Beginning With Fire
The Story of Addiction, Human Nature, and Evolution
EnchantmentsOur earliest ancestors measured time by sun, moon and star cycles. The arc of the sun emerging in the east, cresting overhead, then setting in the west, gave them a beginning, middle, and end for their days. They observed how every year the fixed patterns of stars made a great circle in the sky, and that about every thirty days the moon completed its transformation from the dark of the new moon, to luminous fullness, then waning again to oblivion. We travel back to such a time now, to view the birth of an addiction.
Beginning With Fire
Ru-agu was returning late from a journey that had taken him far from the clan caves in search of food. The weather had been dry for two complete moon cycles, but that night the air was punctuated by rumbles of thunder and flashes of lightning, offering the promise of rain. His small pouch of game at his side, he was making his way through the forest close to home when an explosion of thunder shuddered the ground beneath his feet, and a searing arc of electric blue light split open the darkness. Flames blossomed where the lightning had struck, and a suddenly gathering wind blew the fire directly toward him. He turned and fled back toward the meadow he had just left, reaching the open land just ahead of the flames. Sprinting across the grassland, tinder-dry from the drought, he clambered to an island of refuge on a rocky upthrust, then watched as the fire swept by him on either side, fanned by the hot wind blowing through the incandescent woods he had just abandoned. The coruscating wave raced across the width of the dry meadow, then invaded the stand of forest at the far side. A burst of flames, feasting on this plentiful fuel, licked skyward, grasping at the full moon climbing in the eastern sky.
And as Ru-agu stood there, panting from the exertion of his flight, something deep within him stirred. The ravaging power and vitality of the conflagration had somehow entered into his being. Life all around him had been ruthlessly extinguished, but he had survived the voracious flames, and he felt more alive, more potent, more fulfilled, than ever before. Without knowing why, without thinking about it, he raised his arms to the sky, swaying and dancing and chanting along with the music of the crackling, bursting trees — the rushing wind, and roaring flames.
The fire moved on, and clouds from the advancing storm swallowed the moon. Hugging his knees to his chest, Ru-agu sat on the rocky ledge watching the glowing coals pulse as wind played on them, and relishing the feeling of a new radiant center pulsing within himself. Suddenly the rains promised by the lightning arrived in a cascade, and within a short time the remnant flames were extinguished, amidst a great hissing of steam. The thing, the feeling, that was newborn within him welcomed the driving rain and steam, whipped into swirls around him by the gusting wind. It all felt part of a magnificent completeness.
Eventually the winds calmed, and the rain became a steady downpour. He stayed awake for hours in the dark until dawn began to break. Then he left the plateau which had saved his life and been the scene of a miraculous birthing, and set out for his home in the cliffs, carefully avoiding occasional live embers in the gray, ashen mud. The land through which he walked was utterly transformed — and so was he. But, where the land was barren and forlorn, he was vibrantly alive. He had discovered magic. And he would pursue that magic for the rest of his life.
* * *
Addicted to fire. It’s a quarter of a million generations later, and the word “pyromania” has been coined to name this experience. Much has changed over the intervening millennia. Our world has become filled with transformative magics, and pyromania is rare, compared to other addictions. Indeed, in the story of addiction we are crafting here we will see that the array of human behaviors and activities that can provide the transformations that serve as seed-crystals for addiction is almost unlimited, including some that are quite idiosyncratic. But for now, while we develop our understanding of how addiction enters our lives, we’ll stay within familiar territory. For the story of our prehistoric pyromaniac we had to reach into our imaginations, and envision a scene which can only be a fanciful guess at the details of how things might have happened. Addiction to alcohol is quite another matter. With the development of agriculture around ten thousand years ago, we were in a position to systematically produce alcohol. And from that time to the present, in almost every culture which has left us a record, people have been inspired by this powerful drug to leave a trail of pictures and writings attesting to its transformative potential.
Because it is so familiar to us, it will be helpful to examine the birth of addiction in a fairly typical present-day alcoholic. And in this case, unlike our conjectural story of the first pyromaniac, we will not be speculating; I can simply report.
Is This Heaven?
An hour short of midnight we turned into the entrance, switched off our lights, and drove deep into the cemetery, past row after row of gravestones, luminous under the first full moon of summer. There were five of us in the car, all sixteen or seventeen years old — well shy of the twenty-one-year drinking age in Iowa. The graveyard was a perfect site for our mission, combining an exhilarating sense of the macabre with the privacy needed to drink our illicit beers. Well inside the cemetery, distant from the subdued glow of streetlights and the scanning beams of passing vehicles, a flat-topped memorial stone offered itself for our nocturnal one-course picnic. I tried to seem nonchalant while someone passed around the cans. I didn’t want it to be obvious that, while this wasn’t the first time I’d had a beer, it would be the first time one beer was followed by a second. And a third. And a fourth.
