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.
There are tunnels beneath the city. Some were built by bootleggers and smugglers, and are older than anyone now remembers. The damp storage vaults – for hooch and heroin and illegal immigrants from across the sea – are now crumbling. Traffic rumbles far above. Other tunnels were made later, for the old railway and the mail system. Whirring conveyors once carried stacks of mail from the railway station at the waterfront to beneath the main post office. That tunnel, no longer used, is still accessible from the parking level of the mail depot.
One of the longest tunnels lies within the sewer system. It begins in a neighborhood on the west side of the city, runs almost three miles and to a depth of four hundred feet, and exits at the sewage treatment plant by the river. A network of service tunnels lies beneath the sprawling hospital grounds on the slope of the hill above downtown. The older segments, which once contained the steam plant and maintenance areas, are now closed off; but more than two miles of tunnels are still in use beneath the health sciences center. And I have heard stories of other tunnels that run beneath the law courts, or snake out from the massive, abandoned reservoir, now empty and dank and cavernous. Beneath a restaurant in the park lies an old bunker from the Second World War, its lower stairwell and ammunition rooms now submerged. The stairs descend, and are lost in the murk of dark water. A ring of daisies on the restaurant’s front lawn – no one planted them, they just sprung up – outlines where the artillery guns once lay.
Dark passageways, sealed rooms, silent chambers. The lost library of Ivan the Terrible is said to lie in hidden tunnels beneath Moscow. Sometimes I have thought of this while standing before the strange, irregular wall in the stairwell of the college, in the oldest part of the building that lies across the street from the main post office. Near the wall – which is surfaced with handmade terracotta tiles, each slightly different from the rest – is a battered wooden door locked with a padlock that appears not to have been handled for many years. I wonder if anyone still has a key to that lock.
The Moscow tunnels descend in a series of stacked levels – six, ten, twelve, who knows? – beneath the modern city. This network is built upon the beds of underground streams, now long dried up, and is threaded with secret tunnels: chemical laboratories and torture rooms from the Stalin era, makeshift underground dens built by generations of vagrants, mass graves of unknown origin. The library, with its countless Byzantine scrolls, is the great and lost treasure of that underground realm. The scrolls were brought to Moscow, as dowry, by the grandmother of Ivan the Terrible. She was the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor. The scrolls of such a library would have included Greek philosophical treatises and ancient Egyptian alchemical texts, palimpsests of Hebrew and Aramaic, chronicles of the rites of ancient religious sects: Essenes, Gnostics, Mandaeans. Geometry and history and mythology wound tight, the light of ideas turned inward and held by vellum and papyrus and copper. And all of it kept safe, within a library built underground to protect against fire. Hidden away, found (so goes the legend) by Ivan the Terrible, then lost again to history five hundred years ago.
Napoleon searched for the library, as did Khrushchev: beneath the domes of the Kremlin, among the catacombs and chambers buried by forgotten workers. I wonder what treasures might lie beneath the streets of my own city, in the smugglers’ tunnels that have no doubt collapsed in places but that still run from the basements of several old hotels to the waterfront. A few years ago, near the clinic where I found the suicide note scrawled upon the wall, city crews discovered one of those tunnels beneath the street. They sealed part of its length, where it undermined the structure of the road; but its various subterranean intersections remain, some fallen and others still stable as the city spreads above.
Of the various tunnels sealed by city workers over the years, only one is visible from the street. Or, more precisely, its outline is visible from the walkway of the traffic viaduct, between the sports stadiums, if one happens to know where to look, and if one leans far over, into the shadow of the high-rise tower, and searches for the tiny patch of steep and open ground between the high-rise and the street behind. The tower backs onto a cliff, the street surmounts the cliff, and the sealed tunnel opening lies perhaps fifty feet up the cliff face. Once there was a trestle here, which eased trains down toward tracks along the waterfront. And once the ground sloped more gently: before the construction of the towers, during which the rock beneath the tunnel was excavated. For many years before the high-rise was built, this tunnel opening lay bare upon the sloping ground, with empty air in front, as though a phantom railway tracked invisibly above the landscape.
The opening, now sealed, lies almost completely obscured by the high-rise monolith. But I can see, from the viaduct, the direction of the archway as it recedes toward and into the cliff. The trajectory of the tunnel is almost due north, beneath and in front of the old armory, toward another old rail tunnel that recently has been adopted by the transit system. The sealed tunnel is a spur, a remnant of underground track no longer used. It connects, a few hundred yards along, with the transit tunnel into which elevated trains now dive for their passage beneath the commercial district. The sealed segment is defunct, a part of the old city, now crumbling and forgotten, a fragment of stone hidden behind the glass and steel towers.
