Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Epiphany Chronicles I: The Disconsolate Chimera

January 4

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them. The Word in the desert
Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.
~T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”

The day went well until the afternoon, when I began to feel exceedingly tired and grumpy, and it got progressively worse as day went down to evening. This went beyond a simple mood or a physical state even though I kept trying to tell myself I was just “tired” as a way to stop my fouled mind from traveling down negative paths. I felt as though I was doused in an evil black sludge and could barely move under it.

There was a time when I operated under something like this a large portion of the time, and then it seemed normal to me, because I was so utterly unaware in that state. Amazingly, I didn't even think I felt bad when I was like that. The main reasons I'm aware of it now are that a) I've grown to the point where I don't fall into that state very often so it's more obvious when I do, and b) I've hurt people I love by things I've done under that thick spiritual smog, and they've let me know. Thank God.

I hadn't found myself in a state this awful in a long time. And I couldn't make it go away.

I was supposed to go out to dinner with my beloved that night; we'd been planning it for days and had already had to reschedule a couple of times. I was determined to go, and since I've taken on this theme of “quiet love” for 2010, I convinced myself that I could control the intense negativity that I was feeling.

You can probably guess how well that worked. Sigh.  I can hear you saying, "No, Susan, don't do it!"  I wish you'd been there that night.

We wanted to go to the Ranchos Plaza Grill, next to the St. Francis church. It has the best traditional New Mexican food I've ever had, a cozy warm ambiance created by the soft adobe walls, old wood floors, and simple Spanish guitar. I was especially looking forward to the pinto beans. Mmmm.

Alas – they were closed. So we drove, and drove, and ended up at Applebees. It seems like we always end up there. Justin really likes it. I don't mind it most of the time, but was not much in the mood that night, given the circumstances. And unfortunately, it was “game night,” meaning that in addition to the annoying pop music puffing through the speakers, there was also a very loud (football?) game showing on the TV.

Even so, I made it through most of the dinner without being entirely negative, but I kept very consciously biting my tongue. And then I didn't. And it all spiraled downward until I was saying unkind things and hating myself for it and then finding myself in tears and running out of the restaurant while Justin paid the bill.

I was utterly horrified and couldn't even begin to fathom how I'd let myself fall into this when I knew – I KNEW – better. And had been consciously, deliberately, carefully controlling myself.

What I then had to realize, my unhappy epiphany, was that as much as I might want to wish away some of the deep fears and pain I have collected, it just doesn't work that way, and at a point of least resistance, usually with a loved one, it's going to come out. And when it does, it ruins everything, and pushes people away. For Justin, because of some of his childhood issues, it makes him unable to trust my “quiet love,” and makes healing just that much farther out of reach for both of us.

Other times that things like this have happened, I've immediately starting telling myself hopeful stories about what I'll do differently next time, and subtly justifying myself to myself. But there was something about the intensity and stark obviousness of where I actually WAS this time that made it impossible for me to do that. No amount of analysis or resolve was going to change it. It's deeper than the part of my mind that engages in those activities. So deep it scares me. There was nothing for me to do but surrender my efforts to control and change it, and simply accept that, even with the (painfully slow) progress I've made in this area, it's still Part of Who I Am.  Yuck.  It's part of who I am.

And this is not a happy ending.

But it might be a good beginning.


  1. When I decide that I am not powerful enough to control things in my life and make a conscious effort to let my God control them, I do much, much better. But there's also times when I just need to lock myself in my basement apartment and not come out until the cloud passes. Sigh. I know.

  2. Paradoxically, resisting negative emotional states can strengthen them. Trying to "cure" them is really difficult, maybe impossible.

    It can help to accept them with love and compassion for yourself. Like a loving grandparent or kindergarten teacher might do, "Poor dear, Susan! This is a terrible restaurant! And the football. I'm so sorry for you!" Like that.

    Then, investigate the negativity with curiosity. Amazingly, your interest in the negativity will do a lot to dispel its hold on you. Anger, fear, sadness, and the rest can't stand it when you can stand it.

