The phoenix falls into fire, burns, and dies. Then rises again, reborn.
The phoenix triumphs over adversity. Life gets hard, excruciatingly hard. Everything falls to shit. But the phoenix rises again.
Or so we hope.
Sometimes, the fire burns too hot. And then the phoenix dies and stays dead. Sometimes ash isn’t a phoenix egg.
Sometimes ash is only ash.
Here’s a poem by my friend Satish:
COULD I BE
– a peacock, so vibrant
& bright, but vulnerable
for lack of flight, a
turkey that flutters
searching for height.
A dove that flies so
high, so pure & clean.
I’m none of these.
Just searching for a
balance – in between.
Maybe a phoenix, mystical,
reborn from fire &
Satish wrote this poem while he was living inside the dormitory on the ground floor of the Monroe County Jail. This is an awful little space. It’s about the size of my living room. Twelve men lived there. They slept on bunk beds. The fluorescent lights were turned off only from midnight until four a.m. The single window, a tiny rectangle of wire-reinforced glass inside the steel door, faced the subterranean booking desk – no glimpse of the outdoors. There were two steel tables bolted to the floor, and each table had six steel stools curving out from beneath it, like a pair of silver-skinned twice-amputated octopuses where the men could sit to eat their meals.
The jail dorm shared a wall with soft booking – “the drunk tank.” Much of the time, someone with mental health issues would be in there, hollering. If someone in the tank decides to stand there rhythmically kicking the steel door, the noise resounds through your skull like the repeated cocking of a shotgun inside your brain. All thoughts disappear but hate. At least, that was my experience, and I never spent more than two hours at a time inside that space.
Satish was there for months.
But he stayed chipper. It was always a pleasure to go in there with a stack of poems and have the chance to talk with him. On his good days, his enthusiasm was infectious, leaning in close to ask questions or banter about religion, his huge eyes gleaming like polished fishbowls.
The saddest poem he wrote was about cheating on his girlfriend with an old man – “old man” is slang for heroin.
The other men in the dorm loved having him around. In such a small space, where people are going through the worst time of their lives and yet are expected to endure the constant presence of a roomful of other men who’re also going through the worst time of their lives, emotions fray easily. Twice when I came in there, my buddy Max had ugly blue bruises covering his face.
“We had a little disagreement,” Max would tell me. And he’d mention the name of somebody who’d been in the dorm the week before, but had since been moved to a different block.
But nobody had trouble with Satish.
Nobody except the judge.
Max told me, “Judge ______ gave him this deal, Satish was on this drug court thing, and she was going to pretend to care. She said, ‘write me a letter, write me a letter and convince me why I should go easy on you.’ But if she’s going to go easy, why would she need that letter? So Satish wrote this letter, he basically wrote to her, ‘Fuck you, just do what you’re going to do.’ “
The thing is, we all thought he would walk. The case, as far as I knew it, was pretty weak. He had come home, he’d lost his keys, and he was high. He thought he could sleep it off, go look for his keys in the morning, and so he tried to get in through the window.
Except he picked the wrong window. He was climbing in the neighbors’, and they freaked and called the police. The cops came. By then they figured out who he was, everybody was confused, but mistakes happen. Mistakes happen more when people are on drugs, but, regardless, mistakes happen.
The neighbors didn’t want to press charges. They weren’t going to cooperate with a case.
In the United States, prosecutors have a lot of leeway, though. Doesn’t matter what the police report says, doesn’t matter what the witnesses say, the prosecutor gets to decide what charges to file. They get to pile charges on as leverage for plea bargaining. They don’t have to justify which people get dog piled and which people walk free.
The prosecutor’s decisions are yet another place in our criminal justice system where racial injustice creeps in. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that, in the eyes of the state, Satish was Black.
So, a phoenix. Maybe they’d send him away. But he could overcome adversity.
We thought he would walk. We expected that he’d go to court, then get sent home for time served.
Instead, they gave him seven years.
He was shipped off to the “Reception & Diagnostics Center.” This is where they do psychological evaluations, figure out which prison you’ll be sent to. While at reception & diagnostics, nobody can get a hold of you.
He’d been there two days when his girlfriend – mother of his two children, pregnant with their third – overdosed and died. She’d been clean a while. But after something like that – you think he’s coming out, instead they give him seven years – it’s easy to relapse.
Heroin killed her. But the courts killed her too.
He took it hard.
We volleyed letters for a while – he’d send me folded bundles, six or seven sheets that he’d written over the course of a week, and he stamped the envelopes low to dodge the postmark – but he always said that it was hard to find time to write. He was doing as many programs as he could, trying to get level-headed, trying to get out. Most programs will give you a time cut.
They’d given him seven years, but he was out after another two. Lots of guys have tried to explain the math of criminal justice time to me; I have never understood.
Max said, “He was in a pretty good place, at first. I mean, he had a handle on it, what’d happened with Chelsea, everything that happened. But when he started using …”
He was trying to rise. Twenty-nine, and rebuilding his life.
But sometimes the fire burns too hot. Sometimes it burns and burns and the ash stops being an egg. Sometimes ash is only ash.
At high doses, psilocybin mushrooms trigger transcendent, mystical experiences. Many researchers are incorporating these into treatments for PTSD, depression, and other maladies that stem from a crisis of meaning or identity.
There are challenges inherent in using medicines that disrupt the workings of a person’s consciousness. William Richards, who conducts psychedelic therapy at Johns Hopkins, writes in Sacred Knowledgethat participants in his studies have felt their sense of self temporarily dissolve after a dose of psilocybin.
commonly, the term “death” is employed as the ego (everyday self) feels that it
quite literally is dying.
Though one may have read that others have reported subsequent immersion in the eternal and experiences of being reborn and returning to everyday existence afterward, in the moment imminence of death may feel acutely – and for some terrifyingly – real.
this sensation is so frightening, most researchers recommend a trip-sitter – in
Richards’s words, “having someone present who one honestly can choose to
trust without reservation. The attitude
‘I can manage on my own and don’t really need anyone else’ clearly can be very
counterproductive in some high-dose sessions when the ‘I’ needs to totally
At times, an arrogant attitude of self-reliance is unhelpful. It is also, unsurprisingly, the attitude with which I approached nearly all aspects of my life. I’m an athlete, an academic, usually in full command of my own mind and body. I mostly work alone (although I’m very grateful that my spouse helps me run this website).
Why wouldn’t I do my own psychotherapy?
I tried psilocybin mushrooms during graduate school. Shortly after we met, the person who is now my spouse asked if we could visit her sibling in Portland for her birthday. We left Stanford at 7 p.m. on a Friday, then drove north through the night. We arrived at about dawn on Saturday morning, collapsed, and slept until noon.
We were visiting a punk house, it seemed, where the bulk of the rent was paid by one person’s trust fund, with others occasionally chipping in money from various odd jobs (there was a nearby sporting event during the second day of our visit, and one of the housemates put on an official-looking reflective vest and charged people to illegally park in an abandoned lot down the street). A dozen misshapen mattresses were strewn about the skunky-smelling attic; I picked the second-least stained to sleep on.