Above and behind the tunnel’s arched entrance, in a small patch of open ground beside the armory, a tiny park-like enclosure persists. It is bounded by a small, finely wrought stone wall, and upon this wall there are several street lamps of the Victorian variety: stout, surfaced with some kind of crushed vitreous material, capped by chambers of translucent white glass that no longer emit light. I remember such lamps from when I was a boy. One sat directly in front of my grandmother’s house. Even then, their graceful obelisks were vanishing from the streets.
The lamps above the tunnel, and the enclosing wall, have occupied this hidden space for almost a century, from about the time my family first moved to the city. This place, which developers will almost surely destroy, is a still center around which the turbulence of the city spreads. The undisturbed heart of the city is here, dignified, concealed. Probably the lights still function. Their amber light might be coaxed outward, might carry the welcoming glow of old things, not lost after all, reclaimed and made bright once more.
I do not know why the plugged tunnel entrance has a ventilation grille, high up, perhaps ten feet off the ground, and a rusting steel door welded shut. This door is small and square, as though it were designed for someone with a very odd stature. The door and the grille were clearly installed at the time the tunnel was sealed. The brickwork and covering concrete are neatly crafted to accommodate them. What is the purpose of such items if the tunnel is sealed, closed, finished? The granite stones that form the arch of the tunnel are square and true, and remind me of the craftsmanship of Egyptian tombs. Most of those tombs remain undiscovered beneath the desert.
But in the oldest Egyptian tombs and temples that have been unearthed, in rooms festooned with hieroglyphics, in texts that lay undeciphered for five thousand years, one may read of an ancient god who is the bringer of knowledge and of illumination. He is the mythological ancestor of Merlin and of the many guides and mentors who populate the old tales of every culture. He is the original storyteller, the inventor of writing, the trickster and wayfinder. His name is Thoth. The Greeks called him Hermes. He illuminates the labyrinths, the lost and switchbacking tunnels, and he is the keeper of the great and hidden library.
I drive east, thinking about old stories. I meander through traffic, scanning alleys between the high towers, looking for people I know. Several of my counseling students will be out today, trying to secure housing for the homeless, providing medical care for the Dumpster divers, asking after those who have simply vanished. Too many of those, and more every year. As I pass over the sealed rail spur I glimpse two men hunched over the heat vent of a nearby office building – one of only a few warm vents in the city. Over the years I have heard many stories of ruthless fights over that small and comforting space. In winter, especially, that heat vent might be a scrap of survival snatched from the frozen streets.
I pass a scraggly man in a blue windbreaker. My view of him is fleeting, obscured by the dust of traffic and by my ongoing speed. He is standing on the sidewalk, inspecting something I cannot see, but he looks up as I pass. He catches my eye for a moment before I am gone, and I see in his gaze that searching and hungry mood, the simmering despair overlaid with defiance, the expectation of dismissal that turns, somehow, into a preemptive rebuke. He’s not going far today. Perhaps he will cross the viaduct and search for a place to sleep within the clutch of bracken opposite the tunnel opening, where a narrow slice of unpaved ground unfolds between the viaduct and the office building to the south. Or maybe he will go to the park opposite the cathedral, where a small pond and neat lawn disguise the utility substation built underground. He might find food at various places, or a clean rig at the needle exchange. He might stop at one of the downtown clinics and ask for help. But I doubt it. He seems committed to wandering, at least for now. He is a coyote, alert to both his opportunities and his danger. He follows me with his eyes as I am carried forward by the flow of traffic. For several blocks I can see him in the rearview mirror, standing on the sidewalk, making himself less visible. Behind him countless cars flash across the intersection.
He’s drifting, a storm-tossed man shackled to his raft upon the driving sea. He reminds me – perhaps it’s his blue windbreaker, or his mane of unkempt hair, or his mariner’s gaze – of Odysseus, of that old sea tale of a man lost and trying to find his way home. I think of Odysseus visiting the island of the lotus-eaters, where some of his men become addicted to feral plants and must be dragged back to the ship, wailing. Later, after his shipmates are devoured by monsters and whirlpools, Odysseus carries on alone to the island of the enchantress Calypso. She imprisons him there for seven years, offers him immortality. But he is not swayed, and petitions her for release. Eventually, in a debate among the gods, it is decided (grudgingly, for Odysseus has offended the sea god Poseidon) that Odysseus should be freed to return home. It is Hermes, the wayfinder, who imparts this verdict to Calypso. Odysseus builds a raft and sails forth – into the teeth of a raging gale spun up by Poseidon (who, it seems, is still angry). Odysseus’s raft is swamped and he is almost drowned. But Leucothea, the White Goddess, comes to his aid:
Touched by Odysseus’s painful buffeting
she broke the surface, like a diving bird,
to rest upon the tossing raft.
