Arnie lived a full life at the edge of depression. He was born in the south, warm weather, warm water. He feels that the Caribbean women who cared for him, along with his mother, over-fulfilled him. He believes that they gave him too much, everything, a Garden of Eden. Beach, swimming, boating, fishing, endless play time to run wherever he wanted, and lots of attention, a child’s paradise. This, he claims, is the first bane of his life: things came too easy. He was not prepared for what lay ahead. He wonders, too, about sexual molestation, vague images, sensations, a woman mouthing his penis, a man doing something or wanting to do something. Images and sensations in the background of his feeling self.
in this space
p.. When he was ten his father took the family to live in a “bad” neighborhood in a northern city. Tough kids, fights, struggle for survival. Arnie didn’t know what hit him, yet the challenge excited him, his first true test, breaking out of mama’s care. He suspected the easy life he led was illusory. The truth was something else and now he had a chance to taste it. Nothing can take the place of pushing oneself against one’s limits, the limits of the world. Nothing can take the place of danger.
Arnie managed, relieved to exercise his powers, hungry for challenge. He missed southern warmth, ease, the caring rhythms that once fed him. New flickers of sadness, new pleasures, new injuries. There was no way of knowing the turns sadness would take, its deterioration over time.
In Arnie’s late teens, his father died and his mother became depressed. By the time he finished college, she was permanently hospitalized. When he visited her, she offered to service him until he got a wife. His father left him enough in trust to ensure financial support until he could find his way. Arnie suffered several breakdowns as a young man but finished graduate school and established a profession. He had affairs, married, raised a family and enjoyed his work. He fought for the rights and interests of his profession and helped many colleagues. He lived a good life, although there were acts he could not forgive himself for, black marks that would not go away.
His children married and became parents, his grandchildren a source of extreme delight. I sometimes thought they kept him alive. At our first meeting, he said he would give therapy one year before killing himself. No, he was more emphatic. He said he would commit suicide within a year. It was something I held in back of my mind and I held my breath as the year passed, and another year, and another. I don’t know what I would have done without his grandchildren. Love is the word that comes to mind. What is important here is not only love but the capacity to feel it, and the light and pain in his grandchildren’s lives made Arnie feel it.
Nothing pained him more than his grandchildren’s pain. How can I say that, if his own pain was so severe he feared he could not survive it? It may sound odd, but his grandchildren’s pain was real and felt real. His own pain was part of a massive sense of collapse, a morass. This is not to say that his own pain was false or unreal; far from it. It was hideously real; it was ghastly pain. But that is exactly the point�there is a huge difference between ghastly pain in a morass and round, three-dimensional pain of a fully living soul.
Not that Arnie wasn’t alive, nor was his life merely a half-life. The situation was more wrenching. It is hard to pin down the area of hell that was his bit of life. I think of Gaudi-like twists of metal squeezing agony out of evil being, gnarled suffering, eternal damnation. In Gaudi’s metals, the more twisted life is, the more sickness of soul comes into focus. Gaudi made hard metal into mysterious, marauding presences. What eats at him eats at us. When I leave his buildings I am amazed I am intact. I was sure rats gnawed my flesh to the bone. I am less flayed than compressed, a compression that lingers and lingers.
I feel something of this twisted compression in Arnie. In his case, the Gaudi twists are invisible, the menace imperceptible. His face is pleasantly disarming. There is softness, a breast quality. You think you can get close and, for moments, you can. It is, at first, hard to believe that there is mocking laughter in his head, that he is laughing at your ills, happy over your pain. Mocking triumph. It is difficult to believe that his sincerity is a mock-up, that his goodness harbors a scoffer. Something cruel comes over him that he cannot help. Still, I cannot stop believing in his sweetness. A big mistake, he warns. I know, I know.
His grandchildren touch him beneath his doubleness. Doubleness continues but does not have the last word. Life goes on as usual. He works, makes decisions, takes care of things, supports others. An active, caring man with a secret. After work he spends gobs of time in bed staring blindly. He insists he is a ghoul.
The mocker, a heh-heh devil, was there ever since he could remember, but the ghoul needed time to grow. Arnie remembers the mocker but not the ghoul in childhood. The ghoul is a product of adulthood, slow to develop at first, a light-dimming cloud passing from time to time. In the past decade, it grew into something of a steady presence.
It takes a lot of patience to work with a ghoul. When you think you know it, it turns into something else. But certain characteristics were pretty clear in a messy sort of way. A lot of darkness, amorphous blackness, with variable clots and spreads. A lot of hate and self-hate sprinkled with self-pity. A sense of collapse or semi-collapse, offset by a malignant inner glare, a nasty turn of mind. Hopelessness. And somewhere in the hopelessness, obscure, bottomless pain.
In the outside world, the psychiatric diagnosis is depression, treated with medication. The inside world, though, is alive with crawling, slithering things, evil whispers, taunts and jeers, slimy brews, oozes of wrath percolating in moldy cauldrons, teeming dead seas, nearly invisible, inaudible, squirmy, wormy squeals. A lot of death goes on in the deadness, many kinds of deaths within deaths, some of which we will come back to later.
Insides call to insides and pills may help but do not touch secret places where life grows with little or no light. How can what is left of soul or self be hollow yet heavy, oppressive, inert, collapsed, dense, and wriggling like a cut nerve? Semi-paralyzed in bed, spirit long gone, a cemented, sunken corpse twitches with severed life.
How is this different from the scoffer, the heh-heh devil? The scoffer is more organized, a splinter of wormy steel inside Arnie’s head, exploiting his eyes, seeing everything negatively. A superior position up there, atop the upright posture, surveying deprecatingly. The heavy, wriggly ooze and soul maggots in the dark, all the squirmy things packed in deadness�they occupy the body, spread in flesh and organs, in bloodstream, in respiration. They cover and infuse the body and body-spirit, at once congealing and vaporizing bone, nerve, flesh.
What is left of the body hovers over itself, quivering, waiting for prey, for alternate body-souls to sink into, a little like one who becomes a vampire because of being vampirized. Only the ghoul is more amorphous, gelatinous, darkly transparent, ready to change shape and consistency to pour in and out of victims, to become internal pools of fury and fear and nothing. The ghoul stings and clings, a filmy parasite. Arnie’s ghoul’s specialty is to threaten. It seems to prefer scaring the spirit out of people to actually bothering to occupy them. Even momentary frights satisfy it momentarily, although being frightening becomes an addictive, consuming, full time job.
The ghoul becomes fodder for the heh-heh devil, in a brilliant tactical move. The heh-heh devil scoffs at the ghoul, pre-empting the latter’s turf. It does this by accusing Arnie of being ghoulish, triggering circuits of self-accusation. Thus, session after session, Arnie comes in repeating, like a mantra, “I’m a ghoul.” He is sheepish, confessional, dismal, ashamed, disgraced, disgusted, compulsively luxuriating in self-loathing. There is almost an exhibitionistic quality: Arnie needs to be sure the ghoul is seen and known, is somehow visible and tangible, although it can’t be seen or heard. Once he says it enough, he can go on with the session. Not that he isn’t ghoulish. But enough release occurs, so that other things come out…
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