Travels with Synesthesia: “What’s Left?” October 2017, MRR #413

I stood on an outdoor train platform surrounded by snow in my fever dream. The sky was black, speckled with white, either stars or snow. The ground was white flecked with black, and as I looked more closely at the snowy ground I grew distraught. It was like looking at white skin dotted with black pores, only the skin was like a sheet of greasy virginal Crisco and the black pits were putrefaction personified. I was deeply disturbed by the dual view, the juxtaposition of silky white as seen from a distance and black rot seen up close, and this ugly double vision had a smell, like burned hair.

It was a nightmare actually, the product of a bad case of measles when I was seven years old. When I startled from the terror of that dream, the combined view persisted well into my wakefulness and I had to shake myself, blink a number of times and crane my head back and forth, to finally dispel the affect. The fever produced a couple repeats of the nightmare while I was sick, but it was more upsetting when the night terrors returned when I was no longer ill. For a few years afterwards I had the horrible dream intermittently, complete with the frightening double vision and associated smell that continued after the dream woke me. I had to get out of bed each time and move around my room to make the hallucination dissipate.

It was my first experience of synesthesia. The twisted visual dream was intertwined with the smell, two senses linked together as one, the visual creating the olfactory. I was so freaked out about the double vision thing and preoccupied with preventing future nightmares that I didn’t notice the connection until well after I had managed to suppress the dream’s reoccurrence. I accidentally singed my hair as a fourteen-year-old adolescent pyromaniac playing with freelance rocket making and the stench immediately triggered a brief episode of double nightmare vision.

My second instance of synesthesia happened after I turned 18. I had just registered for the Vietnam draft, enrolled at Ventura Junior College in anticipation of transferring as a junior to UC Santa Cruz, and started hanging out with some high school friends now attending college who were part of Campus Crusade for Christ. They gently badgered me to attend prayer circles and bible studies, triggering my latent Catholic guilt feelings about everything from masturbation to experimenting with drugs. One Saturday afternoon, as I walked through the lemon and avocado groves near my home in deep, troubled contemplation, I was visited by god.

At least that’s how it felt at that moment. Everything around me became brilliant, clear, and sparkling. I felt immersed in everything around me, and simultaneously elevated above it all. I had a sense of personal calm, but not of peace. And there was a burning firewood and slightly fruity smell. I had the sensation of being in the presence of something vast and powerful and absolutely frightening, something with which I was in communion, something that was about to change my life. For the first time I understood the meaning of the word awe, a feeling of reverence and respect mixed with fear and trembling. It was not in any way a pleasant sensation. I was simultaneously overwhelmed, exalted, and terrified.

Thus began my brief stint as a born-again Christian, where being touched by god was inextricably linked to the smell of the burning bush. It quickly evaporated into my longstanding atheism as I ultimately tried to explain away my experience. The smell, well I was in the middle of a lemon grove so maybe there was some brush burning nearby. I eventually started taking psychedelics and noticed the similarity between those chemical experiences and my spiritual one, including lots of drug-induced synesthesia. But to call my mystical experience biochemically based doesn’t say much as all our experiences are ultimately biochemical in origin. Only when I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Living with a Wild God much later did I reconcile myself to the possibility there are still mysteries to the universe to which I’m not privy.

I may never have been touched by god but I have been hammered by the migraine devil, a surefire cause for my synesthesia nowadays. I started getting migraines when I was around 43. They were rare, and both classic—with prodrome, aura, and excruciating headache—and intense, incapacitating me for 8 hours minimum. I became dissociative to the point of verbal and mental incoherence until I just went to sleep for the rest of the day, to wake sometime later with a horrific migraine hangover. Over the years, my migraines increased in frequency and decreased in severity, so that I now get one every month or so, each just a little bit of an aura and no appreciable, immediate headache. I have tried botox treatments and now do a micro-dose of an anti-convulsant drug.

