Hallucingens and the Addictions of Escape
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.
Toward the horizon, the broad limbs of a fir tree stretch out from a trunk still black against the morning sky. The indigo dawn brightens toward vermilion. A scatter of skeletal branches extends on the south side of the tree, high up. Beneath these and northward, a mass of counterbalanced foliage swings above the creek. Branches at the tangled summit render the shape of a bird in a nest. Perhaps it is a bird, not merely branches. At this distance it’s too hard to tell. The trunk slowly rocks in the freshening wind.
Lower down, stands of dense cedar and scrubby fir punctuate the rising landscape. The geography is spare in this light: hidden rills and derelict fences blend into the land’s soft, woolen texture. A scrim of cloud obscures the dawn for a moment, then moves off. Wind from the bay slides across hills warmed by the rising sun. I scan overhead, looking for the first wing-borne travelers of the day, but I do not yet see them. I hear a single call, far off and forlorn, but nothing more. Perhaps the tide is in flood along the crescent of the bay, and the submerged flats offer nothing yet for the black and scavenging birds to find. Perhaps they have been delayed by scattered rain along the lee of the hill.
I wait, and wonder where they come from. Somewhere in the northeast, that’s all I know – the direction of the mountains and the agricultural lands and a hundred other enclaves that might harbor their nests. Sometimes I consider trying to follow them at the end of the day, when they retrace their path in the darkening sky. But they travel diagonally, across the direction of the roads, and it has not seemed prudent to drive with my head out the window, gazing skyward. Then I see a black bird – yes, a crow – scuttling between green treetops along the ridge beside the creek. It glides, flaps into an updraft from the onshore breeze, glides again, then heads for the bay. Behind this outrider I glimpse a trio, loosely gathered, also flying shoreward. Then more birds appear: hundreds, perhaps thousands, in groups and flocks ordered and haphazard, all flying from the northeast, all following the same scent trail. Their wings beat rhythmically against the backdrop of the piebald sky.
Some are sleek and symmetrical, wings like aircraft. Others are colored with flecks of gray or spotted with white. I don’t know if these flecks are signs of disease; but the spotted birds are not noticeably less agile or slower than those with full and glistening black regalia.
The birds fly over for half an hour or more, an armada ghosting above the trees, low enough for me to watch the odd pair tumble and dive in what looks like simple play. Aside from these moments of jostling and jousting, the crows do not pause in their traveling or watch the ground or scavenge. They fly along unseen air currents above the creek, follow the ridge that surmounts the ancient bog, and glide across the flood plain that stretches across farmland and into the sea. They remain within the invisible boundaries of a narrow path in the sky that is perhaps a quarter mile wide. I have not seen them make their passage elsewhere: farther down the bay, south toward the marshlands, or north along the peninsula that steps into the deep waters of the strait. Other birds claim that territory. The crows of my mornings appear here only, south of the river, on high ground above the delta.
By the time the sun has fully risen the crows are gone. Other birds, small flitting flocks of local inhabitants, fly from tree to tree. But the crows have moved onward, toward their destination. And though I believe they seek the shoreline, the expanse of tidal flat exposed by the moon’s ebb, I have never seen them there. Along that shore I see great wheeling flocks of gulls and species of tiny, racing birds that move as one in groups of thousands. They cohere into convoluted shapes offshore: clouds, invisible winds, shape-shifting phantasms. Eagles rest on trees cracked open by lightning and rot, herons stand in the shallows or fly inland, languid on slate-colored wings. But I do not find the crows at the shore.
Where do they come from, and where do they go? They pass along the scattered and threadbare avenue, huddling in littered alcoves. Hooded, quick-eyed, solitary or in sullen groups. I glimpse them in alleyways – furtive, fleeting – and I encounter them in the clinics. Some live on the street, or in tiny walk-up apartments with the smells of decay in the hallways: burnt cooking oil, mildew, piss. Some live in the suburbs, in anonymous basement suites or firetrap apartments near bus routes that take them downtown to score. A few live with their parents, or in group homes always in need of repair, or at the redbrick hospital flanked by colossal stone statues.
