Voices on Addiction: Washed Clean
When I was a kid, our house flooded. Twice. During heavy summer rains, water from the creek in our front yard flooded the basement and then the first floor, ruining almost everything we owned. Soggy couches, mud-encrusted carpets, and moldy mattresses filled our manicured front lawn. It felt like weeks that my family spent our days breathing moldy air and sitting on the floor, surrounded by buzzing high-speed fans and gurgling dehumidifiers hammering at floor tiles till they cracked and came up. Everything was mold coated and had to be removed. A few years later, when I was in high school, I was home alone for what was almost a third flood. My parents were out of town when it rained hard for two solid days. On the third day, the creek began creeping slowly toward the house. I felt sick to my stomach as it rose above the front step and lapped at the front door. I was planning my escape through waist-high water when the rains miraculously stopped, and the creek receded.
So I know a few things about how we humans deal with an impending, slow-arriving disaster. When the water first begins to rise, we tell ourselves it’s not going to happen. We are firm in our disbelief. Thirty minutes later, as the water rises higher, we tell ourselves it will stop. When the water is a foot away from the front door, we think about leaving, but we wait. We deny. We bargain. We hope. Maybe we pray. Only as the water crosses the threshold and begins to consume our furniture do we decide that now is the time to leave. But the water is now so high that we must wade or even swim to safety.
Deciding to be honest with ourselves during hard times is like watching floodwaters rise. We don’t face ourselves when we should, but we wait, deny, bargain, hope. By the time we’ve run through these feeling states, the only remaining option is to act; if we don’t, we will be subsumed in our own psychic floods, forced to swim through the muddy water of our minds, desperate for safe shores. We will flail.
As I drove across the golden moonscape that is the Judean Desert, with its wide-lens views of the barren Judean Hills, resembling massive breaching whales, the water of my life was lapping at my door. Having waited too long for a calm and sensible self-rescue, I was scrambling desperately for high ground. Every time I blinked, I saw Paul’s dead body lying on the hallway carpet, then my own. Blink. Paul. Blink. Brad. I couldn’t touch the memory of our last conversation, when Paul told me, in so many words, that he planned to end his own life. I couldn’t face the seven years I’d just wasted in a miserable, drugged-out haze. That floodwater had filled the basement, and I was terrified to open the door and look down into that watery darkness. It was time to swim to safety. I needed hope. I couldn’t say exactly how traveling across Palestine, how following in Jesus’s footsteps, how baptizing myself was going to lead to my healing. I just knew that this was what I needed to do. Some deeper part of my psyche—my soul?—was guiding me. Perhaps it was steering the car. Was the road back to me out there somewhere in this moonscape?
At the same time, I did feel ready to get real with myself. I knew I had to make corrections in how I was moving through the world, but I didn’t know how. I was confused about my life, particularly my experience with my own family. As I drove, I fell into melancholy self-pity. I felt like an orphan. It’s painful not having the support of family; it’s worse when they really don’t like you. After I grew up, my outspokenness about my family’s issues made me their enemy. Slowly, I was pushed out and treated like a pariah. When I did return home for an occasional holiday visit, I faced a family that seemed to see me and my desire for openness and honesty as “the problem.” I had been in weekly therapy since I was twenty-five, and I’d read countless self-help books about how to heal my codependency and other effects of growing up with my dysfunctional family. But the one thing I didn’t learn—or I was in denial about—was just how reluctant dysfunctional families can be to look at themselves. And how in denial I was about my family. I get it now. Most people don’t desire radical honesty. But that more naive Brad, who came home at Thanksgiving or Christmas hoping for a different family experience, couldn’t fathom that they didn’t want to talk about feelings or relationships, let alone discuss a path to healing ourselves. And although my father had learned to drink less, he still drank, and, in my experience, he never did a thing to face his own emotional issues or to repair the damage he’d done to our family. At holiday dinners, I sat at the table, sipping my sparkling water and listening to everybody present blather on about trivial things I didn’t know or care about, feeling unseen, frustrated, and angry at the lack of emotional intimacy. By dessert, we had all removed our gloves. Insults flew freely, and my mother cried.
And yet I knew I couldn’t heal all by myself. I needed community—even advice, maybe fatherly advice. But there was nobody I trusted. My father and the rest of my family was off the table. They treated me like a fraud as if I’d never led the life of a successful magazine editor and adventure writer, though that’s how I’d made my living for fifteen years. They laughed and rolled their eyes when I said anything about my successful travel-writing career.
