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Friday, June 26, 2015

The Imaginary Sister

The Imaginary Sister

Desperate, deprived depressive times
A cautionary tale against the dangers, perils and pitfalls of DIY psychotherapy

“Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.”
Reader's Digest, 1957
Allen Saunders

Fin de siècle Swindon
The turn of the century Swindonian screw 

One day, Vince, an old college friend, finally invited me to his house, whereupon, at last, I met his slightly younger sister, Suzanne-Antoinetta.
I had heard much about her, much that I had liked. Perhaps I liked what I heard so much because I thought that if she had some defects of her own to deal with, I might have more luck with her. I felt that there was more of a chance that we might get on, that she may not be utterly repulsed by me - as people usually are - and, who knows? She might even like me. She seemed to me the female version of me (or at least how I used to be, as if the old me had been reincarnated in the form of a young woman).
I had been told that:
·She not only looked like a female version of her brother (who himself looked a little effeminate, the main difference was their height and hair length) but she also seemed to religiously follow the dictates of his taste in literature, as if she was a quietist nun or sister, silently worshipping him like a saint.
·She was a committed and kinky self-flagellator, and (like Des Esseintes’ mother in Joris-Karl Huysmans’ À rebours) a fulltime agoraphobe, who rarely left her boudoir, let alone the house, “immobile et couchée, dans une chambre obscure”, “a chronic invalid, who never left the precincts of a shuttered bedroom”.
·She was terminally depressed, she never spoke to anyone, she had been institutionalised in a psychiatric unit some years ago and wanted to kill herself.
So it seemed odd to me that when we entered the house, she came down the stairs asking, “Does anyone want to give me a hug?” Her brother didn’t look very keen, but reluctantly gave her a quick one anyway before pushing her away, whereupon she looked desirously at me.  
“Do you like hugs?”
“Yes,” I replied, “although I’m not accustomed to them, giving or receiving.”
“So you’re a desperate, deprived depressive like me?”
I was. And with that, she flung her arms around me and, with her mouth covered by my shoulder, the muffled words could be made out, just about:
“I feel so sad today, so sad that I think I may have reached so far down to the bottom that the only way is through the other side.”
These enigmatic words worried me, and gave cause for caution and hope in equal measure. Was she on the way up or was she feeling well enough to end it all?
“Can you come up to my room?”
I looked at my friend but said nothing.
Suzanne-Antoinetta, judging by her brother’s indifferent reaction (which she was indifferent to) went on:
“I don’t think he’ll mind if I steal you away from him for a while.”
And she was right. 


“as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Act 1 Scene V, Hamlet
 William Shakespeare

As they went to her boudoir, Mrs Fennel, their mother arrived home. She was a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, but had hitherto been unable to cure her own daughter of the melancholic malady that Suzanne-Antoinetta had suffered from for many years. Parents can only rarely teach or cure their offspring, once they have past childhood.
“Alright son? How is she today, has she come down yet?”
“Yes, but now she’s gone back up, with a strange man?”
“What! How’s that? What’s she doing with a strange man? I haven’t seen her with a member of the opposite sex - who wasn’t a relation - since she was at secondary school.”
“Maybe that’s the problem.”
“Who is this strange man anyway?”
“Don’t worry. He’s Rich, but not in that sense, or any other sense than the strictly nominal, so don’t get too excited. He’s just a “friend” of mine from college, he’s harmless. They are so depressed alone that they will make each other happy together. The last thing she needs is a Don Giovanni or Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt, who will just fuck her today and fuck off tomorrow. That would destroy her. This guy’s so desperate that he’ll probably love her forever, or until death anyway. She’ll probably end up dumping him, which would be great for her self-esteem. He could cure her because he’s the only person on this earth who is as big a loser as she is.”
“Do you always speak so well of you friends behind their backs?”
“Yes, I do. I had successfully kept him away from my friends - except for occasional lapses, freak accidents and accidental encounters; instead, I let him linger outside on the street while I went inside their houses to see them. But there was no great problem to fear anyway when they did meet, because he doesn’t get on with anyone, and nobody ever likes him. Thus, he never became established as a member of any of my numerous groups of friends, none of which do I invite home, for obvious reasons. Eventually, I stopped mentioning my sister altogether, I even started to claim that I didn’t have one, and denied that I did if anyone suggested anything to the contrary, correcting them by referring to her merely as “my imaginary sister, that’s what you mean, isn’t it?” I’d say to them. Prior to that, when I mentioned my sister to anyone, which was very rare in any case, and never intentional, normal people just thought she sounded like a weirdo, or they felt a vague sense of pity for a couple of awkward seconds before we swiftly returned to more important matters. But not with him. When I told him I had a sister, that was enough to brighten his gloomy face. But when I described all the problems she had, his eyes lit up like a fully functioning furnace and an upside-down arched smile made such a strange shape of his mouth of the like I never thought possible on this pre-eminently sombre sulker. I could see that he wanted to meet her, and that he would wait for an invite instead of asking me to set it up. So I told him that it wasn’t a good time for her, that she was too ill, that meeting such a morose individual as him (only looking for a psychiatric suicidal case study to reduce a person to) might make her worse. But today, he asked about the Kurt Vonnegut novels he had lent me, as a sublimated way of pleading to be introduced. So I invited him here. Before I could even go to my room for the books, she came down the stairs. Usually, she looks out of the window to see if anyone’s coming home to avoid them, but today it seemed that she came down on purpose, perhaps out of curiosity, because of this strange man I was accompanied by.”
“Well, that is quite a turn of events. I can’t think where all this might lead, but I can’t see how she could get any worse, without her actually killing herself.”
“Which would be an improvement at any rate, for all concerned, for a defunct depressive is infinitely easier to live with than a finite living depressive.”
“Oh don’t say such things. But my mind’s at rest if you think he’s alright for her, even though I don’t like the things you say, you are usually a good judge of character, even if your judgements are always so severely censorious.”