On Saturday night, for the birthday celebration, our hosts threw a party. Several bands played – it was the sort of event where the scrawny white weed dealer’s terrible hip-hop group (bass, drums, and the dealer on the mic) was allowed to play a set. The others were mostly metal bands.
One of the housemates (the faux-parking attendant, as it happens) brewed a large mason jar of psilocybin tea. As he was gamboling about the house, we crossed paths and he proffered the nearly empty jar: “Hey, man, you want these dregs?”
shrugged and drank it.
“Whoa,” he said.
“Just, that was a lot of dregs.”
Which, honestly, was not the best moment to be warned. I’d already drank it. I obviously couldn’t do anything about it then.
Richards and other medical professionals involved in psychedelics research would find it unsurprising that the tenor of the evening turned intensely spiritual for me. Ken Kesey and other psychonauts would find it unsurprising that the goings on seemed exceedingly trippy, as well. I sat on a couch in front of the bands’ performance area and watched as a singer seemed to smear her face across the microphone; soon I saw her with three mouths, the two in her neck relegated to singing harmony.
I felt intense paranoia; as I waited in line for a bathroom, people nearby seemed to be snickering at me. Of course, snickers often follow in my wake at parties – my behavior can be outlandish – and I might’ve been making goofy facial expressions.
I understood only snippets of conversation. A squinty-eyed Thor-looking blonde man named Hyacinth was saying, “I always wanted to get with a Gemini, and then, bam, last winter, I met this older lady with these, like, enormous eyes, and I was like, whoa, and wouldn’t you know it, bam, she’s a Gemini!”
(I later learned that he worked as an, ahem, “intimate massage therapist,” or “hired companion,” that sort of thing. He also cornered me and spent thirty minutes explaining his take on quantum mechanics. His version involved a lot of positive energy radiating from crystals. The abundance of positive energy in his own life is part of what brought him together with that Gemini, it seems. The waning disorientation from psilocybin left me totally unable to extricate myself from the conversation.)
And, as per Richards’s expectations, I felt myself losing a fundamental component of my identity. I temporarily forgot how to speak. Then felt as though I was losing all ability to translate my thoughts into external action.
Perhaps I should’ve noticed that I was still passively influencing my surroundings – nobody else could stand where I was standing, and Hyacinth wouldn’t have stood there simply lecturing the air – but the flickering of my short term memory caused these examples to slip away from me. I felt like a ghost, and the sensation terrified me.
But I was lucky. Even at parties (to be perfectly honest, especially at loud parties), I carry a pencil and paper. That way, I can draw horrible cartoons. Sometimes I try to use these to communicate.
It should come as no surprise that I make few friends at parties.
I found a secluded corner of the party and began to write. And then, minutes later, when I felt another wave of loss of self pass over me, I was able look at the sheet of paper in my hand and see. I wrote that. I did change the world. I am changing it.
I was able to regain a sense of object permanence, despite the ego-erasing effects of psilocybin. If I were a ghost, my marks would wisp from the page like so much abluvion. But here they are.
I can still communicate with the outside world, I still am.
In all, the experience was probably good for me. Someday I could write about why. But for now, I’d simply like to stress that, in that moment, writing saved me. Writing kept me anchored and tamped down the terror sufficiently that I could accept whatever was happening inside my brain. (Indeed, one of the things I wrote that night was, “Without this paper, I’d wander the streets, wake tomorrow in a gutter with a rat gnawing on my eyeball.”)
And I’ve seen the way that writing has saved other people, too. When people fear that they’re turning into ghosts – cut off from the outside world, unable to reach their friends and families – even severely dyslexic men will start sending letters.
held in jail can dissolve a person’s sense of self just as surely as psilocybin
Each week, I bring in another dozen pencils. I occasionally wondered what was happening to the pencils, whether they accumulated like Lincoln Logs in the block. But I kept bringing more because we need a way to write during our class. And I’d let the guys keep them. So much has been taken from these men that I couldn’t bear to ask for the pencils back.
somebody told me. “Oh, yeah, my bunkie,
he writes a lot at night, he always sharpens like a dozen pencils before
in jail aren’t allowed to have pens.
They can’t have mechanical pencils.
And they don’t have sharpeners in their cells.
At night … or if there’s a disciplinary infraction … or if the jail is understaffed … the men are locked into their little cells. Unless they sharpen pencils beforehand, they cannot write. Each broken tip brings an inmate that much closer to enforced silence, unable to communicate with the outside world.
Recently, people have been forming a big line at the pencil sharpener whenever I teach class. I slowly pass out the poems that we’ll read that week, then pass out pencils, then pass out paper, then sit and wait. The waiting takes a while. Guys come with twenty or thirty pencils bristling from the shirt pocket of their orange scrubs, then stand and sharpen all of them. A dozen men, sharpening perhaps twenty pencils each.
At the table, they mention trades they’ve made. Losses, due to theft: “At the beginning of the week I had fifteen pencils; now I’m down to three.” They exhort me to bring more. I say I’ll do my best.
“There’s only one pencil sharpener in the block, and it’s been broken for three months. It’s like that one, a wall mount. The gears are all screwed up. The handle was broken off, but you could sort of still use it then. But now, anybody who doesn’t get to come to your class can’t sharpen any.”
sharpening some for my bunkie,” yells the guy currently cranking the handle. A few of the others nod; they’ll also sharpen
some for charity.
Twenty … thirty … maybe forty sharpened graphite tips. While those last, the guys will be able to write. Time will pass, but they’ll be able to prove to themselves, and to the outside world, that they really do exist.
luck, those sharpened pencils will last all week.
In the United States, people are having sex less often. And between alcohol, marijuana, recreational painkillers – not to mention anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication – we take a lot of drugs.
Many of us work long hours at jobs we dislike so that we can afford to buy things that promise to fill some of the emptiness inside. The most lucrative businesses are advertising companies … one of which, Facebook, is designed to make you feel worse so that you’ll be more susceptible to its ads.
The suicide rate has been rising.
It might seem as though we
don’t know how to make people happier.
But, actually, we do.
There are drawbacks to Toxoplasma infection, of course. Infected rodents are more likely to be killed by cats. Infected humans may become slower as well, both physically and intellectually. Toxoplasma forms cysts in your brain. It might increase the chance of developing schizophrenia. It can kill you if you’re immunocompromised. And the surest way to contract toxoplasmosis, if incidental exposure hasn’t already done it for you, is by eating cat excrement.
My advice today is
different. No feces required!
And I’m not suggesting
anything illegal. I mentioned, above,
that people in the United States take a lot of drugs. Several of these boost dopamine levels in
your brain. Cocaine, for instance, is a
“dopamine re-uptake inhibitor,” ensuring that any momentary sensation of pleasure
will linger, allowing you to feel happy longer.
But cocaine has a nasty
side effect of leading to incarceration, especially if the local law
enforcement officers decide that your epidermal melanin concentration is too
high. And jail is not a happy
Instead, you could make yourself happier with a bit of at-home trepanation, followed by the insertion of an electrode into the nucleus accumbens of your brain. Now, I know that sounds risky, what with the nucleus accumbens being way down near the base of your brain. But your brain is rather squishy – although you’ll sheer some cells as you cram a length of conductive wire into your cranium, the hope is that many neurons will be pushed out of the way.
