Thursday, January 05, 2006

Facing "The Fear"

I had a conversation today in which the other party, a man in his late 40s, started railing about the dismal state of today’s youth. I’m sure everyone out there has heard this rant at some point of their lives. I started hearing it in the 1980’s when people were blaming the deteriorating morals of our youngest citizens on the emergence of MTV and demanding the banning of video games to cut back on the chronic epidemic of youth violence. This connection was so illogical to me at the time that, as I approached legal adulthood, I had formed the opinion that most people above the age of 27 were solid, irreversible idiots. I was horrified to find, when I reached and then surpassed twenty-seven years of age, that I was completely correct.

As I was growing up, I watched a lot of MTV, played more video games than my paper route income could reasonably withstand and watched more sex and gore in the cinema than the American Psychiatric Association would surely deem healthy. I ended up acquiring nearly every vice imaginable by the time I finished my freshman year of high school, was sexually active two years before I was eligible to get my driver’s license and had developed a habit of street brawling even though I repeatedly demonstrated to myself and to my peers that I had no real talent for it. I can safely say, twenty years later, that MTV, video games and graphic movies had absolutely nothing to do with it. If my parents wanted to blame someone for the wayward path I had embarked upon, they should have sued the public library.

I was a voracious reader. In elementary school, I had read everything by Jack London and while I was in the fifth grade started putting away adult oriented pulp fiction I bought at the second hand book store down the street from my house. As I started middle school, I read all of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, The Communist Manifesto and by seventh grade had gotten into the spy stories of Frederick Forsythe and John le Carre. In eighth grade I was feeding an addiction for Leon Uris and Jack Kerouac. It was also in eighth grade when, while also following my other passion for music, that I stumbled across P.J. O’Rourke while thumbing through an issue of Rolling Stone magazine. That was the first time I had ever been stopped dead in my tracks by something I had read and thought to myself, “Wow! I want to do exactly what that guy’s doing!” What P.J. O’Rourke was doing at the time was getting blasted out of his mind and then traveling to a wide array of Third World hellholes and then making people laugh hysterically at his observations of them. I started drinking a few months later to help prepare myself for my future career as a foreign correspondent.

A couple of years later, via a means that I just can not remember, I ended up with a copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a sordid first hand account of a man locked in mortal combat with his drug induced hallucinations. He was attacked by imaginary bats, tormented by a mob of lizard people and nearly cut to shreds by his psychotic companion who had discovered a talent for wielding cutlery in the midst of an acid trip gone horribly awry. That sounded like more fun than the human mind could possibly process and from the moment I laid that book down, I was calling people on the phone trying to figure out how I could score some LSD.

It took about a week, but on the following Saturday afternoon, Lucky stopped by the house with a piece of paper perforated into little squares with pictures of Daffy Duck on them. We took a square each, turned on the television, had a few beers and waited for the world around us to explode into indescribable chaos. It was not what I expected. It did not instantly turn us into homicidal serial rapists like my parents told me it would nor was I pursued by a vicious mob of humanoid reptiles or savaged by vampire bats like Hunter Thompson was. I was pretty disappointed. Six hours after taking the drug, I was beginning to think Lucky’s connection had ripped him off.

It eventually did kick in, when we were in the car on our way to get some more from another source, and though there were still no lizards or bats, there was a total sensory inversion that was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. It was like I could see sound and hear light. At times I was tickled by the sensation of weightlessness, at others I was emotionally overwhelmed by just the very concept of my existence. It was an awesome and at the same time, humbling experience though there are better places to do these kinds of things than while at the wheel of a 1976 Dodge van careening through suburban side streets at twice (or half - that stuff kind of makes it hard to tell) the legal speed limit. I found LSD incredibly fun, so much so in fact that I quit doing it a few weeks after I started. I liked it way too much.

I had one relapse in 1991. I went to Las Vegas with a couple of friends during the first Gulf War and deliberately decided to do just one hit to pay homage to my literary hero. Let me tell you right now that Las Vegas is NOT the place to go experimenting with hallucinogens in. The place is an assault on senses under the best of circumstances but when you wander around it with a hyper-sensitive psyche, you’re just begging to have your synapses irreversibly rewired. My prior experiences with the drug had been very pleasant, but on that last trip down Vegas’s glittering strip, I was overtaken by what Hunter Thompson described as “The Fear”.

