Dealing with demons
By Roxana Kawall
February 25, 2007
The house stands forlorn, gutted: no gate, no roof, no glass patio door, no fancy brickwork, no guttering. At the front a big window from which no one will look out stares out like a sad blind eye: no frame, no glass, just an empty hole really. A vine, planted by the birds, hangs from roof to ground, bearing a single, ethereal, yellow flower, as if nature were still trying to redeem mankind. Inside there is darkness and sadness; the ghosts of long ago move among shattered bricks lying on the ground, hammered out in sheer rage from the walls built by his father when he was just a tiny boy. The walls are covered with crazy words drawn in what seems like black charcoal, some of them Bible references, desperate to invoke protection against demons.
One person alone did this, with inhuman strength. As his soul is eaten away, his personal environment faithfully displays it. He cannot hide. He is a cocaine addict. He has a degree in Fine Arts (Graphics) and has completed the first part of the UG law degree. But his house is hollowed out, there is nothing left to sell, not even bathroom fittings. Not even a toilet, that symbol of separation of man from the animals. It is as empty as his soul. It is strange how some, descending into mental illness and realising they are losing inner control, will at first, trying not to drown, desperately attempt to control the objects around them instead. Eventually control over these external objects are lost too - the resultant chaos reveals to others looking on in sheer horror what their insides look like.
In his case he attacked the house that sheltered him with a sheer savagery; climbing to the roof, getting burnt by the sun, ripping off the zinc from above his own head, and throwing it to the ground, to sell a sheet for a hundred dollars in the nearby predatory squatting area, in order to get a fix that would last for about five to ten minutes...
"I remember when his father built that house, painstakingly coming to check on its progress," says one neighbour. "He and his brother were little squealing boys, dashing from place to place excitedly."
"Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be," says Ophelia in Hamlet, as she goes mad. Here were two brothers, close in age, growing up side by side in the same house, with the same parents, in the same environment. The younger grows up and has a family and a job, and is totally responsible.
Instructions on the wall about what to do if someone overdoses
The other squealing little boy grows up too. One night he lights candles to keep away demons. His house goes on fire. He is seen walking off down the road, calmly, muttering: "Let it all burn." The neighbours are screaming; they form a bucket brigade. One father and son are mainly responsible for saving the house. The son screams for a pair of boots so he could break down the glass doors and walk in over the burning floor. The Campbellville Fire Station Brigade arrives in record time and puts out the fire. Relatives and police and curious spectators arrive. His mother, only shortly before forced out of the house her late husband lovingly built, hides in a relative's car, cataleptic. The addict returns - with take-out food. Half-naked in the burnt sitting room, and oblivious to the hoses, firemen, police and angry relatives, he sits and eats chowmein. The police are gentle - they seem embarrassed by his low-hanging pants, and tell him to put on a shirt, before taking him away. He is very obedient, more worried about leaving his food behind. Neighbours and relatives try to persuade police and firemen that this is arson. "Lock him up! Put him in the mad house!" But no one in authority seems to know whose responsibility he is.
An Australian psychologist once told his father he was one of the worst cases she had ever seen. His father tries to get the observation ward or the Psychiatric Hospital in Berbice to keep him, but is told they cannot do that, since he is not mentally ill, but an addict.
Many nights one or two neighbours would waken from sleep and rush into the street in their night clothes to help protect the father, whom he was threatening, in order to extract money from him. The father would often have to drive off into the night, to stay safely at a relative's house along the East Coast. Nothing was safe; there was nowhere anything could be hidden from him. He would break into his father's car boot, search through pockets when the father was sleeping, steal from his mother's purse, and even sold his mother's wedding ring for $12,000. When she asked for her ring, he said he knew nothing. All drug addicts become compulsive liars, cunning and manipulative. One day his father goes to a neighbour; he carries books in his hands. He says he used to hide them in the car boot; it is no longer safe. "Could you keep them for me?" he asks. One of them is a beautifully bound volume of the philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, flotsam from another life, which he used to read every night. One day he returns for his books, probably ashamed to have asked the neighbour to keep them. No doubt they went too, as did he, one night, from a massive heart attack, tired and grown old from dealing with the darting little boy, who grew up to become a drug addict.
