The next day Bill drove back to his dirty apartment in Houston. By phone, we had what turned out to be our last conversation. His impending suicide looks like a forgone conclusion in hindsight.
Bill told me about an incident that took place when he was six years old and in the 1st grade. It was the start of the new school year. Mrs Maddox stood at the front of the room and instructed everyone to get out their Big Chief tablets and a pencil, turn to the first page, and write their names at the top. While all the other kids began moving in unison, little Bill froze. This fragile child was paralyzed by anxiety from head to toe. What makes a child of six have their first panic attack? Bill was overwhelmed, scared, not getting it quickly enough. Surely someone would soon be yelling at him. If he didn’t cry out loud, he cried inside.
And no one was there for him. No one was ever there for him.
He knew it was our last conversation and this was the story he wanted me to hear. Bill felt that moment in the first grade set the tone for his whole life…and so it did.
The uniformed police officer came out of Bill’s Houston apartment wearing his stoic and somber face. He avoided making eye contact with me as he approached. Once close enough to respectfully give me the news, he spoke in low tones without ever seeming to open his mouth. My brother Bill was in there, on the couch, dead from a bullet to the head. The officer asked me if I wished to come inside and see the body. I shook my head no. My eyes didn’t need to see a second brother dead from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. My much older brother Tommy had taken his own life with a shotgun 40 years earlier…when I was just six years old. Now my brother Bill has done the same; this time with a handgun.
About five days before pulling the trigger, Bill came to Austin to visit our mother– one final time as it turned out. She lived in the little periwinkle house I’d purchased many years before. At this time I was living with my girlfriend in a different house about 1 ¼ miles away. My only interaction with Bill that weekend came when I dropped by to get a lawnmower from the garage. He came out of the house wearing his ever-present yellow tank. We stood together mid-way up the driveway under the partial shade of a persimmon tree.
He was physically bigger than me, but on this day he looked small. He told me he was in pretty bad shape. Bill squinted with one eye when the sunlight found gaps between the leaves. He asked me if he could come to Austin…to live at my house. I reflected for only a moment. I both knew and didn’t know how bad off he was. My head told me if he moved from Houston to Austin his sad struggles would only move with him. That was my head; my heart wasn’t there. I was honest with him, “I don’t know, man. I don’t think that would really do anything. How would things be any different if you came here?” He didn’t disagree. and then shrank a little more.
The conclusion to his lifetime of angst was near. That day in the driveway, underneath the persimmon tree, Bill summed up how it was to be him, “I just wish I could take all of this,” gesturing towards his whole body, “…and just get it off me!” With that last part he lifted his left hand to his right arm, grimaced his face, and made a scraping motion from his shoulder down to his tensely splayed fingers. He was removing the layer of shit he was born without, but was placed upon him while growing up in that house on Creekwood. He then quickly did the same motion on his left side to say again. …just get it off me!
Berated by a father who had no business becoming one, cared for but never truly loved by a mother who’s own heart was dismantled at 13. He had fingernails that were bitten to nothing. He was molested by a pervy neighbor in his teens. He was trauma laiden, self-loathing, socially inept…. Bill lived 46 years of pain. He even had year-round allergies that rarely allowed him to breath like he wanted to….like a normal person. Now he was out of money, out of motivation, and out of options. He wanted the shit gone; all of it, all at once.
After Bill’s body was placed in a bag and rolled out of his dingy apartment on a gurney, I sat on some steps nearby, soaking in sadness but not crying. One of the other policemen on the scene was hispanic. From where I sat I could overhear him talking with a neighbor named “Kiko.” It was clear that Kiko knew my brother; they were neighbors but also friends. The officer spoke to Kiko in Spanish. Bill had been really depressed lately, Kiko told the officer. He went to see his family in Austin last weekend, and…, there was a slight hesitation before Kiko finished his sentence, “…aun su familia no le quiere.”
I wasn’t sitting very far away. My Spanish is pretty good. Kiko told the officer, Even his family doesn’t want him.
No one was there for him. No one was ever there for him. I wasn’t there for him.
A Tantalizing Tangent
Whoa, I was not expecting to encounter a chapter devoted to psychedelics embedded two-thirds of the way through the book I was reading– Civilized to Death by Christopher Ryan. I talk some about the book (a.k.a. The Debbie Downer Book) in a previous post and make clear how impactful I found the book’s basic premise- that the modern lives we lead are largely at odds with our evolved human nature. Information in the book about our past, present, and potential use of psychedelics was an unexpected but tantalizing tangent.
As the book explains, psychedelics have been a meaningful part of the human experience for thousands upon thousands of pre-civilized generations. Now that we are (supposedly) more civilized than ever, we have criminalized its usage and propagandized against it for multiple generations. The book makes a seriously strong case that much has been lost in our fervor to demonize any drug that doesn’t come from a pharmacist. The good news is that the tide appears to be slowly turning and psychedelics are once again becoming part of the human conversation.
