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Good Riddance (A Series of Masks) | 2017 | Crossing the Bridge


Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.  

-Joseph Campbell

Eidolon and Daemon

The difficulty with a mental illness - and something they should teach you on the first day of mental illness orientation - is that you are usually the person least able to explain how long or intensely you have been feeling something.

Feeling the last barbs of an anxiety attack I abated, I ask Amber if she believes that I am more neurotic than when she met me. She need think no more than a second before she pronounces that I am much better than I once was.

"Remember? You were miserable in our last apartment."

"Right," I say, "because that loading truck would grind up to our apartment at five am every Wednesday morning. I had the hardest time ever sleeping because of the traffic."

"You used to sometimes cry in the closet," she adds.

"I used to often do that," I agree.

Externally, I am better than I once was. I am fluidly social and rarely struggle to find just the words to express myself, possibly because I actually sleep most nights. I do not cringe away from gregarious strangers or feel panic when faced with unfamiliar and potentially uncomfortable situations. My l'esprit d'escalier is more like l'esprit du plancher. I have more deserved confidence. Trauma rattles me much less. My job with screaming, maladjusted teen boys has become almost a breeze as their emotional dysregulation hardly affects me.

Yet. Yet I feel a frequent low-grade panic in my breast. I know the triggers and I try to avoid them in my daily life, though this is not always practical. The core of my anxieties is a terror of losing the life I have with Amber, the best I have had. Having worked so hard and struggled so much achieving what I want, I cannot survive compromising it for what I've never wanted but which society might expect of me.

No one - least of all Amber - is threatening me. It is an anxiety that had little foundation in my life at present. I know all of this. Sometimes, this logic is enough to abate the anxiety, but not always or predictably. Every sting is potentially one that will wipe me out for hours, though I am experienced enough that no one will realize I am struggling. Perhaps the medication - or the sleep it gives me - lets me now identify how I am feeling is not who I am. This came as a major epiphany, without the relief of having finally deduced a mystery of how I function.

There is a notion that someone who grew up depressed has never has an opportunity to develop a personality that was not informed by their mental illness. In a sense, I am discovering who I really am for the first time. Prior to this, I mistook chemical imbalances for personality, since they ruled and warped my thinking. If I am not what I have thought and felt, who does that make me? Genes pull me this way, childhood programming that. A low dose of a couple of prescriptions alleviates some of the effects of the former, leaving me to wrangle with the hints of the latter. I still don't understand my role beneath these stimuli, but I am trying daily.

Without seeming too psychotic or philosophical, I am drawn to the hypothesis that I am not who I am.

The closest analogy I have found - if indeed anything so accurate can still be analogous - is the relationship between the daemon and the eidolon. I will keep this explanation simple because that is the only way I understand it myself. In brief, the eidolon is akin to the character in a video game. It moves in its prescribed way, obedient to the programmer's rules. The daemon is the player, unharmed by that which kills the eidolon. Without the daemon, the eidolon is vacant. Like any player, the daemon manipulates the eidolon for the experience of it. He may colloquially say "Oh, I died!" when the eidolon meets a misfortune, but he is not fooled long. He restarts maybe a little back from where he left off, but is only slightly inconvenienced.

I watch my eidolon act in ridiculous ways, cowering in his bed for no actual reason. I urge him to get out, since I know he would prefer not to be there either but he cannot find the right motivation. He wants to cry, but he isn't sad. I suspect crying releases some chemical his system needs, one I cannot provide him otherwise. I find workarounds, showing him videos of slam poets reciting on their anxiety and depression. Then he cries sloppily. This tends to provoke in him the desired balance, though I have to use them judiciously so they do not lose their impact.

I get lost, forgetting that I am not the character on the screen.

I am just now deciphering the rules of the coding that has ruled me. My increased awareness of my mental condition and its antecedents doesn't mean I am bucking the game, but that I am cognizant of the glitches that make me - my avatar, character, eidolon, or whatever else I may be in this world - kick. With a bit of finesse, I can kick back.

