Amnesiacs

“I have this recurring nightmare: flailing pigeon, her broken feet frozen solid to the pavement. I turn away as if I do not see.”Lotus Gait by Propagandhi

Sometimes I fear that all my abstinence and abstention is vanity. I get to signal virtue on the basis of my distance from the rest of the species. I get to put on airs that I’m good by doing nothing.

Or maybe not. There’s no arbiter of these things, and at this point I am who I am. I speak of myself. I deny that I am good, maybe hoping that there’s an inversion that occurs because of this claim.

I’ve always felt punctured. The membrane between myself and the world is too thin. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I am kind. Sometimes the opposite has been true. That’s humans for you.

But I do get punctured and perhaps it says something about society more generally that we’re expected to fortify ourselves against the things that do this.

When I was 19 I went with one of my unfortunate girlfriends and several others to Florida. I was drifting between two personal nightmares. I did not have fun. I was not able to.

Gainesville was a punk Mecca for a time, with an influential record label kicking out albums by good bands that no one remembers. We went to a show at a record store. It was obligatory.

What exactly punk happens to be at a given time in a given place varies, but by this time it had largely distanced itself from the self-destructive mid-90’s, becoming something more polished. Lots of people were straight edge, lots of people were vegan, and everything was smarter. Somewhere in America people were still listening to GG Allin and huffing spray paint, but no one thought much about it- it was a museum piece.

All the well-heeled kids, college bound and neurotic, sat around and listened to an utterly forgettable band. There was a young woman, out of place in the crowd. She had dreadlocks and was dressed in rags. She danced aggressively and was obviously wasted. She was quickly ejected from the show and she stumbled into the night.

I was a heavy smoker and despite all the time I spent in bars and VFW halls listening to the musical equivalents of Civil War reenactments I don’t think I ever liked it. I just didn’t know what else to be or to do. I went outside to smoke. It was Florida but it was January and it was cold. I only had one cigarette left and walked toward the distant lights of a gas station.

The woman who had been thrown out was walking toward me. As we drew close she pulled back her fist, a punch that would have gone wide had it been thrown. It was more likely that it would have knocked her down than me. I am no real tough guy. I’m sure I’ve pretended, but I’m not. I’ve just been hit enough to rise to the occasion. I put up my fists.

Her eyes filled with tears. I put my hands down.

She embraced me, crying and lostness poured out. She went to a Rainbow Family gathering a few weeks prior and had no memory of anything since then. There was a baby somewhere, her baby, and she didn’t know who was taking care of it. She needed… she didn’t know what she needed. I didn’t either. We sat. We smoked. She cried. I gave her some money. That was it.

In another epoch I was walking down Tucson’s 4th Avenue commercial district. I don’t remember what year or month. It was cool enough to move in daylight so it must have been winter.

A young man sat at a table outside of a coffee shop. He looked at me, horror crawling on his face. He said, “Help me.” That’s a request that is so clear that it requires deafness and amnesia to avoid the mandate and live with yourself.

I sat down across from him and a disjointed mess of paranoia, delusion and trauma spilled out. There were men looking for him. A massive criminal enterprise. Did I see that car? It was them. And his boyfriend, and his social worker, and the government… so much was happening, reality interceding with implausibility, the whole thing mixed into nonsense and terror.

It’s not easy to reason with this because that’s not the language it speaks. But I tried. I decided I would be mooring for him to tie himself to. It might be the case that those men across the street reading newspapers are waiting to kill him, but they couldn’t possibly want to expose their far-reaching conspiracy to a solid citizen like myself. It would just be bad practice. And this made sense to him. He sang Nirvana songs after that, and then Eminem.

We moved inside. A friend was working at the cafe. He needed sugar and he wanted it dissolved in coffee. He let me look through his wallet and there was a social worker’s card within. I called her and said that I was with a client who seemed to be in crisis. She said I should get away from him, for my own sake, and I told her that sounded wildly irresponsible.

