Penknives & Poetry
“It must be exhausting having your mind.”
- The only person to ever describe me accurately.
When Elliott Smith’s girlfriend found him standing in their house with a kitchen knife in his chest, making no attempt to save himself and leaving no explanation but a Post-It note begging God’s forgiveness, people were quick to accuse her of murder.
They’d had an argument, she’d left the room, he’d committed hara-kiri — this didn’t seem a plausible or rational explanation for plunging a knife into your chest. Twice. A record producer ‘confirmed’ these suspicions by saying that Smith had contacted him only a week before, asking him to mix his new album. It seemed illogical (nay, unbelievable) that someone who was making plans — who had aspirations, intentions and good reason to live — could have committed suicide.
This is how most people see sadness: they rationalise it, and in so doing show that they are undeniably strangers to it. They look at taking your life as if it were some pencilled-in event up on the wall alongside the next PTA meeting; a fate reserved solely for bankrupt, divorced drug-addicts. They can’t fathom the idea that at any given moment a person with a perfectly happy life would just drop everything to close their eyes forever. They look always for meaning and never at feeling; never accepting that maybe the deceased acted on impulse, or were just tired.
They think about what these people were feeling, but don’t feel it. I mean, sure: they know heartbreak, grievance, disappointment and loss — everyone does — but the people who ask these questions haven’t danced with depression; haven’t been consumed and scarred by it and emerged the other end, heart pounding and eyes wider than they’ve ever been. Aren’t even familiar with the concept. Most aren’t.
Most don’t know what it’s like to be in control of your life one minute, coping as best you can through whatever means necessary (cigarettes, words, people, pills) and then, often for no more reason than a stray comment, thought or fleeting feeling, feel the emotional balance inside yourself tip; the axis of your mind upturn, and suddenly find yourself staring into nothing but your own insanity. To know what it’s like to have two, warring sides to your mind and to finally give in to the wrong one. You’d have to be insane to understand it.
I get overwhelmed. I play on my paranoia and I can’t forget anything negative. I stepped on a woman’s toes when I was walking around Techniquest and I still feel guilty about it. I was eight years old when it happened. I scratched my aunt’s hand when she tried to kiss me as a child — I apologised immediately after, but still lose sleep over it. If people don’t reply to my emails or seem to ignore me I wonder if I’ve done something to offend them. I read too deeply into everything: weighing up potential reasons in my head until my suspicions become certainty and then I resent them back the way I’ve convinced myself they hate me. This is the result of having two minds. Two (bi) extremes (polar).
How did it come to this?
As a child my nose was constantly where it shouldn’t have been. I remember once rummaging through my parents’ shelves and coming across a folder from some self-help group my mother had been a part of. In it was a personal survey, the contents of which I found mostly uninteresting, but one line fascinated me beyond measure:
Name one goal you feel you’ve accomplished better this year than last.
Beneath it lay a single word:
It was dated that year. Why would my mother, a woman seemingly incapable of anything but happiness, have written that? I’d seen her every day of my life and she hadn’t smiled any less last year than she had this. Surely that was the defining sign of happiness? But it was more than that that shocked me: I assumed everyone to be happy. Obviously there were times when people got angry or upset, but on the whole, happy was the default emotion, wasn’t it? How could something so instinctive and constant possibly need to be a ‘goal’? I never mentioned finding the survey, but these questions stayed with me throughout childhood. They made me doubt things I had previously taken for granted: the assumption that all people are innately happy, that smiles and cheery conversation express this, and that to be happy is to be ‘right’; to be normal.
As I grew, I observed emotion: I noticed more and questioned more, and while the answers I received were ones suited for a child, they still aided in furthering my doubts. Our doctor who unexpectedly retired: why? His happiness ran out. That neighbour who made himself die: why? He was very sad, all the time. By my teenage years my view on happiness was that it was just something that happened: an emotion; a perspective; a state of mind existing somewhere between consciousness, false hope and desire — gratifying, beguiling, but neither right nor wrong. I noticed people feign it a lot, as if they believe (as I had done) that being happy is normal; a compulsory part of existence and — unless arguing or grieving — it is a sign of weakness to be seen feeling otherwise. That just because my mother smiled and filled the house with song as she did the washing up did not mean she was a stranger to sadness.
There’s too much in my head. It won’t come out and I’m exploding. Help me.
