“And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.”
— David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
It’s been a minute since I wrote anything here. I got stuck in project mode producing a play I wrote, then spent like two months doing nothing but feeling stuck, getting blackout drunk, resenting a bunch of stuff in my life, and generally being an obnoxious miserable lump. A few weeks ago I kind of woke up. I’ve been trying to quit drinking and start doing things that are good for my mind and my heart. Cooking good food, keeping the apartment clean, spending less time in bars and more time in conversation. Trying to remember that I’m not a wreck anymore and that I am fully capable of being functional when I’m willing to put in the effort. Trying to find a job. We’ll see how that goes.
So I’ve lost track of where I was, exactly, in writing about this, and I’m gonna try to wrap it up in this post. When we left off, it was February 15, and the Presence had gone quiet. I want to address this post specifically to people who have loved ones who are dealing with their own post-psychotic universes. Because hey, there are things that you can do to make things better for that person. I guess the best way to do this is to talk about where I was, what I was feeling, and then give examples of people who handled it well, and people who didn’t.
What I was feeling: fragile. This was the moment when I felt like I couldn’t trust my mind. When deciding what to eat for lunch seemed impossibly difficult and important. Where “control your intake” meant I barely ate, I tried to steer clear of any media and art that I didn’t trust, and I would shut down conversations that got too close to specifics about my belief system. I felt afraid all the time, like the slightest push would send me back down into the well, back into the blackness of the visions and back into the dizzying pressure of being the center of the universe.
Because, see, I’d come out of the test universe. The final instructions and declaration of love that I’d received late at night on Valentine’s Day had given me the courage to move forward and leave the bubble behind. Making the decision to jump, to take that final rung of the ladder and leave the sea, was the hardest thing I’d ever done to that point in my life. All I had to do was go to sleep, and I would wake up healed. I knew this. It was a promise. But I knew that something would be destroyed while I slept. I didn’t know how much of my time in the sea I’d remember. I didn’t know if I’d wake up and find that I’d left people in the bubble universe to die. I just had to trust that all things would be reborn with me, and go to sleep. And I did, and I woke up new.
This person I am today is not the person I was. The person I am today was bathed in the sea and scoured by the sand and refined by the pressure of the deep. It’s like the back half of my life was torn off and burned to ashes. And the first time I felt an inkling of that was the day after Valentine’s Day, exactly one month after I’d made the decision to follow That One Guy through the pages of That One Book, hunting for secret messages and water sources. I woke up new. Good morning, That One Guy, the Universe, the Presence, the Source. Time to control my intake, get moving, make something worthwhile, be a real person for the first time in my life. I walked outside and the air was crisp and cold and perfect. I drank water that tasted like truth. I put my iPod on and music sizzled into my eardrums. I was Alive.
But the fear set in. It was hard to talk about my rebirth. For one thing, the gag order, DO NOT SPEAK OF THIS, was still a factor. But of course when you go through a radical shift like that, you can’t help yourself, you have to try. And I’d get stares; my loved ones seemed to see me as a ticking time bomb, someone who was going to go off again at any moment. I auditioned for a play, got a pretty sweet role, started going to rehearsals, making friends, getting involved. I threw myself into life, trying to make up for lost time. I was still pretty convinced the world was going to end soon, or that That One Guy was going to show up in the flesh, and that if I’d created something amazing, this wouldn’t all have been for nothing. Maybe he’d love me, or maybe my creation would be important to the whole-world-not-ending-just-yet cause. Whatever the reason, I had to try — one of the Rules was that I had to create, I had to work.
This is part of why I’m struggling to keep myself motivated when it comes to finding a retail or food service job. It’s super fucking pretentious to be like “oh I’m meant for something else” but like, I’d waited my whole life for a Calling and it never happened and then it happened, and now it’s like “hey ignore that whole thing and go flip some burgz.” It’s hard to swallow. I’m swallowing it, but it’s taking a minute.
Okay. So. The fear.
All those visions I had, they stuck with me. I saw what Evil looks like and what it can do. And I eventually learned, if you look for the devil, you’re gonna find the devil. If you’re seeking the Presence, trying to move toward the Source, you’ll find that instead. Call it the law of attraction, call it whatever, all I know is that the energy I’m seeking tends to come into my life. So: I had to move fearlessly. I had to forget that Evil is a thing that I could find. If I was consciously avoiding the Shroud, that meant that the Shroud was present in my mind. I had to simply make darkness meaningless and irrelevant to my life. This meant lighting everything up with joy and effort, running as fast and hard as I could, dancing in my bathroom, laughing at everything. Laughing at the dark when I could. I figured out that I don’t feel happy unless I’m doing things happily, and that I get to choose to do things with joy or misery, and that once I started choosing joy, it became less and less effort to do so.
I’m having a hard time writing about the fear part! I’m in a really good mood today. So let’s jump to examples.
My brother Noah would come visit me during this time. He’d read one of That One Guy’s books and been totally fascinated with it. He’d come over after work, we’d smoke a cigarette, sometimes I’d make him food, and we’d have long conversations about books, about philosophy, about what it was like in the sea, as far as I could describe it. This was a very lonely time in my life, because when you’re fresh out of the water, people can smell the salt in your hair, and they get weirded and keep distance. Noah made this time bearable. He never acted like he was afraid of me (even though he’s the only person I physically attacked while withdrawing from opiates). He didn’t treat me like the things I was saying were so far out there that he was uncomfortable. What he did do was establish a common language with me. Most people would just let me babble; he actually would ask me to define the things that I said, he would tell me “I don’t understand,” and ask me to explain certain concepts. He would follow the movie references I’d make when I couldn’t talk about things that were too volatile. He listened and didn’t judge.
