I can get very into renouncing. The word renounce—from the old French word renouncier, meaning to cede, to give up. Also, from its deeper Latin origins, it means to proclaim, and to protest against (okay-okay, I know I exceeded the socially tolerable quota of etymological references already in the last episode, by about two. So I’ll just quit this uprooting of words now, I’ll renounce that, too)—I just want to announce that I have renounced my majorly hedonistic escapades. No more watching porn. But what happened is more interesting than that. I mean, yeah, for me much more interesting, but it didn’t happen immediately, and I want to take the time to explain it, because it’s a very good thing.
In the immediate aftermath of my relapse I was loudly proclaiming that I, for the sake of my marriage, would sacrifice my selfish porn-pleasuring, which my wife fucking hates. Ohmygod, I’m, like, such a drama. But, yeah, it’s very true that carrying on would require my continuing to lie to her, and I totally hated doing that. It’s not insignificant that I quit lying to my wife. But I’m not just saying happy wife, happy life (which this husband and wife agree is a stupid saying, but anyway, going on, it is what it is, and there’s another one, even more annoying).
I’m not only saying that I don’t abide lying. I don’t. I mean, I can’t, because being honest and truthful—the difference between being honest and being truthful, by the way, is that dishonesty is telling a lie, it’s pretty specific. Truthfulness is more than that, it’s full disclosure, volunteering the context—remember Bill Clinton playing verbal twisters trying to not actually lie about having sex in his office, being so utterly and obviously untruthful that you know he’s a complete asshole. So yeah, there’s got to be truthfulness. Not just no lying to my wife. Better late than never. Late, as in age sixty-eight and six years into my second marriage.
So, that’s good, but it’s not interesting—I’m not very interesting! I think I’m pretty fucking boring! Rock stars burn, the B list rusts out, and I’m flaking off like cosmic dandruff.
But, still, I am telling a story about a personally and spiritually significant thing that happened to me. And what it is, is that during the post-relapse weeks, working through my renunciation in my individual therapy and in my contemplative practice, I uncovered an essential truth about how I’d been causing my own suffering. I realized that in my inner chain of mental events there’s a link that comes before the addictions, and what this is, is my habit of hiding. Habits are amazing. They seem so banal sometimes but really, it’s mysterious as hell how we remember and perform them. Habits are father time’s spawn. Including all addictions—like the progeny of Zeus in feathered glory raping Leda: A sudden blow, a shudder in the loins engendering there the broken wall, the burning roof and tower, for fucking ever. And my momentous habit is hiding myself away. Running and hiding was my original reaction to existential threat, become habit slash addiction. I recognized this first in meditation, when I could ride out the flood of feelings. I later talked it through with my therapist. There was a lightbulb moment in a therapy session that brought tears to my old doctor’s eyes, and to mine. And then I meditated on it some more, quite a bit more, doing mindfulness meditation for two sittings daily, one for an hour in the early morning and one for twenty minutes in the afternoon, pretty much entirely focussing on this, for, like, weeks. And all during this time more therapy, weekly sessions, two hours each. Repeat, rinse, repeat.
What I came to understand through this initial realization and ensuing process is how ever since I was very young what I’d been forever trying for was: to make my escape. Running away and hiding out, to get out of here alive, to be a paradise-time traveller, escaping from anything and everything, or from nothing. For sure from suicide—Alan was a kinder, sweeter, and more beautiful young person than me, I was a very poor friend to him—I desired annihilation, too. I just didn’t pull it off. My best friend and me, we watched the ways our schoolmates, siblings and parents were destroying themselves, the everyday cuts, the soul-shrinking choices. We couldn’t face school and career choices, saw it all as narrowing instead of enlarging ourselves. Our losing faith is what killed him.
You hear people say: this guy’s got issues, addictions, because he won’t man up to life’s challenges. Why doesn’t he suck it up? Everybody’s got trauma, fears, doubts. Just grow the fuck up, man. I hear that, and for many years, that’s what people said of me. And yeah-no, they weren’t wrong, but look, I couldn’t recognize and really actualize this stuff before. Uncovering deep and ancient trauma, real trauma, can be more than just a little overwhelming. Time and time again, escaping saved my life. And Alan one time did not have the good luck I had.
Eventually I just got stuck, just sank into the tar pit. And then even after I thought I’d abandoned the notion of paradise, after I’d stopped believing in any substantial reward and seen the futility of taking and holding a position regarding wanting and not wanting, even when I’d found a balancing point between being attracted and being repulsed, started experiencing some equanimity, there was still my reactive craving, my ingrained resistance to making the decision to live, like, right now. Like the existentialist author Camus said was the essential starting point of a philosophy, the choice to not commit suicide, today, but instead to get out of bed and do, what? Something. To act, like, choicefully. But instead I was still writhing around twitching. Remembering. I could not forget how feeling absolutely and amazingly great is still always available. And whatdyaknow I was still ready, still fully prepared, to get out of here fast. My old escapist habit was still being maintained as an option. And by keeping me going, it was at the same time keeping me in step, one foot after the other. I was still renouncing, resolutely, but with the exit sign still blinking, I was nowhere near redeemed. Plodding along in the expectations of others. And especially in pandemic time. Even while I’m definitely getting old, with my luck running out.
And here’s the bliss by online order in barely more than one moment from anytime. Which dispensary will be the first on my street to deliver drugs by drone?
