The Dark Forest
After an eventful trip to the Far East following finishing University, I came back to London. My state of mind wasn’t very good towards the end of my six months away from the UK. However pretty much immediately on my return and my head and mood was much better. I tried to look for work but the employment situation at that time was very dire. Even worse than when had I left the UK for Hong Kong. So I drifted into a routine of living off state welfare payments. Out of poverty and a lack of options I found myself living in the cheaper and less glamorous areas of London. I always seemed to find myself living with drop-outs, prostitutes, petty criminals, and those generally on the margins of society.
It was the Spring of 1992 when I returned to London. Initially I lived in Peckham, South East London for a short while and really disliked it. The area was run down and all around I thought I could sense an unhappy agressive vibe. I remember on the day I moved out of Peckham I saw a telephone box cordoned off with police tape and beside it was a quite large pool of congealed blood. The whole area depressed me, so I moved to Turnpike Lane in North London. I found this particular area slightly more agreeable.
Here I lived in rented accommodation in a house that was shared with what most people would call undesirables. People who had fallen in life. The bloke who lived in the room next door was a professional burglar but I didn’t have anything worth stealing so I didn’t have too many complications with my neighbour. I learned that my neighbour and his gang had burgled the house next door. I would often see him walking down the street, say hello and notice him carrying some piece of electrical equipment in a sports bag and always a different item each time. I didn’t ask any questions, it wasn’t unnecessary. Also just about everybody else in the house was also involved in some sort of petty crime.
My days were spent studying and thinking mainly. I was very focused on learning about the brain and trying to work out how it worked. For pleasure I would play my guitar. My life was stable for a bit, I had quite a productive Summer in that house. My life hadn’t turned out as a I had planned at this point but I still felt a part of mainstream society. My life hadn’t really deviated too far from the norm.
However, that would soon change. The house was raided by the police in the Autumn. This was because a few days prior to the raid, the police had spotted a large cannabis plant growing in the garden. This was when they came looking for the bail jumping brother of my burglar neighbour. Everybody in the house was taken to Tottenham police station. It was a new experience for me to see the inside of a police van. I remember being questioned and telling the police woman who interviewed me, that I thought that a cannabis plant i.e. grass, was like ‘grass’ as in an unmowed lawn. Both police officers in the interview room found that quite amusing. I was 21, had lived quite a sheltered existence and was probably somewhat naive.
I was given a lift back to the house by a friendly police constable. I was the only member of the house given a lift, the others had to make their own way back. We chatted in car. It would have become pretty clear to him that I was just some fairly well behaved, generally law abiding young guy who had just come out of college and had found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Arriving at our destination he gave me some kindly advice and told me in no uncertain terms to get myself out of that house and also out of this particular part of town. I shortly after heeded the first part of his advice but didn’t quite follow through on the second part about moving away from the area.
After the raid, the atmosphere in the house became a bit unpleasant. Several of the people were charged and things became rather unfriendly. There was a lot of paranoia and a couple of fights. The place got a little crazy with broken furniture, a broken bathroom sink and smashed windows. At around the same time, I was offered a room in a nearby squat which is a disused house, often in a state of disrepair, that has been taken over by people of no abode through a loop hole in UK law. This squat was about 10 minutes walking distance, still in Turnpike Lane North London, so moving to my new lodgings was a very straight forward process. It so happened that the brother of a school friend of mine, who was the drummer in the band I’d formed in my teens, was already living there and I paid him a visit. A room was going free and I told him about my current situation so he invited me to move in.
In retrospect, now I can see that this was a move into a darker and seedier dimension of modern life. A dimension even lower than the strata of society I was at that time already occupying. And it was probably the most appropriate place for me to have been at that time. It was as if my mind had fallen and now correspondingly my life had also fallen. My physical surroundings would come to reflect my inner reality. The Dark Forest can describe a physical context and it can also describe a state of mind. Sometimes the Dark Forest is both.
