(the following is the opening for a fictional diary-style novel I am experimenting with)
“People are the greatest show on earth and you don’t even pay the ticket.”
Charles Bukowski said that. A man who lingered on the edges of society for most of his life, working odd jobs, moving around, trying to be a writer while alienated from society. He stood on the outside of the herd, looked back in, observed their behaviour and wrote about it. Some people hated his writing, others loved it. For me, I guess I am one of the latter, and I couldn’t help but agree completely with the above quote. I mean, have you ever stopped and watched people? Like really watched them? Their behaviour, their movements, their stresses and anxieties? Have you listened to the lies that come out of their mouths and tried to understand the chaos in their brains? For me, I was drawn to that stuff from an early age and I soon found myself studying the behaviour of everyone around me. From peers to parents to teachers: I wanted to know what made them tick, what their dirty little secrets were, and what it was that would push them over the edge into the abyss of total madness. The average human brain was a dense jungle of issues and for whatever reason I wanted to go and explore it (no doubt I needed therapy to ascertain why exactly that was myself).
Naturally it made sense that I had ended up electing to study psychology at university, before spending a large part of my twenties travelling the world. Of course, at school you just learn all the dull text-book crap, scanning miles and miles of print and regurgitating it in an exam, thinking you are ready to walk on a psych ward and nurse some murderous psychopath back to some form of sanity. None of that stuff really prepares you for the real thing, and it was out on my travels where I started to get some first-hand experience of helping people make sense of the human condition. I mean, there’s something about the situation of travelling overseas that causes a person to let their guard down, take off their mask, and start spilling their deepest, darkest secrets to a total stranger. This, I felt, was that travelling was already a sort of therapy for people anyway; an activity where you took yourself away from the stifling reality of ordinary life to put yourself under the existential microscope. The average Joe could learn a lot about himself while hiking through a mountain wilderness, or getting wasted with people from another culture, or staring out at an ocean sunset while wondering what the hell it all meant. And of course, people naturally felt safer sharing their issues with people they were never going to see again (after all, we all knew what judgmental gossips work colleagues and relatives could be).
On my travels I listened to a fifty-year-old man tell me how he had quit his job after feeling suicidal from work-related stress; I listened to a young Danish girl tell me about her eating disorders and childhood abuse; I listened to an ex-heroin addict explain his addiction and fears of relapsing/overdosing. I heard tales of disaster and darkness; of pain and heartache; of death and destruction. My reserved and attentive demeanour drew people in, and I must have spent countless hours listening to people from all around the world spill their hearts out to me. Walking the ancient Christian pilgrimage El Camino de Santiago in Spain was perhaps the greatest experience in this, seeing me spend most days wandering along the trail, meeting people from all walks of life, and talking about the things that lingered in the darkest corners of a person’s mind. The most memorable encounter being with an eccentric, middle-aged man called Pete – a retired army soldier from London who had no home or next of kin. His last remaining family member (his brother) was killed by American friendly fire in Afghanistan. With no family left and no place to be, he now lived the life of a wandering nomad, walking the pilgrimage again and again with no apparent goal other than to just keep going until he dropped dead on the ground. He was a nice guy, although it’s obvious there were some serious demons lingering within, which typically came to the surface every evening after a bottle of red wine – resulting in arguments being started, abuses being hurled, and hostel tables being flipped. Such encounters were compelling to me and only made me crave the gypsy lifestyle more; clearly there was no substitute for real life experience in getting to know just how convoluted and complicated and chaotic the human mind could be. As the godfather of modern psychology had said:
“Anyone who wants to know the human psyche will learn next to nothing from experimental psychology. He would be better advised to abandon exact science, put away his scholar’s gown, bid farewell to his study, and wander with human heart through the world. There in the horrors of prisons, lunatic asylums and hospitals, in drab suburban pubs, in brothels and gambling-halls, in the salons of the elegant, the Stock Exchanges, socialist meetings, churches, revivalist gatherings and ecstatic sects, through love and hate, through the experience of passion in every form in his own body, he would reap richer stores of knowledge than text-books a foot thick could give him, and he will know how to doctor the sick with a real knowledge of the human soul.” Carl Jung
Yeah, old Jung knew the score. The sick were out there in plagues, and by travelling the world with an open heart, you were sure to end up in the midst of human sickness. And the truth, I’ve come to learn, is that almost everybody is sick with something. Even the people who look untroubled on the surface have their monsters lurking somewhere within, and each man or woman has their own facade to hide away the reality of their true tortured self. I even remembered the teachers I had at school – people I looked up to as shining examples of successful human-beings – I later came to find out their drug habits, how some were cheating on their spouses, how one was sexually harassing members of staff, and how another was even found with underage pornography on his computer. Ultimately human-beings are wild and wounded animals ruled by desire, instinct and fear – only society has sought to suppress that side of us and to present us all as civilised beings with polished appearances. But no matter how clean your clothes are, the pain in your heart can’t be washed out; no matter how much makeup you wear, the dirt in your soul can’t be glossed over; no matter how many filters you use on Instagram, the mess in your head can’t be edited out.