But the thing is: this time around, amazingly, becoming aware of my escapism as a habit, and getting my hands on this ancient chain of thoughts and feelings, I found that I could actually let it go. After all, breaking habits is what I do. And so, with the letting go, the chain snapped. Just imagine no fear of falling, of failing, of being lonely. I’ll still fall, fail, and sometimes feel very much unloved. About all these things, who knows? I reckon it’s nothing personal, and once in a while we’ll still get lucky. Fortune doesn’t discriminate. It falls like a gentle rain, like mercy, like humour. Funny, meanwhile, how feeling really bad can feel very okay.
Another thing, though, now, I’m way more vulnerable. I get hurt. The little wizard behind the curtain, he gets hurt. Really a lot. He’s saying: ow, ow, ow. And ohmygod, why not, he caused a lot of harm. He missed a million opportunities to reduce suffering. I feel so sad now, staring into a future that just ain’t what it used to be—I said that a thousand times in pandemic time, the future just ain’t what it used to be—I used to think I was quoting Marshall McLuhan but makes more sense it was Yogi Berra. Probably what I heard was McLuhan quoting Yogi Berra. Whatever. I cried once, and now I’m crying again, but probably I won’t cry forever. I don’t know and it’s okay, very okay, that I just don’t know, all, just don’t know.
Creatures that shed their skins, snakes, and lizards, they are temporarily blinded at the end of the process, as the skin gets peeled off the eyes.
The insight that came over me—this insight, what was suddenly obvious: I don’t need to hide. Not anymore. When I was a child I had to escape in order to survive in world that had no place in it for me. Where I’d get whacked for no known reason. My fantasy life was my immune system response. My homeostasis. Homeostasis is an important concept inaptly named because it’s never in stasis. It’s always changing. It’s a game of homeo-dynamics. The goalposts are constantly moving. Ten years old and it was, like: I’ve got my library card and my bicycle, and if I lose either one of them I got nothing. I needed reason to believe in the other realities. Day-dreaming out of books was my survival strategy. An organismic movement away from pain and fear that my system could not tolerate. Approaching my teen-age years, there was no one in my life who really saw me, except as a potential problem. And then things went downhill. And we had no idea. My being somebody’s problem became somebody else’s business opportunity. The baby boomers going through puberty in the late sixties blossomed into fantastic new varieties of customers. I became the “custie” of a rapidly maturing new stage of capitalism. As soon as I got enough cash to lever some purchasing power, I was sold-out to the so-called counter-culture, and what was sold to me as flower-powered freedom was really middle-class white-brat hedonism. And of course it was a rental.
Back then what I needed was at least one adult who was paying enough attention to ask me what might for me be wholesomely interesting and eudaemonically nurturing. Not in those words. But what a difference if there’d been an influential person in my life interested in what made me so curious, what I was thinking and reading about. Somebody who could point me towards doing something inspiring, hopefully with like-minded friends, maybe even musically, and ideally outside and adventurous in the natural world.
It did not help that I lived in a British colony, Guelph, and this was not long after World War Two ended, and my family was not British, but was invisibly other. We were German. So I had to hide a significant thing—I mean, from early childhood I was picking up clues about needing to conceal something I didn’t actually even know I had, which was a cultural heritage. It was very confusing. Moreover, I was the last-born child in the family, my siblings much older. An afterthought, I was. And all of this feeling unseen, unwanted, alienated, I wasn’t conscious of it. What came into my awareness was that I was lonely and bored, and that nothing was really real, especially a person’s life, and that a person like me could have a hand in that, at least in that. Felt the shock and wrath of my mother’s hand before I had language, before four. When I did finally speak, I stuttered badly, age five. Ran away from home, felt like the thing to do. Downed a bottle of my mother’s sleeping pills. It was almost like I started there, with escaping and suicide.
So hiding out, having a secret life, was what I learned to do instead. Was how I learned to lie and live. Age eight to thirteen, I read and re-read every book in the library on sailing small boats across the world’s oceans, exploring the South Pacific, racing alone in the roaring forties, rounding Cape Horn. And then, into my teens, I was waiting in line for every new release of psychedelic rock. Quit school when I was fifteen so I could practice guitar all day. Also got quite seriously into drugs and sex. But thank God for the music. I still occasionally meet people who remember a fair-haired youth performing J. S. Bach in the local Lutheran Church where his father was the minister.
Later and for a long time I believed that my addictions were the reason why I had to hide out, but no, they were just part of the deal. A very sticky part. Through decades of lying, and disguising myself. Sometimes quite successfully. In Winnipeg I was a family man, a homeowner, and prominent in the arts community. I took up mountaineering, which was odd, living on the prairies, but I was passionate, taking lessons on trips in the Rockies. On my fifth expedition my climbing partner fell. And he died, and after that I sunk my tools into a mountain of crack cocaine—stirred and shaken with extreme sex. Disconnected, again, back in Toronto in those years, and crashing down from dark hotel rooms to homeless shelters and onto the street, divorced—just dying, but what do you know, instead of that, somehow and by sheer luck I survived. There were coincidences that worked very much in my favour. Bit by bit, I went through recovery, eventually, after more than ten years of every day working really hard at it, I believe I went beyond recovery, began an uncovery.
