Unstable. That is the word–unstable.

This…what I’m feeling…it’s so much more than just depression. It’s so much more than just anxiety. It’s more than just my self-defeating interpersonal strategies. It’s more than loneliness. It’s more than heartbreak. It’s more than the usual level of fear or angst. I feel unstable. Terrified. Not just scared–terrified. I feel like I’m disintegrating.

Things that are difficult and sometimes scary to me feel impossible right now. Reaching out to say “hello” to anyone feels like a life and death proposition. Walking out of my front door feels insanely dangerous. I feel relief only during sleep and while playing my game.

I am so fucking terrified right now. It feels like there is some invisible and oppressive force threatening me. I live in a reptilian state. And from here I have to function. Try to be human. Drive a car. Talk to a client or a friend. But I can’t.

I feel unstable. Out of control. An alien in my own body. Like I don’t know who or what I am. Like I’m dying. Dissolving. Disappearing. Where did I go?

I binged on food last night at around 11pm. It worked just like drugs do sometimes–numbing and calming me down enough to help me fall sleep without without the anxiety and the loneliness. And like a drug it also doesn’t work. There is a hangover.

Today I feel sick to my stomach. Today I canceled my first four patients (so that big bag of crisps I hid away for over a week cost me $400). Today I woke up late on a day that I HAVE TO get to the grocery store so that my father and aunt have food. Today I am afraid to leave the house because I have so much shame about what I did and what I look like.

Somewhere along the way life became less about living and more about managing and surviving. I protect my little world from interference not because it makes me happy but because it reduces the risk of something throwing me off balance. My boring, colorless little universe is created to keep me upright. And that universe has gotten even tinier since COVID because of how detached I am physically from other physical beings. I can’t recall the last time I strung together more than two or three days of feeling serenity and a sense of really wanting to live. February? January? Last November?

Sunday I began fantasizing ,while on a walk, about being in an inpatient facility. I caught myself and asked, “Well, what is it that you’re really after? Why this fantasy?” I realized it was about having some other entity care for me while I care for nobody. Food appears three times a day and a healthy snack can be requested. There is no laundry or washing up. The goals you make for each day are as basic as “I will eat today” or “I will attend a session today”. People are checking in with you and you don’t have to take care of them. You can just let yourself be fragile in this cocoon and it’s like…being in a protected bubble where you don’t have to work to keep it protected. It’s like…hiding in a cushioned place where you don’t have to make excuses for why you’re gone. You can just let go and rest.

What is my goal for today? To go to the grocery store so that I have food and, just as importantly, so that my family does. What is a secondary goal? To have a stroll. And what if I don’t do the latter? I will plan to to it tomorrow and I won’t be mean to myself. That’s it. I am in an inpatient facility. It’s just that I’m the only staff.

I had this intake Monday with a fellow therapist. Or, put another way, my new patient is also a therapist. I saw them come alive during the session. I watched them connect with themselves. When I checked in with them they told me that they hadn’t known what therapy could really be; that in one session I seemed to provide something they had missed out on with their therapist of eight years.

Last weekend X. told me she carries me in her heart as a way of feeling less alone in the world. I’ve had friends and patients tell me some version of this for over a decade now.

Apparently I have this gift (and I don’t think it’s exclusive to me–there are others who have it as well) to help people feel understood and loved. But I have this curse of being unable to feel understood and loved. Or that is, to let it absorb into me. And so I frequently feel alone. And it seems to be the sticking point in my life. And part of why it feels so colorless most of the time. I can’t seem to be fed in the way that I feed, but it’s not because people don’t offer it to me. I just can’t let it all the way in.

And so I binge. I stuff my face with food in the hope that the void will feel…full. And it works. For a minute. But it doesn’t work because here I am crying and writing about my pain instead of really living my life. Because I’m here wondering if I can get out of my two or three weekend plans so that I can hide from my three friends. Because I’m wondering how I’m even going to do my two sessions tonight. Because I struggle with the most basic life tasks. Because I’m wondering how I’m going to get myself into my car and to the store.

Time to pick myself up and try this survival thing again. Just one day at a time. Here I go.

My eyes are beautiful because they tell the truth. Of where others live inside me. Of where my feelings are at every moment. My eyes are disarmingly deep oceans of warmth, joy, melancholy, love and the darkest coldest storms. It does not matter what color they are. Or whether they are big or small. Or whether they are surrounded by loose bags of skins or wrinkles.

