Ok. There hasn’t been a serious thought piece in this blog for a bit. So there are going to be 3 now. One after the other. This is a bit of an exploration, an expedition to stuff I usually allude to but don’t come right out with. I’m going to be frank in these pieces. We’re getting ready for Eric Maisel to visit next Thursday, and I’m not going to write a small fluff review of his new book, I’m going to really think about this topic. Depression, sadness. My home turf, yes?
So. Let’s talk about the dark. Ready?
I had a dream the other day. A nightmare. It went exactly like this:
I was in a dark shadowy basement boiler room, as me, now. A real one, that I used to go to with my dad when he was alive and I was a girl, in the bottom of the office block at Grosvenor Hill. We had a storeroom down there where we kept our excess books. I was alone, just there, looking at the red massive old boilers, reading the old dials, to check the temperatures were right, just as I used to when helping him. A man appeared in front of me, dressed in a faded security guard’s uniform. He was middle aged, nondescript. I was holding a hammer. I beat him in the head, slowly to death, while he weakly pleaded with me, almost conversationally, to stop. I don’t know why I did it. Afterward, covered in blood and bits, heaving huge sobs of terror and revulsion at myself, I stumbled further into the boiler room, to our store room door. Behind one of the boilers there, I saw a body. Shaking and dripping, I squeezed through the small section between the wall and the boiler’s edge. My father lay there, dead and decaying. Wearing a security guard’s uniform. I realized what I had done. I hated myself. I couldn’t bear the feelings rushing through me, blotting out everything. I knelt down by his body. The head was crushed in. I leant forward, and took up part of the skull. It came loose with a viscous noise. It was wet in my hands. I had the forehead, the eyes, part of the mouth: large browned teeth glistened as I moved it closer to me. I put the skull part over my face, like cleaning myself with a cloth doused in cool clean water. As I put my fathers face over my face, I felt so comforted. By the complete darkness, the crushing out, winking out, of everything else there ever was. Just the darkness was left. I was so relieved.
Now. The thing about that massively melodramatic dream, and the fact I woke up hugely disturbed and freaked out at my own obvious nuttiness, is that it’s one of those easily interpretable dreams. There I am at a subterranean level, where things are boiling away, unseen. Things I might not think about consciously, so much. My father was a housekeeper, a sort of security guard for a lot of his life. Live in, with us, his family, mum and me. We lived at the top of office blocks around London, through my middle to late childhood. We didn’t really mix with other family much, and I didn’t have friends over much. I did go and help on the locking up rounds often, because an empty office block has an amazing spooky charm unlike any other emptiness. I learned to not be afraid of literal actual dark on those rounds. Dark is just dark.
My father, on the hand, was a man for whom life had not gone as he hoped and wished it had. He was embittered. He had not become a lecturer at a university, as he would have wished, one of his dreams; he had had to look after his younger brother instead, as happened in those days, in poorer families. My mother and I were often something of a disappointment to him. He told us this, sometimes quite plainly, sometimes by his behaviour (contempt, dismissiveness, cruel gestures or statements). Other times, he was sweetness itself, and was incredibly kind and empathic. We loved him. My mother loves him unswervingly and with many kind explanations for his personality, to this day. I found I was treasured as a small child and looked upon with increasing suspicion as I came of an age to think for myself – even though some of the time, he loved my brain and praised it.
I don’t want this to be a dad bashing post. I merely attempt to be very frank. I loved him wildly, he was a little god to me, as most fathers are to daughters when they are young. It was difficult to stay in his good books; it was great when you were there. When you weren’t, you were simply eclipsed. He wouldn’t talk to or acknowledge you. If he did, it would be to slice with words. Waiting out the displeasure period quietly and unnoticeably was usually the best option. I learned to sneak about, to tell half truths, then outright lies; I played rooms with him in by ear. I learned to value dissembling quite a bit. I became an amazingly earnest liar at one of my first schools, until one day I was caught out spectacularly in my invention of a life different to my own (I spun a tale to my mother about an incident at school, completely untrue, that was unfortunately checkable, and I had made it sound like it needed checking, stupidly – so I humiliated my mother when she phoned the parent of the other child it involved…never my intention, I remain eternally sorry for that). I learned the value of keeping lies as close to the truth as possible after that; though to this day will occasionally embark on an outright untruth with huge embellishments, just for the joy of it. (Or I write a short story.)