The nucleus accumbens tends to show high activity during pleasure. For instance, cocaine stimulates activity in this part of your brain. So does money — tell research subjects that they’ve won a prize and you’ll see this region light up. If rats are implanted with an electrode that lets them jolt their own nucleus accumbens by pushing a lever, they’ll do it over and over. Pressing that lever makes them happier than eating, or drinking water, or having sex. They’ll blissfully self-stimulate until they collapse. From James Olds’s Science paper, “Self-Stimulation of the Brain”:
If animals with electrodes
in the hypothalamuswere run for 24 hours or 48 hours
consecutively, they continued to respond as long as physiological endurance
Perhaps I should have
warned you – amateur brain modification would carry some risks. Even if you have the tools needed to drill
into your own skull without contracting a horrible infection, you don’t want to
boost your mood just to die of dehydration.
After all, happiness might have some purpose. There might be reasons why certain activities – like eating, drinking water, having sex … to say nothing of strolling outdoors, or volunteering to help others – make us feel happy. After discussing several case studies in their research article “How Happy Is Too Happy,” Matthis Synofzik, Thomas Schlaepfer, and Joseph Fins write that using deep brain stimulation for the “induction of chronic euphoria could also impair the person’s cognitive capacity to respond to reasons about which volitions and preferences are in his or her best interests.”
When an activity makes us
feel happy, we’re likely to do it again.
That’s how people manage to dedicate their lives to service. Or get addicted to drugs.
And it’s how brain
stimulation could be used for mind control.
If you show me a syringe,
I’ll feel nervous. I don’t particularly
like needles. But if you display that
same syringe to an intravenous drug user, you’ll trigger some of the rush of
actually shooting up. The men in my
poetry classes have said that they feel all tingly if they even see the word
“needle” written in a poem.
For months or years, needles
presaged a sudden flush of pleasure.
That linkage was enough for their brains to develop a fondness for the
If you wanted to develop a taste for an unpalatable food, you could do the same thing. Like bittermelon – I enjoy bittermelons, which have a flavor that’s totally different from anything else I’ve ever eaten, but lots of people loathe them.
Still, if you used deep
brain stimulation to trigger pleasure every time a person ate bittermelon, that
person would soon enjoy it.
Or you could make someone
fall in love.
Far more effective than
any witch’s potion, that. Each time your
quarry encounters the future beloved, crank up the voltage. The beloved’s presence will soon be
associated with a sense of comfort and pleasure. And that sensation – stretched out for long
enough that the pair can build a set of shared memories – is much of what love
Of course, it probably
sounds like I’m joking. You wouldn’t really
send jolts of electricity into the core of somebody’s brain so that he’d fall
in love with somebody new … right?
Fifty years passed between
the discovery of pleasure-inducing deep brain stimulation and its current use
as a treatment for depression … precisely because one of the pioneering
researchers decided that it was reasonable to use the electrodes as a
In 1972, Charles Moan and Robert Heath published a scientific paper titled “Septal stimulation for the initiation of heterosexual behavior in a homosexual male.” Their study subject was a 24-year-old man who had been discharged from the military for homosexuality. Moan and Heath postulated that the right regimen of electrode stimulation – jolted while watching pornography, or while straddled by a female prostitute whom Moan and Heath hired to visit their lab – might lead this young man to desire physical intimacy with women.
Moan and Heath’s paper is
After about 20 min of such
interaction she begun [sic] to mount him, and though he
was somewhat reticent he did achieve penetration. Active intercourse followed during which she
had an orgasm that he was apparently able to sense. He became very excited at this and suggested
that they turn over in order that he might assume the initiative. In this position he often paused to delay
orgasm and to increase the duration of the pleasurable experience. Then, despite the milieu [inside a lab,
romping under the appraising eyes of multiple fully-clothed scientists] and
the encumbrance of the electrode wires, he successfully ejaculated. Subsequently, he expressed how much he had
enjoyed her and how he hoped that he would have sex with her again in the near
The science writer Lone Frank recently published The Pleasure Shock, a meticulously researched book in which she concludes that Heath was unfairly maligned because most people in the 1970s were reticent to believe that consciousness arose from the interaction of perfectly ordinary matter inside our skulls. Changing a person’s mood with electricity sounds creepy, especially if you think that a mind is an ethereal, inviolable thing.
But it isn’t.
The mind, that is. The mind isn’t an ethereal, inviolable thing.
Zapping new thoughts into somebody’s brain, though, is definitely still understood (by me, at least) to be creepy.
Discussing the contemporary resurgence of electrical brain modification, Frank writes that:
In 2013, economist Ernst Fehr
of Zurich University experimented with transcranial direct current stimulation,
which sends a weak current through the cranium and is able to influence
activity in areas of the brain that lie closest to the skull.
Fehr had sixty-three
research subjects available. They played
a money game in which they each were given a sum and had to take a position on
how much they wanted to give an anonymous partner. In the first round, there were no sanctions
from the partner, but in the second series of experiments, the person in
question could protest and punish the subject.
There were two opposing
forces at play. A cultural norm for
sharing fairly – that is, equally – and a selfish interest in getting as much
as possible for oneself. Fehr and his people
found that the tug of war could be influenced by the right lateral prefrontal
cortex. When the stimulation increased
the brain activity, the subjects followed the fairness norm to a higher degree,
while they were more inclined to act selfishly when the activity was
Perhaps the most
thought-provoking thing was that the research subjects did not themselves feel
any difference. When they were asked
about it, they said their idea of fairness had not changed, while the
selfishness of their behavior had changed.
Apparently, you can fiddle
with subtle moral parameters in a person without the person who is manipulated
being any the wiser.
The problem isn’t just that Heath pulsed electricity into the brain of a homosexual man so that he could ejaculate while fooling around with a woman. Many of Heath’s patients – who, it’s worth acknowledging, had previously been confined to nightmarish asylums – developed infections from their electrode implantations and died. Also, Heath knowingly promoted fraudulent research findings because he’d staked his reputation on a particular theory and was loathe to admit that he’d been wrong (not that Heath has been the only professor to perpetuate falsehoods this way).
Elliott concludes that:
Heath was a physician in
love with his ideas.
Psychiatry has seen many
men like this. Heath’s contemporaries
include Ewen Cameron, the CIA-funded psychiatrist behind the infamous “psychic
driving” studies at McGill University, in which patients were drugged into
comas and subjected to repetitive messages or sounds for long periods, and
Walter Freeman, the inventor of the icepick lobotomy and its most fervent
These men may well have
started with the best of intentions. But
in medical research, good intentions can lead to the embalming table. All it takes is a powerful researcher with a
surplus of self-confidence, a supportive institution, and a ready supply of
Heath had them all.
It’s true that using an
electrode to stimulate the nucleus accumbens inside your brain can probably
make you feel happier. By way of
contrast, reading essays like this one make most people feel less happy.
Sometimes it’s good to
feel bad, though.