Everyone is fucked-up to some degree, and I guess it’s my job to help people make sense of just how fucked-up they are, and also what – if anything – can be done about it. I know, I know: you’re probably thinking how heroic and selfless I am. Well, just know I don’t see myself as some sort of hero: a dark knight that leads people back into the light from the demon-infested shadows. I’m sure there is a view of a therapist out there somewhere (I think that was what I thought when I was an idealistic young man). You see, the truth is I’m just as fucked-up as the majority of people I speak to. Perhaps even more so actually. That’s what makes this whole thing so laughable. I mean, a fucked-up person helping other fucked-up people become less fucked-up? It’s almost poetic in a Nietzsche-esque sort of way. I guess I had spent a lot of time trying to make sense of the mess inside my head so I could, to a degree, put myself into the seats of those opposite me. They were the seats of the broken, the desperate, the lost, the lonely, and the confused. And they were states of being I had gotten to experience myself over the years, so naturally I could resonate with most of the things coming out their mouths. The only difference being that I wouldn’t dare sit in front of a therapist and divulge the contents of my mind for fear of getting dragged to the nearest madhouse. So what better place to sit than in the therapist chair myself, hearing other people’s stories, and feeling some sort of relief that many human-beings were a complete mess inside too.
Often I even thought many of them were fine when compared to myself; nothing a bit of self-reflection, meditation and a few lifestyle changes couldn’t sort out. For me, my madness was an unshakable, elemental part of who I was. It was something I had knew existed within me from a young age. There were many moments of strangeness but I guess the first notable one was when I broke into a house on my way home from a night out when I was sixteen. I went into the kitchen and poured myself a glass of wine before going to drink it in the living room. It was Christmas and I sat there on the sofa looking at the Christmas tree, sipping my wine and feeling like Santa Claus himself. I considered taking one of the presents from under the tree but managed to stop myself. Aside from that, I started relationships with girls then deliberately crashed them just for some drama and passion. I got drunk and stood on the ledges of buildings, wondering what it would feel like for those few seconds of falling before hitting the ground. I went out into the world and sought out pain and drama like some deranged masochist. The reason I liked this shit? There was no way around it: I was self-destructive at my core. An absurdist. Prone to nihilistic thoughts. Human existence was a big joke to me and I wanted to make a mockery of it as much as possible – even getting a self-serving job that satisfied my fetish for delving into the minds of those around me. God, there’s so much to tell you about really, but I’ll spare you the full details of my own tragedy for now. We’ll have to entertain ourselves with other people’s tragedy instead.
The start of a new year. The ‘new year, new me’ were out in force and I was usually met with new clients looking to finally address their underlying issues in the hope they can finally achieve happiness, or perhaps just momentarily stop themselves from kicking the bucket. I was guilty too – starting this diary as a sort of new year experiment to see if I could create some added meaning to my life which was currently in the grips of my latest existential crisis. Dreams of being Charles Bukowski were still in my mind, and I was well aware this was another project that would probably dissipate and fade out into nothingness over the course of the year, just like all my previous projects – including a dystopian novel that was going to be the most prophetic book since 1984 (yeah, I was particularly deluded at that time). Still, it was something; another creative endeavour to keep me going and not let myself be crushed by the feeling of pissing your life away doing the same things every day. It was a common feeling most working adults could relate to. Just like Roger Waters of Pink Floyd had sang on the album Dark Side of The Moon:
“Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I’d something more to say…”
Or perhaps a bit of Celine hit the nail on the head:
“The worst part is wondering how you’ll find the strength tomorrow to go on doing what you did today and have been doing for much too long, where you’ll find the strength for all that stupid running around, those projects that come to nothing, those attempts to escape from crushing necessity, which always founder and serve only to convince you one more time that destiny is implacable, that every night will find you down and out, crushed by the dread of more and more sordid and insecure tomorrows.”
