[Readings] The Mourning After, By Maggie Nelson | Harper's Magazine

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
[Readings]

The Mourning After

Adjust

From On Freedom, which was published last month by Graywolf Press.

Time and time again, users testify in drug literature to a sense that substances are imbued with things we might call agency, liberty, or desire. As the writer and artist Henri Michaux put it: “Mescaline wanted my full consent.” To convey this sense, writers frequently make recourse to personification: the Mazatec curandera María Sabina refers to psilocybin mushrooms as the “saint children”; Billie Holiday laments the loss of her “lover man,” which some have taken to mean heroin. The frequency with which drugs come alive in drug writing invites us to consider whether drugs are alive, or something other than inert matter—perhaps related to what the ecological theorist Timothy Morton calls “nonhuman people.” In his memoir White Out, Michael Clune obsesses over the talismanic properties of heroin and its signifiers, including the white tops on certain vials: “You might think the whiteness of the white tops isn’t that important . . . but the first stuff I ever did was in a vial with a white top, and its whiteness showed me dope’s magic secret.”

There is an idea prevalent in some recovery circles, and articulated in a popular 2015 TED talk by the journalist Johann Hari, that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but human connection. This may be so, or partially so. But the pathos of addiction isn’t necessarily that it displaces a natural love for other human beings with an unnatural love for a cold, mute object. It also has to do with how addiction reveals our porousness to nonhuman people, our appetite for and vulnerability to them. As Clune and Sabina remind us, our heart is human and alien both (Sabina: “I take Little-One-Who-Springs-Forth and I see God. I see him sprout from the earth. . . . At other times, God is not like a man: he is the Book . . . a white book, so white it [is] resplendent”). We may root for Clune to leave behind the white tops, but we aren’t exactly rooting for him to exchange altogether his uncommon aliveness to the nonhuman for human relationships. We’re rooting for him to find some way to respect the power of the former without pretending at its mastery. Sometimes, this means learning to let certain nonhuman people be.

People sometimes think of bottoming out as a place of freedom, if only the freedom of having nothing left to lose. But the addict’s problem is that there is something left to lose: the possibility of getting high. Things may have completely fallen apart, but the voice of addiction counsels that things can be put back together—after just this one more time. One has to become totally fed up with this way of thinking. The Tibetan phrase “ye tang che,” meaning “totally tired out” or “totally fed up,” is relevant here; the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön describes it as “an experience of complete hopelessness” that is “the beginning of the beginning.” Such hopelessness has little to do with regimes of self-denial or abstinence, or with the regulatory form of freedom that some imagine sobriety to be. It involves a kind of freedom one can’t go at directly with an act of will, but must be accessed indirectly, through renunciation, abandonment, subtraction—a subtraction by which one touches a certain bareness, the bareness of one’s own bare life. “Who I am has little to do with addiction and recovery,” Clune writes near the end of White Out. “Who I am isn’t the first thing I need to know to get better, it’s maybe the last thing.”

For whatever reason, sobriety, especially the moment of “deciding” to become sober, granted me more intimacy with this particular form of freedom than nearly any other experience I’ve had—certainly more than any drink or drug I’ve ever taken, no matter how liberating it might have felt at the time (and it did often feel, and often was, liberating). After all, the painful paradox of substances for some people is that they can grant nearly matchless access to feeling free while simultaneously working over time to diminish the space for practices of freedom. This dynamic becomes palpable in the addict’s deepening negotiation between the desire for relief and abandon, on the one hand, and obsessive efforts at self-regulation and measurement—counting drinks, doses, available funds, hours, days, or months spent clean—on the other.

Like many drinkers, I spent a lot of time trying to self-regulate: taking restorative reprieves, positively comparing myself to others more saliently out of control. But the simple idea of not ever drinking again seemed impossible, a grim negation of all convivial life. I spent so much time warding off the idea that when it finally breached it seemed to have come from somewhere else. It floated down to me in the form of a single sentence that I wrote down on the back flap of the book I was holding in my hand when it landed: I won’t drink anymore. The relief in writing it down—and meaning it—was so total, I’d never felt anything like it.

Lest I’m making this sound like a pleasant feather that wafted down from a benevolent god, I might add that, the day prior, I had awoken at a rural writing residency so dejected and hungover from cheap wine that, while walking to the grocery store (surely to buy more wine), I experienced the nearly overwhelming urge to throw my body into oncoming traffic. In that moment, which also seemingly came out of nowhere, a different sentence floated into my head, one with nearly equal force: I won’t live anymore. It’s clear to me now that the following day’s sentence arrived as a corrective to and displacement of the first.

In an interview about sobriety, Clune explains its relation to freedom as follows: “When you’re an addict, if you can imagine life without drugs, it just seems to you like this boring, endless, pleasureless expanse. This desert. But freedom from that grind, freedom from that depression, that despair, is like a high every day for me.” It’s true—at a certain point, it’s using that guarantees monotony, and sobriety that signifies the unknown. As the philosopher Judith Butler writes about mourning—and I consider early sobriety a form of mourning, insofar as it requires letting go of forms of coping that one previously felt unable to go on without—it involves “agreeing to undergo a transformation (perhaps one should say submitting to a transformation) the full result of which one cannot know in advance.”

It’s difficult to talk about such revelations without making recourse to moral or religious framing, as in: the user sought God but looked in the wrong places, got duped by simulacra, and ended up hooked on a false idol. The lapsed preacher Emerson addressed the matter as follows:

The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety . . . to do something without knowing how or why. . . . The way of life is wonderful; it is by abandonment. . . . Dreams and drunkenness, the use of opium and alcohol are the semblance and counterfeit of this oracular genius, and hence their dangerous attraction for men.

I have long loved this passage for its acknowledgment that the desire “to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety,” to do new things without knowing how or why, to live by way of abandonment, is not the problem. The problem is one of method and side effect. Despite his legendary junkie status, William Burroughs reminded us of something similar: “Anything that can be done chemically can be done in other ways.”

The difference between forms of abandonment that vitalize and those that thwart is something one must come to know for oneself. No one can ferret out for us which pleasures are taken in an “experience without truth,” as Jacques Derrida had it, and which have truth-value, or when a strategy of liberation has flipped into a form of entrapment. As the slogan “may you be blessed with a slow recovery” suggests, such proximities constitute a knot that benefits from patient, perhaps even lifelong, untangling.


More from