lead them out of the wilderness. The one who taught them about intent, and showed them clarity, and who cannot be repaid. Yet here they are, becoming mentors themselves, drawing upon what they have received and passing it along. Without fanfare or righteousness or self-conscious mission. No pointy hats or flowing robes. Just quiet people, mostly, going about their business, offering a compassionate hand. Theirs is an old-fashioned magic: simple, clear, vital.

The word mentor is Greek in origin. It refers to a character in The Odyssey, a friend of Odysseus who offers counsel to his son during the father’s long absence. But the sage Mentor is Athena in disguise, the goddess of war and wisdom who guides and sustains Odysseus through his journey.


I look for the smoking boy as I make my way through the neighborhood. In the days following my initial glimpse of him, that morning when Avery and Rowan asked about the scent that trailed in his wake, I become curious about who he is. I did not recognize him from his movements, and I saw him only from the back, and I do not know if I would identify his face were I to encounter him at the mall or on the street. But my impression is that he does not live nearby. He was, I think, passing through, his presence here temporary. It seemed to me that he was sliding away, as though the distance between us could stretch but not contract. It’s a perception I’ve experienced with other habitual cannabis users: a sense of personal distance, of a surrounding and insulating boundary. And it is particular to cannabis users. It distinguishes them from the opioid addicts – who are raw, and vulnerable, and have trouble hiding their overwhelm; and from the hallucinogen users, dissociated and distracted; and from the alcoholics, angry and nostalgic and trying to punch the world into a new shape. Even stimulant users seem more accessible than pot smokers. Crackheads and meth junkies and gamer geeks are swept up by their own private whirlwind; but their voices still can be heard, and one can glimpse their grasping hands flash by as the storm revolves.

The habitual cannabis users are a strange crew, different from all the others. They have been taken away, their lives made parallel yet separate. It’s not immediately obvious, this shift. Typically, it is not accompanied by the intensity and explosiveness displayed by users of other substances. The cannabis user is more sedate, relaxed. He cannot understand why anyone might worry about him. He reassures, he explains, he dismisses objections and concerns. And by slow degrees, so gradual as to be almost unnoticed, he cuts the ties that allow him to be intimate with others. He chooses the substance – and in this sense he is like all the other users – preferring, eventually, the embrace of the substance in place of human connection. His imagination – which otherwise would be the bridge between his own inner life and the lives of others – lets go of its curiosity, surrenders its engagement and purpose, and is content to dwindle. He becomes a friendly and playful person, free from anxiety, amenable and polite and seemingly open. Yet he inhabits another country. We encounter his envoy but not his authentic self. He delivers his disguise and asks that we accept it as his true face. Somewhere in that other and distant country he sleeps.


One might make the decision to journey back toward inhabited lands. To awaken, and scan the horizon for far-off signs. This is why, I think, the mentors of literature are always wanderers. They have traveled, they understand the ways of the road, they have traversed their own circuitous paths in the desert. This is what I see in many of my students and supervisees: experience, hardscrabble wisdom, clarity. Not a history of addictions, necessarily, but of grappling and reaching and searching. Of having faced up to it – whatever it is. My grandmother had lived through two wars. Her sister had lost her fiancé in the first of those wars, and had endured alone for almost eighty years. Theirs were lives of tremendous gravity, such that when I entered their orbit I was drawn in and changed by them.

Adolescence is typically the most pivotal phase of a person’s life. We decide, often without recognizing it, our trajectory into the world. And how we enter is how we go on. Adolescence is the first tentative step forward, the juncture at which we establish our speed and direction and even our purpose. The character of our movement is defined. And that character is shaped by mentorship more than by any other force. The mentor might be a parent, or grandparent, or friend, or coach – it doesn’t matter much. But it must be someone whose temperament coaxes from us our better nature.

