Stimulants and the Addictions of Departure
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.
I wonder where the bullet will come from: a passing car, or a man in the shelter of the trees, or a sidewalk pedestrian who ambles across the lawn and takes aim through the front window. Perhaps there will be a spray of bullets, or a trio of thugs with baseball bats. Perhaps the fear itself will be sufficient, and no one will come.
I should be listening instead of entertaining imaginary catastrophes. He’s talking about night sweats, his family in the east, the way the guards at the detention center used a fire hose to quell a fight in the cafeteria. He remembers being punched into a corner by the water, rolled by it onto the floor, made sodden and vulnerable and furious. He twitches, frets, and fidgets. It grows dark outside. I wonder why I did not draw the curtains before he arrived.
He does not seem to notice my anxiety, this man who shot his own brother. He speaks anxiously, in the manner of someone unaccustomed to exploring his inner life. He has lived on the surface of things, skating and drifting, allowing his bewilderment and anger to fester. His voice is tight, his speech is fast. He runs words together in small bursts, each one punctuated by a quick sniff and a moment of silence. Perhaps the sniffing is an artifact of his habit, or an allergy to the grasses out front. I don’t know. I don’t know whether he knows, or is aware of what he’s doing. He has been running too long, always looking for the next refuge, wearing himself thin.
He has come as far as he can, to the west coast with its great sea of promises. But his pursuers have found him even here. They have beaten him, and imprisoned him naked in a small cage, and tossed hypodermic needles into him like darts into a dartboard. If they find him again they will kill him. Still he perseveres, seduced by the rush and its illusions of empowerment.
He prattles on, unaware of my hypervigilance, of my gaze shifting too frequently toward the street. I am aware that the risk to me is paltry. They are not likely to come for him here. It will happen on a crowded street, probably, with a brief and scuffling struggle. Or perhaps he will be able to cut yet another new deal. He’s working on it. And I hope he succeeds in remaining alive. But I resent being put at risk by him – however small the immediate danger might be. I don’t like his speediness, either, his impulsive lurching speech and the unconscious manner in which he bounces his right leg rhythmically. He’s impulsive and reckless. He forgets, too easily, his responsibilities to his own dignity and frailty. He wears too much black. He’s flippant, too convinced of his own specialness to play by anyone else’s rules. And look where this has delivered him: into the habits of a fugitive, a runner without purpose, a hyena jeering at lions.
I don’t like him. He’s too much like me.
No one comes, of course. The day wears down to a sliver of light in the west. Trench describes his recent conversation with his father: about money, about the accumulated debt of Trench’s habit and the family heirlooms he sold for cash. Outside, rain begins to fall. I hear the rattle of drops on the eaves above, then a muted pause, then a fresh smattering. It’s a good thing Trench brought his coat today, like every day. It hangs on the back of the door, shapeless and vast. It reminds me of a black shroud, long enough that I could wind it about me and be concealed head to toe. Trench is a massive man, close to seven feet tall. And he is not lanky, as many tall men are, but heavyset. He often moves gingerly, as though trying to be smaller, to disappear. But Trench will almost always be the largest man in any room, the tallest as well as the heaviest, the one to whom unwelcome attention will inevitably be drawn. I imagine him as a child, as the consistent target of playground challenges. But he did not become a bully, not then and not now. Instead he has become jaundiced with bitterness.
He wonders why his family cannot accept that he has changed, why they refuse to see that this time is different. Their resistance rankles him. He wants to be given a chance. But his rage – toward his family, toward his associates in the criminal world, toward the government and its indifferent demands upon him – is undiminished. He is incandescent with anger. It wafts from him in great waves of heat and fury, and I cannot imagine that anyone in his family is convinced of his claimed equanimity. He makes his case for progress with a voice that is tight and hard and often too loud. He shifts topics rapidly, forever finding new ways to stoke the unquenchable fire. Injustice, indignity, iniquity.
All his stories are the same: someone has wronged him, he is blameless and misunderstood, the other has failed to perceive his uniqueness. Everyone else is an asshole; he alone comprehends the reality of a given situation and is surrounded by idiots.
Trench’s hefty medical and psychological file – close to a foot thick, spanning three decades of childhood abuse, juvenile detention, adult incarceration – confirms that his intelligence is far above average. He qualifies unequivocally as a genius. How can he be so insufferably unaware of himself? He refuses to take a shred of responsibility for the tangled mess of his life. He simply keeps going, hoping to outstep the chaos, blindly running onward.
What if he were to slow down? Would he discover that he has made profound mistakes, that he has willfully squandered his talents and his opportunities? Would he perceive that he has abused the greatest gifts of his life, has consistently turned from intimacy toward loneliness, has bartered fulfillment for cynicism? Would the shock of seeing his life stripped of its pretensions cause him to slide into black and overwhelming disappointment? And by collapsing into himself, might he fall away from his life? I think he might. Perhaps rage alone keeps him alive.
Like many stimulant users – crackheads playing games with loaded guns, speed freaks buying ADHD meds from kids at the playground, gamers pushing through nights and days of chaotic computer mayhem – Trench is a boiler with the valves closed. He builds up steam with each conversation, every glancing altercation on the street. Passengers on the bus fail to give sufficient room in the aisle; an acquaintance slights him with a look; the garbage collection at his building is late – or early, or noisy. The details do not matter. The situations fuel his indignation, keep him going, give him the sense that he is in control yet unaccountably victimized. When he is questioned, or challenged, or asked to stay with a single conversational topic for more than a few minutes, he bolts in one of two ways: he shuts down, withdrawn and sullen; or he explodes. The explosions are spectacular: on his feet, spitting in bursts of verbal fury, voice thin and bellowing, blood in his cheeks and forehead, fear and pain in his eyes.