I now understand the dynamic better. Or I think I do. My family needed to see me as a Walter Mitty, the ordinary guy who fantasized constantly about a more adventurous life than the one he lived. When those Dos Equis beer commercials featuring the Most Interesting Man in the World appeared on television, they laughed and said that’s you, Brad. In my family’s narrative, like the Most Interesting Man in the World, I was a raging narcissist, a ridiculous liar, and my years of success as an editor, adventure travel writer, columnist, and author of a collection of my nature writings by a major publisher was a figment of my imagination.
This narrative, as hurtful as it was, later became an essential piece of information in my reaching an understanding about what had happened to me: to my life, my spirit, my sense of self. It also highlighted the denial, the dysfunction, the extreme masculine power struggle, and perhaps the toxic narcissism that formed our familial paradigm. Later still, after Donald Trump became president, I found more insight. Trump and his supporters referred to facts as “fake news,” which was exactly the way I felt my family had treated the facts of my life and, essentially, who I was as a person, as a man: in their eyes, I was a fake. Whatever was going on with my family, I appeared to have become fake news to them. My stories became fake. I was fake. Ironically, they cast me as the family scapegoat to avoid looking at themselves, their own patterns of behavior. s
And yet, looking back on this time, I can see that I was causing myself more suffering by not accepting the reality of this family tragedy. Perhaps they wished they had a different son–and I wished I had a different family. I couldn’t yet accept this about them–about me–and save myself from the toxicity by walking away.
By the time I arrived in Palestine, I was struggling to regain my own story. I had been willing to abandon myself, my own truth, and the memories of the things I had accomplished. I had believed others’ version of me more than I trusted my own. Now, in this holy place, I wondered, What was the true story about my life? I honestly didn’t know. Coming here to walk in Jesus’s footsteps was my way of seeking a new model, a different paradigm, a solid story to lean on. Jesus was a vital figure from my youth. When you take away the religious aspects of the story, he was the ideal man. He was accepting, generous, kind, and sought justice for all. He was someone that we imperfect humans, driven by impulses and fragilities beyond our control, could strive to emulate. Jesus was strong, compassionate, merciful, outspoken, and he wasn’t a pushover in the face of powerful men and social organizations. He spoke his mind, and he faced the ultimate consequences. Who wouldn’t want to be like Jesus?
With all of this in my mind and heart, I drove across the Judean Desert. Could this weird journey through history, sacred religious scriptures, and my own past show me anything useful about how to rebuild my life? I had to find out.
I saw the turnoff for the baptismal site at Qasr el Yahud on the western bank of the Jordan River, slowed down, exited the highway, and pulled into the parking area.
I was mesmerized—not by the meaning I believed I was about to experience but by the red sign posted on the barbed-wire fence to my right: “Danger Mines!” Beyond the sign and fence was what you’d expect a minefield to look like: acres upon acres of dirt built up into little gopher-like mounds. After the 1967 war, when Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan, the army placed four thousand explosive devices in the ground to prevent anyone from taking back the land.
Qasr el Yahud was also the site of significant Old Testament events; this bend in the river was the place where, according to Jewish tradition, the Israelites crossed the Jordan and entered the Promised Land for the first time. It’s also the place where tradition says the prophet Ezekiel ascended to heaven.
Wow, I thought as I stepped out of the car and onto the hot pavement. A minefield next to the site where Jesus experienced his spiritual rebirth and where the Jewish people first entered the Promised Land?
I walked toward the cluster of palm trees that lined the river. The pavement stuck to my flip-flops like chewing gum. The minefield disturbed me deeply, even if it was on the other side of a fence and I could easily steer clear. That wasn’t possible with another frightening thing, parked under a palm tree: a massive bus with a sign in the windshield indicating its passengers were members of a church in Dallas, Texas.
I couldn’t help but smile.
The church folks from Texas mobbed the visitor’s center, though I admit they were less scary in person than in theory. It was a quiet, sweet, multiracial group of men and women huddled on the wooden steps, all descending to the water. I smiled and waved to an older woman who looked so ecstatic—as if she’d just won the Texas Powerball. I kept moving to the far side of the steps to sit and take in the scene.
That’s when I noticed John the Baptist standing chest-high in the middle of the narrow, easy-moving river. A heavyset, blond man with a matching goatee, I figured he was the pastor, playing the part for the group. He wore a white robe that exposed his hairy chest. It wasn’t a camel-hair shirt like the original John the Baptist was said to have worn, but this modern John fit the part perfectly. His face beamed.