They congregate, gathering in parks and on street corners to share communions of the lost. And though many do have a home – something with a roof, or perhaps only a tangled corner of brush beneath the south end of the bridge – most are wanderers, arriving in summer from elsewhere, departing with migrant birds in the fall. They fly below the radar of government agencies and the justice system. Sometimes they come to the clinics looking for help with a stubborn wound or a diseased tooth rotting into the jaw. But typically they avoid places with questions and paperwork. They wait under the eaves of roofs in the rain, curl up with companion dogs near the railway station, stand at the southern edge of the mall, and watch.
These nomads are different from the homeless with shopping carts and layers of clothing and boots of glistening rubber. The wanderers are a distinct clan, invisible, traveling light, sliding away from a gaze as it touches upon them. They come and go, leaving scant traces. They vanish for a season of rains or a run of years. But then I see a familiar form crouching on a piling at the waterfront, a black bird of mottled, ragged feathers. Some return to the concrete wall behind which the sealed-up rail tunnel travels invisibly beneath the city. Alone or in small groups, meandering like rivers switchbacking on flood plains near the sea: these are the addicts of wildness, of long journeying. My people. They share the archetype of departure: elsewhere, onward, vanishing. Come away, says the dream. Into other worlds and times, by way of the slipstream and unencumbered mind. Keep moving, in this city like all the others. Walk beyond the park with its skeletal trees, past night crews gathering trash in front of the government buildings. Forget your bewildered heart, the terrors of the morning when you wake, disoriented, to the sound of air brakes from a truck in the alley.
Hide yourself from yourself. Look forward, to meetings in another city, to cheaper scores and fewer hassles from cops and street thugs and the whistling in your ears. Let the others claim, finally, the grille of warm air that you have been defending for weeks, staking out the territory of your suffering. Leave it behind.
Imagine the glade you have not yet seen, the textures of wind and hope you will find there, the solace. It is not far. Do not ask whether you are seeking death. Just go.
And he falls away, as though sliding into deeper water, out of reach. His breath is a slight shudder struggling against the heavy air of the room. His expression is of mingled conflict and confusion and collapse. His eyelids flutter once and are still. The rows of cutting scars along his forearms are like the ribs of tiny fishes, pale against his skin. Elegant, fragile, disturbing. No trace now of the blood, the mess, the sharp steel kept tucked behind the bathroom cabinet.
The fingers of Joseph’s right hand twitch slightly against the pink of his palm. I reflect on my certainty that he has not suffered a stroke. I’ve encountered this type of catatonia too many times, in too many clients, to respond to it as a medical emergency. One day I could be wrong. But it is always the same: a blossoming of emotional charge in the conversation, a pause followed by a brief and stuttering dissociation, then a final look of boundless terror or horror. They fall, or slide back into the chair, and lose consciousness. Often there is a faint smell – acrid and somehow slightly sweet – that I’ve come to associate with the smell of fear.
I’ve seen them fall away in my clinical practice, in workshops and retreats, on the street – and once in an elevator. They depart to somewhere inaccessible, far inside, past the wreck of the world. Somewhere safe. Not all lose consciousness: some drift away, glassy and disconnected, inchoate. Others escape into meditations or rituals designed to erase the world. Many use substances to facilitate their exit. Almost universally they are survivors of early deprivation, neglect or abuse in the first few months of life. Most did not receive the consistent nurturing required for healthy infant development. They were left, or pushed away, or put in isolation. They pulled themselves far enough inside that only a razor can reach.
Joseph’s eyes shift beneath his lids. I wonder where he is, what story he’s playing out for himself. A vision of safety, no doubt, of simple comfort against the cold. No blood in that place, no child abandoned, no desolation. He will have gone to visit the spirits, those who do not judge, or to the savanna he saw as a boy. The sun will be kind there, hills will fall away to a river gorge, and he will be safe: from the war, and the single bullet that killed his friend. From the school where he learned not to speak the language of his birth. Safe from the uncle who visited in the evenings. Safe from his father.
I speak softly to Joseph, telling him what I see. I describe the color of the turning leaves on the cherry tree outside: a darkened pink, neither soft nor muted, that reminds me of salmon. Leaves shimmering in the autumn wind. Rough tree trunks wet with the afternoon’s rain. I try to draw Joseph back by way of the world’s beauty, its immediacy, the presence here of a force to counter his fugitive dreams. I try to make it safe for him to return.