Now I really was in the Dark Forest, if there was any doubt in matter previously. This assessment was now completely appropriate. I was low life, living with low life. The squat was in quite a bad state. It was dirty, there were dogs everywhere and it smelled doggy. My room was small, and had bare floor boards with nails sticking out of it that once held down carpeting. The last tenant was a heroin addict who used the room while he was ‘cold turkeying’ or in the process of trying to break his heroin habit. There was a slight lingering smell of vomit in the background which I could never quite clear. Anyway on the plus side the roof was in good order and the electricity was free, so at least I was never cold while I lived there.
After moving into the squat in the Autumn of 1992, I seemed to enter a whole other reality of deviance, subversion and counter culture sentiments. I would meet and get to know people that most people would never come across. True deviants, anarchists and subversive types. Now I was living with beggars, hard core druggies, assorted musician types and various extreme drop outs.
Some of the crowd in the circles I was hanging out in, were called crusties. This was because they never washed and rarely changed their clothing. As a result the dirt would become encrusted onto their clothes, hair and skin. Invariably, the crusties were very heavy heroin users and this was the main cause of their condition. In fact their lives revolved around the use of this substance. They were more often than not beggars, though some of them were also involved in petty crime.
There was a young lady living downstairs who was a full time beggar. She owned a very overweight doberman dog called Tina and her father was in prison for armed robbery. Being too young to sign on and claim government benefit payments she derived all her income from begging in tube stations with her dog. She made quite a lot of money, a pretty looking young girl in very shabby looking clothes sitting in London tube stations with her begging cup in hand and over weight doberman dog curled up next to her. By way of past times her favourite hobbies were injecting amphetamine sulphate, smoking cannabis and looking after her dog. In a way she acted as my guide and teacher in a world about which I was totally naive. Effectively she took me under her wing. Here I was someone who had such grand plans and goals for my life being looked after and tutored, concerning the facts of life, by a teenage runaway. She ran away from home because she had been sexually abused by an uncle. As for me, I was a fish out of water but now in hindsight the things I learned and saw, have been invaluable in broadening my world view and in advancing my understanding of human nature.
As I got to know the people I was living with and those in the associated scene, I discovered that a very high proportion of them had been physically and/or sexually abused as children, or else had suffered a major trauma in their early development. This was a lesson that I would never forget and it taught me that there are reasons why a lot of people end up as social outcasts. Looking back on things, I see now, that the problems I faced were little or nothing compared to those of some of the people I knew back then.
So here I was, a year out of University where everybody had high expectations, but now in my present context living a very unaccomplished life. As I got to know better this land of the fallen, it became clear to me that I had ended up in the outer fringes of society. I was totally out of my normal context and the sort of clothes I wore really made me stick out a lot. I had really bad dress sense and looked really square. But at the same time I was generally accepted by the people around me. In a sense, everybody in this environment was an outcast and a reject. Most of the people had ended up living in this counter-culture and deviant underground world as a result of some trauma and pain that had been inflicted upon them but which could not cured, only temporarily numbed through the use of mind altering substances. Underlying the scene was a lot of sorrow and angst. Perhaps partly as a result of this there was also a definite sense of comradery. There was a lot of sharing, and more often than not, people looked out for one another. The world would seem hostile to many of the people I knew at this time, so partly as a result of this everybody stuck together. And because of the way that these people looked and behaved, they would certainly illicit a hostile reaction from a lot of mainstream people.
One thing which helped me to be accepted by some of the people in the squat scene, even though I was so obviously un-hip and straight looking was that I could play Jimi Hendrix tunes on the guitar. Even though my playing ability wasn’t even close to that of fabled guitar wizard Hendrix, nonetheless to a lot of people and the untrained ear there would not have been too much of a perceptible difference. So like some sort of magic talisman my electric guitar helped me to gain the trust and friendship of some of the people I found myself meeting. After a short time I became known and introduced as the guy who could play Jimi Hendrix numbers on the electric guitar. People would ask me to play for them and it allowed me to quite instantly gain peoples liking and respect. Which was fortuitous, for there was nothing about me which otherwise would have been of any value in this underworld. I wasn’t useful in a fight, I didn’t have a great reputation or inclination for criminality(which was respected in the present context) and wasn’t very street smart at all. All the things about me which might have been valued in a different situation, i.e. being well informed and well read, computer related skills and a pleasant manner were irrelevant in this squat underworld. However the ability to play guitar to a certain level of proficiency was a valued and respected skill. My electric guitar was like a key ,for it opened doors for me. It allowed me to gain access and win a level of familiarity with some deviant and anarchic people who otherwise wouldn’t have had any interest or time for me.
