slave names, 1783 – 1859

May these never be wiped from my family’s memory.  The crime is not our personal fault, but the legacy is our problem.

Dosso.  Jamar.  Nan.  Peter.  Amaretta.  Abram.  Demar.  Delia.  Ben.  Hagar.  Matina.  Primus.  Sabrina.  Bella.  Job.  Phobe.  Aurelia.  Hally.  Daniel.  Harry.  Adjutant.  Moses.  Pepe.  Nancy.  Sophy.  Richard.  Maria.  Peggy.  William Henry.  Daniel.  Austin.  George.  Joe.  Josh.  Fanny.  Jimmy.  Frances.  Wellington.  Kitty.  William.  Ozman.  Julia.  Fred.  Henry.

Derosset slave names 1783 to 1859

atheism from empirical first principles

Sometimes skeptics attack religious belief on the basis that it amounts to just believing random claims that someone else made, without any direct, personal, empirical confirmation.  But this criticism can be thrown right back at them: How, for example, can a believer in evolution know that all the facts supporting it are necessarily true?  After all, all the research data that has been published supporting evolutionary theory are essentially just claims that someone else made, and nothing but a certain kind of “faith” guides the lay science acolyte in accepting them.

Evolution as a specific example aside, I intend to show here that atheism per se can be deduced solely on empirical experience.  That is, immediate, personal, first principles.

There is a multiplicity of religions, many claiming exclusive truth, and all making claims that are far outside my experience of reality and reason and consequently, outside of my ability to accept.  Further, in none of these religions can I find any satisfactory explanations for existence, suffering, or death, so I can therefore find no comfort or purpose in their teachings.

I have no personal experience of any immortal soul or consciousness.  I had no consciousness before conception, no memory of early infancy when my mind was still too young to form a robust sense of self, and when I have undergone general anesthesia for surgery, my consciousness has completely winked out of existence for whatever external time duration that was.  I have no reason to believe that any sense of self can possibly survive the death of my physical brain.

I see a natural cosmos that, rather than being specially created as a home for human beings, is wholly indifferent to us.  Nature brings both warm, nurturing sunshine as well as deadly hurricanes and lethally cold winters.  Night and day come and go, as do the seasons, without regard for our preference or convenience.  I can look through my binoculars and behold a dead, apathetic moon, and a lifeless ball of gas that we call Jupiter.  Our galaxy itself is not unique.  I can look up in the night sky through my lenses and see others.

I see both beauty and ugliness in the world, both good and evil, both pleasure and suffering, all without the apparent intervention of any theistic god.  People fall in love and live long and happy lives together.  Some give selflessly to charity.  But children also die painfully of bone cancer, and humans enslave and traffic each other for profit.  I cannot help but view every circumstance and every event as explicable as the result of either human will or as the blind mechanism of nature.

I sense a deep and ancient kinship between us and the other inhabitants of the animal world, with that kinship being closer to some species than to others.  I see in vertebrate animals our same spark of sentience.

Without regard to any “authoritative” science–completely ignoring any genetic, fossil, molecular, or experimental evidence, and based simply on my own observations above–I find that human existence overall makes the most sense in light of evolutionary theory.  Religion serves a social function: to provide meaning and comfort and strength to those who seek it, and to cement group bonds.  Love propagates the species and protects the offspring; charity and altruism fortify social bonds, inflate self-worth, and possibly forge future alliances.  Morality ensures intergroup cooperation.  And the physical evolutionary relationship between ourselves and the rest of the vertebrate kingdom is self-evident.

the Army

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I enlisted in the Army in September 1992 when I was still in high school, through the Delayed Entry Program, in which you could sign up but then wait to ship out until after you graduated.  Because I was only 17, my parents had to sign off on my joining.  Although my military aptitude test scores were high enough for me to get any job in the Army, I chose 11B Infantry because I wanted to be an Airborne Ranger.  Boyish dreams of tough-guy military glory, and all that.


I graduated high school in May 1993 and shipped out for boot camp on 28 July.  About a week before I left, I met and fell in love with M, the girl who would later become my wife.  We started a relationship despite my departure, and missed each other very much throughout my time away in the service.

My boot camp was at the Infantry Training Center at Sand Hill, Ft Benning, Georgia.  After about a week of in-processing, I went to train with my actual assigned boot camp Battallion in early August.  I was in 1st Platoon.

Like pretty much everyone else in boot camp, I hated the Army and regretted my decision to join.  I missed my friends, family, and girlfriend terribly, and wrote horribly whiny and wistful letters home to them.  And I was surrounded by guys who seemed only interested in talking about cars, booze, and women.  Didn’t have much in common with any of them, so I felt pretty alone.  I spent my 18th birthday in boot camp.