My hands are gorgeous because they are intelligent. Because they communicate and listen. It does not matter if they are thick or thin; fresh and young or old and wrinkled. These hands, like my eyes, can hold with grace and strength; with vulnerability and kindness.

I am beautiful because I am me. And others are more aware of their beauty for knowing me. And it does not matter if they are young or old. Slender or large. Dark or light. Male or female or non-binary. For once I hone in on their light, they will, if they choose to, see their beauty reflected within me.

My reader will, I hope, forgive me for what are to be my ramblings. Or, put another way, for an entry in which I am simply trying to make sense of my experience rather than describing an experience that has already been made sense of. It is, admittedly, out of a sort of desperation that I write this–a desperate need to understand the hole in which I find myself.

I was on my customary walk this morning when I noticed that the edges of the street leading into the curb were covered in orange blossoms. It is nothing new but for whatever reason I took special notice of it today. The blossoms had landed so generously upon the pavement that one could scarcely see it. I pictured in my head charmingly naughty pixies who laid the blossoms out as a gift to all of us while we slept.

As I looked at these blossoms I realized that I could only process them intellectually. That their beauty could not pierce my heart. That is, I recognized in my head that they were a beautiful thing, but my body was not involved in the experience. As such it had no healing effect on me. It dawned on me that this was the perfect metaphor for my recent miseries: my inability to feel connected, which in turn leaves me unable to take in the world and its innumerable gifts.

When it is nature’s gifts that I cannot take in I feel sad but I do not feel guilty. When it is a loved one’s gifts that I cannot take in I feel badly for myself and the other. How generous the people in my life are. Whatever may be missing in my life I dare say that I am given more quality love than many who have more than I do in terms of quantity (whether it be more income, more friends, a partner, etc). And yet this gratitude…once again, I can only access it in my head. My chest remains heavy and closed down. Incapable of fully opening itself up.

I love fiercely. Even now in this relatively shut down space I know how big my heart is. I know that it is capable of loving with as little ego as possible. And so it makes me all the sadder that I cannot seem to connect to this; that even as I say this, that even as the tears stream down my cheeks, I cannot seem to fully connect with myself.

Too frequently I stumble through my days with the goal of survival: just make it through another day intact. I long to approach a day with the goal of thriving; to feel as though I am safe and secure and full of life force that I can let loose upon the world!

Here I think of COVID. I think…I hope…clearly I am unsure but I will say it anyway: I think that COVID has exacerbated my problems. Or, put differently, has made the problems that were already there feel worse: feeling overworked, feeling the lack of partnership, the lack of touch, etc. I cannot blame COVID for my struggles, only for turning the volume up greatly on most of them. But can I blame COVID for my inability to truly appreciate the orange blossoms? I think not. In fact, I could see a version of reality in which I appreciated them all the more during this time. They could have served as a reminder that there is still so much beauty in life.

I feel like apologizing. To the orange blossoms. To nature. To my friends. To those who have fewer privileges. Apologizing for my inability to take in the nourishment that is there. Perhaps I seek pity (or hopefully just understanding) when I say that every day I do my best. When I cannot make it out of bed it is not for laziness. It is not for lack of gratitude. It is because I feel an oppressive force pushing down on me. When I cannot look people in the eyes it is because I feel ashamed of my inability to let their love in fully.

So today…what have I done today? I have scheduled three intakes and completed sending out the paperwork on them. I have exercised. I have filled out financial forms related to my future self-care. I have attempted to hold back my ego in support of a friend. I have offered to pick up groceries for my father. Even if I can only appreciate this intellectually…I want to acknowledge this. Why? Perhaps it is simply to remind myself that I am not a bad person even when I feel like a miserable wretch.

And what will I do today? I will try to help five patients who will trust me with their thoughts and feelings. I will feed myself. I will rest. I fear I will sound silly or perhaps overly desperate but…I pray that I can feel moments of inspiration. Of serenity. I pray that I may feel any love or appreciation that comes in my direction. Maybe it’s not silly to pray. It just feels strange to pray when you’re not quite sure who or what you’re praying to. But what else is left? If I cannot find faith then I’m not sure I will be able to get out of this hole. What is faith? How does one get it? Do you just will yourself toward belief? Trust that a universe that can cause so much pain will take care of you? I do not know. I only know that I am well beyond the ideas that therapy, exercise and interpersonal love will be enough. So I am not ashamed to say (no, I am ashamed to say it but will say it anyway) that I am on my knees and ready. Ready to believe in my bones that things will turn out okay. To believe that I am worthy. Worthy of love. Worthy of existence. Just….worthy.