I look outside as a car passes. Its wheels make a soft and sighing sound on the wet street. The car slows, perhaps checking for an address, then moves on. Trench doesn’t notice. He’s wrapped up in the telling of another tale, something about an exchange of abusive text messages. I want to shut him up, to ask him if he’s ready to be caught by the enforcers. Anything to make him stop his blathering. I have no trouble with the dreaminess of opioid users, with the floating and disconnected consciousness of elsewhere addicts. But this rage, this willful sputtering, useless subterfuge, wasted fuming: it’s infuriating.
It would be much simpler, easier, convenient, to make a final claim of his insufficiency. After all, he’s the one with the drug problem, the long history of abuse and abusiveness, the apparent inability to protect himself from his own mischief. But my reaction says more about me than it does about him. Perhaps I don’t wish to acknowledge our fraternity, the ways in which he mirrors my own nature. Always the next thing, the new and pressing thing. The misdirected sensitivity, easy cynicism, constant movement. Trench is who I might have become: had I not found the mentors and guides of my adolescence; had I not been welcomed into the lives of my wife and her family. Despite my resistance, my intransigence, my foolishness, I have been held fast, by friends and loved ones, at every juncture of my life. I’ve been lucky.
But Trench is alone. His family treats him as dead weight, a hassle. He has no friends, no career. His health is poor. On the street, pedestrians are intimidated by his size. They shuffle aside, avert their eyes, watch him warily in grocery lineups. He inhabits a tiny apartment on a shabby street, comes and goes furtively, watches television for twelve or sixteen hours at a stretch. He keeps the curtains drawn. He eats. He gets high. And slowly, over many years of hopefulness and disappointment, he has worn himself away. Rage is all that’s left now. It has kept him going, has been his true companion, has been a whispering lover to him when all others have departed.
This aloneness has crushed him, as it would have crushed me. I listen to him rail against the mandarins at the welfare office – they have denied, again, his disability claim for attention deficit problems – and I slide my consciousness beneath his words. I focus my attention, for the first time in our session today, on Trench’s tone, his posture twisted in the chair, the quaver behind his bluster. I open myself to his reality. And I experience a kind of horror. For though he has become a wraith, his spirit is whole and undiminished. He is trapped inside the carapace of his suffering, writhes within it, has become so shrouded that even his most plaintive supplications are answered with silence. He is suffocating inside himself, dying slowly but not gently. His life has been stolen from him.
I could try, at least, to be a decent witness for him. For he and I are not the same. I have been blessed – not by way of my own virtue but through the generosity of others – and I have not been left at the roadside. I have been carried aloft through the mess and dreck. Trench has been discarded, cast off, abandoned. Yet he has not surrendered. Instead he burns, he is radiant with destruction.
Acting as a witness is the best and most I can do, for Trench and for all the others. So I listen, with greater candor and presence than I have done, to the ongoing tale of his pitched battle, his war, his indomitable siege, against a distrait and negligent world. Rain falls outside. Lights are coming on in storefronts along the street. The air will be chill this evening. I imagine Trench heading home on the bus, his hand wiping the condensation from the window, rubbing clear a small swath of glass through which he will gaze at the passing traffic. The lights will be mottled by moisture, the sounds muted. He will lean forward, he will turn his head for a wider view. His posture will be that of a small child. He will travel within this window, it will be his portal and his ship. He will journey unnoticed into the night, burning and quiet and searching.
In the yard, a green copper bell sounds three short rings in the wind. The storm moves up the canyon, shaking the trees. Sounds of ruffling branches rise and fall in the distance. Closer at hand, the corner of the house hums as the wind rushes around it and down the street. The bell sounds again. A rustling, trundling murmur filters down from upstairs. I hear a door creak open, the swish of fabric glancing across a corner in the hall, and the sounds of a child’s footsteps coming down the stairs. They slow with each descending step. He’s listening for me, wanting to make sure he can find me among the dawn shadows of the main floor. He steps down from the carpeted stairs to the tile of the landing. I can’t see him yet, though I hear him fold his blanket around himself as he looks out the stained glass window of the front door. I wait, and listen. Water drips from high eaves at the side of the house onto garden beds tangled with the rot of early winter.
Far down the canyon, a coyote barks. Another yelps in response, then a whole chorus of their voices rises in the still air. They’re on their way home after a night’s hunting. I wonder what stories they’re telling each other, what songs of praise or lament they’re singing. The pack moves off, down the ravine and along the streambed toward the flat plain of the delta below. I listen to their high-pitched exuberance, the way their many voices (ten, twenty?) mingle in the dark. They yelp ever louder as they move off, quickening and strengthening the rhythms of their calls and responses. They hunt in this way, cornering their prey, disorienting it with sound. But I’m not sure what they are doing this morning, hunting or cajoling or bickering. For a moment I lose the thread of single voices and they all blend together into one marvelous, eerie sound of primordial vitality. Then, without any warning, as though responding to a signal I can’t hear, they all go silent.
Avery turns from his view of the diminishing night – the longest night of the year, almost – and enters the kitchen to find me at the table. He ambles over, sleepy-eyed, and curls beside me on the bench. He tells me the wind woke him. I reach round with my right arm and gather him close. He rests his head against the curve of my ribs. We sit together, listening to the storm, to the huffing of the canyon’s throat.
Stillness and quiet surrounded by wind and the sounds of early morning: crows squawking overhead, a black-capped chickadee sounding its two-note call, the rumble of a truck on the highway at the foot of the hill. I remember the signature call of the chickadee from when I was a boy: a simple, two- or three-note announcement of morning, heard in my room with the window that opened beside the chimney. Once, during a winter storm, the top of the chimney collapsed. Bricks tumbled onto the roof, slid over the eaves, and fell into the garden.