But boot camp wasn’t all bad all the time (some parts of training were pretty fun), and I did my very best and trained conscientiously.  My gear was always squared away, boots highly polished, my fitness scores were good, I was always studying training manuals, etc.  And I was excellent at shooting.  I qualified “Expert” on the M16A2, first time out.

Around the 3rd or 4th week of training, I got a complete stress fracture in the metatarsal of my right foot, on account of tactical marching on a paved road carrying a heavy rucksack.  I wasn’t too robust a specimen, to start with: on my first day of boot camp I stood 5’ 9” and weighed only 113 lbs.  So it’s not at all surprising that my bones were cracking.

I didn’t know at the time that my foot was broken.  It hurt a lot, but I managed.  When I was wearing my running shoes or boots laced up tight, it kind of “held together” well enough not to be too painful.  I never went on sick call because of it.  When you went on sick call, you’d get harrassed a lot: the drill sergeants would call you names and accuse you of malingering, etc.  So unless you were really, REALLY sick or injured, you just didn’t go on sick call.  It wasn’t worth the hassle.  

Problem was, because of that injury, I started favoring the other foot.  Which of course led to a stress fracture in it, too.  So now I had two feet that were both really painful.  But the running and road marching of course continued, and got longer and heavier throughout training.

I started having trouble running, and falling back on road marches.  Nothing pissed off our drill sergeants more than trainees falling out of road marches.  On a short 3-mile march on a Saturday sometime in mid-September? I guess it was? I fell out completely.  My drill sergeant screamed ferociously at me and pushed and threw me around.  I thought he was going to beat the shit out of me.  He told me to go on sick call on Monday, and if they said I was OK, he was actually going to (beat the shit out of me, that is).  For the remainder of the weekend he made me stand behind the rest of the platoon in formations and wouldn’t let me eat with the rest of the unit and did other stuff to isolate and humiliate me.  That made the already-difficult boot camp experience almost insufferable.

So I went to sick call that Monday.  The clinic doctor took one look at my feet and without even touching them said, “Yep.  Your feet are broken.  I’m sending you to the hospital.”  So they gave me crutches and I rode the bus to Martin Army Hospital there on post.

At the hospital the x-rays showed three fractured bones in my right foot and two in my left.  They let me see the x-rays; one of the metatarsal breaks was bad enough that the bone was basically just three or four big fragments, with some grinding and splintering.  They gave me a choice: either try to let the bones heal naturally, which they might not ever do, possibly causing me problems later in life, or have a metal pin inserted into the worst break, and get sent home for 30 days on convalescent leave.  Well, you can guess which option I took.  They operated, and one time during my few days of recovery in the hospital, that same vicious drill sergeant brought a couple of platoon mates over to visit me.  He didn’t have to do that, and I always thought it was kind of his way of apologizing.

I spent most of October at home, with a pin in my foot and a great big lower leg cast on.  I drove around in my (automatic transmission) car anyway, using my left foot on the gas and brake.  I ate a lot of fast food and junk food that I had missed.

Going back after convalescent leave was heartbreaking.  My great-aunt drove me back to Ft Benning from Tennessee, because my parents couldn’t really take the time off work.

Maybe the worst part was, I had to restart training at week 1, day 1, with a brand new cycle of recruits.  Had to re-do EVERYTHING I had already done.  It was with the same unit, though.  And on the bright side, I had earned the respect of my previously-vicious drill sergeant.  He was impressed that I had soldiered on so long with both feet broken.  He put me in charge of the domestic aspects of the platoon barracks and called me the “House Mouse”.  He also lauded me in front of the new recruits for being tough in the face of injury.  “A bad motherfucker” he called me.  In the good sense, that is.

I (re-)trained with this new platoon from 5 November 1993 until Christmas Exodus, which began around 20 Dec and would last until after the New Year, during which time we all got to go home for the holidays.

One day shortly before the holiday break, when our platoon was performing badly at something, our DS said, “If you don’t wanna be here, just don’t come back from Exodus!  The Army doesn’t consider you real soldiers yet anyway, so they’ll just write you off the rolls!”  This was a really tempting offer for a lot us, but come January, all of us came back except one, I think.  We were never really sure if he was telling the truth, and we didn’t wanna risk becoming deserters.  As much as I hated the Army, I was still committed to honoring my oath of enlistment.

The first week back in January was really hard, for a lot of reasons.  Having to go back to a brutal environment after spending time at home with loved ones, facing the cold grey weather, etc.  Plus, although I didn’t know it at the time, I was very clinically depressed.  (I’ve been in treatment for bipolar disorder for most of my adult life following all this.)

