And so, I look upon this pile of books–this rubble in my room. Books split open with their pages bent and creased. Some stacked on others in unnatural ways which pain the eye to peer towards. It all lays there. Non Fictions bending in reverse underneath the Norton Anthologies which are twisting the delicate paper of the smaller paperbacks. A heap of tragic angles piled like a mass of broken limbs.
I’ve been here before though. Maybe not staring at a mess of disheveled books, but I’ve been on the ground floor of catastrophe. We all have. In the midst of chaos, confusion, we have nothing left to do but rebuild. Now some might equate this pile of books to a spilt glass of milk. And in retrospect, it’s not a big deal by any means. But I’ve seen this scene before somewhere. No. Yes. I can almost remember where. No, I’ve felt like this. Yes, that’s it. The way this mangled pile looks, I’ve felt that–the unnatural bends and folds helplessly waiting to be reconfigured. I remember being scattered without any points of reference.
Shortly after dropping out of my senior year of High School and completing what was to be my first rehab I found myself living on an island called Ocean City in an Oxford House. These were democratically ran residential homes where recovering drug addicts and alcoholics could figure out how to be productive members of society again. I was eighteen, just over a month clean, and was making another attempt at being a functional human. I started to read Dante’s Purgatorio which was Dante Alighieri’s ascension from Hell, (the Inferno) to the higher planes. I thought the book symbolic of my position. Mostly because this new sober world seemed like a gray middle area between suffering and ecstasy. My eyes crossed enough times from boredom to give up on reading the seven hundred year old epic poem and I got a job landscaping.
A couple of months into cutting grass a friend from back home invited me over to her house on one of my weekends off. I met her dad who was some kind of museum curator who had been battling cancer and the medical bills were financially crippling her family. He took me into his attic and showed off some of his prized antiques and a book collection. The collection was huge with mostly paperbacks. He wondered if I was interested in purchasing all of the books. Normally he wouldn’t bargain with them but he was in a difficult position from the cost of his treatment. I agreed to pay two hundred dollars. I was driving an 88’ Lincoln Towncar which with a trunk the size of a small Jacuzzi. The purchased books filled the entire trunk and I drove back to Ocean City with the suspension buckling the car’s back end.
I wasn’t interested in most of the books so I took the lot to one of the only book stores on the island; a corner store named Bookateria. There I exchanged the whole collection for store credit. This was almost eight year ago now and I still have not burned through that credit. The store keeps thorough records and somewhere on a rolodex is my name with the amount that slowly gets chipped away whenever I make a rare appearance on the island. If you’re ever stuck there and need a book or two, feel free to use my name and the credit yourself. Read on, weary traveler. Anyway, somewhere in purchasing the books from him I got my hands on his copy of “Johnny Got His Gun” by Dalton Trumbo. Of all the books he owned he held this one up to me and said it was one of his favorites and he would love to talk about it after I finished reading it. He passed away before we ever made it to that conversation but I still cherish that copy.
In case you’re not familiar, “Johnny Got His Gun” is the story of a soldier who has been injured in War World 1. He is left with no arms, no legs, no face, blind, deaf and mute. Even his breathing is aided by a machine. His mind however, works perfectly and serves as our narrator. Throughout the book he remembers moments of war and his life before enlisting. In one moment he describes the process of figuring out where he was in the hospital based on the warmth from the sun on his skin and the pattern of his sleep. Trumbo’s book serves as an anti-war novel. I can tell you, by the time I was done reading it, I was so disgusted with harming other human beings I couldn’t use any knife that laid before a meal in the week after. The pondering husk of Johnny was a perfect hero to look towards while distinguishing what I valued in being person who now believed in self preservation.
Looking back, I was fortunate to have that island which was a well suited scene for the existential crises of a young man. One could peer down almost any block in town and see the cold silvery soup of the Atlantic Ocean–a great infinite abyss that churned and hissed in the background of our lives. To the west stirred the Great Egg Harbor Bay with its clean white boats toiling in the shadow of the Ninth street Bridge while superstitious fishermen charmed the tautog and striped bass below them. There was the sand, the water, and the sky. There were questions that would crash against the shores of my frontal cortex over and over. “Who am I?” “What is this life thing?” “Where is the meaning?” The tide always came in and the tide always went out. I’d turn and spot a one legged seagull fight with another bird over a discarded pizza crust. The ocean sent one hundred year old waves born on the other side of the world to curl up, smash, and then sizzle on the sand at my feet. Eighteen years old: a mass of idiotic energy with no clear path to follow, no great understanding of my position to the rest of the world, no conversation to release the pressure valves in my head. A pile of smashed books covered in drywall dust. Unreadable. All their secret forms of meaning, all their subtle movements and hidden symbols completely unknown to me yet rushing all around. A surfer tumbling in darkness underneath the frothing stampede of falling waves.
I was away for a day or two when I got word some changes occurred in the house. I had come home to a new roommate who was my age and had just arrived from an intensive eleven month treatment facility. I don’t know how much you subscribe to the idea of people emanating frequencies or vibes but Josh and I felt dialed into the same one. Before realizing we were both readers, the same age, had the same family structure, were drug addicts in a similar way, and shared the same sense of humor, we were able to share space with each other comfortably and effortlessly much like siblings. Up until our first conversation I remember feeling like an endangered species. Suddenly, over night, there was another one of my kind. A young recovering addict burning with energy, questions and eager to figure out the symbols of his own crumbled library.