I was lucky. After my grandmother and her sister sheltered me that summer, showed me how to craft a spirited community, led me into the magic of good books, I knew what mentorship felt like. So that later, when I drifted again during difficult times, when addiction (to alcohol, primarily) seemed like a prudent stress management strategy, I was able to recognize my need for mentorship and to find it. In high school and university I sought out other mentors who guided me farther along the path of my discoveries. They were guardians along that path, setting signposts and indicating the treacherous turns where one might fall, suddenly, into the ravine. And when I did fall, they reached down and lifted me. Without such mentors a child becomes a wanderer in a strange country.

I was shown – when I was young, which is perhaps the only time one can be shown – what it means to inhabit the world fully, to be not on parallel paths but on one joined and headlong track moving forward. My grandmother and great-aunt had exemplified this, and after they died – my great-aunt in the year that I met the woman who would become my wife, my grandmother in the year that I was married – their mentorship stayed with me. I inherited my great-aunt’s library, and as I leafed through her books of philosophy and travel and classical literature, her collection of mountain climbing tales and leather-bound volumes from the eighteenth century, I recognized that those old crones were players in a long story. They had been their own authors, the storytellers of their own days. They were caretakers, and not only of the spirit of a fragile boy. Theirs was the path, and the shore, and the wide sea of becoming.

I park beside Nicholas’s car in the gravel lot of the treatment center. I make my way between two residential buildings and toward the group room. As I climb the stairs and open the door I glimpse the tree-lined street and, farther down, the traffic of a busy intersection. But here it’s quiet. The environment seems insulated somehow from the rush of urban life. The neighboring homes are well-kept, the boulevards wide, the maple trees old and large enough to have grown a canopy that stretches almost all the way across the road. It feels like a good place, a welcoming place. Yet on most days someone will leave here, will head back out again to the streets and the rush and the rhythm of using. The quiet will be too much, the gentle encouragement too painful, the safety too frightening.

But at least a dozen clients are in the group room today. They have decided, at least provisionally, not to run. Something might set one of them off tomorrow – an altercation with another resident, an advertisement on television, a dream. I have known people to leave treatment ostensibly because the telephones in the residence were too far down the hall. If the inner turmoil grows, if the cravings will not be silenced, if the emotional upheaval will not be contained, anything will do. Yet most who leave do return eventually; often years later, shouldering more shame, trying one more time to make it work. This is what I count on: the persistence, the underlying dignity, the impulse toward healing. These aspects of human nature are exceedingly difficult to destroy.

I lean toward the window set into the door of the group room. Nicholas sees me, as do the clients sitting on the far side of the circle of chairs. They seem to be in good spirits, happy to be here, relieved that they have made it this far. Nicholas waves me in, and as I open the door I try to take in the whole room with a single glance. On my left is a young man whose facial wounds are slowly healing. He’s in his second week, probably, still fresh from the street, still finding his way, his anxiety slowly settling down. Fragility and commitment and caution all wrapped up together. Beside him are three men: also young, dressed in jeans and faded shirts, talking quietly to one another, laughing at jokes no one else can hear, rocking back on their chairs. They seem to be a trio of friends. Perhaps they knew one another before coming here, or were companions in addiction and crime. They look me over, wondering what I might say, what risk I might pose. Their manner is defiant, almost. Like many men, they hide their vulnerability with bluster. Their eyes follow me across the room, assessing and challenging. The question, when it comes, will come from there.

I think of the smoking boy, of his passage through my neighborhood, of the ways in which he might be like these men in ten years. And I think of Nicholas, who was a man like these.

Several women are seated along the far wall where the windows look out to the lane. They wait quietly, close together. I wonder about their histories, their traumas, their children. One of them, a woman in her forties – hair pulled back, demeanor open and friendly, marks of hard life on her face – smiles as I glance at her, and I experience again that momentary certainty, the feeling I had on the street when looking at Ophelia. But unlike Ophelia, who seemed to be shadowed by death, this woman shines. She has almost been broken, almost crumpled into herself. But she has climbed back out, fought back from that final surrender.