Leucothea loans Odysseus her veil, which protects him as he is tossed upon the swells:
Here: make my veil your sash; it is not mortal;
you cannot, now, be drowned or suffer harm.
Only, the instant you lay hold of earth,
discard it, cast it far, far out from shore
in the winedark sea again, and turn away.
Leucothea provides Odysseus with magic sufficient to thwart the wrath of Poseidon; to thrash, swim, and survive. She arrives at just the right moment. She shares her gift freely. And Odysseus is saved because he listens, because he uses the gift to carry him through the dark waters. These are the stories I hear often in my profession: counselors surface – like diving birds – and rest upon the crumbling rafts of clients. Counselors offer simple magic: honest, direct, truthful. They point the way through the driving gale. And sometimes the clients – who are spindrift upon the sea – glimpse the veil of the White Goddess rippling in the wind. Sometimes they wrap themselves in that veil as they plunge headlong into the winedark waters.
Divine helpers such as Hermes and Leucothea appear in all the ancient tales. They know the paths to hidden things, they bring illumination, and they travel unscathed through the dangers of the human world. They are border crossers, wanderers, mythological heirs of the Egyptian god Thoth – whom ancient texts describe as “master of spells and words of power, voice of truth.”
As long as we have told tales, divine helpers have occupied a central place within them, helping and healing. They watch by night and guide the heart home. But as the man with the blue windbreaker passes out of my sight, and I make my way to another part of the city, I still feel the residue of his gaze, the heavy heart I saw in his eyes. Before I turn onto another road I send my thoughts back to him, there on the impoverished street. I wish for him safety, and guidance, and truthfulness. I wish for him the spirit of wayfinding, that he might be led out of his tunnels and labyrinths, that he find the still center of his own being: untarnished, persistent, with a protecting veil, finely wrought. And lights, old lights, still capable of burning bright.
Myths, stories, fables, legends: these are not simply artifacts of the eccentric or superstitious mind. They are maps, repositories of collected wisdom, ciphers and guides for making sense of the human journey. Whether archaic, prosaic, or postmodern, stories illuminate the paths undertaken by all those who seek resolution and healing. And stories are all the same, at heart, beneath the guises of religion, behind the consistent attempts to make them fresh and new, beyond the politics and tribalisms that run through the tales of every generation. Stories tell one thing: how to discover hidden illumination.
Many people are exiled from the tales of their cultures and histories. The tales break, and they lose the thread. This happens for many reasons – most of which have to do with childhood – but the result is vast and pervasive loneliness, a sense of disconnection, a drifting purposelessness. For without the thread of the story, the warp and weft of it within an individual life, the themes we inherit and with which we struggle and which we pass on – without these anchors we are castaways.
Healing from addictions requires the discovery, or rediscovery, of a story that bridges the chasm between the addicted and their own healing. That story might be spiritual in nature, or communal, or familial. The origin of the story does not matter much; but it must be a story of struggle, and of confrontation, and of coming through. It might be told by mentors – as are the stories of Alcoholics Anonymous – or peers, or a stranger one meets on the road. That stranger is an avatar of the old gods upon whom we stumble in the ancient tales. Helper, healer, guide. Without such assistance one cannot continue.
No one I have ever met has healed from addictions alone. I have known many who claim to have done so; but they are exiles still. In a new country, perhaps, but not the country of homecoming. One cannot cross the border of that country companionless.
The tale of healing need not be crafted, nor infused with imagery, nor even intentional. One might discover, as a boy living in a home of fear and violence, that there are others – of whom you have not previously heard – who went out to face the monster, to battle their own erasures, and that some of them came back, and were made whole. Your grandmother might tell you this, over tea, when you ask innocent and awkward questions about the war, the world, the past, and the future.
The story is a hinge, a spine, a well. Its discovery is essential, its absence a desert of longing. And it comes to one slowly, in fits and starts, sounding incredible at first, then making its way toward the possible. The story calls, in ways that are unfathomable, and calls again, and calls until we answer or do not. Those who do not answer become stuck. They move in circles, being called forth and refusing, distilling their shame into ever-finer tinctures of self-abandonment. This was my mother’s path. She did not find a story that helped her live in the world. Her familiar stories were of collapse, and despair, and the slow corrosion of passion. She possessed a beautiful spirit, yet it was incrementally submerged beneath the weight of her duress.
Join us, says the story. Understand what you may do. Use this tale, own it, and find your kinship with those who inhabit its wide and welcoming course. Open the map, find your place, and call with your strengthening voice, so that other travelers pause, and find you, and usher you forward.
