"Seek not the good in external things. Seek it in thyself." - Epictetus

Exercise your demons (the power of vice compels you) - excerpt from The Devils In Your Details

From The Devils In Your Details:

When it comes to how people view and deal with substances or activities often regarded as vices, one of the worst offenders is the overindulgent consumer. He’s usually the victim of his own inability to exercise good judgment, discipline, or moderation. There was one in particular who stood out to me. To protect his privacy, here we’ll call him Glenn Corbin. He had two distinct – and ultimately debilitating – vices that I knew of: drinking and gambling. For each of these, he indulged in something very specific. He loved red wine, and the cheap stuff in particular – seriously, he’d guzzle down bottles of that shoddy Australian wine you could get for six bucks or so. (If you can’t figure out the brand, a quick search engine query should clear that right up for you.) If he didn’t finish the entire bottle in one night, he’d wake up the next morning and spill the rest out in the sink, swearing in stark contradiction to his addictive habit that he’d never touch alcohol again.

      There are many stories to be told about Glenn’s bargain bin wine escapades, some that I witnessed directly, and others that were relayed to me by mutual acquaintances; some that were equal parts hilarious and saddening, others that were serious and devastating. Because this book isn’t titled The Intoxicated Misadventures of Glenn from New Jersey, I’ll trim the stories down to a few short narratives.

      The more amusing one I’d like to share actually happened during the brief period in which he lived in Chicago, and was later relayed to me by my roommate in the Windy City years later. The first thing you have to understand is that the neighborhood he lived in was on the South Side, in an area beset with poverty and gang violence. In other words, it wasn’t exactly safe to walk around in at three o’clock in the morning. Nevertheless, at that late hour, Glenn decided it was a good idea to take his chances on street blocks known for shootouts and drive-bys in order to have a wine-addled stroll to the local park. He did this while actually carrying a glass full of wine, which he was eagerly sipping from as he strode down the dimly-lit sidewalk, his other hand casually placed in the pocket of his jeans.

      I know the details of this because a mutual friend of Glenn’s and my future roommate’s – we’ll call him Stewart – happened to be driving home when he spotted this odd event. Though Stewart offered to drive Glenn back home, Glenn adamantly refused, and seemingly blind to the other man’s disbelief, proceeded to approach two vehicles in which several gang members were making some sort of drug exchange. Ignoring Stewart’s hastening calls for him to get in the car, Glenn began to lecture these young gentlemen on their lifestyle choices, pointing his finger and nonchalantly chastising them in between swigs of wine. I was told the gangsters were so shocked by the calmness and audacity of this random, skinny older white man that their mouths hung open for a few moments, at a loss for words. Before long, however, they proceeded to curse at him and make threats on his life. Suddenly, as if sense had finally come to him, he took a look around, assessed the situation, and meekly shuffled off to continue his walk. To me, this story is so unheard of and funny that it seems like a scene that fell out of some offbeat comedy movie, but in reality, Glenn was very fortunate to have walked away from this situation with his life – and physical wellbeing – intact.

      The next incident fits firmly in the ‘saddening’ category, and happened during a visit to my future roommate’s mother’s apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Let’s call that future roommate Jeff for the sake of brevity. Jeff’s mother had a couple of guests over – old friends of the family. I don’t know why Glenn had accompanied Jeff to the city that day, but I do know that Glenn was in a very, very bad place in his life. An older woman who he had considered to be like a mother to him had recently died, and he was carrying her ashes around in an urn (more on this later). Aside from said urn, in his other hand was a recently purchased bottle of wine – yes, still of the cheapo variety. I don’t know what was going through Jeff’s head at the time, but he ought to have sized up both of these items, as well as Glenn’s agitated and melancholy demeanor, and realized this was a recipe for disaster.

      A couple of hours into this visit, Glenn had likely polished off close to half the bottle, and was becoming increasingly loud, rude, and testy as Jeff struggled to maintain a conversation with his family friends. I’m sure the situation was awkward by that point, but it became downright unpleasant as Glenn continued to raise his voice to the point where it was an uphill battle to even get a word in edgewise.