I sense his anxiety. He shifts his head to one side, as if in pain, his eyes restless beneath his lids. I think of the statue he told me about: in the park, with eyes that snapped open and followed Joseph as he backed away. If I were a more traditional practitioner I’d arrange for him to be on medication. But he already is: hallucinogens, ritual drumming, dissociative meditations. These practices do not assuage his basic problem – that he is tearing at the membrane of reality, trying to find a way out – but I don’t object to them. They are what he has chosen, and his strategy has likely protected him from further trauma. His visions and dreams of other realities, his impressions of the manifest magic around him (imagined or real, who can say?), his tireless pilgrimage toward elsewhere: these have shielded him from the beatings and abandonment and shame of his early life. They allow him to escape, for a time, the horror of the war into which he was drafted. They redeem him from dissolution.
He is not yet done with the perceptual boost of Ecstasy, the disconnected bliss of his shamanic meditations. He has not yet found his place, nor his purpose, nor anything in this world that exerts sufficient gravity to draw him back from the spirit world. Neither love nor devotion nor the calling of the wide earth. He has found no sustaining magic here.
Yet he stirs, and opens his eyes, and gazes at the far wall. He checks his watch, adjusts his position. I ask him where he went. Away, he says. To the place of comfort, of the faint ghosts of hope and care. Joseph knows – as do many of those addicted to escape – that his refuge also imprisons him. He cannot inhabit both worlds. And he is trying to unify them, to build a delicate bridge across his contradictions. He still prefers the company of animals to that of people, a trait he shares with many of the addicted and traumatized who find their way to my practice. But he knows what he’s working on, what he must do: find his way, once and for all, into his own life.
We talk of his visits to the belugas at the aquarium. He stands before their arctic purity, feels as though he is communing with them, forgets his own travails amid their sleek and gamboling innocence. Joseph is one of several people I’ve worked with who enact this precise ritual. Sometimes I imagine scores of dissociated supplicants standing rapt in front of the beluga tank on Tuesday afternoons.
Yet where else is he to go? He has moved far from his family, has no intimate friends or children, possesses no inclination to forge new bonds in the community. He drifts. The belugas are his touchstones. But they are not enough. Nor are the expanses of wide ocean that have called so many wanderers. Nor are secluded mountains, air clear and thin, as though the veil between the worlds is more easily parted there. Nor are far-off dreams, or the past, or the inner life with its caves of wonders. Without roots in human intimacy, all such journeys are haunted, futile.
Joseph and I conclude our conversation, then he heads into the street. I watch him go – loping gait, red backpack, slender frame – until his silhouette merges with the blossoms of the cherry trees along the boulevard. I don’t know where he’s going. I don’t think he knows. I glimpse one final flash of red, then he blends into the darkening day, a fading phantom.
Erasure, withdrawal, retreat. Impulses rendered by the slow turns of trauma, neglect, grief, and loss in early life. Such primary wounds are stress fractures; they spread – by turns both subtle and violent – across the texture of childhood development, the way a vibration travels long distances in the mantle of the earth, arising later as an explosion, a quake, a catastrophe. Addiction – to substances, experiences, or habits – is usually a response to such fractures. Persistent, unresolved emotional impulses from childhood are carried forward, sometimes beneath the surface, until the transformations of adolescence coax them into renewed focus. Sometimes, without knowing what they are doing, teenagers discover a particular substance that answers their emotional questions. The substance heals the fracture, for ten or twenty minutes or for the duration of a halcyon evening.
The emotional wounds of early infancy, those that erode belonging and basic trust by way of neglect or abuse, are sometimes carried forward by children as a pervasive sense of alienation. They do not find the feeling of home. But they may find it in adolescence, when all the themes of childhood are revisited and pondered by the developing mind. They might seek a new type of family – in religion, sports, school, peers – or they might find it in hallucinogens, which offer a homecoming to the spirit world. Addictions to spirituality or to states of ecstasy (or to the drug Ecstasy) are distinct manifestations of the same dynamic, the same geography of the psyche: come away, come home.
The earliest imprint – of homecoming, of coasting in from the wide ocean of the womb to be met onshore by welcoming hands – is a fundamental requirement for human health. Children who do not find their roots in the world before and at birth are well-known to be more vulnerable to many kinds of later travail, including addiction. If the sense of belonging is not offered to us in our earliest development, if we cannot coax it from others by way of our craftiness or charm, we withdraw. This is an instinctual and emotional withdrawal, a retreat into the mind and heart and bones. We seek a way out, a path back to wherever it is we’ve come from. We look elsewhere for what we cannot find in the unwelcoming world: a home of the spirit. We go away. We stand upon the savanna, gazing toward the trackless lands. Or we gaze through the glass at the gliding shapes of ancient and gentle creatures.