The story is not a made-up thing. It is a living history of human progress.
The traffic is too slow for early afternoon. There must be a stall, or an accident, or a police incident (which, no doubt, would involve drugs in one way or another). I creep along, past the high school where one of my students runs a substance abuse prevention program. I remind myself not to get upset about the paucity of funding for prevention, which after all is the best and perhaps only way to make significant changes in addictive behavior. Support for children, mentorship for adolescents, education for parents, improved understanding for the community: these are long-term efforts, and are impolitic in the current social climate of the city.
But healing from addictions must begin with children and adolescents. In particular, most addicted adults trace the acceleration of their affliction back to the delicate and difficult period of high school. It is not an accident that this is also the period in which stories are crucial and elemental: film narratives, themes from music, urban myths. For adolescents, stories are secure stones placed across the pond of uncertainty. If adults do not offer stories sufficient to capture the imaginations of young people, if the adult stories are quaint or punitive or pedantic, kids will find their own sustaining tales. And sometimes, especially among kids from homes of struggle and insecurity, such tales will be of violence, and disaffection, and alienation, and death.
Eventually, by slow degrees, stopping and starting, I make my way past the high school. And as I do so, I glimpse, over the tops of the cars in front, the outlines of orange city trucks ahead. They’re working on the road. As I am nudged along toward them, and the right lane becomes blocked, and the trickle of traffic moves past the work crew, I see the big shovel digging far down beneath the street. A couple of guys in orange coveralls are positioning shoring walls within the widening hole, which is more of a trench, really, forty feet long or more and perhaps a dozen feet deep. They must be replacing the sewer pipe as part of the ongoing project – which apparently will take a hundred years – to replace all the sewer lines in the city with larger, more durable conduits. A length of new pipe lies on the boulevard beside a gravel truck. The pipe is large enough that a person might easily crawl through it. I wonder about this, and about the new tunnels that will enter the urban mythology of the city. I remember that a city crew once walked almost three miles, hundreds of feet underground, through a concrete tunnel that runs beneath my old high school. I walked over that tunnel every day when I was a boy, never knowing it was there. Usually, I read while I walked, keeping one eye on the path ahead and one on the text. My favorite books of that period were always about hidden things: concealed treasures, historical enigmas, ancient and almost-lost stories, secrets.
In those books – by Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Dag Hammarskjöld, Joseph Campbell, Jacob Bronowski – the secret and hidden treasure may be found: by the magician, the sage, the seer. The one who for whom all passageways are open.
The belief in secret and sacred knowledge is shared by many addicted people. Magic to change the world, or alter the past, or empower the future. Many substance users are dreamers, trying to make their way in a world that has turned its back on the imaginal. And the imagination, of course, is the particular realm of the adolescent. But when the imaginal is discounted, or dismissed, or made unsafe, the stories that might take root within it are themselves cast off, abandoned, left to rot and fester within sealed rooms and collapsed tunnels. And the treasures within those stories, which are always metaphors for self-discovery, become a lost library beneath the city. Sometimes, people forget that the treasure exists. They see, within themselves, the sewers only.
City trucks occupy the parking lane for a full block. Normally I park in front of the clinic, which is near the end of the block; but today I must go around to the lane in back and use one of the visitor spots. I turn off the main street, make an immediate left into the lane, and start looking for the rear of the clinic. I pass the back door of an ethnic restaurant, a small and rundown apartment building, and the loading dock of an office supply store. Each property has its own version of high security: cameras, steel doors, warning signs painted in red, wrought iron fences with sharp, peaked tines. The police have increased their enforcement a few blocks away, which in turn has made this adjoining neighborhood the most dangerous in the city. Almost all crime here is a result of addictions, of people finding ways to feed their habits and pay their dealers. It’s this way in every city. Addiction is the root and soil and leaf of almost all crime everywhere.
Never have I felt unsafe among these streets. It’s a story, a fable of which I am fond: that my sense of belonging, earned through long immersion, allows me to pass unhindered. Most of my colleagues feel the same way: that we are acculturated, we know the body language and mannerisms that enable us to slide by, effortless and invisible. We are not a threat. This approach, which is not so much a strategy as an affiliation, has kept me safe for many years. I have not been attacked or challenged or in a situation where I have felt at risk. Even on the meanest streets, where people die every week. I have spoken with my peers about this, wondering if I am the only one to feel a sense of security that surely must be false. But no, they all seem to feel this way; not invulnerable, but somehow immune. It’s an illusion I cherish.
