Mikayla McVey

Why We Stay in the Building


ISSUE 23 | INTOXICANTS | DEC 2012

I myself have seen my wilder days, and I have seen my name at the top of the page, but I gotta find me a friend just to run around…nobody wants to get high on the town… all my rowdy friends have settled down.
          —Hank Williams, Jr.
Man is nothing else, but that which he makes himself.
          —Jean-Paul Sartre

1. 12 Questions to Determine Whether Marijuana is a Problem in Your Life

A few months ago I saw a poster in San Francisco that said “12 QUESTIONS TO DETERMINE WHETHER MARIJUANA IS A PROBLEM IN YOUR LIFE.” C— and I were standing smashed together, lurching away from the Civic Center on McAllister, and the poster was just above our heads on the bus. We lit an imaginary joint and began passing it to each other with our eyes crossed. The first question on the poster asks if smoking pot has stopped being fun. I’m in the middle of taking a face-melting hit from our (recently transformed) imaginary bong when C— solemnly raises her hand. “Stop,” she says. “This…has…stopped. Being. Fun.”

C— has taught me that there is an anonymous group for everyone in the world–food addicts, sex addicts, gambling addicts, drug addicts, general addicts, families of addicts. “An addict is an addict,” she says. “It’s sort of irrelevant what the substance is, or isn’t.” C—’s mother and sister are both recovering bulimics. I guess I assumed that there was a Marijuana Anonymous but it still took me by surprise there on the bus. University of San Francisco has an ad campaign up this fall that includes a billboard with text that boasts of “academic standards higher than Haight Ashbury in the 60s.” Oh, San Francisco. Do you have a problem with pot? Are people not taking it seriously enough?

Question number seven (after “Do you ever get high alone?” and “Do you smoke pot to cope with your feelings?”) asks, “Does your marijuana use allow you to live in a privately defined world?”

Recently, I’ve been asking my friends if they know of anyone who lives in a world that is not privately defined. Who are they, whose definition of the world are they using, where do they live, and can I get in touch with them because I’ve been over here living my whole life using my definition and now I am worried. Does my marijuana use allow me to live in a privately defined world? THE ONLY WORLD I’VE EVER KNOWN?

2. All My Rowdy Friends are Overprescribed

It’s the Saturday after Thanksgiving and I’m having breakfast with A—. She lives in New York now, so it seems particularly great that the sun is beating down on us in November in San Francisco.

“I kept fainting,” she says. “You can’t go around fainting anywhere safely really, but particularly not in New York City, you know? It was like, okay: here you are on the subway—DOWN. Here you are downtown—DOWN, here you are falling into complete strangers. And I’m lucky, in one way, because I’m close to the ground. You know?”

A— is 5’2” to my 5’6” and has always acted like I am some sort of amazon.

“But on the other hand, a big tree falls hard—you know?”

This time I laugh because A— is not big. But she’s self-effacing, and charming, and everyone can agree on that. I let her go on with her New York story about being a New Yorker who is fainting into other New Yorkers who are freaked out but also help her anyway because it’s New York. Life goes on.

“It was a side effect. Did I tell you I went on a low dose of SSRIs?”

“Oh, no,” I say. “Or, I don’t know. Not—because I’m not listening. It’s just…everyone is on or off or—”

She waves her hand through the air in front of her face like she’s batting away flies, fanning herself.

“Don’t worry about it,” she sighs. “Everyone’s on something.”

A table has opened up outside and we take our seats.

“Unless you’re fainting. On the motherfucking L train. Then it’s time for you to think about meditation. Time to put the script in your top drawer and start getting yourself to some kind of yoga class or something.”