Meanwhile, all the while—along came a spider who sat down beside her: late stage-hyper-capitalism, revolutionizing old-school profiteering from escapism to create—to become, something, don’t yet know what. Some brand-new experiment on ourselves. And along with everything and all the time, digital media is dealing out unbelievable quantities of porn. Insane content, this is not my monthly centerfold playmate. And it’s definitely addictive. And wow, the drugs now. Ohmygod, in the sixties we never imagined such abundance. Multi-national pipelines are delivering amazingly good shit. Illegal and legal, and formerly illegal but now legal, also newly-uncovered like psilocybin and ayahuasca, and newly-fashioned like fentanyl. Synthetic drugs are the game-changer. The product is poison now, but pain may soon be extirpated, extinct in the wild, who knows? Pleasures supplant it. And as far as you can see, boredom is being weeded out, too, disappeared by pure distraction.
I’d taken no drugs for, I think, fourteen years before this relapse. I’d been, for want of a better term, clean—and thank heavens (and in my case, I say again, I’m thanking my frigging amazing luck). But I was still occasionally floundering in a remnant stream of escapist hedonism, and like a fool feeling entitled to it by media-mediated normalcy. Porn is a huge industry. But who’s accountable for the effects on the viewer’s relationships? Yeah-no, all these years of no drugs and now again I’m concealing myself, looking for a hide-out. My wife, I love her and she just plain hates pornography, but even if she didn’t, what I’m doing is not just taking in a semi-illicit pleasure, the significant thing for me is that I’m running away, hiding myself. And that’s the thing. The running and hiding from my better selves, from the gods, from my lovers and longing past and present, whomever, whatever, it’s the sneaking off.
And, of course, the lying about it. I mean, everybody lies sometimes. Nobody is really and truly truthful all the time. Especially nobody who routinely thwarts an inclination to suicide. Doesn’t matter we don’t have free will, we still make choices, and our choices say something about the kind of person we are and what we’re likely to do next. Often, we lie to reduce the suffering when our values collide. But my story isn’t an inventory of dishonesty, the topic is truth and freedom. Seeing what’s true and being free of reactivity and bad habits. And what an addiction is: it’s a habit that blinds and misleads us. And lying greases the skid into the offside ditch. Axiom: not all liars are addicts, but all addicts are liars. I was abstinent from drugs, and that’s great, but I was not whole-heartedly present. I was still sometimes, too often, failing to show up in the world of the people I love: for example, my wife, my granddaughters. This real woman and these two lovely girls, for heaven’s sake.
I reckon it’s like with Adam and the apple, the problem’s not in the partaking of the fruit from the forbidden tree, or taste-testing the understory of earthly desires. The sinfulness, originally and still, is in how afterwards, there goes Adam, running away and hiding from God. Cowering in the bushes, holding a branch over his cock, for fuck sake. This seminal issue has nothing to do with whether there is or ever was a God, could be we’re running from gods, from our better angels, our higher powers, or our lovers, all of them, all of it, whatever. The man’s bad choice isn’t his disbelief or rebellion, it’s his avoidance of the basic existential conversation. Do we want to live and do something? And so for me, it was like as if all of a sudden in the first pandemic autumn, my escaping yet again into my concoction of drugs and sex, my wee-total-eight-day-hidden-away-fuck-up—and it definitely prompted a crisis. A crisis about whether I really wanted to live and do something, and with whom. Personal and relational, I had an existential crisis that pushed me to uncover my age-old escapism, and then, like after waking up from a dream, to throw off the duvet and for Christ’s sake get out of bed. And stand on my own two feet, eyes wide open. So that’s what I’ve done, and right now maybe it feels like for the last time. I feel lighter, if not entirely enlightened. And anyway, I don’t believe enlightenment does much for personalities, and mine tends toward depression and anxiety.
I could say I’m feeling at least somewhat redeemed, although that word might be a problem, as it comes weighed down by doctrine. My not dodging a conversation with God doesn’t mean I’ve suddenly gone religious. Just feels more like, I don’t know, natural. As in: nature is super, the natural world is super already and more than enough. And I’m right here and listening! In which respect God would be the same as me, therefore. Can a person have a secular spiritual awakening? Be as awakened as is reasonable under the circumstances? Sure, that’s me, and the last thing I’ll say about mine is: better late than never. And I don’t care how long it took me to get here, and that I’m old now. It’s like, I still buy the occasional lottery ticket and if my numbers were to come up I wouldn’t say: I’m not going to redeem this prize because I just wish it’d happened when I was young. Now is good. I’m fine with winning. Feels like: for a change, but not really. Truth is that being alive is sufficient evidence of an unbroken lucky streak. But yeah, abundance and fulfilment, all the better, love it to death, and grateful for everything that’s happened. Been through a very long pandemic winter, and now, in spring, to be feeling, like, confident, that in just showing up, being present, in my unfashionably solitary self, there’s the very liberative and spirited effect of a renunciation, which does not represent deprivation or sacrifice, or anybody’s creed. I’m not surrendering to a higher power, even if it might have started out that way, as me forsaking guilty pleasures for the sake of someone other than myself, i.e. my wife. But not really, that was a brief phase, and now I can honestly and presently say: I’m totally down with just being here.
And furthermore, I am now, presently, a model citizen in the great state of vulnerability. I have survived, I have experienced heart-breaking losses, and arriving now in the last season of my life, I vote to call for help. Beholden, becoming elder, I beseech thee, all of thee, to help me. I watch the tides ebb and flow according to the cycles of the moon, and arising every morning I cast the dice. People my age who pretend to be invulnerable are caricatures of their youthful ignorance. In the pupae stage we needed to empower the feeling of independence and exercise our supposed free will, but eventually, better late than never, we should just admit it was a conceit. I’m grateful now for the luck I’ve had, bad as well as good. Because, I’m here, still.
