An emotional (not Christmas) carol
I had recently been asked what I wanted, what had been the aim of my coming to therapy? “I want to be happy alone”, I answered confidently, imagining finally ridding myself of the desperate feelings I had when I was by myself, and of course convinced this was the ultimate goal of us all.
My counsellor took on a quizzical look, and after a short pause asked me “why the caveat of ‘alone’? Why not aim for contentment, knowing this likely includes times when you’re by yourself. Why aim for isolation?” This had stuck with me, but I remained steadfast. For the longest time I’d had perhaps one singular clear thought – life was easiest without others. Family was a burden, friends often tiresome and draining. Alone I was free. I wanted to be happy, and alone.
For a moment, I wasn’t sure if I was awake or asleep. Bleary-eyed, I could make out only a faint glow in the darkness. Silent and constant, I instinctively reached for the remote, convinced I had left my television on, as I had often done. Blinking my eyes into focus with no remote to be found, it dawned on me that while this room was familiar to me, it was neither my bedroom nor my home.
Yet it was not unknown to me - it was the house in which I grew up, and the illumination in the darkness was immediately recognisable to me as me, only a much younger version of me, reading by torchlight at my desk as I had spent many a lonely night. Suddenly, my senses came alive – the smell of this house, the echo of the silence, the near-constant feeling of anxiety I would feel in fear of being discovered and reprimanded.
‘This can only be a dream’ I thought, and decided to investigate this familiar apparition whilst still this experience felt so real, presuming I would likely wake at any moment. With each step I felt my heart pounding, only it was not my heart, it was the ‘me’ I could see. I could feel the beating like an echo in the air, and I approached the desk at which ‘I’ was sitting in fevered panic, looking over the shoulder of my un-moving self to something quite curious. The book was empty save two printed words in the bottom right corner of the right page – ‘turn over’.
The next page was barely more populated, the letters slightly raised in their printing and given an odd shadow by the light of my trusted childhood torch. ‘The ghost of emotions past’, it said, and ‘turn over’ on the other page, which I did. What greeted me read like a book of my life, of my parents and their lives, their difficulties, who they grew up to be.
The book, despite being open to just the third page, could be opened no more, and instead as I read each sentence words appeared and disappeared like a memory being recalled; contained and connected yet random, and I felt an increasing weight of sadness as I read each story from my life, one of loneliness, of neglect, and of parents passing their own trauma on to me like an inheritance I couldn’t possibly wish to receive.
What I read was a story of a sad man, I began to feel, a life where the events of the past had conspired to create this mistrustful, lonely person in the present, and someone, I thought, for whom it made a lot of sense to solace in isolation. Suddenly, the light went out. I was alone in the darkness, and the irony was not lost on me.
I cleared my eyes with the back of my hand and noticed a change in the smell and feel of the room, and I felt instinctively as though I was back in my own home in the present. Reaching in the darkness for a light switch, the room was engulfed in light and there, sat in my most favourite seat, was a resplendent bearded giant of a man wearing a green fur robe. “Good evening,” he said. “I’m the ghost of your emotions present”.
He stood, towering over me, and gestured that I follow him as he headed for the door. I was awake now, I knew that, but how could I explain this stranger in my home and the sense that staying here and letting him leave would be a mistake?
He was heading for my front door and into my hallway, and I resolved to see where he was going, taking comfort in the presence of neighbours should there be any danger or unwanted surprises. He waited for me at the front door, opening it as I approached not to my building’s hallway as I had anticipated, but to a party filled with people I recognised. Music suddenly filled the room, and crowds of people gathered. Food was in abundance, and happiness was in the air.
The man led me through the crowds and the rooms to what seemed a quiet corner. ‘A place to explain?’ I thought, but his explanation came not in words but in revelation. For I was already there, a present me, but I was stood in the corner and wrapped in tape, unable to move. People approached, we would talk and they would leave, and I could only observe as it became clear I was invisible to everyone in the room.