I scan the remainder of the group as I turn and take my seat beside Nicholas: four more men, three women. Quiet, tentative. Early days. In the far corner is a young man wearing a blue baseball cap. His head is forward, his gaze is directed toward the floor. He seems tired, and depressed, and not sure he wants to be here. I recognize him from one of the addictions clinics. When Nicholas introduces me, and I say hello to the group, I direct my words mostly toward the young man. I imagine my voice pushing up against the rim of his hat, lifting it so that I might more fully see his face. So that he might rouse himself and be with us. But he does not move.

Nicholas has told the group that I would be here today. Working with adults is a new experience for him, another way to explore his development as a counselor. He’s looking for my feedback, and support, and for new strategies. Yet he doesn’t need much from me. Already he displays the empathy that is the core of this work. He listens, refrains from judging, avoids the impulse to offer pithy advice or easy solutions. His sense of the small details – the turn of a shoulder, a manner of sitting, the many indications that denote specific types of substance use or trauma – this will sharpen over time, and is not essential anyway. Those are tricks, a useful shorthand, but they do not provide an authentic means of entering into the life of another person.

Nicholas speaks briefly about my role and my presence today, then offers me the opportunity to speak. I express my appreciation to the group for welcoming me. I confirm my support for Nicholas. I ask the group if anyone has questions for me. The trio of defiant men exchange a glance, then one of them – leaning forward, right hand on chin, left foot tapping the floor – asks me if I am in recovery. It’s always the first question, always the same question. The line is drawn here, the tribal ties established. Am I one of them, or am I of the Other: the system, the community by whom they have been judged and scapegoated? We cannot begin until this fundamental distinction has been made.

What I would like to say is yes. It would be easier this way, simpler. Yes, I have struggled with substance use, and have meandered across that desert, and have tried to find my way back home to myself. I understand the heaviness of that journey, of carrying death on one’s back. I think of my long experience with alcohol and cannabis in my teens and early twenties, of the entire stretch of my childhood lived within the aura of an alcoholic home. I think of my ancestors, many of whom died from alcoholism. I consider my career, and the way in which I lost count, many years ago, of the number of addicted clients and students of addictions counseling with whom I have worked. Thousands. Yet the defiant man is not asking about such things. He is not interested in my experience or expertise, in my capacity to empathize with his predicament. He simply wants to know whether I am a member of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. Whether I am – to use the vernacular of that community – working the program.

And to this I must answer no. I tell the man that I do not attend AA meetings but that I do have personal experience with addiction. I say this as succinctly as I can. I do not wish to shift the group’s focus away from Nicholas’s leadership, or to enter into an extended discussion about my background, or to attempt to bolster my credibility. Nothing I do will make a difference to this man. He has already made his decision about me. He appraises my answer, gives a small and dismissive look obvious enough for everyone to see, and sits back in his chair. For him, and others like him whom I come across from time to time, the program is the only path out of the wilderness. And it is a powerful path for those with a temperament to match its methods. But it’s not for everyone.

A woman from near the window speaks up. She is slight, and her chestnut hair frames her face, and her shoulders roll forward as she speaks. She wants me to clarify that I do know what it’s like to be addicted. It’s a welcome question, a means for me to assert my place, my tribe. For although differences do exist between adult users and family members and struggling teens, they are all of the same community, the same band of weary mendicants. She perceives this, and is more open to its possibilities, and asks the question not as a challenge but an invitation. I respond to her: yes, I do understand. She looks at me almost pleadingly, needing me to understand right now, in this moment. As though her healing depends upon it, as though each unfolding moment of her life is like this, and she wanders, looking for acknowledgment that her life – which no doubt has been one of turmoil and abuse and violence – has not been wasted, and she is not dead, and the spirit within her has not fled. She needs someone to see that spirit, to recognize it, to confirm that there is a glimmer of light left in the world.

