by Chris Fleming
Published August, 2019
Reading on drugs.
If memoirs are confessions, then Chris Fleming’s autobiographical treatise On Drugs moves in wonder and probing curiosity over the events, actions, and impulses that he confesses. A philosopher by training and disposition, Fleming offers the reader a controlled distribution of instances on drugs. It contains the usual scenes of excess, weirdness, and shame in other memoirs about drugs, addiction, and adjacent goings-on, such as arrests (after drunk-driving past an RBT on Parramatta Rd), recurrent relapses (including ECT treatment), extreme consumption (48 to 96 Nurofen Plus tablets a day) and dire ingestion (methylated spirits). But Fleming also deploys an intelligence that does not seek to draw a firm line between a before and an after; instead, the confessor is borne on the question of drugs and what they mean, rather than born again after drugs have been left behind.
Drugs, being on drugs, pursuing drugs, coming down from drugs, getting off drugs, getting back on drugs, mixing drugs, thinking about drugs – if one is inward, if you’re in your head, and have always been in your head, ever since you can remember, as Fleming and so many of us have been and still are, drugs surely burn up so much of the energy that it takes to run your cool-to-the-glancing-touch exterior.
Lifelong inwardness combined with a searching sensitivity means that you are painfully aware of facing outward. So stark is the gap and so sharp the edges between you and out there that bridging this expanse has the quality of a miracle, as if Saint Sebastian not only survived being pierced by those dozens of arrows, but also formed communion with the archers because of the very arrows that needled his urchin body.
A gateway act, confession elicits further confession, especially among strangers. For if an intimate confesses, it cannot help but involve or affect deeply the other intimate. This consequence becomes the point of focus, with the pain or offense to be processed and integrated into the history and future of the intimate relationship and its entanglements of affect and contingency. What does it mean, and what meanings are irrevocably altered, when you discover that your partner has acted and said and not done and done so much because of a hidden life that revolves around getting and taking drugs?
This question roves in the mise-en-scene of Fleming’s book, as his partner and children appear fleetingly but regularly to emphasise the extent of the consequences of drug use, structuring how a contemplative consciousness that is so intent on drugs comes to an understanding of this extent only when its solipsistic perception is punctured by the effects this solipsism has on loved ones. Once you realise that you’ve forgotten in which house you put your children to bed, it becomes impossible to ignore the impact of your behaviour beyond your self – you’ve been firing arrows at the world all along.
But when a stranger confesses and thus, elicits, how do you respond? Perhaps you are moved, evince empathy, or are even dumbstruck by the enormity or wonder of the confession. A reciprocity must soon follow, one that fletches the enormity or wonder of the original confession so that you can express its effect from a parallel position that honours the honesty and vulnerability of the confessor and minimises the shame or anxiety that accompanies the confession. ‘When you tell me, Chris (I feel like it’s okay that I call you Chris?), that you were hung by your legs, drunk and laughing, from a twelve-storey building, I remember hanging off a ten-storey balcony, on my own, sometimes holding by one hand, sometimes doing pull-ups. Like you, I was not intending to commit suicide, but they both seem pretty suicidal! You see, we are not so different, you and I. Our common badness is somehow good.’
It’s the subterranean route under the sociality of laughter (if laughter is to joking, what is to confessing?) that Ted Cohen muses on, in a register similar to Fleming’s, in Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters:
I need reassurance that this something inside me, the something that is tickled by a joke, is indeed something that constitutes an element of my humanity. I discover something of what it is to be a human being by finding this thing in me, and then having it echoed in you, another human being.
If confessions were jokes (and they may be – just not funny ha-ha), your laughter would punch up alongside the joker, heaving them to parity by filling the premise, if only – for now – with your understanding, and so also the promise of community, of more than one. The confession makes the confessor the butt of the joke, and so you try to provide ballast for the confessor to steady themselves by swapping stories and sentiments whose universal meaning is You am I.
At the same time, however, you may choose to not rise personally to the severity of the original confession out of respect for the image of yourself that you present to the world or to the stranger, and overshoot toward a general field to assure the stranger that what they have done is, if not normal, then within the bounds of others. ‘Taking a hundred tablets of Nurofen Plus a day is, obviously, too many, but there’s a reason you can’t get them over the counter anymore! Heaps of people must’ve been doing it!’ While not the median, you render the confession not too many deviations from the standard.
Doing, taking, having drugs: official statistics and common knowledge tell us this is normal behaviour, in the sense that many people do it. But the pursuit of the high, whether it be frenetic or soporific or a levelling-off, seems to be about transformation, of accessing and inhabiting that which is not normal, that which is outside the linear path of an everyday untouched by drugs. ‘I always wanted to be someone else’, says Fleming.