      What happened next was as random as it was – surely – embarrassing, and Jeff never explained what triggered it, but it was certain to make Glenn an unforgettable figure, forever affixed to the memories of these people, like a wad of gum nestled deep down to the roots of your hair. Perhaps it was the urn and the ashes therein of this beloved older woman that had prompted it, or maybe the alcohol had triggered a flood of emotion in him that he could no longer hold back. Whatever the cause had been, he suddenly picked up his phone and decided to call his mother, a woman who had psychologically abused him and thereafter disowned him, and whom he hadn’t spoken to in years. For some reason, something in his intoxicated mind told him it would be socially appropriate to place this call while he was a guest in the home of his friend’s mother, in front of company he had just made the acquaintance of.

      What transpired next was nothing short of making a scene in every sense of the word. Glenn had scarcely begun the drunken conversation before he had devolved into a sobbing mess, screaming and cursing and berating her for never having loved him, for never being there. Everyone else present must have been as silent as a tomb, their plans of coffee and mild conversation unceremoniously thrown out the window into a dumpster, which was then set on fire.

      As Glenn was now engaging in histrionics to the level that he was physically pounding his chest with his hand and likely treating even the neighbors to his own personal Jerry Springer experience, Jeff must have finally had the presence of mind to try and handle the situation. His thoughts must have been something akin to “oh fuck, this is actually happening in real life right now,” though I was told his words were kinder and more sympathetic. And I support that sort of response. The situation might be objectively humorous in retrospect, but the truth is that this man’s emotional pain and mental health issues were something to be looked at through a lense of compassion and understanding. As such, Jeff convinced Glenn to get out and get some air, and afterward he was able to sober up and, I’m assuming, find some way to apologize for his behavior.

      The final wine story, and one of the last I heard about Glenn before we fell out of contact, was the most distressing to me, because it highlighted his addiction issues in a profound and entirely unfunny manner. After having had a bit too much merlot, Glenn stumbled back into his rental car and proceeded to turn onto New Jersey’s highly busy, highly chaotic Route 23. In the wrong lane. I fortunately was not present when this occurred, and I don’t know what must have gone through his mind as he realized he was driving headlong into oncoming traffic, but I know it’s an absolute wonder he wasn’t killed. I don’t believe in angels – guardian or otherwise – but it really does beg the question of whether he had some protective spirit in his presence that night. From what I remember being told, the car slammed into the divider and was obviously totalled, and Glenn sustained serious back injuries, but he was alive. He ended up having to have a rod inserted into his back and will have lifelong chronic pain because of his choice to drink and drive, something for which there is no excuse, and for which he should thank the universe or whatever deity he holds dear that he didn’t harm or kill anyone else.

      But I mentioned two addictions, right? Well, it just so happens that hours before that crash, he had been just one state over in his usual place of choice for getting inebriated: a casino. There was one in particular he would frequent in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, falling hook, line, and sinker for its membership scam designed to separate him from his money. I accompanied him a couple of times to this place – after all, I had just turned 21 and it was my first time actually being able to go to a casino and gamble. Now, I’ve never really been interested much in it, but I thought I’d like to try my hand at it and see if I win anything (for the record, I won about $80 at the slot machines on one occasion, and came out even on the other – but of course, I very easily had the power to take my modest win and get up and walk away).

      So during each of these visits, it was just the two of us – well, three if you count the old woman’s ashes in the urn, because of course he had to bring it with him. I had known the woman back when she was still alive, and here I’ll call her Zel, because she looked like the spitting image of Zelda Rubinstein. If you’re not familiar with the actress, she played the eccentric medium in Poltergeist who helped the family get in touch with their daughter on the ‘other side.’ He liked to think of Zel’s remains as his “good luck charm.” I’ll never forget how embarrassed I was as he sat at the slot machine next to mine, swaying from intoxication and rubbing the urn, saying, “Come on Zel, help me win big!” Of course, at a machine across from ours was a gentleman who was possibly even more drunk, who was trying to convince a very harrassed looking old Asian woman that if you simply rub the slot machine the right way, you’re more likely to win. So, you know, the bar – no pun intended – was pretty low to begin with.

      Anyway, I quickly assessed that his penchant for gambling was a real issue; a full-fledged addiction that might have been even stronger than his constant need for booze. I couldn’t understand why he was working so hard for his money as a budding real estate agent back in Jersey, only to piss it all away at casinos in PA – to say nothing of the sheer amount of gas he used up in any given week during that interstate travel. But at that point I simply didn’t understand addiction, and there are still components of it to this day that I’m trying to comprehend. I’m big on empathy, so it’s a goal of mine to form a better picture of how it works, and perhaps by the time I’ve finished this chapter I’ll have that deeper understanding by doing what I think I do best: processing my thoughts, emotions, and memories through the power of the written word.