Eventually she picked him up, or somebody did. I don’t remember the hand-off. I just remember thinking that it’s not going to get better for him. This is going to be his life. Being scared of other people and other people being scared of him.

I went to graduate school, which was a bad idea and a bad look. On the whole, academics may not be bad people, but I find them (and by extension myself) to be obnoxious, and those in the social sciences are the worst of all. It’s a self-congratulatory disaster and if you leave it you’ll spin around looking for the identity that you abandoned when you began.

I went to conferences in important cities and sat in hotels, confronting the limits of my attention span. Out of boredom I asked confrontational questions and ate at restaurants I didn’t want to. I revisited the tedium of being a sober person in a bar. And I spent hours- literal hours!- not smoking weed.

I went to one of these gatherings in D.C. one year. No real reason to. My friends were going, I think that’s all, and I had a buddy living there. I fidgeted through talks that were desperate bids for tenure, grasps towards upward mobility, or the ‘masturbating the whale’ of established names. It sucked. It’s ego junkie shit.

I took my white privilege for a walk with my advisor and smoked weed on the sidewalk. A man was walking towards us, eyes wide, holding himself, wrapped up in a greasy coat. He was crying. I was transfixed. He saw this.

He stood in front of me. His mother was dead. That was it for him. A crushing fact. Everyone else was dead too, the remainder of an equation. He sobbed. We embraced and held on, for longer than I have with most people. I don’t remember what I felt. Maybe I felt important. Or cut open. What can you do?

You leave. These things should stop the world but they don’t. That man’s sorrow should have been an emergency, but it was just an inconvenience. The woman I was with didn’t have time for this routine misery, and I had nothing to give aside from that moment.

Worlds end all the time. Some people have to endure this in public, and nothing stops but them. Fryers fry, trains roll on, the dead lie in rooms full of dripping fluids and beeping machines. The right thing to do would be to tear it all apart and go down with them.

People would say that’s unhealthy, but none of what we live through is healthy. They’re not really talking about health. They’re talking about convenience, and not even for themselves, but for whoever sits above them, cursing the help.

Bashing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

The following has been informed by Cognitive Behavioral Tsunami: Managerialism, Politics and the Corruptions of Science by Farhad Dalal. It’s a brutal takedown of this therapeutic modality.

I’ve been to lots of therapists in my life. Some have been good, some not so much. Ultimately, it’s just the done thing when you’re in emotional distress.

When I was a child I didn’t really understand what it meant to be involved in talk therapy. I didn’t have any experiential baseline to compare my own internal life to, and no one ever brought me up to speed on the idea that I was somehow abnormal. Nor did I have an understanding of the behavioral benchmarks that indicate abnormality. So I sat around with various adult professionals without understanding the goal of that sitting around.

In adulthood I’ve been more aware of the goal in these settings. There’s a problem and the goal is to make that problem less onerous. It hasn’t worked much of the time, but this might be me, or it might be the world.

Generally, the difficulty has been in the exclusion of material conditions from the discussion, and a failure to evaluate my ability to bring myself into line with the ideal resolution of the problems identified. A lot of it is grey, but moments stand out.

There’s a man from early adolescence who had age appropriate and interesting book recommendations. Awesome. A+.

Then there’s a person who insisted that I take psychiatric medications or she wouldn’t treat me. I left the session.

A therapist once grazed the surface of a larger issue: I needed to want something. But I didn’t want anything, except maybe to feel better.

An elderly therapist made me take the Briggs-Meyer personality test. No thanks.

Two years ago I was ruined. I was just flailing around, sinking. I was enrolled as a patient in an anxiety focused clinic with a sliding scale payment policy. I filled out an endless evaluation form and was then receiving therapy.

The person administering my sessions was a young woman who was a postdoctoral fellow in neuroscience, which is not a field of expertise that normally deals with human thoughts or feelings out in the world of subjective experience. They look at brains. This might or might not bear upon human suffering.