As Elliott reminds us, a
lot of vulnerable people were abused in this research. A lot of vulnerable people are still
treated with cavalier disregard, especially when folks with psychiatric issues
are snared by our country’s criminal justice system. And the torments that we dole upon non-human
animals are even worse.
[University of Chicago
researcher Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal] placed one rat in an enclosure, where it
encountered a small transparent container, a bit like a jelly jar. Squeezed inside it was another rat, locked
up, wriggling in distress.
Not only did the free rat learn how to open a little door to liberate the other, but she was remarkably eager to do so. Never trained on it, she did so spontaneously.
Then Bartal challenged her
motivation by giving her a choice between two containers, one with chocolate
chips – a favorite food that they could easily smell – and another with a
trapped companion. The free rat often
rescued her companion first, suggesting that reducing her distress counted more
than delicious food.
Is it possible that these
rats liberated their companions for companionship? While one rat is locked up, the other has no
chance to play, mate, or groom. Do they
just want to make contact? While the
original study failed to address this question, a different study created a
situation where rats could rescue each other without any chance of further
interaction. That they still did so
confirmed that the driving force is not a desire to be social.
Bartal believes it is
emotional contagion: rats become distressed when noticing the other’s distress,
which spurs them into action.
Conversely, when Bartal gave
her rats an anxiety-reducing drug, turning them into happy hippies, they still
knew how to open the little door to reach the chocolate chips, but in their
tranquil state, they had no interest in the trapped rat. They couldn’t care less, showing the sort of
emotional blunting of people on Prozac or pain-killers.
The rats became
insensitive to the other’s agony and ceased helping.
You could feel
happier. We know enough to be able to
reach into your mind and change it.
A miniscule flow of electrons is enough to trigger bliss.
But should we do it? Or use our unhappiness as fuel to change the
After discussing several forms of parasitic mind control during our poetry class in the local jail, somebody asked – somebody always asks – whether there’s some sort of parasite that makes people want to use drugs.
A few guys looked down at the table and nodded. People are in there for a variety of reasons – domestic violence, burglary, DWIs, dealing or possession – but no matter the charge, many of the guys in jail were dealing with substance use that got out of hand.
I gave the same answer as always.
“Drugs do it on their own. Chemicals can remodel your brain to make you want them again. Like cocaine, it’s a dopamine re-uptake inhibitor, so if something makes you happy after coke, it’ll make you more happy than it would’ve … but your body responds by down-regulating the receptors, and then you’re stuck feeling less happy all the time unless you take it again.”
But it’s not all bleak. Drug addiction takes hold because the brain is plastic – our minds change and we want that rush again, potentially to the exclusion of all else – but neural plasticity allows people to recover, too. Dopamine receptor levels fall during periods of excessive drug use, but they’ll rebound during sobriety … and this rebound should attenuate the desire to use again.
(Unfortunately, the lecturers in our area’s court-mandated rehab courses have been telling people that, “After you take methamphetamines, it takes eight years of sobriety before your dopamine receptor levels come back.” This sounds wrong to me – I don’t know the half-life of dopamine receptors, but the timing of sensitization and de-sensitization in conditions like bipolar disorder and antidepressant-induced mania suggests that it’s on the order of a month or so, not years – and it’s definitely unhelpful to say. If you’re trying to help someone quit taking drugs, you want their goals to be feasible.
A former co-teacher tattooed “Day By Day” on his arm because quitting forever seemed impossible, but getting through one more day without drugs sounded like something he could do. He’s now weathered five years of single days. But if I felt like garbage and an instructor told me, “You’ll only feel like this for eight more years!”, I’d give up immediately.)
I don’t really understand Scientology – all my current knowledge comes from a single episode of South Park and a few minutes spent skimming through the Wikipedia article – but I was intrigued by the practice of using “E-meters” to measure a person’s cognitive development in the faith. It made me wonder whether the sort of person who was interested in biofeedback and numerical metrics – somebody who tracks steps with a Fitbit or the gasoline saved on a Prius console – could use self-administered polygraphs for cognitive behavioral therapy.
It’s well-known that polygraphs are fallible – you can fail them when you’re telling the truth, and you can learn to pass them while lying – but I imagine that the easiest ways to pass a polygraph is to convince yourself that whatever you’re saying is true. There many physiological correlates to dishonesty – skin voltage, electroencephalogram patterns, eye movement, vocal tones – and by convincing yourself to earnestly believe whatever you happen to be saying, you could pass any of them.
Because you can cheat, U.S. courts generally don’t trust the results of lie detector tests. In the pursuit of justice, cheating would be bad. But as self-administered therapy, cheating is the whole point. You cheat at lying until the lie becomes the truth.
“I like myself and I am worthy of love and self-respect.”
Rig up your polygraph and say something like that until the machine stops dinging you. Do it daily. Your brain is plastic, designed to learn and change. Your words will become true.
I play board games with a local reviewer. We often try two or three each week – and I’ve noticed that I’m happiest after playing really flawed games.
Consider, for example, the card game Boss Monster. You portray a villain building a dungeon full of traps. Each turn you expand your dungeon, making it more enticing and more dangerous. Then adventurers appear and venture into one of the players’ dungeons; you win by causing their demise.
My gaming buddy really dislikes this game: while playing, you make very few meaningful choices. Sometimes no choices at all, honestly.
That’s not fun.
But I loved it! Not just because I have a soft spot for games that portray humans as the enemy (in Ferretcraft, which my family designed, you play as a forest creature and the “orcs” are just green-tinted humans). And not just because I’m a sucker for cute art (which makes me feel lucky that my favorite artist makes games with me).
Even in his negative review, my buddy stressed again and again how great Boss Monster looks.
I should admit, it wasn’t very fun to play. Shuffling a deck of cards and sitting down to “play” doesn’t mean much if the game has only marginally more strategy than War. But there are several really clever ideas behind the game – they’re just poorly executed.
For instance, players are competing to lure adventurers. If your dungeon has less treasure than an opponent’s, no heroes will visit, and so you can’t get points for dooming them. Unfortunately, the cards that are best at luring heroes are also the best at dispatching them. There’s no strategy here – on each turn, you should play the most powerful card. The design would’ve been much improved if there was a tension between attracting adventurers and harming them.
And the adventurers are each lured by a different type of treasure. Wizards seek spellbooks, warriors seek weaponry, thieves seek gold. If you happened to build a dungeon full of gold, and a thief happens to appear, you’ll get to slay that hero. But the adventurers are drawn from a deck at random, which means there’s no strategy here either. Most likely, each player in the game will be best at luring a certain type, and the random order that adventurers appear determines who wins.
With a few changes, though, this could be really fun. A card that’s good at luring heroes shouldn’t hurt them much – then players would have to balance what their dungeons need. The adventurers should be more difficult to dispatch if several voyage into a single dungeon at the same time, which would impose a cost on being too good at luring them. And the adventurers should wait in town for a bit before entering the dungeons, which would allow players to plan ahead. Perhaps the adventurers would spend time drinking ale and boasting in a tavern – each might need a different number of beers before feeling ready to tromp off to his or her doom.