A recent migraine started with sensitivity to light, then a dizzying head rush when I stood up, quickly converting to a sparkly scotoma complete with scintillating lights and jagged black-and-white anasazi lines, all sharply bordered into a blindspot that slowly floated across my vision. I had errands to run, but I took the time to let the brief aura dissipate. It did not automatically turn into a headache, but the disassociation started on the drive down the hill to a nearby commercial neighborhood. Everything appeared simultaneously vaguely familiar and utterly strange. I seemed to be in a Tyrolean Alpine village, odd and quaint, at the bottom of a deep, dark mountain ravine. And the crisp air was saturated with the odor of burnt metal.

The Greek prefix syn- means united, with, together, at the same time. Thanks to my migraines, I experience low level hallucinations and synesthesia intermittently, where my senses run together. Nothing like my childhood fever dreams or my adolescent altered states of consciousness, yet still a departure from reality. Even without the outright instances of synesthesia, I grasped that my sense of smell was somehow linked to my other senses, as when the shape of the trees in Golden Gate Park seemed connected to the park’s loamy smell, triggering vivid childhood memories from when I lived with my parents in San Francisco between the ages of three and six years old.

I realized early on that the real world wasn’t what it seemed to be, and might actually be much more than it seemed. I certainly didn’t arrive at the absurd belief that we create our own reality or that mind is the only reality, and I’m particularly disdainful of the post-truth assertion that simply believing something makes it so. Climate change, like gravity, is real, whether we believe in it or not. But it would be too facile to claim that my ability to juggle different points of view comes from these experiences of altered reality I’ve had throughout my life. I haven’t become any less tolerant of fascism simply because I can understand fascist ideology or comprehend where a fascist is coming from.

I also don’t doubt that my unconscious capacity to synthesize sensory input in part accounts for my artistic and literary creativity. But as a conscious basis for originality, synthesis is overrated. Both Alice Yaeger Kaplan and Kevin Coogan cited the French fascist Robert Brasillach who wrote that Communism and Fascism would one day be seen as “the two poetries” of the twentieth century. We now seem to be inundated by attempts to synthesize leftwing and rightwing ideologies in efforts to “go beyond” Left and Right. These calls to transcend the orthodox Left/Right political model almost all come from the Right, it must be noted. Current Left/Right crossover politics should also be pointed out for having originated in nightmare with the goal of ever greater nightmare. The separate totalitarian horrors of Communism and Fascism only anticipate greater horrors in some terrifying synthesis to come. This political combination is entirely voluntary. My fever dreams and migraines are not something I wish to relive, and even my spiritual experience was unpleasant. Plus, they were not of my choosing.

But enough about the sick joke that equates poetry with indiscriminate terror and mass murder.

 

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A commie punk walks into a bar…: “What’s Left?” September 2015, MRR #388

I first visited New York City in the fall of 1988. I walked all day, everywhere, for weeks straight until I had blisters on my feet and I’d developed a crick in my neck from looking up at all the tall buildings. It was glorious.

The anarcho/ultra milieu was jumping at the time. Folks from WBAI, many from the old Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade, the Libertarian Book Club, Anarchist Black Cross, THRUSH, Neither East Nor West, and that was just the politics. Probably the least interesting encounter I had was with Hakim Bey aka Peter Lamborn Wilson, while the most impressive was with Joey Homicides aka Bob McGlynn. Libertarian things were popping all over because the Warsaw Pact had just crumbled, and the old Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse.

Then there was all the touristy stuff I wanted to do, first time in The City. I spent a whole day at the Museum of Modern Art, making a beeline for Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” then walking around the rest of the building in utter rapture. I turned a corner, aimlessly, only to stumble upon Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica.” I was floored. The oversized painting had its own room, and it wasn’t in the best of shape. Cracked, peeling, warped, the somber black and white canvas made the hairs stand up on the back of my head.

Picasso is one of those people who elicits wide, often violent opinions. If you look at his drawings and paintings from before he went Cubist, during his Blue Period for instance, you can well understand why he was considered a brilliant artist. His politics were a bit more dodgy. Apparently, Picasso had entrusted “Guernica” to the MoMA after his death to keep until such time that the return of democracy to Spain allowed for the painting’s return. As I stood in the MoMA gazing at what I thought was an anti-fascist icon, a deal had been cut with the museum to return the original “Guernica” in 1981, despite the fact that Spain was a constitutional monarchy and not a democracy. I realized many years later that what I had seen in 1988 was not “Guernica” but the related masterpiece “The Charnel House,” so similar in style and power. Picasso was a member of the Communist Party, which meant he was an apologist for Stalin and his crimes, including the crimes committed by the Spanish CP during the Spanish Civil War. And he was a complete asshole, personally, when it came to women. Of his wives, lovers, and mistresses, two killed themselves and two went mad associating with a man who said: “For me there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats.”