At that moment, the strange man came down the stairs, alone.
“And, what happened? Hello, nice to meet you by the way, I’m Mrs Fennel.”
“It’s nice to meet you too. Um, I feel somewhat sworn to secrecy on the matter. Even if I am not a professional psychotherapist, I probably should follow the codified dictates of standard ethical practice,” he carried on in a whisper, while pointing for them to all go outside via the front door, “but as I want to help you help her, I will tell you, even if I do feel like a treacherous spy.”
“Well, I was quite disappointed because she is not quite the depressive I was told about, and consequently expected. But I quickly realised that being with a depressive like myself would be as depressing as being with myself all the time, so I quickly perked up, and so did she, saying that for the first time in her life she didn’t feel alone. She wants me to cum again, I mean, come again, to come around more often that is, in fact, what she really said is that she wants me to move into her room with her.”
“I tried to explain that it was not a decision for her or me to make but yours, as you are the owner of the house. Tell her I said this when she asks you, because she will soon, after I leave. The problem is that she took this as an excuse, and felt that I was rejecting her. Thus, I told her that I would come down and be nice to you, as she suggested, so that you will like me and let me stay. So here I am, despite thinking the idea to be ridiculous and unwelcome to your ears.”
“Why ridiculous?”
“I wouldn’t have imagined anyone would want me here. Why would you - or anyone else for that matter - let a strange man live in the boudoir of your depressed daughter?”
“A good point, but we are desperate, and haven’t any conventional avenues left to try. You seem to suffer from low self-esteem yourself, thinking that we wouldn’t want you here.”
“No, I have no self-esteem at all; I feel I was merely being realistic.”
“Well, if no one objects, let’s have a trial period and see how it goes. If all goes badly, as least we can say we tried. What’s the worst that could happen?”
“She could kill herself.”
“She may well do that anyway,” interjected Vince, “it’s what we’ve been waiting for.”  
“Don’t listen to him,” contested his mother. “So it’s agreed. Now what do we need? Where will you sleep?”
“She wants me to sleep with her.”
“In the same bed?”
“That’s her idea.”
“But won’t that lead to…?”
“That’s the idea,” interrupted Vince, “she’s sex starved. She’s living a life of involuntary chastity, it’s a surprise she hasn’t killed herself on live television yet like Christine Chubbuck (and with that name who can blame her), or at least it would be a surprise if anyone let her appear on TV. In any case, the cameramen would have to bring all their equipment to the house, otherwise she’d have to actually leave the house to go down to the TV studio. A good banging will do her some good, it might knock some sense into her, hopefully without knocking her up, as the love child of those two is the last thing I need or this house needs or indeed the world as a whole. She’s even started coming onto me, trying to seduce me with alcohol, cheap wine from a carton and the like, it was most upsetting, and insulting, boxed wine indeed. Am I not worth more than that, champagne at the very least, what does she take me for?”
“Why did you never tell me that, sonny boy?”
“Attempted incest! It’s not an easy thing to tell a mother about, is it?”
“I suppose not. But she’s a virgin.”
“That’s the problem;” said Vince, realising that Rich had gone quiet and red in the face, who asked “is there something you want to tell us?”
“It already has…”
“What?” Mrs Fennel asked.
“…led to sex.”
“What! Why didn’t you mention that earlier?”
“It would have sounded a bit rash.”
“It still does.”
“As rash as the sex you had, now that was quick,” added Vince derisively, “and I did wonder what became of the belt you were wearing. Why did you even remove it? You can pull down your pantaloons without taking the belt off, you know?”
“It does sound rash,” Rich said (choosing to ignore Vince’s sarcastic inquisition) while thinking to himself, as if burdened under the weight of something heavy pressing down upon his mind, “Oh belt up will you, Vince!” before finishing his sentence “but on account of what you’ve just told me, Mrs Fennel, it seems that desperate times deserve desperate measures.”
“And what would these measures be?”
“Well, one plan I had kind of goes against what we have all just agreed upon here, because I told her that I didn’t think you would want me to move in, so Su suggested that:
“I could move out, and thus we could live together without the need of anyone’s approval.”
To which I asked, “How would you afford another place, without money or a job?”
“I could get a job,” she replied.
“But that would mean you would have to leave the house, both to look for a job, and then actually do the job.”
“Not necessarily, I could work from home.”
“Doing what?”
“I don’t know - what jobs can I do from home?”
“I don’t know.”
“I can look it up, and find something.”
“Ok, do that.”