The careless simplicity of the chickadee’s call belies its true function. Secreted inside the notes is a complete language for identifying individual birds, broadcasting flock membership, and warning of predators. These messages, which we do not hear, are carried by slim notes in the air, across canopies of forests and the wet grasses of backyards, above fallen bricks spattered with mud, from bird to graceful bird.
Rain washes the windows. Small, timbrel sounds on the glass. We hear the furnace start with a low and distant rumble, we watch the evergreens shudder in the wind, we drink milk and tea together. We talk about Avery’s school, and the holidays, and our plans to visit his grandparents in a town a few hours away. He voices earnest queries about how we know which roads to follow, how far it is, how quickly he would become lost on those many paths. He talks of his friends in grade two, of the rituals of recess, of his worry for a threadbare crow he saw yesterday hobbling on the sidewalk. So many careful, thoughtful, delicate considerations. I think of Rowan upstairs, only three years older, still sleeping. Her inner life is suffused with imagination, with a deep and developing strength, with ideas and intrigues and pervasive curiosity. Like Avery, she is resilient yet also fragile, treading her way through the intricacies of school cliques and family involvements and her growing awareness of the world’s messiness.
The careful guidance of my children through their development is the central task of my life. I frequently fail to match my ideal conception of how this task is to be accomplished. I get lazy, or distracted, or inattentive. If it wasn’t for Elizabeth’s exemplary parenting, our family life would be a shambles. She moves us forward; she is the circle that holds our possibilities.
During a lull in the storm, when wet and shivering boughs of firs and cedars swing in languid rhythms, Avery asks about the wind: where it begins, how it grows in strength, how far it travels. I try to answer these questions and those that follow: about nature, our family, the past with its many complications. We talk about whatever comes into his mind – his grandparents, our cats, the meaning of the word irony – as around us the storm swells and ebbs. And as I listen to his ruminations, as I watch him digest my answers to his thoughts – with a slight turning of his head, a shift of his gaze to the right, a brief pause – I am reminded of the richness of the inner life of a child. More diverse and complex than the inner life of many adults, to be sure, who long ago surrendered their deepest questions, letting them go under pressure from the mundane. Adults know how to navigate traffic, how to inspect bread for mold, how to accomplish the countless tasks required by employment and family and other obligations. And adults typically deem the lives of children simple by comparison. But most adults have accepted a worldview they developed long ago, have stopped wondering how things work, no longer ask why life takes the forms that it does, or how the heart grows into the space offered to it.
On the surface, the lives of children are more straightforward than those of adults: attend school, play, sleep. And the concerns of children tend to be more immediate: are we there yet, what’s for breakfast, where’s my blanket? Adults respond to this immediacy, to its direct simplicity, not suspecting that beneath the flow of rapidly changing thoughts and impressions lies a mind grappling with the universe.
The impulse to question, to discuss, to harangue parents with endless queries, begins for many kids around age two. Those who will become loquacious and garrulous as adults often begin talking in earnest at this age. They learn to debate, argue, hold forth on a variety of subjects in which the passion of their delivery far exceeds their knowledge. They come to understand the power of the voice.
Among the addicted, stimulant users are the most active talkers. As a group, they are more likely to speak quickly, with intensity, with passionate but questionable logic. A seasoned addictions counselor will identify a stimulant user by quality of voice and speech alone. And it is not a coincidence that many stimulant users experienced trauma or neglect (or abandonment, or abuse, or illness, or confusion, or familial conflict) around age two, when speech and voice become primary social tools. They learned to rely, in difficult circumstances, on the voice as an instrument of safety, of containment, as a means of pressing the world into a more palatable shape. When they had no adult resources, no authentic power to rescue themselves from predicaments and calamities, they learned to talk their way out.
Vocal jousting is the preferred means of interaction for stimulant addicts of all stripes: coke fiends, extreme sports junkies, meth-heads, video game jockeys. They’re voluble, jangling with disputes and arguments. They have learned to seal themselves from the world by plastering it with words. They have not known conversation as intimacy.
Avery wants to know if the wind is strong enough that a windsurfer would fly. He imagines the sailor rising on currents of air and soaring ever farther into space. This image reminds him of the David Bowie song about Major Tom. Avery sings fragments of the song softly, lifts his arms as though he were holding a sail, and laughs as he imagines the sailor rising into the sky.
Then he pauses, and asks me about Major Tom’s departure from the human world. Is his spaceship broken? Is he becoming something or someone else? Is he dying? I understand that Avery is not asking about the song. His questions run deeper, they seek the root of all things. And I struggle to answer him, this chickadee who asks the unanswerable.
Later in the day I talk with Trench about popular culture – more accurately, Trench holds forth on prog rock music, the films of Stanley Kubrick, and the political implications of cinematography in the seventies. As we meander through these topics, the song about Major Tom (“Space Oddity” is the actual title) surfaces. Trench has been working his way back, finding the shreds of his inner life, picking his way through the ideas and images that hold meaning for him. His capacity for this type of exploration is hindered by his resistance, his anger, the way he talks around rather than through. His knowledge of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is exhaustive, yet Trench has not considered why he identifies with a soldier in the film who shoots his commanding officer. Trench has never learned that his world is a map of his inner life.