She explained the paradigm that we’d be working within, that being Mindfulness Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (MBCBT). This isn’t something I knew much about. It was explained to me that MBCBT was a data-driven, research informed therapeutic model supported by the innovative thinking of a dickhead stepfather: Your thoughts impact your feelings and you’re in control of your thoughts. The process doesn’t waste time on past events- there’s no point. Nor is it concerned with material conditions. The right mindset is either impervious to, or perhaps able to overcome, almost any life circumstances.

There are obvious deficits in this understanding. Or, perhaps, deliberately harmful myths that are perpetuated.

A case study: A thirteen year old is beaten. What comes first in this event? I think it depends on the staging.

Let us say the beating is unexpected (which seems highly unlikely, but I guess we’re dealing with abstractions). What comes first?

A fist hurtles towards a face. Is the brain behind the face aware of what’s coming? I guess the fist could be coming towards the back of the head, but if it’s head-on, then yeah, the victim is aware.
So, if there’s an awareness, is that a thought or a feeling? I don’t know. In my experience there’s a moment of terror, which is definitely a feeling, coupled with a reflexive urge to avoid this theoretical fist, and I guess a thought, which might be “Oh fuck. Anthony is punching me in the face (again).”

I don’t know how to pull these things apart. I’m no thought scientist (and you don’t have to be to practice CBT) but experience tells me that there’s no parsing out chickens and eggs here. Human consciousness isn’t an assembly line.

In the straw man argument above, how would thinking inform the feeling? Maybe if one were able to alter the automatic thought from “Oh shit, a fist,” to “This is an opportunity to learn to endure pain,” the sufferer could have a more enriching experience, as long as they subdue their urge to get out of the way. Any anxiety one might have about such an event happening again is to be dealt with by recognizing that just because you got punched today it isn’t necessarily going to happen tomorrow.

This is the institutional model of therapy practiced in the modern psychotherapeutic context, and its prominence coincides with the rise of the nonprofit sector and the psychiatrization of society, against the backdrop of neoliberal austerity. This makes quite a bit of sense.

“Non-profit organization” is a misnomer. It is true that there are no shareholders in such an organization (instead there’s a board comprised of wealthy people and professional administrators), but they still operate according to the mandates of accumulation: The organization that can provide more services for less money receives funding, and the entire sector is based upon a low wage/high turnover business model. It’s an outsourcing of the management of human misery. Non-profit executives make six figure salaries while the grunts get $13 an hour and a consolation prize: They’re doing good work that helps people (which probably isn’t true).

Therefore, CBT is perfect for this sector. It is brief- instead of years of psychotherapy, CBT generally terminates after a given number of sessions. Also, it doesn’t require intensive training. In my brief experience in social work education, this is the only therapy we would be trained in, and the training wouldn’t be extensive.

And it’s ideologically convenient. As it is concerned with thoughts rather than material conditions or personal history the distress of the client is a personal failing rather than a systemic problem. Good news though: You can change your negative thoughts. And if you don’t, well, you’re two times a failure.

I’ve tried to imagine bringing this therapeutic approach to bear on someone in an abusive domestic arrangement with no familial assistance, and I immediately revert to the ‘getting punched in the face’ example. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t help. It’s actually profoundly harmful.

During my time receiving this therapy, before every single session, I used a Macbook to fill out a questionnaire of approximately 60 questions that pried into the myriad ways that I hadn’t measured up to being a functional person. After this endless reminder of my disappointment the therapist would sit me down and show me a graph charting my responses. Occasionally there would be a spike- progress! Most of the time it was a straight line.

I always left these sessions with worksheets. Yup. Fucking dittos about how to reframe life problems. Or I’d receive a recommendation for an app that would allow me to journal about my spontaneous negative thoughts. I didn’t know what to say. That app would be open all day, every day.

Perhaps most egregious was a focus on mindfulness. I’m not knocking the practice of meditation. But there is a profound disconnect between MBCBT and mindfulness, a breach that is healed by simply not talking about it. My baseline understanding of the various iterations of mindfulness meditation is that thoughts are inherently out of control. I recall a statement by Jon Kabat-Zinn (and I’m paraphrasing) that one can’t think their way out of depression, and I agree. But CBT, as a fundamental principle, asserts that thoughts can and should be controlled.