Until today. I pull into a parking space at the rear of the clinic and turn off the ignition. I look around, searching for anything that seems unsafe. Fifty yards down the lane a group of young people – four, I think, three young men and a young woman – are gathered in a tight knot around something I cannot see. Based on their postures and movements, the particular flavor of their furtiveness, I assume that they are deciding how to share some type of substance. Not marijuana or alcohol – too furtive for either of those. Not heroin – even at this distance, I can see their physical tension, the way that two of them shift on their feet, back and forth. No, too much energy for heroin. Cocaine, maybe, but more likely crystal meth. Or, if not that, something equally powerful, persuasive, and illegal.
They are not interested in me. I retrieve my briefcase, climb out of the car, slide my anti-theft device over the steering wheel, and start walking down the lane. I might have phoned ahead, to have someone meet me at the rear of the clinic, at the locked steel door behind a high steel gate. But I had hoped to park in front of the clinic, where I could walk through the front door without escort or special arrangement. Now that the street out front is torn up and rattling with the noise of excavation, I must walk down the lane to the corner and make my way around to the clinic entrance. It’s not far; perhaps a hundred yards. Except for the four young people intent on their own business, the lane is empty.
I walk, enclosed within the bubble of my imagined safety. The morning is quiet, the sky above is clear and bright, I’m ruminating about tunnels and labyrinths and metaphors of healing. Spirals, mandalas, dark forests, the underworld, the wide sea: sacred tales in many traditions, all pointing toward illumination. I try to recall a passage from Herman Melville, a fragment about journeying and destinations:
Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could forever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.
Melville was an alcoholic. Many writers are. This makes sense to me. After all, the central task of writers and artists is to enter the labyrinth, to search within for hidden secrets. And because such labyrinths are, for each of us, maps of the places inside ourselves we have neglected, or betrayed, or which we deny, and of which we are ashamed – the path of creativity is difficult, and awkward, and fraught with peril. Most of the addicts I’ve known are people who have become entangled in the turns and dead ends of their own inner life. They are disoriented, tired, confused, afraid. Sometimes they lie upon the ground and invite death – because they can hear the monster, the denizen of that frightening place. And the monster, which every ancient tale confirms, is a projected chimera of our own frailty, or anger, or horror of ourselves. The monster is our own shadow: disowned, wandering, hungry.
Of course, it is the healer – teacher, mentor, magician – who alone of our various guises is capable of facing the shadow. This is why mentorship programs within the communities of addiction are successful. The skills and experiences of mentorship are, for both parties, a means of navigating the tunnels.
The pursuit of far mysteries. Flight from demon phantoms. Led on, then abandoned. This, it seems to me, is the essence of addiction. And the path of the addict is, more or less, parallel to that of the artist. Both enter the labyrinth, and encounter the shadow, and seek the still center at which the mystery is disclosed. The writer articulates that journey, the artist visualizes it, the addict lives it. And perhaps it is not only artists and addicts who undertake this pilgrimage to the self. Who among us is not haunted, and struggling, and calling down the dark passage, listening for voices that are more than echoes?
Is everyone called? Do we all crave the shadowless light, the flash of intolerable illumination by which we might be consumed, and unburdened, and set free?
The lane seems wider than usual. Perhaps the bright day has made it seem this way, or my own quiet and ruminative mood. After all, ideas do stretch the world and make it seem more accommodating. But attention to ideas, with the attendant inward focus that such attention requires, is a poor state of mind to evoke while strolling down the most dangerous lane in the city.
The knot of users is now a line, loosely spread out along a low wall at the rear of a small parking lot. Their number has grown, somehow, from four people to five. By the time I notice this change in their configuration I am twenty feet away. Two of them are looking fixedly in my direction, two are looking away, and one has begun to amble toward the middle of the lane. The woman is at the end of their line, practicing detachment. She studies a spray of gravel upon the ground. The guy closest to me is big, well over six feet, and is at least twenty years my junior. He looks at my briefcase. I wish that I was carrying my old satchel, which disguised my laptop much better than this new one. The new bag offers more padding but is also more obviously a briefcase for a computer.
They notice me noticing them. And they watch me shift my gaze, to the end of the lane, as I try to assess how much farther it is to the street. Even if I get there, the street is no guarantee of safety. If the cops happen to be turning the corner at the exact moment I emerge from the lane, I would be quite safe. But around here, things don’t usually work out that way.
I think of black bears, of the imperative to stand one’s ground in encounters with them, to back away slowly. To remember, above all, not to run. But I have already started to speed up, to grow nervous and skittish. In the moment I become aware of this I exert a great effort to slow myself down. I imagine myself growing larger, my energy expanding outward. I recognize that I have less than two seconds to respond: before the big guy, who is already shifting his weight forward, peels himself off the wall and joins his friend in the lane; before the other two sidle along the wall to close off my retreat; before they all rush me.