We talk about Trench’s appreciation of “Space Oddity,” the origins of the song’s theme, and its antecedents in films and books. I mention David Bowie’s cocaine addiction during the seventies. Trench asks whether I’ve listened to the music he taped for me, whether I’m familiar with the guitarist Robert Johnson, whether I think Trench’s plan to grow marijuana is a prudent career choice. As with most stimulant users, a few minutes is the most he will spend on a given topic – especially if he feels the focus spiral inward, toward his own feelings, toward responsibility and change. He shifts, he bounces to new and polished topics of conversation: acoustics, the health care system, the perils of a park in his neighborhood. As any counselor would do, I try to bring him back to himself. I encourage him to make connections between his observations and his emotions, I try to make our conversations slow enough that he settles into himself. But he will not be led, nor cajoled, nor drawn into my diplomacy. He is wild, running in the storm, a coyote calling from far down the ravine.
Trench’s withdrawal, his steadfast refusal to enter the community of recovering addicts, is common among users of cocaine and other stimulants. They perceive themselves to be distinct from other addicts. They deem their temperaments to be special, their attitudes more savvy, their predicaments less dire. Hidden in the fortress of their unique and unacknowledged genius, they ruminate and grow thin, nursing their mercurial intensity, collecting grievances. Their authentic terror festers. If pressed – to stop using, to be more accountable, to follow through on promises of growth and change – they ratchet their intensity into fury, mount a brief and spirited verbal attack, and walk out.
Unlike opioid users, who slide and disappear into collapse and surrender, stimulant users break away from confrontation by shouting it down. They slam doors and punch walls and stand too close, jabbing as though a conversation were a joust. Swaggering and jittery and hypervigilant, stimulant users are the most energetic of all addicts. I appreciate this about them, I identify with their constant movement and curiosity, I understand their impulse to keep moving. It’s what I learned to do when I was a child.
But I am less fond of their inevitable crashes and chaos. The defiant energy of stimulant users is not sufficient – how could it be? – to remake the world. Flailing, they burn out, smothered by struggle, colliding with the fatigue and despair that underlie their bluster, sliding into depression and withdrawal. Sometimes they become suicidal, and are opened by their despair to the entreaties of others – haltingly, briefly, perhaps for a few minutes. Without these openings, these tiny junctures within the impossibly tangled thread, and without someone to enter the opening, many stimulant users remain hostages in their own war, astronauts plunging ever outward toward the void.
One night Trench leaves a dozen messages on my voice mail: rambling and inchoate tirades against several people (though not me, at least not yet), appeals for help, requests for appointment changes, apologies for the long messages. It takes me close to an hour to listen to them all. Like many stimulant users, Trench often employs the telephone as a weapon, a javelin of thought.
When I meet with him the next morning he wants to discuss the merits of various methods of suicide: overdose, jumping from a bridge, walking in front of a bus hurtling down the inside lane. He favors the last approach. It possesses the correct mixture of defiance and shock and visibility. He will not go gently, fading off, skulking into death. No, he will grapple with something massive, and he will make it stop, take notice, deal with the mess and the blood and the crushing of his bones.
He plans for documents to be found on his body: items incriminating his associates in the anarchic world of thugs, excerpts from his long correspondence with the government, evidence of the poor treatment he has received from various agencies. He wants to make a statement, become a martyr. He wants someone to pay for his haunted childhood, his purposeless drifting, his descent into criminality and drug addiction. He’s back on the electrified rail of his fury. I recognize that as long as he is fueled by outrage he is safe from his fantasies of death.
His frustration, his sense of injustice, his despair again overlaid with anger: these are too much for him to contain. They spill forth from him, radiating outward with great heat but little light, seizing him, carrying him beyond his own horizon.
Is his spaceship broken? Is he becoming something or someone else? Is he dying?
The shank of wood is dry, and splintered at its base, and corrugated with rough grain where I have split it with an ax from the fallen log. A layer of bark, silvered and mottled, lies along one edge. A blush of darker color in the wood, speckled with a webbing of thin black lines, indicates where fungus entered the trunk after the tree fell. I press upon these marks, searching for soft and punky wood, but I find the structure still solid. Birch is a strong wood. It resists destruction. Perhaps the fungal areas will be stripped off as I turn the wood on the lathe. Or perhaps they persist to the core, and will become scalloped shapes in the finished bowl. I’m ambivalent about which outcome to hope for. Fungal decorations, called spalting by woodworkers, often yield remarkable patterns of beauty and intensity. Yet the process of revealing such patterns, the slicing and scraping and sanding, sometimes releases fungal spores into the air. These can find their way into human lungs and are capable of causing serious illness. I try not to worry about this.
I secure the wood in the lathe. An adjustable chuck holds it at one end, while a spur of sharpened metal digs in at the other. Mounted so, the piece looks like an ordinary stick of firewood grasped by complicated bits of machinery at either end. Beneath the lathe, hillocks of chips and shavings and wood dust have accumulated from the three bowls I’ve previously turned from the same tree, the one felled by the storm four years ago. It crashed to the forest floor, lay there for a short stretch of seasons, then was sawn into rounds and riven into blanks for turning.
Slowly, by hand, feeling for slack in the mounting, looking for cracks in the wood, I turn the piece on the lathe. Even now, oxidized and smeared with dirt, the surface grain is the color of pure honey. Its hues will deepen and grow marbled, and will resolve the architecture of the wood with great clarity as I lay bare, with sharp steel heated by friction, the shape of a fluted bowl with tattered bark upon its rim. At least, this is my vision of the finished piece. But the wood may possess its own imperatives. It may hide terminal cracks, knots, twists, or variances in density. Any of these might draw my hands to fashion a different shape than the one I imagine, or cause the developing bowl to fracture. One precise method exists for discovering what will happen.