“The problem with that plan is that it is utterly unrealistic,” said Rich to the mother.
“You don’t say,” added Vince flippantly.
“But at least we have something that is motivating her so much that she is considering doing things that normal people do, for a change. My plan is to work with her interests - but we will have to be patient, and take things slowly…”
“That’s rich, coming from you,” again added Vince, with his customary vitriol.
“I hope to cure her melancholy with her interest in the selfsame thing. I plan to fight melancholy with melancholy. When you feel your own sadness in something outside of yourself – whether in the music of Shostakovich, the art of Edvard Munch, the literature of Pessoa, or in another person, in someone else - you no longer feel so sad, or else you find “the comfort in being sad”, as Kurt Cobain ironically sang. Instead, one can find the sensation of a joyous communion that reduces, if not completely destroys, one’s sense of estranged and embittered isolation in the world. Melancholy doesn’t have to kill you, sadness itself can save your life, by finding it and indulging - even dwelling - in it. Paradoxically, as it was for Cioran and Nietzsche – for whom the “thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night” - suicide becomes less of a threat and more of a comfort blanket, perhaps even the only thought that enables one to carry on living at all.
I heard her listening and singing along to the sullen and sombre Songes and Ayres of John Dowland, especially Come Again

“All the night my sleeps are full of dreams,
My eyes are full of streams.
My heart takes no delight
To see the fruits and joys that some do find
And mark the storms are me assign'd”

… and a more modern moroseness of The Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Gene with their mirthless metropolitan London Can You Wait?

“My kith and kin
I have sinned
I didn't hear the siren”

I listened intently with pain tinged bittersweet memories as she recited poesy I also knew by heart, having studied it at New College , Keats’ meditative Ode on Melancholy:

NO, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist  
  Wolf's-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;  
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kist  
  By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;  
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,         
  Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be  
    Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl  
A partner in your sorrow's mysteries;  
  For shade to shade will come too drowsily,  
    And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.   
But when the melancholy fit shall fall  
  Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,  
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,  
  And hides the green hill in an April shroud;  
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,  
  Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,  
    Or on the wealth of globèd peonies;  
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,  
  Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,  
    And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.   
She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;  
  And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips  
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,  
  Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:  
Ay, in the very temple of Delight   
  Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,  
    Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue  
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;  
  His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,   
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

