The Sponge


I live a life of desperate sadness, though not my own. I have at times, in my recent past, lived a life of extreme happiness, though again, not my own. Surely these words seem strange to you now, though they will not when I finish. Let me explain.

 Mine is an existence of vicarious emotion, yet it has not always been so. There was a time when I could securely claim ownership of my feelings, but due to frequent bouts of deep depression, sought to rid myself of them for eternity. Little did I know of how successful I would become in this unholy endeavor, or of how necessary it is to the human psyche that passion exist on some level, whether welcomed or not. This ignorance on my part would prove to be my undoing, or rather, my curse.

Having suffered for many years with plunges into the depths of melancholy, and having met with consistent failure in various psychiatric remedies (consisting mainly of pills and pointless discussions of why I must certainly hate my mother) foisted upon me by men of great knowledge and stature in their field, I was, at last, induced to submit to a practice which had been discredited in years past, but was now making a comeback, of sorts, in the treatment of mental illness.

In previous incarnations, the treatment was called Electroshock, but as if to cleanse it of its reputation for ill, it had been renamed Electroconvulsive Therapy. The rationalization given by the practitioners of this monstrosity (which is fairly considered torture by many social welfare associations) is that the treatment has the effect of producing convulsions, not unlike an epileptic seizure. The supposed benefit of being subjected to a seizure is that it counteracts any kind of unwanted emotion by destroying certain brain tissues that can create a derangement of the nervous system. Such derangement can come about by either an overload of normal emotion or by imbalances in body chemicals that produce emotion. So exasperated was I by my dreary life that even this extreme step seemed reasonable. The stories of previous clients’ all so similarly dramatic recoveries from maladies almost exactly as my own led me to great optimism regarding the eventual outcome.

And so, by and by, the day arrived for my therapeutic electrocution. I awoke very early, before dawn, and made my way to the hospital. After changing into the standard issue hospital gown, I was given an injection intended to reduce the secretion of saliva, and was thence removed to the treatment room. Here I was made to lie on a table (which felt as if it might have been used to store refrigerated goods earlier that morning) while an intravenous line was inserted in my left arm, through which a general anesthetic was given. Following this, another drug was introduced, the effect of which was to suppress muscle movements during my subsequent convulsions. (The anesthetic, I learned later, was not necessary for the shock treatment per se, for the shock would, of its own accord, render me unconscious. The purpose was rather to spare me the feeling of paralysis that was produced by the drug that followed it.)

 At this time, two electrodes were attached to my head, one at each temple, and 140 volts of electricity were passed between them, triggering a Grand Mal brain seizure, the duration of which, I was later told, was about one minute.

 I awoke in a state of confusion, feeling no particular discomfort, and remembering nothing about the incident. Eventually, my confusion faded, and I was allowed to return to my apartment. The only side effects that I was aware of on that day were a mild headache and slight nausea, and these soon passed.

The depression that had previously been my constant companion seemed to have faded, and for this I was greatly relieved. Believing the therapy to have been a success, I continued the procedure three times each week, for three weeks. As the treatments progressed, I felt myself more and more in control of my emotional state, and absent of sentiment of any kind. This I felt, was a tremendous improvement over my pre-electrocution condition. But, as the passage of time revealed, I had not entirely comprehended the particulars of my new situation.

For many years leading up to these events, my condition had distanced me from humanity as a whole, and I had withdrawn into myself. Most of my time, aside from working various odd jobs I held (however briefly), was spent holed up in my apartment, either depressed or drunk, and oftentimes both. This isolation was still in effect when my treatments were concluded, and I now sought to reattach myself to my former friends, my family and to society. This task required far less work than I had imagined, as people were genuinely thoughtful and kind and more than willing to see me. I found myself invited to family gatherings, and not a few social events. I was ecstatic. Feeling as though my life had been returned to me from the grave, I excitedly looked forward to the aforementioned events as an opportunity to demonstrate my new ‘self’ to the world.

Not long after I attended a late night party with a few acquaintances from a previous employment. I had not been in the room five minutes when I began to feel greatly relaxed, and exceedingly happy. I rejoiced within myself! It seemed self-evident that the dispirited days of the past were gone forever, and I could barely keep from dancing with glee.

Liquor flowed in abundance throughout the rooms, but I did not indulge, for many good reasons. Since my recovery I had sworn off alcohol, seeing it as a crutch of my old self, and more likely to (by unconscious connection) restore despondency than anything else. Also, I wanted to feel warmth without liquid prompting, and lastly, I felt so good at just being alive again that it seemed entirely unnecessary.