  3. I've gotten much better with the "letting God control them" thing, but there's a part of me that rebels against the "locking myself in the basement" thing, even though, as you say, there are times when there's nothing else for it. And I and everyone else would be much better off if I just did that.

  4. Wonderful wise words, Dan, thank you.

    I actually do employ these techniques often, but when I'm in the "evil black sludge," it just seems impossible. Like I can't even REMEMBER they exist. That's what's so disturbing about it.

  5. Oh, I am feeling for you. I am not sure if I have any wise words. I used to have storms, as I came to think of them, but amazingly, they have really diminished with age. I'm not sure I ever really learned how to deal with them except to identify when I was in them and that the feelings that came along during those periods were not to be trusted. I like what your friend Dan suggests. If you are accepting this as part of who you are, we can always remember that who we are is always changing, even if slowly, slightly. You may not be able to control the storms like a disobedient child sent to the corner, but you can, over time, perhaps understand them better and maybe for you they will diminish with the changes bodies inevitably go through.

  6. P.S. from a romantic date at the best traditional Mexican food with traditional classical guitar to Applebee's with a loud football game is enough to try even the most even-keeled person. Yikes!

  7. Hi Polly
    I feel for you knowing what it is like when the mouth spews out venom while the heart knows the damage you are creating.
    If you were living in japan in the 900s you would be offered an exorcism to vent this destructive spirit. But seeing as you are not I would take dan's approach and befriend it. Write to it, maybe let it write to you with your non dominant hand...
    This spirit of angst needs a voice.

    Take care

  8. "And I and everyone else would be much better off if I just did that."

    You are aware of when you are in this state, maybe moving in to "quiet love" means becoming aware of how to manage yourself while you are in this state.

    No matter how much meditating and compassion and prayer and love we have within us, WE ALL deal with these sides of ourselves. I want you to know this, you are not alone.

    This question might seem weird to you, but I am going to ask it anyway. Do you ask yourself or recognize when going into this place if YOUR fundamental personal needs have been met?

    It seems you are trying to force yourself to BE a certain way when you are not in fact that way. That is the first thing I picked up. In my opinion force rarely changes something long term...or if it changes it, it seems to change in a negative context rather than positive. It seems like a WAR. An internal war exists. What about throwing your hands up (surrender) & then around yourself (compassion) and saying no when you need to say no, no matter what the plan.

    "Justin, I am in the evil black sludge moment right now. I can't trust myself, I want to save us both from the agony. I need to take the night to myself and get through this." This is saying to yourself, to Justin and the "evil black smudge"...I am dealing, reasonably and gently with my circumstance.

    In my experience calling it what it is and then moving into a place to manage it just helps me, like what Kate said.

    This suggestion is just my plain old common ideas and what I've done with myself to work IT OUT.

    One of the best tidbits I have learned on my journey is - reasonable expectations and gentleness.

    I have gone into this because I feel its okay, if it isn't I apologize. All of this I have taken away from my personal experience of dealing with my own "monkey mind" as Rebecca just said and uncontrollable moods such as the "evil black smudge".

    I had read your post and went out for a run/walk in the freezing cold. I just wanted to say it is 20 some degrees constantly here.(random) Anyway, I was listening to Chasing Cars by: Snow Patrol on Ipod and there was this line that made me immediately think of you.

    "I need your grace, to remind me, to find my own."

    There is a place of grace, here in my heart. I want you to know, you are wonderful and caring and loving and all of the things you desire to be to your beloved and all of the people in your life, you ARE these things ALREADY, you ARE these things. I know this, I KNOW THIS!

  9. Ooh, Delwyn, I like that advice about letting it "write to me with my non-dominant hand." As you'll see in my next post, in a way that's what it did.

    I've often felt like an exorcism is exactly what's needed.

  10. Thank you so much, Jennifer. Your words simply penetrate my heart and comfort me.

    It is so good to know I'm not alone. I have shared here my shameful secret, and from everyone's responses, I see others have the same issues. No one got all shocked and disowned me!