      Glenn’s abysmally poor decision-making that day, which led to his near-death experience, was the coalescence of two vices that had long since taken root in his life, and which now ruled his mind and body, so that his every waking thought was filtered through the rippled, distorted myopia of drinking and gambling, like looking through the bottom of a glass containing the last dregs of whiskey.

      If I hadn’t understood the danger of overindulgence up to that point, seeing or hearing about these incidents, whether firsthand or second, certainly unfurled a length of bright yellow caution tape in my mind’s eye. I came to understand that moderation can sometimes be the letdown that takes the wind out of your sails, and excess can be the spark that lights your fire and makes your weekend legendary. But unchecked and reckless excess, with neither rational thinking nor consequence assessment involved, is something I stand firmly against. It can ravage mental and physical health and destroy lives, and I’m not just talking about drinking – whatever vice you prefer, even if it’s gambling or sex – if no restraint is ever exercised, no personal accountability ever taken, your hands don’t belong at the proverbial steering wheel, because clearly, you don’t know how to handle it.

      So when I talk about exercising your demons, what in the hell am I really saying? So, there’s a very well known story arc from the late 70s in Marvel Comics’ Iron Man called “Demon in a Bottle.” That’s partly how I came up with the mantra. In it, Tony Stark is guilt-ridden after his armor malfunctions and kills a foreign ambassador. He begins drinking. And drinking. And drinking. The story deals with his subsequent alcohol addiction, which was something profoundly different for comics to tackle in that time period, and for which critics deemed the arc “the quintessential Iron Man story.” Bob Layton, who co-wrote the saga, remarked that it was decided alcohol would be the bad guy. “Instead of Doctor Doom or somebody like that,” he said, “it was the bottle. That was our villain of the month."

      Here's the thing about demons: they can be compellingly attractive for their darkness, yet utterly dangerous if approached without boundaries. What do we do when we exercise? We seek to reap benefits and rewards, primarily the betterment of the body, but also psychological satisfaction. I’ve always firmly believed that it’s just as important for the mind and the spirit to occasionally indulge in things a bit to the extreme, yet never to the extent that you’re no longer in control. Sometimes the massive dopamine hits you get from a strong drink, or great sex, or that extra snack, is worth the hangover, or the post-coital tiredness, or the calorie gain you’ll have to deal with afterward. Yet diving headlong and blindly into these things with neither boundaries nor personal responsibility is a nightmare waiting to happen. As such, a clear difference must be delineated between the two.

      I believe it was summed up best by Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan and author of The Satanic Bible. In it, he established the mantra of “indulgence, not compulsion.” He wrote the following on the subject: “People often mistake compulsion for indulgence, but there is a world of difference between the two. A compulsion is never created by indulging, but by not being able to indulge. By making something taboo, it only serves to intensify the desire. Everyone likes to do the things they have been told not to. ‘Forbidden fruits are the sweetest.’

      “Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary defines indulgence thusly: ‘To give oneself up to; not to restrain or oppose; to give free course to; to gratify by compliance; to yield to.’ The dictionary definition of compulsion is: ‘The act of compelling or driving by force, physical or moral; constraint of the will; (compulsory, obligatory).’ In other words, indulgence implies choice, whereas compulsion indicates the lack of choice.”

      I’d say that it’s strongly implicit in matters of addiction that lack of choice is often a core component, wouldn’t you?

      I will always support the exercising of demons, as by contrast, whenever society has attempted to exorcise demons, whether we’re talking about Prohibition or handing out prison sentences for youth who had an ounce of marijuana in their pocket, the end result is that people are generally left the worse for wear because of it. We choose our demons, certainly, but that freedom of choice is a small but key part in the underpinnings of democracy, and when we attempt to brandish the crucifix of law, legislating our morality so we can feel better and delude ourselves into thinking we’re pristine and perfect, those demons don’t go away. They simply flee to the cracks and crevices and backalleys of society, where they manifest in black markets, gangs, and vehicles destroyed and a life almost obliterated, because one man overcompensated when he picked up the wine bottle, and afterward made a terrible mistake.

      Life is not a single path made to be quickly marched through with destination always in mind, but rather, a labyrinth made for wandering and detour, so that one might indulge in its pleasures and be spiritually and psychologically – if sometimes not always physically – the better for it. Sometimes consorting with demons is the best way to bask in that moment of paradise. As Epicurus so famously put it, “Stranger, here you do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.”

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