The son puts his father in the old car, and tries to drive him to hospital, but it is too late. His father's death seems to shake him up; it is as if he sees his father, now that he can no longer see him. As he struggles to open the gate in the mornings, he marvels: "Look, Mummy… Daddy even used to open the gate himself…" And indeed his father was a man who did everything for his wife and family, even the shopping. For a while the addict goes to work; it seems as if grief has shaken him clean. It does not last.
The neighbours hear him cursing and breaking everything again. There are loud noises in the middle of the night as he hammers the walls out. His widowed mother covers up for him. One night very late she has to slip silently out of the house; a neighbour, woken by the smashing sounds, sees her in the dark tip-toeing out of the house, trying to shut the back door silently, moving silently to and fro with a strange purpose, unusual for her. She sees her pick up a puppy and put it over a neighbour's wall, either to save it or get rid of it. The neighbour goes over and brings her across the road, as they wait for a relative to come and rescue her. Sitting there in the night waiting to be saved, the mother explains that the loud shouts one would hear was because her son would be having a shower, and the water was cold. Was it that time she never came back again, or was it another?
Her other son manages to persuade her to go and live with him abroad, cowed and chased out of her own country by his brother, the house her husband built in ruins around her, and with not even the wedding ring her dead husband had once put on her finger to get on to the plane with.
Her son is filled with rage at what he sees as her 'desertion.' He does not see himself. How could he? His brain no longer belongs to him. A putrid stream of words issues from his lips; he plays music loudly and sings or screams to it; he begs for money constantly, and for phone calls to tell his mother to send money - which she does. As soon as it comes it is finished, and he is back again at the neighbour's gate, asking for a message to be sent overseas for more money. A stream of lying excuses comes out - he has to pay for photos to get a job, he has to pay to go to town to get Police Clearance, he wants to buy tennis rolls. His other family soon abandon him completely, not surprisingly. They try to give him food and a job. He curses his aunt, pees in front of his cousin's patients, rips out their telephone cord.
His loud noise-making affects the neighbourhood. One matriarch yells at him from her yard: "Look at me! Look at me! Are you afraid to look at me?" "YES!" he roars back. "I AM afraid!!" "I will deal with you!" she says. "Is that a threat or a promise?" he retorts.
One neighbour pleads with him for hours: "You are not a human being any more, and you have to become one again..."
Then a friend from old days turns up from abroad unexpectedly, himself a drug addict who had been into rehabilitation, but who had also had relapses. He goes to visit and has to leave the devastated house. He stands outside its walls, weeping, like Jesus over Jerusalem. "That house always had so much love in it," he cries. "I was always envious of it - I wanted my family to be like that." He goes out and buys the addict clothes and food and shoes, and gets him into the Phoenix Recovery Project in Sparendaam. Within a few weeks the addict is out again.
He tells a neighbour that no one likes him. "What about your friend? Look what he did for you!" she reminds him. "Oh he doesn't really like me," he says, and then smiles with real malice. "He likes to cry too much…"
Another puppy appears. The addict would be seen sitting on the ground, legs stretched out. The puppy would sit nearby, head down, carefully avoiding both legs and eye contact. It were as if derelict animals adopt derelict humans, sensing a mutuality of sorrow and outcastness, like beggar dogs defending beggars.
Then it happens again. The neighbours see the house his father built in flames once more. Both houses on either side are wooden. The woman from one is screaming the addict's name so hysterically that the hands of another neighbour, who is trying to call the Campbellville Fire Service, start to shake. She cannot find the number in the front of the directory. 911 is engaged. The addict is seen, carrying his derelict puppy in his arms out of his burning house. He walks down the road with it.
The Campbellville Bri-gade arrive in record time, and once again 'save' the house.
