This is a brief essay about three to four years in my life that I have managed to put behind me, but will carry around with me at all times. I am haunted by a death I didn’t achieve and a future that slipped away in the meantime.
I live with a black Box of terror.
It’s hard to work on a long-term project when you don’t think there’s a long-term future ahead. When you don’t plan on existing long-term. When your life and plans implode into a morass of immediate thinking.
This is a circle of hell, a path that leads nowhere except into the further desolation of your mind.
The only thing left, in this situation, is death. It’s strange writing this in such blunt words, but there is nothing poetic, nothing vague about this certainty. And when you fail at achieving this rather terminal long-term goal, it is especially difficult.
Failed attempts are like efforts to climb out of the morass that only land you even deeper in it. At this point, you have lost all sense of direction.
When walls close in on you, when there’s a ringing in your ears, you get good at hiding the future from the active, sane part of your mind. Because there’s still someone in your head who knows what to do, what is to be done, where to go, how a clear sky looks and an open road. But the darkness takes away all his resources and ties him down.
It got to the point where I became exceptionally skilled at functionally living solely in the present. Even in the worst weeks I was able to work, write papers, do things that could be done in a handful of days. There’s very little distress that stays with me. That makes it possible to work, to blog, to go on without being paralysed by everything I am not doing, by all the milestones I am not reaching, by the fact that I am not progressing.
In my mind, there’s a crumbling abyss where tomorrow should be.
Despair is feeling, despite being in perfect health, that all your physical functions are collapsing at the same time – a magic trick! Ladies and Gentlemen, watch as this man is locked into this Box where he cannot breathe, cannot hear, cannot feel the skin on his own flesh – watch!
And then, eventually, one day, one hour, one week later, the Box disappears and I can breathe again. Magic!
I tried drinking as a way to deal with this, but it’s remarkably unfortunate that drinking makes me less functional. In addition, it removes my ability to put down anything in writing; it’s like a knockout punch to the lone sane wanderer in the desert of my mind. So the only reason to drink when you’re in the Box is to make everything worse. And it’s a good way to achieve that.
The Box and its physical oppression is odd. If I look at my poetry drafts from the period, they are full of lines about whether it would hurt to cut open my face and “pop my left eye like a zit.” There’s no interest in pain, really, just the effect of distorting my flesh beyond repair, an idle curiosity in that. A strangely dispassionate imagery that turns up in poem after poem in the notebooks I kept during that time.
So I try to kill myself. I try it three times like the prince in the stories. Ladies and Gentlemen, a triple performance!
The first time I was stitched up and sent back into the world after a tussle with the police, a chase through the quiet city at night, a ride in an ambulance and a talk with a clinical psychiatrist. It was an adventure! Like Seneca I had taken too long and, without having servants to lend a hand, an unexpected visit set that hilarious sequence of events in motion.
The second time got me locked in a mental hospital for a month.
In between the two attempts, my life had disintegrated to a degree that I still find remarkable. I had locked myself out of my house and lived on the street for two weeks. I lived out of a small bag I packed. I napped in library basements, on trains and on park benches.
The third time I meant to do it right.
But here I am. And after four years of more or less continuous events, of life in the Box, all of the worst darkness was gone, and much of my previous life with it. I emerged from the darkness and stood on the edge of a vast devastation. My book came out of the experience, and I have written and worked a lot since then, but much of my life had to be rebuilt. Years of PhD research had to be redone; my brain had to be recalibrated.
I had to relearn what it is to imagine a tomorrow and I still am doing that. I find myself sometimes looking at the Box, but I think I am haunted by the memory of having been in it. And by the ghosts of what I could have been if not for four years of a curious terror.
So I write about it.
As Simon Critchley suggests in his book Notes on Suicide:
“Perhaps the closest we come to dying is through writing. […] One can lay things to rest in writing: ghosts, hauntings, regrets, and the memories that flay us alive.”
Marcel Inhoff is finishing a doctoral dissertation at Bonn University (Germany). His publications include a volume of poetry (Prosopopeia, Editions Mantel, 2015), as well as individually published poems in both English and German. He has written and published essays on Derek Walcott, Thomas Bernhard, Ingo Schulze, Robert Lowell, Tracy K. Smith, and Elizabeth Bishop, and translated fiction into both English and German.