Following the Fire – Part II: Institutionalized

As I’ve hinted at in previous posts, my childhood was a little rough around the edges and my family situation wasn’t perfect by any means, but one thing I can say is that I was blessed with pretty cool parents. My mother hung out under a stage with Jerry Garcia once, and my father met Iron Butterfly while getting dressed in a locker room after hockey practice. I remember an entire bookcase devoted to records when I was younger, and later on, my father’s CD collection filled two wall racks. KTCL was the station of choice in Denver when we’d jet around town in my father’s car, and they played stuff like The Cure, Talking Heads, Echo & The Bunnymen, Siouxsie and The Banshees, Indigo Girls, etc.

In retrospect, sometimes I think it’s funny that one of my favorite songs to sing along to from the back seat was “I Wanna Be Sedated” by The Ramones.

It’s a shame there’s such a stigma surrounding mental illness, and this is even more acute when it comes to cases requiring inpatient treatment. It’s weird enough in many circumstances to be frank with loose acquaintances about depression. To me, this reflects a mental illness in society itself. Over the years, I’ve realized that one way or another, I want to go to work on that problem. There is no lack of angles from which to approach it. It’ll be a team effort, to be sure—a worldwide one, if it’s to be successful.

Mental illness and the American urban systems set up to address it have inexorably shaped my path. There’s no talking about my life or my “truth” without this aspect of the picture, though I don’t enjoy opening up a public viewport into it. If I see the world condition as described above in the light of an “illness” and I want to help cure it, keeping mum for the rest of my life isn’t really an option. I have a voice strong enough to speak with the courage of my convictions, and I have a lifetime of experience to back it up. I know who I am. By now, that’s probably about the only thing I know for sure. I guess it’s time to act like it.

My first exposure to inpatient psychiatric treatment came on the heels of my suicide attempt in 6th grade. My mother had left my father and I. I hadn’t been handling it well. I legitimately had a sore throat one day and stopped at the grocery store on the way to school to get a bottle of Chloraseptic. I used it throughout the day according to the label. I was really depressed that day over all sorts of things. After school, I was hanging out at the lunch benches with a group of wannabe gangbangers that I didn’t fit in with at all, and it came to pass that one of them dared me to drink the bottle. I did it, unbeknownst to them, with a bitter heart and a fleeting desire to die that faded quickly as the phenol overwhelmed my liver and I got dizzier than I’d ever been in my life. I ran to the school office, told the secretaries what happened, and passed out. I was sent to the emergency room. My father had been away on a business trip and had to be called home. I was checked into Charter hospital’s adolescent psych ward shortly after, where I was diagnosed with depression and put on Zoloft. I think I stayed there for about 2 weeks.

When I returned to school, everybody knew about what had happened, and I was swarmed. The school counselor had gone around to every single classroom in my absence and talked to them about it. I was relentlessly made fun of. My new nickname was “NyQuil Boy.” I don’t remember getting sympathy from anyone but my mom in Chicago and people who were paid to talk to me about it. The kids at school were mocking me, my dad had come home and given me the belt when I’d come home from the emergency room. For a suicide attempt. I don’t think I ever realized, until sitting down to write this, how this affected me. I was a kid and the overwhelming message I was getting from this was:

  • Your despair and the actions to which it drove you are shameful.
  • You’re weak for succumbing to it.
  • When the chips are down and you’re overwhelmed, it’s your fault, and rather than deserving support, you deserve to be kicked while you’re down. Then you’d better get back up fast.

That takes us to the end of elementary school. I stuck around for 7th grade and about half of 8th grade before my father sent me to live with my mom in Chicago. I couldn’t actually live with her because she didn’t want me going to school in her neighborhood (we had bullets embedded in our kitchen floor), so I went to live with my uncle in the south suburbs. I wanted to mention this because of a really cool magical tidbit. I lived not far from Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery, which is reputed to be the most haunted cemetery in America. I was probably more of an outcast at my school in Oak Forest than I had been in Davis. I was the only punk at school, and I would hang out with one of two goths at Bachelor’s Grove after school on many afternoons. We saw a ghost there once, but that’s a story for another time.

Another reason this is key is because although I had mostly sobered up and straightened up my act (I was in Chicago because, while living in Davis, I was truant and getting high), I had also turned to a new outlet for dealing with my emotions: Self-mutilation.

In other posts, I discussed my anger issues and their relationship to red magic, culminating in an attempted curse with disastrous results. After that, I started seeing the folly of my ways and I was tired of the damage it was doing to others, but I couldn’t just turn my anger off. I suppose I turned it inward instead.

Once in a while, my friend and I would cut together, but it was usually private. I wasn’t a severe mutilator compared to what I’ve seen on psych wards. I took to wearing long sleeves, but there were a few episodes in the wake of conflicts with family members that were too widespread to hide, especially in the locker room. Just as I’d been ridiculed in Davis for trying to kill myself, I was ridiculed in Oak Forest for cutting myself.