Now, drug induced paranoia usually begins with the feeling that you are under some sort of covert surveillance, as if the police department or the principal has received a tip that you are doing something illegal and has embarked upon a crusade to ensure that you are caught and held accountable for it. I had always been able to fight the onset of this by reminding myself that most people I do not know could really care less about what I am doing and since I had no felonious history, they had better things to do than watch what I was up to at all times. The problem with Las Vegas is that you ARE under surveillance at all times and there are literally hundreds of people that I have never met taking a very keen interest in my every move. I remember sitting down at a slot machine and wondering where the surveillance cameras were located. I found them in short order. It was not hard as the casinos did not even bother to try hiding them. They wanted people to know they were being watched. If people knew Big Brother was keeping an eye on them, they were less likely to cheat. The next thing I wondered was how many of those cameras were zeroed in on me. The only logical conclusion a person with a head full of mind altering substances could draw was that ALL of them were. I then felt myself starting to panic and I tried to decide what to do next.

I came to conclusion that my best course of action was to try and blend in with the crowd. If I acted like everyone else around me, the men behind the cameras would not pay me much mind. I looked to my right and glanced over at the man at the machine next to me. He was an older gentleman, probably past retirement age, and gaudily dressed like only the elderly or hopelessly color blind could possibly be. He was putting portions of his pension in the machine’s slot in a very rhythmic fashion but pulling the lever at infrequent intervals. After a couple of seconds of intense studying of this character, I figured out that he was gambling. I then deduced that if I was going to try to look like a gambler instead of an inveterate abuser of illicit drugs on the verge of a complete mental meltdown, it would probably be in my best interests to do a little gambling myself. I just happened to have a pocketful of quarters handy from my pre-hallucinogenic sojourn through Caesar’s Palace earlier in the day so I was spared the risk of having to ask passerby for change.

My first couple of pulls on the one-armed bandit went fairly well. I put the coins in, pulled the lever and watched the wheels spin. When they stopped, I repeated the process. It was a routine that I felt I could handle for a fairly long stretch of time until I was able to get a handle on the idea that there really were people watching me this time. Then, without any warning whatsoever, the machine screamed at me. It was not a human scream, but bell-like, something like the old style of telephones but much louder and at a much more rapid frequency. It scared the living hell out of me and I jumped hard enough to fly backwards out of my chair and stumble out into the aisle. I was trying to figure out what was going on and focusing on keeping my bladder under control when the old man sitting next to me turned around and said, “Good job son! You just won twenty bucks.”

I shot the man a stare of disbelief and then squinted at the machine to see if he was right or if he was colluding with the machine’s side to try to lure me back in close so that the thing could try to freak me out again. It turned out that the old man was right. I had won twenty dollars. With my heart racing out of sheer terror, I suspiciously retook my seat and prayed to God that nothing like that ever happened again. I put three more quarters into the machine, avoiding sudden movements so as not to provoke it and while holding my breath I closed my eyes and slowly pulled the lever to get the wheels rolling again. I heard the machine spinning for a few seconds followed by the distinctive “CLUNK! CLUNK!..............CLUNK!” of the wheels stopping and was relieved to hear nothing else. I repeated this several times before everything just up and went all to hell a few moments later.

I was just starting to get comfortable with my routine again when the world around me suddenly erupted into an explosion of light and color. It seemed like the casino’s lights had suddenly gone dim and the air was instantly filled with the sound of an all-encompassing fire siren that instantly drowned out every other sound around me. When I opened my eyes, I saw streaks of red light racing across the walls, red lights that were all too familiar to me as a veteran of multiple traffic stops. It was the cops. I was busted.

Once again, I shot out of my seat and stumbled into the aisle, looking around nervously and going through a long list of possible transgressions that I may have committed and already forgotten about within the last few seconds. I wondered if I had accidentally taken some quarters out of someone else’s bucket. I doubted this as I had been pulling them out of my pocket but it was possible given my compromised psychological state. I then wondered if maybe I had exposed myself to one of the old people within whose midst I had been gambling in for the past few minutes. It was not like the thought of just dropping my trousers and mooning a random geriatric just to see what their reaction would be had never crossed my mind before. Hell, I thought about doing that all the time even when I was completely sober. I had never acted upon it before but there was no telling what kind of effect a powerful hallucinogen could have on one’s inhibitions. Still, I thought that I would have remembered doing something like that and hoped that I would have formulated a reliable escape plan before undoing my belt.

