I didn't lose my mind, I relinquished it.
TW: this piece tells the story of the author’s experience with dissociative disorder/schizophrenia. Please do not read on if such content may offend, disturb or otherwise trouble you.
Wisdom is probably being able to hold, comfortably, two contradictory ideas at the same time. He couldn’t tell you where he read that, but it still rings true. So much so, that he has scarcely attended a dinner party without paraphrasing it. Picture him sitting down one end of the table, a corner seat (with a bifurcated audience, each group able to listen without straining their necks) telling you that “real maturation necessarily involves a degree of acceptance of the uncertainties of life… it’s necessary to reach an understanding that life’s edges are more smeared than defined”. This insistence is one of the very few excursions into pretence which he affords himself. Perhaps it’s a form of lip-service paid to a truly traumatic period of his life.
‘Nothing, go on’.
This is the story of a man who sought enlightenment and, somewhere along the way, lost himself in the process. Like the Knights of the Round Table who, in search of the Holy Grail, entered the forest where it was darkest – he knew he couldn’t find what he was looking for without having some skin in the game. With that in mind, he consumed that which troubled him, and challenged that which comforted him.
‘You sound like an asshole’.
‘It’s indulgent…like you don’t even know you’re being an asshole’.
‘Well, consider this my notice’.
Imagine placing a bath-plug on the surface of the water directly above the drain. As it falls, its velocity will increase towards its goal. Similarly, as he grew ever more fragile, the bandage which held together his fragile cortices tore away until any notion of He (as in himself) had melded, entirely imperviously, so indistinguishably, with you, me, her, him and it. Recall a drawing by Ernst Mach: an office, the foreground is framed by the arch of a nose and the underside of the upper part of an eye-socket, the torso and legs of a body lie outstretched, away from our vantage. It is said that the drawing drove British Architect, Douglas Harding, temporarily mad. Apparently, he lost any sense of self, as distinct from anything else. As though he had become a plane, empty except for the odd, vaguely familiar, idea or thing which might appear from time-to-time.
Like Harding, he too became aware of this sensation (i.e. feeling like an indiscernible gallon in the primordial slush). Unlike Harding, he didn’t just have this experience and go back to drawing buildings. This became his reality for a long time. A home from which he would holiday only temporarily.
‘No, it’s not like that’.
‘Well, how can you dissociate from something you no longer consider to exist?’
‘Tautology, that’s how’.
‘You’re being too cerebral’.
‘You sound like Woody Allen’.
‘Timothy Leary would call it ego-death’.
‘Yeah, well, he had a two-way ticket’.
‘They’re not mutually exclusive’.
Picture a swimming pool. It’s warm out and Douglas Harding stands by the edge wearing his togs and sipping on a margarita.
'Or whatever British people enjoy: a pint of lager maybe… or a Guinness… is that British?’
'Isn't that in Britain?'
Placing his Beefeater Gin by the edge of the pool, Harding tightens the string around his waist and dives in. In the water, Harding is transformed. The skull which, only a moment ago, housed Harding, split against the concrete floor and a Harding-based liquid poured from the crack, quickly dissolving into the surrounding water. He floated, for not more than a minute, but long enough to take it in – before he found himself back on the surface eating some fish and chips.
Now picture a lake. It stands on a plateau carved into the side of a Swiss Alp and you pass it on your way to the peak. The closer you get to it, the faster you walk, and though you know you ought to not swim, for it would only slow down your hike, and potentially end it by reason of hypothermia – the homunculus in the driver seat nonetheless obliges the urge. Soon you’re running, tearing off your shoes, socks, and clothes as you go. As you approach, you can feel the joints which bind your toes fighting so as not to shatter like icicles against the snow.
You convince yourself that if you run fast enough, the blood will keep pumping. Suddenly, like a meteorite approaching a black hole, you realise you’ve crossed that lake’s event horizon and, though you have no idea what may lie in wait for you at the bottom of the lake, you know it will leave a deep impression. The better, albeit less determined, part of yourself demands that you change your course – but it’s too late. Plunging into the depths, you, like Harding, feel your you-ness, quickly fading into it-ness. Trying desperately to hold on to whatever it is that makes you you, you spring for the surface of the water, only to crack your head on thick layer of ice which has formed above you.
‘It’s really not that violent’.
‘Well you should see your face when it happens’.
‘So, it looks pretty terrifying’.
‘Yeah, well you’re not there’.
‘Window to the soul’.
‘Don’t give me that “window to the soul crap”’.
Have you ever lost your mind, even for a moment? Like when you say orange enough times that it stops being a word? And the concept of orange becomes a metaphor for the absurdity of reality?
Sartre talks about having that feeling when he looked at a waiter and he couldn’t believe how waiter-ish he looked. Like in that moment he wasn’t Greg, he didn’t study at the Sorbonne and he wasn’t worried about his receding hair-line. For all we know he wasn’t really human. He was a slave-android who’d dabbled in inter-dimensional travel.
Well it’s like that except you can’t intellectualise it. You lose the platform from where you could even launch such an enquiry. Some people find it more harrowing than others. He wasn’t too bad, as far as they go. The first few times were rough. And, don’t get me wrong, he still gets scared. But it’s not like he hallucinates gorillas with chainsaw members. Just feels like a foreigner to everyone and thing around him. You shouldn’t trust him with heavy machinery but he’s not gonna apprehend your grandmother for being a space monkey. It could be worse. He could be blind…or ugly.
'Why has the tone changed?’
‘It’s a choice’.
‘Sounds like you’re trying to be Hemingway’.
That said though it did scare him to read he was gonna die young. Younger anyway. If not because of some disorganised neurochemistry, then because of the co-morbidities (a polite way of saying alcohol, pills and suicide). He was fine in that regard, at least. The only co-morbidity that might affect him is embarrassment. Like crying on a train or salivating inappropriately in a team meeting at work. Yes, these had happened and no, he didn’t return to either the next day.
‘I wasn’t fired’.
‘I know. Your saliva took care of the flames’.
‘You’ve dissociated into the arbiter of all things comedy I suppose?’
‘Not how that works’.
‘Can we wrap this up?’
‘Any closing thoughts?’
‘I wrote something actually.’
‘OK… “Hell really is other people, when everyone is someone else”’.
‘This from the guy who says that a King Arthur reference is pretentious’.
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