Through a Glass, Darkly
As through a glass, darkly ---
so it has remained; life,
the why or wherefore of parting, passing
away, the permanence of turmoil --- one grasps
no more of it than that...
I have never perceived those
to whom I have been most attached other
than as through a glass, darkly.
- Vincent van Gogh, June 1890 (line broke/&/enjambed)
The swirl of pale, aloe-mint mouthwash in my sink sucks away my sense of balance, and I grasp the off-white rim to break spiral. When I look up, my mirror darkens---deepens, threaded with evening and plum---and my hair becomes a silo of coppery brush strokes. The color I dyed it in high school, a color like Van Gogh's self-portraits.
Not like, I am an unself-portrait.
My dream spins and eddies on in the animation style of Loving Vincent, and I bump along the banks of lucidity until waking renders my heavy furniture bedroom grey and gold and solid.
Much of my experience as an undergraduate student (and for the last few months) took place in this impressionistic river that the dream sweeps us up in, blurring the boundaries of reality and non-reality, self and non-self. I'm not sure, at these times, if unreality is becoming more real, or if---rather---the believability of the physical world is fading (or both). But Van Gogh's style resonates, so perhaps it can help you picture how I sometimes feel the world. Without props and prompting, I'm not good at talking about it on my own.
I am an intensely evasive person. Hard to believe, maybe, since---since you're reading this---you know me as someone who frequently posts confessional essays on zir blog, and since many people see me as cheerful, a bit of an over-sharer, a terrible, blush-betrayed liar. But I am. Despite periodic hallucinations, I spent years in bi-monthly therapy, and my therapists never imagined I could be struggling with more than mild anxiety.
Meanwhile, the walls had this pulse to them, a sort of breathing, paint flaking at their expansion. Meanwhile, a tree bloomed in front of the classroom, after weeks of rooting, and when it began to fade away, I was the only one to mourn it. Some desks and chairs became distinct imposters, and I felt a jolt of fear each time someone sat there, expecting them to fall through. Some days I simply lost time. Other days, butterflies flickered in and out of existence at the edge of my vision, and music would continue playing long after I'd turned it off.
Though I'm skilled at recognizing where my reality sometimes departs from the shared perception, experiencing an unshared reality is lonely. Sometimes I wrote it off as sleep deprivation. Sometimes I thought I was going crazy,---the insidious, unhinged-student, Bell Jar crazy. And sometimes I considered the possibility that there are multiple realities, and I am caught on the cusp: living in one, sensing another.
Always, I kept these thoughts secret. I never emailed professors to explain why I missed class, depressed or overwhelmed. I offered no explanation, either, when I dragged an armchair into the Shakespeare classroom as my seat for the quarter, or would slide from my chair onto the floor. I wonder if people saw me as a bad student; it would be justified. I preferred to sit in the back corner of classrooms, especially by a window, with a few empty seats before and beside, and often I was settled on the carpet or tiles, gazing off into the distance. There were many assignments I simply didn't turn in. Luckily, many professors seemed to shrug it off. They'd call on me, cross-legged in the far reaches of the classroom, my raised hand at the height of my peers' shoulders, and I'd answer, and the lecture would continue.
No one confronted me about my need to sit on the floor, partly because when I felt so compelled, I skipped classes with the professors whom I suspected might be less unquestioningly accommodating. Occasionally, space becomes its own negative, like those maps that show bodies of water instead of land. I mean, I become hyper-attuned to gaps. Like I can feel the distance between all things. That's why I like corners----the place with the least pull between walls---and sitting on the floor---where I don't have to feel the constant gravity between the underside of my seat, the gap gap gap, and the floor. That's why my roommate in Hyderabad once found me squeezed between my low metal bedframe and the cool, dirt smudged-tiles of our hostel during a meltdown. There's so much space.
