A FAREWELL FANTASY FROM A TIRED, SAD IMPOSTOR
Part One of a Two-Part Memoir
I was incredulous. My plan had been to become the Paris-based correspondent for NBC's Huntley-Brinkley newscast. I was both furious and hurt. Oddly enough, the thought that maybe I could become an elevator operator at a local department store called "The Paris" lifted my spirits. Up and down, in and out, back and forth -- it seemed suited to my psychic swings, which had already become a foreboding aspect of my character. "Going down, please," I practiced, aiming at a modulated resonance. I'd have to be a real Renaissance elevator operator though -- I was raised that way. I could unsettle my captive audience by reciting disturbing literary passages -- from Poe, for example. Pits, you guys! Pendulums!
I always thought that if Poe were alive, maybe the two of us could shack up. In a menage, with Salvador Dali. We'd live in a spooky mansion, and we'd play out our bizarenesses together like it was jazz improvisation. Cool! And we'd love each other for what we were, ain't that right Edgar? Evermore!
|My inner life was masochistically morbid.|
As the expectations and glorious promises of life unfolded a bit more each day, I swung between panic and virtual catatonia. I didn't get it. I didn't want it. It was a chemical thing, maybe? I didn't even like the sunshine. It seemed artificial to me -- a cynical device to make us think everything was fine. I don't take kindly to being manipulated.
I was under water. I was numb. "I feel like I'm dreaming, Mama," I said repeatedly during my childhood. "Where is the universe? Where does it end? What is forever?" God, the confusion tore me up. It tore my mother up, too. She didn't like being reminded of these conundrums.
Everything seemed unreal, except for a thing called mortality, which had still not been fully explained to me (because I was "tender," to use my southern Grandma's term), but was haunting me anyway. Whatever it was, it somehow seemed to render whatever lay between here and there utterly pointless.
|What was the point?|
‘HONEY, I ADVISE AGAINST IT’
Tender or not, I got an unredacted, life-altering introduction to the mortification of the flesh when the father of my best friend gave me what I wanted for my 13th birthday: an invitation to watch him perform thoracic surgery.
My own Daddy said, "Honey, I advise against it."
But I just had to find out what the big secret was that is hidden -- like some twisted form of false modesty -- beneath our skin. As if it's none of our business! I sensed that it was perilous territory, but I had to know, and I certainly wasn't getting much enlightenment from the dry, tidy, pink-and-blue illustrations in my encyclopedia. (A Catholic neighbor accused me of "scrupulosity," which sounded to me like a compliment. "It's not, I assure you," he said. "You need to watch your step.")
I was a child who had always been afraid of new places and new people. I didn't dare swim, skate, ski or even get onto a bike. But when I gaped down into that ominous swamp of a clamped-open chest cavity, I saw what it was that I really feared.
|It gurgled, dripped and gasped.|
BLOOD AND GORE, AND SO MUCH MORE
What I confronted that day is commonly referred to as the abyss, but I had the misfortune of seeing it not merely as a dark pit, or an existential vision of vast meaningless, but rather as a horrific welter of blood and shuddering yellow organs; of a gurgling, wheezing, echoing sort of sigh; of shredded tissues and flaccid glands.
The assistants kept pulling blood-soaked towels out of the patient's chest and throwing them against the wall. The "surgical theater" was spattered with blood like we were the Manson family -- I swear to god. This was in the Sixties, so maybe it's more civilized today. Or maybe it's even more barbaric -- everything else is.
It was all dripping quite loudly inside his body, like in the subterranean mazes people sloshed through in oldtime horror movies.
The delicate and the monstrous coexisted in total apathy, as uncaring as the jungle. One wrong poke and the guy would drown in himself. He'd be dead meat. His meat already looked pretty dead to me. Ready for the marinade.
Like Freud confronted with the topic of oblivion, I fainted. Crash! (The Buddha was protected by his father, the king, from these realities until he was in his mid-30s. He freaked out, too.)
KEEP YOUR DISTANCE
The staff pretended to think it was kind of cute and funny that I had taken one look into "the heart of darkness," and promptly plunged into unconsciousness. But they also knew, I believe, that if they were really to look -- in the open, defenseless way I had -- they would be on the floor right along with me.
In one morning, I became an atheist, a nihilist and a vegetarian. I stopped listening to "Blood, Sweat and Tears." There was just too much juice involved.
I have regarded my body as meat ever since, just one step away from putrefied "food for worms."