Some neighbours call the media; one calls a policeman friend. The addict is related to a well-known politician. The crowds and the cameras arrive and the accusations fly. "When they hear who he is, someone gon call and they gon let he out the lock-up." "When I get back to the studio, as soon as they hear who he is, this footage gun go in the archives - you all hear me?" The truth is: the addict is no one. The truth is: no one will call. The truth is: even his family does not turn up this time to the fire. The only one who would have tried to get him out of the lock-up was his mother, and she is gone; all the other family members used to try to get him into it. But out on the street before the smouldering house the heat is high; everything becomes a political-racial circus, a carnival of hate. The auto-da-fé begins. It is a scene witnessed for centuries by the demons he has unveiled in whispered charcoal words upon his walls: "Schismatique. Heretique. Demons. And kingdom against kin." The matter of who he is related to becomes a matter for trial. Even those very newly moved into the area join in, not knowing or speaking of the father who died, or the mother he crushed, hardly powerful people, but: "He is a --. He is a --" confided accusingly to all - firemen, press, police, inquisitors. No one sees that this is not political, but a human tragedy, and would be so for anyone at all, no matter to whose name one's blood is related. The politician to whom he was related, by the way, had never once in decades been ever sighted at the house. The neighbours are heard planning to come and break his legs when he is let out. So far, like Christ on the cross, he has escaped this fate.
From their point of view, how can the neighbours be blamed? It is not as if they never helped, even to the point of trying to help the father bundle him into the hard-to-start car and keep him in it to be driven to doctor, to hospital, to observation ward, to lock-ups. The invisible demons of addiction have destroyed the parents and then turned their destructive attention to the neighbours.
Everyone is understandably suffering from donor fatigue and fear. No one understands the extent to which the addict is not in control of his own brain, but that he is a walking, living lump of cocaine disguised as a human being. They treat him as if he were on a certain level, reasonable, open to argument, capable of changing, capable of making decisions and resolutions and keeping them. They are angry when he does not. "You are not mad! You are only pretending to be mad!" says the matriarch.
One neighbour starts having nightmares; dreams the addict has escaped and is chasing her down the street; she falls and he starts to spit on her stomach; there is only one thing to stop him; to help him, to help everyone in the world; she looks up and says: "But I care…"
Moneyed and unmoneyed scavengers move in; persons driving by see the house, think immediately: "Here is an opportunity for me"; do not ask its story, do not ask its tragedy, ask: "How much?"
The squatters, who know him by name, to whom he has always sold the zinc sheets for pennies, for $100, move in too, ripping and lying and taking for free.
One day after the second fire the addict comes back. He hangs around again. Everyone has now abandoned him. One day he is seen at the hole of his window, cigarette in hand, shaking and trembling; saliva and froth issues from his mouth, he staggers along, he is dirty, is muddy, is several shades darker; his eyes are the most frightening, other eyes are afraid to look at them, for they literally seem to be bulging, popping, hanging out of the sockets. One neighbour tries to get him to hospital. Two taxis refuse to take him. One arrives, takes one look at him and backs off down the road. One begins to understand why Mother Teresa is a Saint, picking up filth from the road, and seeing a human being there. People back away as he comes too near.
The addict is at rock bottom; but for the first time in his life he meets the one prerequisite for rehabilitation: he himself wants to go; he is not being forced in by anyone else, which would surely be a prophecy of failure.
Nonetheless, one evening, although the neighbour manages to persuade a taxi after much talk to come and take him to rehab, he walks off down the road, before it can arrive. She runs down the road after him, runs back home, calls the taxi back to catch him as he passes; nothing happens. He comes back late, asks to go. They make arrangements for the next morning; he speaks as if he has a life, a home to go to, a bed to sleep in, a bedtime, an alarm clock to set. "Well, I'll get up early then in the morning and come over to you; before six-thirty." He keeps repeating the surreal mantra of his 'appointment': "Well, I'll wake up early then and come over." He does.
The taxi comes. A sympathetic driver and owner. The addict, in desperation, in panic, tries to hold on to the last vestiges of his props; he begs back for his money - to buy chowmein. The excuses start to change. The neighbour is angry, had believed in his promises, although knowing better; almost gives in. The taxi driver shakes his head. He drives him off to his brother's sister-in-law, a veritable wonder girl, who has miraculously appeared on the scene, who gives him food and a bath and clothes and takes him then to the Phoenix Recovery Project in Sparendaam, for which his brother abroad, who has only a two-day a week job and a wife and children and his mother to keep, has agreed to pay for.
