Reviewed by E. B. Heath
On Drugs is the title, and the cover image features a beautiful, sultry adolescent staring, spaced-out, at the prospective reader. So, naturally, themes of Drugs, Sex and Rock ‘n’ Roll spring to mind. However, in this memoir by Chris Fleming, topics are more Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and drugs rocking reality. This makes sense if one thinks to turn to the back blurb, where it is discovered that Chris Fleming is a philosopher, cultural analyst and essayist, currently an Associate Professor in Humanities at Western Sydney University. Fleming is writing a personal account of his fourteen-year-long addiction to legal and illegal substances. He gives an account of daily hassles of acquiring drugs, analyzes his childhood and struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder to discover possible roots causes for his addiction and his intellectual life both on and off drugs.
This memoir begins as if in the hard-boiled noir genre: ‘It was tough scoring drugs off H.’ The first three chapters give readers an often-amusing account of daily life as a drug addict, with interesting insights along the way. On reading, it might strike the reader that this is an exhausting life-style: long commutes to moody drug dealers whose odd rules and routines must be followed. Not to mention acquiring heaps of money somehow. Really it isn’t for the faint, or lazy, hearted. Fleming gives the reader many insights to this world, such as, and this one is really odd, users experience a sense of euphoria, equal to the influence of taking drugs, while arranging a ‘deal’. It seems acquiring drugs and holding on to them before ingesting provides a ‘high’ equal to actually imbibing drugs – anticipation acting as a placebo effect. So why bother taking the drug one might ask. If not intending to ingest drugs then, apparently, this effect is not experienced. The mind is indeed a complicated piece of apparatus.
Fleming analyses his childhood to explain why he became vulnerable to addiction. His accounts of suffering from an Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), from the age of seven, engender reader sympathy. The anguish of his mental illness was concealed from his parents so he coped alone. From an early age, he reports that he had a sense of his body as ‘being permeable, porous’, of being changed by what he had ingested or inhaled. He is not the only sensitive soul to experience such feelings: James Joyce expressed ideas of being porous, merging with, and bleeding into, the outside world. Fleming suggests his early experience with his family’s strict adherence to Catholicism, beliefs in the ritual of taking the body of Christ in the Eucharist, holy water and healing oils, might be the root cause of the above thoughts. As a balance to their religiosity, his family also expressed some dissatisfaction with the church, thinking it hypocritical, often with amusing effect – his grandmother described a cardinal in his lavish garb as ‘a failed conquistador lost at the Melbourne Cup’.
As Fleming grew older his OCD manifested into fanatical approaches towards hobbies that jumped from martial arts, bodybuilding and music. He acquired reams of magazines to research each hobby; his interest and research into heavy metal bands led him to drugs – and more research.
At university his intellect, stymied at school, was given free reign. He was thrilled by new ways of thinking. Particularly, he reports being energized by Sapir-Whorf hypothesis re the identity of language and thought, whereby language guides, even determines thought. This turned his ideas of reality upside-down.
Whorf was talking about the structure of perception being partly or wholly determined by mind or language – that in some essential sense our framing was our world. What shocked me was that the very idea I had about language was almost the opposite of the truth – language wasn’t an expression of thought; it was the determinant.
And in the same way, he experienced another revelation when on acid, which, apparently, replaced both thought and language and allowed him to experience Kant’s idea of the ‘thing-in-itself’, unmediated by preconceived concepts.
On acid, The Real was there to be experienced, somehow directly. In other words, the experiential effect of acid was to undermine the idea that had so captured me in first-year university: Whorf’s hypothesis about the identity of language and thought. Perhaps drugs, I now thought, allowed one to access Immanuel Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’, as opposed to things as they are mediated to us by our concepts and precepts.
He is actually describing another experience that many have when practicing transcendental meditation. The whole point of meditation is to bypass mind, not so much to do meditation, but to let the meditating process ‘do’ you. The end point in advanced practice is to be part of the (clichéd) lotus flower. Fleming says something similar: I had the sense not so much of doing analysis, but of witnessing it.
Fleming claimed he took drugs to help his intellectual work, not for recreation. Whereas he claims drugs provided a new reality, the ability to re-think concepts via visceral hits of abstract thought, it seems transcribing these multiple lines of thought that inter-weaved in unfamiliar ways were mainly unsuccessful during or after the stoned effect. So the reader might wonder how is it a ‘working’ drug if it does not result in a new hypothesis.
Fleming writes brilliantly about his life, and readers do get the feeling of a lived experience, walking in another man’s shoes. In the end Fleming’s reliance on intellect hindered his recovery, allowing him to delude himself in many clever ways. He spiraled into a very destructive pattern with only one obvious end point. After several attempts, and much humble soul searching, he managed to be drug-free. Even in the last few pages he continues to shed light on causes of addiction as he discovers more about his family history.
On Drugs is an insightful, occasionally amusing, foray into an intelligent man’s experience with addiction.
By Chris Fleming
$29.95 – 222pp