Elsewhere is the consistent destination of the hallucinogen user, the spiritual seeker, the online wanderer. A realm in which wounds will be washed away in a communion of belonging. For those drawn away by such impulses, the appeals of this world – family and community and the many anchors of ordinary life – go unheeded. The wanderer departs and is gone.
Joseph and I look from third-floor windows to the small park below. Dealers and stragglers and collectors traverse the trodden but well-tended lawn. Listless men sit on the retaining wall and the steps of the war memorial. I can just make out, on the cenotaph’s west side, the inscribed words from the book of Lamentations:
Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?
Behold, and see if there be any sorrow
like unto my sorrow, Which is done unto me,
wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me
In the day of His fierce anger.
From above hath He sent fire into my bones,
and it prevaileth against them:
He hath spread a net for my feet,
he hath turned me back:
He hath made me desolate and faint all the day.
Beneath a broad and graceful elm, a thin man hunches over. His left arm is extended. We cannot see the needle from where we stand. An altercation breaks out near the water fountain, though the voices of the arguers are muted by the glass. A youth sits near the boulevard and plays a shabby guitar. Joseph reminds me that this park was once his home.
He did not seek destitution. Nor, when he had arrived there, could he fully grasp the depth of his fall. This is a familiar peculiarity of addiction: I have it under control, I can stop any time, it’s not so bad. Even when the sores fail to heal, and the shifting boundary between nightmare dreams and the nightmare day becomes indistinct. Even when scoring becomes more urgent than eating. Even when the habit turns you into a thief and a liar and you can’t look at your own reflection in the shop window. Still, everything’s cool. No problem.
Born early and unwanted into a home rife with addiction, then isolated and neglected, Joseph responded the way most kids would: he escaped. He stood at the world’s shore and waited, spinning other worlds in his mind. Later, as a teenager, he discovered that alcohol, marijuana, LSD, and Ecstasy facilitated his escape. The increasing contrast between his far journeys and the roughness of his daily life – bullying, isolation, insecurity – prompted more drug use, eventually to the exclusion of all else.
He drifted through his teens and early twenties, lived in an island commune, worked sporadically, joined the worlds of spiritual seekers and alien researchers and pure food aficionados. Every summer he went to a meditation retreat in the mountains, and each winter he picked up a persistent cough; a nagging thing, a reminder of his bodily imprisonment.
By the time he was finished – having graduated to peyote and mescaline and the shamanic drug ayahuasca– Joseph’s life was a mess. He was split into distinct halves: an ethereal core, tethered only to the imaginative world and to his spirituality; and a disjointed daily life of illness, isolation, and turmoil. He kept to himself, even when surrounded by others. People were too much trouble. They asked questions and made demands. He imagined swimming with the belugas into quiet, open water, becoming one of them, vanishing from the human world. Sometimes he cut himself and watched the blood pool on his cool skin. He drove fast, lost his license, kept driving until he skidded over a guardrail and rolled down an embankment. For months, he couldn’t get the sounds of the ambulance sirens out of his head. With pins in his ankle and Ecstasy in his blood, Joseph crashed another car. Like most people searching secretly for a permanent exit, he didn’t think of himself as suicidal. Not until the final attempt, when he swam out to sea, drunk and high and desperate, beseeching the spirits of the ocean, and was drowned.
The conviction that they are among the chosen, in the vanguard of human consciousness, drives many hallucinogen users and spiritual adepts. They are secret-keepers, savants, dreamers. They claim that distant country, that far-out tripping place, as their own. Imagine that unimaginable worlds exist. Or that this world is a kaleidoscope and we are blind. Imagine that the abandoned dreams, the forgotten magic, the elvish gardens of your childhood still thrive in hidden places. In worlds parallel to our own, in the vast stretches of the mind, in verdant groves and high peaks frequented by gods. All this, in a radiant cosmos that lies just beyond the range of our vision. But, as in all the old tales, the traveler must pay a fare to cross the sacred river. The payment may be many things – the illness that accompanies ayahuasca, the discomforts of fasting and vision questing, the anxiety of a bad trip on LSD, the arrogance and pernicious loneliness of the spiritual adept and the online gaming addict. But for the seeker, whose destination is always elsewhere, the fare is a trifling thing. For what it yields is a sidelong glimpse of the unfathomable: something beyond death, beyond the seeming smallness of daily life. Greatness lies hidden behind the veil. And the addict of elsewhere can partake of that greatness, share in the secrets of a select few. They are granted passage to join the grail quest and achieve illumination.