I pull down my face shield, flip the power switch on the lathe, and start the motor humming. The piece turns, flashing bark and grain. I nudge the speed dial, ratcheting the revolutions upward. Then I select a cutting tool, a turning gouge with a rounded profile, and lay it against the tool rest near the spinning wood. The flat shoulder of the tool rest is a fulcrum that stabilizes the gouge, enables a slow and cautious approach to the wood, facilitates pressing and sculpting. I edge the tool forward, sliding it across the open space between the tool rest and the wood. This is the most difficult moment of the project: before the initial cut, when I do not yet know exactly where the tool will catch the wood, when the impact might jolt the piece from the lathe, or hammer the gouge backward and toward me. Before I traverse the final space between the wood and the tool, I glance upward to the totem figure that hangs above my workbench. I carved it from a fishing float when I was a child, gifted it to my grandmother, with whom I lived during several of my difficult teenage years, and inherited it back from her when she died. Were it not for her care, her commitment to a lost boy, I might well have followed the paths of Trench and all the other stimulant users: restless, angry, fugitive. In many ways I did follow such paths but later, as I struggled through my early adulthood. But eventually I was carried home – because I knew what it felt like, what I was looking for. My grandmother offered me this gift, my wife opened me to it, my children welded me to it. I found my center, finally. But no one offered such gifts to Trench. And now, perhaps, he has gone too far to accept them.
Despite my anxiety, the beginning goes well: the gouge slices into the wood’s irregular orbit and begins to pare it down. Long shavings spiral out from the tool’s edge. I listen: to the whir of the lathe motor, to the ribbons of shorn wood hissing, to the thunk of a dense knot as it slides around to meet the steel with every rotation. Wood turning is an act of tuning, of finding cadences and harmonies by which the wood ceases its restless vibration and settles into resonance. Perhaps more than my eyes, my ears tell me if the cut is too shallow, if I’m in danger of digging too deep into the wood, if I should ease up along the shoulder of the emerging bowl. This music guides me.
The piece submits to being shaped. Its vibrations settle down into a regular, thrumming rhythm; a ticking, as some woodworkers describe it. Slowly, as thousands of shavings are drawn from the wood and into the air, the bowl’s external contours become balanced around a still and revolving center. This center, which runs along the axis between the two mounting points of the lathe, does not move or vibrate. It is a fixed line, unremarkable and unchangeable. It governs the life and spirit of the work.
I shape the bowl’s outer rim, wide shoulder, and slender base. I listen for the sounds of smooth and singular rotation, of the center undisturbed by vibration or chatter. I watch the spalted patterns emerge. I think of the coyote I saw on the ridge above the grove where this wood once grew.
When the outer surface is done, when the grain is sheared and shimmering and the contour closely matches my vision of the work, I flip the power switch, remove the bowl from its mounting, and turn it around. I secure it again, placing its newly turned base in the chuck, backing off the spur of metal that had secured the other end, and allowing the solid interior to float free. I adjust the tool rest so that it faces the bowl’s core. Then I start again, hollowing out the wood, making spiral cuts around the center, easing deeper.
As I work, I notice the external circumference of the bowl. It is so smooth that at a quick glance it appears to be still, not spinning or moving at all. I place a finger on the outer shoulder – gently, tentatively, recognizing that this is probably not prudent: bare skin against newly shorn wood whirling at a thousand revolutions per minute. But the pad of my finger is not abraded or punctured with slivers. The birch spins beneath it. The contact is gentle, the surface fully centered.
I continue excavating, forming the inner wall in stages, matching its contours to the outer shape. I try to make the wall as slender as I can, perhaps the thickness of a dozen sheets of paper. I work slowly, increasingly aware of the risk of catching the gouge and puncturing the wall. But the rotations remain smooth, the bowl becomes lighter, translucent almost.
Then the sound begins: a low and persistent hum, deepened and made more insistent as I reach with the tool all the way down to make the shallow contour of the base. I draw the steel along the inner wall, climb back up, steal tiny shavings. The sound rises in pitch and volume. The bowl has begun to behave like a musical instrument, resonating as it meets the tool, acting like the skin of a drum or the reed of a woodwind. It’s a lovely sound: earthy, constant. It reminds me of strong wind rushing through a narrow canyon, of the storm the other day, of the pressing questions of children.
The wall is thin enough now that light from the window passes through, scatters among the patterns of grain, and glows on the inner surface. The light is of an amber cast, like sunrise in late summer. I must stop soon, or I might winnow the wall beyond its strength. But I know that this wood is hardy: another turned bowl from this same tree is similarly thin, and several times I have knocked it from the windowsill beside my desk. The bowl has fallen four feet to the hardwood floor, bounced, spun around in the air, bounced a few more times, then come to rest without damage.
I choose a flat scraping tool, and with gentle strokes I narrow the wall by another hundredth of an inch. The translucency increases, the pitch of the bowl’s humming rises slightly, and I withdraw the tool. I inspect the top rim, where beneath a ragged patch of bark the inner surface is still marginally rough. I could clean this up later, with sandpaper, but I have the scraper in my hand and the lathe is running and I want to finish this stage of the project so that I can flood the surface with finishing oil and coax the warmest beauty from the wood. I move the scraper along the tool rest and carefully, slowly nudge it against the wood. The sound grows louder, deeper. I ease off, then come forward again. A sliver of shaving ghosts from the surface, gossamer thin. I hold the tool, listening, watching for shudders in the wood, feeling through the steel for the stability of the bowl’s center. I come forward with the sharp edge of the tool one last time, touching the wood with a tiny stroke, a caress almost.
The bowl shatters.