“Loyal, generous and affectionate when it suited him, Picasso could be astoundingly brutal, to friends, lovers, even complete strangers,” wrote Mark Hudson. Lots of artist types turn out to be brilliant at their art, and thus publicly praised, while their private lives often reveal profound personal and moral failings. Of course, this disassociation between the public and the private goes both ways, with a common if mundane observation being that Hitler, arguably the world’s most brutal dictator, loved dogs and children and was loyal to Eva Braun. It’s easy to come up with a list of 15 or 20 great artists who were nasty people, but not so easy to name even 5 people generally considered evil who have also done demonstrable good. The idea of the brilliant genius artist who is simultaneously a monumental jerk is so frequent as to have become a trope. And when genius and asshole reside in the same individual, dispassionately evaluating famous people and their contributions can be tricky.

It becomes immensely more so when passion is involved. Gregory, the youngest son of Ernest Hemingway, wrote to his father spelling out the pros and cons from his traumatized perspective: “When it’s all added up, papa, it will be: he wrote a few good stories, had a novel and fresh approach to reality and he destroyed five persons – Hadley, Pauline, Marty, Patrick, and possibly myself. Which do you think is the most important, your self-centered shit, the stories or the people?” To someone who loves Hemingway’s writing, or who admires good literature in general, any evaluation of the worth and cost/benefit of the man and his work might be substantially different, bringing to mind Tolstoy’s famous quote that “[a]ll happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Evaluating merit is not much easier when we switch from the life and work of an individual, whether famous or not, to gauging the merit of our not-so-personal relationships, with the organizations and movements we belong to or support. I wrote a column some time ago about how I experimented with every drug in the book during the 1960s, and only alcohol managed to kick my ass. I was more or less a daily drinker, not heavy but strong and steady, for 30 years up until January 1, 2010. It was all just maintenance at that point. My habit was fucking with me, my relationships, my pancreas, and to my mind the costs of my regular alcohol intake far outweighed the benefits. So, I decided to quit, and I did so through the Chemical Dependency and Recovery Program at Kaiser, of which I am a member. CDRP provided me with regular professional counseling, access to a shrink who could also prescribe drugs in case my withdrawal symptoms got too heavy, classes on the science of dependency and withdrawal, and lots and lots of meetings. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, LifeRing meetings, harm reduction meetings, I went to every meeting and every class and every counseling session for 90 days until I no longer had a problem staying sober. The scientific knowledge alone—of what your mind and body go through 30, 60, and 90 days after withdrawal—was worth the price of admission.

Of course, AA was and is ubiquitous, as the oldest and best known absolutely free recovery program around. But AA impressed me as a cult from the very first chanted call-and-response. I freely admit to having cherry-picked different principles from different programs to get the recovery that works for me—among them the notions of surrender and forgiveness from AA, the ideas of secularity and self-help from LifeRing, and the medical use of prescribed drugs when necessary to help with withdrawal from harm reduction. Still, virtually everybody around me was in AA, working an AA program, so I accepted the validity and efficacy of AA in going about not drinking. I started sitting zazen at the San Francisco Zen Center, with its meditation in recovery meetings being my anchor for five years. But over those years the focus of those meetings, equal parts Buddhism and 12-step recovery, has grown thin, not because of the zen but because of the steps.

Whether or not there is a god has absolutely nothing to do with the existence, nature, and solution to suffering. That’s basic Buddhism, whose founder cautioned: “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” I’ve been pretty much an atheist after giving up Catholicism for Lent at 13. Buddhism is about as non theistic, and zen as atheistic, as you can get and still call it a spiritual practice.