What can feel terrifyingly overstimulating can also make me feel unbound, as if the boundaries of my body do not lie on my skin but on the other bank of the gap (perhaps that's part of the terror). The edges of me shift as other students breathe and write and squeeze apple scented hand sanitizer into their palms. And you'd think this would make me feel more connected to the people around me, but it only served to solidify my loneliness.
That's what stood out to me most in Loving Vincent: not the gorgeous animation or musings on art and perception, but the loneliness. The movie is centered around Vincent's letters to his brother Theo, which I read for the first time the summer I turned 19. My family was on a kayaking trip in southeastern Alaska at the time. Each day, my younger sister and I would paddle a tandem kayak in sync---her stroke pattern, my direction---then set up our yellow, two-person tent each night, read in our sleeping bags, and dread the cold morning when we'd have to slither back into our damp, sea-salt-saturated wetsuits. I'd lose my temper with her. We'd make up. I saw myself in Vincent's disposition, and I saw Theo in my relationship with Katie. Another caring younger sibling, the reason we care to live.
When I saw you again and walked with you, I had a feeling I used to have more often than I do now, namely that life is something good and precious which one should value, and I felt more cheerful and alive than I have been feeling for a long time, because in spite of myself my life has gradually become much less precious, much less important and more a matter of indifference to me, or so it has seemed.
When one lives with others and is bound by feelings of affection, then one realizes that one has a reason for living, that one may not be utterly worthless and expendable, but is perhaps good for something, since we need one another and are journeying together...
- August 1879
I believe that we all live for our relations. I also believe this can happen in healthy and unhealthy ways. After I am diagnosed with bipolar II by a psychiatrist the May before I graduate with my bachelor's, I admit to my therapist that I live for other people. This is what I've done since my final year of middle school, when I became a pane of one-way glass, carefully watching others and reflecting back what they seemed to expect of a person. Of course there were distortions, and, despite my best efforts, I'm still told that I'm weird or odd. But this glass barrier kept me safe.
The therapist asks what it means to live for other people. I try to explain: my existence is reactive. When I'm a child, I'm treated like a girl, so I learn how to be a believable girl. I am mocked by my peers for talking too quietly or not enough or not at the right time in middle school, so I practice communicating differently. During the eighth grade graduation assembly, I make my debut. I sing the national anthem and am called back up to the front of the auditorium for almost every award--- grades, sports participation, athletics, my roles in choir and as a library assistant... One girl sitting in front of me whispers to her friend as I walk up for the third award: "who's that? they get up every time!" I don't earn the attendance award: I was out sick (or fake sick to avoid bullying) too many times for that. But I'm ready to exit my practiced invisibility and enter high school as a model person. A mannequin of sorts.
I am meticulous about learning the rules of human interaction, keeping notes in my journal and developing flow charts, scribbled over with annotations and exceptions. People seem interested in dating, so I fabricate a few crushes and a fake rule that I can't date until I'm 16---my mom is kind enough to play along, and play along with my fake curfews, too. Learning the rules seems to work: I have friends. My friendships, though, feel superficial. Obsessive study of the rules has rendered everyone around me an input-output machine; I'm a façade, and they aren't real either. By my junior year of high school, the loneliness is crushing.
The summer I turn 17, I consider suicide, but decide it would inconvenience my parents; arranging a funeral plus the social stigma in a small town might be bothersome to them. Plus, at the time, my sister is 13, and I read somewhere that the traumatic loss of an older sibling during developmental years can be particularly damaging. It didn't occur to me until years later that my loss might register as more than an inconvenience to those around me, that people would really truly miss and grieve me. Maybe because at the time, I wasn't sure there was really a me in existence.
Until last year, I was never able to imagine a future. Part of me suspected this was because I didn't exist in the future. Mostly, though, it was because my projected identity was so reliant on the people around me and their expectations---so not knowing who I would have to appease in the future, I had no reference for projecting myself there. That's what it meant to live for other people.