Gripped by an exhaustion that resides in my bones, nothing save my survival instinct could stir me out of bed this morning. Nine hours of sleep and 24 ounces of coffee could not succeed in returning to me my mental or sensory acuity. I feel as though I am only half alive.

It is not an unfamiliar thing for me to feel strong and at peace one day only to suddenly awake lonely, tired and anguished the next. It is true that my sensitivity can, at times, leave me vulnerable to those passing gales of emotion that humans, to varying degrees, contend with daily; but it frustrates me when I cannot identify the source of these winds.

Without any external or internal event that I can identify as a root cause I am left with the helpless feeling that I am perhaps doomed to be a slave to my emotions or, to put it in less hyperbolic terms, I am again left with the responsibility of managing them. I can. I will. But, perhaps immaturely, I curse the heavenly beings I do not believe in for not allowing me to more frequently live with greater ease.

What was special about my four days of peace? I was not overly introspective. My activities were conducted with an eye toward enjoyment rather than self-soothing. How happy I am when I feel like an animal: simple, present, alive and without longings or neurosis. I just….am.

As I write I look down at my fingers. They are dancing lithely upon the keyboard as though they were separate and distinct beings with their own will. I pause and in that instant understand why possession myths are so ubiquitous: they are the perfect metaphor for any and all disembodied states; for those moments when one asks: “Where am I? Where did I go? Who is controlling this vessel?”

I must stop. I see that in this instance writing is making me feel more lost. I must return to the tasks that may return me to myself. Ah, there it is! The tears roll down my cheeks. “I must return to the tasks that may return me to myself”. This brought forth my tears. MY tears. Yes. I am lonely. That is all. Lonely. The bed…it held me. The covers…they embraced me. And my sleepiness but a whisper that urges me to return to my lover and companion. “I am my own companion!” I respond in defiance, “leave me be!”

“The Haunting of Hill House” – Eleanor and The Horror of Symbiosis

The following is about Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, not the Netflix show which it inspired and which is based on some of the lore. To those who wish to watch the show there are no spoilers ahead. To those who plan to read the novel, I recommend you skip this.

I spent the better part of a day struggling to answer the question: What makes a good horror story? Eventually I did what anyone would do in the 21st century–I googled it. One person defined good horror thusly: it explores malevolent characters, deeds or phenomenon; it arouses feelings of fear, disgust and/or shock; it is intense; it is scary and has shocking reveals and plot twists; it immerses one into the macabre. It’s not bad. But something is missing. It seems to name the elements that qualify something as horror, but it doesn’t define what makes good, timeless horror.” I began to think about my favorite horror films.

Let The Right One In is about two lonely and isolated children. Oskar is persistently bullied and neglected and Eli is a vampire who is doomed to remain outside of humanity. Both are “Other”–beings who cannot find love, connection and their place within humanity. The horror elements (the stuff mentioned above) are but the vehicles used to drive home the terror of isolation and persecution.

Hereditary is about multi-generational family trauma, grief and mental illness. It takes on the topics of family demons and inheritances both metaphorically and literally. It is the former that makes it harrowing and compelling, that gives it depth and dimension. Were it only literal then we would be left with another cliched film about demons.

Sadly, most horror is literal. And I say “sadly” because I believe it is the reason that so many are turned off to the idea of horror stories and films. Their experience is that horror films are there to make you look at scary monsters and to startle you out of your seat (both things can be fun if they are a part of something bigger).

So my imperfect answer to the question of what makes good horror is that it shows us something uncomfortable about ourselves. It holds up a mirror to our humanity. It is simply a good story delivered in a scary way.

And so it is that I come to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. My focus will be on but one component of the story to the exclusions of many others: the psychological component that most spoke to me and created the most fear.

She could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life; her years with her mother had been built up devotedly around small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair. Without ever wanting to become reserved and shy, she had spent so long alone, with no one to love, that it was difficult for her to talk, even casually, to another person without self-consciousness and an awkward inability to find words.

Eleanor Vance has spent the better part of her adult life tending to her demanding invalid mother. We learn at the start of the novel that Eleanor’s mother has passed. From her interactions with her controlling sister and brother-in-law we glean that Eleanor has spent her life surrounded by people who have failed to recognize her individuality. Eleanor’s thoughts, feelings and emotions have been so ignored that not even she knows who she is. Though surrounded by people all her life she is profoundly lonely while also hungry for space. Eleanor’s anger about living a life that has never been her own is the one thing about her that feels real. Her anger is palpable throughout the novel despite her need to always be “nice”.