(It’s not clear whether an extremely strong hero would need more beers – a higher alcohol tolerance – or fewer – more confidence. I think either design has interesting gameplay implications. If each hero in town drinks one beer per turn, and the powerful heroes can handle more liquor, then you have a long warning period in which to make your dungeon deadly enough to handle hardy adventurers. Or if weaker heroes require more liquid courage, then players can vie to lure easy points away from their opponents. We’d probably test both designs and then write lore justifying whichever was more fun.)
With those changes, you’d get to make meaningful choices every game instead of simply doling out cards and seeing who wins.
But even though Boss Monster wasn’t fun to play, it was a blast to think about. Which made me feel grateful to the designers … and to my parents.
Growing up, there was always an expectation that we’d modify games. Pieces from the board games we owned were used to make dozens of others. My brother and I played Risk daily for several summers in a row … but I don’t think we ever played an entire game according to the rules printed on the box.
And it’s not just while playing board games that I feel grateful. Once we’d learned that we might have to modify games to have more fun, it was easy to view the rest of the world with an eye toward improvement. More than just games are flawed, after all. I might feel overwhelmingly depressed by everything that’s wrong with the world if I didn’t feel at least a little joy in tinkering, trying to make things better.
Because it is daunting. Or at least it feels daunting when I look at the Pages to Prisoners mail queue, knowing that each envelop might be somebody else stuck in solitary with no one to talk to, nothing to read. Or it might be somebody who’s getting out soon and wants to turn his life around (recently I sent books to somebody who wanted career guides and self help because he’s about to finish a seventeen year sentence). Or it might be somebody who’d like to play games – our criminal justice system hoovers up all kinds. But if we abandon people to our current dehumanizing, demoralizing system, we’ll mostly get one type back.
In jail recently, we read Bruce Weigl’s “A Romance.” I gave a brief introduction:
“A lot of Bruce Weigl’s poems are about trauma – we’ve read something about his childhood, and he wrote about serving in the Vietnam War. What is was like to return home, trying to deal with everything he’d seen. In this poem, he’s been drinking. Others are about trying to suppress the memories that keep coming back.”
Describing a hollow night out, Weigl writes:
I can’t sleep anyway so I go to bars …
A bearded dude near the back shook his head.
“I been there,” he said. “Can’t never fall asleep. Did two tours, in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they just kicked me out of veteran’s court. Said I was too violent. But all those other guys, the ones they’re letting stay, who’re getting helped because they served? None of them saw combat! I was the only one who’d fought! But they said veteran’s court’s not for me.”
“And it’s hard,” I said, “because people use drugs to try to deaden some of the horrible stuff that keeps whelming up, and the drug we say is okay to use, alcohol, is one of the worst. Researchers tried to rank drugs in terms of which are most dangerous, you know, for the people who use it and for everybody around them. I think alcohol was at the top of the list, then maybe heroin, and …”
“But what about pot?” Somebody always asks. In this case, it was somebody who says he’s in for marijuana, although he once let slip that it was domestic violence.
“I dunno … pretty far down. I mean, you can’t OD or anything, but you shouldn’t drive stoned.”
“I’d rather drive stoned than after eight days of meth!”
Well, sure. But that seems like a false dichotomy – shouldn’t the comparison be between driving stoned or sober?
“But what do you think,” the first guy said, “about them saying pot is, like, a gateway drug?”
“I believe that,” said an older guy. “I used pot for years before I ever had a drink.”
“Me too – my pops was an alcoholic, I didn’t want to touch that stuff.”
“I started smoking when I was thirteen … you had to know somebody to get a beer, but anybody could buy pot.”
“I mean, pot’s gotta be the first drug most people try.”
“No way. My kids, they’re one and four years old right now … and I can tell you for sure, the first drug anybody tries, it’s spinning. Around and around in circles till they’re staggering. Drunk, dizzy, falling down and giggling. Humans have always wanted to experiment with altered consciousness. Like, how would the world look if … every culture uses drugs. A lot of other animals will use them too. And we start young. Little duders love to spin.”
The guys thought this sounded reasonable enough, but I’ve reconsidered. Maybe marijuana is a gateway drug … but only because it’s illegal. I don’t think that smoking pot would compel someone to use other drugs, but our laws imply that heroin is no more dangerous than marijuana – both are Schedule I – and that Schedule II drugs like Vicodin are less dangerous.
Whereas most sensible people now know that alcohol is more dangerous than MDMA – it’s easier to overdose on alcohol, and easier to hurt other people while under the influence. But veterans with PTSD turn to drink because booze is legal. Not even licensed therapists are allowed to purchase the drug with a proven record for treating trauma.
(Note: pure MDMA is relatively safe, but a wide variety of chemicals are sold as “molly” or “ecstasy,” and some of those are dangerous.)
It doesn’t take kids long to realize how many well-respected, fully functional people have used drugs. Our previous two presidents both consumed many more illegal drugs than I did, and our current president probably did also – I assume cocaine seems less taboo to most people than paying young women for sex. Many cultures used psychedelic drugs as religious sacrament for centuries, if not millennia.
“When I was twelve years old,” one of the guys said, “my parents, first they burned all my records, then had our preacher take me to a mental hospital. But I didn’t know it was a hospital at the time. I just saw these people, you know, drooling, babbling, whatever. And they told me, ‘See these people? They’re like this because they used drugs.’ And it was years before I realized what they’d done.”
Siddhartha was born into luxury. Wealth wasn’t enough to banish a nagging sense of emptiness, but if Siddhartha hadn’t left the palace, he never would’ve known deprivation.
Instead, he walked. He met people afflicted with worse ills than his own lack of purpose – bedraggled souls who were poor, and sick, and miserable. He was horrified by the world we humans have been given.
The local gods feared that Siddhartha would gain enlightenment. Like Yahweh in the Old Testament, these gods believed that knowledge should be the exclusive province of the divine; like white supremacists in the Jim Crow era, they believed that shared access to the fountain would tarnish their own privilege. And so they sent a storm to disrupt Siddhartha’s concentration.
Like Satan in the Old Testament, a snake came to help. Mucalinda, a cobra-like naga king, believed in equality – humans too should have access to knowledge. The cobra’s hood formed a protective bubble around Siddhartha, protecting him from the storm.
Siddhartha gained knowledge. He now knew that non-attachment would free humans from suffering. Everything in this world is impermanent – in the very end, each speck of matter will be so far from every other that the entire universe will be dark, empty, and cold – and so our attachments can only bring us pain. We must recognize that our transitory world will always leave us unsatisfied. Even our moments of joy will fade – those fleeting bursts of dopamine aren’t enough to sustain lasting happiness.
To be free of suffering, we have to let go.
But I’m an assistant coach for the local cross country team. I run with the kids. We suffer – that’s kind of the point.
Attachment brings suffering, but, again – that’s kind of the point.
My favorite superhero right now is Deadpool. Most heroes have powers that keep them safe from harm – spider sense, super strength, telepathy. Deadpool’s power is simply the willingness to endure harm. As though tattooed with the word THOLE down his neck, Deadpool knows that life will hurt and sardonically accepts it.
