Messengers from the Abyss:
The Joyous Song of Addicts Crying out For freedom

by Allen Tate Wood

My friend Dennis Slattery told me about this cyber journal called Mythsamongus that publishes stuff on depth psychology, the soul, myth etc. He asked me if I would like to contribute a piece on work with alcoholics and addicts. Before you could say Rumplestiltskin, I said, “ you betcha”. Since June of 1986, I have been working in the “addiction field”. I have worked in private treatment centers, non- profit community agencies and for county and state correctional facilities in California and Texas. Most recently, I have been facilitating recovery education classes in a parole office in the San Joachin Valley in Central California.

Addicts Like All of Us

Addicts like all of us, if you listen closely and watch closely, are singing a song, performing a dance,remembering an event, celebrating some form of knowledge and yes ardently or listlessly worshipping a god or some gods. In my soon to be 15 years on the arena floor, the dragon pit of recovery groups, addicts have taught me a few things: things about themselves, things about me and things about the world and the soul. Here is some of what I have seen and learned.

Two Kingdoms: One Path

Addiction and recovery are not clinical definitions or psychological or psychiatric terminology. They are literal kingdoms, realms, principalities. In addition, as such they have rules, laws, traditions, myths, and folklore. They both embody and advocate particular world views. One can look at these two realms from a dualistic standpoint and see them as adversaries competing for the allegiance of the individual man or woman who stands at their borders. Alternatively, one may come to view them as stages in the soul’s journey, steps in the soul’s history of embodiment.

Decapitate The Unconscious Co-dependent Liberal Do-gooder

I came into the school office at the Marsh Creek detention facility behind Mount Diablo, a windowless bomb shelter/bunker like structure. There in the far right corner sat Mike Rogers. A lean man about fifty, bearded. Having spent three months with my desk adjacent to his, I had come to enjoy his athletic sense of humor, to value his patience and serenity and to accept him as a mentor. As I moved toward my desk, I could feel Mike’s eyes on me. A few moments after seating myself He said, ” Hey Al how is it going ?” Shields raised immediately, defense structure intact and functioning at the highest levels, I replied, “Hey! things are good. . Yeah…I really like this work and the universe is being good to me.”

After a few moments with just the slightest change in inflection he countered, “ you coulda fooled me”. I said, “what do you mean?” He replied, “ I don’t know Al... you’ve been looking a little lack luster these last few days….is something bothering you?…..I slowed down a bit and thought for a moment… "well you know Jane and I are having some difficulty…we both want to go but neither of us seems to have the courage to take the plunge. After another few moments he asked , “How is class?” I responded, “Well, I really like the curriculum but I am having a little trouble with some of the guys.” “Trouble with the guys? How do you mean Al ?” “They are cruel to me,” I said. He came back, “ Cruel to you! What are they doing?.” “They say mean things to me”.

“ Mean things!!! Mean things like what?” “Things like ‘ fuck you!’,and ‘you’re an asshole’.” Mike said, “well… what do you do then”. I said , “I try not to retaliate…maybe I’ll change the subject…or call on someone else.”

Mike said, "that won't get it Al". He further asserted, if I continued in the same vein that within three months I’d either have a nervous breakdown or be dead. I asked him what I should do. He replied, “Al, you have got to draw your saber and cut off some heads.”

The next day I kicked two guys out of class. That was 12 years ago. In the intervening 12 years I have learned this lesson again and again in many different situations. The lesson being that there is no way that I can teach ,much less model recovery, unless I am willing to defend myself, honor myself, assert my authority and take responsibility for setting the tone and the atmosphere in the class. Does it mean I am a dictator and I am always right? No! But it does mean I am responsible for helping the participants create a sense of safety and trust in the group. When a bully is allowed to call the shots unchecked you can be sure you are in the kingdom of addiction. Part of recovery is to consistently and honestly and openly defend an interior.

Fred the Carpenter, Crank, the Truth and Hamlet

Class is over and the twenty some odd orange pajama clad students are filing out, heading across a field to their pod for lunch. Fred, a master carpenter, father of two beautiful children and a ten year crank(meth-amphetamine) addict approaches me . “ Hey Al, you gotta minute?” “Sure Fred, what’s up?” Fred launches in to a mini recitation of his autobiography. He lays emphasis on his six years in state prison behind drug sales and drug use. He recites a litany of treatment and rehab programs from which he has graduated. He talks movingly about his love for his wife and his two boys. He radiates a kind of relaxed pride when describing houses he has built. He then comes to the heart of the matter saying, “Al, I can see addiction and I can see recovery. I understand how my addiction has practically destroyed my life and my family….and I have learned what recovery is….I know what I need to do…..I know what the steps are that I need to take….I know the score. I just have one question”. I counter, “ What question is that Fred?” With dark eyebrows raised and his gaze fixed on me, he replies, “Al, when will I do what I know is right? When will I begin to practice recovery?”

Fred has become Hamlet….. “to be or not to be”. Every addict I have ever known who seriously considers recovery faces this question. It is the grand peripety embedded in the human condition. Whether we shall face the world carrying out the knowledge we have in our hearts or simply repeat some moribund recipe or mimic the dictates of a dead literality. This question faces us all. Here the addict is no longer the stranger and the outsider. He or she has become a figure on the soul’s path to it’s destiny.What can I say to Fred? The whole universe waits on his decision. "It is a's between God and the devil and you and the deep blue sea. Keep me posted".

The Heart is the Gate

Addicts have shown me that the heart is the gate to recovery . It doesn’t matter what it is. It can be an idea, a memory, a person, a book, an animal, a movie, a support group, a class etc. At a certain graceful moment the heart opens and the soul begins a dialogue with something or someone outside itself. This dialogue gives the soul wings, power, memory and form…Through this dialogue the soul begins to remember who and what it is. It awakens to enlightened self love and to ecstatic love of the other. The man or woman in recovery is no longer chained to the fixed interior landscape of the addict. For the addict god has come to dwell in one temple and one temple alone…and that temple is the drug of choice, be it chemical, emotional or behavioral. The addict sacrifices everything to a substance, a ritual and a state of mind which in the end destroys the addict’s capacity to have communion with any one or thing outside himself.

Recovery from addiction is the rebirth of the heart. The heart or the psyche is no longer lost in a desperate search for control or deliverance . Here now in recovery, the addict, the convict, the felon enters into dialogue, communion with family, friends, work and the world . The addict in recovery no longer scans the horizon for some substance, some process or some magic to deliver him from the exigencies of mortality. Freed from these scourges the soul is free to take root or to take wing.

In recovery the mind’s eye points irrevocably toward ecstatic communion with the world. Antoine de St. Exupery says, “ I know only one freedom and that is freedom of mind”. Echoing him I say that for me recovery means to freely and consistently move toward one’s own heart.