Strange paths of devotion
Not linear, gentle or consistently successful
Hello. This post is about Death & Birds.
When I was fourteen years old, I sat in a friends bedroom while she used a razor to neatly push together lines of cocaine on a glass-topped table. “Just try it, you’ll love it”. My friend was twenty-four, and in many ways she was my first real friend. She was the first person I felt relaxed around, the first person I felt knew and understood me. And she wasn’t wrong, about the cocaine.
Shortly after, I excitedly took the good news that cocaine was not, after all, deadly or addictive (and that it was, in fact, *amazing*) to some of my same-aged school friends. They were, rightly, horrified—but when, years later, they all came to the idea of their own accord, I welcomed them with open arms and chewing gum.
When I was 15, my then twenty-five year old friend introduced me to Ecstasy. She had, as she so often did, flirted my way into a London nightclub and, horror of horrors, our supply of coke had run dry. This was the year 2000, and there had been many a story in the news of a young life cut short after trying ecstasy just once, so I was hesitant—but, “Just try it, you’ll love it”, was apparently all the persuasion I needed. And, as usual, she was was right.
Half an hour later I was frustratedly telling her that I didn’t feel anything when, no sooner than the complaint had left my lips, Madonna’s millennium hit song ‘Music’ announced itself—“Hey Mister DJ, put a record on I wanna dance with my baby”. Then I felt something. A rush of adoration for the song (which I had heard before but never heard before), alongside a rush of profound love for my friend, for every single person in that club, and for the prophetic words that the Queen of Pop spake; “and when the music starts, I never wanna stop—it’s gonna drive me crazy”.
It wasn’t the music that drove me crazy, of course, it was years of unexamined trauma and a drug dependancy, but that took me a while to figure out. My sincere love of these drugs (alongside the Xanax and Valium that we’d take to ‘level out’) saw me decide to devote myself to them, taking months at a time out of school. Then, when school finally ended I was able to go full-time. Some unspeakable things, that I will not sully your day with, happened during those years.
When I was 19, I wanted to be thinner than I already was. In a moment of brilliance I realised that I never had an appetite when I’d taken ecstasy; and thus, The Ecstasy Diet™ was born. I took somewhere between 1/2 (weekdays) to six tabs of E, every day, for weeks—and, it worked! I achieved and then surpassed my goal weight. The downside was that a couple of months into the diet I lay in bed at night and heard a loud crash downstairs. I went down expecting to see that a painting had fallen off a wall, but there was nothing. So, back to bed, but the same thing happened; an almighty crash from the room below, and when I went to inspect: nothing. The third time the crashing sound sounded, I realised that it was coming from inside my own head. Panicking, I took a bunch of Xanax—because you can’t be insane if you’re unconscious.
The following day I woke up and everything was wrong. I knew I was in my bedroom, but I didn’t recognise it. It was like in a dream, when you’re in ‘your’ house but you know it isn’t actually your house. I looked outside and was convinced that there were large trees where there had been none before. Venturing downstairs I didn’t recognise the living room at all, so pulled the door shut. I knew the kitchen was the kitchen but there were all sorts of things in there that I’d never seen before. And if this wasn’t nightmarish enough, both my eyes were involuntarily twitching sharply to the left every 3-4 seconds. I called a friend who lived nearby, and then, because it was one of the few things I recognised, climbed on top of the kitchen table and curled up in a ball.
I went to see my GP, who helpfully told me that I probably had a cold. In all fairness, I hadn’t told him about The Ecstasy Diet.
The torturous eye-twitching and severance from the familiar continued. On day three I decided that if it hadn’t stopped after a week I would kill myself. It stopped on day six.
By 21 I was in rehab, and am most grateful for it, not least because I met my best friend there. That time marked the beginning of a long journey, which continues to this day, of therapy and recovery, of sorts. It has not been linear, gentle or consistently successful, but it beats the decade prior by a country mile.
Great! But what does that have to do with Death & Birds? Well, my coming into relationship with Death provided the kind of deep appreciation for everyone and everything that ecstasy had initially given me (and, bonus, wasn’t accompanied by a comedown so brutal you’d give a limb to make it stop).
I once stood on a platform at Kings Cross station, tears streaming quietly down my face as I allowed myself to feel the truth of the fact that we, everyone on the platform, everyone in the station, were all going to die. They were tears of appreciation for how extraordinary each and every life is, and for just how precious this utterly ordinary moment in time was.
Interacting with Birds, specifically baby Birds at the rescue centre1, marked one of the first times that I experienced the kind of unadulterated joy and relief that only class A substances had offered prior. Attending to little beings, with whom you will never share a language outside of devotion, is a drug in and of itself.
Which brings me to the point of this post. This week has been tough. On Monday, my back gave out and I feel as though I have hot knives lodged in my shoulder sockets. On Tuesday, Simon the Sparrow died. I had planned to release him & Norman on Wednesday, so was devastated2. I spent the next 48 hours tending relentlessly to Norman. I hardly left his side. He slept indoors with us, and we listened to ‘Bird Sounds Spectacular: 8 HOURS of Beautiful British Birds’ on YouTube.
I took him into the rescue centre on Thursday to be checked over as I was worried he was losing weight, even though he was still eating, and it turned out he had a chest infection, so he stayed overnight. On Friday, the Wildlife manager, who is a literal angel, called me to say that Norman had died.
I had noticed, during those 48 hours with Norman, some unhealthy thoughts creeping in. It was well into Wednesday afternoon when, standing up from laying down next to Norman’s indoor home and nearly passing out, I realised I hadn't eaten all day—and then immediately had the thought that I didn't deserve to eat, because I had failed both Simon & Norman.
I am trying to deal with these thoughts by acknowledging them, being open about them, respecting them while not acting on them, and by orientating towards the things which nourish me in times of heartache: rest, ritual, reverence and retreat.
All that to say, posts may be a little sporadic over the coming weeks—please bear with me. I love this forum, I love the communities within communities which exist on here, and I cherish dearly the connections I’ve made. I also cherish my hard fought sanity, and my broken heart.
If prayers are your thing, please send one up for Simon & Norman. And, if not, perhaps take a moment to cherish your all-too-brief existence on their behalves.
Thank you, friends.