He briefly considers non-attachment. When he learns that he has a daughter, he plans to stay away from her. Distance might keep her safe from Deadpool’s enemies – and would keep him safe from emotional turmoil.
Instead, he lets himself become attached. He will suffer; so will she. But he’s decided that the pain is part of life.
When Deadpool meets a young woman who’s so depressed that she’s contemplating suicide, he doesn’t advocate non-attachment. It’s true that her torments will be temporary, but that’s a Buddhist consolation. Instead, he tells a joke (he justifies his levity by claiming that his powers came when he was “bitten by a sad radioactive clown”) and takes her to experience more pain and suffering.
My own depression has seemed more manageable for similar reasons. Since I’ve been working with people entrapped in the criminal justice system, I experience more pain. More horrors are shared with me now. But that very sharing connects me more clearly to the world.
Those connections – attachment – will bring suffering, but that’s the very stuff of life. All you can do is endure. As the chemist Primo Levi wrote in If This Is a Man, his account of time spent in a Holocaust concentration camp (translated by Stuart Woolf), as long as you can resist becoming too absorbed in your tiny experience of the present moment, there is always cause for hope:
It is lucky that it is not windy today. Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live. It is raining, but it is not windy. Or else, it is raining and is also windy: but you know that this evening it is your turn for the supplement of soup, so that even today you find the strength to reach the evening. Or it is raining, windy, and you have the usual hunger, and then you think that if you really had to, if you really felt nothing in your heart but suffering and tedium – as sometimes happens, when you really seem to lie on the bottom – well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining.
You could always kill yourself later, Levi says, so why not see how much more you can bear?
And, yes, Deadpool takes the young woman to the hospital. When one of my acquaintances needed to go, I took her in as well. (I was on the phone with my father: “Just lie to her, tell her anything, but get her in.” I keep the volume on my phone loud enough that she heard everything he said. At least it was something to laugh about.)
Hang in there. The suffering won’t change. But you might.
In the King James version of Genesis, Adam and Eve began their lives as vegans. They ate nuts and fruit.
Then they ate Yahweh’s special fruit, so he expelled them from Eden. Yahweh said, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.” Adam and Eve would no longer live in a land of such abundance that they could survive on the raw produce of trees – instead, they’d have to cook bread.
And Yahweh rubs it in – even if you work hard, and procure food, and survive a while, still you will die. You humans are mortal.
(To the other deities, Yahweh offers an aside: “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.” Yahweh does not mention to the humans that their mortality was curable, His own doing, and His plan all along.)
In the beginning, bread was a curse.
Soon, however, the Western world treated bread as a mark of civilization.
In The Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew sail to Laestrygonia. Not knowing that the island is overrun by voracious giants who might slay and eat them, he asks who eats bread there. In Emily Wilson’s new translation, he says:
I picked two men, and one slave as the third,
and sent them to find out what people lived
and ate bread in this land.
Bread is alchemy. Flour and water and a speck of yeast aren’t enough to support a human life, but if you let yeast eat the flour, then bake it, suddenly you have a food that could nourish you for weeks.
In jail, meals are served with flimsy slices of airy white bread. I’ve eaten one meal at our local jail – the guards let us stay for dinner with the men after class one week, just after one man’s partner was murdered.
(The trio charged with murder – a woman and two men – were incarcerated in that same jail. The woman was placed into a holding cell adjacent to the dorm where the murdered woman’s partner lived. He stayed up all night, shouting to her through the wall. He was telling her to forgive herself.)
We received green beans, spaghetti, a slice of white bread, a cookie. To drink, our choice of milk or sweet tea. I’ve been told that our jail has better food than almost any other.
If you fold your spaghetti into the bread, they told me, you get to have a taco.
At the end of our poetry class recently, a man showed me his ear gauge, a round disc of purple and green.
“I’m surprised they let you keep it,” I said.
“They didn’t. It’s bread.”
“Bread. I made it here.” He popped it out to show me – it wasn’t quite as shiny as the stuff you’d see on Etsy, but otherwise looked just as nice. “While I been in, I must’ve went from a quarter inch to, what’s this, over an inch?”
“Bread,” I said, shaking my head. I felt hesitant to touch it.
“I been making all sorts of things. You need bread, and some pencil shavings, colored pencil, you know? I been making flowers, little sea turtles. I made a whole lot of flowers. Gifts for people, when I get out. It’s like therapy. While I’m making them, gives me something to think about, you know? It helps. Keeps the mind busy.”
The next week he brought a few of his sculptures to class. The flowers were incredible, each an inch or two tall, with green stem and leaves, petals in blue and purple. His sea turtle was only a quarter inch across and intricately detailed. Like netsuke, except …
“Bread?” I asked him again.
“Yup,” he said, leaning back in his chair.
I’d previously read about Robert Martinson making a chess set from bread, but I’d assumed the pieces would look gross. In “Solidarity under Close Confinement,” Martinson wrote about his experience being incarcerated for 40 days with the Freedom Riders in the 1960s. He reported that “chess sets and objets d’art could be molded from paste made from chewed bread and dried in the ventilator … I gloated over a tiny nest of buttons, string, chicken bones, and chess pieces – an affection I now find difficult to remember.”
Martinson was appalled by what incarceration does to people: “Of course, the persons we had become in our cells were difficult, boring things.” After his release, he studied prisons, hoping that the way we punish people could be made less awful. He was hired by the state of New York to address recidivism: did any type of programming reduce criminal behavior by ex-felons?
A turning point occurred with the publication of Robert Martinson’s 1974 essay, “What Works? Questions and Answers about Prison Reform.” Martinson ran some numbers and announced that rehabilitation programs have no positive effect on recidivism rates. This was the research that conservative pundits and politicians had been waiting for, and they made Martinson famous as they legislated a drastic turn from rehabilitation to harsher punishments.
With calls to “stop coddling” prisoners, prison education programs were slashed, weights were removed from the yards, the quality of prison food declined, prisoners were deprived of materials for arts and crafts, and so forth.
Even though Martinson really should have realized that this would be the consequence of his publication (and subsequent speaking tour), he was devastated. After all, he was a firm believer in social justice. He had risked his life to join the Freedom Riders. He began to study incarceration because he hoped to improve prisoners lives. As a result of his research, he’d written that prisons “cannot be reformed and must be gradually torn down.”
That’s not what happened. Instead, we started sending more people to prison, and made the prisons worse.
Which is why Martinson soon recanted his findings. It was true that the education and counseling offered in prisons weren’t very effective at staving off future crime. It was also true that the education and counseling offered in prisons were terrible.
If the available “education” is just a guard and some textbooks, is it surprising that few people are rehabilitated by it? What about counseling – with untrained counselors told to do “whatever they thought best” during five or so short meetings with their patients each year?
Nobody cared about Martinson’s 1979 publication, “A Note of Caution Regarding Sentencing Reform,” in which he apologized for flaws in his earlier work. By then, the punitive reformers had already gotten what they wanted: a lefty intellectual arguing that nothing works and so prisons should be cheap and miserable.