Do not think I’m accusing the majority of people of intentionally hiding what they really feel. It’s more that I’m observing how we’ve been brought up to behave this way and rarely question it. People have better things to do than dwell on their day-to-day emotions and it’s not as if, upon birth, you’re given a pamphlet detailing what it’s like to feel ecstatic, mournful, jealous, depressed; we’re left to figure these things out, and it’s often someone else who notices it before you do — at least the first time.
The person who’s spent the last hour with an old tune stuck in their head and thinking about their departed grandmother does not receive an immediate telegram saying ‘YOU ARE FEELING FORLORN’, they just carry on with their day until a colleague asks if they’re okay — says that they look a bit down — to which the person, with full conviction, replies that they’re fine and makes a point of smiling to prove it. It isn’t until later that evening, when they’re thinking over their day, that they realise maybe they were feeling sad. In a society where happy is healthy and all other states of mind are seen as illnesses if they persist more than a few days, it’s no wonder people don’t devote more time to thinking about their feelings.
For me it started when I was fifteen. I’d find my mind wandering, especially on tasks I normally enjoyed doing: reading and writing, especially. Before long my enthusiasm had drained altogether: reading fiction seemed irrelevant to real life, and I had no desire to read about other people. There was no point writing, just as there was no point socialising or finishing homework or getting dressed. It wasn’t all the time, but it was recurring. I had times when I’d feel like I was watching the world, but not in it. Other times I was very much there, but couldn’t identify what I was: I knew I wasn’t happy, but similarly I knew I wasn’t sad; sad is crying, wanting something that’s out of reach. If anything I was numb: I felt as if a shadow had fallen over my vision, hiding everything but myself. Passions, activities, purpose, people — for some reason these were outside my mind, and all I could think about was myself. And I did think. Deeply.
At first there was a stranger in my mind. Whoever he was, he wasn’t nice — and he drained me.
Identifying depression is the first step towards dealing with it. Not overcoming it, as such a thing is impossible, but learning to see it for what it is and to live with it, not under it. By the time I realised that what I was feeling was depression I’d been victim to it for the better part of a year: I’d stay indoors listening to music made by people just as confused as I was, I’d lost all ability to concentrate on set tasks and — subsequently — all concern for my grades. Instead I would spend my time asking my mind why? What had I done to deserve this?
Then the stranger was my mind. There were times when I’d feel numb, strange, different.
Identifying this feeling meant I could finally address it: find a way to be in control of my mind again. But when I went to reclaim my head I found it already occupied. Call it whatever you like — ‘inner demon’ seems appropriate — one mind had somehow become two: there was something new, giving off manic depressive thought, in the place where my rational mind once stood alone. Both of them now fighting over control of their host: me.
I hate sounding as if I’m part of some cheesy sci-fi film and that I’m at the mercy of my own mind, something my father forever berates me for saying when I try to explain my inability to do things I long to, but it’s the truth. We all are: but most people’s minds are one-sided; they’re on their side, and so it doesn’t bear thinking about. In the same way we don’t choose to feel nervous or ecstatic, I don’t choose what I can and can’t do, think or feel: it does. I’m a casualty in the war for my own thoughts. I can’t stand the idea of something thinking for me — if I could I’d have submitted to the depressed half of my mind long ago. This fear is why I’ve never taken antidepressants despite knowing full well any doctor, given half a chance, would gladly prescribe them (or ram them down my throat) if they knew what my mind was like. I don’t want something smiling for me.
My mind is a double-edged blade with no handle. However I approach it, I get hurt.
It’s hard to pinpoint the moment it happened — nor is there any need to — but the result was an eternal conflict in my head, subsiding only when one side submitted temporarily to the other, relinquishing half my mind’s grasp on me. The longest submission so far has been nine month: during that time I’m almost original me, just more cautious and worrying because I know I’m standing on a precipice awaiting an earthquake. The fear manifests itself in the form of a hole in the dormant part of my mind, absorbing every negative emotion it can find. I sometimes think it’s the ‘dark side’ of my mind feeding on negativity, because when there’s enough of it the ground shakes, I fall in and the conflict resumes.
These conflicts have rendered me unable to think in anything but intense bursts. To this day I’m often unable to finish a book or piece of writing I’ve started until a ‘happy spell’ or the pressure from an imminent deadline flies my way. Standing on my own two feet in this situation — making my own mind up about when and how I’ll go about tasks — is impossible because the shaking ground of a warring, divided mind makes devoting your thoughts to anything beyond survival a greater task than I am usually capable of. My evenings are generally spent staring blankly at a screen, listing all the things I’d rather be doing.