Pretending to be "normal" became impossible in college as I struggled with intensifying depressive episodes, new learning environments, and a divergent experience of reality. So I was surprised by the friends I made in Seattle, and the evolution of old friendships from my hometown---people who seemed to like me even as I failed at normalcy. And I'll admit, I really am weird. There was almost a full year that I'd walk across the campus, and city, barefoot (it quite literally helped ground me). I get caught up in my thoughts sometimes, and realize only later I'm mumbling them aloud. I watch people intensely; I've been told sometimes the amount I can learn about someone in a short period of time is disconcerting (a psychiatrist once compared me to Sherlock,---but he also called me a psychopath, so I don't give much weight to his opinion). Not to mention the mild hallucinations and weeks I felt bound to bed. All were becoming apparent.
As my façade dissolved, I tentatively allowed myself to adore these friends and to trust them as non-machines, as beings as complex and fascinating and inconsistent as I wanted to be myself.
My cage of one-way glass was threaded with cracks, caught in a slow shatter.
In my final years at Seattle Pacific University, I began to use the word "asexual" to describe myself, and I was officially diagnosed with bipolar, though I'd still never email professors about that diagnosis. I also met someone I felt truly comfortable around. It's difficult for me to write about our time together or my feelings for them, partly because my avoidance---my trained evasiveness---may have harmed our friendship, but I do want to acknowledge that I often feel as if my future is indebted to them, because they're the one who inspired me to create one for myself.
At the start of my second semester of graduate school in Flagstaff, Arizona, I introduced myself as Vince. I'd called myself by that name since high school---when I first learned that the acclaimed poet (and bisexual badass) Edna St. Vincent Millay had sometimes gone by Vincent, too---but never aloud, not even a whisper.
It was as if this name spoke me into existence.
Within a month, I felt myself flicker into the future. Vince/Vin/Vinny/Vincent had a future. I could picture a year, a decade, a life,---and I was there. No longer devoting so much of my energy to the self-policing self-loathing that was once my primary motivation, I felt free to love more deeply, more openly. I could live for others,---not out of fear of offending or losing them, but because they brought me joy, and I could do the same for them.
When I wonder if the world would be a better place without me in it, I no longer think of how my loss could harm my sister: instead, I think of our shared car rides, of our morning-voice-cracks as we groove to her latest playlist, of her steering small swerves within the lane markers and the beat. I think of her laughter as I French braid her damp hair after she showers at my apartment, before we crawl into my bed where she'll snore like an angry bear or a cow in labor. I think of past backpacking trips with friends and shared recipes over Facetime. I remember that the world is a better place than I'm currently seeing it, and even if the world would be better without me, I want to be here. I want to live.
You cannot always tell what keeps you confined, what immures you, what seems to bury you, and yet you can feel those elusive bars, railings, walls. Is all this illusion, imagination? I don't think so. And then one asks: my God, will it be for long, will it be for ever, will it be for eternity?
Do you know what makes the prison disappear? Every deep, genuine affection. Being friends, being brothers, loving, that is what opens the prison, with supreme power, by some magic force. Without those one stays dead. But wherever affection is revived, there life revives.
- July 1880
Vincent van Gogh wrote in one of his final letters to his mother that "I have never perceived those to whom I have been most attached other than as through a glass, darkly." But that's not true. Though he was often misunderstood, and in his later years often disoriented, Vincent had a sort of brilliant, illuminating gaze. From his letters, he seems deeply perceptive of people, with a heart full of love. Though in the moment he wrote this letter, he seemed to be back behind the window, watching through dark glass, his words in other letters are what taught me that stepping out into the sun with friends and family, with all its attendant vulnerability, is what keeps us alive.
The last few months, with their isolation, have been particularly difficult for me. Though last year was the least lonely year of my life, I'm still having trouble focusing and getting out of bed with this decreased amount of structure and human interaction. Again, I'm unable to envision a future. But now I know that it's possible. I know that things can change: my circumstances, my perspective, my self. Suffering and affliction are not eternal: rather, it is love that brings us to eternity.