And excuse me but I’m still curious about what was happening, or not happening, before I took that first toke which consummated last fall’s relapse. I’m thinking about those weeks after putting my sailboat to bed, locked down in the city. Everything’s closed. Bored, I mean, really? I really don’t like to admit this, because what kind of a Buddhist gets bored? When there’s cavorting through the cosmos, investigating the nature of mind, living the great question of birth and death, in every breath? But yeah, I was just plain-old bored. Not really paying attention. Painting the basement floor and distracted by my personality, despite the good podcasts. Because I was comparing how I was feeling to the feeling of magisterial ecstasy, for the attainment of which I don’t need a DIY video and it now costs less than a can of latex enamel (so-called). Another thing I’d rather not talk about is my feeling disconnected from my wife despite she was the only person I could actually get close to without a mask on. Even with a mask on. There’s my anxiety and depression and me definitely missing something important. Missing as in failing to notice, not uncovering, and therefore possibly nurturing the root causes of the slip. Because it wasn’t just the pandemic boredom, what did the trick was my inter-personal, relational, discord. There’s more I need to say about that and I’m sorry to go on for so long but I have to because it’s really important for understanding addictions. Conflict between you and your partner is the number one reason for your relapsing. Love, for people with a pre-existing condition of addiction, has side effects in relational conflicts which include relapse and can in some cases result in death. Disclaimers and warnings on labels should be mandatory on depictions of romance. My motion in the House of Commons, for new legislation. Would arts organizations protest? The entertainment industry for sure would. And they’d win.
Before I go on into my own marital messes, I’ve got to say again how shocked I am by the way the relapse overwhelmed me. The second I glommed onto that thought of scoring, it was like being cast into addiction reality TV. My councillors used to talk about how an addict has a behavioural template in the brain and how relapsing defaults to it. Yeah-no, that is how it feels. The relapsing stage feels like totally determined when the decision to use is made. Goes off like a rocket. Ignition, blast-off, and the first stage fires away, gets you up there and then the old pattern just plays out, and around and around you go. But don’t forget about gravity. I recently read something interesting: Gravity strongly exists in orbit. And when you think about it, yeah, of course it must. And yet there’s weightlessness, but it’s uncomfortable. Astronautics get motion sickness. It’s not like when you’re swimming and feeling good about being buoyant. It’s like the feeling of falling, because the ship is constantly falling but the altitude is high enough that the planet curves away from the trajectory of the fall, so you didn’t hit the ground.
Addictions are orbits, circling a nothing planet, going around and around a self that does not exist. Requires only enough fuel to maintain momentum through whatever resistance is in your way. And often and eventually, lost and alone in space, it doesn’t take much.
Addictions are just bad habits. But habits are real enough. A huge part of being human is habitual. Regarding the neuroscience on this, I’m pretty skeptical. I am, in general, skeptical about popular neuroscience, despite it was a hobby interest with me—I was, like, an over-aged Boy Scout working on his amateur neuroscientist badge—but now, it’s like, so fashionable. Used to be genetics was the go-to explanation for everything. We seem to always need one explanation for everything, like as if there couldn’t be two or more unrelated mysteries. But the genetics thing didn’t pan out, because correlation is not causation and genes mainly show correlations. So, now it’s the brain sciences that are supposed to be unlocking the ultimate truth. Count on it being oversold. Not saying that genetics and neuroscience aren’t useful and very interesting. Or you could just blame the gods, and I really do believe in coincidence—but, whatever. Whatever the source of the choreography, the pattern I fall into is tight, like, skin-tight. Sure feels to me like somebody or something or somebody’s plotting my course—I say feels like, but I don’t imagine that a space drone/robot feels like being anything. So I don’t know.
Okay, so why let it happen at all, why chance it? Why indulge the impulse? After so many, many times not indulging. Seems like a fair question. Okay, fair enough. Maybe. I’ll try to explain this. Despite I hear a voice saying never explain yourself, because, the voice says: your friends don’t care, and your enemies won’t believe you anyway. But I’m going ahead with explaining anyway, in the hopes of my story being of some help to people who get into similar situations as me, but now want to stay out of trouble, and instead have a good day, like me also.
The way that at the time it felt, I think, is that I’d most likely just give it a shot and get away with it. I just probably felt I could get high and look at pictures of bare-naked girls, for a while, while a coat of paint dried, and then I’d go back to making the basement floor beautiful. I was just, like, suddenly open to a super-pleasurably exciting way to spend Monday morning, instead of what I had planned. Winter’s comin’ on, the pandemic’s never ending, and, quite extraordinarily, I for sure have the house to myself—first time in, like, forever. Being immature even though old is a terribly boring explanation, and I’m sorry that it’s a major part of mine.
But, you know—and I know—that I can’t resist trying to explain this supposedly sudden opening in greater depth, recognizing and analyzing the life and times of my inner selves. And while I do, please watch your feelings. You, my friends, enemies, and cohorts, especially you like-minded cohorts—because, after a long time abstinent, having a relapse, even the little one that gets called a slip, is not exactly like slipping on a banana peel that somebody dropped on the steps. The science of how we make and unmake our habits is nowhere near exact—there is some neuroscience, some genetics, also psychology, maybe karma. Lots of factors, lots of reasons for what we do in any given moment. There’s lots of drama, in the stories of our lives. Because there’s luck, too. A hugely significant factor, is luck. The reality of coincidence, I mean. Seemingly fortunate or unfortunate apparently accidental occurrences. Of anything. God and the devil, seems like, at any given time. At any given time. And time, that’s really the thing, I think. Time is at the heart of most mysteries. And my goodness me, don’t I just I talk like you and I have all day here.
