The Exercist

Note: this piece talks about intrusive thoughts and suicide in some detail. Darling, I don’t think this one’s for you.

When my brother was a child, he would periodically scream until he turned purple about desires that he could not quite name. His first attack, when he only knew a handful of words, was about wanting a “teeny tiny racecar toy”, and his sadness at it was seemingly instantaneous and unfathomably deep. After weeks and months of sudden screaming, we eventually developed a strategy that seemed to work: we took him to the fitness center every day and dumped him into the pool in a child’s life vest to thrash around for about an hour. After that, he was usually subdued for the rest of the evening.

My dad called it “drowning the werewolf”. It worked on us too, of course, but we would never have admitted that.

That was the scary thing about my brother’s sadness: not that a toddler felt that way, but that he might not outgrow it, since all of us—my mom, dad, and I—still had these ineffable sorrows and fears about things beyond the rational. One time I left a plastic toy tugboat outside for months without caring about it, but then one day noticed that its keel had been so sun-bleached that it had ruptured. That sight made me cry until I couldn’t breathe and gave me bad dreams for months afterward. Twenty two years later, I still feel nauseous when I think about it. My mom and dad had their own triggers, some of which I know about (my mom can’t touch anything sticky) and others that seem to come out of nowhere, invisible even to them.

I was recently asked what it was like in my mind, and (a little nervously) whether it was like a book I had recently lent out, The Argonauts, which is a book like a luxurious snack mix of theory and anecdote. The answer is: perhaps. The inside of my head feels more like a haunted antique store. It’s a cramped place, jumbled up with everything I love, but also I’ve ever been afraid of: a nightmare about cannibals I had when I was six, a short story I read about a little girl killing a kitten rather than letting it be taken away from her. I can organize these less desirable thoughts into cabinets or closets, but sometimes I’ll come around a corner and there they are in the middle of the floor, as though they had moved in my absence. Hello, we haven’t spoken in a while. Probably there are factors and circumstances that are moving the furniture around, but they’re below the level of conscious thought, so it often feels genuinely spooky.

The Beloved and I talked a while ago about “intrusive thoughts”, and I said that I never liked the term because it implies that there is something that can intrude (as though from without). It keeps me level to think that there is nothing inside of me that is not a part of me, that when I come around a corner and am startled by a feeling or memory so painful it makes me want to cry, that it is not a demon, not an enemy, just more of me, me trying to draw my attention to something. There is no ghost here who is not friendly, or at least trying to be. But there’s no other term I know of, so that’s what I’ll call it.

When I was nineteen, I spent an entire year sleeping with the lights on because I had watched The Exorcist, a movie that felt like a two-hour long intrusive thought and also implied that one could become possessed if they “let the Devil in”. I couldn’t turn off the lights without seeing the face of the girl from the movie and feeling her looming over me, and hearing a voice in my own head saying “come in”, even while I gritted my teeth and tried to make it shut up. It reminded me of the boat, of the cannibal dream, of all the other times I’d spent weeks or months struggling against a thought that wouldn’t leave me alone.

I finally told my dad about it, and he said that he recognized that feeling; he’d had it himself. He said that it seemed to him that intrusive thoughts didn’t count, that the voice screeching “come in, Devil” in your head is not qualified to make contracts on your behalf, that while your thoughts are a part of you, you are not your own worst thoughts. And like that, something cleared for me. I was still sleeping with the lights on, but I didn’t feel like my own mind was betraying me to Satan. And that was enough to get me through the tail end of the fear.

It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to have been like this and not born into a family who felt the same way. I could learn from watching them: what things worked and didn’t work, when and how to drown the werewolf.

But of course it’s a double-edged sword, having a dad who understands about intrusive thoughts and the well of bad feelings. After my dad tried to kill himself in 2017, I looked at a pair of scissors one day and saw myself picking them up and ramming them point-first into my chest. And then I laughed, because after a lifetime of being suddenly horrified, I am not easily impressed by sudden horror. As soon as I can see the thought clearly, stab yourself with those scissors becomes laughter at the absurdity of the brain, becomes let’s get a glass of water and sit down, becomes resuming one’s regularly scheduled programming. I can do this because my dad taught me that my thoughts don’t have to be the final word on things, that another thought is coming if I wait a minute.

I sometimes don’t understand how the person who taught me how to do the magic trick that keeps me sane could fail to do it for himself.

Anyway. I was going to tell you about how exercise helps me to feel more connected to my body and less locked in a haunted antique store, but I think the thing I really want to say here is: I am sometimes amazed that I’m reasonably happy, that I have a job, and friends, and lovers, and hobbies. I’ve met other people whose brains rearrange things the way that mine do, and their lives often seem markedly different from mine—scarier, sadder. It is less interesting that I do exercise and more that I can, that I am able to strategize ways to make this mind into a home and not a prison. It’s beautiful in here, is what people don’t seem to understand, as long as sometimes you can pick your way around the jumble, open a door and step out into the fresh air.