But whatever, branding is what matters when you’re obviously failing to help people and getting paid for it. I hope someday we awaken to a society that has made the “helping professions” obsolete, and proceeds to remove their taint from whatever world comes next.

Ketamine. Some Water Talk. Spatial Autocorrelation.

There’s a quote attributed to Bruce Lee. I can’t figure out where it originates from: “Be water, my friend. Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

It’s a thoroughly Taoist statement. Lao Tsu had this to say: “Nothing in the world is softer or weaker than water. Yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and strong.”

The Tao Te Ching is, among other things, an expression of anarchism’s most fundamental beauty. Resist capture or reactivity. Act without acting. Govern through an abstention of governance. It’s just really hard to put into practice. Most of us act like iron and not like water.

It’s a small planet we live on. There’s a ‘law’ in geography. ‘Tobler’s Law’. It offers the following truism: All things are related to all other things, but things that are closer together are more alike.

There’s a second law. ‘What happens in an area of interest is affected by phenomenon outside of that area’.

It’s not wrong. It’s not stupid. I do wonder about scale with this though. ‘Close’ is very slippery. Do we apply this to our solar system, or our galaxy, or our universe? If we can discern that something is theoretically infinite how does this rule apply?

I found myself drafting water into the description of a phenomenon the other day. Anyone who reads this blog more than once, and there are probably not that many of you, know that I take ketamine once a week in a clinical setting. I’ve taken it about 60 times, and I still can’t figure it out. Other psychedelics seem to speak a coherent language. Ketamine offers only riddles.

I’ve begun narrating and recording my sessions, and I’m doing this for two reasons.

One is simple intellectual curiosity.

Ketamine throws tons of very weird images at me very rapidly. The relationships of these images are tangential or nonexistent. So much for Tobler’s Law. I am interested in how the staging of these images works: Is there a progression by type, or is something else going on?

The other reason I am doing this is that ketamine can be dark. I’ve learned that talking to the drug lightens it up. Maybe it’s lonely. Or scared. Or angry. Whatever the case, asking it questions and observing its work seems to change it from frightening to, if not pretty, at least gentle.

I think about the relationship between a drug and a user in what is probably an unusual way, which I can extend to most things that we consider to be NOT ALIVE. A synonym: Inanimate. Inanimate objects structure our thoughts and actions. At the point of observation or interaction inanimate objects become a part of the observer. Everyone’s a cyborg. And a chimera.

To flip it, animism: The matter we encounter is imbued with spirit.

Long story short, I narrate and occasionally talk to my intoxication (bad word, but whatever).

The first time I did this I ended up talking to a blue woman who I perceived to be a manifestation of the spirit of the drug. I recall speaking to her as if she was an underappreciated artist and I was a fanatical groupie: “Oh baby… no one gets you. You’re a genius.” Unfortunately, my recording device ran out of power so I don’t have a transcript of this. You’ll just have to trust me.

In the two sessions that followed I got everything on tape. The experiences were less profound in that I was less high as I’ve been trying to reduce my dose a bit. Still, I said some hilarious things. I crack myself up.

But to bring it around to the ‘water is like x’ thing, I have been forced into the following simile: Consciousness is like water. Or maybe water is like consciousness. Who came first?

But it’s not like water in its immediately visible properties. I’m not talking about flow, or speed, or phase. I’m talking about one of water’s basic chemical properties. Water is a universal solvent. It binds, chemically, to most things. It makes disparate elements become a part of itself, and it releases most of them upon a change in phase.

Consciousness is the universal solvent of stimuli. It takes phenomena and it converts it into meaning. It comes into contact with the entirety of the world and it binds to it to imbue it with significance. And even the things that it has already dissolved in this way get recombined.