Eleanor is invited to Hill House by Dr. John Montague. Though she does not entirely understand why she has been chosen she sniffs her first opportunity to have an adventure and to defiantly assert her independence. Eleanor steals the cars she co-owns with her sister and begins her voyage to Hill House. It is during the road trip that we are given access to the machinations of Eleanor’s mind; we see that she has survived her suffocating existence through fantasy and imagination–by creating stories in her mind that allow her to live freely in other worlds.

Dr. Montague is at Hill House to legitimize the study of paranormal occurrences. His invitations were extended to people who he knows to be psychically sensitive. Of his dozen or so invitations only Eleanor and a character named Theodora show up (there is also a character named Luke who is to someday be the inheritor of the house). We learn of a paranormal happening that occurred to Eleanor at the age of twelve when stones rained down upon her home. Eleanor was told by her mother that they were the victims of angry and jealous neighbors who chose this curious method to vent their collective spleen. Here we have further evidence that Eleanor’s mother painted a distrusting and paranoid view of the world which served to keep them symbiotically attached.

The sense of joy we feel for Eleanor’s newly found independence is almost immediately halted when we meet Hill House. Hill House is alive: a living organism with malevolent feelings, wants and intentions. Here I will set aside my prosaic descriptions and let Shirley Jackson take over:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met nearly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House…

And later in the book:

This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope.

Hill House was perversely designed to make those who enter it feel disoriented and uncomfortable; the house’s misleading angles and labyrinthine rooms seem to have been created to isolate and trap its visitors. After the first night of a paranormal occurrence Eleanor says, “The sense was that it wanted to consume us, take us into itself, make us a part of the house…” Hill House insist that you stay within it forever.

Here we are faced with the horrific and disturbing irony of the novel: Eleanor’s adventure was meant to liberate her from her oppressive relationships, to give her the space to spread her wings. Instead, she walks into Hill House. At one point the characters come across a message written in chalk on the wall of a hallway: HELP ELEANOR COME HOME. The connection between Eleanor, her past with her mother, and her present at Hill House is tenuous and mysterious. Shirley Jackson’s approach to this is more visceral than intellectual. But it is clear that Hill House singles Eleanor out as the one best suited for consumption.

Of course, the symbiotic dilemma is more complicated than this. Indeed, it would not be a dilemma were there not two sides. On the one side is the terror of subsuming the self within another; on the other side is the fear that one will be without love if one does not. In other words, along with the desire to kick oneself free is the accompanying fear that this dooms one to solitude. It leaves one with a false dilemma that does not feel false to the those who know it: I must choose to be one with the other or be forever unloved. Within this dilemma it becomes difficult to know oneself. And so it is that one of the most gorgeous moments of the book occurs on the first night at Hill House. A moment where Eleanor beautifully begins to connect with herself.

Eleanor found herself unexpectedly admiring her own feet. Theodora dreamed over the fire beyond the tips of her toes, and Eleanor thought with deep satisfaction that her feet were handsome in their red sandals; what a complete and separate thing I am, she thought, going from my red toes to the top of my head, individually an I, possessed of attributes belonging only to me. I have red shoes, she thought-that goes with being Eleanor; I dislike lobster and sleep on my left side and crack my knuckles when I am nervous and save buttons. I am holding a brandy glass which is mine because I am here and I am using it and I have a place in this room. I have red shoes and tomorrow I will wake up and I will still be here. ‘I have red shoes,’ she said very softly, and Theodora turned and smiled up at her.”

Even reading this a second time I cannot help but cry at the breathtaking beauty of this scene. We are given access to that deeply intimate moment when Eleanor begins to feel the boundary between herself and the outside. The purity and innocence of her discovery makes my heart break wide open.

But the beauty is short lived and only adds weight to the tragedy of the story. Indeed nothing in the novel is more terrifying and tragic than the simple idea that Eleanor is doomed to be a part of an oppressive whole; that she she will never be allowed her freedom. It is painful to watch Eleanor begin to give in to Hill House; to meld with the very thing that is tormenting her. Eleanor’s desire to gain freedom fades as she enters back into the familiar position of giving herself away to another.

Eleanor’s repressed rage directs itself toward the other characters (especially towards Theodora with whom she has a sort of opposite-personality twinship and for whom she might have romantic feelings). Instead of directing her rage at the house that haunts her, she turns her repressed vitriol–even if only internally most of the time–toward the other characters. Eleanor would rather be the victim of their disdain than the victim of Hill House (one calls to mind here the incident in her youth where her mother told her that the poltergeists were actually angry neighbors). One feels the constant push-pull between Eleanor and Theodora; the simultaneous desire to be closer and to break free.