Some time after, the neighbour sees someone moving very, very slowly in the house, like a dark ghost. It is him. He has escaped. She yells at him in sheer panic and despair to come right over. He is curiously obedient. The story starts again, the talk, the persuasion, the standing guard over him on her bridge, the calling of the sister-in-law, the searching for willing transportation. He gets taken back.
There is a sign, a painted logo, in the office of the Recovery Project, of a legendary bird, the Phoenix, in later interpretations of the legend said to consume itself in flames, and then rise again from its ashes - a fitting symbol indeed, for anyone who ever manages to recover from an addiction. The way the sign artist however has painted it makes it look much more like a Dodo, an extinct bird, and in a way this involuntary fusion of the two, a constant clash between life and death, seems more apt - for as Mr C, proprietor of the Recovery Project, as well as the addict's friend witnessed, there is no such thing as an 'ex-addict,' or a 'reformed' addict, or a 'recovered' addict. "Addiction is a disease like diabetes - once you get it you have it for the rest of your life." So, as the addict's friend says, you try to get through one day only at a time, trying not to think of the rush; and then tackle the next day, trying not to give in, trying not to fall, concentrating only on the tasks at hand, trying not to think, for the rest of your life…
Asked how parents can see signs their children might be using drugs, Mr C says look for a sudden change of friends; they gravitate from non-users to other users; look for a change in appetite and sleep patterns, either more or less; with marijuana one sleeps more and eats a lot; with cocaine one eats less and sleeps less unless the body crashes. Look for severe mood swings, ie drug-induced psychosis; a change in physical appearance, loss of weight, poor personal hygiene, a repugnant odour. He notes that under the influence of drugs, one becomes prone to risky sexual behaviour, and consequently AIDS seems high among drug users. Crack cocaine is available for G$100 per rock.
One wonders about the kind of people who make their own living from such human destruction. The addict keeps a diary/workbook at the centre. He speaks of a time when he was clean.
"I was two years with a consolidated amount of clean time. Then one day, just like any other normal day, I was walking through the local market, feeling free, easy and happy. Suddenly, what we call out of the blue, I wandered into a drug pusher and user. His name was [name provided]. I was buying a lime… when he approached me from the unseen, the back.. I told him I was spiritually clean and was not using for a restful year. Out of his pocket flashed five solid white granite crystal bugs, which he stated cost two hundred each, but he would willingly render me one free if I bought all five… I forgot and failed to remember where I was, what I was doing, who I was… The only thought permeating my mind was to buy and use immediately, at all cost."
Symbolically the addict sits inside the fence at the centre; while another hangs over the fence on the outside forlornly; the latter is from Trinidad, had a relapse and left; hopes to get back in; one on the outside, one on the inside. Two birds - Phoenix and Dodo.
In the workbook the following poem is scrawled. The addict claims to have written it.
The lily pods
Down by the flurry
Of marine life vegetative and
Inquisitve as the spread
Of fish peering for life
Under the waterlilies
Piercing here and there
And wavering for some
Source of upheaval
To spur them in
An undefined direction.
It has been six months since the addict has stayed in rehabilitation.
A mummified rat lies on the floor of his house, among shattered glass, pieces of tentest, cow dung, a rope 'sculpture' made by the addict of bottle caps tied in plastic at regular intervals. The burnt wood has been charred into a strange, symmetrical kind of beauty, rounded and waved at regular intervals, like dark, carved antique furniture. On the walls are still seen the weird words that cowed the policemen into gentleness. "666. Lamentation. Mourning." There are others: "Butterfly in the sun. And God will wipe out every tear from people's eyes and death will be no more neither mourning nor anger." It is early evening. A cool wind is blowing. A 14-year old neighbour stands upstairs in the empty, quiet shell that was once a house and says: "It is peaceful here..."