And maybe a fifth, or more. I don’t remember for sure. What I do remember like it was yesterday is the effect. Up to that moment I’d been plagued by feelings of inauthenticity — that I was going through the motions, but somehow missing out on the banquet of real-life experience that others enjoyed. But now, as the alcohol from a few contraband beers lodged in the appropriate sites in my brain, the pale, iridescent tombstones bore silent witness to the most remarkable transformation I had ever experienced. Within a few short minutes I was no longer a forlorn and yearning voyeur, but rather a player — an integral part of the vital flow and wholeness of the world.
Scenes from that night in the cemetery have stayed with me over the years. One mental snapshot has me and my friends sprawled amongst the monuments, drinking our beers, talking, laughing and clowning around, while I basked in the feeling of inclusion. These really were my friends — I was an integral member of the group. Of course, they had been my friends all along. What changed was my ability to realize that in the depth of my being. I had long felt that I would have given anything for the kind of acceptance and inclusion I was feeling now. It seemed like the most amazing trick in the universe to be able to have such an experience simply by drinking this earthy, effervescent liquid.
Another memory has me running with Richard, a track athlete, through the paths among the gravestones, just the two of us. The feel of my body fluidly cleaving the night air filled me with wonder and awe. I seemed to glide across the land without quite touching down — somehow exempted from the stricter mandates of gravity. And, I realized with grateful astonishment, I felt none of the self-conscious inferiority which usually plagued me when I tried to do anything athletic.
But perhaps the single most glorious moment of the evening, filled with a sort of perverse poetry, was when I stepped behind a tree, stood in the moonlit night and pissed a fulsome, beer-impelled stream out onto the ground. This was not an expression of disrespect, but of celebratory abandon. In that interlude of release was simultaneously an experience of such fullness that the two sensations together - fullness and release - coalesced into an epiphanous moment where there was power, and freedom, and wholeness; wholeness within and without. And these sensibilities seemed to be of the highest order: the feeling of power was grand, but not grandiose; the sense of freedom felt pure and graceful, rather than willful; the experience of wholeness was immediate, direct and simple — uncomplicated.
I was to drink many beers after that night; many alcoholic drinks of one kind or another. Over the next couple of decades I would, in fact, increasingly devote my life to consuming alcohol, and/or other drugs, attempting to recapture the transformative magic of that evening. Despite this dogged persistence, however, I may never have experienced quite the degree of fulfillment I felt there in the cemetery that first drunken night, bathed in moonlight, rhapsodic and lyrical throughout my being, urinating with serene and amiable abandon on the grave of some anonymous Ancestor.
* * *
Although the movie would not be made for another thirty years, I’ve borrowed the signature quote from Shoeless Joe Jackson in the movie Field of Dreams, “Is this heaven?” to introduce this reminiscence, since it so perfectly sums up my sentiment at that time. (And, after all, I was in Iowa.) When I experienced that first embrace of alcohol, I felt “...part of the vital flow and wholeness of the world;” “...serene and amiable abandon;” “...rhapsodic and lyrical.”
In our first story of enchantment we saw that Ru-agu, caught up in the thrall of his experience with the wildfire, felt “...more alive, more potent, more fulfilled, than ever before;” “...a new radiant center;” “…a magnificent completeness.” Clearly, there is a great resemblance between the stories of myself, and our imaginary prehistoric forbearer. In both cases the initial invitation to addiction was through gates of ecstasy — of getting “high.” Based on these two stories we might imagine that every addiction makes its first appearance on wings of rapture. And indeed, it is true that every addiction originates with the gift of a magical new solution to the “problem of self.” But magic comes in many flavors. The solution to the problem of self is not always rapturous. Often the desirable transformations are more subdued, more muted. For an example of such a case, we visit the story of Jennie, again using the familiar example of alcohol.
Shelter from the Storm
Jennie remembers watching her father sit at the kitchen table, carving the drain hose from their broken washing machine into a “teacher,” is how he put it. He carefully pared the stiff rubber, tapering the hose into a ferocious, stubby lash, reminiscing about how, when he was “a little shit,” (at age four!) his own father once held him upside down by the ankle with one hand while beating him with a similarly carved piece of hose till he was unconscious. “By God, I learned,” her dad said. Jennie wasn’t sure exactly what her dad had learned, other than how to beat his own kids. What Jennie learned was to stay the hell out of the way.
Jennie’s family lived in a hardscrabble neighborhood, and pretty much everyone around her lived by the perverted rendering of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others before they do unto you.” Jennie, however, had no stomach for this way of life. She even lacked the vindictive reflex; the inclination to respond to cruelty with retaliatory acts of cruelty. But her tentative attempts at friendliness were met with rebuff and ridicule. Or, most painfully, with a sort of malevolent opportunism; someone would seem to warm to her, but then abruptly turn on her once she was no longer useful to them.