It happens in the manner of most catastrophes: with minimal warning, sudden violence, and great vigor. I have sufficient time only to react defensively, reflexively, by drawing back and tightening up. But that’s all. I cannot stop the explosion. It comes, it washes over me, I brace myself. After countless prior efforts at salvage, at damage control, I have learned finally that such blasts are best unmediated, uncontrolled. They must spend themselves.
So I let Trench go – spitting, shouting, rambling. More tirades against imagined enemies and a feckless, incompetent world, more fevered accusations. And then it comes, the splintering thing: that I had again asked him, baldly but without cynicism, why it has been so difficult for him to take responsibility for the continuance of his duress. This question has really pissed him off. He was not prepared for such directness.
He stands, sputtering saliva in punctuated gasps, making and breaking eye contact, not pausing long enough to grasp the spectacle of his fury in full flight. He has gone away. The manacled ghost who acts as his facade is in control now, is running him down and to the hard ground of his impossibly tangled disappointments. And I recognize in him the fatigue of the long distance runner, the one who lopes along, pursued by shame and anger but wed to them also, those true and unholy companions. On and on. His tenacity – his endurance in the face of exhaustion – is impressive. For how long has he been exhausted? Since age five, or six, or ten? No later than that, certainly. As a young child – before the beatings as a teenager, before the final sundering of his relationships with most of his family – already he was running from himself, far into the night, into the wasteland where all is glare and obscurity.
And he’s right, of course. It’s not his fault, at least not the beginning of it. Not the abandonment nor the malnutrition nor the days and nights of being locked in his room. It’s no wonder he set fire to the house.
Stimulant users love fire. It is their token, their totem. I feel the heat wafting from him, great sheets of it as he describes his shock that I could be like all the others who pretended to help but turned against him in the end. All the same, all liars and manipulators. He feels sorry for people like me, who lack integrity and ethics. Traitors, fools, motherfuckers. He goes on at length.
I do not stop him. Nor do I feel abused or unsafe. In work with stimulant users such explosions are routine. Perhaps they are necessary. They are not personal.
The range of endurance for a strenuously furious person is anywhere from four to seven minutes. Unchallenged, the energy will usually expend itself in short order. But every comment I might make, every challenge I might offer, if I were to raise my hand in protest – each reaction, each intervention, would add several minutes to the cycle. I refrain. I sit quietly, hoping the arc of his saliva is insufficient to make it all the way to my clothes, or my face. I don’t like it when that happens.
If he walks out I probably will not see him again. And I’m aware that if I smile, or sit in a way that he finds objectionable, or if I shift in my chair, he will walk. Above all I must not tighten my jaw or frown. But eventually I get pissed off too, at this waste of vibrancy, immediacy, and power. He is what he is looking for. If only he could discover the center of this whirlwind, the core of his own life that is untouched by his scars and layers of wounds. He would be a light and not only a fire.
While I wait, while he describes the many ways in which those who promised to help him have, inevitably, spurned him instead, I seem to see beyond the man who is Trench, beyond his shield of intimidation and bluster. He is opened now, and I glimpse his departed self, the child he was and still is: innocent, inquisitive, bewildered. That child remains, and hopes. He has not given himself over completely to bitterness, nor forgotten his dignity. He endures. I am surprised by the affection I feel for him. Because Trench – the adult who is fond of blowing his nose into a tissue then unfolding the tissue and displaying the contents to me, for the shock value, the adolescent humor of it, just for laughs – is not an easy man to like. Pushing people away is his chosen profession. But in this unguarded moment, when all his defenses have rushed to the perimeter and the center of his kingdom is left bare and unprotected, I see the lost boy king alone on his throne, in a stone hall that is his bastion of captivity.
Trench does not walk out, at least not today. Instead, he expends the momentum of his outrage. He slows, seems less interested in minutiae and distracting details. He stops speaking, gazes out the window, remains quiet for a full ten seconds – an extraordinary length of time for him and for many stimulant users – then sighs. It’s an abrupt gesture, a heaving almost. I wait for him to go on.
Nothing happens for a few moments. I remain still, anticipating further chaos but recognizing that probably it will not come. The whirlwind has passed. I emerge from my reflexive paralysis and look around the shop. A shard of the shattered bowl, perhaps one fifth of its total volume, spins disconsolately on the lathe. The edges of the wood are sharp where the disintegrating pieces have blown out and across the room. I remember seeing something bounce off my face mask, ricochet off the ceiling, then descend toward the tool cabinet. I turn in that direction and glimpse a smooth fragment on the floor. It reminds me of a sliver of bird’s egg. I walk over, pick up the shard, and turn it over in my hand. There’s a smudge of drywall from the ceiling, but otherwise the wood is undamaged.
I find three other shards scattered among the shavings and tools and marginally organized detritus of the shop. Each piece is intact, not cracked or dented, but the whole is broken now, irrevocably separated into jagged fragments spun out from the once still center of the work. Beautiful, small, ragged parts.
I try to fit the pieces together, searching for where the edges join, holding the parts in place with my fingers spread like a web. But several shards are missing. They have tumbled off and are gone. I let the remaining pieces fall to the workbench and wonder what to do next. I should start again, before the disappointment overtakes me. There is more wood from the tree, more chances to get it right. But I cannot bring myself to begin. I need to digest the setback first, accommodate myself to it, let the jangle of my nerves settle down. If I am to find the center of a new project, to discover the resonant core that leads from rudimentary to refined, I must first find it in myself. The wood does not respond to anxiety or timidity or frustration. And I do not wish to bellow at the world’s mischief. Trench has done enough bellowing for us both.