I remember Sometimes it would seem as if we lived like feral animals. I remember going off on scavenging missions to the back of supermarkets in the middle of the night. This was in order to collect the food that had gone past its sell by date, which had been thrown away in the rubbish skips. I didn’t have much money and would spend a lot of what I had on books and magazines, so doing this really helped me to stay alive. I could never get myself to go begging, and anyway I was too well dressed so probably wouldn’t have made any money anyway, but a lot of the people I was hanging out with did. It was a simplified and humble existence but there was an incredible sense of freedom and incomplicatedness. Looking back on things now saddled down with the responsibilities, obligations and various complexities of life, there is definitely a side of me which can still really appreciate aspects of the life that I lived all those years ago. But it wasn’t such an ideal existence.
For I should mention that I witnessed a fair deal of violence in this lawless sub-culture. Life really was quite cheap and sometimes a little brutal. People really did live fast, burn their candles at both ends and also sometimes died young. I remember going to a large crowded squat party in Stoke Newington and saw quite an amazing spectacle. There was a large garden, it was dark, and there were many bonfires. There were all kinds of colourful people everywhere, bikers, punks, skin heads, crusties and ravers. I could see that everybody gathered together with their own kind in big groups all sat around the fires. It was as if everybody gathered together with their tribe. Bikers with bikers, punks with punks etc. The analogy was obvious to me. I thought that this was like the World and the different nations all with their separate identities and territories. All the nations and all tribes had gathered together that night to come to the same party but they all sat separate from each other. Mostly it was good natured, however there was an incident involving one of the lady beggars I knew who was from Wales and had a very thick Welsh accent. Possibly due to this fact, she got into a fight with one of the English skin head girls and had some of her fingers bitten rather badly. Her face was also quite seriously scratched. This wasn’t the sort of glamorized violence you’d see in Hollywood movies, but the really nasty brutish kind. It was a horrible sight. I would witness things like this with some regularity. In retrospect it all seems rather depressing, but I remember at the time it could also be quite stimulating in a strange kind of way.
Actually I remember there was a whole gang of Welsh squatters who lived in various places quite nearby and who all came from a Welsh town called Armonford. One of them was the previous occupant of my room in the squat. I remember I gained their trust and spent quite a lot of time hanging out with them. I also remember they would be constantly getting into fights. Come to think of it now, the brawl mentioned a little earlier between the young Welsh woman and Skinhead girl was just the tip of the ice berg. It seems now that often when I’d go some place, club or party with any of them, there would be some violence. The scariest incident was at a party in a smallish night club in Brixton, South London, where there was a large gang of youths in their late teens, who had been acting anti-socially all through the night. One of the youths provoked one of my Welsh friends, a tall, peaceful and even docile looking man but with a very violent temper, by pulling his long hair dreadlocked and making fun of him. As a result of which there was a fight with my companion punching the lout hard in the face several times I believe. I didn’t see the actually incident but only the aftermath. There was blood everywhere, the face of the provoker seemed mashed, his nose was surely broken. The party was stopped, the loud music silenced and the bouncers(security) broke up the fight, herding the gang out of the club but thankfully allowing my friend to stay inside with an angry gang of youths waiting outside to exact revenge. There was only three of us, my violent friend, his girlfriend and myself, so it was quite a tense situation. We were effectively stuck in the Night Club. Luckily the club owner sympathized with our situation and allowed us to use a back exit with a taxi cab waiting to take us away. As the was car pulling away into the main street we could see the gang waiting for us outside the club.