Old Louis-Ferdinand Celine: a writer after my own heart. Anyway, enough of all that. Today’s ‘new year, new me’ client is a twenty-two-year-old woman. She is in the final year of university and expressing some of the standard concerns that ravaged the minds of young people across the world. On she went telling me about her crippling anxiety, her doubts in her head that she wasn’t good enough, that she would always be unhappy and die alone in some dark room covered in spiderwebs and sorrow somewhere. Young women are my biggest client demographic. First of all, women are more likely to actually go and get therapy, unlike us men who politely bottle up our pain and end up committing 70% of all suicides. Second of all, the young woman has a range of issues she needs to navigate in the attempt to be a functioning human-being. Everything from image issues, social media addiction, eating disorders. Some are victims of domestic or childhood abuse, some sexual assault, others are riddled with anxiety about the world and themselves. And let’s not forget the state of the economy which had left all young people screwed when it came to finding a stable career and affording their own home. It was a cluster-fuck of issues altogether, being made continually worse by the unrelenting absurdity of the modern world which was never afraid to make you feel like total shit at every opportunity.
“I feel like I’m doing all these things just to do them,” she told me. “I don’t feel a connection to what I’m doing. I’m just drifting through the motions like I’m not really there, and I keep wondering: will I always feel this way? Like when I get married and when I have kids. I’ll just be doing those things too because that’s what everyone does. Surely everyone doesn’t feel like this? I know they can’t. All my coursemates are applying for jobs and planning their lives. They sound excited, enthusiastic, hopeful. Meanwhile, I just can’t relate to them at all. I just have this emptiness inside.” I let her have a moment for self-reflection before interjecting.
“Have you spoken to anyone else close to you about this? Do you have anyone in your life you feel understands you?”
“No, that’s another thing – no one understands me. If I had someone to talk about these things with, I would, but I don’t. Isn’t that why I’m here after all?”
“I understand. I can say that you are certainly not the only one feeling these things, but that doesn’t negate how you are feeling. However, losing interest in things you once enjoyed and feeling no connection to anything is often a sign of depression. Would you say this a feeling that’s manifested recently?
“Well, I started feeling this way after the first year of university. I was waking up in the morning with no energy, and sometimes it took me over an hour to get out of bed, then when I did……”
I sat back and let her go on, seeing if her introspective exploration of her issues could help us identify the area that was causing her these troubles. The best thing to do with a new client is to just let them speak. The thing is that most people just have so much shit inside of them they need to get out, and having a stranger whose job is to listen to anything and everything you want to express can be the godsend they’ve needed. It’s really quite simple in a way. You give them their space to scream, you acknowledge their scream, and you help them make sense of where their scream came from and what can be done about it. Most aren’t even expecting some grand epiphany or something like that; just the sheer relief of getting all that shit out inside of them is enough. All that shit that has been tearing them up through the years; all that shit they hold inside when they say ‘fine thanks, you?’ Finally, their time has come. So sit back, look attentive, and let them vomit out the contents of their constipated mind right in front of you.
We carried on for another thirty minutes trying to get to the root cause of why she felt that way. Soon her time was up and I said goodbye to her, had some lunch, then welcomed back one of my regulars: an unemployed widow with no savings whose social anxiety stopped her from getting a job. After that it was a guy with bipolar disorder who had recently smashed up his parents house and set fire to his car. It was another cheery start to the year.
After work, I headed to my local. I had considered the dry January thing but decided it was just another trend and fashion that I didn’t really want to follow. I couldn’t bring myself to face another year sober so I sat down at the bar and ordered a drink. I then looked up at the television. More talk of Brexit negotiations were on the screen, along with the latest football scores, and something about government officials dodging taxes. It was a world of absurdity out there but drinking helped you escape for a brief while. I got my double rum and coke then got speaking to one of the resident alcoholics. You needed people like that to make yourself feel better at times; people worse than you that made you feel okay about yourself in comparison. It was a common mind trick we all played on ourselves and I utilised it too. I downed my drink with him, put the world to rights, and headed home to masturbate and eat some leftover macaroni and cheese. And some digestive biscuits too.