Beyond Better - A Chemist's Quest to Fix Himself
Beyond Better - A Chemist's Quest to Fix Himself
An autobiographical journey through chemistry, law, philosophy, mental illness, and the American War on Drugs.
An autobiographical journey through chemistry, law, philosophy, mental illness, and the American War on Drugs. Read more
About this project
After years of getting nowhere with psychiatric medicine, I set out on my own, creating and using a range of psychoactive drugs in an attempt to treat my persistent mental illnesses. This autobiography documents my journey through chemistry, law, philosophy, mental illness, and the American criminal justice system. This book is an ambitious project, as it aims to be my own personal story overlaid with some social commentary based on my experiences. The two books I've been emulating the style of, so far, have been Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. This style of simultaneously narrating a story while explaining how the world works, suits my own style very well, and I can only hope to use it as effectively as these two authors have.
Several years ago, I graduated college with a degree in engineering, despite being diagnosed with both ADHD and bipolar disorder. I've since worked on and off as an engineer, and have a background in polymer chemistry and biochemistry. Although I've worked at quite a few jobs in the past, my particular mental disorders tend to make me an unreliable employee. I've been fired from at least six jobs, despite my best efforts to do them. When your mind can shut down with no notice, it can be very difficult to do any job well.
I had been seeing various counselors and psychiatrists for four years, before giving up on that system, to see if I could do a better job treating myself. I ordered medications online, and manufactured my own drugs in a home chemistry lab. Finally, I found a combination that did it for me. Unfortunately, both drugs were illegal: marijuana and methamphetamine.
Still, there was one important distinction that set these two drugs apart from their legal alternatives: they actually worked. Using low dosages of both drugs, I was able to exert a degree of control over my mind that even normal people aren't supposed to have. I could do nearly anything I set my mind to, and quickly became involved in medical research, in the field of urological oncology. I finally broke out of my shell of depression, and made friends with other researchers and graduate students, and had an active social life for the first time in my life.
Of course, methamphetamine has a tendency to affect a person's judgment over time, and can be very addictive. It wasn't long before I was displaying some of the erratic behavior and poor judgment that's typical of this drug. But even though I could see it happening to me, there was no way I could go back to how my life was before.
Eventually, that decision was made for me during an encounter with law enforcement. I was arrested, and charged with possession of a small amount of methamphetamine precursor. Even though there wasn't very much, I was charged with four separate but related felonies, and forced to either plead guilty to the most severe one, or risk being found guilty of four felonies by a jury. A jury conviction could have put me in prison for twenty years. I had little choice, and thus I am now a convicted felon for the rest of my life, unless I'm pardoned by the President of the United States.
Although the amount was small, (2.8 grams, about the weight of an American penny) and I had no intention of selling it, the prescribed punishment, as per the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, was similar to what is normally given for manslaughter. I had to spend a month in jail, and several years on probation. I was told that I was very lucky that I didn't receive 1-2 years of prison, although I certainly don't feel lucky. If I'd been stealing money from my family to feed an addiction to drugs supplied by Mexican cartels, I'd certainly be in far less trouble than I am. But because the state sees me as a supplier, even though I was only supplying myself, I'm treated like a drug dealer.
I'm currently on home confinement with electronic monitoring. One of the conditions of home confinement is that I maintain gainful employment, and so I would like to use this opportunity to write a book about my experiences. This suggestion was given to me after posting an AMA (ask me anything) thread on Reddit.com, in which I answered questions about myself. If this project is funded, I will be able to afford the absolute minimum in living expenses, for the eight months of my home confinement, in an area with a low cost of living. I believe this will be enough time to write and publish a book. At present, I've already written 10-12 pages, and I'd like the opportunity to write more.
Since I've been arrested, a lot of people have been comparing my story with the plot of Breaking Bad. But the truth is, I have very little in common with Walter White other than a desire to fix myself and a fascination with drug chemistry. I'd never consider selling methamphetamine, due to the horrible effects that methamphetamine addiction can have on some people. When experimenting with drugs, the only person's life I was willing to risk was my own. Still, I've seen the first four seasons of this show, and enjoyed it. It shows drug addiction in a realistic light, and portrays addicts as real people, rather than as the caricatures frequently seen elsewhere. I'd like to think that my experiences have made me a wiser, more empathetic person, in spite of, or perhaps because of, my mistakes.
I calculated that I can live on about $250 a week, and for a period of eight months, that comes out to $8000. Because I need to have "gainful employment" to stay out of prison, this would be about the minimum I could get away with making during this time period. I rounded up to $10,000 to account for Amazon/Kickstarter overhead, publishing costs, mailing costs, etc. If funding goes over that goal, I will donate 10% of that money to the Drug Policy Alliance, and an additional 10% to Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. Both of these organizations have shown an admirable dedication to treating drug addiction as a health problem, rather than a criminal problem. I firmly believe that the War on Drugs and the Bill of Rights are incompatible with each other. Eventually one will have to be dismantled to allow the other to continue to exist.
Excerpts from Beyond Better
The Grignard Reaction
The Grignard reaction is something of a philosopher’s stone for chemists. To the uninitiated, it does little more than turn one white powder into a different white powder. But to a chemist, it opens up a new world of reaction pathways, through the creation of bonds between the carbon atoms in different molecules. This level of transformative power doesn’t come easy. There’s a lot of energy stored in carbon’s bonds, and a chemist has to expend a great deal of energy to form new ones.
