Accountability

When We Look For Responsibility Why Is It That We Save

There’s an old gag that runs – the definition of “chutzpah” is when a kid murders his parents and throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan. It’s funny, and yet, increasingly no one is to blame for anything in our society – no one takes responsibility, not even for their own actions.

Over three decades ago, Dan White set the implausibility bar very high by claiming he’d murdered Harvey Milk as the result of being hopped up on Twinkies. (The tasty snack treat made him do it!) That defense actually worked, and sparked riots.

We live in a society ruled by an enormous dog, (even bigger than Clifford the Big Red Dog) and all day long that dog eats our homework – so we never have to do it.

Now that the presidential election is ramping up across the land there is hand wringing and obligatory excoriation of elected officials. While this is understandable, everyone seems to have conveniently forgotten that they are the ones who put the offenders in office, and they can vote them out. They could even – gasp – run for office, like Harvey Milk.

Personal accountability was a cardinal virtue among the people who built this country; but it seems to be almost unknown today. The fact is, if lightning strikes your house, it’s not your fault, but it is your problem. Assigning blame isn’t going to fix your roof, getting up there with a hammer, saw and nails will.

This subject is very familiar to me, indeed, my youth was a veritable love song to entitlement. I thought roughing it was when we didn’t get sorbet in-between courses, (to cleanse our palettes). That all changed when the heavens rained fire on my life in the form of mental illness, madness, manic depression.

Bear in mind, I did nothing to deserve this curse, this nightmare, this torture. When you are mentally ill you have a very strong case for playing the victim card, and you can, if that’s what you want to be. But I didn’t. Like others before me, one day I simply refused to be a victim anymore, took ownership of the disaster, and faced it.

If you want the full story you can read it in my bipolar memoir, INVISIBLE DRIVING. Suffice it to say that engaging in that long battle didn’t just wrestle the illness to the ground, it made me a man.

One hears so much wisdom in AA meetings. Recently I heard a woman say, “I am not a victim and life is not an excuse.” Alcoholics and drug addicts are among the most skilled liars in the world, with an absolutely inspiring ability to blame other people for their faults and difficulties. Over years of having the bs beaten out of you by no-nonsense dipsomiacs one finally grows able to see, as Shakespeare said so nicely, “the fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves”.

Importantly, AA doesn’t care about righteous rage and fair versus unfair, AA is only interested in results. It is a program of absolute accountability, and, the question of – now that you are accountable what are you going to do?

Ironically, it was through mental illness and addiction that I grew to understand how to live a righteous and responsible life. Today I am no victim, that much is certain.

The Siren Call Of All That Is Not Me

Turkish Farmer Abuses Hashish

Many people in AA speak of alcoholism as a disease, as if to say, our bodies are “allergic” to alcohol, our reactions are different from those of “normal” people.

I think this is a facile, inaccurate rationalization that makes it easier for people to admit they have a problem with booze and need help.

In fact, we are like other people except that our “alcoholic personalities” – driven by a hunger for escape – catapult us into excesses of all kinds.

I recently ran across this passage from my bipolar memoir, INVISIBLE DRIVING, which sums it up succinctly.

“One of the highlights of my career as a jazz listener was a concert in Carnegie Hall. It featured McCoy Tyner and his big band, the outrageous Pharaoh Sanders, and the immortal one himself, Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The hall was hushed as McCoy Tyner, pianist for John Coltrane during the legendary quartet years, took the stage with his large and heavily armed band. Nothing sounds prettier than a room holding hundreds of people with their mouths shut. It reminded me of the Quaker meetings I used to go to every week at school. So many people, alone with their thoughts, together in a room, silent. Great moment.

“The wooden floors of the old hall creaked like a ship at sea as people settled in their seats. This silence was not the silence of a bus station at 3:00 AM in the morning. This was warm and rich, the audience filled with respect, even awe, and anticipation. You could have heard a lemon drop drop.

“And then, we heard a bomb drop. Tyner’s band burst into an all-stops-out barrage of sound intensity that blew off every hairpiece in the room. From silence to a hurricane of sound, cracking and crashing like madness, so loud that it couldn’t be denied, it didn’t come in through your ears, it came in through your bones. I felt like I was having an orgasm. I was so relieved, so joyful, so happy, I wanted to jump to my feet, thrust my fists into the air and scream ‘Yes! Thank you!’

“Later, when I was replaying the concert in my mind, I wondered about that moment. Why was it that I craved that level of intensity so much? The longer I thought about it, the harder it became to avoid my best theory. The music was so strong, it obliterated my personality. It was so complete, so overwhelming, that it freed me from myself. I was immersed in only the intoxication of the music. I forgot about me.”