I always wanted so much not to be sickening, but now I realize it's part of the package, even before you die. You're a stinking mess under that rosy, well-hydrated epidermis -- even if you're a Victoria's Secret model. Even if you're one of our nation's noble fighting men, whose guts come spilling out so readily and malodorously. It's disheartening. Why even bother with cologne -- it's such a feeble, self-deluding gesture. When I smell cologne, it just makes me sad.
|We're meat. Our poignant effort to deny it is the biggest coverup of all time.|
L’ENFANT TERRIBLEGiven my graceless entrance into the world, my inability to cope normally with this "wonderful life" isn't surprising. I slopped into being, bearing a message of shell-shocked foreboding, a look that said, "We're in for it, people." The nurse said, euphemistically, "What an expressive face!" What she meant was that it's not typical to see such a stunned, freaked-out inconsolability in a brand new baby, even though leaving the womb must be kind of a bittersweet experience for everyone. An envoy from purgatory I was, slimed up and bloody, foreshadowing the dramatic flair (the shrinks call it hysteria) that I would bring to all my performances.
|I wouldn't let anyone hold me -- and they didn't want to anyway.|
I AM NOT CRAZY
Can we agree that the Earth is dominated by suffering, corruption and catastrophe? The universe has no compassion whatsoever. It is worse than cruel: It's just not interested. The whole setup is flawed, to put it mildly, from the word go, and it's only getting worse. It's doomed, we're doomed. Why deny it?
To say that I realized this the moment I was born is absurd, of course. But I believe I sensed the basics even before that, having emerged from the womb of a beautiful woman who had been sad and terrified most of her life. I had been floating around in her warm, wet pain for quite some time. Osmosis occurred.
My infancy was devoted almost entirely to vomiting, which in retrospect seems like an appropriate response to the reality I had entered. I have been nauseated most of the time ever since.
(UPDATE, August 2013: A new study conducted at Vanderbilt University indicates that forty percent of children who have functional abdominal pain go on to experience anxiety disorders and depression into adolescence and adulthood, compared with 16 percent of those who had never had these stomachaches.)
|It might be indigestion. Or maybe it's existential heartache.|
When I read a half-century after I was born that the gut is now regarded as our "second brain" -- as an actual "nervous system" -- it was for me a great affirmation of the doubled-over shit I'd been feeling all my life. My enteric nervous system is more attuned to me than my mind is. I have always sensed that.
Learning to say "Mama" had a disastrous effect: It set in motion a stutter that I've never overcome, which is why I'm writing this, instead of putting it on YouTube. Mamamamamama.....don't get me started, you'll be here all day.
|A scream of terror is the backdrop of my life. / by anton van stratten|
For decades, I lived a lie -- the lie of a satisfying, even glamorous and exciting -- life. I have to admit that I did it well (and indeed, I was a "smart dresser.") Ultimately, it exhausted me. Each day, I had to compose my face into a tableau vivant that reflected warmth, openness, good humor, joie de vivre. This was an excruciating exercise, which required considerable muscle retraining. I guess I did OK, though. I was often, incredibly, accused of being "serene." I was compared more than once to one of Botticelli's placid maidens.
|I bet her tranquil visage masks a world of hurt. / by Botticelli|
The imperative to perform turned my days into "It's showtime!" (remember Bob Fosse's autobiographical movie "All That Jazz"?). I got more than my share of applause, but being on stage, and getting my lines right, seemed as meaningless as everything else. It didn't register.
|"It's showtime!" the depressive Roy Scheider told himself each morning in the movie.|
It didn't register, because I was a fraud, and I have been for most of my life. Making myself up -- in order to fit in, to function, even to go on -- was devastating to my health and my integrity. There was the constant fear that I would be "found out" -- that the real me would be discovered: ugly, crazy and inept. I remembered reading about light-skinned black people who tried to "pass" as white, and I thought they must walk around with this same sense of foreboding in their stomachs. The only way I could have been authentic is if I had been institutionalized in a place that lets crazy people be crazy. That was a consideration, until something happened to me that made me vow never to be confined again -- never again to be under anyone else's power.
|"Captive" / by jel ena|
He said I belonged to him now, and that I would never be freed -- that I would be "turned out" and prostituted. He had rented a room, he told me, in the Left Bank sector of the city. He would bring men up from the street, and they could do anything they wanted to me. "Your ass will be my meal ticket," he said in French.
I believed him. It seemed hopeless. No one in the world knew where I was (my parents assumed I was still in London doing research).