On a cold and rainy Saturday, 8 January 1994, during Phase III testing, our drill sergeant was mad at us for poor performance on one thing or another, and repeated his earlier challenge:  “I TOLD you, if you don’t want to be here, just LEAVE!  Tonight!  The Army will just write you off!”

This time the offer was much more difficult to refuse.  A LOT of us were miserable and took him more seriously this time.

That night, after lights-out, eight of us fled the barracks, and fled Fort Benning.

I set off alone, still wearing my fatigues and carrying a duffel bag with some socks, a canteen, and a blanket or two in it.  The other seven guys broke into the room where our civilian bags and clothes were held, changed out of their fatigues and called a cab.

I had a plan, but not much of one.  I was going to call my mom up in Tennessee and ask her to drive down and meet me somewhere to pick me up and take me home.  I think I knew deep down that that was a ridiculous idea, but I just didn’t care at that point.  Anything to be away from the Army, at least for a while.

I struggled my way in the night through brush and bramble towards the neighboring town of Columbus, Georgia, avoiding roads and well-lit areas.  I knew that being spotted would get me caught, because there would never be a good reason for a lone soldier to be out along a highway on a late Saturday night in full combat uniform.

I finally reached the outskirts of Columbus, and walked to a fast-food restaurant to use their pay phone to call home.  But an off-duty drill sergeant from a different company in the Battallion spotted me, accosted me, and had a unit van come pick me up and drive me back to my Company.  

Although I seriously believed I might then be arrested, sent to Leavenworth and/or shot for desertion, I felt strangely calm.  Like, one way or another, I knew I had to face the consequences of my actions, and was prepared to.  Plus, I knew that one way or another, my Army career would end, and that’s all I really wanted at that point.

There was of course hell to pay.  I don’t even want in to go into how I was treated over the next few weeks.  My drill sergeant, who had over the past five months gone from hating me to being proud of me, was back to hating me again.

I was given a company-grade Article 15 (non-judicial punishment) and had to pull extra duty and forfeit some of my pay for a while.  They were going to “let” (make) me stay in and graduate.  But I was adamant about wanting out entirely.

Problem was, on 28 January I would have been on active duty a full six months, and that would mean there would be no easy exit.  (It was much easier to discharge someone with less than six months of service; in that respect what our DS had told us was somewhat accurate.)

Having attempted to go AWOL and getting an Article 15 wasn’t enough to get me kicked out, though.  So my drill sergeant made up a bunch of bogus infractions on my record, like “not shaving”, “boots not polished”, etc, to make me look like a failure as a soldier.  He had me sign them.  Again, I didn’t care that I was signing off on lies.  Anything to get out.  I also had to write a brief statement explaining that I refused to be a soldier any longer.

The discharge was approved by the Battallion Commander, and I was released on 28 January 1994 with an “Uncharacterized” discharge–neither Honorable nor Dishonorable.  Just a kind of “Entry Level Separation” (ELS) as it was called.

To this day I don’t really know why my DS worked with me on getting me out.  Maybe he genuinely hated me and thought I was and always would be a lousy soldier.  But maybe on some level he saw how hard I had worked to be a good soldier, and had some small amount of respect for me, and let me go.  I don’t know.  I also wonder if he himself ever got in trouble for doing something so stupid as to actively encourage trainees to go AWOL.

I struggled for many years with shame and guilt and embarrassment over what I had done.  To this day, over 23 years later, I sometimes still grapple with understanding what happened, why I did what I did, and I feel ambivalent about myself for it.  I suppose what it all came down to is that I was too young and too weak for the Army, both physically and emotionally.  I was just a small, frightened boy who had some shit luck to get injured and have some bad timing.

 

 

 

“It’s in the fuckin post…”

[Note: This essay dates from sometime in the period of 2009 to 2011, when I was in the last years of opioid addiction and raw from episodes of withdrawal.  I repost it here just for for the historical record, so to speak.]

“Ah’m no sick yet, but it’s in the fuckin post, that’s fir sure. … The great decline is setting in.  It starts as it generally does, with a slight nausea in the pit ay ma stomach and an irrational panic attack.  A toothache starts tae spread fae ma teeth intae ma jaws and ma eye sockets, and aw through ma bones in a miserable, implacable, debilitating throb.  The auld sweats arrive oan cue, and lets no forget the shivers, covering ma back like a thin layer ay autumn frost oan a car roof.”

-Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh

Cows assess this syndrome.  OK, not cows cows; C.O.W.S.  The Clinical Opiate Withdrawal Scale.  An instrument that objectively assigns a numerical value from 0 (or, chilled-out) to 4 (or, yir fucked, mate!) to the externally observed level of intensity of eleven different opiate withdrawal symptoms.  Sweating, pupil dilation, tremors, nausea, quickened pulse, aches, anxiety, chills, etc.  Doesn’t really sound so bad, does it.  Especially not when it’s in a nice tidy formatted list with accompanying point scale.  Clinical.  Sterile.  Like the monotone voiceover of a prescription drug TV advert where the gent says, “Symptoms may include…”.

But those banal, familiar symptoms that we’ve all experienced at one time or another (usually in non-addiction contexts) become much greater than the sum of their own clinical descriptions, the further up that COWS ladder one climbs.

I know this.  I’ve scaled that thing too many goddamn times.

“Here ah am in the junky’s limbo; too sick tae sleep, too tired tae stay awake.  A twilight zone ay the senses where nothing’s real except the crushing, omnipresent misery n pain in your mind n body… Doctor Mathews sais that it’s jist really like a bad flu, this withdrawal…  When wis the last time auld Mathews hud cauld turkey?  Ah’d like tae lock that dangerous auld radge in a padded cell fir a fortnight, and gie um a couple ay injections ay diamorphine a day, then leave the cunt for a few days.  He’d be beggin us fir it eftir that.  Ah’d jist shake ma heid and say: Take it easy mate.  What’s the fuckin problem?  It’s jist like a bad flu.”

That’s the way a lot of doctors and therapists and counselors and clean lay folks describe opiate withdrawal: like a bad flu.  And lexically, technically–matching up and comparing the words in both symptom lists–I guess it is.  But they don’t know this from personal experience.  Nor do they understand the severity of the psychological component, which is after all what addiction really is: a brain disorder.  I don’t know of any strain of flu on this planet that precipitates soul-crushing anxiety, drives its victims mad with the craving-ridden knowledge that just one hit, one dose, will make it all go totally away, or denies them any and all rest for days and weeks at a time.

Why no rest, you might wonder?  Well, opiate withdrawal, experientially and neurochemically, is a (seemingly endless!) sustained fight-or-flight reaction.  Literally.  During opiate addiction, the body’s ancient noradrenergic system, which is activated in times of great stress, fear, or pain, is suppressed.  (Which is why opiates feel so good in the first place: they relieve all that.)  In a brain soaked with opiates, the production and release of stimulating neurotransmitters like noradrenaline and norepinephrine is squelched.  With continued use comes brain adaptation to this situation, so when opiate use is ceased, production of noradrenaline ramps up again, wildly, and the brain catches fire.  A chemical fire, an internal “overdose” of the neurotransmitters behind our inherited fight-or-flight reaction: fear, panic, pain, excitement, restlessness, and all the attendant involuntary somatic manifestations of these.  All acutely intense.  

For me this extremely heightened arousal was always the worst.  It denied me sleep for days on end, which is an experience horrific enough that no human should ever have to endure it.  In the worst moments there wasn’t much I wouldn’t have done to get even one hour of the most restless, sweaty, feverish sleep.  The closest I ever came to suicide–which at times was closer than I’ve ever told anyone–was in these days of complete deprivation of rest.  It makes you fucking crazy.  A few times I tried hitting myself in the head with my own fist, as hard as I could, hoping to knock myself out long enough to get some rest.  Stupid and pathetic, but true.

“It’s still fourteen hours and n fifteen minutes until ah kin git ma new fix.”

No flu strain stops time, either.  When you’re in the trough of that drug withdrawal roller coaster–those brutal, sometimes days-long, in-between times between taking your last dose and being dope-rich again–time slows to a standstill.  Like those scenes in sci-fi movies where full-speed motion quickly slows to a frozen moment, a three-dimensional photograph.  But your brain keeps frantically pumping out the noradrenaline, so you’re keen to everything…your senses are sped up, so everything else slows way down.  Time passes, but not for you.  You’re left embedded in misery, feeling hopeless and damned for eternity, because the one thing that you most need to happen–for time to pass ‘til either you get your next dose or ‘til the withdrawal abates naturally–won’t happen.  At least it seems that way.

How many times I went through all this, how many times I counted the seconds…then the minutes…and then the hours…’til I could pick up my next dose, I shudder to recall.  How many times I phoned my docs and the pharmacy for early refills, hoping that they’d let me slide just this once…how many times I showed up at the pharmacy the very second they opened, cold yet shirt soaked with sweat, trembling, aching, sad and humiliated, and trying my best to act casual and not at all desperate…how many times I waited “just ten or fifteen minutes” more, wandering around the pharmacy waiting for them to prepare and process the script or the refilll…I literally can’t count.