    Because I've fallen into the sludge most in my intimate relationships, and because I was so isolated with only them for the first year I lived here, I started to see myself ONLY as the sludge. I want you all to know that the connections I've made with you, writing out loud and getting such positive responses, have been a wonderful balm for my soul, and helped to remind me that I am far more than the sludge.

    Thank you thank you thank you.

  11. YES! I am with Delwyn. Writing with your non-dominant hand is VERY healing and insightful! I have relied on that tremendously in the past year!! (writing and drawing)
    I do the call and response. My dominant hand writes down the question and my ND hand answers. Let if flow. No filtering or editing.

    Above all - Be Gentle with Your Beautiful Self!


  12. Dreamfarm Girl - I too have seen it begin to diminish over time, especially with the realization that the feelings are "not to be trusted." I really like your analogy of a child sent to the corner.

    What you say is also a confirmation for me of my "epiphany" that this is just part of myself and I need to accept it. I keep hoping for that exorcism, when it will just be gone forever. Oh well.

  13. Jenny - Thank you. I am so glad to learn of this method. Is that the secret of some of your wonderfully enigmatic posts?

    And I'm also glad I was brave and posted this. These comments are very comforting to me.

  14. I am thankful you are comforted. I am so very very thankful you are comforted!

  15. This almost sounds like an addiction. When that evil black sludge descends, you can't remember any of the techniques you use to deal with it, and simply become immersed.

    I don't have anything helpful or comforting to say like Jennifer, nor pithy like Dan, but I can borrow the words of others that have helped me and pass them on to you. Just try and remember these after your head breaks through the surface of that sludge once again.

    First, Confucius:

    "Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall."

    Don't beat yourself up. Everybody falls into that sludge sometimes. Sometimes you just can't help it. Even the most intelligent human being gets snarky, willfully snarky, at times, and can't control it. I think the fact that you feel remorseful afterward is a good sign. The trick is not in avoiding the drop, but in bouncing back up ever higher.

    And second, an old Norse proverb that's salvaged my self-respect many a time:

    "None so good that he has no faults, none so wicked that he is worth naught."

    I'd say you're a pretty decent human being, a loving and caring mother, a devoted partner, a kind-hearted and empathetic person. But everybody has bad days. Everybody's got faults. Everybody fouls up. Everybody slips and falls in the sludge. Sometimes they dive in.

    Look at me, for example. Remember when Allison was here and I was down in LA and I backed into that woman? I was going to run. I was actually going to become a hit-and-run driver. Looking back on it now, I can't believe it. Even just thinking about it makes me want to hang myself. That's not the kind of person I thought I was, nor ever want to be. I want to be an accountable, responsible, upstanding fellow, the kind of man I think every man should be. But in that moment, in the shock of hitting someone, terrified of losing face in front of a girl, I lost my head. I was going to run.

    Thankfully I was stopped, but the memory still haunts me. I came out of it wiser. Now you know that when you're denied Mexican food and exposed to football that the sludge starts bubbling up. Keep that in mind.

    And don't feel too bad. "None so wicked that he (or she) his worth naught." Bumps in the road notwithstanding, I'm sure your beloved and your offspring would rather have you around than not. You've contributed many humbling and enlightening things to this blogsphere, not to mention how you must touch the lives of the people you know on a daily basis, even if you don't realize it.

    Goodness, I feel a bit presumptuous telling you all this. You've probably heard it already, or told it to yourself millions of times over. It's all I know to say, though.

    Just remember this: when the sludge closes over your head, don't stop trying to swim.

  16. Polly
    I have been reading the responses to your post. Jennifer makes a very good point. You are not the black sludge - but sometimes you fall into it. However it seems as if black sludge can have a powerful pull on your life. I wonder what it wants from you. Can you draw it? Can you ask it what it needs? It obviously likes to visit you at times. I wonder what would satisfy it?
    I wonder if you can draw it neutralized..,what might appease it?

    Just thinking... Maybe these are some of the kinds of questions you can ask of'black sludge'

    good luck

  17. Others here have been much more helpful than I am able to be in practical terms. I think it was brave of you to write this and we can be here to bear witness with you and hope that will bring some comfort. Warmest wishes.

