Straight Time, No Chaser

I have never taken an illegal drug. Never smoked dope, never taken a single puff or swallow or shot of anything that wasn’t medically prescribed. I haven’t tried tobacco, either, and as for alcohol, I imbibe so rarely that after half a glass of a single, very sweet margarita, I’m ready for a nap. I am only recently aware that, over the course of a life whose formative years happened in the ’70s and ’80s, my total lack of drug use might appear a bit, well, aberrant. But I never had a fix on the culture of normal or abnormal, and therefore strove for neither; I was a black kid bussed to a white school in the early ’70s. Who needs drugs when you’ve got federally mandated desegregation? Racial dynamics notwithstanding, I am an odd, deeply contemplative and reclusive soul who gets kicks out of not doing what everyone else seems eager to do.

I am sure this has cost me many an enlightening experience. I also refused, inexplicably, to try pizza until I was about 12, at which point, alas, I found that I loved it. Enlightenment, however, didn’t matter to me as much as remaining detached from the world, and prickly, out of some biological or romantic imperative. I also likely took too seriously an early vision of myself as a writer; I felt compelled to observe, not participate. But the bottom line was that I welcomed any excuse to remove myself from most proceedings whenever and however I could. I sensed even as a child that reality was inherently overwhelming, and so I’d better keep my distance; this I managed to do for a very long time. This distance may have in fact kept me from feeling any yen for drugs — I didn’t need to drop out because I was already there, trolling the margins, living happily in my head. Such an approach to life may not have been courageous or entertaining, but my Capricornian wariness and instincts of self-preservation were too damn strong. And I began to assume self-imposed isolation like mine was, for lack of a better word, normal.

As much as I stood apart from reality, I also wanted to be clear about it. Drugs would obviously interfere with that clarity. Despite all my cocooning, I felt charged with a cultural mission of intelligence, of problem-solving; I understood early on that the white man’s world was all trickery and false bottoms, and you’d better keep your eyes open or risk falling down more gutters and rabbit holes. Like the Constitution and the country it spoke for, drugs put forth much more glitter and promise than they ever intend to deliver. To get anywhere, black people have to be twice as qualified and more than one step ahead of the game. Drugs have been touted as mind-openers and liberators, but, for us, they mean more stunted social growth and a certain erosion of what has been built up over generations of resistance.

This is not, as it turns out, garden-variety paranoia about ethnic genocide or government conspiracies — crack cocaine is indeed a black scourge that has decimated communities and thwarted progress on a whole host of fronts. I have relatives and close friends who’ve been carpet-bombed by crack; if they’re not dead, they live in a permanent twilight in which time doesn’t pass for them in any meaningful way. A childhood friend of mine died last summer after battling addiction for many of his 38 years, a battle that eclipsed all the dreams and imagination games we concocted as kids; he was odd and reclusive like me, and full of promise, and, though he had more than enough heart for dreams, he had none for the battle. I do not want that to be me, ever, and so drugs kind of scare me shitless. My resolve to refuse them is strengthened by a broad familial responsibility to stay sober and marshal what talent and potential I have, for me, for my friend David. We need it.

I have never been enamored of risk for its own sake. For this reason I avoid roller coasters, bungee jumping, cliff diving and other activities calculated to defy death. I know some people feel quite the opposite about drugs, that they can be life-affirming and life-enhancing, but I don’t believe that’s the heart of it — taking a trip somewhere beyond the natural world and coming back to tell the tale is more about death than life to me. I don’t need a death experience to feel alive, and I figure those who do are trying to manufacture meaning that their lives probably don’t have, or that they don’t recognize. Taking drugs therefore strikes me as cowardly, a too-eager capitulation to faulty logic decked out in the hip threads of rebellion and daring. To me it is more dangerous, and more daring, to examine things as they are, unretouched, in their gray but honest dimensions.

Yet I have taken a drug that is mood-altering, very nearly mind-altering: Prozac. I fought the suggestion for years but finally relented after a particularly acute bout of depression. I was instantly relieved of a burden I hadn’t known was there, which was a revelation. Then I discovered I was virtually incapable of feeling bad or anxious or remorseful at all, which worried me — at least, to the extent I could be worried. I was unquestionably better but lobotomized, calmed but at the price of an edge that defined me more than I ever knew. Its absence left me pondering an existential question — if I wasn’t restless and wary and prone to over-thinking, as I had been my whole life, was I me?

I never answered that question, but I did get off Prozac after six months and have never needed to take it again. Maybe the whole experience of being something or someone else for a while forged a new appreciation of my old, contrary self — I was less quick to judge it harshly, and hence less likely to become so depressed in the first place. For me it was a curative, like an aspirin that dissolves a headache; I know Prozac can minister to the soul, but I realized I don’t want that — for the most part I want my soul to ache. Escapism via drugs is a luxury not meant for me, but for privileged folks removed enough from the real ravages of drug use to justify their indulgence. That, or escapism via drugs is another brick in the wall of impoverishment. I’m happy to abstain from both. Cozying up to a crack pipe or a dish of peyote is not, in my view, an honest attempt at living.

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