The Chronicle Review

The Addict Also Rises

André Da Loba for the Chroncle Review

November 11, 2013

The most spectacular blackout of my long career as a drinker took place five years ago, during my last trip to Paris. I'm hazy on the details. I remember a huge fight with my second wife outside our rented apartment when I couldn't remember the entry code. I half-remember being fished out of the Seine, without my glasses (I was later told I leapt from one of the bridges). And then I remember coming to my senses in the morning, still damp, propped up at a cafe table by a kind waiter, a hot cup of cafe crème on the table. I had no wallet, no money in my pockets. I couldn't see. I don't know how I found the apartment again, half-blind, with my bad French, in the migraine-strength-aura of a transcendental hangover. Sober—or, I suppose, still half-drunk—I remembered the code, but my wife wasn't inside. Our passports were gone. I believed she had left the country, been kidnapped, or worse. I lay down and wept, promising God I would never drink again if he'd return my wife to me. (I've made and broken other promises to God.) Hours later the buzzer rang, and there she was, with my wallet, our passports, and the hope of a better, sober life. The rest of our week in Paris, I didn't drink, and I didn't buy new glasses. My wife led me around by the elbow, and I felt the giddy vulnerability of childhood, responsible for no one.

White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin

By Michael Clune (Hazelden)

"Addiction represents a pathological usurpation of the neural mechanisms of learning and memory," writes the psychiatrist Steven E. Hyman, quoted at the outset of Michael Clune's terrific memoir White Out. This is the single most insightful and, for the addict, consoling observation I've ever read about what addiction is like. It is almost impossible for the addict to learn, to understand, and to remember that he cannot have his drug.

Any addict can give you a hundred reasons why he should quit, tell you dozens of stories that would make any other person quit. But the decision to quit and "what would make you stop" are two very different things for the addict.

Here's how Clune—now an associate professor of English at Case Western Reserve University, and "clean for over a decade"—describes one of his own attempts to kick heroin: "(a) I had made a promise to myself to quit dope, (b) it was bad for your heart to quit too abruptly, (c) my rear window was all smashed in, and (d) if I was ever going to get moving with quitting, I needed to get high right now. Right this very second."

"Blackout" is a metaphor for the alcoholic's relationship with alcohol; "white out," in Clune's memorable phrase, is the junkie's analogous space of cognitive emptiness surrounding the question of heroin. "I sing the song because I love the man / I know that some of you don't understand," Neil Young sang about heroin addicts. What the non­addict doesn't understand, perhaps cannot ever really believe, is that a sentence like "if I was ever going to get moving with quitting, I needed to get high right now" makes sense in addict-logic.

A blackout or a white out is the brain's way of telling the drug: You win. You've got the wheel. Aristotle analyzed the philosophical problem of why anyone would willingly choose an action other than the good one (first posed by Plato in Protagoras) as akrasia, and we usually translate this as "weakness of will." But what he actually argued is that akrasia is a failure in reasoning that comes from a kind of powerlessness in the brain. Clune identifies the failure more precisely: It's a "memory disease."

In every other respect, the addict's brain can be functioning perfectly well. Clune was a successful graduate student at Johns Hopkins when he was addicted to heroin; at times it even helped him with his work. "The timeless space of dope was like a magic picture frame. In it, the shapes of thoughts, sentences, and phenomena grew solid outlines, stood still, and let me copy them down in my essays. ... My professors took notice." They encouraged him to send the papers he was writing under the influence to professional journals.

From Coleridge to Hemingway, from John Berryman to Richard Yates, drugs and alcohol have been mysterious, dangerous ingredients in the creative cocktail. The Pythian priestess who was the Oracle at Delphi was very likely uttering her prophecies while high on ethylene gas. The romantic aspects of drug use—whether it's Lou Reed singing "Heroin" or Jack Kerouac passing a bottle in the back of a truck on a dark highway—probably lead the way for many a young intellectual's and artist's first steps down into the circles of addict hell. But, as any addict will tell you, the cool part doesn't last. Soon you're like me crying into my pillow in Paris, or like Clune sitting in his adviser's office, convinced that he's turned in a brilliant chapter, while his adviser looks at him with worry, saying: "Just forget about this whole chapter. ... You need a new perspective. And some rest. Are you getting enough rest?"

In some ways, Clune's White Out is familiar addiction-memoir territory. The drug grinds the life out of an otherwise sane, moral human being until, after many wistful, lyrical reveries of how much fun it is to be messed up, he finally winds up in a 12-step meeting. The book, it should be said, deserved a better editor than it received: Clune can write, but, like many writers and all addicts, he repeats himself a lot, and these 260 loose pages should have been a tight 175.

His formula for recovery, too, is familiar: meditation, 12-step meetings, exercise. It's what (mostly) works for me; it (mostly) works for a lot of people.

But for most people, it doesn't work. There's growing evidence that the 12 steps help a minority of addicts, and Clune, to his credit, acknowledges that fact. "The recovery engine: a makeshift contraption of group love, meditation, and common sense. ... The problem is that not every addict can strap their life to it. ... [It's] a spiritual therapy that works for only a fraction of us." Like Bill W., one of the inventors of the 12-step program, Clune recognizes that for some people the brain just keeps whiting out the sentences that tell it to stop.

I didn't stay sober, once my wife and I got back from Paris. I bought new glasses, and my own power was returned to me. Since then I've hit rock bottom, as we say in AA, many times. Now I simply hope that my last rock bottom was, well, my last rock bottom. I don't drink anymore. But I can't tell you with certainty that I'll never drink again. I like being sober. But also, like Clune, "there's something about the disease itself I'll miss." Clune stopped because of Drug Court and Narcotics Anonymous. But harder even than stopping is staying clean.

"I've seen the needle and the damage done / a little part of it in everyone / but every junkie's like a setting sun." Neil Young got sober just about a year ago, in 2012. "I did it for years," he said. "Now I want to see what it's like not to do it."

The sun also rises, someone wrote (we remember how his battle with addiction ended). Maybe that's what we have to hang on to, we addicts, for now. Not looking back for reasons not to do our drug. We've already forgotten those. But looking forward to a life that is simply new.

Clancy Martin is a professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.