All my rowdy friends are overprescribed. Really, all my rowdy friends have been offered help. And they are smart and caring and critical enough to constantly question the hand that feeds them. None immediately agreed to go on SSRIs and that is perhaps a tribute to the relative ease of their mental health. None of them were talked down from a ledge with Xanax. But still. W— is like his mother. He has her eyes and her mouth and her anxiety. He has a vivid memory of his mom talking him through what it would mean to go on medication (a combination of focus meds like Adderall and anti-anxiety pills like Klonopin) in grade school. Some people need eyeglasses to read, she said. Some people need medicine to focus.

My rowdy friends do not believe in God. They reject the notion that we all have one true nature that was designed by someone with answers. Generally, they do not believe there is someone with a plan. They believe we are mostly making it up as we go along. And yet, all my rowdy friends worry about losing themselves. We drink, we smoke weed, we trip acid. We willingly alter ourselves for hours at a time. But when confronted with the possibility of risking our precious, precarious, selves—beyond recreation—we falter. We’d rather have the Adderall maybe. Or the whiskey. We want to choose it.

The hangovers hurt more than they used to, but none of my rowdy friends have let cornbread and iced tea take the place of pills and 90 proof. The first time I heard that song, originally by Hank Williams, Jr., it was a cover by Elliott Smith. In the recording, Smith is playing live somewhere. His rowdy friends laugh at all the right parts. He laughs too. Obviously he’s in on the irony, but I wonder if he realized how privately defined his world would become, or that he would never live to see all those laughing people settled down. Some people need medicine to focus. Some people need medicine to get up in the morning.

So all my rowdy friends are going on SSRIs. Or they are coming off SSRIs. They are fainting on the subway in New York City, although that is very rare and no one is quite sure what was going on with that. We want to relate to one another. We get drunk and we sing Hank Williams, Jr. songs about getting too old for this shit. We worry about being different. We worry about losing ourselves.

3. Tennessee Williams

I recently watched a television interview with Tennessee Williams and David Frost from the ‘70s. It’s an interview about Williams’ newfound sobriety after three months in rehab for alcoholism. It is generally accepted that Williams is hammered during the interview. He is leaning into all of his jokes. His tongue is heavy. At least once a year in acting school, you end up talking about Tennessee Williams—specifically, the drinking.

“Why are you all drinking?” our professor would ask us, when someone was putting up a scene from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or Summer and Smoke.

“To deaden pain,” young actors suggest. Young, hungover actors say, “Brick is waiting for the ‘click’ that will make him feel peaceful. When he drinks enough, he feels a click, he doesn’t have to confront the world.”

“But why does the character get drunk?” The professor appeals to us. “Why would a playwright write a drunk character? Playwrights write drunk characters to increase the connection, to increase the investment, to get people saying shit.”

The young, hungover actors are quiet. It’s a 9am studio. They need coffee.

“You all are playing drunk in a way that’s taking you out of the scene, rather than diving you further in. These characters are drunk so they can speak freely! So they can loosen up. Make it count while you’re drinking in these scenes! Let it out.”

4. The Abyss

It’s a grey morning and we’re sitting in the kitchen with chicory coffee. K— is leaning back, shaking her head.

“Don’t give me that shit about ‘the real me.’ That is not the real me. That is me with no sense of discretion.”

K— recently broke up with M—. M— generally believes that drugs like MDMA and alcohol will inhibit your inhibitions. K— feels manipulated by that assumption. She does not feel more honest. She just feels vulnerable, exposed, and unable to make decisions about how or what she is sharing with those around her. She is not a heroine in a Tennessee Williams play.

The sun comes out for a few minutes and K— makes more coffee. It occurs to me that perhaps K— believes that there is a version of her that is ‘real’ and that is why she’s so upset. M— might argue that K—’s real self is revealed to him on drugs. Or at least, that a more open, honest, version of K— is revealed on drugs. M— is in love. He wants to connect. K— is furious; her barriers are in place for reasons that are clear to her, sacred to her. I think of the moment at the beginning of The Savage Detectives when Bolaño’s young narrator says he “remembered the abyss that exists between the poet and the reader and… became very depressed.” I think of M— and K— standing on opposite sides of a great canyon. There is an abyss between how we see ourselves and how others see us. We are the poet, or the reader. And we are both. There is an abyss between how we see ourselves and how others see us. There is an abyss between who we believe ourselves to be and how we feel ourselves to be.