The big guy, whose white shirt is stained and rippling in the breeze, is on the move. By the time he takes his next step the others will be moving too. I raise my face, and look at him, and slow myself down even more. I want him to know that I am ready, and will not run from him, and will not make this easy. I keep looking. Fierce thoughts fill my head. I project them outward, with my posture and gaze and movement. All a bit ridiculous, coming from a short middle-aged man, bespectacled, with a sore hip that makes him limp a little, in the face of five attackers, young, thoroughly familiar with this game and confident of their dominance.
Of course it’s ridiculous. From their point of view I am easy prey. I look at the leader with what I hope is a piercing and aggressive gaze. I try to imagine that I am a lion. I walk straight toward him.
And he backs off. He adjusts his right foot and turns his next step into a shuffle, as though he is idly scraping the pavement with the sole of his shoe. But he uses the movement to shift his weight back; and as he does so, his companion in the lane also moves – to the side, not sure what is happening, waiting for another cue. But it does not come. The big guy returns to the fence. The woman is still looking away, into the middle distance. The other fence-sitters remain in place, studiously casual.
I pass them and keep going, looking forward now, watching the guy who has moved to the side of the lane. He is all that remains between me and the open street, now perhaps twenty yards away. He decides that he’s not going to give up so easily. He sways in my direction but he’s a little too stoned for this kind of thing; he walks haltingly, with an unsteady swagger. As he approaches, he loses his balance and pivots, turning his swagger into a crablike scuttle. I keep going, straight for him. It seems that I will run right into him. I know that if I attempt to go around he might take the opportunity to jump me from the side. So I press on. At the last moment, when he is less than a foot away, he swerves off. He mutters something I cannot hear, then carries on toward the fence.
The street opens in front of me. I turn the corner and step onto the sidewalk. The traffic from the intersection seems too loud, the sun too bright as it pierces the canopy of boulevard trees. People seem to be rushing about, impatient, frantic almost. Whereas in the lane, a soft quietude seemed to spread around us, blanketing the moments with stillness, muffling the sounds into distant, minor cadences. Now I am hurrying along, trying to keep up with the pedestrian traffic. I walk in front of a social service office where several of my students are employed, and I look in the window for familiar faces. But the glass is mirrored by sunshine streaming upon its surface, and I see only my own reflection and the blurring shapes of passersby.
By the time I reach the clinic I have regained my equilibrium. I’m chagrined at my own carelessness and inattention. But nothing has happened, after all. And I am unhurt, which is the important thing. I wonder what Trench – who once orchestrated such encounters for his livelihood – would have thought of my predicament. He would have eaten those people alive, as well as any others who might have been foolish enough to join forces against him. Trench was a formidable man, more fierce and frightening than anyone else I’ve known. He would have had no difficulty facing those minotaurs. But within his own labyrinth, where the terrors of his memory stalked him, he became disarmed, vulnerable as a child adrift upon the swells of a storm.
I hope that I helped Trench. I hope his nightmares are less frequent. I hope that he is alive. Today I would have liked to possess some of his intimidation, his improbable strength. Yet I made it through without them. I must remember, if and when I see him again, to recount to him the details of this event, and to tell him – following his laughter at my puny defenses – that I comprehend something new. Having entered his domain of posturing and ready violence, having been truly frightened there, I understand that when Trench entered my domain, of vulnerability and emotional exposure, he was truly frightened.
I understand his impulse to run.
Olivier is waiting inside the clinic. Elias is there, as well as three other counselors who are arranging the chairs for our meeting. I ask Elias about Ophelia. He tells me she has been in, a few times, to ask about details of the program and to feel her way toward a beginning level of trust. Elias is not pushing her, but rather waiting, as is so often our task. Waiting for that moment of clarity and intent, which sometimes comes and often does not. She’s still using, of course, and wondering whether her various habits – heroin, cocaine, cannabis, alcohol – will make her less welcome. Typically, those who use the greatest range of substances are those with the most troubled backgrounds. Ophelia, no doubt, is a survivor of childhood poverty and neglect, family violence, sexual abuse. At every developmental age she was cracked open and left to bleed. Perhaps she will talk about this, eventually, if she manages to avoid using for a year or more.
Elias knows that his work with Ophelia will take years. Right now, he’s trying to get her through the door. Next, they will talk about the program and her participation. Later, perhaps months from now, they will discuss her addictions and how she might reduce her use. She will not stop using, not yet, not while her life is a zoetrope spinning with images of violence and escape and simple survival. I have no doubt that her chosen substances have kept her alive. Without them, she would have died long ago.