For those with a certain temperament, those always looking past the world and toward something ephemeral, hallucinogenic experiences offer irresistible magic. By comparison, paying the rent and dealing with the messiness of human relationships are intolerable. Hallucinogen users – and spiritual seekers, and supplicants of online gaming – gaze beyond; they try to escape from the drudgery of this hidebound world. For them, elsewhere is not a fantasy but a realm of distilled reality: clear, simple, powerful. Perhaps those other worlds do exist – the more one studies shamanism, or quantum physics, the more it looks that way – but nobody knows. Besides, most of us don’t think of ourselves as living in a universe animated by magic, and we can’t believe that the voyages of the hallucinogen user and spiritual adept are anything other than psychological journeys in the mind. Powerful dreams, waking dreams perhaps, but nothing more. This modern orientation makes it difficult to empathize with the hallucinogen user, the elsewhere addict, to understand the appeal of their hyperreality. Most of us prefer to have our feet planted firmly on the ground, whereas the elsewhere addict seeks tirelessly to fly away.
The search for other worlds of the imagination is a positive urge. After all, this world has not delivered magic, belonging, or wonder to elsewhere addicts. Where are they to find the sustaining spirit of their lives? But authentic spirituality, as some addicts eventually discover, is not found elsewhere. It is found, rather, in the body, in the grit of life, in the struggle and revelation of the earthly spirit. Authentic spirituality derives from the power of human relationships, from our embodiment, from our dedication to our own growth and, ultimately, from the love we share with others. All else – other worlds, the mysteries of perception, visions of extended reality – is scenery.
At sea, in the cold water and under the encroaching night, the lens of Joseph’s awareness opened as his body began to die. It seemed to him that he was lifted, within a column of spinning water, out beyond the shoal and the pale blue water. Dark water spread beneath him. A sudden brilliance flashed in the sky above, and it occurred to Joseph that this illumination was probably in his mind as it cramped and spasmed downward. But he let the speculation go and surrendered himself to the sensation that he was held between light and shadow, poised between the antipodes of his life.
And a Voice spoke to him out of the whirlwind. Years later, when Joseph recounts his drowning, I will join with him in laughter as he deliberately uses Job’s biblical phrase. But it’s an apt usage; after all, the quest of the hallucinogen user, the wanderer, the addict of the online and spiritual elsewhere, is essentially a search for the voice of God, for the indications of the spirit, for the soul’s homecoming. It is perhaps the oldest human story. And in each of its many versions, the Voice from the whirlwind is pithy. It speaks only of what is essential: choice. The Voice is soft. Tides and currents carry it, the wind cradles it. Joseph can hardly make out the words. Perhaps there are no words. Perhaps this is simply a strange and disturbing trip. But he does not think so. Choice: up or down, in or out, stay or go. Joseph looks down, to where it seems that the bedrock of the earth has opened to swallow the sea. Sheets of slick basalt abrade one another and weave together and crack the manifest earth into its bidden shape. He gazes upward, toward a cerulean sky that is not the hue of twilight he saw before entering the water. For a moment he is still. Then a door pivots open inside Joseph, an oar glides through the waters of his body, a window overlooks a swaying field of barley. He remembers, as a boy, rowing past rocky beaches in a battered dinghy, dragging his fingers in the water. He recalls the house above the point and the steep path that led up from the shore. Images and recollections drift through him: from his ramshackle life, from the deep currents that circulate in and out of the world, from his casks of dreams tumbled in the storm. Joseph falls. He catches a final glimpse of far-off blue in the sky, then is turned to see the roots of the earth rushing upward to meet him. He raises his hand instinctively: for protection, in supplication, as a final appeal. But he is not smashed upon the rocks. Nor does he drown. Instead, the skipper of a passing boat – out late, making his way in the lee of the storm – glimpses an arm raised briefly from the water, then nothing. The skipper swings the boat around, scans the turbulent water, sees Joseph sliding deeper, and reaches for him.