But okay, one simple, timely question: Does how long a person has been abstinent have anything to do with the susceptibility to relapse? Answer: I don’t know, and the greater truth is that nobody really knows. And it’s interestingly unknown not because the sex and drugs are so very complicated—they aren’t. What’s interesting is the mystery of how humans experience time. Because fourteen years clean, and watching so many other people with addictions, and recoveries, and still, I’m pretty sure that nobody can exactly say what the duration of clean time has to do with wellness, with freedom. A broken heart is not like a limb fracture. Addiction councillors, who are not like surgeons—and that’s a good thing, because surgeons tend to be jerks—addiction councillors get asked a lot: “How long is this going to take? My wife, my boss, the insurance company, wants to know.” And they tend to dodge the question. I’ve known several who were still dodging it when they themselves relapsed. Also have known more than one surgeon with serious addiction issues—but so what. The great question is the relation of the human temporal experience to the reality of time, and this is a true and wonderful mystery.
Okay, whatever, one thing for sure is that when sensual pleasure is paramount, a person’s discernment is typically selfish and very rarely self-kindly. Doctors, therapists, priests and monks, everybody has a hard time. It’s just really difficult to align feelings and values. Best practices for the care and feeding of the soul are constantly changing.
I mean, yeah-no, had I not thought and done certain things, the relapse would have been avoided. Okay. Maybe just have to admit that even my hindsight is pretty dim on this one. And useful insights for going forward? I don’t know, it’s like, so hard, trying to make sense of cause and effect in one human being’s story. Cause and effect, it’s a universal, a law of nature, but investigating and applying it specifically, I dare say, scientifically, in my very human life is, like, very impossible. Still, one has to have a plan, because just accepting the situation, believing in luck, and leaving it at that—dropping the sails and waiting around to see where the current takes me—is not just irrational, it’s stupid. Regrettably, such a surrendering to a supposed fate tends to be equated with being religious. Coincidence does seem spiritual to me, but there’s no need to get all dogmatic about it. And the scientific method, based on questioning, theorizing, and testing—wow, we should be so grateful for it. Science is a universal goodness at the wellspring of culture—having science is goddamn amazing good luck and we should skillfully use it wherever possible.
I don’t know, but believe it or not, I don’t think that analyzing my prior addictions, to substances or behaviours, leads to a complete or useful explanation for my relapse. I relapsed into my obsessive escapism, my way of thinking and acting. This personal characteristic preceded my addictions, and it also outlived them. In recent years my occasionally looking at porn was a factor in how the relapse played out, but it wasn’t the cause, despite that I was once addicted to sex and drugs. I find erotic imagery attractive—I have an average male brain—but the compulsion for it, for it specifically, was no longer an issue for me. And even before, when it was, I think I probably needed to be on drugs to be addicted to porn. I’m not sure I could stay sufficiently interested without cannabis, or especially cocaine. My lesser former addictions are even less relevant to my relapsing, I think. Like my affection for clothes shopping, which for a time in my recovery had served as a transferred addiction. And lattes and pastries—I’m not a hermit-monk living in a cave, I’m a lay-person and I’m going to indulge in sensual pleasures, and some of them habitually (as long as my more than two hundred pairs of pants still fit!).
More significant to the examination of my life were the pains I took to hide the porn from my wife. Lying about it when she questioned me: definitively not good. Certainly a bad sign. I remember a conversation I had with my first wife. A good conversation, a long time after the divorce. She said that the thing that ruined the marriage was not the drugs, not even the girls, it was my lying to her. She’s a very trusting and normally quite happy person, we were married for thirty years, and mostly remarkably peacefully. It’s great that we can still have conversations. It was totally my fault that that the marriage ended—I mean, we agree it was the addictions that wrecked it, and she didn’t have any. Just me, a less trusting and much less happy person. And as I said, you can be a liar without being an addict, but not the other way around. Lying is a sign on the road. Like, soft shoulders, beware of ditch. Hard to see that sign when you’re face down in the ditch, even if it’s huge and flashing neon.
I think my hoary remnant bad habit was my maintaining a secret thing. Which, for me, was to have a hide-out and get-away plan. Running away was the thing I could always do. It was a strategy based on belief. I had to believe in it and I had to lie about it to keep it safe. My last gambit was pornography, not because it was in itself so valuable to me—it wasn’t, I gave it up and subsequently experienced no cravings—but from when I was very young and needed to escape but was trapped and powerless, all my life there was this part of me that was habitually hanging onto the belief in having an escape plan and a place to go. Formulations were subject to change. This last hide-out had rotted out, for sure, but still, I just couldn’t let go of the idea of escaping. I needed to believe that there’s another world, a paradise that’s just waiting for me. There is a younger part of me, an inner child who I honestly do care for, and from the earliest chapter in my story, he’s been running away, hiding, escaping to secret sanctuaries. Out of fear. Fear of what, I often ask myself? Of being hit, even before I had language, being slapped and shaken by a raging mother. Of in youth being disappeared, having my clothes ripped off—like now, my whole garment collection, ohmygod!—and I’m bare naked, in pain, suddenly and again speechless. It’s an irrational fear, but to be revealed, rejected, punished and banished—always scary. And being afraid of my new wife rejecting me, that’s really awful, too. But, you know, for me what’s always been the worst fear is of me abandoning myself by killing off my younger self. Without whom, where would I be? Other than bereft, without the capacity for imagining a future of adventure and happiness, without curiosity or creative talents. And instead of feeling dead like that, and becoming actually suicidal, I needed to tell lies. Liar, liar, pants on fire.