The subject of our meeting today suits my mood, after my encounter with the minotaurs: dark, serious, frightening. We spend most of our time talking about a man who kills household pets. He finds them on the street, or in the park, and kneels down to coax them closer. He extends his hands in greeting, caresses them, makes them feel safe. Then he strangles them. He is an anonymous man, unnoticed and unremarkable. He uses cocaine, and alcohol, and sometimes prescription opioids. I visualize him in a faded army surplus jacket, on a street with a slight hill, where juniper bushes mark the edge of a yard. I imagine a cat with fur of mottled white and yellow. And my thoughts descend around this image, not wishing to follow it through, but being led unavoidably downward and into the darkness of it.
The man confessed to Olivier that he has recently killed about a dozen animals. Before meeting Olivier, he had not told anyone about this, not until he started working on his addictions and the emotional pressure of his secrets started to get to him. He has told Olivier that he feels guilty and wants to stop. But he sees the animal and something takes over – a force, an addiction, an imperative – and he begins to shake, and lose himself, and become engulfed by a great blackness. He is possessed by a memory from childhood, a fragmentary image of his father shooting cats. But that is the only part of the story he knows. The rest of it – the why – is a mystery to him. He cannot fathom it.
We grow quiet in our small group as we discuss the ethical and legal implications, our obligations to prevent harm, our responsibilities in navigating this situation. It is difficult for us to feel empathy for this man, to want to help him with his addictions and his impulsive, repulsive killing. He provokes in me outrage and aggression and a desire for retribution. And I see, in the faces of my colleagues, that they too are struggling. For ours is a profession of non-judgment and acceptance of others in the face of trying circumstances. We depend upon our compassion, we are sustained by it. Only an extraordinary circumstance might displace it. Yet sometimes it is displaced.
Several of us have known or have worked with children who killed pets for sport. Always they have been kids living in awful circumstances of abuse and neglect. Killing pets is one way for them to feel empowered, to treat another living being as they themselves have been treated. They don’t know why they do it. Something emerges from within them – a blind and black rage, a hatred of all things small and vulnerable, which is precisely what they are – and it takes over.
Sometimes, such children learn to stop: if the intervention is soon enough, and caring enough, and sustained for a long period. Many disparate elements must come together with precise choreography. If circumstances allow, and the relationships are strong and healthy, kids who exhibit such disturbing behavior might be turned from it.
But often the killing escalates, and a child who kills pets may grow into an adult who murders people. This is what worries us with Olivier’s client: not just the animals, which are shocking enough, but where the man might turn next. We talk about another man who is now in prison for the murders of some of the seventy women who have gone missing from the city in recent years. In one way or another, everyone in our counseling group has a personal connection to those missing women. Some were clients, or siblings or parents or children of clients. We’ve heard countless stories about the man who was arrested and about other, hidden perpetrators who might still haunt the streets. Many of the missing women were part of the addictions community, and their disappearance has created for us a sense of pervasive anxiety.
Every discussion of death and murder makes us think about the missing women. It’s what we do now, it’s our shorthand for the unimaginable.
The killers live in the tunnels. This is the domain I imagine for them. Beneath the storm drains, where used needles on the sidewalk are washed down by the rain. And the tunnels stretch beneath the city, so that these men might come and go unnoticed, ephemeral, unpredictable. They are ghosts, shape-shifters, skin walkers.
But one must go down. For the treasure – which is the other half of darkness – lies there too. And the ghosts must be confronted.
After the meeting, Elias escorts me through the maze of parking levels that leads to the rear of the building. Beyond the steel gate, a long ramp winds upward and into the lane. The minotaurs are gone. I climb into my car and drive south, away from the construction and choked traffic. I think of the labyrinths of Greek mythology, and of Odysseus traveling to the underworld, and of Merlin’s cave.
These are just metaphors, as the city is a metaphor. Symbolic maps for the human journey. And I think of the writer Jorge Luis Borges, the blind librarian who wrote of endless labyrinths and infinite books.
Addictions are metaphors, guides, companions. They embody connections between things in the dialect of symbols. Alcohol is a symbol of imagined power, heroin of quiescence and tranquility. Each addiction provides its own map of the labyrinth, and the monster therein, and the promise of discovery that lies in the shadow of the shadow. Addiction is simply a way of taking the path.
I do not subscribe to models of addiction that rely upon biochemical or genetic explanations. Such mechanisms do not, finally, determine our fate. Yes, the traces of emotional wounding might be found deep within our bodies, in the nervous system and the chemical tides of our cells. We do inherit various genetic dispositions. The nature of our embodiment is not entirely a matter of choice. Yet what I have seen, and what I know, is this: addiction is not a mechanism but a story. The tale hinges upon what we believe about ourselves.
