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f(r)iends and demons

I was brought up to fear my own power, and the many disruptive forms that - for lack of any training in how to wield it well - it took. The explosions and the withdrawals, both. The detachment, while it simmered, the dread, when it began to rekindle, and the destruction, when I boiled over again. I was brought up to demonize all of this, and so, slowly I othered it, unconsciously dividing and partitioning my sense of self so completely that by the summer that I was turning seventeen, I had reached a place where first-person pronouns finally failed me. I no longer experienced the spectrum of my psyche as one continuum but as a jarring clatter of discrete, fragmented identities, no longer part of a unified whole. It became increasingly difficult to communicate anything I felt. “I” became a fallacy, and recognizing the falsehood in it, but not knowing how to reconcile this existential discrepancy, I could hardly speak. I knew enough to question my experience and the veracity of my words, but not enough to resolve the breakages. Not enough, even, to properly name them.

A doctor or a teacher, my father or a peer - I hesitate to even call those tenuous connections ‘friendships,’ so let’s just say, a fellow human of some kind - would ask how I am. And I would freeze, unable to respond. Who was this “I”? Which “I” would answer them? Would it be my anger speaking? My hopelessness? My fear? Or perhaps, the detached observer that looked on at all of these phenomena in disinterested remove, waiting to see how much power lay in my next response. Would what I say land me back in a mental hospital? Or would I make a mad dash for it again, perhaps further, this time, than just skulking around the shadows of the town’s outdoor amphitheater in the dark. How far would I run? How far might I go?

From my deluded and afflicted stance, mind itself, and all its power to manifest so variously, had taken on a fearsome form, self-existing and autonomous, always more powerful than myself. By the time these psychological crises of late adolescence reached their peak, the choice offered me was simple, at least according to the adults in charge. I could re-enter the hospital where I’d spent three weeks the previous fall, or I could take the anti-psychotics that I was being prescribed to halt the further fragmentation of my soul.

It’s hard to take a drug called an anti-psychotic without entering into relationship with that label. Even if it’s a relationship of resistance or defiance. Even then I knew, in the blossoming intellect within me, the ways that energy only grows through countering schools of thought. I’d just spent three years apprenticing to my own imagined visions of autonomy, the various differentiations and affectations of speech, dress, gait, mannerisms, social circles, and social and sexual politics that together, stewed up into my simultaneously dysphoric and liberatory three years of boarding school. And all of this, secretly, but increasingly apparent through the many cracks appearing across my surface, clear evidence of the co-existing laser focus and consummate blindness that consumed me.

By this point, my father, my doctors and I had all agreed to this collusion. We had solidified the untenable cruelty of darkness within me into a masterful demon indeed. I would escape it for a while, suppressing its effects with pharmaceuticals once again, slipping momentarily out from beneath its oppressive shadow. But it would always retain its upper hand. It would always be raising itself, patiently confident in its eventual return. The conclusion we had all came to, that I couldn’t handle my own mind, went unquestioned. Despite the fact that the conclusion itself was disabling. Despite the fact that its ramifications were crippling. Despite the fact that it implied a lifetime of dependence on external tools of management and suppression, regardless of my intelligence or potential. Regardless of my gifts.

I had moved so far from the simple fact of being different, or even differently abled. So far from seeing these mutinous parts of myself as having a role in my giftedness in any way. So far from trusting that any redemptive qualities or power remained in those gifts. After a year that saw my tenuous prestige crumble in an instant and then continue to freefall. From the autumn, where I fell from my formal and informal positions of leadership in school - on my teams, in orchestra, proctoring my dorm hall - to my own expulsion and hospitalization. Through a winter and spring that saw me struggle through basic daily existence in two public schools in turn, scraping together my puddling brain cells and bruised will just enough to salvage my elementary education and extract a non-honors diploma from the mess. My thoughts of the future so entirely suspended, my relationship to my own self wholly interrupted, it was no wonder that I saw myself as broken. Doomed, at worst. And at best, disabled.