But it’s not just drugs. Fleming recounts getting obsessed with his older brother’s friend while on a family holiday, when he was seven-years-old. He would place his lips on the same spot as had the friend on his half-finished glass of orange juice. He tried to breathe in what might have remained of the friend’s breath.
Drugs routinise the ephemeral.
Drugs work awry.
Memoirs are manuals. Demonstrating how to confess is an element of the manual, but memoirs are also guides, claims, exhortations, and celebrations. So where Fleming begins his book with an epigraph from fellow philosopher Jean-Francois Revel – ‘Life is a graveyard of retrospective lucidities’ (La vie est un cimetière de lucidités retrospectives) – perhaps the poet Horace, who is quoted by Michel de Montaigne in his essay on drunkenness, might have worked, too: ‘There is a mean in all things; and, moreover, certain limits on either side of which right cannot be found.’ (Est modus in rebus, sunt certi denique fines. Quos ultra citraque nequit consistere rectum.)
Fleming is sensitive to the different kinds of inebriations that come with different substances. He couldn’t really work on alcohol – it was more a way to wipe out the thinking and fall into slumber. Weed and acid, on the other hand, involved an overworking of the seeking if addled intelligence. Speed and other kinds of stimulants focussed the intelligence to the page, at least for a while.
The individual ways drugs are used by Fleming is accompanied by a hierarchy of their social capital. Speed was declassé, associated with long-haul truck drivers and junkies who can’t score heroin. Cocaine was for the sunny and moneyed, snorting the white powder through rolled-up, preferably large-denomination bills.
Part the how-to aspect of the book involves Fleming detailing the everyday and daily minutiae of scoring and using, from the social encounters in pharmacists to the pre-drug euphoria of scoring (peeping at his drugs in his backpack like an excitedly nervous traveller checking his passport before the long flight) to popping blister packets under pillows to muffle the sound.
The details reveal what Paul Virilio, theorising the dangers inherent to all technologies (there were no railway disasters before trains), might call the ‘integral accident’ of the drugs he chooses, the peculiar price of their effects:
I would begin the day with a light breakfast of fruit, followed by 30 ml of BZP [benzylpiperazine, a stimulant] and 24 tablets of Nurofen Plus. Ten of fifteen minutes after taking the BZP I would begin to sneeze and develop an almost unquenchable thirst for cold water; so as not be interrupted later, I would have lined up five or six glasses of water on my desk. (M [Fleming’s partner] put this down to eccentricity.) About half an hour after the initial ingestion I’d experience extreme, albeit predictable, nausea, which I’d try to wait out, sweating, in the bathroom. Vomiting would mean the loss of the drugs so eventually I came to be able to vomit into my mouth, rest a moment, and the swallow everything – the half-ingested Nurofen tablets, BZP, and some breakfast – back down. I just couldn’t cough or sneeze with the vomit in my mouth, which would result in it spraying everywhere. If I tried to swallow the vomit back down immediately I risked re-vomiting it with more force; but the longer I left it in my mouth, the greater the chance I’d sneeze or cough, which would result, again, in me spraying it everywhere. Most of the time I was successful. I’d mop the sweat off my forehead and, after about ten minutes, the nausea would dissipate and I’d make my way to my office to work.
This is one way to write a book on René Girard, as Fleming was at the time. Or, to quote Jim Morrison, a mentor in many a prolonged adolescence, ‘Drugs are a bet with your mind’, and this is a way to keep in the game.
‘BZP’, Fleming continues, ‘would iron out the unreliability of mood and energy fluctuations, producing or promoting a level of excitement about my work that I could rely upon and enough intellectual and physical stamina to bring it off’. While this illuminates the connections between drugs and intellectual labour, the structural or economic aspects of this work are not explicitly followed by Fleming. However, an earlier analysis of the illicit brings this other component of life, on, off, and besides drugs, into relief.
Illegal drug transactions are caught awkwardly between normal market exchange and what anthropologists call a ‘gift economy.’ Where a gift economy binds forms of exchange to specific kinds of social relations, implicating interlocutors in a myriad of ties and obligations, market exchange is anonymous and ostensibly relies only on rudimentary civility and the rule of law.
Doesn’t the contemporary networked workplace live, uncomfortably, across these economies? When do you stop working? What are the compounding costs of the times you stop? What do you owe those with whom you work? How are the rules and boundaries, which can be so clearly if luridly delineated by the rituals and effects of drugs, drawn ‘at work’ between desire, pleasure, destruction, and survival? How to navigate the array of attachments that are demanded and unavoidable, where various interiors must interlace yet remain self-sovereign?
