I am not the same person that I used to be. And that’s something I’ve been struggling to accept. I might be the same on the outside, but ‘essential me’ has irrevocably changed.
My bff and I invented the term ‘essential me’ when trying to explain how invigorated we felt after spending time together talking very openly or when engaging in creative activities that made us feel connected to our artistic selves. So your ‘essential you’ is the purest part of you. If you got rid of all the baggage, the professional persona, the variations of you that you adopt for different social circumstances … if you boil yourself down to the most essential characteristics form your identity and psyche … that is ‘essential you’. The you that you see in the mirror. The you that you come home to at the end of the day.
“Oh look, there I am! Probably should clean this mirror.” (Source)
My ‘essential me’ is the goddess, the writer, the napkin poet. I can sometimes feel disconnected from who I really am when I’m at work or around people to whom I have to present a slight variation of myself: the me that’s a bit more formal, conservative, rational or responsible. But when I’m doing the things I love: writing, reading, playing piano, singing, drinking tea, crafting … it’s then that I feel most in touch with ‘essential me’. Or when I’m spending time with friends who really let me be myself.
But when my brother died, a part of me died too. A phone call. Two words. The avenue of ambulances. Devastation. Shock. How could I ever describe that moment to you? The moment I will relive for the rest of my life. The moment that split my whole life into two separate timelines: the time when he was alive and the time now he is dead. I can easily tell you in person all about how he died without being emotionally affected by it. But I’ll never be able to tell you about finding out and the first few hours afterwards. Watch ‘The Body’ episode of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ or click this five second moment in ‘Pay It Forward’. Or just look at this picture:
“Looks like it’s just you and me now, panda.” (Source)
And while I mourn the loss of him, I find myself mourning the person that I used to be. It’s apparently a common thing with grief. One grief pamphlet tells me that a typical worry is “acting out of character and being different to the way we usually are”. Which is nice and all … but there’s a bit of an expectation that things will go back to normal eventually. And I just don’t think that’s the case. I can never go back to being normal because ‘normal’ was when my brother was alive. It is profoundly abnormal that he’s dead. And just as there are two timelines, there are now two me’s. The ‘before me’ that was happy. And the ‘now me’ that will never be happy in quite the same way again.
Maybe part of me hasn’t died, exactly. Maybe it’s just that my essential me has shifted. I feel like I’m mourning a loss of self, but maybe it’s just a change in self. I used to consider myself to be empathetic, caring, idealistic and sanguine at my core; now find that these qualities have limits. I am far more sceptical and pragmatic, and my empathy does not tolerate frivolity. I can empathise with those who have suffered, but not with those who are merely inconvenienced. I might be just as amiable and kindly as ever, but I am far less joyful. The colours of the world have faded slightly and I understand the inevitability and finality of death. I am disillusioned. The essential me that I once saw in the mirror is fractured and unfamiliar.
And it’s not just me. Some of my friends have noticed that I’ve changed. One or two have mentioned that it’s now difficult to be around me. One friend even called me up to tell me that she liked the person that I used to be and she doesn’t like how bitter and depressed I’ve become. And she would really like me to go back to being the friend that I once was to her because that person was much more enjoyable to be around. While I can understand that she misses me and wants me to recover, what she actually said sounded very selfish and much more about her. Perhaps asking me how I’m coping would have been a better strategy. She will never understand that the devastation and ruin of grief will be with me for the rest of my life. My life has changed forever. The death of my brother will never stop being sad, unfair and utterly senseless. How could anyone expect me to shrug this tragedy off and go back to being blithe and carefree? I know that I will recover, that things will get easier with time. But it is either ignorant or insensitive to expect me to be happy-go-lucky so soon after this tragedy.
I know that Pretendland me is much easier to be around. It is quite nice to go out into the world and have hot beverages with friends. To sit in the winter sunshine and feel it’s shy warmth. To wander down to the beach and stare absentmindedly at the deep horizon. To hear what’s going on in your life and enjoy my stay on your islands. I’m getting better and better at being in Pretendland. Only not everyone knows that that’s what’s happening. That they’re only seeing what I’m like when I’m in Pretendland and not what I’m like once I leave their company. It’s like in the novel, ‘The Silver Chair’…
No, wait, that’s not it. (Source)
I mean the book by C. S. Lewis. Part of the Narnia series. Not the Australian band. Although, fun fact: they did name themselves after the book.
