Life as Compost

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.

Smoke ‘em If You Want to Live

That’s strange. Where’s my garden hose? I wondered to myself. The disturbing answer to my question came much later in the day.

I only noticed it was missing because I wasn’t able to water the flower beds that morning before going to work. It was Austin, late in the summer of 2016, and my flowerbeds couldn’t go too many consecutive days without water.

Around 2:30 pm that same day, I am camped in my cubicle at work. My cell phone vibrates on the desktop next to my computer. It’s a call from a number I don’t recognize. I answer…because I’m like that.

“Hi this is Treasure, M’s girlfriend. I’m really worried about him. Do you know where he is?” There is urgency and stress in her voice. Immediately, I am feeling just as worried. I know M’s been in a bad place lately. I tell Treasure I will do my best to find him.

Seconds later I call M on his cell phone. He’s always hard to get ahold of, even on his good days. Today, I’m preparing myself to double, triple, and quadruple-call him.

But he answers right away with a flat, hello. I could tell through the phone he’s somewhere outdoors. 

“Hey, what’s going on? You okay?” Really, I’m shocked that he’s answered. 

“Not really. I don’t know.” He is speaking from a sunken place. “It’s just hard. I’m trying.” I can hear what sounds like a police radio in the background. This is America. M’s six-foot-seven and black by birth. 

“Where are you, man? Tell me where you are and I’ll be right there.” 


A recurring theme of this blog is paradigm-smashing; how old ideas can get up-ended by ah-ha moments. Since smashing paradigms is considerable work, let’s take a “smoke break.”

For most of my life, I harbored a preternatural personal disdain for smoking. Of course, there is no shortage of people who dislike smoking, but not like I did. All for reasons I will attempt to explain. I will also build a new case for why smoking cigarettes should not be looked upon with such negative judgement, but is instead deserving of broad and empathetic understanding.  

Several years ago I was listening to a Freakonomics Radio episode about cigarette smoking. [If you don’t already know this show/podcast, it’s one of the best.] Two things from that podcast stuck with me in particular. The first was when one of their guests, a medical researcher, described nicotine as, “Good drug. Bad delivery method.” The researcher went on to explain nicotine’s “health benefits,” such as increased levels of beta-endorphins that reduce anxiety, to name just one. 

The other amazing fact they reported was that the most commonly shared characteristic among cigarette smokers is “mental illness.” [Screech!] Stop right there!! I wish to be super clear this is what they reported and substantially different from the better and more nuanced personal conclusions I’ve made on the subject. Stay with me while I attempt to connect a few dots.

Can I Get A Light?

I have never been a smoker. Well, not voluntarily. From as early as I can remember, and even before I can remember, smoke was in the air. My mom was a smoker and didn’t even think to slow down her habit while being pregnant with me. My dad didn’t light up as frequently, but he smoked on occasion, too. It was the 60’s. Practically everyone smoked. Even my first words were, “Can I get a light?”

When you are the child of a smoker, you are in a tough spot. You cannot simply make different lifestyle-choices and avoid being constantly surrounded by cigarette smoke. I disliked it VERY much. And once information started coming out in the media about how smoking was bad for your health, I despised it even more. I loved my mother, duh!. Watching her smoke pack after pack of cigarettes was the worst. Then, the final straw… I was maybe 14 or so when I became aware that some people thought I smoked cigarettes because my clothes, laundered by my mom, smelled like it.

My kid-logic brain created a monster-strong aversion to cigarettes, cigarette smokers, and pretty much anything smoking related. Smoking = bad. End of story. 

Now that I’ve accrued a decent amount of life experience I am able to understand the phenomenon of smoking in a far more robust and nuanced way. There are people in my life today that smoke and, while I don’t care to sit downwind from them at a table, I still appreciate them without negative judgement. 

A Tether Back to Earth

Several years ago a very close friend of mine- let’s just call him M -was going through a life-threatening personal crisis. He was distraught and suicidal like I’d never seen him. I was letting M stay in the spare bedroom of my house at the time; though he was out so much I rarely saw him.

On the day he planned to take his own life, M unscrewed the garden hose from its bib on the front of my house and carried the green coiled up mass towards his vehicle. In the dark hours before another unbearable day began, M parked his beat-up SUV behind a nondescript retail shopping center, right next to a dumpster. His plan was to stick one end of the hose up the exhaust pipe and leave the other end inside the car, windows up.


My friend M is a smoker. When I found him that day in a suburban neighborhood alley, in the midst of four police officers and two squad cars, he was smoking like a fiend. Finish one, light another. Repeat. On that day, in that city, those cops were (thankfully) the good guys. They helped M find a clinic where he could get some legit help. The whole story is compelling and maybe someday the time will be right for me to tell it in full. For now, we need to stay at his side.

