Our Descents into Hell

During my active alcoholic/addiction days, I vividly remember believing that if I descended into the booze enough, I would somehow come out car-wash clean. My repressions would be lifted. I could be my real self. I wouldn’t have to hide. I would be diamond-cut perfect. And, of course, I would have a winning style and personality.

What is it about this “descent” thing? Dante certainly believed it. Buddha had to go through his moments with his demons. Christ had his Gethsemane and his desert temptations. And soldiers have their foxholes.

No pain, no gain, as the saying goes.

Okay. Okay. I get it. It’s the old rites of passage thing, the “refiner’s fire,” that the emotional descent gives us to wipe the slate clean of all our earthly distractions. And the test, the old test to see if we have what it takes to survive the old test. Not a multiple-choice-fill-in-the-blanks-true-false test. But a real test—can I now pay my bills; can I finally have a truce with my significant other; can I pass the bar exam; can I go to the doctor’s to check out my symptoms; can I finally come clean to my boss about how much money I stole from the till.

We are, indeed, a complicated lot.

And how many religions are based on the more metaphysical and epic descent archetype? (Thought I’d slip that in—I’m back in mythology 101. Sorry, guys).

After all, Christ, according to the Christian story, “descended” to earth in a reincarnated form. His “mission-impossible” task: to “save” the world, as the story goes. You be the judge as to what he saved us from—from sin, from vanity, from ego, from evil? Or maybe from the fatalism of never being given the opportunity to reform ourselves. The possibility of moral transformation has always been a core principle of Christianity.

Many sky-gods seemed to have enjoyed the descent into the earthly masses. Zeus certainly came down frolicking in a number of Halloween-like impersonations, even a swan (but you don’t want to go there). And Krishna, one of Vishnu’s avatars, became the whimsical playboy-in-purple. Krishna was the naughty little boy who still makes many a Brahman blush—the old white elephant in the living room, if you know what I mean (And I don’t mean Ganesh).

In a momentary defense of Krishna and even Zeus, their human qualities seem to have freed them from the temples of high seriousness that continue to plague all the orthodox after-lifers. Krishna loved to flirt, to gently seduce, to play. And Zeus, rapist that he was and could be, released himself from the shackles of the old sky-god, walk-on-water ideal. I might add, by the way, that, not unlike Zeus, on a bad day, you wouldn’t want to mess with Old Testament God either.

And let’s not forget the famous “harrowing of Hell” myth in which Christ was to have descended into Hell to free the “just” (which, by the way, was supposed to have included Adam and Eve, Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, and Methuselah). Christ’s “harrowing” was an intense rescuing process from the land of Sheol, a place, according to the Old Testament, where both the just and unjust went to after death.

We must also assume that the harrowing was not a Sunday ride in the country. Sheol was supposed to be dungeon-like dark, a place I imagine where the stoic, the weary and the hopeless resided. And I can only surmise that everybody there was queuing up for the next boat out of there.

Regardless of whether or not we accept any of these “descent” stories as literally true, there is a kind of universal message for all of humanity in these stories: something in us has to die, to be given up, to be surrendered, even to be sacrificed on the altar of irrelevancy before we can be rejuvenated into a new day, to be metamorphosed.

As the saying goes, the sun has to set first before it can rise.

In the world of addiction, our descents into our own hells we call “bottoming out.” We go so far “down” into our sex frenzies, our eating binges, our alcoholic black outs, that we have reached what we thought was a bottomless pit of more descents—jails, institutions, or death.

For some of us, the descent is just not about backsliding, of dropping off the wagon. It can be a pursuit of complete self-dissolution, an eery, gothic desire to be annihilated into total oblivion, a faux nirvana, an artificial, chemically induced moksha.

But the relief never comes.

And then one day, for some of us, we realize that the darkness can’t get any darker. The pain of isolation is too unbearable. The ache of being outside the loop of our real selves, too insufferable. Our emotional numbness too disconnected from others.

We call a local alcohol/addiction rehab; we phone a friend; we go to our first recovery-group meeting; we call a clergyman.

Whatever we do, we take the first action. And our lives start to ascend, slowly, sometimes painfully. But, if we persevere, if we continue on the road to recovery by hanging out with people in recovery, going to outpatient counseling, reading about recovery, practicing whatever principles that will reconnect us back to ourselves and others, we will eventually arrive at some level of what I call “chronic happiness.”

And that will be our ascent journey.



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