Restless soul syndrome

[A snippet from a writing project in gestation that will probably make more sense if you read the preceding snippets.]

If you asked me six months ago to imagine a scenario which would result in me living with my parents, I would have laughed heartily and given you some wildly unrealistic turn of events, like a complete mental breakdown or traumatic brain injury. I mean, shit, I’ve been away – hundreds if not thousands of miles away – for fifteen years now, and there’s simply no way in hell such a thing could happen, yet somehow here I am, upstairs in the house where my Grandmother lived for most of her life. My brother and I used to stay in this very room when we visited Grandma. I remember we needed to have a bucket to piss in, so we wouldn’t have to make the long trek to the bathroom downstairs. I wish I had that bucket right now, as my mother has some friends over this morning and I’m trying to wait them out.

I’m starting to get better at adapting quickly to change, as life has been unfolding in unpredictable ways for the past several months. In the past several months I’ve stayed in Kentucky, North Carolina, Vermont, Mexico City, El Pueblito, and now good old Troy. Troy, New York: The Home of Uncle Sam! That’s what it says on the big green sign you see on the way into town. “The Armpit of America,” is a descriptor I remember reading once in a magazine. I call it “home,” and it could have been a lot worse. I’ve got at least several weeks ahead of me to continue “pre-habbing” for knee surgery; then I go under the knife and begin the nine-month to a yearlong rehab process. The doc says no way I can head back to Mexico until spring rolls around (at the earliest), which means a long time apart from Molly and all my unfinished business south of the border.

Today I took a stroll around the neighborhood, breathing in the crisp autumn air and noticing the many changes wrought by the fidgety hands of time. Those hands had hold of my mind as well, sliding my thoughts around like chess pieces from present to past to future. In some ways it’s good to be home again. I feel a sense of reconnection that typically gets lost in the chaos of brief holiday visits. And I’ve been able to maintain at least some equanimity this time around, whereas I usually tend to withdraw into a passive daze after a few days under the Trojan moon.

Even though I was only there for a couple of months, my time in Mexico was a real tonic. In fact, despite the difficulties I faced there, in some ways it was easier to tap into the energy of creativity, and easier to maintain focus and discipline in the face of inertia and stultifying habits. I felt more awake and alive than I have in a long time. Of course, this has been the case whenever I’ve made big changes or, more commonly, when big changes have been thrust upon me. Once things settle down, however, and I settle into a relatively static routine, it’s not long before I drift back into a semi-daze, feel existentially/spiritually disconnected, and start to feel the whole Restless Soul Syndrome coming on all over again. But I’m determined not to fall into the same old traps this time around. If it’s change that’s needed to keep the juices flowing, well shit, there’s nothing but change, if I take the time to notice. Maybe I’ll finally get it, or maybe I’ll continue this same old shuffle of “one step forward, two steps back.”

This reminds me of something an old professor told me while I was in graduate school. He was quoting the Jungian analyst Robert Johnson, who said something like, “For years I was taking one step forward and two steps back, but that’s okay – I was headed in the wrong direction.” I was especially fond of that professor—Charlie Tart was his name. He had made a name for himself in the Wild West of Woo known as Transpersonal Psychology. I call it woo not to be totally dismissive. I did, after all, go into considerable debt in pursuit of a master’s degree in the field. But much of what I encountered at the California Institute of Transpersonal Psychology was dubious even to my then freshly cracked-open mind, and even the things I thought (and still think) were life-changing and avant-garde were (and still are) dismissed as claptrap in the mainstream of the mental health field. Professor Tart was especially known for his work in the area of altered states of consciousness. Here’s a snippet of a paper I wrote for that class, just to give a taste of what my “unconventional” education was like:

If a child were fitted into a virtual reality helmet at birth, his or her experience of “reality” would be quite different from non-helmeted humans. Much as our typical human experience is limited by the structure of our organism (e.g., our brain and sense organs) and its relationship to the physical environment, the experiences of helmeted humans would be determined in large measure by the programming of hardware and software. If there were a power failure causing a complete shutdown of this virtual world, would a person born and raised in this computer-generated reality experience a death of some kind? What would his or her experience be of the “natural world” if he or she were to take off the helmet and perceive light and sound through their naked eyes and ears for the first time? Would they be “born” again?