Well, fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.
Because that’s it. No more myth-making. Time to let go of the story.
Now, what I can do is: I can take a deep breath, pause, and just be here. Maybe even experiment with pointing the outer ends of my lips upwards. Okay, maybe not yet that. But next breath just happens anyway and it draws me in, no need to drill down on it for it to consume me entirely. And right now I’m enjoying this breather with my younger part intact. Feel the invitation to once upon a time, once again begin a journey. The possibility of pilgrimage. Makes me smile. Truth and honesty are super-hard sometimes, the inward courage required is often unpopular, inevitably found in the state of maximum vulnerability. But okay: full attention with a strong measure of self-kindness, because there’s a lot we don’t know about ourselves, there’s an ongoing mystery, and the process of uncovering requires patience and solitude. Mayhap the easier course is to instead grab the nearest fantasy, which is an accompanied place. But no, now I want to be here in the real world, by myself, thank-you very much.
Breathing in deeply, breathing out completely. I don’t have to focus on the breath for it to concentrate me. And spiritual pleasure, this, is.
Notwithstanding, by the way, I’m also saying that the chemical hooks in the cannabis played a part in my relapsing. Just saying. The shit I bought was really strong, I got super-stoned. Of course I chose their most potent product, the stuff with the highest THC content. Potency might have had something to do with my going down the rabbit hole for a week instead of just having a crazy day. Because, the day could have been just like: how weird was that, I got high on pot this morning. And I whack myself in the side of the head and go back to painting my basement, whilst prepping this excellent topic for my next therapy session. Could have gone like that. But it didn’t, and one reason why is that there’s chemistry—the hit, as in: aim, lock, fire—in the weaponized plant substance. And, like, in my brain, because even after so many years gone by, there’s a personal connection that’s still very readily available inside of me. An electrified target. I like to muse about psychology, and relationships, and spirituality, but there’s also biology in play here. Always a factor, bio-chemistry. My history of indulgence in the egregiously pleasurable confection of mind-altering drugs and sex long ago established an agency within my mind-body. An agency that’s like an electric company, a utility in the municipality of me-ness. It’d had been shut down, but still accessible through thoughts and feelings of which I have no more control than I have of the odour of smoke in the air, or of images in media. And even aside from external influences, it can be maintained by the dreams in my sleep, because I still have using dreams, not very often, but occasionally. And good riddance. But then again let’s be careful what we wish for, because I turned sixty-eight last year and I would like my marriage to get over the relapse conflict and return to real sex, before it’s too late—I mean, it’s still me and my love we’re talking about here.
The most salient fact, right now and I hope from now on, is that wherever any part of me goes, there’s no running away and hiding. It’s conversation time all the time around here now.
My relationship went from conflict crisis to a shamble, and thank goodness for couple therapy. I get terribly unhappy in marital disputes. Despite I was a professional mediator and very good at helping other people through their conflicts—other people’s problems I tend to enjoy as opportunities to be helpful, but I suck at my own. I perseverate: ruminating over what was said, and rehearsing what I’m going to say. This time, with the assistance of wise counsel, I came to understand that not feeling safe and sound in my marriage was the salient circumstance and the proximate cause of my relapse. That was the view of my long-time individual therapist. I was at first resistant. My opinion was that I was just bored and stupidly immature, but I thought about it some more, and yeah, that too, but mainly I was running away from my insecure and unstable relationship. I was escaping into my old hide-out, the paradise this is my feeling absolutely fantastic. And the result of that was, not only did I determine, yet again, that due to the nature of time and the truth of impermanence, there is no paradise. Already knew that, at some level, but I’d usually just go for it anyway. Significant difference this time was that I recognized how I’d put myself into an insecure and unstable relationship with someone who on top of whatever unhappiness she brought to the marriage, thanks to me she has PTSD now, too. Thanks expressly to my projecting my issues on her. My fucking up is so hard on the people closest to me. I fucking hate that. But it was seeing her erupt in anger at me that reminded me of being slapped and shaken as a very young child—such an ancient memory, unrecovered until now. Marriage can be so hard on people, the way we press each other’s buttons. Where’s that disclaimer?
Pretty much right after the relapse ended and my wife came home and the fighting broke out, I got us back into couple therapy. She and I have our own individual therapists, but since more than a year ago we’ve also been sometimes going together to see a practitioner of what’s called EFT, Emotionally Focussed Therapy. This is an application for adults of the child psychology pioneered by early twentieth-century Brit, John Bowlby. Maybe I’d also like to cite D.H. Winnicott. It’s all about attachment, about realizing the fundamentally social nature of human beings and then strengthening the partner bond. In practice, it’s very experiential, in-the-moment, recognizing and empowering feelings as actionable facts. Especially fears of rejection, abandonment, and isolation, and hopes for a secure base and safe haven. EFT gets to this heart of this very quickly, and it promises durable benefits in no more than twenty sessions. This is the couple therapy flavour-of-the-month, and although I seriously doubted the claims of a quick fix, I had to believe that it’s good, I mean, I wanted to believe, maybe needed to believe, that it’s really good, because I was, like, hugely counting on it.
Being deeply vulnerable, being defeated completely, as I was and still am.