While three of the police officers were occupied by standing around, one was making arrangements so that M would have a safe place to go. For a few hollowed out moments, my friend and I were able to talk. Like I said, his cigarette smoking at that moment was in high gear. Out of pure curiosity, I thought to ask him, “What is happening when you smoke like that?” 

I found his response both revealing and fascinating. In the middle of this high-stress, intense, existential reckoning, he gave my question a moment’s thought and uttered, “It’s like…Okay, I’m alive.” This stripped down, raw, visceral response cut through so much mystery for me. Nicotine and/or the other compounds in cigarettes were somehow providing a tether back to Earth at a moment when stress levels threatened to hurl my friend into the darkness of space. 

Resolving the Rubik

On another front, I’ve been exposed to several different discussions of late about chronic stress that have me thinking about its connection to smoking in a new light. Each discussion had a completely different context, but I am seeing them all as different colored squares on the same Rubik’s cube. There was a story a couple years ago on NPR about the psychological effects of living in the US while being undocumented. More recently I heard about studies that show how simply being poor can put a person into a state of chronic stress, which makes total sense. An entirely different source, and at a later time, discussed how being black in America induces chronic stress, too. And one more- Recent deep dives into my own personal history have taught me how chronic stress can be the body’s innate response to even relatively mild forms of trauma during childhood. 

The last cube to turn… About 2 months ago, someone suggested I listen to Joe Rogan’s interview with an engaging Brit named Johann Hari. Ostensibly, the discussion was about depression, but that’s only where it started. Addiction. Medication. Self-determination. Civilization, and much more. It’s ALL connected. The podcast is 3+ hours long and totally worth a listen. The giant takeaway from the interview is that depression results from a much larger list of societal ills than most of us ever imagined. By the way, that someone who suggested I listen…was M.

Now I’m ready to resolve the Rubik and put all of these seemingly disparate data points on the same side. It’s not mental illness that is the most commonly shared trait among smokers, it is anxiety. Survivors of trauma whether acute or constant, and victims of chronic stress, have to battle anxiety with each breath. The chemistry of cigarettes gives those that smoke a brief but desperately needed respite from anxiety. Finally, I can look upon my mother’s smoking addiction with fresh, sympathetic clarity. The mother I knew as a child was steeped in worry. She was trying to survive her trauma, both past and present. She was stressed the fuck out! 

Her husband, my dad, suffered from his own issues and was honestly impossible to live with. Their constant arguing over everything from the thermostat to the “right” way to slice a stick of butter, created a home environment for her that was a petri dish for anxiety and stress. It’s long been my conclusion that when it comes to relationships, emotionally healthy people are drawn to each other and, unfortunately, the opposite holds true for the damaged.

My mom would never have ended up with my dad were it not for her own trauma-filled past. At 13 years old, my mom left for school one morning… without a clue she would never see her own mother again. When she came home that afternoon, strangers were going in and out of her house. She was told her amazing mother, the closest, dearest, most loving person ever in my mom’s young life, had died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. The strangers helped my mom gather up a few belongings before sending her to live with an aunt. This was only temporary, as were the series of foster homes she would be placed in while finishing out her teenage years. These were also the same years she takes up smoking.

Cured By The Flu

There you have it, full circle. My mother’s addiction to cigarettes makes disturbingly perfect sense within the context of her own personal hardships. 

It should be noted, by the way, that my mother eventually did quit smoking. She got sick with the flu one season and was seriously knocked off her feet for several days. While coping with a fever, sore throat, chest congestion, sinus pain, and all that comes with the flu, smoking a cigarette was the furthest thing from her mind. After getting better, her motivation for that next cigarette mercifully never returned. Her addiction to cigarettes was miraculously “cured” by the flu!

Though, I have another theory. The last 20 or so years of my mom’s life were perhaps her happiest. She had a part-time job she mostly liked, a quiet, peaceful living situation, several wonderful new friends, and at one point, three quirky cats she more than adored. The stresses and drama of her prior lives were now absent. Smoking was no longer needed.

My mom lived to be 84. The final year of her life may have been her best, and I hope to tell you about it in a future post. She passed away 9 years ago…

…from lung cancer.

Closing caveat: Most certainly there are many good people who smoke for reasons having nothing to do with trauma, stress, or anxiety. Can they not just enjoy it? Yes they can. You know, it’s not my jam, but different people like different things for all sorts of reasons. We should all be careful not to develop preconceptions about every smoker before getting to know them.  

The next post is….well…I’m really not sure what to say about. It’ll be interesting.