Far from the beach path, out where the tidal flats give way to slow and spiraling currents in the bay, a massive driftwood tree lies near the water’s edge. Remnants of roots twist up from the wet sand. From where we stand, perhaps a mile inshore, the tree looks like a breaching whale dragging a mess of harpoons and tangled lines. The combination of distance and perspective, the way in which the sea air renders shapes with a soft and merging illumination, creates the impression that the tree is floating. But it does not move. Eagles find reliable perches among the dead branches every year. Flocks of tiny birds, moving as one, cascade over the trunk and head toward open water.
Elizabeth and I walk past clumps of peat aggregated into hillocks and swirls upon the sand. Dozens of species of birds, some of which are pausing in migrations of thousands of miles, congregate on the beach. Gulls with gray wings or speckled plumage, sandpipers on spindly legs, hawks gliding along the path searching for prey. Today we’ve seen small green snakes skitter across the gravel, but I do not know if the hawks hunt them.
We talk about the kids, the guest suite we’re planning to build for Elizabeth’s aging parents, the herons we look for at a bend in the path. Sometimes we see them near the tumbledown pilings of the oyster hatchery, now long gone. A heron bursts from the undergrowth at our approach, glides low over the flats and the wide, tilled ground behind, squawks its pterodactyl call. We see more of them in small groups standing silently, their slate colors merging with the ocean and the mottled shore. They remain entirely, unaccountably still.
In the west, where a peninsula of ragged-top forest stands above sand cliffs, a grove of hardwood trees shows yellowing leaves against the backdrop of green. We glimpse fragments of amber and copper, and faded crimson from what is probably a stretch of vine maples.
We come here often. The light and the seasons shift around us, and new flotsam washes up after storms: foam fishing floats, cracked and sodden plywood, long ropes of kelp, plastic pails overturned in the sand. An entire swimming float once came ashore. It now lies firmly on the mud, hundreds of yards from the shoreline, clear fir planks ready for sunbathers who will never come.
Sandpipers flit and call at our approach. Ducks ignore us, as do gulls. We make our way along the shore, watching farmers flood cranberry fields for harvest. Sometimes the kids accompany us on our walks, often on their bikes. They pedal on the grassy verge, free of traffic and stop signs and blind corners. In my mind’s eye, I watch Elizabeth with our children: she moves toward Rowan to help her with a caught pant leg. Avery coasts his bike to a stop and waits. He looks at the outflow of the stream as it meanders along the flats, and I wonder what he is thinking.
I see them this way, stilled and moving forward. Their momentum carries me, draws me ever into their circle, and I am held there as the driftwood tree is held by love of the shore.
I have been salvaged by them from the emptiness of elsewhere. By the virtues of others more than by my own casting about. I see the faraway look in the eyes of the wanderers on the street: distant shores, high peaks, sandstone temples. I hear it in Joseph’s talk of the whales and their remote beauty. Perhaps I’ve been luckier. I have not slept in doorways, nor hidden from the wind in cold cities on nights when the office towers burn bright. But I have wandered, purposeless, beyond the rim of my known world. I have spent too much time looking for gates into promised worlds of solace and wonder. Too many shamanic rituals and esoteric meditations and journeys to monasteries in the East.
I told the old man on the Srinagar road that I avoided loneliness in my wandering by meeting interesting people. Yes, he agreed, one does meet people. But they are not your people.
In the oldest sea epic of Western literature, Odysseus the wanderer finally makes it home after twenty years of drifting. He arrives as a beggar, threadbare and hungry. His wife hardly recognizes him. His home is in disarray, his lands have been stolen, his son is in danger. But Odysseus prevails. Through conflict, struggle, and the delicate reforging of relationships, he finds his way back to the living.
Near the end of his return journey, Odysseus travels to the underworld and is told by ghosts that he must select a fine oar – symbol of the sea, of his wandering among the strange – and carry it inland, to where broad ships and salt air are only fragmentary tales, myths of elsewhere. There, the ghosts prophesy, a passerby will mistake the oar for a winnowing fan (a tool used to separate chaff from grain). At that juncture, Odysseus must plant his oar in the earth, make sacrifice to Poseidon – his enemy, the god who kept him from home for a generation – and thereby put all old scores to rest.