So eventually Jennie gave herself over to the only strategy which yielded any consistent solace — hiding. She became skilled in the arts of invisibility, skilled in finding or creating hiding places. And when she wasn’t literally hiding, she learned to move so inconspicuously that she could often enter or leave a room unnoticed. Because mastery in invisibility, as in any art, involves a belief system as much as it does particular skills, Jennie began to develop a personality and belief system which served her imperative need for anonymity. She began to believe in her own lack of substance. She became drab, unremarkable. As she said about herself years later, she “took refuge in beige.”
Jennie succeeded in her campaign to avoid attention all too well. This young person who had been hurt so deeply and persistently throughout her life was, by the age of twelve, in big trouble, and desperately needing attention. Externally, her experience of school was disastrous both academically and socially, matching the harshness and desolation of her home life. And inside herself she settled into a chronic state of depression, increasingly punctuated by tantalizing reflections on suicide. Despite the severity of her situation, however, it went largely unheeded. People around her were busy attending to squeakier hinges, and quiet, unobtrusive Jennie, cloaked in her habit of invisibility, could well have succumbed to the enticements of her suicidal thoughts, had she not made her lifesaving discovery — she learned to drink.
At the age of twelve, Jennie discovered alcohol. And, she firmly believes now, it saved her life. The very first time she drank it, alcohol brought her a sense of sanctuary more reassuring than any hiding place she had ever found. Why? Because alcohol changed her on the inside. When Jennie was intoxicated, she felt that her essential self was thoroughly hidden away; tucked into its own safe and secret place, no matter how exposed or persecuted she might be on the outside. By the time Jennie was thirteen, she was managing to drink herself into this secure hideaway throughout the better part of most days.
Of course this solution was not without its price tag. To maintain her drinking supply Jennie had to compromise herself in ways she would previously have found unthinkable. She began making herself sexually available to older boys in exchange for alcohol, and stealing mouthwash, which she drank by the bottle for its alcohol content, from drugstores and supermarkets. Risking, and sometimes enduring, brutal retribution, she stole money from her parents and siblings to pay older teenagers and derelicts to buy liquor for her. She fractured an arm one night when she tried to break into a closed liquor store, triggering a burglar alarm that startled her off the crates she'd stacked up to get to a rear window. But never for a moment did she feel that the price was too high.
Still, despite her willingness to go to virtually any lengths to maintain her supply, occasionally Jennie would run out of booze. Then she would experience a brutal kind of double jeopardy. In those rare sober moments not only was she vulnerable again to the cruelties of others; she was also subject to great waves of regret and guilt — an ocean of shame threatening to drown her in self-loathing. Before she discovered alcohol such an onslaught of vulnerability and self-hatred would have pushed Jennie to the edge of suicide, and perhaps over. Now, however, she would simply redouble her efforts to obtain alcohol. Within minutes of taking just one drink, the negative feelings would diminish, and, with continued drinking, disappear entirely. The booze was such an effective refuge that it hid her away even from the voice of her own conscience.
What more, she felt, could she possibly ask?
* * *
Fire for Ru-agu, and firewater for my young self, and Jennie. Potent agents of transformative magics that have been with us for thousands of years. But in today’s world these are but two among a countless myriad sources of enchantment. We close this chapter with a story wherein primal urges and modern technologies merge to spawn a darker shade of magic.
Tony died violently, as he had expected. Just as he was rounding a corner on his motorbike, savoring the satchel of heroin in his side bag, and the memory of how he’d blown away the dealer he’d just stolen it from, red and blue lights erupted out of nowhere. His gun ready in his right hand, he shot out the window of the cop car, killing the driver, whose car then careened into the side of a building. But three more cop cars converged on Tony, leaving him no open road. So he pulled the bike around in a tight one-eighty, peeled up onto the sidewalk, narrowly missing a pedestrian, and sprayed bullets into the side windows of one cop car as he rode by, so close that he could have brushed it with his hand. He opened his throttle — and slammed into a taxi rounding the corner, just as the first bullet hit him from behind. He laid the bike down in a wild skid, turning at the same time to return fire toward the cops and force them to duck for cover. Jerking open the door of the cab, he pulled the driver out with his free hand, climbed in, slammed the door shut, and hit the gas. I’ll get out of this, he thought. I’m not hurt bad. Then he was rammed by yet another cop car, and the taxi stalled. I’m not gonna die boxed in here, he thought, and bolted out of the cab, spraying bullets. But his body was taking more shots, and he knew he was done. Though his eyes were fixed on his own blood pooling darkly on the street at his feet, he kept shooting as he fell and managed to take out a few more cops before he crumbled, eyes open but lifeless, his cheek on the curb, and his right hand still clutching his AK-47 semi-automatic.