Under the influence of ketamine the illusion of a chain of signification is broken. I don’t know how to make a diagram that illustrates this, so my efforts might be confusing. Everything I write is probably confusing. But it goes like this…

Linear significance: A straight line of association occurs. I think of water, I think of a beach, I think of a sunburn, I think of getting lost on a beach one summer. I think of my parents. I think of time. I think I’m running out of it.

Ketamine significance: Instead of an endless series of things in a series we have a bifurcation. Water- sand/beach (sand in my mouth/falling/dropping ice cream)(bathing suit/beached whale)(standing at a high point and thinking of jumping/a pratfall on a banana peel)(banana-monkey-monk-catholicism-schism-chasm).

This line of thinking could go on forever. Maybe some people have the ability to do so outside of a state of consciousness alteration. I don’t. Perhaps it’s just easier to consider a fractal pattern or a fungal rhizome. Every point of consideration has an extraordinarily high number of connections via very tangential properties of that point. The direct association we’re used to becomes a fractal process of both differentiation and association. The diversity and irreducibility of the world is processed.

So, we’re trapped inside the field effects of our brains. We can escape it for a while, or at least observe it, by various avenues that produce altered states, but we end up back where we started… Maybe we’re entirely free of it when our lives end. Or maybe time is so different than we experience it to be that we’re eternally there.

And now the fun part: Ketamine narration. None of this makes sense but I say a few funny things.

Session 1:
Yellow room. A cat. A goose
A hedge full of animals.
Passing darkness.
Green and blue waveforms.
Particle phenomenon on something that looks like a foosball table.
And then just darkness.
Brick. Corner of a house.
An image from Caliban and the Witch.
Lots of white and um, tessellated [inaudible]
I’m seeing faces through a gauzy thing.
Weird. Like… gold on lavender.
Looks like fancy stationery.
Seeing a night sky. With some silhouette figures.
Black.
Very basic shapes.
Red field.
I don’t know what you call this color. Some of it’s purple.
Some kind of textile mill.
Now it’s getting cleared out.
Seems like there’s something underneath.
Seems like everything’s some kind of lavender. Something else is going on.
There’s some kind of printing press moving way faster than I can think. Probably run.
Interesting, sepia moment. Walking down the beach.
Yup. Still a printing press. I don’t even know what a printing press looks like but I know this.
I’m seeing some what appear to be graphs. Yeah. Graphs. Lots of graphs.
And in the background for whatever reason there’s a little kid jumping around on a couch.
And there’s a white kind of thing and then there’s dark.
Just kind of saw a lady’s body, like the cover of The Eyre Affair. Weird.
Myself, and this person is just laying on the front yard. Love.
Inside of a very tall fluted column light shining down. Interesting change to a man in a parking lot blowing leaves.
Things are drifting around above.
Weird figures. Then nothing.
Not really seeing anything at this point. Just some, like, weird ghosts are milling around. Which is cool. I’m down. Reality. Shit sucks. Tired of being a thing inside a thing inside a thing. How fucking boring is that?
Skating on ice. Big long place to skate.
Looks like there’s a lot of field effects happening. Where all the stuff gets disturbed and gets back together.
There is a lot of red going on. Swirling red. Looks like the Pilgrim State Psychiatric Hospital got flooded and like weird junk showed up. Weird angry balloons or whatever.
Yeah, little kids running around in leaf dust. Fucking pissed off. I don’t blame ‘em.
Lower parts of young men’s faces in grey. Part of the interior of a building. Things go red.
Ooh. Some spinning diamonds. That’s kind of psychedelic. Way to go ketamine. Spinning around. Kind of looks like a boob.
Getting a lot of pink up in this thing here. I would like to be immortal. How are you supposed to figure anything out if you’re not?
I’m in the center of a pearl encrusted weird pink thing. I don’t know what’s going on exactly.
Hm, weird. Big. Lots of like basic shapes doing weird things.
Whole thing is pink.
Images of abrasion at point of contact.
Big old bird. [inaudible]
Interesting lavender.
And some space again.
A lot of light going on. Figures… mirrored. A lot more blue than previous.
[End of Recording]