Yesterday, I started listening to an NPR podcast called Invisibilia.
“Launching in January 2015, Invisibilia (Latin for “all the invisible things”) explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions.”
The premier episode is titled “The Secret History of Thoughts.” It focused on disturbing thoughts and how we deal with them via the stories of two individuals who’ve had profound experiences in this area.
I was recently told by a friend that he occasionally has thoughts of harming or murdering people, especially those who have behaved ruthlessly or selfishly. He said that most people have these flashes of violent intention, itself an artifact of our evolutionary past that follows us around like cans tied to the rear of a car with a “Just Married” sign in the window.
During adolescence, my sister’s therapist would describe me as a “toxic volcano.” For various reasons, around age 13 or 14, I went from being a quiet and bookish boy to an angry and turbulent young man. In hindsight, my emerging sexuality and how it brought me into direct conflict with my religion was at the root of much of that. In evangelical Christianity, however, we weren’t encouraged to think much about mental health.
In late spring of 2008, I began experiencing suicidal thoughts. I’d just moved from my first apartment and was driving all of my belongings in my SUV to my new place. I was feeling alone and more than a little sorry for myself. As I pulled up to an intersection of a busy highway, I had the thought of just pulling forward into the path of an oncoming truck. The thought came out of nowhere, and it was frightening how calm and rational the thought sounded.
In the years that followed, even up to today, I’d have these random suicidal thoughts pop up. I’ll be working in the kitchen with a knife and think about slitting my wrists. If I turn on the garbage disposal, I’m afraid I’ll somehow lose control and stick my hand in. (Frankly, I blame M. Night Shyamalan’s dreadful 2008 film The Happening for that deep dark fear.) If I’m up high, say in an office building, I’ll think about falling—not so much considering it, but more what if I did.
Thankfully, I don’t dwell on these thoughts much. Perhaps because I spend so much time in my head, and because of my early interest in psychology, I learned to interact with these thoughts and deconstruct them.
In her 2013 Ted Talk, Eleanor Longden describes her journey with schizophrenia, saying that eventually she learned “to separate out a metaphorical meaning from what I’d previously interpreted to be a literal truth.”
“What I would ultimately realize was that each voice was closely related to aspects of myself, and that each of them carried overwhelming emotions that I’d never had an opportunity to process or resolve, memories of sexual trauma and abuse, of anger, shame, guilt, low self-worth. The voices took the place of this pain and gave words to it, and possibly one of the greatest revelations was when I realized that the most hostile and aggressive voices actually represented the parts of me that had been hurt most profoundly, and as such, it was these voices that needed to be shown the greatest compassion and care.”
While I’ve never heard voices, many thoughts I’ve experienced have seemed to have a mind of their own. I’d obsess over wrongs, worry over finding a job, whether or not my music or writing was good enough, personal failures (real or imagined), how I don’t meet the subjective—and arguably fickle—physical standards established by a seemingly monolithic gay community in order to be “desirable.”
Which bring me to the breakthrough I had last night.
Part of the Invisibilia episode on thoughts focused on Martin Pistorius, who contracted Cryptococcal meningitis around age 12 and spent thirteen years literally trapped in his body.
To cope with the sense of isolation and powerlessness, he says he learned to detach from his thoughts, almost engaging with them as another person in his mind. Eventually, he did regain some motor control, and now communicates much like Stephen Hawking.
And, at age 33, he got married.
This led to reflecting on my darkest thought: that I’m going to be single and alone for the rest of my life. I broke up with my last boyfriend in March of 2013, and been on one date since—and not for lack of trying or looking. Frankly, I’ve found gay guys in Minnesota wholly uninteresting. And if they are interesting, they’re taken or uninterested in me.
(My current fantasy is that I’ll somehow land a British guy, leave the United States and find a job as a librarian in England or Ireland somewhere, like the Bodleian or Trinity.)
So being surrounded by people who are dating, married, building lives together, talking about kids and vacations and so on triggers the thoughts and fears of being alone, that I’m unlovable, that I’m incompatible with everyone, that there’s something fundamentally broken about me, that I’m always going to be alone.
Thing is, I know that being in a relationship won’t complete me or solve any problems. The current theory is that, because I was taught growing up that gay people don’t have relationships and that it’s a lonely “lifestyle,” my fixation on finding a boyfriend/husband is based in the fear that they were right.
But hearing Martin’s story and how he managed to detach himself from thoughts that would’ve dragged him down into despair highlighted for me that reality that I can do the same with mine, that I can detach and deconstruct my own.
I had the thought last night that, if Martin found a wife at age 33 while confined to a wheelchair and communicating via computer, maybe it’s not impossible for me.
I don’t really believe it yet, but it’s a step.