SEE ME, FEEL ME, TOUCH ME, HEAL ME
Millions of people have recovered, with beautiful humanity, from far worse than what I went through. They are resilient. I am not. On some level, I guess I believed (without ever having consciously realized it) that deep inside me I had a wellspring of courage and dignity that would manifest itself if it were ever really needed.
|The blush was off the rose. / by Salvador Dali|
I closed up shop in that aspect of life, never to open again. I am dead down there, except for the fissure in my lower bowel, which still rips open and bleeds every few months, 45 years after I was rammed and rammed and rammed, until I felt certain it was going to kill me. If it didn't, I assumed he would use some other means, when my body ceased to provide him with any pleasure or profit. To let me go seemed like a crazy risk, but he did.
He must have known that the Parisian police were a bunch of lazy pricks, who would blame me for being stupid enough to travel alone, at such a young age, staying in cheap hotels.
I HAVE NOTHING, NOTHING, NOTHING...IF I DON'T HAVE ME
Alcohol was my salvation. It enabled me to continue living my "normal life" for about 10 more years. It can be a magical medicine, until it becomes a poison. The best work and the greatest friendships of my life would never have happened without its comforting yet energizing influence.
Then, it turned on me, as addictions are wont to do, and both my work and my friendships fell apart. There were drunken episodes that live on in urban folklore. I was getting crazier by the minute. The aisles were cleared. The authorities were notified. The psychiactric hospital said, "No, you are not free to go," even though I had been assured otherwise when I signed myself in.
I did go, though. Never underestimate the influence of a well-connected lawyer. I got out, and headed straight for the liquor store. That'll teach 'em!
|It's not you, it's me. But please GET OUT! / by Salvador Dali|
The word "homebound" had always given me an irrational chill. It seemed unsavory. It had a dank smell to it. When I was urged to visit the homebound as a child, I chose to knit winter hats for poor children instead, even though knitting is way too girly for me. I was afraid of being trapped by homebound ladies, and caressed by their bony yellow fingers, and made to breathe their overheated, urinous air. I had nothing to say to those clingy, doddering remnants of humanity, with their spittle and bleary eyes. What could they possibly have to say that would interest me?
|The thought of their fingers made me shudder. / by Salvador Dali|
I have been homebound for years, not primarily by physical infirmities but rather by an overwhelming aversion to walking out the door. It's been "an endless stream/of cigarettes and magazines." My tree-shrouded fortress of a home is sealed tight, triple-locked, and surrounded by a 10-foot-tall fence. Nobody gets in.
For a few years, I managed -- with increasing difficulty -- to venture out to buy groceries at a store one block away. Day after day, even as I ran out of necessities, I found an excuse to put it off and stay at home, invisible. When I finally made my way up there -- walking in a teetering, old-lady way, despite my ability to jog quite masterfully -- and entered the store, I felt an immediate panic every time. I wanted to flee. The visual overload was dizzying. Everything was everywhere. I swallowed hard, over and over again, to push down the rising nausea.
Didn't anyone else feel agitated by the glare? Didn't it seem that all the categories kept getting changed around from week to week, as if to keep us wandering around in utter confusion? It was Kafkaesque! I needed soy sauce, where was the soy sauce, why is this store so big? It was like a fun houses or a Fellini movie. Perspiration beaded on my upper lip.
WAVES OF TERROR ON AISLE TEN
I was shaky and felt close to blacking out. I realized that my heavy breathing was attracting attention. Sorry! I only had about three things on my list, plus a bunch of fresh produce, but I had to keep taking the list out and peering at it, because I couldn't remember from one moment to the next what I was there for: coffee, oatmeal, brown rice.
My heart was beating fast, and I was hot. My skin was splotchy red. I had to get out of there.
I stopped going. I was embarrassing myself. One day, I just fell over, without warning, next to the dairy section. No one came to help me. I lay there for a moment, weak and aching, as people walked past. I got up with great difficulty. I was glad that I hadn't created a big scene, with everyone rushing to my aid (which did happen when I was younger), but I was shaken to realize that I had evolved so far out of the mainstream that no one even stopped and said, "Are you all right? Can I help you?"
Even though I have become an outcast, I am incredibly fortunate, relative to so many others. I have a home (a priceless possession), and I can afford to buy the few things I need.
But what I want can't be bought. What I want I have never had, and never will.
HOW TO BECOME A DERELICT IN THE COMFORT OF YOUR OWN HOME
Gradually, and without realizing it (or caring) -- I have become a derelict. My hair and teeth are a mess. I haven't tweezed or shaved in years. My clothes, which I never wear anyway, are pathetic.
I need a mammogram, a pelvic exam, a colonoscopy, an eye exam, a neurologic and an orthopedic assessment, physical therapy and lots of dental work.
It's not going to happen. I can't do it. Most of the time, I don't even care. When I do care, I still can't do it. I am not going anywhere. I am in "voluntary isolation," like a very responsible person who has a terminal disease and pre-emptively removes herself from others who might be vulnerable.