Self Medication

If You Need Brain Surgery - Involve Other People

The first time I heard the term “self-medication” I laughed out loud. In searching for an analogy one thinks immediately of the old adage – the lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client. But that’s when the stakes are low, going free or going to jail. How about when the stakes are high? Sanity versus insanity? Life versus death?

Jean Paul Sartre, a very clever fellow, used to play Russian roulette because he was bored. Well, self-medication is like playing Russian roulette with one big difference, all the gun’s chambers contain live ammo.

Self-medication – (the term itself is preposterous) – fits nicely into the insufferable arrogance and egotism of mania – as if to say – I can manage this little spot of bother myself with nothing more complicated than some garden-variety drugs. I remember it all too vividly – “throwing gasoline on a fire”.

I adored the adrenaline rush of mania, and I tried to “manage it” with marijuana and alcohol – marijuana to knock the sharp edges off the mania and make it smooth and yummy – and alcohol to slow me down and mellow me out to the point where I wasn’t constantly irritated by the sheer inanity of the huddled masses and their inability to keep up with me.

It was an inspired strategy except that it wasn’t and a brilliant idea except that it almost got me killed – folks – when it comes time for brain surgery you really need to involve others, professionals – people who actually know what they’re doing.

The hubris and sense of entitlement one encounters in a person at the apex of mania are astounding, but add in the loss of inhibitions and appalling judgment that arise from drunkenness and you have a confident imbecile who thrives on risk-taking and abusing authority.

Some people can drink; I’m not three of them. It would be nice if the folks who made booze would take people like me into consideration. For example, if booze came with realistic warning labels with statements like these.

WARNING: Excessive Use Of This Product Might Cause You To:

· Invade Russia during the winter.
· Buy life insurance from a guy named Guido.
· Toss your Rolex onto the chips in the expectation of filling out an inside straight.
· Believe your boss really wants your advice about improving the department.
· Think you’ve suddenly become a great singer who will dazzle them all on karaoke night.
· Tell the cop of course you knew it was a one-way street; you were only driving one way.
· Impress your mother in law with that joke about the octopus and the bagpipes.
· Get the word THINK tattooed on your forehead backwards so you can read it in the mirror while you’re shaving.

The list would be long. Perhaps reading it would give us time to get over the absurd idea that we can “medicate” ourselves using drugs that are designed to rob of us of our reason.

A Life Of Crime Begins Inauspiciously

The World Is Not Fair For Most Of Us That's Good

I have failed in many ways, which helps explain my success. One of my most notable is crime. I’m not exactly certain which element of the criminal character I lack, perhaps if I’d thought about it first I could have studied. Certainly I have the sloth, entitlement, lack of ambition, and contempt for authority needed to excel, but for some reason life on the wrong side of the law never worked out for me.

Like many before me I dabbled in drug smuggling, which seems ideally suited to unimaginative slackers. A brief, and ill-fated, career began in Izmir, a Turkish city on the Mediterranean. My traveling companion and I secured a kilogram of hashish, neatly wrapped in transparent wax paper and ready to travel. We were on our way back into Greece.

Drug buys tend to be anxiety-ridden events, especially when they involve strangers; being in a foreign country just made it that much worse. So we were naturally relieved after the exchange was complete to be on our way back up the coast. Giddy with the elation of “getting away with it” we purchased a bottle of unbelievably nasty wine from a roadside vendor. Our route to Athens was a winding road that hugged the seashore and offered spectacular views as it did.

The two of us relished our gangster lifestyle, smoking hash, drinking wine, and enjoying the scenery. It got dark and we discussed pulling over for a while but, with signature manic intensity, I insisted on going until we were back in Athens where I believed we would be safer. We continued, my buddy drifted off to sleep and I struggled to keep my eyelids from drooping. Black night, black sea, no sound or lights to poke me awake, only the waving pair of parallel white lines.

Blubadubablubadubadub. The car was at rest in the furrows of a plowed field. We checked to see if it still moved and it did. We checked ourselves for cuts and broken bones; there were none. And so, we finally went to sleep properly, it seemed like the thing to do.

The next morning I surveyed the scene properly. We were only a few feet off the road. On the other side of the road was a long, sheer drop to the sea, certainly 70 feet. I looked at the waves slapping against the stony beach and realized – this was only the toss of a coin. My stomach tightened like a fist, I fell to my knees right in the middle of the road and kissed the pavement.