Common language is very, very important here. One of the most difficult things about dealing with post-psychotic thought is that it’s very difficult to put into words. Yesterday I was talking to a friend about meaningful compliments and I told him that the best compliment my work has ever received was when someone who hears voices read Love & Semiotics and told me “that’s how the voices talk.” My friend asked me why that was such a good compliment. I told him that when I write, I feel like my job is more like translation than actual writing. This is an important skill when you’re dealing with someone who’s had an experience like mine. You have to reach them in their reality. Trying to tell them that what they’re going through isn’t real will immediately destroy your credibility; of course it’s real, you just don’t believe them. Remember what we talked about in one of the earlier parts here — it’s real in their head, and their head is where they live, so it is absolutely real to them. To deny the reality of the situation and avoid using the language that they establish (whether it’s demons or aliens or government conspiracy) will make it impossible to understand that reality.
(The friend I talked to about compliments and translation is a fucking master of establishing common language, and recently introduced me to the term “spiritual emergency” which is possibly the most concise way to describe what I went through.)
When establishing common language, the best thing to remember is that pretty much anything you hear from the person you’re talking to is coming through a filter and possibly a gag order like mine. If you can accept that you are getting an incomplete picture, that this is the closest this person can get to describing something real, you’re on the right track. Think of it as poetry, metaphor. There’s no word for the monsters that were chasing me, so I called them demons, not because of the religious connotation, not because they were literally demons, but because they kinda-sorta worked like demons. The Super Bowl slaughter, I wasn’t sure if there were going to be corpses and blood all over the stadium or if it would just be a million souls destroyed, people turned into walking husks. Either way it’s death, so I called it death. The metaphors people use can be terrifying. Just remember that if they’re using dark, frightening language, this can expose the urgency of their situation. Try to see lines of logic rather than words. Maybe you can help them complete the mission that will set them free.
It’s all good vs. evil, really. There’s only one story in this universe. Noah was a hero in mine. He helped me sift through the grit in my head to find the jewels. And if I started to panic because we were getting too close to violating the gag order, if I started to cry and said we need to stop talking about this, he didn’t push me. He would change the subject. Sensitivity is worth everything.
I’m already over 1800 words, so this entry is obviously going to be longer.
Speaking of demons. Here’s how not to handle a situation like this.
If you know someone who’s experiencing a spiritual emergency, do not put them on your church’s prayer chain. Do not share specifics of visions/delusions/hallucinations unless you have been given consent and you know that the person you are sharing with is going to use this information in a supportive, healthy way. If you’ve got a loved one who’s down in the well, do not scream into the well, trying to force them to communicate or to behave in a certain way. This destroys trust and is terrifying when you’re on the receiving end of the screaming. If you feel you cannot validate their reality in good conscience, validate the way they feel about it — “I understand why you are afraid of that.”
The most important thing to keep in mind is that psychosis/delusion/spiritual emergency can be incredibly healing, but that the way it heals is to break down an existing belief system and replace it with something new. So one thing that is absolutely the wrong thing to do is to go in and try to manipulate fragile, new beliefs.
The person who did this to me was a close friend of my mother, who called her up and told her that she believed that I was possessed by a demon. See? When I talked about demons, it was mental illness and I needed to be medicated. When this woman talked about demons, it went without saying that because she was a “godly woman,” this opinion was above reproach and worth acting on. At this point I was so suggestible that I would have accepted almost anything anyone told me about why I was in crisis. So my family went along with it, and they called in a man* with a “healing ministry” and we spent the afternoon praying against the spiritual forces battling inside me.
I have no doubt that there was a battle. There was absolutely a battle. But I’d been fighting through it, coming out ahead at that point, and this woman’s suggestion that I was demon-possessed planted a seed in my mind, and I spent the next two years with that one single fear keeping me awake at night. I would have panic attacks. What if she was right? What if I wasn’t actually reborn? What if I’d sold my soul, marked myself in some way? What if the exorcism didn’t work? What if I still had a demon somewhere deep in my soul like a sleeper cell, waiting to be activated by a media trigger? Maybe I needed to language fast more.
This was literally the only negative idea that continued to plague my life. Every other issue was resolved. I had become my own person, with a shiny new belief system, and it’s like this woman decided to take a chisel and intentionally put a fault in it. There are moments now when I wonder what it would take to completely remove that suggestion from my mind. When you look for the devil, you find the devil.
When my close friend Sami** took a dive last summer, I visited her in the hospital. We hadn’t spoken in several months after a terrible fight. When she saw me, she sent everyone else out of the room, had me sit down, and fixed me with the gaze of someone trying to focus through quantum membrane. The first thing she asked me was, “do you believe in demons?”
Suddenly, this rush of validation — here’s my chance to be careful in the way Noah was with me, the way I wished Godly Woman had been careful with my mind.
Demons mean something different to me than they do to her, I thought. So the answer was yes, but what I said was: Tell me what you think demons are. That way we can get on the same page and really talk about this.
Listen. Really listen. It goes a very long way.
*I feel the need to mention that Healing Ministry Man was a very nice guy who called me every night for at least a month after that, just to check in and pray with me. I have no beef with that guy. He seemed like just a nice dude.
**When speaking about other people I know who have experienced extreme states, I use pseudonyms unless given consent.