In the Grignard reaction, that energy comes from magnesium. The chemical energy stored in this metal causes it to burn at an extraordinarily high temperature. Most people have witnessed it firsthand, in the white-hot sparks of sparklers, or the dazzling white flashes of the brightest fireworks. Even old-style disposable camera flashes took advantage of the energy in magnesium metal, burning a tiny fuzzball of the stuff in a blinding flash that would light up a room.
And I had just harnessed this spectacular energy, with shavings from a magnesium fire starter and some purified engine starting fluid. It didn’t look the least bit impressive. I was holding a test tube of clear liquid, with some white fluffy-looking stuff at the bottom. But as I stared into that tube, I knew what I had done. The organohalide had eaten through the protective oxide layer that coated the magnesium, and they had reacted.
The white fluffy stuff was a Grignard reagent. One of an incredibly useful and versatile class of chemicals. One that chemists could use to snap molecules together like Legos. I’d just completed a reaction whose sensitivity was legendary... where even the tiniest amount of water could stop the reaction dead in its tracks. And I did it with chemicals purchased from hardware stores.
I looked around me, at the equipment scattered throughout the garage. Dirty test tubes, broken glassware, chemistry apparatus rigged together with string, duct tape, and wire. Most of it improvised, all of it dirty, none of it labeled, save the few things that were still in their original containers.
A hot plate sat on the grimy workbench, its outer surface stained with so many chemicals I’d be afraid to pick it up without gloves. Its burner had eroded in places, from countless spills and broken flasks. Nearly every metal surface had corroded from the acidic vapors that were constantly present, which I had long ago learned to ignore. Different metals corroded differently. Aluminum was coated with a fine, white dust. Copper and brass had tiny growths of blue and green crystals. And iron and steel had thick coatings of reddish-brown rust. I should probably clean this place up, I thought. It’s starting to look too much like a meth lab. But that would have to wait until later. I had more chemistry to do.
I’d seen his type. He was an average guy in a world that only acknowledged exceptionalism. He had used alcohol, marijuana and oxycontin as a distraction, to make the world appear warmer and friendlier to him, and to make his pain a bit more tolerable. But his distractions were illegal. They made him lose interest in the bounties of capitalism, making him a less productive worker. So society took them away. They slapped a mental-disorder label on him, then bought him a cocktail of pharmaceuticals that was several times the cost and did less to address his real problems than the drugs he was using in the first place. It didn’t matter that his society had no job for him to do anyway. He was breaking the rules, and that was not to be tolerated.
He muttered about how he had hurt his mom and his girlfriend, and insisted that his goal for the rest of his life was to be clean and sober. I don’t think anyone there believed him, but no one dared say so. Our job was to support him, and that’s what we did.
I imagined him a month from now. He’d be out of rehab, living in his old neighborhood. People that he knew would come up to him, asking if he knew where they could get some weed, or coke, or oxys. He’d say no, at first. He’d be committed to staying clean. After all, he was on probation. But then he’d start looking for work. He’d find nothing but a part-time job, and it would be dull and meaningless, and not enough to live on. He’d long for excitement. The longer he’d play by society’s rules, the shittier he’d feel. He wasn’t good at this game. He never had been, and he knew it. And the game he did know was supposed to be off-limits to him.
The lack of money would be a constant problem. He’d use his connections to make a few minor drug deals, just to get enough money to make ends meet. The money, and the small thrill of getting away with it, would actually improve his quality of life considerably.
He wouldn’t use at first. After all, he wouldn’t want to go back to jail. But then he’d hear about ways to get around the drug testing. He could put clean urine in a pouch on his leg, heated to the proper temperature with a chemical hand warmer. He could use drugs like ketamine and spice, that probation didn’t have the resources to test for. And before long, he’d be back to almost the same patterns he was in before he was caught. If he was lucky, he’d be able to avoid scrutiny from his overworked probation officer, long enough to avoid getting caught. If not, then jail wasn’t so bad. He had long since gotten over the shame of jail.
Dr. Mann, the Psychiatrist
Dr. Kathleen Mann. Huh. I had never met any transsexual women, or men for that matter. Or maybe I had, but just hadn’t known? Well, in any case, the fact was, my psychiatrist was a transsexual woman. She was biologically male, but had apparently used a combination of hormones and surgery to project a more female appearance. And that was totally okay with me. I just wasn’t sure what to expect.
I sat in the waiting room, looking around to see if there were any Time or Newsweek magazines that were less than six months old. There weren’t. I didn’t care about the Sports Illustrated magazines, and I’d be more embarrassed to be seen reading a People magazine than sitting in the waiting room of a psychiatrist. By a lot.
I looked up. She was tall. Not as tall as me, but taller than you expect middle-aged women to be. She had a big goofy smile, an elegant pair of glasses, and shoulder-length, greying, wavy blonde hair. She was kind of chubby, and I could see her large, somewhat-masculine toes peeking out of her Birkenstocks. She wore a long, billowy, black dress, with silver earrings and a matching necklace. She looked like a cross between a stocky middle-aged gay man and a nice old lady.
I got up and followed her to her office. She sat down in her chair.
“So, I know what question you’re probably thinking, and the answer is, yes!” She laughed.
I smiled. She wasn’t the sort to be easily offended, I was certain. When it’s clear that you weren’t born as the sex you’re trying to project, a thick skin and a sense of humor would seem to be absolute necessities.
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