I disagree with M—, that the confessional, affectionate version of K— is the ‘real’ one. But I also disagree with K—. Or maybe I agree with both of them. I think that the Self is not something static. Or rather, you can always change it and therefore you can never really change it. You will always be you, but you can always be different. We have tendencies. Certainly. And we have predispositions. I am predisposed to high idealism, to only working hard at things I am exceptionally good at, to assuming the best about people. I am friendly. I can be proud. But I also ultimately have choices all the time. The Self, my self or K—’s self, is consistently not a singular thing, but an encounter between impulse and choice. It follows, then, that intoxicants aren’t the invasion of an obfuscating force into something that used to be coherent. Rather, they're just another series of choices confronting a slightly altered set of impulses.

“I needed that,” she says as she finishes her cup. “I’m going out for a walk.”

5. The Alarming Possibility of Being Able

Sometime during my acting education, I started thinking more about the Stanford prison experiment. It seemed to me that to be a great actor, you had to believe that you could be one of those prison guards. That is the teaching. Søren Kierkegaard terms the mounting fear man feels at the gravity of all of his choices “the alarming possibility of being able.” It is alarming to consider that you can do anything.

At 19, I got cast as a sadistic male-bodied military captain. To assume anything less than the possibility that I contained maleness, and cruelty, would be to play a caricature. I was urged by my director and my teachers to believe I contained all things. Later, I got cast as a Holocaust victim. How do I play that? I was desperate. I wrung my hands. How—without being ridiculous and phony and offensive? Who am I to play that? You have to believe you contain all things. The people who suffered through the Holocaust reacted to an extreme environment. Believe you have what it takes to be human. You have love, you have hate, you have a murderer and a rapist and Mother Teresa and Jesus Christ and Charles Manson and Martin Luther King. Believe you have what it takes to be human.

6. My Acting Training Presented Me with the Following Equation:

who you are =
how you are (habitually, reactively, genetically)
+ what you know (about yourself and others)
+ how you decide to be

Once you acknowledge that you contain it all, you have a certain choices to make. You must acknowledge that choice is the thing that makes you alive, that distinguishes you from an animal, or a light bulb. Your decisions about how to be, not your mutable and dynamic personality, are what distinguish you from your character. Your circumstances are different, maybe your predispositions are different. But even if all of that is the same, and you happened to be playing someone like you, in circumstances you are familiar with—even then, the thing that distinguishes you from your character is the choices you make. Your play, unlike that of your character, is as yet unwritten.

7. 60% Element, 40% Human

My freshman year of college I had an acting professor named Gulu Monteiro. Gulu is a big, Brazilian man with brown bare feet and an accent that sounds like everything he says is being squeezed out of a tube of toothpaste. His specialty and training is in mask work. His course teaches actors to approach a character through physicalization and sensation, rather than attempting to generate a ‘feeling’ from inside the actor’s own self. We spent ten weeks moving around a dance studio bringing elements and colors and animals “into” our bodies. “Now,” he would say as we lay on the floor imagining fire or ice or water in our feet, “bring the element UP into your knees, and your thighs, and your SEX… you are now 60% ELEMENT, 40% HUMAN. GO.”

When he was a young man, Gulu was determined to find and talk to psychotic individuals. Specifically, people who truly believed they were someone else. He told a story about gaining access to two mental patients at a hospital in Brazil; two men who thought they were Napoleon Bonaparte and Jesus Christ, respectively. They were, he said, the worst caricatures of those two men he had ever seen. They had bad accents. They were silly.

“They were crazy,” he said sadly. “They gave terrible performances. They are just crazy. Do you see what I mean? Belief is not the answer. You are not to really believe you are the character! You are still you! You are just wearing the mask.”