Martinson was horrified by the damage he’d wrought. That same year, he committed suicide – in front of his teenage son, he leapt from the window of their ninth story apartment.
At 9 p.m. on a chilly night in January 2016, I pulled on my winter coat, asked K once more whether she thought my plan was too foolish, then trundled out to the front yard to sleep in the grass. I pulled my arms close and lay there for several hours, uncomfortable and shivering, but failed to fall asleep. A few college students walked by; I don’t think they noticed me. Cars passed, blitzing my eyes with headlights.
Around midnight, I gave up. I stiffly rose, limped inside, sloughed off my coat and clothes, then crawled into a warm, soft bed in our dark, quiet, safe room. I quickly fell asleep.
I’d learned, again, that I am very blessed to have a home. Sleeping shelter-less in wintertime is awful. And a whole lot of people have to do it.
But that’s not why I was outside. I was writing a short story about one of the last Neanderthals and wanted to know more about what my protagonist’s nights might have been like. She lived in Europe approximately 40,000 years ago, a time when Europe was much chillier than it is now. She might not have felt so shivery at night – Neanderthals were perfectly capable of building campfires – but much of her life would’ve been marked by cold.
Fewer blinding headlights, though.
And more megafauna, creatures like mammoths, bears, lions, and wolves. More birds. More trees, sometimes – the Neanderthal clung to a tenuous existence, both individually and as a species, because of climate instability. During that era, Europe fluctuated between woodlands and plains as temperatures rose or plunged.
Then Homo sapiens migrated north and the Neanderthal went extinct. Murdered, starved of resources, passively outbred… we’re not sure. Even the least violent extinction would’ve felt heartbreaking to the final victims, though.
I began work on this story because I’d read Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake and kept thinking that he’d struck upon a fascinating genre: post-apocalyptic historical fiction.
Our civilization might fall. So many countries have nuclear weapons; an erratic narcissist has access to our button. A few degrees of warming and our food crops might die. Many of those crops are grown as single species across wide swaths of land: a particularly virulent insect or virus might wipe them out instead. Humans live so densely now, and travel so often: a virus might wipe us out, too. Or a bacterium resistant to our squandered antibiotics.
These horrors are grimly fascinating to read and think about: I enjoyed Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Jose Saramago’s Blindness. When we fall, we might fall hard.
Other cultures have. The Mayans, the Easter Islanders, the Roman empire, the pre-Norman Invasion English.
And, of course, the Neanderthals. Their language, and religion, and entire species was swept into extinction.
But there has been a recent boom in our understanding of Neanderthals. I assume you know about Moore’s law, the rapid rate of doubling in the number of transistors that can be added to a computer chip, which has resulted in a massive drop in the cost of processing power. What you may not know about – you’d have no reason to unless you work in bioscience or diagnostic medicine – is that even Moore’s law is dwarfed by the astronomical rate of change in the number of DNA nucleobases that can be sequenced per dollar. Experiments that would have been exorbitantly expensive a few years ago are now routine.
It astounds me that archaeologists can recover any Neanderthal DNA from their dig sites. But they can. From tiny scrapings, they can sequence genomes. And so we’ve learned, for instance, that males probably stayed in their tribe as they aged but the female children would depart. This gave me an incentive to write about a female protagonist – she would’ve been away from her family, searching for a new tribe – which is a fun twist on the post-apocalyptic genre.
Post-apocalyptic fiction typically features male protagonists because female characters evoke the possibility of rebirth (one of the few exceptions I know is David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress; Markson toys with this idea by having his protagonist make repeated reference to menstruation), but in the case of Neanderthals I think a female hero is appropriate. Neanderthals lost the world, but before departing interbred with Homo sapiens enough times that many modern humans still carry vestiges of Neanderthal genome in their DNA.
Comparisons between Neanderthal DNA sequenced from archaeological scrapings and the genomes of contemporary humans reveal that we occasionally interbred. Many different species of humans mated from time to time in the ancient world; some contemporary Homo sapiens still carry genes from each.
People who carry a hypoxia transcription factor from the now-extinct Denisovans seem better suited for life at high altitudes. People who carry a spritzing of Neanderthal genes seem especially susceptible to allergies and depression. Perhaps Neanderthal DNA conferred some benefits, too. Neanderthals seem to have been stronger, and had better eyesight, than Homo sapiens, but it’s not clear if genes for these traits remain.
The most speculative element of my story is the religion I gave to the Neanderthal protagonist. We’ve found no compelling evidence of Neanderthal writing or art, but this isn’t terribly surprising. After all, we’ve found very little artwork made by Homo sapiens during that time period, and they (we?) were some ten-fold more abundant. So I’d say that it’s reasonable to suspect that Neanderthal had language, and other“symbolic”behavior like religious belief, even though we have no evidence.
Of course, that same lack of evidence makes it impossible to know what they would’ve believed in. But that’s okay. Scientists cleave to the truth; writers get to make things up.
The religion I gave my protagonist does fit the scanty evidence we have, though. For instance, some Neanderthal practiced cannibalism. Knife marks on the bones show that they butchered the corpses of their own kind in the same manner as other oft-eaten animals.
So I imagined a religious taboo. Religious food taboos are prevalent among modern human cultures, even in cases where the taboo seems highly detrimental to health. Perhaps the best-known example is the religious proscription against eating fish among the Norse who settled Greenland. Excluding fish from their diet made a large contribution to their culture’s demise, whereas the fish-eating Inuit living nearby survived.
It’s probably very easy to believe in spirits during an ice age, since you’d see your own manifest in wisps with every exhalation. And so I let my Neanderthal protagonist believe that these spirits lived on in her own self. In her mind, a clamor of souls takes up residence within her body, burgeoning whenever she eats meat.
If eating also meant ingesting a soul, a Neanderthal might consume only those strong, powerful creatures she wished to emulate. She might eat her own fallen friends, hoping to keep them forever near.
At times she’d surely espy Homo sapiens eating squirrels, but the Neanderthal might conclude that these pusillanimous dietary choices contributed to the scrawny physiques and skittish behavior (always living in such large tribes! And, throwing spears from a fearful distance!) of those interlopers.
But we will never know… because, around the time those Homo sapiens interlopers arrived, the Neanderthals all died.
The Neanderthal extinction may not have been their (our) fault. After all, the climate was changing. Other large species went extinct or vanished from these regions during the same period. Or, even if the Neanderthal extinction was caused by Homo sapiens, it might not have meant outright war, murder with rocks and spears. Perhaps competition for food or safe shelter drove the Neanderthal to death…
But that’s not how we humans have usually treated ancestral inhabitants when we embark on a new frontier. The historical record is replete with examples of methodical, knowing slaughter. There is only so much world to go around, and natural selection has no reason to favor those who share.
And yet. We purport to be thinking, reasoning creatures. We can be better than our genes.
Life would be excruciating if we were not. Can you imagine: consciously remembering to breathe every few seconds? Concentrating with the intensity of a toddler each time you stand and walk across a room? Carefully considering the rules of grammar and conjugation when you stop to ask someone for directions?
Our brains zip through so much unconsciously. Most of us can drift into reverie while driving and still go through all the motions correctly, stopping at red lights, making the appropriate turns, our mind set on autopilot.