What exactly is meant by psychedelics? LSD, Magic Mushrooms, Ayahuasca, Peyote, Salvia, DMT, and the list goes on. Basically, it’s any of the class of chemical compounds capable of profoundly altering human consciousness. Alcohol alters consciousness, too. And in even smaller ways, so does coffee and cigarettes, (even energy drinks!), but to say they do so in a profound way would be a stretch. Marijuana certainly moves in that direction also, and one would not be wrong to consider it a psychedelic. However, for the sake of my conversation with you, I will keep cannabis and the list of classic psychedelics in distinct buckets.
Barely Legal Gary Plans a Trip
One reason I was particularly intrigued by Civilized to Death’s chapter on psychedelics is because [in a twist almost no one saw coming] I have some direct experience with it. I did LSD about a half-dozen times when I was 18-19 years old. Here’s how that came about.
In the intro to my Puzzle of a Thousand Pieces post, I retell the story of how, at six years old, I found my much older half-brother named Tommy in the gut-wrenching moments after he’d shot himself in the head with a shotgun. There was another brother I grew up with named Bill, twenty-two months older than me.
Older brothers typically have an influence on their younger siblings, especially if the age difference is small. Overall, this influence was minimal in my case. I was the happy, straight-laced, goody-two-shoes brother, while Bill went in the opposite direction. At 18 and 20 years of age, respectively, we hadn’t lived under the same roof for at least the last 5 years. Our relationship was always strained and never close. For reasons I will explain in a later post, I had lots of reasons to dislike him.
I’m not sure when or how Bill got introduced to LSD, but once he did, he became highly motivated to get me to try it.
Reading Between the Lines
I eventually did experience LSD…but not before doing my own amatuer brand of due diligence. First, I went to the Houston Public Library and checked-out a book on it. I don’t remember it being an evangelical summation of the drug, but more of the textbook explanation I was looking for. The second thing I did was approach this one particular teacher at school, a substitute teacher whose name was Dean. If nothing else… Dean was “cool.” He was around 30, owned only one sport-coat, and wore his straight brown hair somewhere between surfer and hippie. One afternoon immediately after the day’s final bell, I found Dean by himself in a classroom.
With reasonable caution, I tell Dean I’m thinking about doing LSD and want to get his opinion. He seems totally unprepared for my inquiry and is visibly uncomfortable even talking about this topic under the fluorescent lights of a classroom. As I recall the scene now, I did most of the talking and he said precious little. What he does say in the end can be summarized as follows: I’m not telling you to do it….
I was 18 years old and savvy enough to finish his thought without requiring him say it out loud:
…but I’m not telling you not to.
In those days my thoughts on alcohol and drugs were not that complicated. If I had assessed them to have a net positive impact on life, they were given the okay. If not, banned for life. At 18 years old, I wasn’t aware of all the deep-rooted, childhood mental conditioning Christianity had “blessed” me with. In my mind, I was simply taking a logical approach to right and wrong. In the case of LSD, I rationalized it into the Okay column because, based on my own “extensive” research, it seemed as though LSD’s positive effects far outweighed any negative ones. In fact, there really didn’t seem to be any downside. [The huge caveat to this is that folks who may be predisposed to schizophrenia or other psychotic breaks, based on their personal family history, are strongly advised to steer clear of LSD as a precaution.]
After all my amatuer preparation, which included taking two multivitamins that morning, my brother and I went to the sprawling Bear Creek Park in Houston early one Saturday. We found a semi-secluded spot, sat down in a couple of lawn chairs around my boom box (yes, this was in the 80’s), and let the trip begin. One of the first things I noticed were the “traces” trailing anything that moved. Then I noticed how the clouds began to move and change…their edges lifting off to form patterns.
I might use different words to convey the effects of LSD today, but at the time the one-word description I would use to describe its effects was simply MORE. Everything that is… becomes more. When you see green, red, blue, they are somehow more green, more red, and more blue. Clouds move, but now they move more. Songs that sound good, sound great. You hear more of the sound, with more clarity and more brilliance. When feeling anything, you feel more of it. I have a memory of reaching into my pocket for a quarter, and being fascinated to feel the finely etched raised rim, just inside the gear-toothed outer circumference.
While I only did LSD about 5 additional times in all, the experiences were highly valuable for giving me a glimpse into an enhanced state of mind, and also for my understanding of how drugs might fit into a person’s life. I still wouldn’t drink, I wouldn’t smoke pot, I had zero interest in the obvious waste-of-time drugs like cocaine, speed, heroin, etc. But LSD enriched my life in an important way. I don’t regard it as life-changing; I hadn’t lived enough life yet. But it was nonetheless, most definitely, unequivocally, highly valuable.
In retrospect, the LSD trips I had with my brother Bill were the only positive life-experiences we ever shared as brothers. Prior to our first trip together that day in Bear Creek Park, Bill told me about being on previous LSD trips and hearing Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. It made him wish I was there with him, with him on his fantastical journeys. He craved for someone in his life, especially someone that he loved as a brother, to experience this amazing world as a window into his own. In retrospect, it’s the one time I was there for him.
One clear picture that emerges after learning about psychedelics…there is a chasm of difference between doing these substances recreationally as a young person, and doing them later in life. There is so much more to be gained after one has lived. James Fadiman, author of the Explorer’s Guide to Psychedelics, put it this way: Psychedelics use your own life experience as compost….in order for new things to grow.
Next up, we go even deeper down the rabbit hole.