I cannot find any shear lines or spalted cracks where the wood might have given way. The edges of the sundered pieces are hewn cleanly along the contours of the grain. I examine the breaks closely, searching for what might have caused the initial rupture and subsequent cascade of catastrophic splitting. But I find no crumbling or punky wood, no discordant hues to indicate underlying weakness. The bowl should have turned perfectly, should not have yielded this tumbled puzzle.
Typically, vulnerabilities within the structure of wood are straightforward to identify: knots, checks, cracks, odd grain patterns. Sometimes the process of the work reveals them: by the changing sounds of tools upon the wood, by way of shifting colors and textures and smells. Such vulnerabilities in wood make themselves known through a language of symbols and signs that can be learned. This type of knowledge, gleaned through the vernacular of practice and the dialect of dedication, is an integral aspect of the work of addictions counseling as well. The expressions of adult addiction are often the marks and patterns of difficulty in childhood. Trench is the archetype of this dynamic, as are many elsewhere addicts and opioid users.
But occasionally the correlation is false. Some addicts are free of trauma and neglect. Their early life is unmarked by the torsional stress of abuse or neglect or violence – or even of parental distraction or indifference, which can be among the most damaging of wounds. They are not spalted. They should not, by all indications, find themselves upon the shadow path. But there they roam, exemplars of addiction as mystery. They are reminders of a troubling truth about addiction: no one is exempt from its possibilities. Those who think of themselves as healthy and well-adjusted cannot imagine the calamity of addiction befalling them. But those others are out there, those who should not have fallen.
Sometimes, unaccountably, the bowl simply breaks.
On my way into the city, early on a Saturday morning, the streets bare of traffic, brittle winter light breaking through trees in the east, I insert the key into the lock on the car door and then pause. Something catches my eye, a movement on the other side of the road. It’s a lone coyote, loping toward the ravine, returning home from whatever haunts he has visited during the night. He’s hugging the edge of the road, staying in the shadows. I think of the mythology of the trickster, of the ravens and coyotes who populate so many ancestral tales. The border crossers and rule breakers, the ones who open the cracks and speak the unspoken. In the mythologies of the indigenous peoples of North America, the trickster is a figure of immense significance. In many ways, he is responsible for crafting the human world.
He notices me standing still in the driveway, looking at him. He stops. We are perhaps twenty feet apart. The moment stretches out long enough for me to imagine that we are standing not on a suburban street but in the wild, in another age, when the relationships between humans and animals were more delicate and sensitive.
Then he moves, suddenly, breaking into a slanting gait, heading toward a gap between the houses where a trail descends to the creek. I watch him go, wondering how far I could follow him, how fast I’d have to run through the woods to catch up. He turns between the houses and is gone.
I drive downtown. The morning is quiet. Scattered pedestrians make their way to hardware stores and flea markets and sporting events on fields wet with dew. I park in front of a hotel that once was upscale but has fallen into decline as the neighborhood has changed around it. The desperate and the predatory haunt the street in equal numbers. I’m a few blocks from where Trench lives. I wonder if I will see him today.
In the conference room of the hotel I meet with a group of counselors to talk about addiction and trauma and the tangled mess of opioid addictions. We spend the day talking about the link between childhood development and addiction, about the impulses of adolescence that, in the absence of dependable adult mentoring, turn toward isolation and alienation. We talk about the kids who begin with experimentation but come to be governed by craving. Those who are most likely to become trapped are easy to distinguish: the loners, the risk takers, those without a firm foundation of love, support, and containment. But we often see kids from healthy and supportive families as well. Familial connection and love are the best protections against addiction to be sure, but they are not foolproof inoculations. Emotional stress and trauma – unintended, unforeseen, unpredictable – pushes some kids toward depression and lassitude. They become uncertain of their talents, their future, their dreams. They float, not sure what they should be seeking or avoiding, retreating from their families, turning ever inward.
At an indistinct age – fourteen, fifteen, perhaps as late as seventeen – most kids seek mentors and guides who are not parental. Their horizon opens and they enter a wider world. Historically, grandparents have been the ushers and guides of kids at this delicate stage. But in the modern age grandparents are often absent, or disconnected from the child’s reality. In the wake of such absence, and without alternative mentoring provided by schoolteachers or coaches or spiritual leaders in the community, teens turn to one another. Sometimes they form a youth gang and choose the most vicious among them to be their mentor and guide. And the first thing such mentors wish to do is get high.
Parents with adolescent kids are in a unique position. It might be possible for our generation to change the pattern of adolescent alienation and drug use. The kids cannot do it themselves. But parents possibly could: by staying in touch with the emotional lives of our children, by being more available, by confronting and talking about the legacy of addiction that has been passed down from our own parents. That we choose not to undertake this task, that we prefer instead to blame the dealers, the manufacturers of designer drugs and technological devices, the kids themselves who have become lost – this is a subject of great concern for the counselors. They want to see more prevention programs, more education for parents, greater emphasis on the root and the soil and not simply the dark flower.
I hear the staccato sounds of someone running down the alley. I peer out the window but the runner is gone. Farther down, where the alley meets the street, I glimpse the white van driven by Larry, one of my students. He works for a shelter, a place where the battered and the homeless can find refuge. He navigates the alleyways, looking for those who need medical attention or a cooked meal or a bed. He is invisible, almost, to the rushing pedestrians and shoppers, to the people who have no idea what goes on down here, the people who are afraid of the city’s underbelly. My student goes about his business, attending counseling class on Tuesday nights, risking needle jabs as he lends a shoulder to a man soaked through from the rain, helps a woman with blood on her face and a story about a lost purse, talks with a homeless teen staggering beside a Dumpster.