This story, in the life of an addicted person, is unfinished. Typically it begins in childhood or adolescence, by way of trauma, abandonment, or violence. Sometimes the story begins with a vignette of sadness, or insecurity, or fear. Frequently it is passed down, by parents lost within their own unfinished tales of what might have been. The young carry it forward, not knowing that they have assumed its authorship. The story accumulates, and comes to surround the adult user. It grows, and spreads, and makes its way into every cherished space. Eventually its inflation occupies the whole world of the user. And in this way, the story makes itself invisible.
A community is a library of such tales, colliding and interweaving, carrying forward the gathered momentum of the past.
The vitality and vibrancy of stories is preserved by telling and retelling. Stories must change, else they ossify and become encumbrances. Stories of addiction are like this: unyielding, made stale by generations of repetition. But still powerful, and persuasive, and suffused with the momentum of suffering and loss and confusion. To turn the story, to invent for it a new and redemptive course, is the essence of healing. Such turns are authentic magic. To become our own storyteller, which is a task offered to us by the gods of ancient tales, is to find the subterranean library, to discover the lost books hidden there, and to write in them fresh tales of discovery. The library is infinite.
I was raised within the story of alcoholism, within its brooding and volatile atmosphere. I was immersed in that story, and I nurtured it, through my teens and early twenties, with the false anodyne of socially sanctioned excess. Boys being boys. I was called away, by my grandmother and other mentors, from that tale of despair. They waited for me at the crossroads, and for a time I passed them by. Yet their voices accompanied me; I heard their echoes from within the valleys of my duress. The slender thread of my connection to their stories – to the possibility of climbing out from my own shadowed tale – was stretched but did not break. The library of possibilities persisted within me, and grew, and would not be destroyed. Through the years that my friends and I drove drunk, and blacked out on the beach beneath cliffs of white and crumbling sand, new tales were writing themselves in the hidden scripts of my bones. I was scrimshawed with the symbols of hope and change and illumination. But I did not know it. I went on blindly, for ten years or more, deepening with my own footprints the paths of my mother, and her parents, and all the others who trudged along that careworn track.
There is a juncture, or a door, or a gate, in all the old tales. On one side lies the known, the practiced, the familiar. And on the far side, unseen and unimagined, lies the Other: the one we left behind, who has been waiting all this time. That threshold is a holy place; it does not decay, nor can it be thwarted, nor can it be lost within the tangle of grooved and meandering ways. The crossroads remains, and is protected. The air is still, and warm. Drops of morning moisture lie upon the tips of slender grasses. A sound comes from the far side of the gate: the soft warbling, perhaps, of a stream in the near distance. You reach out and place your hand on the worn wooden grain. Light streams through the small spaces between the planks. The wood is cedar, aged to the shimmer of silver. The gate might be opened with a small and gentle push.
Eventually I arrived at the crossroads, and found for myself the tales that were waiting there: of love and care and growth. My wife ushered me through that gate. Without her, I would not have found my way to it. She became, and has remained, the guide of all my travels.
That blind-drunk boy is not gone, nor is his mother with her crates of whiskey hidden in the upstairs bathroom. The traces of those stories are like river water – blue and glacial at first, then muddied with sediment, then dark and turbid where it empties into the ocean. The river water is dense, and preserves its separation from the salt sea, and continues to flow as a dark ribbon. Far out, where tidal currents jostle with the river’s momentum, the waters commingle and the sediment settles to the sea floor. I remember watching from a boat, when I was a boy, as the ragged line between the two waters churned and roiled and meandered. Miles offshore, this was, out in the strait that flows into the open ocean.
The alcoholic will always be a character in my stories. I will always be cautious of that old tale, its narrative will remain open within me. It flows, and will always carry the weight of its passage. Even as I empty it, the spring that is its inexhaustible source will be replenished, and run downstream, and seek the wider waters. If I do not honor that ancient spring, from which both wounding and wisdom have flowed, if I seek to stanch it, or hide it, or drive off the waters that lie beneath – it might overflow, and sweep me along its path, and drag me under, as it did my mother, until I am drowned.
That spring, and the crossroads gate, and the one who waits, are all fragments of a single story. And these fragments cannot be separated, nor excised, nor silenced. They speak with one voice, clear and soft and persistent. I hear it even now, drifting among the trees out back, merging sometimes with the sounds of the creek, or with the wind as it eases up the canyon. If I turn my ear toward that distant voice, and slow my thoughts, and stand still at the edge of the trees, I can almost make out the words.
I must listen very carefully.