My dad was tough to love and live with. He hurt me and my mother many times, never physically (lucky), just with his anger and disappointment at just about everything. I would like to say I used to defend her, he used to put her down infront of people and such, treat her like a doormat in front of me. When I was quite young and he was god, I observed her just taking this behaviour and saw her through his eyes: as weak, and deserving of contempt. Act like a servant, get treated like one. I joined in. I treated her like dirt too. Thankfully (for my sense of self), this only lasted a couple of years. Once I hit the earliest possible puberty, life kilted itself right over. I remembered my mother had been caring for me all my life: taking me to museums and ‘places of interest’, taking me out and away, encouraging my love of stories and writing, reading my little ‘books’ I made. She was always so concerned if I was sick, or unhappy. Apart from believing my dad was always in the right (a religious belief; that is, taught to her by her religion, that men were better, and women subservient, especially wives to husbands), she was damn near as lovely as a quiet person gets.
Also, at this point, dad seemed to become suspicious of me. I was suddenly, sometimes, for no reason *I* could see, the enemy. I got the benefit of the treatment my mother had been receiving all this time. Nothing makes you have sympathy with someone like suddenly BEING them! I remained in this boat with my mother till he died, decades later. Never getting back that early relationship of him being loving (teaching me all about classical music and films and having endless mini philosophical discussions), just sometimes brittle and difficult (always ending up making me cry when helping me with my homework, because he had no patience if I was slow in any way), and never being the Horrible Daughter for him again, never the co-conspirator again.
To get back to the dream, it was quite clear to me that I am terrified of becoming him. I have very little patience with people when they are slow about something I understand well (I NEVER understand when people say I should be a teacher because I know lots about this or that bookish topic and can express myself reasonably well; being a teacher is about loving to help people think for themselves, and I fear I would get too frustrated and be rubbish and unkind). I have had a lifelong experience of something we could call low mood. I see things as full of great joy, and great sadness. Everything feels A LOT, far too much. I often lose my own side of a discussion or argument, because I have entered into the other person’s so much and can really feel it. I don’t know where my bit has gone. I feel permeable, skinless, almost all the time. I have to be careful in crowds, or I vanish and feel only the cacophony of the hive, the mob, the cult.
Things are either ok to wondrously quietly euphorically peaceful (no massive unrealistic highs here, ever); or they are dark dark dark. On good days, I go about my business and my head is quiet. I can think thoughts and do stuffs, and smile and I feel the sun, I feel my connection to everything. It hums quietly: and all is well. On the bad days, usually from very early, I just feel that the raincloud is over my head and I am soaked and foggy. On these days I am just in fear, despair and…darkness. My head says unkind things to me all day, and when I contradict them, I hear only myself telling me lies. (Don’t get me wrong, these aren’t separate voices, this is me ganging up on me.) It has been this way since I was very small. One of my first memories is of being sad. One of my others is of Victoria Park’s orange garden and the wonder of those colours, the green, the orange, the blue sky: I reached up from my baby stroller and grasped an orange. I stroked the sun. I smiled at my mother.
My point there, is that clearly I grew up with loads of baggage, and I worry that I will end up like my dad – a contradictory person who is at once terrified (he was practically a hermit, yet liked to paint my mother as the scared one – it took someone pointing that out to me after his death before I saw it), very mean and yet full of warmth sometimes, and creativity he never let out. (He wanted to compose, to write; he wanted to be a missionary preacher: he wanted to be a change in the world. He was quite the autodidact all his life.)
In the last couple of years before he died, he and I were almost estranged. I had divorced Troubadour which really really upset dad. I had ‘broken Biblical Law’, he said. The one and only time Stanley ever went to meet him, he got the silent treatment. Dad would not acknowledge him beyond a muttered hello; would not look at him. Would not even get dressed, or look away from the TV. I was mortified; mum tried to explain it away, and I didn’t bother with dad for some months after that incident, deciding silence – finally – can go two ways.
Of course, what mum and I didn’t know, was that by this time the COPD that had been eating him up for years (what a smokers cough, was what we thought – we thought he was the only one spitting up all that phlegm all the time) had been joined by prostate cancer. He didn’t tell anyone. We think he knew he was dying, but didn’t want to know what of. He never went to the doctors unless my mother somehow made him. He quickly became much smaller and wizened than he had been (I missed most of this, busy making my point as I was), and oddly nondescript. He lost all his colour, all his fire. In a photo of him shortly before he died, he smiles benignly out at me, with genuine gentle sparkle, genuine good humour – none of his anger remains. He has a semi shaved head, as he got bored with doing anything to his hair, which remained thick into his late 60’s. By the time I was speaking to him by phone again, I was stunned by his compliant behaviour – he was kindly, nice, welcoming, happy to hear from me. Not sarcastic or unkind at all. Not thinking I was just ringing to borrow money (as I had borrowed a lot of money one way and another over time, and his always giving it to me, and the way he behaved about the loans, were one of the most dysfunctional things about us). I thought I had shown him that you can’t treat people this way without getting your own medicine back at you sometimes. I thought we were finally relating as – sort of – regular people: two grown ups.