What I take from Gulu’s story is that you cannot lose yourself completely in a character, or you will be admitted to a mental hospital. The thing that keeps us living in the world and relating to other people (the thing that keeps us out of the mental hospital, on the stage), is our attachment to our own identities. These identities can be fluid, but we cannot lose them completely if we want to live among others in the world. A person cannot stay stuck in an acid trip and remain a functioning member of society. An actor cannot believe he really is Napoleon. When you become Napoleon in the play, you are still you. You are just being you with a different set of circumstances, and, presumably, different tendencies. Your performance is the conversation between your natural tendencies and the natural tendencies of your character. Your unique interpretation necessarily and critically informs the character. You cannot avoid yourself.

8. Why We Stay in the Building

It is hot and white and dry. I am hungover and sweaty when I walk up to the bar in our neighboring camp. I think it’s called the “Chevy Chaise Lounge.” The guy behind the bar is in his 50s maybe; he has short salt-and-pepper hair, four days of beard, and enormous eyebrows. He’s wearing a purple tutu.

“What would you like?” he asks me.

“I’ll take anything with ice,” I say.

“We’re waiting for Hurry to bring the ice, we ran out.”

“I guess beggars can’t be choosers.” At Burning Man, every bar serves free alcohol. At this point in the week the drinks get hotter and stronger because everyone is running out of mixers and getting lazy about the ice.

“While you wait, would you like to answer a question from my magic deck?” He has a gentle brogue. He’s Scottish maybe, or Irish.

“Yes,” I say.

He pulls out a deck of cards and asks me to choose one. I do, and he reads aloud, “If you could change genders, would you?”

“That’s a dumb question,” I say.

“I agree. Choose again.”

This time I choose a card that asks if I could be anyone else in the world, who would I be. I tell him I would be my friend C—, and I motion to her next door. She is dressed like a lizard and running around our camp offering people kisses and whippets.

“Why would you be your friend C—?”

I tell him I think she is the happiest person I know.

“Happier than you?” Hurry is back with the ice now and the man behind the bar starts to fill my camping cup.

“I’m happy too,” I say. “I just think she worries less than me.”

“How old are you?”

“23.” I expect the tutu guy to tell me I have nothing to be worried about. I expect him to tell me I am so young, I should relax, enjoy my cocktail. Instead, he tells me about when he was 23. He tells me he was young, and worried, and “fucking up all over the place.” He tells me he was high all the time. He tells me he had left the building.

“We’ve all left the building, baby!” Someone shouts as they cruise by on a neon bike.

Someone in the Chevy Chaise Lounge shrieks, “Evacuate the building!”

“You know what saved me?” he asks.

“What?”

“I found my people. I found myself. I had been looking and looking and worrying and worrying. And I was getting really fucked up, you know? I was really out to lunch. But I realized I wanted to know the people around me. I couldn’t sail so far away from them, you know?”

I know what Marijuana Anonymous means when they ask if my marijuana use allows me to live in a privately defined world. They mean, “Does your marijuana use allow you to justify living in a world in which you can relate to no one?” Generally, we want to feel connected to other people. So we try to agree on a definition of the world, or at least parts of it. We try to narrow the chasm that exists between us and other people.

I’m not sure what we give up when we decide to “intoxicate” ourselves, either with prescribed brain-altering chemicals, or not-prescribed brain-altering chemicals. Can you ever be anyone but yourself? If we are always and forever doomed or privileged to be ourselves, no matter what we do, then we are just making choices… aren’t we? We decide to put ourselves together, take our medication, and make it work, because we want to live in the world with other people. We come back into the building. The abyss is terrifying. We don’t want to feel marooned on one side of a vast canyon. Or we feel we have no choice, and we get out. We drink to alteration, we sail too far away from the shore, we stab ourselves in the heart. We stick our heads in the oven.

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