Larry possesses his own history of drug abuse and homelessness and the tossing away of his dignity. His work is his redemption. He has exchanged a shopping cart stuffed with rotting gear for a tumbledown van with a heater that sometimes works. And passengers. Beautiful, bleary-eyed passengers stinking of piss who cannot stop smiling because the seat is dry and Larry tells a joke about a coyote stuck in a garbage can. It’s that way for most of us in this business, those who stay. The beauty holds us: the unvarnished, clear beauty of life stripped to its barest, essential vibrancy. People struggling to live, to recover, to discover again that they once had dreams and can find them anew. The life-affirming aspects of this work are incalculable and pervasive; they creep into you behind the despair and the black stories, they fill you with something akin to faith. You come to understand that the dark road is a great teacher. You meet people who have walked its entire length, have emerged from it into a soft light that shines through their fragility. You recognize that light, somehow, and find that it illuminates your own life.
A small population of coyotes live in the downtown core. They follow rail lines in from the suburbs and smaller towns east of the city. They haunt alleys late at night, skittering away from people, thriving invisibly. They are too smart to be caught. In the wild, coyotes will overturn and urinate on traps set for their capture. Here in the city they elude animal control workers and avoid the urban jangle. They eat well.
In many mythological traditions Coyote is not only an animal but a divine being, a traveler between the worlds, a trickster who teaches by breaking the rules. He is led by appetite and impulse and playfulness. Often, his tales are defined by misadventure. In one such tale, Coyote grows inconsolable after his wife dies. He wanders aimless in his grief. But then an envoy comes, a ghost who informs Coyote that his wife is living as a spirit in the Land of Shadows.
The envoy leads Coyote into the barren lands and across five mountains. They emerge at a wide prairie. Coyote is instructed to wait. The ghost envoy vanishes. But at nightfall, Coyote begins to hear shuffling sounds. He smells a cooking fire and begins to glimpse the faint outline of a village. As the night deepens, the Land of Shadows comes alive. Coyote sees his friends who have died, he discovers the village to be a place of happiness and solace, he finds his wife at the fireside.
Coyote remains in the Land of Shadows for many nights. He feasts with his wife, his departed kin, his lost friends. Every morning, as dawn spreads across the horizon, the Land of Shadows begins to fade. Coyote finds himself on the prairie, alone in the heat of the day. He grows parched, and is burned by the sun. Yet he waits, and night comes again.
Eventually, the envoy informs Coyote that he must return to the living lands. He may take his wife with him, but only if he refrains from touching her on each of the five nights required to cross the mountains. Only when they have returned to the living lands may he touch her. If he is successful in this task, Coyote and his wife may resume their lives as before, as though she had not died.
As this is a trickster story, we know that on the fifth night Coyote can resist no longer. For on each of the previous nights his wife has grown more visible, more tangible, more beautiful. And on the final night, when she is almost fully restored, he reaches for her. He can’t resist. His appetite trumps his judgment.
The envoy comes to escort Coyote’s wife back to the Land of Shadows. And the envoy berates Coyote for his impulsiveness, his recklessness, his accidental reshaping of the world’s boundaries. For, as a result of Coyote’s churlishness, the border between the living and the dead will now be closed. No further crossings will be possible. And so Coyote becomes responsible for the finality of death.
But mythological edicts are never final. In countless other tales, Coyote crosses back and forth between the living realm and the Land of Shadows, as do many other heroes and heroines and accidental travelers. The addicted are crossing every day, going in both directions, searching for the one lost thing, the treasure that is lost and sometimes found.
One day he simply disappears. I wait for him in the office, I check my schedule to make sure I have not mistaken our meeting time, I call his voice mail and leave a message. But I suspect there is more to this than a scheduling snafu. After all, Trench is reliably punctual and consistent. He arranges his days around our meetings. He confirms and reconfirms appointments. His absence today is not a good omen. Since the blowout he has become more distant and cautious, and I wonder if he has decided – as many stimulant users eventually do – that exploring his inner life is just too troublesome. Perhaps it raises too many questions for him, provokes him too readily into anger and anxiety, propels him toward depression and desolation. Successfully recovered stimulant users do indeed discover depression lurking beneath their bluster – but instead of running from it they slow down, let it wash over them, use it to rebuild their lives.
I walk to the window and search up and down the street. A bus rumbles by but does not stop. I check my phone again. But a certainty has crept in: he’s not coming today. Perhaps not ever again.
I settle into the chair and begin the small personal ritual that I enact for clients who vanish. It’s a simple matter, a deliberate farewell, a means of responding to the pervasive sense of futility that occasionally accompanies the work of addictions counseling. I think of the time I have spent with Trench, of our conversations about music and psychology and pop culture. I focus on the core of goodwill that I feel – toward his warmth, his playfulness, his sparkling intelligence. I imagine my goodwill extending outward, crossing the distance between us, finding its way to him. I trust that my thoughts, rising on the wind and carried, as a prayer is carried, will be transmitted by the invisible forces that shape the world. I hope that Trench will make his way back to himself, to the life he has long sought and repeatedly denied himself. I pray that he will be held aloft, out of his suffering, that his call will be met and made quiet by companionship, that he will find the still center of a whole and unfractured life.
Over the next few weeks I make several confidential inquiries in the community, asking for news of Trench. An acquaintance, a man who once was an enforcer for the criminal gang now seeking to kill Trench, tells me that Trench has not been caught by the gang. But he has moved out of his apartment and canceled his phone. No one seems to know where he is or why he moved on. I watch for news reports of unidentified bridge jumpers floating offshore, or murder victims found in the trunks of abandoned cars. But nothing.
As the weeks pass, and I hear no further news from him, as I check my phone with decreasing anticipation, I accept that Trench has departed, once again, to the Land of Shadows.