We talked about the books on my nightstand. We talked about the Bob Marley poster hanging on my wall and how music made us feel. We talked about the thirty inch tall Buddha statue which stood by my bed. There were great fears too that circled us the entire time we stayed on that island. Anxieties of relapse and worse, what might actually happen to us if we choose life rather than self destruction. But we shared these things back and forth and suffered them together which offered it own comfort. For me, it felt like the first time talking openly since getting clean months before.
The books that were floating between us, in retrospect, held a common topic that was lost to us because of our youth and ignorance. Josh was finished reading an interesting book called “Conversations with God”
In it the author presents a dialog between himself and God. In clear clean prose we are exposed to a dialog between an omnipresent creator and man. Written by Neale Donald Walsch, the book challenges readers to either discard the book as nonsense or spend some time with the ideas and trying them on like new shoes. Josh and I found it hard to get defensive with a book when its main premise is that God, you and everything are one.
A book I had with me that we were passing back and forth was “The Lucifer Principle”. The book is 466 pages of a scientist’s argument and backing research on the origin of evil in the human race and how it stems from our genetics, culture and social groups. The motivation I had to start reading the book came from my romanticisation of the utter doom I felt while using drugs. I started growing fond of villains. I liked the stories of monsters alienated by society. I liked driving my hideously out of date Lincoln at night haunting the quiet suburbs with no destination. Reliving the same day again and again of raising money, going to the city, scoring heroin, doing heroin. Through every sun and moon this nightmare repeated itself. There was also juggling high school, the duties of a son, of a brother, of an employee.
An American boy from down the street becomes a thief and a fiend: a godless predator with sunken eyes, constantly spinning a web of lies trapping the people he loved: who loved him. From the bottom of my heart I believed as much as anything that this way of life was how one truly felt alive, was how one could make each day count, how one could escape the monotonous evil that was always lurking over my shoulder. A jukebox of literary quotes, movie scenes, the choruses of songs would play in my head confirming I was right and good. I’d twist their meanings into favoring this life I chose. It was the sober world that were suckers. Meanwhile, I was a mess of person rotting from denial unable to see. Having occupied and thoroughly romanticised what is was to live outside of society, where did I stand now as someone asking to come back in? Was I good for getting clean and helping myself? Or bad for having been a dope shooting addict? I think Josh felt this moral ambiguity as well. We were both young men being corrected by society. We were taken out of the game and put on the side lines to relearn the fundamentals. We sat on the bench and watched. Where did we fit in? Is what was going on right? Was it wrong?
The books we read showed we were turning to any higher powers for guidance; “Conversations With God”, “The Lucifer Principle”, even Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series which Josh was devouring is about the last great gunslinger traveling to a giant structure at the center of his world that connects multiple universes and could reveal some explanation as to why his world was disintegrating.
One could listen to Josh narrate the way he used drugs and uncover a deep cavern of moral inquiry. Josh lived closely to many of the open air drug markets of South Jersey. But among the constant volley of these substances he was most fond of Dextromethorphan found in cold medicine. In the years to come I’d see him while on this stuff. Sunken in face, eyes protruding out further than normal seeing a world that wasn’t there. He’d approach with a stiff and unnatural gate. In the Oxford House he’d tell me stories of what that drug would do to him. “I thought I was Jesus. Or I would see Jesus in a room made of never ending mirrors. One time, in the middle of a bender, I woke my mom up out bed to tell her I was Jesus and I was going to save the world.”
He would walk the crumbling streets of his home dragging his messiah complex atop his back moving in and out of the orange street lights. He’d find his bed and wake up the next morning with stiff muscles and yellow skin. While on the island, salvation did come for him. It came in abstinence. It came in morning cigarettes, long talks, bussing tables for ends meat, a hundreds of hours of NA meetings in the basements of churches on an island founded by Methodists where every high tide flooded the North end with salt water. But our diseases would catch up to us eventually. We both had about forteen months of solid sobriety while on that island. Despite the books that widened our minds, despite the endless meetings, despite an attempt at step work and the dialogs with our sponsors both of us would eventually relapse. We did it together actually. As they say, when you stop chasing the dragon the dragon turns around and chases you. But the good thing was we didn’t use together very long. We had met in Recovery while we were still genuine men with honest anxieties but still able to laugh deeply. I don’t know about Josh, but it was hard to see him high even while I was. In addition, we didn’t wanna use in the same way. I turned towards heroin and lived out a dozen months of bleary eyes and middle-of-the-night cold sweats while working a catering job. Josh took a job on the docks and worked every night until 11pm then pickled his brain with alcohol and cough syrup until the sun rose in the morning. Eight years went by since then with attempts at sobriety, failing, and kicking heroin again and again.
You see, when I stand over a pile of mangled books covered in drywall dust digesting the embarrassment of my prized library collapsing on my nephew you can understand what I mean when I say, “I’ve felt like this before”, To have broken your brain so much that it no longer makes serotonin and dopamine and because of that everything I ever did wrong or every negative thought I’ve ever had is the only thing I feel exists. The only comforting thought was that if I don’t do any more drugs my brain will heal in four or five days. To be at the bottom looking up and seeing a mountain of work that’ll have to been done until things are stable again. But as with anything it all begins with the willingness to make a single step forward, the first reach upwards out of the hole, the dusting off of a single book and stacking it to the side.