Special thanks to Shaun Shelly, and all the great work by the International Network of People who Use Drugs. All of you everywhere.
“For a hundred years now we’ve been singing war songs about addicts. I think all along we should have been singing love songs to them. Because the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.” —Johann Hari.
I am a drug user. I don’t feel any shame about it or have a reason to feel any. Drugs have helped me and still do. I am not encouraging anybody to use anything here, I’m just saying they have worked for me by and large, because more to the point of this article, I am also an addict.
Not to to-date illicit drugs particularly, although I am a recovering alcoholic and indulge in a host of other problematic uses or indulgences. But I could very easily be. Like Spud or Aldous Snow there’s nothing I can’t turn into heroin. Not that I’ve ever used heroin, but I hear percocets have the same effect. And I have gobbled plenty of those. Thumbs up, Big Pharma. Getting sick people addicted is a wholesome business model.
And the reason I turn everything into an addiction is because I’m lonely. Nothing seems to fill the pit of complete emptiness that chews me from the inside out. It’s little surprise that my favorite Suicidal Tendencies song is "Alone." Or that I love a band called Suicidal Tendencies. I’ve flirted with the thought several times. It’s okay. It’s okay if you have too. (Hang in there. Even if you feel dead inside, it doesn’t mean your life isn’t beautiful.) Just like Mike Muir I feel alone in a world full of people. I look around and don’t understand how people interact with such ease, why I can’t connect; so I smoke, drink, and snort until it all flows and that’s good until I’m alone again.
But the truth is I don’t need the substances (except weed, weed is mellow, bro), the drink, and the emotionally crippling and self-destructive behavioral patterns. I need someone to take my hand. And so did Gollum.
Gollum melted away in lava trying to catch a dream. A dream he thought completed his soul but only drew him deeper into himself, further away from the fleeting moments when the ring made him forget, that he thought were happiness, desperately wanted to believe were happiness but only drew him closer to his demon. The same demon that lurks inside you right now, waiting to catch you off guard. I hope he never does, mind you, I’m just saying, there’s only so little that keeps us all away from our inner Gollum.
Much has been said about drug use in Tolkien’s work, from the symbolism of the Halflings’ pipe weed and hippie counter culture, to whether he had an intimate knowledge of substances himself. Much has been said and written about drugs in speculative fiction, and it’s liberating and enslaving effects, from Dune to Brave New World. Presenting Gollum as the quintessential cliché of a problematic user is not a novel idea. But where The Lord of the Rings perhaps unwittingly, resonates with the Sméagol I want to believe I am, is in how it approaches recovery, or rather the road that might lead to it, through dead marshes, always an inch away from the ghosts that whisper to us.
Gollum suffers from the stigma that all users who don’t have the luxury and wealth to maintain social appearances do.
He is treated as less than human, ridiculed, abused, tortured and who would care? No one knows him, we the viewers don’t know him either, or care to. Like the homeless we step over, he is a wretch and has always been.
In Game of Thrones Maester Aemon asks Samwell Tarly if it is that difficult to believe he was once young and strong and healthy and proud, maybe even a good person? It is no different for Gollum, it’s not different for people who use drugs.
It’s only early in The Return of the King that we get to see and understand the true tragedy behind Gollum's story. The true horror of what has happened to him, but more importantly how quick we were to judge him. To not even conceive of the possibility that Gollum had a life, pride, friends, and people who cared for him, that he cared for, that he just wanted to fish peacefully by the pond on his birthday.
Why do you keep calling him stinky? Frodo asks Samwise. Look at him, Samwise says, that’s what he is…
Anything can be done to Gollum. Anything can be done and anything IS done to people who use drugs. Not the user in his mansion like me, the defenseless user, the one who suffers the most. From trying to hold on to a life spinning out of control. From the caves where they are relegated, ever deeper, ever lonelier.
Yet Gollum’s internal struggle is apparent; it is so blatantly obvious. But no one believes him. No one wants to believe he can and truly wants to change. Certainly not Samwise, and let’s be honest, not us either. That we were proven right in the end changes nothing. Because we were right for all the wrong reasons.
It was love that almost saved Sméagol. Sméagol never needed the ring. A problematic user doesn’t need drugs. Users seek, in many instances, wholeness. They need compassion, they need love. That compassionate other, who, in softer tones than Sauron, says: I see you.
Not what you are ashamed of, but that behind what you wish you could change, I see you as who you could be, as who you are, a person like me, a person worthy of love.
It’s Frodo's compassion that sets Sméagol on the path to recovery, that helps him shake off Gollum and claim his life back.
Frodo's compassion is motivated by understanding. Through a glimpse of Bilbo’s agony and recognizing in Gollum what he could become, but also sensing that Gollum’s suffering did not stem only from the Ring of Power's seething evil, but from ostracization, from the marginalization imposed upon him by Sam’s bullying, by centuries of being treated and thought of as a vermin. Poor Sméagol.
It is love that saves Frodo too. The undying support and instances of sacrifices by his companions. People who’ve known him his whole life, and others he'd barely met. They believed in him, kept him going on his quest to rid himself of his burden.
And Frodo almost became Gollum. When facing the Nazgûl at Osgiliath he almost slipped the ring on his finger and gave in. He wanted to. It was Sam's love that saved him. Sam that he almost killed.
In those final moments when Gollum-that-is fights Frodo, the Gollum-who-could-be, Frodo is not only fighting an enemy, he is, in many ways, also fighting himself.
Sméagol did not capitulate to Gollum because the ring won. He did because the wafer thin hope he had allowed himself to feel at Frodo's open hand was crushed in betrayal, real or imagined, and by the violence and scorn of Faramir and his men.
We didn’t trust Sméagol, but we were wrong. We shouldn’t have trusted others to allow him to be.
We often speak of the speculative arts as a way to reimagine society, but sometimes we get so caught up in the imaginary we forget that some of those characters are people we see every day, and learn nothing from what we read or watch.
It’s that same love and loneliness that pushes us as authors of marginalized groups to write our stories and beat our drums because our stories matter, our lives matter in all their complexity, the good and the bad, they matter.
I am in a good place now. The best place. I am not lonely anymore. I am full. I owe it all to my wife’s love. To the fact of her very existence really. I’m sorry for those I hurt along the way. Those who met Gollum when I thought I was Sméagol. I got that sucker in check. But he’s always there.