I was still standing in the aisle trying to figure out what I had done when I saw the first uniformed man round the corner into our aisle and begin bearing down on me. I turned to begin walking the other way but realized that I was cut off by another who had crept in from behind. “Oooooooohhhhh Gaaaaaawwwwd!” I said to myself as I realized they had me surrounded followed by, “Oh God! Oh God! Ohgodohgodohgodohgodohgodohgodohgodohgodohgod!” as they started closing in. I found myself hoping against hope that they would suddenly morph into those lizard people that Hunter Thompson had talked about. That way I would know for sure that they were not really there and I could just go back to playing my slot machine while trying to ignore them. I had no such luck. They were still coming and soon they were close enough that I could see them smiling. My heart sank as the realization set in that I was about to be locked into a confrontation with a couple of casino goons that took immense enjoyment in their work. I was doomed.

It was about that time that I started struggling with my fight-or-flee instincts. I decided that if I made a mad dash for it, I would probably have no problem getting past one of the goons. The problem was I was not really sure where to go next. I had lost track of the exit and had no idea which direction would lead me into the dry desert air outside. As for fighting, well, the US military did train me to kill. Unfortunately they trained me to kill by pressing buttons on really cool pieces of technology that sent missiles flying hundreds of miles away to obliterate my opponents, and I did not have one of those really cool pieces of technology handy at the moment. The only thing I had ever killed with my bare hands was a bottle of tequila. Not to brag, but when I am confronted by a belligerent bottle of booze, I’m pretty deadly. The goons bearing down on me among the slot machines looked like they would put up much more of a fight though. So there I stood, trying to decide whether to fight or flee. Fight? Flee? Fight or Flee? Flee? Fight? Fightorflee? I desperately needed to make a decision but incredibly I just could not do it. While I was incredibly frustrated by my inability to make a choice, at the same time I remember feeling very relieved that I lived in a civilized society and did not have to deal with this sort of critical indecision in the wild. If I had been in the woods and found myself being charged by a maniacal groundhog ravaged by advanced stage hydrophobia, I would have been screwed. That’s one reason that, even now, I am loath to walk into any sort of forest unless I am appropriately armed.

At some point I must have just resigned myself to going along quietly, which is amazing itself given that it is completely against my nature. My muscles seemed to go limp and my knees started to wobble as I braced myself for the inevitable. Then, just as one of the goons was almost upon me, he turned right and approached the old man who was playing the machine next door. The goon approaching me from the rear also strolled up next to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. They were after him, not me. For some reason I was not all that surprised, seeing as how I was suspicious of the old bastard anyway. He looked like a pervert.

Come to find out, the old man was not a pervert as I suspected. He was a winner. He had hit a pretty sizeable jackpot and the security guards were swooping down to escort him to the cash cage as his winnings were too much to be collected from the machine. They reset the machine, mercifully killing the siren and rotating red light emanating from it, and gave him a hearty congratulations. I did not congratulate him because I still didn’t trust him.

After that, I collected my winnings and made for more soothing environs, namely a place that dispensed alcoholic beverages. After discovering that you can’t order a shot of tequila and a Heineken from a blackjack dealer you’ve mistaken for a bartender, I finally just gave up and decided to go back to my room at the Circus Circus.

The walk back to the hotel was hell. It was pure sensory overload and I believe I made most of it with my eyes closed and my hands over my ears. When I finally made it back, nothing let up either. The Circus Circus is a virtual kaleidoscope of loud colors and louder audio ambience, as it seemed to be designed by P.T. Barnum while he was on more (and undoubtedly better) drugs than I was. I rushed to get through the lobby as quick as I could and after getting temporarily lost amidst another sea of paranoia-inducing slot machines, I found an elevator and ducked inside. As the steel doors closed, the noise outside faded away and I finally found just enough peace to open my eyes and let out a long hard sigh of relief. It was then that I was confronted by the most terrifying apparition I had ever found myself faced with.

