Our Greatest Fear: To Walk the Earth Unknown, Unseen, Unremembered
By RJ Ellory
I remember the names with greater clarity than the faces. Brian. Jeff. Sibbo. Ross. Chris. Others, too. So many others.
I remember laughing with them, drinking with them. I remember instances of great friendship and camaraderie.
I remember concerts and parties and festivals. I remember hitchhiking and sleeping on the beach, of late nights and later mornings, of one day blurring into the next with no apparent seam in between.
I remember believing that these were the most important and significant friends a human being could ever have, and that we would all be friends forever.
And now they are dead. All of them. And the few that somehow survived are like the walking dead. They are aged beyond their years, unrecognisable in some instances, and so twisted and bitter with resentment and hostility that they would cross the road, walk the other way, pretend they did not see me to avoid that confrontation.
But I have no wish to challenge or question who they are or what they are doing. All I feel is a sense of empathy and sadness that they didn’t escape.
I was fortunate. I see that with greater certainty now than I have ever done.
I took a road. It seemed like the right road. ’The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,’ William Blake wrote, and I could not have wished for a more perfect justification for the lifestyle I had chosen to lead.
Hash. Grass. Speed. Coke. Acid. Downers. Uppers. Magic mushrooms. Amyl Nitrate. And there was smack too, and I remember my brother saying that he did it once and it was so damned good that he never dared do it again.
Alcohol too. Drinking Carlsberg Special Brew which tasted so bad we called it ’electric soup’, and Thunderbird and cheap tequila. One time four of us put twelve tabs of acid in a bottle of Scotch and drank the lot. We went to see REM play their first ever UK gig in a nightclub in Birmingham. Walking along the canal towpaths afterwards, incoherent and unsteady, completely out of control, it’s a wonder that one of us didn’t fall in and drown.
Another time we hired a van and drove to Manchester to see The Gun Club at the Hacienda. They were the most important band ever. We were drunk and crazy with excitement, so far beyond the limit that we shouldn’t have been allowed to walk there, let alone drive. But drive we did, eight or ten of us, and somehow we not only made it there, but we made it back as well. We saw Jeffrey Lee Pierce sing his heart out and it was incredible.
Jeffrey Lee Pierce is now dead as well. Died of alcohol poisoning in a hospital in Utah. Thirty-seven years old.
When I was eighteen I had a band. The drummer was asthmatic. He smoked weed in our house and he collapsed and died in the front hall. There was nothing anyone could do. He was twenty-seven years old. I went to his funeral. His mother found me. She looked at me unflinchingly and said, ’My son is dead because of you.’
And so it goes on. A litany of lost souls, lost friends, forgotten faces and names. More than anything, a list of lives that ended abruptly, horribly, and the burden of responsibility that you carry because you knew that you knew better.
I sometimes wonder how I managed to escape. It’s like the gambler on a winning streak. He knows the winning streak will go on forever. He keeps playing and winning and playing and winning. And then he loses. And he loses again. Now he knows he’s on a losing streak, but a losing streak can’t go on forever, right? So he keeps on playing and losing and playing and losing. How much do you have to lose before you understand that it’s possible to lose everything?
’Luck is nothing more than believing you’re lucky.’
I wound up in jail. Not for long, but any time in jail is long enough to know it’s not the place you want to be. And I know I should have died, too. I didn’t, of course. I don’t believe in destiny, save that we have the power to change it. I don’t believe in luck either. Like Tennessee Williams said, ’Luck is nothing more than believing you’re lucky.’ Wolves don’t kill unlucky sheep, right?
Whether we all start out with the same hand of cards, I don’t know. I just know that at some point I realized that if I didn’t start playing a different game then there would be no game left to play.
I believed that life was all about fury and intensity, about how fine and high the tightrope was, how living dangerously was really the only way to live, even if it meant living the shortest life possible.
And then I stopped taking drugs. Perhaps it was jail, perhaps it was someone else overdosing. I don’t remember the specific catalyst. I just knew I had to stop taking drugs. I got clean and free and left that insanity behind me, and now—looking back—I see that everything I was doing was nothing more than some desperate need to find sensation or release or something that made sense beyond the banality and conformity of all else that seemed to be on offer.
I wanted to live—to really live—but what I was doing was not living.
It was dying in slow-motion.
I wanted to live—to really live—but what I was doing was not living. It was dying in slow-motion. I took steps to get myself straight. I got help, and it was good help. I found out who I was and why I was here. Not only did I discover a reason for living, I discovered a reason to go on living, and I know that everything that I have accomplished to date—and everything I have yet to accomplish—would not have been possible had I stayed the person I was.
Drugs—truly—are a means of dying in slow-motion. Drugs are blindness and unawareness and a make-believe escape from something that people don’t even understand. Drugs are a means of closing your eyes to reality and convincing yourself that this is somehow the best way to survive.
It is anything but survival, and I should know. I only have to think of the friends I no longer have, the lives that were never lived, the children that never existed, the dreams never realized. I only have to think of a heartbroken mother telling me that I killed her son.
I did not. I know that. He killed himself, perhaps unknowingly, but he killed himself all the same.
Now it all seems a million years behind me, but I never forget its importance. That’s why I am writing this. That’s why it’s vital to say what needs to be said here, and to get it heard.
That’s why I unreservedly support the Narconon programme.
I am alive because I had the will and the necessary help to give up drugs and all that they entailed. Had I not done that my life would have ended more than thirty years ago. I would not have a wife or a family. I would have written no books, recorded no music. I would not have toured or travelled or experienced the wealth of wonders that this life has given me.
I would have been little more than a statistic—briefly remembered, and of no significance at all.
Perhaps that is our greatest fear: To walk the earth unknown, unseen, unremembered.
Perhaps our greatest joy is to be found in the life that we invest in others.
That is something which will always be out of reach once your life is consumed by drugs.