THE SANITARY GIRL REMAINS PURE AS A PEARL
This self-imposed isolation is fresh, clean and beautiful, not because I particularly want it to be -- in fact, it seems entirely unbefitting of my wretchedness -- but because I can't help it. Some aspects of your upbringing stubbornly persist, no matter what.
In my case, they are: Clorox, Lysol, art and color coordination. I display my copy of "Final Exit," with its blue cover (and worthless content) in my Blue Room. Etcetera. It's a compulsion. But my living quarters are very pretty as a result. Nate Berkus would exclaim, "You're fabulous!"
Being homebound makes me feel cozy. Coziness is very important to me (thus the wardrobe that consists almost entirely of long, soft men's bathrobes). It is also important because I am invisible. This cozy invisibility means that my sickness, my weirdness, my inappropriateness, my unpredictability, my bitterness and sorrow, my terror and guilt, can be private. That helps with the shame and embarrassment. It did for a while, anyway.
By the time I pulled up the drawbridge and put up the KEEP OUT sign, I had faked everything for so long, and bound and gagged what was authentic for so long, that something caustic formed in me and began eroding the rose-splashed fabric of my fictional self. Leakage ensued. What a catastrophe. What a mess, dear people. I really must apologize. I was, and still am, so broken.
|I'm sorry! I'll leave now. I won't come back.|
Surely you can understand that this was untenable, and that I had to disappear. It was my way of "giving back to the community." Kind of like chopping down the diseased tree that was the public me, hauling it away and ridding the environment of all the frantic shit that impales my brain all day, surely doing damage to the collective unconscious.
I am a maniac hag, a tortured, twisted wreck of a human being (Why even say human? Just a being. "Being and Nothingness.") There is no one who can hold me and honestly say, "You have value." No one understands, and, ironically, I understand that.
Or is it possible that you do understand? Are you one of those people who feels that you don't quite belong anywhere, and that you never have? That there is something fundamentally damaged (or at least different) about you that makes it impossible for you to connect normally with people? Does the mundane repetition of daily life leave you cold, paralyzed, virtually panicked (that you have to do it AGAIN today? and then tomorrow?) Is the predictability of everything, even (and especially) the "news" BORING YOU TO DEATH? Is your life a nightmare? Mine is!
|It's not supposed to feel this way, is it?/ by Salvador Dali|
WHAT'S ON MY MIND
|Why bother? It doesn't hurt enough. / by mykeala|
Let's please get one thing straight: I don't feel sorry for myself. I hate myself.
I HAVE A SCREAM
Despite the superficial peace of my solitude, in my disinfected, artsy fortress -- which did calm me down for a while -- I have to report that I'm cracking up.
|Ah, a new day dawns. / by Salvador Dali|
How odd that such passivity and such aggression can coexist in the same Elderly Girl.
GOING DOWN, PLEASE
Wow: I'm going down fast. I've been saying that for so long, how can I still be up here, with all of you decent, normal people, living your good-natured and worthwhile lives, looking forward to things and being brave and organized and compassionate? I don't know! Maybe not much longer! I'll miss your happy faces. I've been watching you from my turret all these years, and I feel great affection for y'all.
|Your soccer games, barbeques and pops concerts are so heart-warming!|
Also: Is it ironic -- or hypocritical -- that when I read about a suicide, I think it is the saddest thing in the world, and I wish so deeply that I could have been there to put my arms around the person and persuade him or her not to do it? Messed up brain circuitry, right?
I have what I need to do the deed: a treasured stash in a velvet-lined cedar box. God, that lovingly curated death enabler has been a comfort to me, giving me the prerogative, each day, to proceed with life or not. While I had coffee and listened to NPR, I held my hand over it for guidance, as if it were a Ouija board. Everyone should have that choice. I believe FDA-approved suicide kits should be available without prescription to anyone over 30. I wouldn't mind if they made us have a counseling session first, like some states do before an abortion. That doesn't seem unreasonable.
But I've had plenty of time to think it all through. For years, during my thirties, moments of ambivalence stopped me -- feelings of radiance and gratitude -- because I love a lot of things on Earth, such as music and clouds.
At this point, the things I love are vastly outweighed by the things that torture me.
|The grunting, naked squat of the barely human. / Bjorn Veno|
Please don't judge those who yearn to die. They are not your inferiors in any way. People who condemn suicide are as moronic as those who romanticize it. It is a choice -- a valid one -- and a matter of personal autonomy. It's nobody's business.