And did I feel good! I felt a cheerfulness that I can scarcely recall having ever felt before, and I even began to feel a warm love for every living thing in the room. It was bliss. I laughed out loud and I laughed often, and for reasons I couldn’t identify, I laughed at inappropriate times. I don’t mean to say that I laughed at someone else’s misery or humiliation. I just laughed for no reason. At first this was amusing, both to myself and to the other guests, but that idiosyncrasy proved to be less endearing as the evening wore on, and I began to grow self conscious about it, but yet, it would not desist. Making my delirium all the more awkward was that the rest of the attendees appeared to be growing more composed in respect to their own conduct as I grew less so. Soon the fete became absolutely cheerless and the crowd quickly started to thin. Not long after, I, too began to sense the new mood, and also departed.

 I came to attribute my strange behavior to the novel experience of being happy, and my relative newness to it, and I resolved to be on guard for a repeat of the outburst at the next event, two nights later.

 Arriving alone again, I felt the same great comfort and control as I had at the earlier affair and marveled in it. This time, however, I was mentally guarding against any eruption that would single me out in the din. As before, there was much drink to be had, but I was firmly committed to abstinence, especially in light of my social frailties. And once again, the same pattern gradually came into my self-awareness. It began with a relaxed feeling, moved into giddiness, and soon straight into a frenzy of giggling and loud chortling, many times for no apparent reason. In between spasms of laughter, I speculated that my audience must have been drawing the conclusion that I was under the influence of an illegal substance. On this occasion I excused myself ‘get a breath of fresh air’ and didn’t stop until the ‘fresh air’ drawn in was from my own apartment.

At this point I should have expected, in fact I did expect, my despondency to immediately return upon me - but it did no such thing. As a matter of fact, I felt fine. Not great, mind you, but fine. Certainly, the way I felt was very similar to the way I always felt when I was at the apartment. Not happy, not sad; just fine.

 The next evening, I had occasion to attend the wake of the father of an old friend of mine, and I engaged in some considerable contemplation of the likely response from the mourners should I lapse into a fit of hilarity at the foot of the casket.  Upon my arrival, I knew immediately that my time had been wasted in imagining laughter, because I almost immediately slid into the depths of grief, and this while still in the hallway, mingling with dozens of people I did not know. By the time I had located my friend and drew near the corpse, it was all that I could do not to erupt in pitiful wailing. My friend could see that I was upset, and soon took to comforting me! As a matter of fact, since my arrival, it seemed as though everyone in the room had perked up, and many looked upon me with sympathy, no doubt musing upon my relationship to the deceased old man. 

 Only slowly was I able to recover my composure, and realized that I did not feel humiliated, as one might think I should, or even embarrassed. No, what I sensed was pity- for myself. I felt compassion for my plight, and sympathy for my sorrow. And then I noticed that almost everyone was observing me from his or her places around the room, each with some degree of concern in their eyes. I wiped away my tears, and apologizing as I moved, quickly left the building.

 Rather than risk driving in my condition, I determined to walk around the small streets of the borough until my head cleared, and soon made another horrifying discovery. In each instance, it was always the same. Whenever I should pass close by another walker, I was influenced by their emotional state. If they were happy, I was happy. If they were lonely, so was I. If they feared me, then I feared me. The intensity of the sensations was not nearly as great as those I had experienced earlier, leading me to conclude that I was sensing not an average mood in an area, but in fact the sum total of all of the moods in an area. Therefore, the greater the number of broadcasters in the area, the greater the impression. And the more uniform the impressions, the more impact it had upon me. Also, my spontaneous research led me to conclude that negative energies traveled farther and struck me with much greater force. For example, I could sense pain at great distance, sometimes before I could even see the sufferer, whereas delight became noticeable only in close quarters.

 It now occurred to me that the absence of feeling in my own soul had created an emotional vacuum, to be filled by whatever energy, positive or negative, that fell within its pull. This condition, I later learned, is not unheard of in the annals of psychology. In fact, this ‘Super-Empathy’ as it is known, has been duly recorded many times throughout the world, most recently in cases in places as disparate as Indonesia, Ecuador and Bulgaria, but never in such extremity as what I describe to you now.  

 Finding that my only refuge was the solitude of my apartment, I resolved to remove myself from human contact, in so far as that is possible, for the sake of my sanity. If you think that I must have become distraught at being condemned to such a bleak future, you then have already forgot: I feel nothing of my own plight. It is only the chords of those around me that reverberate in my heart.