I saw …”
“Yes, tell me, I haven’t been allowed in there for years,” Mrs Fennel asked curiously.
“If you let me finish, I’ll continue. I saw, from her boudoir book, record and art collection that she is mesmerised by anything on the subject of melancholy. The room stuck me at first as a catalogue of melancholy, like a miserable museum or even mausoleum of morose masterpieces, or a ghastly gallery within a mirrored hall of horrors. Covering the dark, gloomy walls - and the obscure, blackened shut up windows - were grotesque images of torture, suffering and cruelty. On one wall were exhibited the 104 illustrations of melancholic martyrdoms by Jan Luiken in Het bloedig toneel, of Martelaersspiegel der Doops-Gesinde of Weerloose Christenen, die om 't getuygenis van Jesus haren (hun) Salighmaker geleden hebben ende gedood zijn van Christi tijd af tot desen tijd toe (The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians who baptized only upon confession of faith, and who suffered and died for the testimony of Jesus, their Saviour, from the time of Christ to the year A.D. 1660). Facing that, oxymoronically, asymmetrically, distortedly reflected were displayed Dürer’s depressing Melencolia, gloomy Goya’s Los Desastres de la Guerra , Edvard Munch’s darkly desolate Melancholy, Odilon Redon’s raw Mélancolie and À Edgar Poe (Devant le noir soleil de la Mélancolie , Lénore apparaît)/To Edgar Poe (Before the Black Sun of Melancholia, Lénor Appeared). She is akin to Julia Kristeva writing Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, which Su told the local library by phone to order especially for her and then post to this address, for a small fee. It is a book that she has still not returned, and perhaps never will. Not that anyone else in Swindon would want to read it, nor is anyone here - throughout the entire Borough - even capable of really understanding it, either emotionally or intellectually, as the populace is far too provincial for such matters, myself included I add wistfully, lamentably even.
For me, at least, Su is a chronicler of melancholy. She notes down every mention of suicide on TV and radio, she cuts out pertinent articles in magazines and papers, providing the context and sources with scholarly specificity and pedantry. Similarly, I filled up whole notebooks - or the backs of bus tickets - with references to this suicidal subject that I overheard being discussed on bus journeys or by passersby on the street. She is a modern, female incarnation of Robert Burton, a veritable anatomist of melancholy, owning numerous editions of The Anatomy of Melancholy - if not all of them. It is her bible (if she has one) just as it was mine, during college – it was the only true friend I ever had.
Therefore, I will find events outside, in the real world, which will interest her so much, that she will be motivated to venture forth to them. I will inform her of these activities, and say that I will attend them, to provide a sufficiently juicy carrot to attract her. It is because she never steps outside that she knows nothing about the existence of fascinating things out there, beyond what can be dreamt of in her pouting pessimistic philosophy. But once I introduce, and accompany, her to the world, she will not have to face it alone, and eventually she may even be able to live in the world alone (instead of in the bed of her head) if she wants to.”
“And why do you think this plan will work?” asks the mother.
“Because it is based on experience, not vicariously, not upon other people’s. Suicide is no laughing matter, I once tried to join a volunteer group called the Samaritans to help the suicidal, but they wouldn’t accept me, they deemed it suicidal to enter me into their ranks. After that rejection I felt more suicidal, and then even more so when I realised that there were no others groups I could go to for help, because they would recognise me if I went to their building, or even if I phoned them - so much for trying to be a Good Samaritan. Anyway, at least I was able to finish the free training course they provided before finally rejecting me, thus providing the knowledge that is deemed, by them, to be essential in order to save someone’s life. Now, finally, I have the option to use the same knowhow to save someone else’s.
Alternately, perhaps more common sensically, I should utilise my own personal plan a posteriori, for it is how I cured myself - as the common proverb runs (which was quoted by Jesus of Nazareth no less) ατρέ, θεράπευσον σεαυτόν” (“Physician, heal thyself” Luke 4:23). Even though I cured myself quite by accident, by finding fascinating events in the outside world that interested me, I am confident that I can purposively apply this plan with positive results. I heard about a concert of John Dowland Songes and Ayres next week. Perhaps I can start with that as the first deadline.”  
“Ok, well get started then. Work your magic. Maybe we should go and tell her the good news: that you can stay.”

They merrily make their way up the stairs and open the door to find her with a fixed and strange smile on her asphyxiated face, while her naked, belt-bruised body swings from the belt that she had tied around the top of her bookshelf.

Upon a single sheet of paper, also hanging from the belt around her neck, read the words:

Death is what happens to others while you’re busy making plans!

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