JUST HAVE ONE SLICE
Cutting yourself open might seem straightforward enough as a suicidal genre, and I know a couple of people who've pulled it off, but what if it takes so long to bleed to death that you change your mind in the middle of the whole thing, and then you can't stop it? I can't face that. Shit -- let's not even discuss it....I can feel myself draining already. I don't want to lie back and watch myself die.
I want it to be like general anesthesia. First you're there, then you're gone. It's beautiful.
I never understood why anyone would use a gun, but I had come to believe it was actually less scary than pills. Now that I've done some reading on it, I'm afraid I'd manage to screw that up, too, and still be alive, with gooey brain tissue all over the wall and my eyes popping with hysterical regret. I'd still be depressed, but I'd be stupid as well. (My compulsion to research everything really cramps my style. "Just say YES, and do it, you stupid little bitch!" Nancy Reagan would say.)
|I should have just drunk the Drano. Or is that even stupider?|
I have been advised by certain ever-encouraging email correspondents to jump off a building or bridge. It's a refreshing prospect, to fly like that through the air, but the splat intimidates me.
|The beauty is too incongruous. I require congruity. / by Eric Drooker|
Here's yet another silly angle to all of this: Despite my interminable (make up your mind! or stop yakking about it!) suicidality, I am a model of healthy living, treating my body as a shrine and a quite rewarding sculptural project.
I can't help it, any more than I can resist the Lysol and Clorox. I was programmed very skillfully by my upbringing to value health and to pursue it in in a very conscious and scrupulous fashion. A baked sweet potato in one hand, a Glock revolver in the other. I ought to be on SNL.
In spite of everything, I still value beauty and intelligence. I bring both, in my opinion, anyway, to the care of my body.
I have been a vegetarian for many decades. I eat the most exquisite, nutrient-packed foods imaginable: brightly colored vegetables and tropical fruits, brown rice and beans, tofu and ancient whole grains. As I chew and swallow them mindfully, I visualize the vitamins and minerals, the antioxidants and enzymes, enlivening the mysterious metabolic processes that sparkle in my internal universe. I am so averse to eating anything but these foods -- not even a bite of pizza or cheesecake -- that it has been characterized as an eating disorder: Orthorexia.
I don't agree. Disorders create anxiety or are disruptive. They are maladaptive behaviors. My health regimen is very adaptive. It is about the only thing I have that brings an aesthetic and moral dimension to my life.
|No caption required. It speaks for itself.|
|I jog in the dark, so I can unleash my inner Beyonce without inhibition.|
RUNNING ON EMPTINESS
I'm also jogging my brains out every day -- as I have been since the early '80s -- and lifting weights. WHY? If I am so hopeless and exhausted? HOW? Because it is magic. I have a killer body. That's a big-time exaggeration, but I'm making quite a bit of this up, so just take it in that spirit.
I don't do life modeling for art classes anymore, since I don't leave my house. But they want me so much, throughout the region -- because of my rippling, striated muscles and my graceful, sometimes disturbing poses (influenced by both ballet training and existential angst) -- that they accept enlarged photographs instead. I never show my face, of course.
Since -- despite my depression -- I am apparently able to summon such dedication and discipline, why did I choose to focus on my body? It seems like my priorities are questionable, even to me. Surely there are much more meaningful ways to expend your energies. But somehow, my physical health became my oeuvre, my life's work. Stupid, but better than nothing.
|I am not vain about my body, but I do find its malleability to be entertaining.|
It's not unnatural -- it's just uncommon. In a person as weak and paralyzed as I, it is helpful to have some kind of strength, even though it is superficial and not particularly useful. The icing on the cake will be my new tattoo (maybe):
For years, I've had this scenario in my head: It's nighttime, and these young guys at the crematorium wheel in my covered body to slide it into the oven. "She offed herself," one of them says. They remove the plastic sheeting to reveal the most mind-blowing female physique they have ever seen. They are taken aback. They are sad and shaken. They say, "Man, what a waste. That is totally messed up." Maybe there would even be a tear or two involved. It comforts me a bit to think that someone would feel bad for me, even if it's just because of my delts and quads.
Anyway, I'm looking for alternatives to cremation. Air pollution. That's a big deal to me. You shouldn't have to breathe my ashes!
(Part Two of this memoir (if you can stand it): http://kronstantinople.blogspot.com/2013/07/the-howler-breaks-free-and-screams-into.html)
There are some very interesting new options to the crematorium and the grave, described about halfway down this rather long post on the funeral industry, "Dead Man's Party:" (http://kronstantinople.blogspot.com/2011/05/for-memorial-day-its-dead-mans-party.html)