In Someone Who Isn’t Me, the debut novel by musician Geoff Rickly, the slightly fictionalized protagonist Geoff travels to Mexico for an addiction treatment that uses the psychedelic ibogaine, illegal in the Unites States. Rickly, the lead singer of bands including Thursday and No Devotion, and a record producer, relates a version of his experience with heroin and ibogaine. The thrill of autofiction’s blend of autobiography and fiction in a book narrated by a rock star on drugs may stoke voyeurism. The novel, however, travels beyond this scope, revealing insights about the pain lodged beneath drugged desperation and, through a unique lyricism, the struggle to survive such worsening wreckage.
How do we embody the depths of a contemporary recovery story? A musician may offer the sensitivity and potential consciousness necessary for such a telling. As James Baldwin relays in his short story about heroin addiction and recovery, “Sonny’s Blues,” a musician hears what the rest of us cannot, and he brings that capacity outward, lends meaning and order to what we cannot yet fathom, or acknowledge.
“I looked for music everywhere” the narrator in Someone Who Isn’t Me begins, and his translation of sounds and images into words eventually forms the bread crumb trail to his possible recovery. But not yet. As he descends into late stage heroin addiction in New York, his toeholds in life give way: he stops going to work, his girlfriend turns him out of their apartment—despite her hopeful love, his addiction a familiar road in their history together—and his hours rotate around his drug dealer. A chance encounter on the street leads him to a phone number, and eventually the plane flight to Mexico, where he arrives at the treatment center high and noncommittal. It’s not that he decides to take ibogaine as much as that he has no other options.
The novel counters notions that may be gaining popularity as more of us explore psychedelics, the potential for a personality cure or a collective consciousness as medicines like psylocibin, Ayahuasca, and ketamine become familiar. Early on, Rickly deftly nods at the golden cast of self-discovery psychedelics in contrast to heroin’s funneling destruction when the narrator comments about his girlfriend’s trip, “’You were smoking DMT? With a goddess in Queens?’” And ibogaine is far far away from a goddess in Queens. During his intake at the treatment center, the narrator learns the intensity of its dissociative states and the physical toll on a body; ibogaine does not offer renewal without potential costs, even perhaps death. A doctor and nurse care for his body during the hours-long journey, while his responsibility feels less defined, subject to a willingness to follow his pain into the insights that may free him from its void.
The novel avoids the potential risks of describing a psychedelic trip as bright colors and flat-footed epiphanies, which could leave us on the outside, unmoved. As the ibogaine takes effect, auditory and visual hallucinations signal the drop away from the real world. The treatment center’s beeping monitors disappear, and the narrator finds himself in a van with his band members driving through the scream of a cicada swarm. The shrill sound penetrates his body: “I part my lips, just the length of a breath, and feel the scream pushing past my teeth and over my tongue.” The narrator’s bodily sense of heightened sounds and surreal images conveys the dimensions of his experience, while the immediacy of present tense places us within his point of view. At times the sentences call for surrender to their poetic influxes and repetition, reminding us this is the story of a songwriter, an artist who makes meaning with sound.
While psychedelics disrupt established forms, the novel takes the shape of linked worlds allowing exploration without losing the thread. Dante’s Inferno from the Divine Comedy informs the ibogaine period, the narrator traveling through his troubles, perhaps his own Hell, toward a potential communion with his true self. Ibogaine enlists the materials of the mind, and the narrator reencounters elements from his days in New York, like the “ca-chic-ca-chic-shhhhhh, ca-chic-ca-chic-shhhhhh” of a record skipping and people from his past appearing in unusual circumstances. They coach him about ibogaine and his chances of getting where he needs to go, as if part of his own internally designed recovery program. Yet, language continues to surprise in vivid, eccentric combinations: “Little flecks of gold and silver shine out from the cloudy, amber liquid: broken guitar strings, crushed pennies, the keys to my first apartment.” The narrator intermittently returns to the treatment center, and these interludes reassert the present day and offer a drumbeat of suspense: at the end of ibogaine, will the narrator come back and will he bring with him what’s necessary for his survival.
The novel depicts the introspection and external engagement necessary for recovery; the pathway psychedelics illuminate that may offer interconnectedness and belonging. Belonging within our communities, and, in an expansive inclusiveness, yes, even the universe. Rickly notes ibogaine’s history, a plant material extracted from the root bark of iboga shrubs in Central Africa, and the treatment center shows respect for its origin. But the narrator translates a personal journey, toward his own potential understanding and appreciation with friends and family, an inclusive microcosm of the larger collective. Yet, a musician laid bare by addiction inhabits a pain that feels universal in its depth, and here the novel reaches outward into our shared humanity, our inevitable grief and losses.
To recover, we need an understanding of where we have come from, what we can release, and that we are not alone. In Baldwin’s story, Sonny’s brother remarks, “All that I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it.” Someone Who Isn’t Me honors a musician’s gift for hearing, the suffering and love translated within the music; and our desire to listen.
Kelly Sather is the author of Small in Real Life (University of Pittsburgh Press, Oct. 2023), her debut story collection and winner of the 2023 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. She is a former entertainment lawyer and screenwriter, and holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her fiction has appeared in Santa Monica Review, J Journal, Pembroke Magazine, PANK, and elsewhere. She grew up in Los Angeles and lives in Northern California.