Many groups are like this: a blend of suspicion and hope, the participants at different stages of readiness. They’re searching for different things: shelter, escape, respite, healing, hideout, rest. Most will relapse, a week or a month or a year from now. Perhaps two or three will not. The trajectory of each group member – whether toward relapse or healing – depends upon two people in the group: the one who holds hope aloft, and gathers others under that banner; and the shadow carrier, the one who remains hidden, disguised, and dark, and who controls the group in many ways. If any group is to serve its members, the shadow carrier must be found, and engaged, and the power of that role must be used to assist the group in moving forward. This is Nicholas’s job: discovering and using the energy of the group, as though it were a great wave and he a swimmer, floating between trough and crest, seeking the shore.

I see Nicholas out of the corner of my eye. He’s smiling. I look toward him, he raises his eyebrows, then he starts the session again. This feels like a good group: challenging, and with many possible directions. Nicholas’s experience here will be useful, and he will be remembered by some of these people as the one who placed himself in the path of their destruction. He will make a stand, every day. Sometimes others within the group will fight with him, or support him, or be indifferent to his mentorship. And he will learn from them, as these sessions unfold. He will be reminded, and confronted, and sometimes he will be acknowledged. As I settle into my chair and follow the conversation of the group, I think about the wonder of this kind of work, its fundamental realness. I experience again that immeasurable gratitude: for glimpses of what lies beneath human fragility, for work that forces me to face myself, for a career in which I am immersed in hope and pain and glory.

The group discusses various topics: health, relapse prevention, stress management, exercise, nutrition. From working with Nicholas they know that he will not permit them to talk about their traumas, their war stories, the events in their lives that pushed them toward, or farther into, addiction. Some treatment programs still encourage participants to tell the old tales, to relate the wounds and their making. This unfortunate legacy, from outmoded methods of treatment, increases the risk of relapse. The stories do need to be told: safely, with insight, with clarity about what might be gleaned from them. But not now, not this early. Perhaps a year from now, when participants have achieved some measure of stability, the delicate work of facing the past might be accomplished. To do so now would be to fracture the group, to break the containment and camaraderie they have built together. Nicholas holds them to the present, to what they are doing for their own growth and health.

I watch them: the defiant men, the hopeful woman, the young man in the blue cap. I contribute a few comments about the value of exercise in dealing with depression and anxiety. I reiterate something Nicholas says about how difficult it is to deal with emotions when a substance has been doing it for you as long as you can remember. I look at the quieter participants, the former opioid users who are exhausted and struggling to remain alert. They offer, it seems to me, a fair balance to the brashness of the defiant men – who jabber on, inattentive to their own percussive manner. They remind me of Trench: still missing, perhaps deceased, gone.

The group talks about the ubiquity of cannabis, the difficulty of resisting its use after other substances have been discontinued. Cannabis is widely foisted as a panacea for all types of distress. Just a little something to take the edge off pain, or the craving for crack, heroin, or booze. A relaxation strategy, a medication to cut the sharp anxiety of recovery. A few of the group members grow quiet at this juncture; others are more strident. As everywhere in the world of addiction, the conversation swings between abstinence and harm reduction. Nicholas doesn’t say much, other than to affirm that everyone needs to make their own decisions. But it’s clear to the group that he’d prefer they not use any addictive substances. Better to face the calamity head-on, to be abraded and tumbled by it, to be free.

Besides, they know about the cannabis users who try to quit and find themselves unable to contain their emotions, and for whom rage and overwhelm and panic become consistent companions. Yes, perhaps cannabis does encourage civility more readily than other substances. But the disguise is thin, and it is ripped away when the substance is gone. Former users typically find that the unresolved emotions are still there. They’ve only been deferred, and now come rushing at them, knocking them into free fall, leaving them scattered and angry and scared. Few habitual cannabis users quit. Their instinct, their sense of what lies beyond the addiction, is enough to keep them using. They go on, never opening the door.