The hallucinogen user, the elsewhere addict, the spiritual and online wanderer must also take the symbols and experiences of the strange – of those other worlds, of reality spun bright and far – and rest them in the earth. In the soil of daily life. An old adage speaks of dividing wheat from chaff, of discovering the authentic and the essential. This is the role fulfilled by Odysseus’s transformed oar. In exchanging absence for presence, the oar becomes a means of grounding and nourishment rather than an instrument of departure, of scurvy.
Joseph came back, like so many others who have returned from overdose, spiritual burnout, collapse. Out beyond that farthest shore, where he could so easily have gone under, he made a final appeal to claim his life. He was found by people who took him in and gave him, after a long and fruitless search, the beginnings of the homecoming he sought. He spent time in addictions treatment, lived with a group of men in recovery, found work doing outreach with the homeless. Eventually he made his way back to school, and to a cobbled-together career. But lasting relationships continue to be a struggle, and Joseph is still called, at times, by the spirits of elsewhere.
He loves to row, as do many of the elsewhere addicts I’ve known. Perhaps he needs to row, out from the shore and toward that horizon beyond which bright mysteries might be met. But his path, which is no longer outward but now homeward, beckons him to return, to use the wonder of his journeys to deepen relationships: with himself, with friends and loved ones, with this ramshackle world and its beautiful contradictions. In traditional societies where hallucinogens are used by shamans, the journey to the spirit world is undertaken in aid of the community – to help grow crops, to make rain, to heal the sick – and not for personal gain or spiritual entertainment. The shaman is tethered to those who depend upon him. When he returns from his visions, he shares his experience with his peers. He places his oar in the earth and uses it to winnow a meaning for them all.
The opportunity, perhaps also the obligation, for recovering elsewhere addicts involves applying their imaginative, esoteric skills to the needs of this world. Most make excellent storytellers, artists, teachers, scholars. They excel at expanding the mind. Many are adept as healers. Their ongoing challenge – because early imprinting in childhood and proclivities of temperament do not vanish – is to keep the tether, preserve the bond between themselves and others, use their imaginative capacity to settle the oar ever farther into the earth.
Two basic healing tasks lie before the recovering hallucinogen user or addict of elsewhere. The first is to find the ecstatic in daily life: in grounded meditations, in the garden, in the tasks of parenting and intimacy and stewardship. It doesn’t matter much what they choose, so long as it connects them to people. Sure, people are awkward and troublesome, but traveling with them is the only path to authentic fulfillment. The second healing task for elsewhere addicts is to discover a means of sharing their imaginative and spiritual capacities, of delivering their visions to the community fireside. They don’t need drugs or trances to do this: they already know how to row. They came into the world that way, rowing for the shore, not quite finding it, heading back out again.
Sometimes Joseph and I speak about him finding the shore. It’s as though people wave to him from there, calling him in. They’ve been calling for a long time. They’ve set watch fires, and have made a clear channel to protect his craft from the shoals. A child writes his name in the sand. All that is required of him is that he turn the dinghy, face the horizon of elsewhere, and row shoreward.
Not everyone makes it back. In The Odyssey, long before Odysseus finds his way home, he and his stalwart crew are forewarned that they will pass the island of the Sirens. The singing of those celestial voices will cause all who listen to be overcome with longing and be forever lost. Circe the witch tells Odysseus that he must insert wax into the ears of his crew to protect them from this enchantment. And she permits him to be bound to the mast, so that he might hear that siren call but be prevented from casting himself upon the shore.
The wind stalls as Odysseus and his crew approach the island. The sea grows calm. The men stow the sails in silence and take up great oars, churning the water into foam as they draw upon the blades. Then, on the deck, assisted by the sun’s warmth, Odysseus kneads small lumps of wax and places them in the ears of his crew. They lash him to the mast as the ship rounds the point upon which the Sirens stand surrounded by the bones of the dead.
The Sirens sing to Odysseus: of longing, of a home lost to the wanderer, of glory and of peace. Their song uncoils over the corpses on shore, across the water, and lays Odysseus bare to enchantment. And he is overcome. Shouting, he pleads for his companions to free him. The ropes chafe him as he strains upon the mast. But the crew do not release him, nor do they join him. They are deaf to the siren song, and when they see Odysseus struggling in his bonds, two of the crew leave their oars to tighten the ropes.
The ship sails past the green headland with its macabre decorations. The Sirens sing on, but their voices dwindle with the distance, and the last Odysseus hears of them is this:
No life on earth can be hid from our dreaming.