I never saw or felt the need for a god to help me stop drinking, and no matter how much AA papers over it, some concept of god is required for their program to work. Court-ordered AA participation is thus a direct violation of the basic Constitutional right to religious liberty, in this case the freedom to not have a religion. All that “your ‘higher power’ can be anything, even a doorknob” AA bullshit I find theologically imbecilic, spiritually vacuous, and personally insulting. Surrendering to a “higher power” isn’t necessary to experience the need to forgive and be forgiven, or to simply surrender and ask for help. Whether or not a god exists has absolutely nothing to do with stopping drinking and staying sober.

The debate over whether alcohol abuse is a disease or a choice is not resolved, although more and more scientists are supporting the disease model. Prolonged alcohol abuse chemically restructures the alcoholic’s body and brain and causes the difficulties in withdrawal, according to current scientific research, and there is much evidence that certain individuals are born with a proclivity for addiction to alcohol. AA’s main problem is that its central metaphor of “alcoholism as disease” clashes with various other aspects of AA’s program. If alcoholism is a disease, then why blame the alcoholic for the moral failure of not staying sober? If alcoholism is a disease, then why does AA resist the use of drugs like naltrexone to lessen the desire to drink? If I had a disease like cancer I would do everything in my power—prescription drugs, radiation, chemotherapy, surgery—to control or eliminate that disease. I certainly wouldn’t sit around making a “fearless moral inventory” of my personal failings, asking for forgiveness for my moral shortcomings, then seeking moral support from a god that doesn’t exist when cold, hard science is crucial to my cure. Or, as Gabrielle Glaser wrote in her recent Atlantic Monthly article “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous”: “Why do we assume they [alcoholics] failed the program, rather than that the program failed them?”

Aside from Glaser’s excellent article there is a whole website (orange-papers.org) devoted to systematically and thoroughly debunking AA—its history, program, and claims. AA is ranked 38th out of 48 common alcohol treatment methods, not very effective at all. Given that it is “anonymous,” recovery statistics for AA are hard to come by and even harder to verify. The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry by Lance Dodes puts the actual success rate for AA somewhere between 5 and 8 percent. Every disease has a spontaneous remission rate, and Harvard Medical School calculated that the annual rate of spontaneous remission in alcoholics is around 5 percent. Which means that AA’s track record is at, or at most just 3 percent higher than the spontaneous remission rate for alcoholics. Hardly worth all the hoopla surrounding AA’s supposed successes.

But even one recovered alcoholic is success enough, many in AA would argue. Combine the abysmally low rate of recovery with other problems in AA such as 13th Stepping and AA’s cons far outweigh the pros. Thirteenth Stepping is when individuals, oftentimes mandated by law to attend AA meetings, take advantage of AA’s horizontal and relatively leaderless organization in general, and its unsupervised sponsor/sponsee structure in particular, to prey upon and sexually exploit newbies, most often young naïve girls. CBS’s 60 Minutes did an entire segment, “The Sober Truth,” that, along with The 13th Step Film by Monica Richardson, exposed the underreported realities of 13th Stepping. But the rampant problem of 13th Stepping is not even acknowledged, let alone addressed, by AA’s national/international organization.

When I was running around NYC back in 1988, I hung around a crew of friends and comrades, many of whom were heavy drinkers. And since it was a vacation for me, I was drinking more than my usual. One of my companions at the time wisecracked: “The liver is a muscle that must be exercised.” Well, the brain is also a muscle, and our capacity for analysis and coming to reasoned conclusions needs to be exercised as well. My judgment is still out on whether Picasso’s or Hemingway’s art was worth the human damage those artists inflicted. Not so with AA, where its paltry success rate is not offset by it problems, everything from its moralizing guilt tripping to 13th Stepping. There are lots of evidence-based non 12-step recovery and support programs out there, including a promising Buddhist-based one pioneered by Noah Levine called Refuge Recovery. As for AA?

Don’t believe the hype!

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)

Evidence-based Recovery and Support Groups

Secular
SMART: Self Management And Recovery Training
Women for Sobriety
Secular Organizations for Sobriety/Save Our Selves/SOS
LifeRing Secular Recovery/LSR
Harm reduction, Abstinence, and Moderation Support/HAMS
Moderation Management
Rational Recovery
Naltrexone/Sinclair Method

Buddhist
Refuge Recovery