A middle-aged woman with a boyish haircut stood in the water next to modern John. His hand rested on the crown of her head, and he was reciting a prayer that I couldn’t make out. She was crying joyfully and appeared to be in a state of blissful spiritual overwhelm. Then he looked her in the eye and seemed to ask, Are you ready? She nodded. He placed one hand on her shoulder and the other against her lower back. He pushed her back gently until she disappeared under the water for a full second. After helping her resurface, he cupped his hands and poured three successive palmfuls of water over her head. By now, she was weeping loudly. He hugged her, and then, with one hand resting on his own heart, he gestured with the other hand that it was time for her to wade back to shore. She climbed out of the water and back onto the wood steps, at which time another church member—an elderly man with short gray hair, wearing horn-rimmed glasses—stepped gingerly off the riser into the water and waded out.
The baptisms continued, but I had seen enough. I moved to a dry patch of grass far enough away that I couldn’t hear the others. I reflected on the story of Jesus’s baptism, which I still knew quite well a good thirty years after I’d studied it so intently.
Sometime around his thirtieth birthday, Jesus left his home in Nazareth and traveled on foot roughly a hundred miles to Jerusalem. It was there he learned about John the Baptist, a renegade, wild man figure who had made a reputation for himself performing a new type of spiritual cleansing in the Jordan River, an adaption of the longstanding Jewish ritual of frequently purifying oneself by bathing in blessed water. Jesus walked east, toward the Jordan, to receive this purification. John doused him and blessed him. Then, according to the biblical narrative, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit descended “like a dove,” landing on Jesus. It was then that Jesus fully embraced his identity as the Son of God.
Now, thousands of years later, I was sitting on a patch of grass at the location where Jesus received his first hit of divine inspiration and launched his world-changing spiritual crusade. I had felt a pressure in my body, a necessity, to see this place with my own eyes and to experience it in my own body. I hoped it would help me see something new about myself or remember something—I wasn’t sure which. Could I find divine inspiration here, too, like Jesus had? I was no savior, I knew that. Far from it. I lacked a job, let alone purpose. But I was still a seeker, and I came here seeking something. I’d been housebound for so many years, slowly trying to rid myself of all that ambition and ego that had driven me to be an adventure writer.
The word “ego” is confusing. In Eastern spirituality, it has a negative connotation: it is the selfish part of us that gets in the way of achieving enlightenment. But the ego has a far different meaning—and purpose—in the Western psychological tradition. Ego is how we relate to the world. We need a sufficiently strong ego to earn a living, negotiate relationships, live with meaning and purpose, and so on. Many people who show up in treatment for mental illnesses have an undeveloped or fractured ego. Our ego is the part of our minds that must face the bumps and curves of the real world. After my collapse, all that high-test ambition drained away, revealing the truth that ambition and grandiosity overcompensating for my toxic shame and unworthiness had functioned as my ego. What was left of me when you took away the career, the relationship, the family, the pills? I felt as murky as the muddy Jordan.
I wouldn’t have described it like this in 2012, but I now see that I needed to build a healthy ego, which had been squashed during my childhood years. I needed to rebuild myself, but there was no map because I was unsure of starting point—me. I knew I did not want to become just another asshole American man, overly focused on achievement, money, acquisition, competition, woefully disconnected from his feelings apart from anger. I had played that game, and I wasn’t interested in rebuilding my life, only to fall back into the same traps that led to my breakdown in the first place.
The only thing I knew—a small, quiet part of my gut knew—was that spirituality might play a significant part in what I needed to structure a life that mattered to me. Every spiritual path I was aware of asked the same thing of its followers: humility. I was ready for that. I didn’t have any reason not to be humble. I had very little going for me. Everything I’d done to try to feel better had failed: sex, travel, drugs, self-help books, relationships, psychiatrists, life coaches. How was it that I was forty-six years old and felt no better than I did during those sleepless nights of my youth when I remember reading the Bible after walking my drunk dad to bed?
Full of self-pity, I tossed a small stick into the river and watched it float southward toward the Dead Sea. I knew it would never arrive there. I’d read that the Jordan River was drying up; a few miles from here, this gently flowing stream slowed to a trickle and eventually became sandy riverbed. I felt like doing a disappearing act myself.