But the stalwart refusal to open that door causes damage – for cannabis users as well as all the other addicts. Hallucinogen users slowly lose touch with reality, with people. Opioid users swirl in eddies of ongoing depression and fatigue. Stimulant users strive and fail to control their emotional impulses. Alcoholics become stuck in cycles of aggression and bullying. Sometimes their memory is damaged, and their cognition. Lasting impairment is a shared consequence of all the substance addictions. How could it not be? Habitual substance use impacts the body and the mind in a multitude of ways: changing pathways, shaping the brain and the nervous system, tweaking and prodding.

Habitual cannabis users tend not to perceive these changes. Their particular and double-edged impairment prevents them from seeing what’s happening to them. The damage begins with impairment to motivation: they slow down, become less curious, less troubled. They slide out of touch with the truth that struggle and emotional stress are the only paths to growth. They drift. And then they are damaged in a secondary way: they lose the ability to recognize their impaired motivation. Instrospection is blunted and shunted aside. They do not sense their own lassitude and driftiness. They feel fine.

Others may pound against the door, calling and shouting, dolorous. But their entreaties fade into silence, are unheard in the hidden and somnolent rooms beyond.


A friendly-looking man sitting opposite me makes a joke about harm reduction and the number of recovering alcoholics who smoke cigarettes. He seems relaxed, and well along the path of his healing. His receding hair is well-kept, his hands move as he talks. I have the impression he’s been in treatment before, perhaps many times. He knows the culture and the dialect. He speaks infrequently, preferring instead to listen, and to wait, and to pay attention to his emotional life. Beside him a silent woman is seated by the door. Her gaze moves but does not settle on anything. She looks frightened. Her eyes are open wide, creases line her mouth, she holds herself tense and immobile. One of the sleeves of her sweater – though it is warm today – has slid above her wrist, and I can see on her arm the cutting scars, layers of them, where she has taken a razor blade and sliced into herself. To flee into the pain, to reach down and toward her hidden vitality, to divide herself from the deadness she feels by opening – push, draw, bleed – the curled and waiting life inside.

Nicholas is a good mentor to these people. He cares for them, and has made a commitment to their growth, and offers his own style of gentle, unpretentious magic. Though he is young, and still starting out, he already possesses a presence that is warm, and kind, and helpful. He has, thankfully, avoided the corrosive trap of charisma. He’s not trying to be a guru, or one of the many experts who imagine they have the whole thing figured out. He has recognized early on that addiction is the most common and persistent human frailty. It cannot be sterilized or eradicated, nor will it be halted by genetic engineering, or by the altering of brain chemistry, or by prison. Addiction is a thwarted search for healing, a temporary balm for enduring distress. Substances, sex, gambling, work, exercise, video games, food: endless turns of that shining and ruthless blade.

Nicholas’s task is to witness, to trust in the spirit of healing, to offer his care with honesty and compassion. And to offer it to the defiant, the truculent, the dismissive, the unready and the unsteady in equal measure. Nothing less.

As the session ends and I make my way out of the center, I cross paths with the young man in the blue baseball cap. This time he looks up, and I see his face more fully. He is perhaps nineteen. He thanks me for coming. I thank him for being here, for having the courage to turn from the partying of his peers and make his own way forward. He looks hungry: for connection, and friendship, and something to believe in. Nicholas will help him find these things.

I make my way down the back stairs to the gravel parking lot. I think of how the young man in the baseball hat is digging himself out, resisting the gravity of disguise and burial that addiction brings. I visualize his face, trying to remember it clearly, so that later, perhaps years from now, when I see him again, I will recognize him.

hiker-distance.jpeg
Ross Laird

Ross Laird, PhD RCC

Clinical Consultant, Author, Educator

My work focuses on the interconnected themes of mental health, trauma, addictions, and creativity. I provide clinical consulting, professional development services, and community education for a wide range of institutions and organizations.