Learning from my relapse is really, really important. Most crack cocaine slash porn sex addicts—what I used to be, wouldn’t even call it a relapse, wouldn’t regard it as more than a little slip. Maybe not even that. Lots of people think cannabis is medicinal and porn is normal, and they’d say that the extenuating circumstances of a pandemic-time home alone are the mitigating factors for my eight-day excess. But I’m saying, no, that what happened with me, and especially how it’s affected my wife and our relationship—it’s huge, it’s like: our crucible. We’re like two souls at sea in a little boat, run down by like a New Panamax Ultra Large Container Vessel—and now we need to believe that this monster ship was transporting something useful.
My state of deep vulnerability is a great improvement over where I was before, and my being completely defeated is also quite edifying. I need to try to explain this, to understand it myself. And I hate to be tedious, but all I can guarantee is that I won’t cite word origins. Won’t try for a purchase on meaning through etymology. But I will launch into a metaphor, another metaphor.
Look up, and think back a few centuries, before Copernicus and Galileo. Astronomers had been coming up with ever-more complicated theories attempting to explain the observed motions of the planets. Calculations accounting for retrograde motion, like the deferent-epicycle system of the ancient Greeks, Ptolemy’s Almagest, I don’t even want to mention astrology, but just recognize how all their theories were extremely complicated. And then Aristotle, the great know-it-all, made it even more so. Because the more precise and insightful the early scientists and philosophers tried to be, the more arcane their mathematics and esoteric their cosmology. Because all of their thinking was founded on the false notion that Earth is a stationary hub and the planets, and the cosmos entire, is cycling around us.
It was only by putting the sun at the centre of the solar system that it was possible to understand the motions of the planets. Yay! Finally! Much simpler. What a relief. Astronomers were still oppressed by the Catholic Church’s thousand-year war against curiosity, but now at least in private they knew that they were onto something truly interesting, and useful. But even aside from papal indictment the scientists weren’t rejoicing, because they were still stuck between the invention of instruments of exacting observation and the formulation of a theory good enough to make sense of what they were looking at. For a long time it was tantalizing and frustrating, and I can relate because this is my metaphor. In the twentieth-century I was treated by Freudian psychiatrists, Jungian psychologists, all very complicated, and CBT therapists. Each in turn. Felt to me like a very long century. And I was only around for the second half. Therapists today are applying attachment theory to work with the emotions of people in relationships and they’re looking back at twentieth century psychotherapists like as if these old guys are ancient astronomers trying to study planetary motion without a knowledge of the position of the sun and the force of gravity.
So, for a long time I was in my psychological pre-Copernicus era, trying to figure out how to resolve the butting heads of my marriage’s two personalities. And it was impossible. And remember, I used to be a professional mediator, practicing restorative justice in all kinds and sometimes very serious conflicts, but in a love relationship, all that stuff about non-violent communication, active listening, et cetera, it’s useless if all what’s happening is that I’m trying to prove that I’m right and my romantic partner is wrong. Or even just that I need to be understood. What is essential is the orientation of emotions around the central fact, which is not my self, or the other self, it is the changing relationship. This is like the change from a geocentric to heliocentric world view. And it allowed me to let go of me needing to be right and instead to pay attention to us being happy.
And, as the historical metaphor suggests, it’s easier said than done. Should be as liberating as the astronomical revelation, but it isn’t because my mind is as byzantine as the Vatican. Letting go of the ego-self, that’s key, I know. It’s also a new-age maxim, and therefore suspect. I mean, yeah, it seems like such a good idea, a nice blend of fashionable and counter-intuitive: make my go-to into just a be-gone. Do away with egoism entirely. Addicts get this. At some point we’ll try to put our egos out of their misery. Especially addicts in 12-Step, surrendering to a higher power, and it’s like: “the cocaine didn’t kill me so now let’s let God take His shot.” Doesn’t work, it’s just an invitation to self-harm. What’s necessary is to train the mind, but that’s another maxim, because there’s a paradoxical here. Because, what we’re actually doing is not doing, we’re training the mind to do less, to rest easy. Rather than going deep inside to beat on the self, we meditate to open the heart to what’s already and rightly present. This is the big swerve. And it requires relegating the ego to an appropriate lesser status while at the same time keeping it happily retained in the project of making a good day. Which is a neat trick, because the ego is the executive function. I mean, talk about managing up. Pulling this off requires not only a better concept, but also a practice, a performance. Typically an ensemble performance, of multiple inner personae and real other people. A great theory is necessary but not sufficient.
There were astronomers a thousand years before Copernicus who reckoned the earth rotated around the sun, but what became of their knowledge? For the longest time, not much. They gazed into better and better telescopes, wringing their hands, fretting over what they were staring at, because, each of them stuck in their silo, they couldn’t put their research to rightly shared purposes. The understanding needed integrating and sharing to be usefully true.
Usefully letting go of egoism means that you keep the self-making process in play within a mindful and ethical everyday-ordinary mind, while at the same time recognizing that this construct, this whole composition, is totally conditional and temporary. Selves are real, like rainbows in the mists of a waterfall—there in the light, gone in the dark, effervescently vulnerable, and punctiliously defeated. It’s just heart-breaking. And totally a fucking joke, in my opinion, at least, it is, kinda like absurd.