Helmeted humans! It was Charlie’s class—and an incredibly hot girl I met in his class—that inspired me to wander into Buena Vista park one day to purchase my first bag of weed. Brenda was an unabashed pothead who extolled the many wonders of weed smoking nearly every time we got together. I eventually smoked with her, on several occasions, but the only effect of note was an unpleasant amplification of a general state of self-consciousness. Brenda speculated that my problem was an inability to relax and let go into the experience, suggesting that perhaps if I smoked up alone in my room I wouldn’t feel as self-conscious about how the drug was affecting me. And so I headed up Haight Street toward the park, a section of town where normally I couldn’t walk a hundred yards without being offered “buds” or “doses” by some dreadlocked teenager passing me on the sidewalk. When I first moved to San Francisco, I actually thought these kids were calling me “Bud,” as in “Hey Buddy, how are ya?” Yeah, I was pretty naïve back then, but now that I was hoping to purchase some of these magical buds, I couldn’t attract the usual attention from the would-be dealers. So I headed up into the densely forested section of the park, like a fly hoping to get caught in the spider’s web. It worked like a charm. Some nappy-headed hippie gave me the nod within a few minutes and I awkwardly negotiated the deal, heading home with a plastic baggie full of something that smelled a lot like what had been in Brenda’s plastic baggie. I had nowhere to be for the next two days, so I closed the door to my room, filled Brenda’s pipe with a load of green, and smoked the entire bowl with a series of deep huffs in rapid succession. It was like chugging a beer, I reasoned, hoping the quick hits would bypass the whole self-conscious thing and move right into this “high” feeling that everyone was raving about. While I was waiting for the effect to dawn on me, I filled the bowl again and “chugged” it in with another several deep draughts, coughing up half a lung in the process. “That ought to get things rolling,” I thought, but before that train of thought could move any further, the thing went completely off the rails.

I got so high so quickly that I could no longer keep a thought in my head long enough to anchor myself in the old familiar world where things made sense. I rapidly cycled through phases of déjà vu and amnesia, which frightened me a great deal, but not as much as the amplified sensation of my heart beating against the walls of my chest. I became certain that I had overdosed and would pay for the mistake with my life, and so I attempted to make my way into the living room to the telephone where I could call 9-1-1. Fortunately, my seventeen-year-old housemate Helen was home, and she quickly divined the precise nature of my predicament. She assured me that, although I sincerely thought I was going to die, I most definitely was not actually going to die. Despite her young age, Helen had been through a bad trip or two in her day, and she expertly coached me back into state of relative calm and sanity. I had no idea that marijuana could have a hallucinogenic effect on a person, no matter the amount smoked. The experience unnerved me, but intrigued me enough to try it again a few weeks later. It took a bit longer to move from high to tripping balls, but I got there once again, this time documenting my reaction on a hand-held tape recorder for posterity. The next day when I listened to the recording, I was amazed to discover that I had only uttered two sentences, which were whispered and separated between long, long periods of absolute silence.

“Oh my God I think I’m going to die…” and “That’s not me, that’s not me…”

The first thought was a return of the deeply held conviction that I had smoked too much pot, that it was likely laced with something toxic, and that I was going to be punished for my foolishness with a heart attack. The second was something I said after noticing my reflection in the full-size mirror hanging just outside the bathroom. I looked at the image in the mirror, could not fully convince myself that it was my own reflection, and gradually became stricken with a doubt deep enough to drop me to my knees in a state of abject horror.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. One step forward, two steps back. Restless soul syndrome. I need to fight against it, to keep things in constant motion so the patterns can’t set in. Stay in the flow. Which reminds me that I have to piss like Niagra Falls. Mom and her friends are still clucking away like a brood of hens. I have neither a bucket nor a pot to piss in, nothing but an empty plastic water bottle. I’ll give them five more minutes; then I’ll choose between pissing in the bottle (and possibly all over myself) and the thirty seconds of awkwardness I’d have to endure interacting with strange humans on my way to and from the bathroom. I’m sure there are more options, but sooner or later a man has to take that next step, whether or not he can tell the right direction from the wrong. Reminds me of another Robert Johnson quote. Not the analyst, but the bluesman:

I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees. Asked the lord above, “Have mercy, save poor Bob, if you please.”


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