Fuck you for hurting, Dan. You stupid fuck. When are you going to learn? Learn not to hurt. Hurting doesn’t happen to you. You are not its victim. Hurt yourself. You hurt yourself for fun—who can hurt you now?

You are the hurt.

Once I finished 8th grade and miraculously graduated from middle school, my father had a proposition for me: Now that I was more manageable, he would let me go and live with him in California again. He changed jobs and moved from Davis to Santa Rosa, and he wanted me to agree to go to Catholic high school. I agreed to it—I missed California like hell.

Santa Rosa was an odyssey unto itself and if I spend too much time on it, this post will go off the rails. I started at Cardinal Newman Catholic High School as promised. It only took me about half of freshman year to get expelled and from there, I started going to public school. Pretty soon, I was living out the same life I had been in Davis, except even more intensely. I stopped going to school and started hanging out with the gutter punks downtown, and at sundown, we went up to a campsite on unused cemetery land to squat for the night. I was fucked up every day and I got into all sorts of shenanigans. It was during this period that Rose and Ilyas, introduced in previous posts, first came into my awareness. History repeated itself yet again—my father got overwhelmed, shipped me off to Chicago again, and that was the last time I lived in California.

All of this was already in my past when I threw myself entirely into the curse that never came to pass, but instead changed my life. This was the wreckage that Ilyas had apparently arrived to rescue me from.

When I crash-landed at my mother’s apartment in Chicago, I was accustomed to a life of daily drinking and marijuana use. I didn’t know anybody in the city, and frankly, I didn’t care to know anybody in my neighborhood who was selling anything because I didn’t want to deal with gangs. I had a friend from Santa Rosa who was a bit of a budding psychonaut. We liked to read and try strange drugs together. On one occasion, we’d tried taking a box of cough medicine and it was an interesting little high. Talking to him on the phone one afternoon from Chicago, he suggested revisiting that if I was really looking for a way to get high. That’s how I first got comfortable taking DXM.

Once again, my mother wanted to avoid my going to school in her neighborhood, so we moved out to Berwyn and I started going to school there. I attended school more regularly than I had in California, but I took to ingesting larger doses of DXM. I’d switched from the gelcaps full of stray ingredients to pills that were almost pure DXM and I had a routine worked out wherein I’d walk into Walgreen’s, buy a bottle of water and leave with a box of pills in my pocket, which I would pop out of their foils and swallow in a single gulp with the water.

At that dosage, the effects were hard to describe. “High” is not the word. “Intoxicated” is not the word. It’s a lot more like “tripping,” but if you’ve taken true psychedelics like psilocybin or mescaline, it’s not really the same thing either. The primary effect that I was after was the pure numbness and lethargy it brought on—physical and emotional. The drug being a dissociative anesthetic, I would see my hands and they wouldn’t “seem” like mine. I would move them and they would surprise me. Emotionally, in that state, you could put a gun to my head and ask me if I wanted to die, and I wouldn’t care enough to muster a response, or even look you in the eye. That was my “retreat.”

When I wanted to take some DXM, I took some DXM. I didn’t care what else was going on, what I ruined or disrupted for myself or anyone else. I often took it on my way to school and spent the day with no clue what was going on around me. I’d walk into the wrong bathroom or speak to people in non-sequiturs. If I was noticeably “gone” enough, someone would call an ambulance and I would end up at MacNeal Hospital’s emergency room, where I was a frequent flyer. Protocol was to treat these overdoses like suicide attempts, even when my mother would show up with a printout of the Dextromethorphan FAQ and show the doctors where it tells you how much to take for different effects. This meant that as often as I was in the emergency room, I was on the psych ward for a few days. I got to know some of the nurses there quite well, to the point that I can say some of them were influential figures in my growing up.

Somewhere in the midst of all this madness—would you believe I honestly don’t remember the specifics?—I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and medicated accordingly. I did have some pretty intense mood swings with concerning manic episodes. At first, I was put on Depakote and Zoloft. The Depakote was the one constant for years. At any one time, I was on that, some antidepressant, some antipsychotic, and some tranquilizer. They just kept trying different things. I was basically a guinea pig. Zoloft, Seroquel, Risperdal, Geodon, Zyprexa, Paxil, Stelazine, Ativan. Even when I wasn’t taking DXM, I was a zombie.

One reason I’m going into all of this is that it coincides with the period when Rose and Ilyas were most active in my life (which makes sense if the narrative is that they were trying to help me stay on my life course). DXM causes hallucinations and my head was also full of a psychiatric pharmacopoeia on any given day. Needless to say, this calls into question the validity of a lot of the “spiritual” phenomena I was experiencing.