I acknowledge my mental illness the same way I do my allergies. I may not react as many or most do - and the means by which I learned this may have been unpleasant and long overdue - but my life flows best when I do not pretend the rules of other's are my rules. I will always have an allergy, though I control it with mental intervention and learned avoidance. The same can be said of my mental illness. Maybe I always was this way and I finally discovered it with exposure to a novel stimulus, just as I didn't realize I was allergic to shellfish until a girlfriend's parents made me lobster and I started puffing up and turning red. All at once, I had a context for other experiences with shrimp and crab that I took for food poisoning and an anxiety attack. (In defense of my ignorance, I grew up on imitation crab meat and rarely tried shellfish otherwise.) I did not take my allergies for who I was because they afflicted my body and not my brain, but the reaction is not otherwise that dissimilar. I am exposed to something my system does not like. Of course, I cannot summon shellfish into my system by hearing someone mention lobster in my presence, but that also means I can better modulate my reaction because it is not objectively happening.

When I let my mental illness rule me, I am creating in my mind a fictional lower world where the torture I subjected this nonexistent version (a sub-eidolon?) echoes up to me. I may have a mental illness, but letting that happen is truly crazy.

My irrational program tells me I cannot be loved because I never wanted children. It has told me I was a failure for not getting another Master's degree to teach something I would never want as a career. It told me one of the best people I have ever chanced to meet was somehow made less by a negative experience in her past. It told me that I was so unusual that I would never find long-term acceptance. It has told me a dozen other things over the years, most brutally untrue. The target shifts once I beat it, but the anxiety remains, waiting to attach itself to some new insecurity. Anxiety is useful when it produces necessary, positive, and possible changes. When it demands a time machine, when it operates solely in the subjective tense, it is long overdue for debugging and ignoring.

Anxiety is not an urgent message from my higher self. It is psychic cancer I need to keep from metastasizing. It anything, my higher self, my daemon, needs me to learn this lesson so that I can focus on the work I (he, we) need to accomplish in this short life. Maybe the intense relief I experience when I finally hit an epiphany is a leveling up because I have finally defeated the boss for this area.

I am eventually going to learn these lessons. I have begun to detach from the misunderstanding that my thoughts in the moment and my feelings have much relevance to who I am. I am what I do consistently, and I have been performing much better over the last few years. (My anxiety wants me to bemoan that I didn't figure this out sooner - all those wasted years! - to which I retort that I at least didn't put it off later.)

I wonder if I will ever be fully mentally healthy, if I have ever been this, if anyone is ever mentally sound or merely managing their sanity - sometimes far better than I am, sometimes conspicuously worse. If sanity is not the goal, what is? I imagine most who are sane by my nebulous metric do not spent much, if any, time pondering the nature, quantity, and origin of their sanity.

This talk of being an experiencer outside my direct understanding is dangerously spiritual. It threatens to suggest that all my actions and efforts, all I've done and hope to do, amounts to little more than a prolonged escort mission in someone else's game. The eidolon is not the daemon, but I cannot ignore that I do not feel like the master of this scenario. Maybe if I related more to some deathless higher self, my anxiety would vanish, but wouldn't the pain and pleasure of this world go with it?

Amber said, per an article that this world is likely to be a simulation, that she would forsake the higher reality to stay with me. This implies that I have no counterpart in the upper world, that I am no more than a non-player character (why make me this neurotic if this is the case? The programmer is a jerk). I tell her that she might want to consider downloading me to a flash drive after unplugging herself from the game. She asks if she can download our hamster Pico as well. After downloading the whole of my life, memory, experiences, and personality, I'm sure there will be room for one hamster.

When one brings up the likelihood this reality is other than the prime reality, one always questions whether it should matter. It is the reality with which we are presented, the one that comprises the totality of our experiences to date. These are the rules of our lives and the game cannot work without them, so we might as well work within this paradigm. Whatever is above or below up is not the concern of this world.

Or so I tell myself to believe.

Soon in Xenology: Mental illness and the arts.

last watched: Mystery Science Theater 3000
reading: Fahrenheit 451
listening: "Hurt" by Johnny Cash

Good Riddance (A Series of Masks) | 2017 | Crossing the Bridge

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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