In their millennia-roving interrogation of what addiction has meant, psychiatrist Richard J. Rosenthal and historian Suzanne B. Faris note that addiction merely meant ‘to speak to’ in its earliest usage, in the fifth century BC. ‘As addicere and addictus evolved in the Middle and Late Roman Republic’, however, ‘the notion of enslavement, a secondary derivation from its legal usage, persisted as descriptive and no longer literal’. But, then, ‘in the Early Modern period, the verb addict meant simply ‘to attach.’ The object of that attachment could be good or bad, imposed or freely chosen.’
So when Fleming notes how loosely ‘addiction’ is thrown around – mobile phone games are advertised as addictive, people claim addictions to cheese – he gets at the essential etymological eccentricity the word contains in its forking usages over the centuries, and the incidental way the political economy of drugs maps onto the contemporary lives of work. Nonetheless, ‘To me’, explains Fleming, ‘the addict is a person who – at some point – realises that their behaviour is hurting themselves and others in catastrophic ways, resolves to change, and then repeatedly fails, despite all manner of resolutions and decisions about “quitting”’.
Drugs balance work-life.
Drugs demand dependence.
How might the solicitations of confession, scenes of stranger intimacy, and the movement between registers of sensation and time, affect the scene of reading? The memoir, manual and confession both, is an alternative form of attachment. Further, reading a book, which is a kind of reading distinct from the thousands of snatches of reading that punctuate the consumption of our daily-weekly-yearly media flow, interrupts the linear if continually disrupted paths of our everyday by interior pauses and parries that hold up and reach out beyond the immediate.
The literary confession moves us closer toward the confessor, triggered by something that has the opposite tendency built into it: scenes of horror and disgust, of malice, of social and physical violations, of the uncanny, tend to repulse, but the act of confessing demands you listen, take it in, process it in some way, and emit something of this processing. The easy joke here is that you don’t just puff, you inhale – you conspire, breathe with the confessor, tapping into that which Fleming notes the Holy Spirit provides, ‘(spiritus: breath), that part of the Godhead which supposedly allowed Christians to have “faith”’.
Perhaps reading confessions allows you the perverse enjoyment of the scene of confession without having to offer your own. Like the screen between priest and penitent, the book displaces the demand of the confession that you respond. You may judge, smirk, or cry, but you are not judged for your reciprocal sins.
This harbour of elision is a little different for a public reading of a confessional text; if you write an essay on a book called On Drugs, one of two responses seem the likeliest. One may express shock and ignorance: ‘I had no idea that people did this.’ The other response is one of camaraderie: ‘I have done these things as well.’
Neither response is particularly interesting, and especially not so here, because the original, literary confession already contains these responses. Fleming knows what it looks like from the outside, knows what a general, anti-drug – or, better for the engrossing localness of Fleming’s scenes of drugs (Newtown Happy High, Oxford St, The Sandringham Hotel, the 380 bus) – what an anti-druggo stance looks like. It informs the absorbing scenes of trying to pull off normality while going back to the same bottle-o and claiming that you’re the runner for the party or asking the local pharmacist for Nurofen Plus, something you have done hundreds of times:
There was a kind of Stanislavskian objective in my dramatisation: I conspired to look less like I was expressing pain than attempting to cover it up; a paragon of masculinity, I was trying to hide my agony from the pharmacist, not reveal it.
And like much of Fleming’s perceptions and structures of engagement with the world, this is imprinted by a childhood event: When he was ten-years-old, he was turned away from buying lollies by the local corner shop owner: ‘Street child! Go away with your drugs.’ He is refused before he even had anything to confess to.
But the shards of familiarity are impossible to ignore. If the religious references haven’t yet given it away, I, too, went to a Catholic high school (and a Marist Brothers school at that –Sub tuum praesidium, Fleming!). He even attended a church called Sacred Heart, which was the name of my primary school.
We share cringing adolescent periods of not only getting into The Doors, and reading that red and yellow biography No One Here Gets Out Alive, but of reading Rimbaud and Baudelaire because of The Doors. I remember staring at the portrait of Rimbaud by Henri Fantin-Latour, the one with the boofy hair and the puffy face, trying to draw him into the present. Who does he look like that I know? What would he look like in a school uniform? He seems small for his age (not that I knew the age of the boy-poet) – how would he handle himself in the casual brutality of an all-boys schoolyard? I guess he had to deal with Verlaine.
Fleming recounts sitting in a car outside of mass reading theories of religion by people like Paul Davies and Paul Ricoeur, an act of defiance that only means something to the defier (and maybe the deity he defies). I was given a Davies book by my godmother when I was about eleven. I’m sure she thought The Mind of God was an appropriate gift for a godson, filled with lessons on the divine, but I grokked a failure of godparenting . (I was never certain of my Godmother Terry’s relationship to me. I’m sure she was Malaysian like my grandparents – she spoke with that beautiful colonial, south Asian English – but I don’t think we were related.)