“Shit!” Tony said, tossing the control on the couch. His fingers were cramped from the last three hours of directing his video-game character through the streets, alleys, bars, rooftops and crack-houses of the imaginary city of San Andreas. He got up, went to the bathroom, and stopped by the fridge for snacks, before settling back on the couch for another stab at this mission in which he’d died four times, so far.
Tony had been playing “GTA” (Grand Theft Auto) since his uncle gave it to him on his fourteenth birthday, three months earlier. He prudently kept the game at dad’s house, knowing that the scenes of casual, wholesale violence and the obscene language would get it declared off limits in a heartbeat at his mom’s. The game was made up of hundreds of missions, and it always took Tony a number of tries before he could complete a mission without getting “Wasted!” — as the blood-drenched words on the darkening screen announced every time he died. Then he’d find himself back at the “cut-scene” that launched the beginning of that failed mission, being given his orders (again) by some underworld character, and sent back out to navigate his way through the seamy underside of this sprawling metropolis. Each time he set out to retry a failed mission, there was a curious sense of anticipatory triumph in his gut — sort of like “You see, you can’t really kill me. I’ll always come back, and I’ll always get what I want in the end.”
As Tony progressed through the game, he acquired more trappings of power and prestige; weapons (ranging from baseball bats to rocket launchers), money, fancy clothes — and women. This last aspect of the game would definitely have sent Tony’s mom into orbit. Women in the world of GTA are, with rare exceptions, ornaments and indulgences; strippers, prostitutes — and the occasional road-kill, as players speed their latest hijacked vehicle through the city with zero regard for red lights, or any other conventions of safety or civility.
Tony’s dad watched him play his very first mission, and when he saw Tony’s character die in short order at the hands of some two-bit punk, he said “I sure don’t see why anyone would want to come back for seconds!” — and wandered away. Dad wasn’t exactly thrilled with what he saw and heard of GTA, but since it was a gift from his own brother, who assured him that all the kids were playing it and it was just this generation’s way to rebel, he went along. And he was encouraged to see that, when he wasn’t glued to the game, Tony was still a polite kid who did his chores around the house without much bitching, and didn’t get into trouble. Also, Tony had agreed to use headphones while he played the game down in the rec room, so the sounds of gunfire, explosions, racing engines, car crashes, “gangsta” slang, and hip-hop background music didn’t compete with dad’s football games on the TV upstairs.
Tony preferred the headphones in any case; they made his immersion in this fantastic universe all the more complete. In the world of GTA he became single-mindedly dedicated to carrying out selfish, even senseless acts of violence, knowing that the worst that could happen is that he would “die,” and have to start the mission over. He would sometimes, after shooting, stabbing or beating someone to death, kick the corpse repeatedly, watching it bounce with every blow of his foot. Usually the people he killed were cops, other gang members (Tony’s character was in a turf war for control of San Andreas), or people who just got in his way. But sometimes he’d shoot somebody just because he was bored, frustrated, or didn’t like their looks. “Who you lookin’ at, fat motha!” he might mumble, and blam blam blam — an anonymous bystander collapses in a pool of blood.
And Tony was a hell of a nice kid. Truly. He was shy and awkward at parties or in large groups, but one-on-one or in a small group he was a great friend. Other kids liked to hang out with him because of his calm, good-natured presence. He was careful not to say things that might hurt others’ feelings, and the idea of doing physical injury to another person was repulsive. So what drew him back night after night to reenter this world of amorality and violence, where he would often spend hours without even realizing it, until he looked at the clock and realized he had to leave for school in four hours? Tony didn’t know, and didn’t choose to think about it. His dad sometimes tried to tease him while he was playing, calling him a “Zombie.” Tony hardly noticed, barely nodding in reply. His breathing was shallow, and his mouth hung open. Eyes riveted on the screen where the carnage was unfolding, his body was motionless except for his hands, which wrestled with the numerous buttons and levers on the control “joystick.” When his physical need to go to the bathroom finally overrode the spell of the game, Tony would often discover that parts of his legs or feet would be stiff, intensely tingling, as blood finally found its way to muscles that had been petrified for hours.
But his body was irrelevant. All the action was inside. Not inside his head, exactly — at least, not if “inside his head” means thinking. It was more in his being. The game grabbed him in the bone marrow of his soul. It became impossible to tell if Tony was playing the game, or the game was playing Tony; Grand Theft Auto and Tony became a joint being of power, focus, intensity, license, urgency, presence. The GTA/Tony entity laughed at pain and death, lived and died in a world where loyalties meant everything and nothing, celebrated meaninglessness until it took on a perverse kind of meaning, drank in sensation to the point of numbness.
There was, midst the depravity of the GTA world, a stillness in the heart of all the madness, a kind of dark radiance that transported Tony, delivered him out of the smallness of his normal life into a ferocious enormity of being — fed him in a way that nothing ever had.
Of course he came back for seconds!