Then I visited one last time, saw how thin he was and realized he was very sick. My mother was trying to not notice (she had become – and remains – very good at not noticing things she does not know how to deal with in a way that squares with how she wants to be, which I do not fault her for; the woman has not had an easy life, we all have our mechanisms). While I was there, he became suddenly very ill, breathing troubles, pains, terrible pallor. We called the ambulance. Two nights later he was dead. Pneumonia has a way of intervening. We only found out about the prostate cancer at the hospital the night before he died – they thought we knew.
So I hadn’t ‘shown him’ at all. What I had done was have an unequal battle with a dying man, who died quietly without forgiving me for being such a bloody disappointment. (There’s the nondescript security guard who I beat to death. And yes: he was a Housekeeper, a sort of security guard; and what is a dad, but a security guard of his children??) They had asked my mother and I, at the hospital, about resuscitation when his lungs gave out, as they unquestionably would; a machine was already helping him breathe...They made it clear he would just be on life support after that, no more waking, no more dad, his body had given up. My mother was unable to have this decision alone, and turned to me. I said no, let him go. I was thinking of all my cats, who get the dignity of going when its clear their bodies are given up on them; when we humans don't always get that choice. And yet, it came to pass, and I somewhere within feel like I killed my father. Mercy it was, but nonetheless. Before you say – oh for fecks sake, enough with the guilt and the melodramatic way of interpreting events, all I will reiterate is that I am telling the truth as I see it, for me, and for no one else, with reference to no one else. I judge no one but me. What happens in our lives, and how we tell the story to ourselves is part – how can it not be? – of who we are. At any given time.
There’s the other fact that as I am sure you will have noticed from all the previous writing exercise posts and such, that I had all this going on at home and school was rather a disaster too. The pack scented a bit of a freak and I wasn’t able to be less freaky, at that time; I just couldn’t understand why people kept judging me as lesser, not good enough, a bit of a joke. I withdrew, and stayed withdrawn. My whole not good in groups thing. Work has been an improvement on all that, especially my last job, where I was, for the first time ever, accepted as myself in a group type situation, after hours. (I always do jobs where I work alone; but I can socialise after.)
Anyway. So I have always been an odd, delicate flower of a person; and my childhood more or less explains it. Dad was unhappy and didn’t deal with it very well, mum was doing her best, and I had a bit of an approval deficit problem looming.
The Dark is always with me. Even on good days, I feel it in the background. I am just well capable of ignoring it, those days. On the bad days, I see the light, but I think it’s a lie other people indulge in – the truth is that it is, and always will be: Dark. I wish I could be in on the lie too, of course, but on those days, I can’t. I can only just about do what’s needful on those days. Yes, I think of suicide, I always have thought of it. Once I tried it and failed, despite my best efforts. Raven Digitalis has memorably called this feeling the Goddess Suicidia – “she challenges our fears of Being”. I’m afraid I can’t reference that properly, as he said it on Facebook on a status ages ago – it just caught my thoughts: challenges our fears of being. That is exactly what I am afraid of: being here, dealing with everything. When I think of suicide, I am aware what I actually want is to Go To Sleep, and Wake Up When I Feel Better; or next week sometime. I DO want to stay here, I just want a bloody good rest. And a brain clean…
Eric Maisel’s new book that I am going to talk around for the next 2 posts, is a book of 2 halves. The first half posits that there is a difference between regular human unhappiness (however profound and longlasting or persistent) and this modern beast we have come to know as ‘depression’. The second half talks of ways to take care of yourself and your mind, your body, to minimise the effects of human unhappiness. It’s a lot about existentialism, a lot about not surrendering all of yourself to a label, no matter how comforting it can be to finally have one. To take some control and personal agency back, from where you can actually lose it, in the medical system, and do some helping for yourself, quietly, gradually and at your own pace. To learn to stand bravely in your life, knowing it won’t always be good feeling, but knowing you always have some kinds of tools to help you try to Be. Gently.
Now I’ve explained where I see my own Dark as coming from, and the fact I am still, on and off, in thrall to it, I will state that some days I can’t existentialize my own way out of a paper bag. And I will ask him about those days. I don’t agree with everything he says – but he has some very useful things to say, and they are well-reasoned. We’ll start on them in the next post, with a little background to his ideas too – he isn’t the only one worried by the way we are laying down as a culture and wishing to be Made More Normal (by the same people who told us we are Not)…
Come back soon…