I need to find an escape. Whatever it takes.
The only way to alleviate the conflict inside my head is not to take sides, but rather to become nobody at all: to detach myself from my mind and reside for as long as possible in the physical. The only way for someone consumed by thought to bring the physical to the forefront of existence, as I’m sure some of you have guessed, is through delivering a sensation so intense it burns the senses and forces your mind — both sides — to notice it. To notice you. In those short moments you feel alive. Just don’t be so naÃ¯ve as to think that sensation can only be delivered by a razor blade. Run your hand under hot water and see how long you can hold it; walk in the road; climb things that look dangerous; take up a dirty habit and let it kill you: for us, R.I.P. means Respite In Pain. Some choose sex or intense, muscle-tearing exercise. Starving or gorging yourself is good, internal self-harm. I hate nuts so kept an assortment of all-nut bars to eat, if I ate at all. But my favourite technique was taking up quitting smoking (yes, you read that right): I’d smoke incessantly and deeply, coughing up my burning lungs and giving myself nicotine shakes with every intention of getting addicted. When I felt the onset of addiction, a cold sweat creeping up my forearms, I would quit. Cold turkey. I welcomed the shaking, the sickness, the sleepless nights. When lying in bed, the thoughts that spent all day swimming around your head flow down your entire body: keeping you up all night twitching, squirming, punching and screaming into your pillow — victim to your thoughts. A form of pain that also removed the need to sleep was very welcome.
I am my own suffering and will be my own destruction. But I know no alternative, so I accept this and deal with it. I can either be consumed by my demons or face them and bend them to my will. Use this madness to my advantage. What can’t kill me can only make me stronger.
It comes to a point where you’re doing these things more and more, just to hang on to ‘yourself’. But in so doing, ‘yourself’ is reduced to nothing more than a self-harming, self-fearing freak. I don’t know if it was a year or more, but I came to realise if I was ever to overcome this I had to face my inner-demons, not spend the rest of my life running from my own mind. I had to pick a side. I’d found the strength; the means to know myself through pain. I stopped hurting myself just enough to escape the demons, and began doing it to find the strength to face them. This was when I first drew blood.
It takes a lot of courage to cut yourself. I have a few scars, each with their own stories, but I’ve only really cut myself once. It was all I needed. It was my wrist. (The good side, don’t worry.)
My father was shouting at me to get out of the house. I was so late getting ready for church my mother and sisters had gone without me. Assuming I was off the hook I’d strolled casually downstairs to make some breakfast, but my father had other ideas. Not having parents who usually shouted or argued, at least in my presence, I was caught off-guard when he appeared, bellowing about my attitude and yelling at me to get my shoes on, get out of the house and walk to church. I hid my face because, though I’d never thought it possible, I had to hide a fit of hysteria: not so much tears as the full, contorted face of a spoilt child throwing a tantrum.
As I ran to my room to get my shoes I grabbed my penknife, as if in the back of my mind I knew what I was planning to do with it, and marching out of that house I felt the strength to fight a demon. On that road to a house of God I opened the blade and cut deep. For the first and second attempt I touched flesh and pulled back sharply, leaving little more than white scratches on my skin, but on the third, without hesitation or remorse I ignored the side of my head I was meant to be siding with — the sensible, worrying side — and pressed down with such strength that pulling back cut deeper and more fiercely than ever before or since. It was less of a burning (as some would describe the sensation) and more of an opening: into a new world, a new depth of perspective and feeling. Symbolic to the extent of insanity, all I remember seeing was bright neon: purples and reds of such intensity I couldn’t ever have imagined them being inside my own body. But they had been: hiding so deeply beneath layers of skin that they should never have been seen. A layer of muscle so far down that no amount of injuries I’d sustained as a child, or cuts I’d administered intentionally since then, had been able to reveal. Seeing this was unnatural: people can live long lives without ever knowing what that part of them looks like, without even knowing it’s there. But there I was, staring into this surreal work of art before the blood came and hid it from sight again. Suddenly I knew depth. Of what it is just to be; what lies beneath us all when the smiles have faded and the manners have washed away. To climb deep inside yourself and emerge, clutching the key to something beautiful and infinite that has been inside you since the day you were born yet you had never looked for it. It’s like turning around for the first time and seeing you have wings.