Now, I would stop short of saying that I am afflicted by Coulrophobia, the irrational fear of clowns, but that doesn’t mean I particularly trust the fuckers either. I am especially wary of them when I am trapped in a confined space with one. Judging by the reflection I saw on the steel doors of the elevator that is exactly the situation I found myself in. An involuntary whimper escaped from my lips and I instinctively stepped back away from the vision I saw on the doors, unwittingly closer to the beast behind me.

It was a small elevator, and we were very close. I could feel its breath on my neck and smell the pungent aroma of rotting meat and fermented blood that was carried upon it. It was the breath of a cannibal and I was in very grave danger.

There was no conflict between my urges to engage in combat or run for my life this time. I was in an elevator and there was nowhere to go. My only option was to strike out offensively, with decisiveness and devastation. I spun around, let out a battle cry and lashed out blindly. There was nothing there. Nothing save the large poster on the back wall portraying an evil looking clown advertising some sort of circus act held four times daily somewhere on the grounds of the hotel. I really needed to get somewhere out of sight as quick as I could.

I was relieved to find once I arrived at my room that my buddies were still out on the town somewhere. I really needed some alone time in a place where I could deprive my senses until the thunder in my head had died out. I pulled the shades, drew myself a nice hot bath, turned out the lights and crawled into the tub. Bathing in the dark was a great idea. It gave me a warm womblike sensation, especially when coupled with the deafening sound of my own heartbeat, and I felt safe and secure. With my inner peace restored, I dried off and went to bed, intent upon sleeping off the rest of the effects of the drug.

Now, you can do a lot of things while under the effects of LSD. You can hitch a ride through the clouds on the backs of Valkyries, raining droplets of Nirvanic enlightenment on the bellicose natives below if your psyche is wired that way. You can even survey the Congo on the back of a yellow hippopotamus if that is your fancy. You can levitate, breathe underwater and shoot yellow laser beams out of your right nostril. You can even travel to the inner rings of Saturn via astral projection and share a Twinkie with a past incarnation of the Dalai Lama and Pol Pot if you want. One thing you can not do however, is sleep. When the first of my buddies entered the room sometime during the early morning hours of that night, he found me right where I had been since I left the tub, sitting upright on the bed in total darkness with my eyes wide open and flashing him a wry surprised smile like I had just caught a discreet glimpse of Tipper Gore in her underwear.

I have not done drugs since.

Now, fifteen years later, I find myself as a parent with a real dilemma. What do I tell my kids when they ask me about drugs? One problem I have is that, while I’m not necessarily proud of my youthful recklessness, I by no means regret it either. I am not sure if this is because I emerged from my youthful recklessness completely unscathed or because of some sociopathic aberration in my personality. Regardless, that does not mean I want them trying the stuff. Though I survived, in fact some might even say thrived, in spite of my experimentation, several members of my teenaged circle of friends did not. Some have even died as a result. So, what tactic do I use to dissuade them? Do I adapt a strong, paternal stance and dictate that, “Thou shalt not do drugs!”? Or do I provide a strong paternal stance enhanced with a realistic account of what to expect from narcotics along with sound advice about how to handle those sorts of situations if they arise, like, “Thou shalt not do drugs…..especially in Vegas!”?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was fantastic.

And you used my favourite word!

(Nirvanic enlightenment on the bellicose natives)

As for what to tell your children... maybe recount the stories of your friends' experiences with drugs, the ones that weren't so lucky?

Again, that was a brilliant story! I saw Fear and Loathing a few months ago and loved it. It reminded me of your wild adventures before I knew it was by the author you like so much.


9:04 PM  
Anonymous Grab'em said...

That was great! Reminds me of why I will never go to Vegas again. As far as your kids go, I would keep them as far away from the JEP report as possible. I find that it makes me yearn for the days when breakfast was served at sunrise in a tall and frosty mug, followed by enough drugs, or occasionally sleep, to make it out again that night.
Probably not the best literature for impressionable youth, even if a few of us did make it through alive.
Keep up the good work!

11:48 PM  
Blogger JEP said...

Thanks Hannah and Grab'em!

For a few there, I was beginning to wonder whether drug humor had somehow turned off my regular commentors. And Grab'em, I'm with you. Every once in a while when I wax poetic about my chemically enhanced youth, I just think of a buddy of mine who gets hit with an acid flashback every time he comes across an image of The Pizza Noid from Dominoe's.

3:35 PM  

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