So this is the context in which I found myself. This whole squat scene really was like the underworld or the dark forest and in it I saw a lot of strange and weird things. It was a realm of darkness, badness and sadness. Punctuated with quite a lot of physical violence which I’d witness first hand. This had a lot to do with the sort of people I was associating with.
Quite early on during my time living in the squat I became addicted to cigarettes. Just a year or so previously the whole idea of smoking would have been completely anathema to me. It was just something that I thought I’d never ever want to be getting into. I remember there were two young women who worked in a dentists surgery nearby at the end of the street. One of them was from Germany, the other was from Italy and was doing a degree in psychology, working part-time to help pay her expenses. They used to come over and hang out in the squat. They seemed to have a fascination for the sleaze and low life scene of the squat. Anyway they both smoked and would generously hand out cigarettes during their visits and I would smoke with them every now and then. During this time I was reading an unusual book called ‘The Mesolimbic Dopamine system’, it was all about the chemical pathway in the brain that is involved in motivation and also in mediating the effects of all addictive drugs and substances. By sheer coincidence one of the editors of the book also happened to be one of the lecturers of the young Italian psychology student who would come visit. I thought it was so amazing to know somebody who was also interested in the brain and behaviour. I used to really enjoy chatting to her, unfortunately the pleasure of her company was always accompanied by cigarette smoking.
And so I was lying on the scruffy sofa one evening, reading the book on the physiology of addiction and contemplating what it is to be addicted. There was a packet of cigarettes lying around and I lit up and smoked, all the while thinking about the brain chemical dopamine and the process of addiction. Thoughts relating to my lovely psychology student friend would also pop into my mind. Up to that point I didn’t consider myself addicted to cigarettes. I only ever smoked them when offered and that was only sometimes and with some people.
I wondered about the process of addiction and what it would feel like. I lit up perhaps one or two more cigarettes that evening all the while carefully introspecting what sort of effect they were having on me. My experiment on myself and subjective study done I thought nothing of it. I think the next day or perhaps the day after I went out and purchased a packet of cigarettes. A short while after that I carried out the same transaction down at the local newsagent again.. and again.. and again. My life for the next two years would partly be characterized by a quite heavy smoking habit. And so, I remember the process by which I became a nicotine addict. This was a shame, because I really didn’t have much money to live on and this new addiction was definitely a burdensome strain on my limited financial resources. I was often broke. I recall there were times I didn’t think twice about picking up a half smoked cigarette off the pavement and lighting it up.
There again Nicotine and cigarette smoking was probably the most innocuous form of substance abuse indulged in the present circumstances under discussion. The whole scene I was living in was saturated with drugs. As so my first exposure to hard drugs happened while I was living in the squat in Turnpike lane, North London. Though in this scene the most common substances of abuse were heroin, amphetamine, cannabis and special brew(A cheap high alchohol content beverage popular at the time). The one substance which really interested me the most was the drug LSD. My first experience with LSD happened in October 1992, it was an utterly strange and powerful experience but hardly spiritual or transcendent. I recall now that the drug was used quite recreationally. It was something to do when you were broke and bored which was quite often the case. The colours would become brighter, there were severe alterations of visual and auditory perception. Also ones sense of humour was magnified tremendously and I remember times when I would laugh so hard, vigorously and at length with such merriment, that the next day the bones in my chest literally hurt. But again none of these experiences were really mystical at all. Looking back on this time, I realize now, with the benefit of experience and better knowledge, that the quality and dosages of the psychedelic substances I was getting and ingesting in the squat scene, was rather low. At a guess, I would have only been using a small fraction of the dose required to produce any sort of transcendent experience.