I had hoped I would feel differently here; I’d hoped to feel inspired, invigorated, ready to take on the next chapter of my life. Even if I didn’t believe in Jesus Christ, I’d hoped that if I sat by the Jordan, maybe I might feel the Holy Spirit entering me—or some kind of spirit. I’d hoped for so much, but writing this now, I understand that hope—is useless. On that day, I was still leaning too heavily on hope.
As the stick I’d tossed disappeared around the bend, I noticed that it was quiet and I was alone. The Texans had left the river and were back at the bus waiting to board. I felt a little prickle of heat move through me. A small sense of excitement about being alone in this popular sacred spot pushed through the lethargic, deadening weight of my hopeless thoughts.
I don’t think I consciously decided to do what I did next.
I looked around once more to make sure I was truly alone. I removed my sandals and shirt. I pulled my shorts up around my waist and removed my sunglasses, setting them on top of my sandals. Then I turned my gaze to the center of the river to the deep spot where the contemporary John the Baptist had just been standing, blessing his flock with gentle dunks in the water. I stepped off the wooden stairs and into the river. Ankle high. I took another step. Knee high. And another. Thigh high. And then waist high. Until I was standing in the middle of the Jordan River up to my chest. The water was tepid and murky, unlike the fresh, cool streams from Colorado near my home. But at this moment, that didn’t matter. It felt deeply cleansing, even life preserving. Unlike the floodwaters of my youth, I welcomed the murkiness, too, as the water rose against my torso. Instead of fleeing these waters, I wanted the stream to fill me up, replace my own blood.
I looked up toward Jerusalem. I was still alone, which felt like a small miracle in and of itself. I inhaled. I exhaled. And then again. I felt nervous. But why? What was the point of any of this? And then I took a breath so big I thought I might float into space. I bent my knees and let my feet off the river floor. My head dropped under water. I stayed there. I paused, my eyes squeezed tight against the muddy water, my breath slowly exiting my nose.
Do I have to come up? My mind drifted back to that May afternoon of my childhood on the White River in Arkansas where I almost drowned, and my father made no motion to save me. I felt the hard, rough log against my skinny-kid torso. I felt the broken branches dig into my skin. I felt the upriver current pushing me hard into the log. I felt the downriver current pulling at my spindly limbs. In that weird way in which so much can happen in an instant, I found myself wondering how big a container I’d need to hold all the pills I’d stuffed down my throat over the years with the hope that they would save me, make me different, make me whole. A pickup? A dump truck? A garbage truck? Then I imagined the drugs, which still were in my bloodstream at a disturbingly high level, being washed away downriver. I imagined my sins washed away. All of them.
I found my footing on the sand and stood up. As my head emerged from the water, I felt a wellspring of emotion rise from my belly through my chest, neck, and jaw, and then tears burst from my eyes. I wept loudly.
Jesus Christ, where the hell are you? Where’s the love? Where’s the kindness? Where’s the fucking grace?
As I stepped out of the river, a new vitality pulsated through my body, warm and full. It moved like energy but felt solid at the same time. Strong, too. This current streamed through my legs and then my torso. It felt like hot, liquid steel was being poured into the mold of my body. It felt like power but without the edge. It was directed at nobody. It simply was. I tried to make sense of it with words: it felt like survival. I was here. Still here. I was alive, in this body, in this river, in this moment, right now. I had made it through the darkest days when I was convinced that I might not make it through the night, too confused about who I was, why I felt so alone. At times, I had felt like I was truly dying from the inside.
But I didn’t die. And I was not going to. Not now. I was going to find my way back home. Not to Kansas. To me.
Back in my car, the hot vinyl seats seared the skin on my legs. My clothes felt swampy after the river dunk. I started up the car and drove slowly past the sign “Land Mines!” How enthusiastic, this sign, and how deeply sad. I rolled past the barbed wire and mounds of dirt and rejoined the highway.
I was confused about what I’d just done, and yet I felt hopeful that it had been more than a silly recreation or a passing moment of folly or fear. I desperately wanted it to mean something more, to mark what I craved to be true: No more chaos. No more shame. No more suffering. Admittedly, I was a little too hopeful. I was again placing my hopes on something external that might save me, contain me, heal me. But this time, that thing wasn’t a pill or a woman or a promotion or a hot story or an accolade. That, I knew, I believed, was a start and a deeply important one. The trance of my life—the shame, the avoidance, the escapism, the cocktail of medication—hadn’t been washed away. I was still in that trance. The difference was that I’d spotted the exit. Now the only question was, How do I open the door?
An excerpt from Into the Soul of the World, forthcoming later this month.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.
Rumpus original art by Ian MacAllen