Friday, July 09, 2010

Problems in living

There are men and women, boys and girls, who have problems with living. For them, life is an ill-fitting suit of clothes that must be worn despite the chafing, despite the unrecognizable, unattractive figure the mirror shines back at them. They talk to themselves, they are lost in the world, to the world. Their complaints are always loud but rarely acknowledged by those whose clothes fit more comfortably. But I have been in a position to hear and see the very worst of it. They are here, locked inside my thick walls, wailing and keening like prehistoric birds in nests permanently empty. Not all the worst troubles are suffered by my patients, because misery is epidemic, and some of the helpers, who sought to hide their own pain in the gaping maw of the officially afflicted, find themselves instead the subjects of the longest, deepest hurt, deceived by the hope that feeling the pain of another is the same as taking that pain away.

I saw one young attendant -- he was fond of bow-ties, wore his hair slicked straight back with Macassar oil scented with lemon, and always had a pocket full of Turkish Delight -- fall down dead in the hallway between wards C and D just as daybreak slivered through the window, having given not a single sign of impending mortality. It was unnaturally cold that morning and the branches of the hackberry trees were cracking under their weight of ice. The sound was not unlike the laments of one old man who has lived most of his lives in my shelter. He was admitted originally in a state of catatonia, unable or unwilling to respond to the world at all except by continued breathing and heartbeat. His cure consisted of adopting the complaints of others, like stray cats he gathered them up. He, himself, the doctors concluded, was entirely lost, though I suspected that somewhere existed "the gatherer" himself, unlost. The young attendant, who had spent some of the small hours of that morning in the company of this old man, did not understand that the pain the man expressed was not his own, but was obtained second-hand. He attempted compassion, empathy, but the old man's store of misery, after so many years on the ward, was bottomless, and the attendant was swallowed up. Though the post-mortem speculated about heart failure, I wondered. Had this young man known that all the pain he was taking on was not original to the old man, not something that caused the old man himself distress, but rather was the source of his animation, would he have approached his task of caring differently? Would he have survived this encounter?

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