The similarities and familiars included reflecting on the similarities and familiars, captured here in the image of a high Fleming cleaning with a voice recorder hanging around his neck, waterproofed by a plastic bag against splashing cleaning products as he feverishly scrubs and sponges, lest he miss logging the ideas that will surely transpire. Even with this essay, I experienced thoughts – these very thoughts – emerging in the shower, a rush to record them, but also not wanting to rush, as if the pace plus the anxiety about losing the thoughts would itself become the means of that loss – it’s quite a distance between wetness and keyboard. This results in noting the similarly-conceived thoughts of similarity, until you are in a state of tortuous involution, as if the thoughts that somehow spring from our synapses can turn around and screw down into them until you feel as if your thoughts are thwarting your thoughts.
This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs.
Drugs are plural.
If you look at the CityRail map inside every train carriage, or simply recall its imprint from hours spent staring at it, you’ll see plenty of brightly coloured ways to Central. These are also routes away from Central, including to places not on the map (Central Coast, Southern Highlands), outside the scope of the just-here and about-now.
Trips on public transport to and from work, and to and from drug dealers, gave Fleming times to think about what it meant to get and use drugs, and to get off or not get off drugs. The different transits, with their various durations and stops and transfers, parallel the multiple routes to recovery in the latter stages of the book: tapering, small doses to get through withdrawal, taking one drug to replace another, cold turkey, outpatient detox, antidepressants, diet restrictions, therapy, acupuncture, ECT, speciously arguing with the concepts of addiction and recovery until any behaviour is warranted.
After pondering the romantic image of individualism and freedom entangled with drugs, Fleming quotes from Robert Lowell’s ‘Day by Day’: ‘if we see light at the end of the tunnel / it’s the light of an oncoming train.’ It poeticises a stark moment, where he headed toward the railway tracks at Ashfield the morning after being arrested for gliding past an RBT on Parramatta Rd at Summer Hill. Seemingly unable to stop his body heading toward the tracks yet not intent on suicide, he called Triple 0.
The idea was inexorable: putting his head on the tracks and having the train, with revolutionary efficiency, decapitate him. But there were other ideas. One was the emergency call. There was an annoyance at the surmised anger of the Triple 0 operator, who simply demanded that he stop moving. Another idea considered his precise location as the train wheel became a guillotine: ‘I imagined my head being severed by the wheel and thinking, again, in a detached way, about where ‘I’ would be at that moment – in my head or in my body.’ Detachment is just another form of attachment.
While he dodged this particular end – an ambulance came, and he was scheduled at St John of God in Burwood – there will always be another train hurtling down the line, and part of the difference of this book from other memoirs about drugs is that it doesn’t offer decisive epiphanies or end-points that lead triumphantly into the light of sobriety or reconnection or revelation or simply getting off.
After the episode of forgetting in which house he had put his children to bed, Fleming checks back into a fancy rehab in Manly, reasoning that going to what looks like the best means appearing to try the hardest. This time he comes to a realisation that things will get better, and get worse, and get better, and just keep on like that. He stayed off drugs for a year before getting back on the Nurofen Plus. ‘Between writing the first two chapters of this book and the last six I have suffered three relapses.’ And just as his colleagues tell Fleming that they couldn’t really tell the difference between when he was on or off drugs, a family history of hidden or misperceived addiction is disclosed in the memoir’s final paragraphs. Fleming has been a successful academic; family life went on relatively normally. Like where you are if your head is severed from your body, the gap between the interior and the world is not resolved but drawn all the more clearly across the series of encounters that reveal the gap.
The notion of unfinished work, or simply working and living, accords with the itineraries of giving up Fleming describes and the seizing banality of the memoir as manual. Giving up means to stop taking drugs as well as stopping not taking drugs. The pun of giving up points to the ongoingness of drugs, like the routes to and from Central, which are a single line that is also a part of the larger network. Pun pushes Fleming into recovery when he cannot separate ‘using’ and ‘killing myself’ – he finally got that each meant the other. Puns may not be intended, but they are quite difficult to ignore.
There is no point giving up drugs. There are lots of them.
Ted Cohen, Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters, University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Michel de Montaigne, ‘On drunkenness,’ The Complete Essays, ed. M. A. Screech, Penguin, 1993.
Richard J. Rosenthal & Suzanne B. Faris, ‘The etymology and early history of “addiction”,’ Addiction Research & Theory, 27:5 (2019): 437–449, DOI:10.1080/16066359.2018.1543412