Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Is high really low?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, drug culture, autobiographies

Reading Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood by Peter Bebergal just made me sad. The author is fortunate that the brain is remarkably robust and adaptable. After spending about a decade in a determined effort to totally burn it out (which he saw as an attempt to achieve enlightenment), he dropped all drugs some twenty years ago and has made a remarkable recovery. In any event, he has become a fluent, compelling writer.

I grew up in the sixties also. I am a few years older than Bebergal. Perhaps I am just lucky: I found by experiment that I am allergic to pot, and it does nothing for me anyway; opium makes me sleep before any mental feelings kick in; I quickly got over an early infatuation with alcohol because I prefer to remain in control of my mind; I tried nothing harder, because I could see how ugly addicts were. From both sides of the divide, I suppose one can say, it takes all types. I am about as straight as they come.

Bebergal was, for a time, about as bent as they come. Luckily, he lived through it. When he had his crash, and his parents were forced to realize the depth of his predicament, it began a recovery process that took a few years. He portrays his parents as pretty much ignorant of what he had been doing. In a sense, he had an anchor in their home, that less fortunate kids didn't have. In spite of spending his adolescence in a wasted condition, he had as a core the habit to return home at the end of the day (whenever it happened to end). As much as anything else, that saved him.

The book's title comes from the song "I had too much to dream last night", recorded by the Electric Prunes. Psychedelia in general was an intimate part of the mix of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll that drove the "me generation" of the "Sixties", which ran until the mid-1970s. Drove, and in part destroyed. Now that some of that generation are running Western governments and industries, perhaps it is no surprise that politics and business are floundering and foundering.

I am beginning to think that there is a physical or chemical difference, or something like that, between folks with left- and right-wing views. Politics in America played host for eight years to what Rush Limbaugh called Bush Derangement Syndrome on the left. Now on the right, we see Obama Derangement Syndrome. Neither is helpful. I spent a few days recently with my father and my three brothers. Two of my brothers are politically liberal. My youngest brother and I are politically conservative. We had a few lively discussions. In a side discussion with my youngest brother, I remarked that it is not surprising he is conservative, because he runs a small business, as I have done in the past. The other two have an entitlement mentality, though not as extreme as I see among many left-leaning members of Congress. Anyway, where this is going: People I know who are right of center did few or no drugs; many (not all) of those who are left of center did a lot, and some still do.

I am glad the author found a way out of addiction, rather than dying of it, which was a fear he had for years. A characteristic of the drug culture is pervasive paranoia. You're a criminal, so of course "they" are out to get you! But the paranoia stays there and becomes part of the trip, particularly a psychedelic trip (LSD; mescaline; 'shrooms), making a bad trip more likely. God is out to get you! I once saw someone, running from some internal demon, run right out a third-floor window.

The chapters contain discussions and digressions into the history of various aspects of new age culture, from Aldous Huxley to Blavatsky to Woodring. They are threads in the whole tapestry that has enmeshed so many addicts. It is hard to say whether Bebergal is advocating greater access to drugs. There is caution in his language when he describes recent medical research into the effects of mind-altering substances. Do these substances provide a shortcut to mental states that meditators, for example, must labor for years to achieve? He is ambiguous.

Married now, with at least one child, the author has stayed clean (his term) for two decades. While he eschews drugs, and sex is now confined to his marital relations, he still clings to the music. "Mental" music is growing up. He writes late in the book about a "concert" of more modern music that appeals to him, and it seems to have no genre, but is somewhere in the "new age" spectrum. He is a product of his own past—no surprise—but has a will and direction he lacked before. Some of that was simply growing up. More was re-learning how to be a free person once he was free of the drugs.

I was, and still am, and outside observer of the drug scene. For me, the book was a window into a world I declined to enter. For some, it will be a beacon they may need, a chronicle of one man's journey in and back out.

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