Even before my time spent in the squat I already had a certain fascination for the drug culture. This probably derived from certain books I’d read such as the novel ‘ Scanner Darkly’ by Philip.K.Dick; certain TV programmes I’d watched in my teens such as a documentary on LSD that was shown by the BBC in the late 80s; And certain kinds of psychedelic music from the 60s that I loved, produced by bands such as the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix. Also my keen interest in the brain and neuroscience definitely helped to predispose me to becoming curious about psychoactive drugs. It’s impossible to spend so much time reading about neurochemistry and brain receptors, without ever wondering what would be the affect of manipulating their normal action. And this I did. I remember that while living in the squat I was reading a book about the brain neurotransmitter Serotonin and all the different kinds of Serotonin receptors, they actions and how they were distributed in the brain. I would also during this period ingest substances such as LSD which would activate my own Serotonin receptors and cause radical changes in my perception and states of consciousness. In my enthusiasm for learning things I was a keen scholar and in the recklessness of my youth I was my own guinea pig. Much of my life in the squat revolved around reading big hefty specialized books about the brain and taking various psycho active substances while contemplating the effect they were having on my own brain and consciousness.
Initially when I first moved into the squat my working routine continued during the daytime. Most days I would work in the local public library, reading and thinking mainly about the mind and brain. I would find escape in my books, notes and thoughts. But the surroundings weren’t very inspiring at all. The whole area seemed a little dreary to me and I felt very far from the centre of things. At the same time I did have my dreams, and they sort of acted as my refuge. However my aspirations and ambitions seemed distant indeed, I was nowhere in this life and in this world. As time passed, my situation seemed more and more hopeless. I had set ambitious goals for my life, but here I was living with beggars and eating food out of rubbish bins.
Sometimes my mood would sink into states of despair. And sometimes I’d get so depressed that my head literally ached with a raw burning sensation that lasted for hours. This would happen quite often, especially during that mid Winter period. During these times I would often go for very long walks around the local area often in the middle of the night, sometimes in the early hours of the morning. Walking about would distract me from my emotional turmoil and also ease my headaches. I remember that during and after these periods of intense depression, I would experience some very unusual states of mind. It was during or shortly after these periods of intense depression that I would experience periods of incredible elation or else at other times, moments of very pleasant tranquility.
At the time, I wouldn’t exactly have called them mystical experiences. At the time I remember thinking to myself that perhaps I was going insane. During these states I seemed to lose my sense of identity. My entire perception of the world and the sensation of my body would change dramatically. I felt an incredible closeness with all the people I would see around me going about their business or perhaps walking down the street. This feeling of empathy and connection also extended to animals, trees and even buildings. A feeling of tranquility and sometimes a blissful joyfulness would accompany these states. I would also lose the normal sensation of my body but still had the sensation of having a body. However during these times, it felt as if my body was no longer contained within my skin and physical frame, but somehow extended itself out to be a part of everything I saw around me. In some baffling manner it felt as if the people around me, the cars, buildings, dogs, cats and even an airplane flying distant in the sky were all somehow a part of who I was. My body became everything that was around me and everything that I could see was in some mysterious way also really all me!
At the same time there was a strange feeling of familiarity with what was happening to me. This state of unreality felt like how things should be, and it was ‘normal’ reality that was aberrant. These experiences would last for some minutes at at time according to my watch but never more than an hour. However, subjectively they seemed to go on a very very long time.
When I returned to a more normal state of mind, I always felt an immense feeling of peace and tranquility. A sort of after glow that would last for several hours. These experiences also made me contemplatative and introspective. I was intrigued by what was happening to me but had no way of understanding what it meant. I remember reading about schizophrenia in a neuroscience text book, and thought that this was what I must have been going through. Life went on, time passed and gradually as Spring was nearing my mood lifted. I came out of my depression, the headaches ceased, but with it so did my strange states of mind. My states of feeling connected with everything around me stopped happening. I would wonder about what I had experienced but at the same time I didn’t miss the depression and melancholy that seemed to help bring all this about. Though these experiences puzzled and intrigued me, I was also glad to be out of the black pit, where these experiences were to be had.