  18. Thank you for writing so honestly about this experience.

    I hate to hear you were feeling bad. I wonder if you were p.m.s.ey and you were melancholy due to Christmas being over?

    In any case, I showed my butt too last week.

    Here's my conclusion:

    When something is bothering me underneath, when I'm weak (junk food from Christmas, knee injury, cycle) I'm most likely to explode.

    Perhaps you had an underlying cause for a long time and it took the blue mood to express it.

    I tell myself, STOP TALKING! JUST SHUT UP!

    Do they have a pill for that?

  19. Postman - That is exactly what I wrote in my journal about this - that it's an addiction.

    I AM a decent human being, and I do know that. That's why it's so awful when something like this happens. It tends to negate the decentness in the mind of the person who's the recipient of the sludge-spilling. And I must reiterate - this was an EXTREME case of it - not so much in the expression (in fact, that part could have been a lot worse, and in the past, would have been), but in how I FELT.

    Your story about the near-hit-and-run is so poignant to me, and you're brave to share it. I've done similar things, that were just mindless in the moment but I was horrified afterward that it was so EASY for me. I guess it just happens to the best of us.

  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

  21. Delwyn - No, I'm not the black sludge. One of the things that made it so strange and awful that night compared to other times I've simply been grumpy and spouted negativity, is how external it felt. Like it was something ON me, around me, over me. Something with a life of its own.

    Your suggestions intrigue me. But scare me. Since it feels like basically an evil spirit or demon to me already, do I really want to give that perception more power? Talking and especially listening to it implies trusting it. What do you think?

  22. Tess - Thank you. This is probably something I wouldn't have written about if it hadn't tied in so closely with events over the next couple of days, coinciding with Epiphany, and other people's Epiphany posts. All of that gave me pause and made me realize it was something that was asking to be written about. I wasn't actually looking forward to it when I realized that!

  23. EC - Thank you for being so supportive.

    It went beyond PMS or a mood. See my comment to Delwyn above.

    "Showed my butt" - I haven't heard that expression since I was living with my ex-husband's family in Louisiana! It almost kinda makes me homesick.

    I must emphasize - I didn't actually explode, and I'm very very glad. Probably I didn't even have the energy to explode. The sludge just kind of "leaked" out in unkind, counterproductive words.

    But you're right about it having an underlying cause. The things I said had some basis in fact. I've been considering those causes quite a bit since then.

  24. Hi Polly
    one of the techniques counsellors can use is externalisation, where the problematic issue, mood, or habit is given an identity, the client finds the apt metaphor for the problem. On your case you have called it Black Sludge.
    Now this doesn,t mean that the feeling is an entity or a force external to you with demonic powers. It is still a part of you but by bringing it out into the light and dialoguing with it you can gain insight. I agree that to see it as an evil force gives it power and makes it scary. It is just the personification or concretisation of a metaphor- a symbol of the mood that overtakes you. Look for all the key words that you use to describdthe mood and it's actions, such as drown, and investigate them through editing and drawing or you can also fins symbols to represent the feeling and another symbol or two to represent the powers and the resources that you have that you use to suuuage the feeling.

    Perhaps it might be better if you want to email me if you are interested kn this approach and we can discuss it further.
    I love today's TSEliot quote. There was an Rticle about him in the weekend paper..

    Happy days

  25. I'm sorry for all the typos - the iPhone has limitations!

    I meant write not edit

  26. Thank you, Delwyn. Especially for commenting all this with an iPhone!

    I'm going to work with these suggestions, but I'm not sure how yet - poem, collage, or something else. I'll let you know how it progresses.

    I've been using these T.S. Eliot quotes, sort of copying Karen Armstrong in her book The Spiral Staircase that I just read. She uses the framework of "Ash Wednesday" for all her chapter titles. Reading her book made me want to read more of Eliot, especially The Four Quartets, which I'd always heard were great. That's what these quotes are taken from.



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