In The Silver Chair, our heroes find themselves alone with a knight who is under an enchantment. He explains to them that every night there comes an hour when his mind is most horribly changed. He becomes furious and wild, and in his fit would destroy all that he could reach. Fortunately he is bound by hand and foot to a silver chair so that he can not harm anyone. And each night, after the fit passes, he awakes with no memory of it. He is a rather upbeat, irreverent character and our heroes are afraid of the dark, violent person he’ll change into under the enchantment.
After a nice meal together, our heroes stay late into the day with the Knight. And eventually our heroes experience his frenzy first hand. The enchantment takes hold and the Knight goes pale, sweats and writhes in his bonds. He groans, “The heavy, tangled, cold, clammy web of evil magic … how many years is it?… Have I lived ten years, or a thousand years, in the pit? … Quick! I am sane now. Every night I am sane. If only I could get out of this enchanted chair, it would last. I should be a man again. but every night they bind me, and so every night my chance is gone. … It is at this hour that I am in my right mind: it is all the rest of the day that I am enchanted.”
“Oh, you have hearts of stone,” said the Knight. “Believe me, you look upon a wretch who has suffered almost more than any mortal heart can bear.” (Source)
There is so much that resonates with me here. I think I am that jovial, upbeat Knight that is quite pleasant to have a meal with. And I don’t think people truly understand how dark I get in the later hours unless they see it firsthand. The thing I love most about this scene is that the Knight spends his whole time trying to explain that he is perfectly normal, but he falls under an enchantment that turns him violent and insane. And yet once the enchantment takes hold, he is trying to convince them that all that niceness and happiness was the spell and only NOW is truly himself. It reminds me of old fantasy or sci fi stories where you have two clones standing side by side both saying, “I’m the REAL one!” … “No, I’M the real one!”
Pretendland is like that. I tell people that while I’m ok while we’re out in the world, later on the enchantment will take hold and I’ll be all crazy again. But it’s actually the other way around. Pretendland is the surreal, crazy place. And the time when I’m back home, tied to my own silver chair, that’s the real me. It is at this hour that I am in my right mind (albeit crying or catatonic): it is all the rest of the day that I am enchanted.
I might need a crash course in knot-tying. (Source)
So many me’s. The now me. The before me. Essential me. Pretendland me. Silver Chair me. No wonder I feel fractured and unfamiliar. How am I to make sense of all this? I think I’ve been in denial for a long time that I’ve changed. There’s a misconception that it takes a long time to finally come to accept that someone’s died. That came very quickly for me. I heard the words, I saw the ambulances, we had the funeral. It’s a bit hard to argue with all that. Would be nice to think it’s all been some cruel, elaborate reality show. But even my subconscious knows. He turns up in my dreams quite often: in full 3D technicolor with surround sound. But even in my dreams I’m not relieved to see him. I know he’s dead. Neither of us have any explanation as to how he’s there. And each time I find myself having to sit him down and explain to him that he’s dead and that he needs to go. Fun times, right? No wonder I need to escape to Pretendland.
I accepted his death very quickly. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to cope with the knowledge. And it’s certainly not easy to accept that I’ve changed. I really resent the consequences of his death. The effects it’s had on my family. The ensuing symptoms: practical, emotional, psychological, physical. And I resent that I’m a different person. I liked who I was. I would like to continue being that essential me. But I’m different. I’m not the blithe, serene green goddess in that picture at the start. But maybe I’m still just as green, and still just as much a goddess. Less Aphrodite/Athena, and more Hera perhaps? You can still be a goddess and have a dark side, right? We’ll just call it ‘wisdom’ or ‘solemnity’. I’ve just traded my levity for gravity. I think as long as I don’t end up being The Lady of the Green Kirtle (Narnia fans, you with me?) then I think I’ll be ok. Better than ok. And, at the end of the day, I’ll still be me. Essentially.
You can totally trust a woman with a mandolin and magic incense. She won’t turn out to be evil. (Source)