What often makes literature meaningful is that the reader can see themselves in the text, whether through a skin tone they share with the characters or a temperament or a locale, whether a particular familial dynamic, or even if they find in the text a simulacrum of their own psyche. To see oneself twinned, depicted, described, articulated, explained. Which is perhaps why few pieces of literature that I’ve ever read depict with more terrifying familiarity the interiority and exteriority of alcoholism than Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Substance abuse and mental illness are often co-pilots. The mind hacks the meat, and the meat hacks the mind. I was 15, a sophomore in high school, when diagnosed with chronic clinical depression. I had my first drink at 16 and my last at 23. In between were multiple hospitalizations, weeping ex-partners, damaged organs, two relapses, and over one million words of fiction written. At 25, two years sober and in the midst of spring semester exams during my first year of law school, my diagnosis was corrected to Bipolar II Disorder. To live with bipolar disorder is to exist in an exaggerated state. Joy is ecstasy. Sadness is despair. The soul’s soil is fertile with disharmony. It simply needs a little watering.
Stevenson’s novella begins with Hyde already an animated and malicious entity, excised from a Dr. Jekyll whose adult life has been captured by an inner discord I recognized. The exoskeletal firmness and stability and equilibrium of “a life of effort, virtue, and control” gives lie to the storm of stress and inconsistency. Jekyll confesses in his final letter to having “already committed to a profound duplicity of life.”
His tinctures organize him. Just like the vodka-waters, the whiskeys, and the dark rum organized me. I knew that I could never be rid of the lesser angels of my nature. If I could but let the leviathan out of its cage, maybe some time swimming in the ocean would quiet it and provide me some measure of peace.
During the fall semester of my junior year in college, three months criss-crossing Europe and learning political theory, I wound up, one night, in a Haarlem beer hall where being the only American in a room full of Europeans meant I didn’t pay for a single drink. Already, assorted dry goods swam in my bloodstream. A boy runs in to tell one of his mates that “they’ve” been spotted. It turns out that I’ve been drafted into a war against football hooligans from the enemy squad, whom we spend the rain-soaked night hunting with murderous intent. I’ve already become Mr. Hyde. All I need is a Sir Danvers Carew to beat bloody on a fog-shrouded London street.
In the beginning, Jekyll reigns. “The moment I choose, I can be rid of Mr. Hyde,” he assures a colleague. Eventually, Hyde, having spent enough time in the sun, no longer needs the potion to have his cage unlocked. In a stunning reversal, Jekyll needs the potion to become Jekyll again. There’s that point at which liquor stops being the thing that knocks you sideways and becomes instead the thing that holds you upright. If I wanted to talk to a girl, a shot—sometimes half a bottle—was necessary. Jekyll’s charm, his generosity of spirit, they no longer existed absent a preliminary bath in the river. Whiskey washed Hyde off my face and flooded his hideousness out of my system.
Consuming the potion, whether to let rage a vicarious depravity or recover one’s better self, becomes the compulsion and, in the eyes of others, the mystery. Want of being spirited into that uncharted country is intelligible. Need of it, the object of disdain. And that, in essence, is addiction. You need the thing, even as you don’t want it. The disease co-opts the body and colonizes the mind. It implicates responsibility. It is invisible, as is the fight against it. In the end, however, the warring is all contained in one meat-package. Regain a harmonious mind? Easier to catch a falling knife.
I used to think my diseases were attachments. If I could somehow excise those Bad Parts, maybe I would get better. But the three of us—I, alcoholism, and bipolar—will forever remain locked in a treacherous pied-à-trois. I have since dried my shoes, my steps are surer. Sober, Hyde is contained, less a tyrant, more a passenger.
The lesson in Stevenson’s novella has shed its Manichean cast. I am no less Jekyll for carrying a Hyde inside my head.
Differently put, one may say that the world is all the richer for having a Devil in it. So long as I keep my foot upon its neck.
© 2018 by Tochi Onyebuchi