 Having set upon this scheme, I gathered what little I had, and journeyed across the countryside, looking for a community as sparsely populated as possible. Three days into my journey, my luck seemed to change. A tolerably depressed little man at a rural coffeehouse told me of a cemetery that needed a live in caretaker, the most recent one having joined his wards in eternal repose. I accepted this as an answer to prayer, and moved immediately to fill the opening. The graveyard’s owner, a pleasantly indifferent man, needing someone to maintain the grounds post haste, and finding me sufficient for the task, allowed me to move in that very day.

 With the dawn I set out to work the grounds and began the adjustment to my life of separation. Indeed, the place had been allowed to become meadow in many spots, and for the better part of a week I busied myself in returning it to its former mundane self. While there was light, I worked - cutting grass, weeding, trimming, and whatever other general landscaping needs presented themselves. At night, I ate alone, in the near dark, and then read histories of ancient civilizations for hours until falling asleep. The few rooms of the cottage were small, but not uncomfortably so. The bed was in need of a new mattress, but not unpleasantly so. The house had no central heat, but there were two fireplaces, and wood was in abundance. In the event of vandals, a loaded shotgun had been thoughtfully provided. It was as close to heaven on earth as I could dare conceive of.

 One afternoon in my second week of employment at the cemetery, I was tidying up a number of flowers in front of what appeared to be a recent internment. As I was wont to do in passing the time, I speculated as to the circumstances surrounding this person’s demise, what loved ones might be left behind on this earthly plane, and whether they shall ever be moved to visit this pile of dirt again. It was at this instant that I started to feel it, at first in the inner recesses of my chest. There was no mistaking it as it slowly washed over me, permeating my entire being with – depression. My old companion, who had been with me for so many years, before being banished with high voltage, had returned. The very cause of my initial anguish, the initiator of the chain of events that had eventually separated me from the living, had found me with the dead.

 I wondered. Am I cured of my emptiness, of the black hole that is my heart, only to be restored to the despondency of my past? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Or is it neither? This depression was not nearly as bad as the ones I could vividly recall, and by the time I had dragged myself into the house, and fell down upon the dusty couch in the sitting room, it had dissipated.  At least, I thought, now that I was restored to my former self, I would soon feel happiness again, to fill the time between bouts of melancholy. And yet, no happiness was forthcoming. Instead, I felt – nothing.

 I must have fallen asleep on the couch, as the morning sun alerted me to the advent of the next stage in my life, which I anticipated not with fear or trepidation, but with a profound emptiness. I felt as hollow as I ever had, and was profoundly confused as to the state of my mental affairs. Having nothing to keep me from my duties, I returned to the memorial park, walking amongst the tombstones. This time, I felt it hitting me in waves, and I could perceive different personalities amongst the inflamed passions. Names and faces danced in my mind’s eye, all saturated with sorrow and remorse. The combined grief of a hundred spirits gripped my soul, and they seemed to plead with me to relieve their anguish.  As the depression took hold of me, I sank to the ground, pressing my face into the dirt for what must have been over an hour, unable to go on. Eventually, I began to feel better, but was totally drained.

 This time I stumbled back into the house, and collapsed at the kitchen table. My head was spinning, and I was exhausted. But now I knew that I had never, not even for a moment, regained my original temperament at all. I had, rather, attracted the attention of the world of the unseen, and was now going to be used by them as the vast dumping ground for their piteous regrets. And I could feel them coming again. The thought burned in my mind: There are too many of them, and they know about me now. This will never end. Never.

 And so my invisible tormentors came at me again, screeching and wailing their laments, distraught, partially psychotic and full of energies - painful energies. After a time, I cannot know how long, the assault was over, and I lay there staring at the loaded shotgun on the wall. It was then that I determined to compile this narrative, so that some notice of my condition and the numerous obscenities that led me to this place might survive me, in the event that I decided to take my own life.

I would have done it by now, but for the consideration that in death we carry over those things that plague us in life, and that I may only succeed in sentencing myself to be surrounded by them for eternity, condemned to live their agony until the end of time.

Still, I cannot remove my eyes from the shotgun.

And now, I feel them coming again…


[Collected Works of J.L. Harrison] [dark_somber] [EINE KLEINE HÖLLE MUSIK.] [The Sand-mine.] [The Boy Who Could Fly - Somewhat] [The Grass is Always Meaner] [Agnes Bowers] [The Sponge] [Keeping the Faith] [Words That Hurt] [Templeton's Laughing Clock] [A Mother's Karma] [Channeling Poe] [scenes_past] [scholarly] [My Blog]