We live, and we learn, and our brains constantly change – neurons reach out to form synaptic connections to one another. Other connections wilt away. The resultant network determines who we are. More precisely, the pattern of connections determines which thoughts we are good at having. Thoughts we’ve thunk before come easily.
But our propensity for habit can hijack our lives. In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, viewers of the highly-addictive titular film are unable to think of anything but watching it again. One taste and you’re hooked!
Or, in an example closer to most humans’ experience, Marcel Proust writes of the way our shared experience with a lost love causes the brain to ache each time a similar experience must be forded alone. Over and over we hurt: going to sleep alongside her was a habit. Chatting in the evening was a habit. Walking to the store hand in hand was a habit. The brain is still wired such that it could effortlessly zip through these tasks, but… she is gone.
In an example that is – unfortunately! – increasingly relevant today, William Burroughs writes that powerful opiates do not hook users right away. It takes many recurrent episodes to rewire the brain. In his (overly cavelier) words:
The question is frequently asked: Why does a man become a drug addict?
The answer is that he usually does not intend to become an addict. You don’t wake up one morning and decide to be a drug addict. It takes at least three months’ shooting twice a day to get any habit at all. And you don’t really know that junk sickness is until you have had several habits. It took me almost six months to get my first habit, and then the withdrawal symptoms were mild. I think it no exaggeration to say it takes about a year and several hundred injections to make an addict.
. . .
You don’t decide to be an addict. One morning you wake up sick and you’re an addict.
And then, depression. To perceive the world a shade darker than it ought to be comes easily… to someone who is depressed. A depressed person’s brain has been rewired through perhaps a lifetime of rumination and pain. Suicidal ideation gets easier and easier and easier… unless it goes too far, and then it becomes impossible. Dead matter doesn’t think.
Cognitive behavioral therapy attempts to use the brain’s own habit-forming capabilities to battle depression. Because today’s depressed thoughts enable tomorrow’s depression, a conscious effort to find joy and beauty today could ease tomorrow’s struggle. Phrases like “virtuous cycle” are bandied about.
My wife, each evening, asks me to list four good things that happened during the day; if we forget the ritual through a harried week or two, it’s difficult to start again. I lay in bed, pondering, “What was good about the day?” Which should always be easy. I have two loving children whom I am graced to spend time with. I am not in jail. I have a warm, safe place to sleep. I have enough to eat. I live near phenomenal libraries.
But the habit of depression digs the mind into a rut.
Which has caused several researchers to wonder, “Would cognitive behavioral therapy work better if a patient could be jolted out of the rut first, then trained in a new virtuous cycle?” We have access to several potent chemicals that wrest the brain out of its routines. Psychedelic drugs like lysergic acid diethyl amide, dimethyl tryptamine, and psilocin are powerful beasts.
Which is not to say that, if you’re feeling sad, you should go find that raver dude you know and ask what he’s holding. For one thing, most psychedelics are illegal in the United States. This contributes to the dearth of high-quality clinical information about their uses – obtaining permission to run clinical trials with Schedule I compounds is difficult, and drugs can’t be downgraded from Schedule I status without reams of data from clinical trials. Nonsensical bureaucracy at its best!
Plus, high-quality clinical trials must control for the placebo effect – neither patients nor doctors should know whether an individual is receiving the treatment or a control. But I’m guessing most recipients recognize the difference between an injection of DMT or saline. Did your visual field suddenly fragment into geometric patterns? Did you feel an out-of-body sensation akin to alien abduction? Did your memories begin to unfold like interlocking matryoshka-doll puzzle boxes? Those are sensations I rarely experience from salt water.
And the sheer power of psychedelic drugs also makes them dangerous. Dr. Lauretta Bender, whose least harmful contribution to science was the idea that emotional disturbances could be diagnosed by asking a child to reproduce pictures of geometric shapes, assumed that LSD would cure autism. If she’d been right, this sort of baseless cognitive leap would’ve been heralded as brilliance. She injected large doses into the muscles of children as young as five. Daily. When that “cure” proved insufficient, she combined it with electroconvulsive therapy: high currents to overwhelm their little brains.
Enforced acid trips in nightmarish environs of total control can ruin lives.
Especially since Dr. Bender was diagnosing autism in routinely-abused orphans based on symptoms like “avoids eye contacts” and “difficulty forming trusting relationships.”
Acid trips can end lives, too. At least one involuntary research subject ensnared in the CIA’s efforts to use LSD as mind-control reagent committed suicide. And there are innumerable horror stories of murders committed by people mired in psychedelic trips. Then again, most murders are committed by people who haven’t taken psychedelics. In Ronald Siegel’s Intoxication he writes that:
Many bad trips are a function of personality; not everybody is a good subject for a mind-altering experience. And even experienced users can have a bad day. … Harold, a veteran of one thousand LSD trips, wanted to volunteer to be a psychonaut but he had a history of violence, both on and off the drug. “Ever since I was small,” confessed Harold, “I go ape when I’m bothered.”
.. [a grim description of Harold murdering two hikers outside Santa Barbara in 1984 follows. Yes, Harold had “drank some beer, smoked a little marijuana, and swallowed a few amphetamine tablets along with a full dose of LSD.” But he’d also “been bothered by financial problems. He was passing bad checks and had failed to make child-support payments to his ex-wife.” So I’m not sure the drugs were at the root of his malaise.]
Cases like Harold’s tend to confuse the issue of intoxication and violence. Violent people are often intoxicated but the violence is usually rooted in the personality, not the drug. . . . What seems difficult for us to understand is that despite overt behaviors, the subjective experience can still be fun. In other words, one’s inner feelings and sensations can be under the influence but such influence may not extend to outside acts in the real world that remain chillingly sober. This is most difficult to accept if users are obviously intoxicated when they commit criminal acts. The subjective intoxication can remain an enjoyable experience, despite our desire to blame the fires inside for the destruction outside.
Used incorrectly, psychedelic drugs are awful. They disrupt habits, seeming to dissolve the mental filters that allow humans to function despite constant bombardment by thoughts and memories and myriad sensations from the world. This newfound wonderment & reset can help, of course, but for someone in a bad place, it can be horrible.
Then again, for someone with post-traumatic stress disorder, the world might be horrible already – even if the chance that psychedelics could help were low, they’d be worth investigating. Thankfully, the FDA finally granted permission for a trial to be run on the use of methylene dioxy methamphetamine (ecstasy – when I was a TA for undergraduate organic chemistry at Stanford, I wrote most of the quizes. After they learned about acetal protection of ketones, all 200 or so pre-meds wrote out a partial synthesis for MDMA. The reactants and products were unnamed, so I don’t think the students or the other TAs noticed) to treat PTSD .
Many people, as they live, drift into routine and no longer consider the implications of their actions. I’m well aware that drugs can wreck lives, but sometimes we need a jolt. I wish people weren’t shunted to jail for drug addiction – and obviously the dudes in there wish they were almost anywhere else – but a surprising number are grateful that something interrupted their habits. Junkies don’t want to look back on a wasted life, either.