Then I would hurriedly pay and greedily slip away with the Rx bag, dope-rich again.  I would dose before even leaving the pharmacy, and within minutes I was feeling warm and euphoric, like none of this had ever happened.  And I’d keep using ‘til I ran out early, and the whole goddamn cycle started again.

Coda:

If I’m ever tempted to relapse, I’m going to try to remember all this shit, because I don’t EVER want to have to go through it again.  But for now I’m writing it down here, and then going to try to forget it.  Fuck addiction.

 

Gender and sexuality

I want to fall solidly into a clear taxonomic category.  To have an easy label.  I don’t like ambiguity when it comes to my own identity.  But I suppose individual human gender and sexuality are not by nature so easy to define, or even for the person to understand him/herself.

The question arises:  Are the ambiguities I feel a recently emerging phenomenon–something about me that’s changing–or are they simply something that I never noticed before?

I will write much, much more about this later.

Insomnia

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I’ve suffered from insomnia for years.  And the truth is, now I’m terrified of bedtime.  Unless I’m so drowsy that I know sleep is imminent (a rare occurrence) I dread powering down and entering those small black hours.  That’s when my defenses fail: there is no sun to burn off the gloom, no internet and media and television to distract, no urban din and clatter, no friendly faces or voices to accompany and uplift.  I’m left alone–completely, hopelessly, cosmically alone–with a ceaseless onslaught of terrible hurts and regrets and self-doubts and anxieties.

Second by second, it’s an avalanche of wide-awake nightmares:

There’s an active shooter at C’s school, and she’s hurt but can’t call for help.  M has died in a car crash, and besides my own devastation, I have to break the news to L, and somehow parent her through this.  What does it feel like to have your legs blown off in an IED blast–what a goddamn waste of youth and health.  It should have been me, and not those soldiers.  I should never have failed in the Army.  I’m a weakling, always have been.  What if I’m not strong enough to survive this bipolar disorder, and wind up killing myself.  Helium is the way to go.  Displaces oxygen, not messy, and it’s euphoric rather than suffocating and panicky like carbon monoxide is.  The whole side fence needs replacing; we have the cash, but it would wipe out our savings.  Savings.  We have none for L’s college.  What’s going to become of her.  Please god don’t go into student loan debt.  I’m doing my best as a father…I’m really doing my best.  I love her SO MUCH.  She’s 13 now, is that strong enough to be OK if something happened to me.  What’s my cholesterol level.  I wonder how much longer I can keep my job.  They’ll either fire me for screwing up somehow, or lay me off when circulating print books becomes obsolete.  Then what will I do.  I have no hard skills.  I bet you could buy two or three party-balloon helium tanks from Party City, and open the valves on them while sitting in your car…  Would never do that.  What a fucked-up thing to do to your loved ones.  But there might be circumstances where you’d have to, like being about to be sent to prison for something you didn’t do.  I haven’t done anything, and I don’t want to be anally raped.  Can you imagine what that feels like.  What would happen to our family if one of us lost our jobs, though.  Would we be homeless.  Where would we go.  What about everyone back in Tennessee: I can’t help them, I simply can’t.  Shit, stop it, stop it, stop it, stop it.  I have to be up in 4 hours.  If I go to sleep right now, I can get 3 ½ hours of sleep.  OK, 3.  Two hours sleep will be OK.  Maybe if I cry it’ll exhaust me…   

I’ve lived with this longer than I can remember.  Fifteen years, at least.  For at least 7 of those years, drugs diluted and clouded everything.  I think that’s partly what drove me to abuse them in the first place.  They make all these loud hateful monkeys in your head lie down and take a nap.  But in a terrible irony, the addiction exacerbated everything, of course.  So many cycles of highs and lows and withdrawals and horrible sleepless nights of restless legs and aches and nausea and cravings and cold sweats made me deeply averse to a quiet nighttime in a textbook case of classical conditioning.  (I won’t even bother trying to describe the psychology of opioid withdrawal, let alone benzodiazepine withdrawal.  It is, without exaggeration, beyond description.)

When I recovered from addiction 6 years ago, life in general got SO much better.  I’ve been stronger, happier, more functional, and more resilient.  But the lifelong bipolar disorder and anxiety, together with the trauma of innumerable sleepless nights of torturous withdrawal, left its scar.  So for years I have rushed home after work to collapse into a nap of sheer exhaustion.  Which just triggers the whole cycle again.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  

Which sing the open truth of my heart