The crew row onward, until the island falls beneath the horizon, until Odysseus no longer calls out for release. Finally, they rest upon their oars, remove the wax from their ears, and free their captain.
Odysseus, the greatest hero and wanderer (as the old myths tell), a man renowned already in legend while he still lived, was powerless in the face of the Sirens’ call. He would have surrendered his life, and those of his crew, to the haunting song. It’s an impulse typical not only of hallucinogen users, spiritual seekers, and addicts of the online elsewhere, but of human nature itself: to let go and fall into enchantment. Sometimes the bonds break, the wax fails, the wanderer is lost. At the addictions clinics, we lose clients every season. At one of the clinics the counselors attend an average of two funerals each week.
But when I work with counselors who support people living on the street, I frequently hear about clients who – without treatment or professional intervention – simply stop using substances. I’m familiar with such stories from my own practice. One of my clients, a man who is now an addictions counselor, told me that he woke early one morning, thirsty for heroin, and found that he had misplaced his watch. He turned on the television to check the time on the ticker of the local news station. But the ticker showed the date beside the time, and he realized – suddenly, with a great shock – that four years had gone by since he last knew what year it was. At that moment, when he reached behind the veil of the substance and saw his life disappearing like the wake behind a boat, he stopped using.
Sometimes people simply turn a corner, and there is no way to predict or facilitate this. It’s something we talk about at the clinics: the mystery of it, of how suddenly a shift happens inside, as though a part of the self awakens after a long and inconvenient sleep. As though the wanderer finally returns home. Recovery strategies do not seem to play much of a role in this process, nor do emotional pressures and the exigencies of daily life. Nothing works but readiness, and readiness is like the sunshine that melts the wax for kneading: it comes, or it does not.
The autumn storm has the flavor of duende, a wild turbulence of rain and hoary wind and cedar boughs torn and tumbling in the air. A gull rides downwind, moving at twenty knots or more, its neck feathers ruffled. Most of the birds are hunkered down in shallow dells, or in nests near the stream, or in barns among the fields. Offshore, the shallow sea is white with foam. Farther out, where the strait deepens, the swells are perhaps a dozen feet high. Part of me wishes I was out there, riding a windsurfing board or a sailing dinghy, joining the intensity and vitality of it. Such sports can indeed be hallucinogenic and spiritually fulfilling, every bit as good as ayahuasca and much better than eighteen hours of online gaming. Such experiences are capable of distilling vibrancy from the background noise and turbulence of daily life. They lead away from the quotidian and toward the experience of wonder. During storms, one might glimpse clearly the spirits of the sea.
But I consider my experience with such excursions: the danger, the cold, the scars on my leg and head and hands from reckless journeys at sea. I hear that call, the dreaming of the siren song, but I will not follow it today. Too often have I followed it, toward harm to myself and others. Sometimes a taste of death permeates the ecstatic. Today I will walk on the shore with my wife. We will lean into each other in the face of the wind. The crescent bay to the southeast is a blur of cobalt cliffs and gray clouds shredding. A bald eagle perches on a swaying tree nearby, close enough that we can see the taut tendons holding its talons to the wood. The bird gazes indifferently upon us as we pass.
We sidestep hummocks of wind-borne kelp blown onto the path by the storm. Wet shards of the stuff are scattered among the blue-tinged stones, now dark with rain, that demarcate the path. A trickle of muddy water meanders across the gravel, snakes down the hill with its slick and unruly vegetation, and empties into the canal dug in the lee of the dike by farmers a century ago. I follow the descending runoff with my eye: toward the bracken-filled canal, into the sluggish stream that empties the waters into the bay. On the far side of the stream, a field of ripened and now moldering pumpkins – mud-spattered, thick roots entangling – spreads toward the old airfield.
And there they are: the crows of my mornings. Slicing merrily with their beaks into pumpkins, fashioning impromptu jack-o’-lanterns. It is not the shore to which they have been traveling but the fields, bountiful with the cast-off delicacies of the turning seasons. Black wings flutter. The crows gorge, scrabble, take flight for brief spells in the blustering wind. Theirs is a celebration of homecoming, of defiance of the earth’s parceling. They possess the land as it possesses them. Along the old road and in the field of feasting, their clan has found its own belonging, each to each.