The heart, like your gut, will sometimes lie. What’s true is that the key to healing relationships and therefore avoiding relapses is in the door of the self. The lie is that this door has to stay closed. Because when we see that key turning, and can hear the lock clicking opening, we come to feel how everything changes, not just everything, but me and everything, and I’m moving through that doorway, in freedom. Really and truly, there’s no doorway, no door, no walls, no separate room. If not for how we talk about it, there isn’t even an illusion of these things. Stories—language itself, is a way of lying. If a room is empty, do we say that Mr. Nobody is in there? That was Wittgenstein’s wording of the question. And of course, the answer’s no, we don’t talk like that because emptiness is just emptiness. Even Freud, a man of symbols and a fatally addicted smoker, could say that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And yet the way we talk when it comes to the self, the answer is yes: it’s Mr. Somebody, if not Your Highness. When actually the self is empty, it’s not even a Mr. Nobody. For twenty-six hundred years Buddhists have investigated this with the practice of mindfulness meditation, letting go of the illusion of a permanent and unchanging self, of any inner-core fixedness, any sort of homunculus/CEO/governor of our intentions and actions. And this is the great thing about Buddhism, the radical acceptance of constant and total change, which is radically inner as well as outer.
This insight into impermanence is not just another religious belief. Buddhism is full of those, but they just cloud the life-transforming insight into impermanence and non-self. I mean, Buddhists also, quite famously but less significantly, don’t believe in the creator/intervener God. To which I say, so what, who cares whether or not you believe in God. The Buddha encouraged his followers to put their faith in the dharma, the revolutionary teachings of the tasks that develop an awakening to non-self and the nature of consciousness. And what a marvellous improvement this encouragement was, and still is, over superstitious beliefs. The Buddha’s great insight is impermanence, non-duality, non-self. This dharma is wonderful, and beautiful, I love it, along with a lot of other Buddhist stuff. But I don’t buy the religion in its entirely. I have to cherry-pick, choose from among the various accumulated doctrines. So maybe I’m not a real Buddhist, certainly not orthodox, or neo-orthodox, probably not even a Buddhist modernist. Maybe I’m a Canadian Buddhist, someone who’s as Buddhist as possible under the circumstances.
Because: there’s still a lot of superstition in most kinds of Buddhism. This stuff might be attractive, and like, of literary value. Some of it is epic, like the Greek and Norse myths. Wagner, before he died, was sketching out on opera on a Buddhist theme, and just imagine how that might have influenced Adolf Hitler, who was a huge Wagner fan. Wow, we’d be living in a very different world. Would there be Hugo Boss? I don’t know, he designed the gestapo’s uniforms, and say what you like about those murderous thugs, they were beautifully dressed. Where else in history? Mafia dons in Armani suits? Not even close. But, to me, the Buddhist panoply of the heavenly beings and their realms is mostly just very ornately ridiculous.
Reincarnation seems pretty far out to me, too, and easily forgettable except as a cop-out for believers who don’t want to accept that bad things happen to good people. I can let that go. Life’s not fair. And luck and coincidence don’t need a prophet, especially not me, eh. But I have bigger and more personal difficulties with Buddhist doctrine. I mean other than supernatural beings and realms, reincarnation, and past-life karma. I have a problem with the basic idea of enlightenment. In seeking this purportedly salvific liberation from all suffering, a monk travelling the way of the Buddha relinquishes all relationship attachments, and abstains from sensual pleasures. These abjurations, leaving home and family, and supplanting the sensual and worldly with the spiritual and renunciative, are taught as essential to enlightenment. I just don’t see how this could be the way of a married man with a family and a home, or for that matter pretty much everybody else in our society. And I can’t really abide a faith that has a second class for lay people, especially not if the first class is purportedly on a path to a different and wholly superior destination. A place, I have to say, which I’ve never seen anybody get to. Paradise. Of course, that’s got to be a different paradise from the paradise that I can say: done that, been there, bought the t-shirt. But is it different in any truly interesting way? Well, I don’t know, but I know mine turned out to be a cheap import, not like the Patagonia organic and ethically-sourced shirt I’m wearing, which I think came from, not a perfect place, but a good place.
I’ve never met an enlightened person and I don’t expect to. I actually value good conversation more highly than religious conversion. Just saying. And, you know, in my more than thirty years a Buddhist I’ve met many great teachers, bona fide gurus who were highly respectable—all of them much better meditators than I’ll ever be, but there’s not many, if any, who I’d vote for if they ran for public office. Just as well that they’re not interested. At my Zen temple it’s definitely good that we now have a board of directors, even with me as the chair (for several years I have had the honour to serve my sangha in this capacity). And of course now we all know that there are some gurus who deserve to be not just unfollowed, they should be incarcerated. Religion can be tragically embarrassing. All religions. I don’t think we can do away with worship, because it seems like we’re culturally and probably even biologically evolved for it, for devotional congregation, spiritual gatherings. So yeah-no, me, I’m a curmudgeonly Canadian Buddhist—although maybe I’m not always grumpy, might have good days and bad days. Lately, after this pandemic and relapsed winter, I’ve more often felt bad than good, but that’ll change, again, and I hope soon. But I expect my feeling better will be represented in my being more attached to the people I love, and also more self-kindly in the enjoyment of some of the wholesome pleasures that come with being an ordinary, unenlightened, but durably vaccinated and yet skeptical organism.
So, good luck to all of us, eh. And, by the way, before taking a break between this and third and final part of my epic relapse trilogy post, I just want to say it’s the music makes religion worth it. Singing together turns faith into a work-in-progress, and by my lights, that’s good enough reason to hook up this way.
See you in a bit. For the final installment in my relapse trilogy: reconciliation.