Looking back on things now I can see that many factors would have contributed to bringing about these borderline mystical states. No doubt the different varieties of substance abuse I was engaged in would have been factors in their elicitation. Especially drugs such as Cannabis and LSD. At the same time it is worth noting that when I used these substances on their own during the times when they would have been most active in my system, I never achieved any states of consciousness that I would call mystical. I definitely reached states of consiousness that could properly be labelled as ‘high’. As my visual, bodily and auditory awareness was severely distorted but I didn’t really lose my normal sense of who I was and the boundaries between myself and the things around me. This is an important lesson that I learned. It is that the effects of certain drugs works in a synergy with your mind set, your physical state of being and a your surroundings especially ones social setting. It would also lead to an even more important realization later on in my life that through changing our mind sets, our bodily states, our physical surroundings and social contexts; we can profoundly alter our states of consciousness, with or without the use of psycho-active substances. I would come to learn that all life is about changing our own states of consciousness and those of other people. Usually this involves transforming unhappy, dissatisfied and bland states of consciousness into happy, satisfied and exciting states of being. Eventually I would come to learn that the ultimate purpose of life is to transform normal states of consciousness in the state of consciousness that may be called being one with God or being God.
I stayed on in the squat for the rest of the Winter and some of the early Spring but moved out shortly after. This was due to my circumstances getting a bit dangerous. One of the people in the scene became obsessed with the idea and developed a paranoid delusion that I was an undercover policeman or police informant. It’s true I did ask an awful lot of questions, but this was more out of a childlike curiosity rather than a desire to gather police intelligence. Also the clothes I wore were a little square. This was because I had very bad dress sense and as a result I did stick out of the crowd a bit. In spite of this, I was accepted by most of the people around me. And those in my immediate circle thought that the idea of me as a police man or police informant, completely ridiculous and stuck by me.
There was an incident one night at the house I was staying, where while having a talk, I was attacked and got into a scuffle with the person who was spreading the rumours that I was connected to the police. It was a horrible scene in a small downstairs kitchen with large kitchen knives lying around everywhere and two large dogs barking away hysterically which belonged to my adversary. The dogs were familiar with me because during more amicable times with their owner, I would play with them from time to time and even take one of them out for walks. It for this reason that they didn’t attack me otherwise I believe I would probably have been badly mauled. Still the mad barking added greatly to the general atmosphere of menace and danger. Pretty quickly a mutual aquaintant, one of my Welsh friends, intervened who knew us both and who didn’t believe I had anything to do with the Police. He grabbed my assailant bundled him into the corridor, pulled out a knife and threatened to stab him if he didn’t back off, which he did. Fortunately I wasn’t harmed. Even so it was a stressful and frightening experience. My attacker was in a state that a psychiatrist would probably label ‘Amphetamine Psychosis’, being a keen injecter of the drug and who had been doing a lot of it in the days and weeks leading to the incident. So there was plenty of scope for mishappenstance and serious accident that evening. However due to pure luck and a little help from my friends I came away relatively unscathed, though more than a little shaken. I remember how, immediately after the incident, my heart was pounding wildly and how I chain smoked that night, rather unusually .
Anyway, it was no longer safe for me to be living in this scene so for my own personal safety I decided to move on. It was time to make a strategic exit, there was no point in trying to work things out. I was living in a very deviant and rather violent scene that was partly characterized by a total disrespect for authority and also a festering hatred of the police and anything to do with the law. And having rumours circulating about me being a police informer or undercover policeman, though complete false, wasn’t good for my health mental or otherwise. It wasn’t good to be living in fear of physical attack. Funnily enough, quite by coincidence during this time I was reading a Neuroscience book all about the Amygdala, which is a part of the brain playing a central role in the expression and illicitation of the fear response in animals and humans. So I was studying about the neurobiology of fear while my life was lived during this time, in a state of paranoia and fearfulness.
So I moved out of the squat in Early May 1993 and immediately after secured lodgings in a bed and breakfast in the North London area called Archway. I was still very much in the dark forest and would remain there for a number of years. The period in the squat was probably the darkest patch of the woods. My life as a lost and lonely soul would go on for a while. A failure and social reject in my own mind, no status and low self esteem, I would struggle on in the dark forest.