On the other hand, DXM had some interesting, if not bewildering, effects that kept my mind open to the possibility of some form of spirit world or psychic level of existence. I remember one occasion on which I was sitting in the living room, staring at a blank TV screen—the TV wasn’t on. I started seeing what looked like dust bunnies coalescing on the screen into an image of a talking head, and I was sure I was hallucinating—but when I turned the TV on, the image that flashed onto the screen matched the dusty, hazy, “hallucinatory” image exactly. Second, and this might sound incredible, but when I was on it, I could walk around the apartment at night with my eyes shut and see where the fuck I was going. I could only see faint outlines, but I’m not kidding, it was nuts. Ilyas would tell me that I was seeing the etheric level of reality, where most “ghosts” of humans dwell, along with a lot of scummy and undesirable astral “parasites.” When things like that were going on and I had Ilyas telling me that some of the dark, impish, shadow creatures I saw on DXM were real, I think it might be possible he was telling the truth.

Notably, none of the medications I was put on had any impact on how I perceived Rose, Ilyas, Minora, and the other spirits with whom I interacted. They couldn’t be medicated away. They could be shut out intentionally, though. To me, this supported the idea that I wasn’t suffering delusions but instead had a real faculty that I could willfully augment.

So far, most of the phenomena I’ve discussed in this post are fairly surface-level; even if some of the stranger things I experienced on DXM reflected spiritual realities, these were all phantasms, “fireworks,” trivial distractions. The real substance was in the spiritual discussions I would carry on with Rose and Ilyas, in which they would help me synthesize ideas I was reading about, or introduce entirely new ones. In a practical sense, it’s difficult for me at times to say what they actually “taught” me vs. what I learned from other sources but processed with them. I’d say the vast majority of what we covered involved content that was already in my mind one way or another, and they were just working with what was there. Coming to terms with what Ilyas and Rose were telling me about myself was difficult. The startling events of the curse helped shake me out of my conditioned reality and convince me that something important was going on with me spiritually, but it was also all so incredible that my teenage mind would, of course, find ways to hang onto “the old reality.” Strange things would happen, such as my DXM visions, or synchronistic events bordering on fulfilled prophecy, but still the gravity of having a “life purpose” beyond making a simple living hadn’t sunken in. This path was something I had to grow into through a series of stages. The next big “shock” came soon and DXM was at its center.

In the Preface to his MindStar, Michael Aquino wrote, “If, for instance, you regard your incarnated physical life as the complete extent of your existence, you will tend to conduct yourself much differently than an immortal being only temporarily linked to a physical body.” This is true. I can attest to this due to the amount of time I’ve spent in my life conducting myself as an immortal being only temporarily linked to a physical body.

According to what Ilyas would tell me, I incarnated intentionally in this body for a reason, I was “normally” a discarnate consciousness similar to he and Rose, and I was not driven here by karma or “sent” by anyone. If I hold all of those conditions to be true, there’s basically no other way to look at life; you’d better believe I spent a lot of time trying to wriggle information from Ilyas about the deeper “why” of my being here, and given the way my life had been going, what the ramifications of failing in my mission might be. Could I fail? Yes, I could, he said. What if I did? No specific answer, but he did tell me “You’ll live.” In fact, as far as the extent to which he and Rose were here to help me, and to give an idea of what kind of situation they were talking about, Ilyas once told me that I was, for all intents and purposes, almost impervious to any external eventualities that would prevent my work from successful completion. In other words, it was basically up to me what I did with it, but I had major help. My life would be preserved until I did what I had to do—and by the same token, as soon as I did it, I could get an unfortunate paper cut and die the next day.

This dragon shows up and tells me I need to burn my cursing medium or suffer drastic consequences, I don’t believe him, I refuse, my house burns down. The dragon tells me I have a life mission and I can generally count on being healthy and safe in the big scheme of things until I carried it out—I mean, it’s a nice thought, but would I be silly enough to actually, like, lean into that?

You bet I would. Almost on purpose.

Come on, I overdosed on cough medicine for kicks. I didn’t always stick to my usual box of Coricidin, either. Sometimes I switched it up and overdosed on Dramamine instead (another substance I don’t even want in my body in standard doses anymore). Once or twice, I combined them, and holy shit. I was reaching a point where E.R. doctors were telling me I was rolling the dice and one of these times I was gonna wind up dead; more than one counselor had told me they expected I’d be “on a slab” by age 18 if I kept up what I was doing.

But Ilyas said I’d be okay.

As if the house fire hadn’t been proof enough that I should start getting with the program, I wanted to tempt fate. As an entirely separate set of factors, I was troubled in more ways than one, over-medicated, and pretty hopeless about life in general. If I died on DXM, as far as I was concerned, I’d fucking die peacefully.