But this was a label that my father wouldn’t allow. Blind to any structural benefits that it might grant me. I remember that summer, completing my entry paperwork to start college in the fall. The one private university that I’d managed to apply to. A school that, just a year before, I would have considered my ‘safety,’ my backup option, was now, I believed, my only chance to re-invent myself and wriggle out from under the weight of these crushing definitions. The forms were demographic, I suppose. Asking after a mixture of identity and interests, meant to help the school staff in our housing placement and who knows what else. I remember checking a box to self-identify as having a disability. I’d only graduated that spring thanks to the safe haven offered me by the special ed teachers in public school. I didn’t have any official labels of learning disability on my academic records. But wasn’t the chaos in my brain, wasn’t the past year proof enough that something wasn’t right? I checked the box, knowing I would need all the help I could get. I knew I was still sharp in there, somewhere. But I felt blunted and dull. I couldn’t put my thoughts together very well. The truth was, I was terrified of going off to start college at summer’s end. And didn’t universities have programs to help people like me? Didn’t they have people to help with notes in classes, or just a supportive place to go? I checked the box, hopeful that it could avail me of some service, some support mechanism to help me navigate my mind in this entirely new place I was about to go. My father railed against my intentions, insisting it would limit me further. “How?,” was my retort. “I’ve already been accepted.”

He had no answer. It reminded me of the way that my mother responded when I came out to her at age thirteen, coming home from my first term at the all-girls boarding school to tell her the good news - I had a girlfriend! Her reaction: How would I fit into society if I declared so openly that I was different? Why would I choose to make my life harder like this? How would I ever find a good man? And now here was dad. He’d been supportive enough of my self-determination when it came to gender identity. Mom said it was because he was sexist. That his support of my relationships was really just an expression of the fact that he didn’t think they even mattered, since there weren’t any penises involved. How’s that for a glimpse into the wounds between them? So I wondered. What could possibly matter so much here, in a world where I could be prescribed anti-psychotics and threatened with hospitals, where the biggest adventures in our daily lives were our periodic late-night trips to the local emergency room to deflect another unmanageable inflection point in my demise? And yet, somehow, the word ‘disability’ was a more menacing threat? Was disability dad’s demon? Nobody ever stopped to clarify the root of things.

What’s a demon anyway? Back then, I had no idea. I would have said my mind itself was a demon. Depression was a demon. Bipolar disorder was a demon. I might have even said that society was a demon. That western culture, medicalized and objectifying and obsessed with pathology as it was, was a demon. Misguiding others, trapping them into trapping me. I would have said these things from the perspective of being terrorized and oppressed. Whatever seeds of truth might have been there would have done me little good at all, living, as I was, as a victim of my own perceptions.

Now I know. A demon is anything that we falsely take as solid, real, or inherently existing. To the degree that we imbue it with existence from its own side and then engage either in pursuit or rejection of it, it becomes a demon. In this way, demons are not only the things that we tend to cast as ‘bad.’ ‘Good’ can be a demon, too. Self-righteousness is a powerful demon. Reductionist thinking is a demon. Labels often function as open invitations to demons. Stories, too. And as some of the highest teachings on the mind say, when you boil it all the way down, hope and fear are the demons. Based, as they are, on our ongoing entanglements in a dualistic world of separation, in which we quest for what we think we want, and avoid what we think we don’t, all the while blindly passing by the real opportunity before us, to realize and re-experience our true nature beyond this divided existence.

I thought my demons lived within me. I thought they lived around me. I didn’t know yet, that our demons are in fact our greatest treasure. Recognized, embraced, re-integrated, understood, our demons become our medicine. In the Eight Verses of Training the Mind, a core lojong (mind training) text by Geshe Langri Tangpa, the fourth verse speaks to this. “Whenever I see ill-natured people, or those overwhelmed by heavy misdeeds or suffering, I will cherish them as something rare, as though I’d found a priceless treasure.” The verse is talking of other people, in the main. It’s part of a series of teachings on cultivating the heartfelt aspiration of bodhichitta, the fuel of the buddhas, that perfect combination of wisdom and compassion that recognizes the seed of buddhahood within us all, and strives to actualize it.

But I can see now that these lines are just as applicable to how we view the ill-natured parts of our own selves. Whenever I see myself, such an ill-natured being, whenever I find myself overwhelmed by my own misdeeds, caught up in useless suffering, can I cherish this insight for its rarity? Can I behold my own needless confusion, my deeply ingrained habits of attempting to resolve it in all the wrong ways, and recognize the priceless treasure that I still carry within? Can I realize that simply seeing, without labels, without judgment, my own being, blinded to my true nature, is itself a treasure of insight? An opening to the light?

I couldn’t, then, or for years afterwards. Instead, I assumed that whatever was wrong with me, so much that I could hardly carry it, so much that others couldn’t bear to see its breadth, was no kind of treasure at all. And I just kept pushing it away. But what we resist, persists. How might we dissolve these demons into their true form, wash away their fearsome disguise in the flowing stream of their own longing for our love?

It’s been twenty years now, more or less, that I’ve been attempting to love my demons. It’s been a dangerous affair. We still have a ways to go. But the better I get at "being here," the closer I come to "getting there"...


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