As I stepped along the pavement I felt nothing but strength and accomplishment. I could take on the world now. I spent the whole service grinning like a madman, standing, singing loud and knowing that, unlike these people, I could be anything. I could jump from a steeple, press burning steel to my naked skin, fall screaming, retching, bleeding into the pulpit, sending these people in their safe little lives of coffee mornings and storybook endings fleeing, the priest dousing me with holy water and praying for my soul. I wasn’t afraid to die, and could do it laughing. That was freedom. Being alive is not being afraid of the alternative. I knew then I wasn’t stable; I was mad, but only with passion for life I’d never known. Depression was a powerful ally and I’d unleashed its fury. I wouldn’t fight it anymore; it could have me.
Let’s break it down: fire, Jack Daniel’s, penknives and poetry. Four things that are never kept out of reach, but always kept hidden. Four things that make your mother worried (maybe that’s why). Inhale, cough, hold it in the flame (the knife, not the cigarette). Steel on skin. Burn. Apply pressure. Repeat.
It never saw a bandage, although if you wonder why some teenagers wear long sleeves in the summertime, there’s your answer. I used to tell myself it was a reminder that everything you do has a consequence, now I just wear it as a badge of pride. I’d opened a void, and the bigger it got the louder it echoed. I grew my hair and bought a leather jacket. I began seeing depression as a dark gift: a blessing. I saw that there is no such thing as a cure to a depressed mind, but that it offers you a different perspective of the world. An alternative to happiness. Not as a curse that rules my life, but as a part of my life — something that, when embraced, allowed me the strength and insight to do what others couldn’t. I read again. I wrote constantly. I went out, I socialised, and when the depression came I embraced it.
* * *
I found a way to stay sane. I lie to myself. Lie to myself the depression has won and the conflict is over. Lie that I’m powerful, that letting negative emotion run wild makes me an artist, a beatnik, whole again. That I can do things other people can’t because of it. Fantasies like this help me forget my mind will be in turmoil until the day I die.
I do things others can’t.
I wake each morning faced with the dilemma of which sock to put on which foot, believing that the wrong choice will cause my day to go badly. I brush my teeth obsessively, causing receding gums, and catch the bus with under a minute to spare because I can’t manage time or reach goals without a sense of urgency that supersedes whatever pointless thoughts are occupying my head. When I reach my destination I get hung-up on whether to walk on the left or the right side of every lamppost I pass.
I write incessantly.
I dug them up the other day. The journals. I must’ve repressed a lot of memories from that time, because I was horrified to find the pages matted together with blood.
During my mind’s conflict — which is most of the time — I can only make notes, and plan how I would write something were I granted the gift of prolonged concentration. I haven’t written without external pressure since I was fifteen. I keep waiting for a movie sequence: music starts, motivation kicks in along with a cheesy editing sequence of superimposed shots of me working hard and then, as the music ends, it’s done. But that’s not life. Life happens between sharp intakes of breath, where I catch my thoughts just long enough to remember I’m still here before I’m swept under again. I continue to make do with mediocre grades when I could achieve excellent ones — but, ironically, can’t because my mind is too preoccupied with achieving its own state of excellence through my dripping arms and superiority complex. Don’t you just envy me?
I’m glad it happened. I’m all the stronger for it, and I’d never change the way I look at the world now.
I convince myself my obsessions and hang-ups are now weapons that have strengthened and shaped me. They’re not. They’re scars, each one bringing me ever closer to collapse. Everything overwhelms me: I can’t make decisions anymore. Can’t handle buffets, clothes shopping or careers. The memories of every bad, guilty or paranoid feeling I’ve ever experienced are still in my head. I can’t get them out. There’s no room for more but I can’t stop them coming in. It won’t be long before it’s too much for my head to take. Bottle up and explode. And then: who knows? According to the rational thinkers, I’ll pencil in a date — somewhere after the next PTA meeting.
I didn’t give in to my inner-demons, to their madness. I confronted them. I conquered them, and became stronger for it.
I haven’t conquered the demons; I’ve become one.
I’m twenty-one now. I’ve been like this for six years. No matter what I do, happiness always seems one step further. I smile to get by. Someday a thoughtful child will see me, observe my mark of happiness, and wonder whether I know that, deep down, it’s probably not what I’m really feeling.