One day I felt especially daring/hopeless, and I took twice my typical dosage of DXM (that’s 2 boxes of Coricidin) along with about 3 times my usual dosage of Dramamine. I most assuredly visited the emergency room that day. Even the beginning of this experience sticks with me, because I had the misfortune of rolling into an E.R. in which both the doctor and the nurse responsible for me were of the “punish this little prick who’s about to kill himself when we have people to save” mentality. They were mean. The nurse grinned and took a perverse joy in checking up on me to make sure I was drinking the activated charcoal that was totally pointless because the drugs were already in my bloodstream. A lot of doctors like to make you drink it hoping it will serve as a deterrent to future overdoses, but this never worked on me.

Often in the E.R. on this stuff, my blood pressure would be through the roof, and my heart rate would wildly jump back and forth between low double-digit and high triple-digit pulse rates. The danger here was of my having a heart attack, and this evening, they were being more vigilant than usual about keeping my heart monitor on. I would just roll around on the gurney and let the contacts get pulled off so they had to come fix them.

At one point, my contacts had been off for a while. My heart monitor was beeping, but no one was coming. And all of a sudden, I just…wasn’t in the room anymore.

I was suspended in an infinite dark void.

As soon as I realized this, I felt myself “descending,” falling as if down a hole, until I finally landed in a subterranean passage—basically a sewer—conducting a “river” of fire. On either side of the tunnel was a catwalk wide enough that every so often, as I drifted down this river, I would pass pairs of monks in brown robes with the hoods drawn up. They chanted.

Finally, I came to a point where the tunnel opened up and I came to rest before a vast iron gate. Standing in front of the gate was one last monk, this one holding a large, leather-bound tome. He leafed through the pages, looked up at me (so far as I could tell, since I couldn’t see his eyes under his hood), and shook his head. Then, I began to ascend.

Back in the void again, but this time, rising.

I come to rest in a garden. All around me are ancient Corinthian columns—some standing, one laying on the ground, one leaning on a standing column. The feel is rather “paradisiacal,” like I’m in some form of heaven, except interestingly, it’s overcast. There’s sun here, but it looks like it’s going to rain soon. A light begins to shine from above me and back behind my head; I see it light up the flora and the cobblestone pathway in front of me. A booming voice comes from this light and says to me, “This is the last time I save you from yourself.”

The scene had a scary resemblance to this one, matter of fact…

I return to the void, falling through it once again.

I am back in my body and the nurse is waking me up to roll me over and fix my heart monitor.

Was I just tripping balls? At that dosage, I couldn’t tell you how typical such an experience is. I’d leave it at “maybe” and shrug, but this happened while my heart monitor was off—and the E.R. doctor told me flat out that he had no idea how I survived what I’d done to myself. This wasn’t just “You could have died,” I’d heard that before, eyeroll. This was, “I had written you off as a goner and I was being so hard on you because I honestly didn’t think it would make a difference.” He was mad at me for what I’d just put him through and he made sure I knew it. I don’t blame the guy. Good for him, really.

Most of the time, when I tell this story, people ask me who I thought that ball of light was in the garden. Even if I’m talking to someone about something as intimate as this, they don’t necessarily know about my spirits, so I can’t be up front with them. That light was totally Ilyas.

Did I listen to this warning? Nope. Before I started pulling myself together, I would spend two weeks in intensive care from an even worse overdose.

I have proven hard to kill. I Guess the dragon’s story checks out.

I’m stubborn, what can I say? When all was said and done, I would do four stints in adolescent drug rehab before turning anything around substantially in my life. One of those facilities was the first of its kind, specifically designed for teenage males classified as MISA (Mentally Ill Substance Abuser). I was hand-picked by the doctor who conceived and ran the program and I was in a bed the night before the unit even officially opened.

There was something cool and interesting about every staff member who worked there. Several had been involved in the punk scene in their youths—one hung out in a basement with Fugazi, another had once crashed at Lars Frederiksen’s house and knew Davey Havok. A, who gave me my meds at night, was a huge Star Wars fan and the psychiatrist that I checked in with weekly once interrupted me to blurt out, “I could totally see you in that bar in Star Wars getting fucked up with all those aliens!” This place had to be tailor-made to influence me to take recovery seriously.

Possibly the most interesting staff member was a man who read a few of us stories of the Mulla Nasreddin every night. Another patient was open and vocal about studying Crowley, and it just so happened that this man was a former O.T.O. member (he once showed us the tattoo depicting the star of Babalon that covered his entire back). We had interesting conversations. He was a good influence.

This is where I started turning shit around—at least, for a time. For the coming several years, I would reach periods of sobriety spanning as long as a year or more but would still sometimes fall back on smoking weed. It was still a much better situation than visiting the hospital.

Let’s take a break.

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