Horror rarely has happy endings. And so it is with Hill House. Eleanor begins to disintegrate. The depths of her loneliness are revealed by her desire to satisfy Hill House. It is as though Eleanor decides that she can only exist within this oppressive host. The others, worried for her, send her away. As she drives away she decides to steer herself into a tree. Eleanor would rather die than not be a part of the one place that needs her.

The real horror of Hill House is not in the paranormal happenings. Yes, these moments are tense, suspenseful and scary. But they pass. The horror lies in the depths of Eleanor’s loneliness; in the fact that she took her own life before ever knowing who she was. My tears are about the fact that Eleanor never spread her wings. Hill House wouldn’t allow it.

Cocteau Twins – “Throughout The Dark Months of April and May”

In a cool, shaded forest you sit on a stump staring down at your feet. You awaken to the music of a forest imploring you to stand and amble forth. There is no beginning, middle or end–it has always been there, making itself heard to raw and open hearts. Entranced you follow a sound that insists you drink in the cool breeze; the soft, slippery green moss; the forest creatures scurrying amid the foliage.

It is the sound of a heartrending loneliness that will not let you feel alone. It places in your lap the consoling paradox that the universality of loneliness connects you to everything. The story is sung in an ancient language to which you are not meant to be privy. It is the sound of a mystery that should never be unraveled, only felt. And so it is that I have already said too much.

The red-white carnations rest in the pint glass; they look all the more beautiful for being held by something so crude. When first I felt disappointed that my one vase was occupied, I now feel grateful. Against the plainness of the pint glass the flowers can brazenly display themselves from petal to stem without vying for attention.

The conical turquoise vase atop the bookshelf contains a handful of wintry, brown-beige pussy willow. Here the flowers insist on the vase’s beauty; here, in contrast, the flowers hold the vase.

It is so wonderful that there are things in life that step-back and allow other things to flourish and shine. Without ego. Without longing. I have spent too long in my life wishing to be the flower that someone plucks with joy. But right now I long to be something solid and essential; something that requires neither praise nor admiration. I wish not to be the rose but rather the soil in which it is rooted.

It is getting close to the time of night when I try to fall asleep. I have in my bloodstream 200mg of a white pill and 1mg of a blue one to assist me in this endeavor, though both have failed me of late. I thought it might help to share a restful fantasy that might bring me peace and carry into a dream.

I arrive at a rustic home in a forest full of redwoods and mossy rocks and tree trunks. The owner of the home is friendly but reserved and they welcome me to the first day of my new job. I am to tidy the house four hours per day, five days per week in exchange for room, board and just enough money to get by on. There is a tiny town nearby where I can buy meat patties and vegetables to steam.

I work from 9am to 1pm everyday and am then free to roam the woods and read books for however long I wish. I feel no anxiety or longing and nobody knows me or pries.

The owner and I get along well. Though we are not close enough to be deemed friends they tell me stories of their deceased spouse before falling into a contemplative melancholy. I squeeze their shoulder to comfort them before heading to bed. There is an understanding that we are both sad souls and it suits us well to have these gentle moments.

Eventually the owner passes away and I am surprised to learn that they left me their home. Here I live out my remaining days quietly until, just a few years later, I pass away painlessly in my sleep. In the moments before I fall asleep for the last time I feel sadness for everything I lacked as well as a quiet pride for the simple life I created.

This is my bedtime story. Goodnight, J.

i used to derive so much meaning from helping my clients last week two clients thanked their lucky stars they had found me they nostalgically looked back on how they find me on why they knew i was the right fit for them i pretended that i was happy for them but i couldn’t feel anything i was numb it was like they were talking about someone else and i played along i can’t fathom the idea that i really exist or that i really make any sort of impact on the world i sit here in the relative dark of dusk and i won’t turn on the light because i don’t want to shine a light on this emptiness if my heart stopped beating in my sleep tonight how long would it take for someone to realize it? these tears keep falling and i keep emptying my nose of snot in the sink and then washing the snot from the sink today when i sat in the office i wanted to feel something like a desire to come back to it or a sense of safety i don’t feel like i have a home i have shelters for work and sleep but no home i don’t feel at home here i don’t feel at home in my family home and i don’t feel at home in the office i don’t feel at home in this city i don’t feel like i really belong anywhere i have nowhere to go