Wrapped in tape, ‘my’ body took on an awkward stance and I could feel a difficulty in knowing how to position my body or where to stand. I could feel a tightness in my chest and beads of sweat beginning to form on my body. I felt alone and unseen in this crowded room and an urge to escape became almost too much to bear, this feeling and this life so well known to me.
The shackled me unable to speak meant it was my voice that called out to the giant, who had been standing motionless. “I want to go home” I said, sad and resigned. He nodded. He gestured to another door just across the room, through which I walked and emerged not to the outside world as I had hoped, but to a room I knew far too well and one I spent much of my life trying to forget. A table, some chairs, and my family, gathered in the kitchen of my parent’s house.
“This is a terrible trick!” I shouted but there was no giant nor door behind me as I spun around. “It’s getting cold,” my mother said behind me and I turned to see my family sat for dinner. The smell of food hit me, as did a feeling of acute hunger. I approached the table and cautiously sat down, resigning to indulge this escapade from which I would soon wake.
My mother was looking at me. “You’ve lost some weight, you can see it in your face” she said, “you’ll like this, it’s got no fat in it.” My father chimed in. It looked and smelled good and I reached for a serving spoon but my mother got there first, spooning food onto my plate. “See how you get on with that” she said as my father looked up. “How much are you giving him?” He asked, and I immediately felt anger.
I tried to reply but nothing came out and it was then I caught my reflection in the jug of water sat in front of me. The angrier I felt, the more I appeared to regress in age. I was young now, no more than a child, but as I looked down at my body, I was still an adult. It was clear the reflection was that of my emotional self, and I began to connect feelings and ages as the meal continued; fat-free, emotionally vacant, and one where I felt as much like a spare part and subject to a never-ending critical eye as I did in my ‘real world’.
I wished to leave and for this to be over, but there was no sign of the giant nor exit to be found. I felt my apprehension rising, feeling trapped in a moment from which I couldn’t escape. In the distance, I began to hear music. I was not the only one. My father and mother suddenly began to dance; a care-free dance in which they seemed to be entirely at ease and uninhibited. Before long, it was a party, all of us dancing and laughing and feeling no sense of others, just absolute comfort. It was unlike anything I had previously known, and yet I knew it was what I had always wanted. I received a tap on the shoulder. It was him.
“Please, I want to stay” I said. “Just five more minutes.” This was a feeling unlike any I had known. He looked older than before, more drawn in the face and his beard flickered with white hair, and shook his head. He gestured to the table, untouched since the spontaneous festivities had begun, and there sat a hooded man, his face cloaked in darkness. I approached and sat opposite him, his face hidden under his hood. He handed me a card. A business card. The ghost of emotions future.
The music stopped and we were alone. The room turned bright white and I found myself in a void, unable to tell where or who I was. And then, in front of me, three stars appeared. “A decent guy, as far as I could tell” it said underneath it, before dissolving as soon as it had appeared. Two stars now. “I never really knew him that well”. Two more stars. “A sad person. I hope they found their light.” They kept coming. Two stars, three, one, a single four.
One after another they came, infinite, and I read each one with no sense of time nor place nor purpose, nor to whom they were referring. Whoever it was, it seemed they had led a thoroughly average life without any seemingly great meaning or connection and as each review passed, so did my growing sense of who or what they were reviewing. Still they came unrelenting, my anxiety peaking to an unbearable level, and I shouted into the nothing “I know these are about me, now let me leave! I’ll not let this be my fate!”
And then I was home. No further ghost appeared, despite my patiently waiting. And soon I was aware of the deafening silence of solitude.
I think often of this night. When I am with friends, with whom I make a point to surround myself, imagining myself tied up and unable to move, trying to embrace the feeling of otherness. When I feel like a child when with family, and the through lines of my past to my present, and how quickly that future becomes your present and then your past.
I wish my past self had been able to speak back to me, because I would have liked to ask him if he, sat alone reading by the light of the torch, was happy alone. I suspect he would have answered he was, and I would have so loved to be able to explain that what he felt was not contentment but a false sense of safety, one he may one day come to realise was the tie that bound him.