Updated: Mar 30
Michaël Van Remoortere – for my Scissor Valley family
Pourtant je vis depuis longtemps déjà avec l'impressions d'avoir trop vécu; j'imagine que c'est à cause de ça que le besoin d'écrire est si profond.
Édouard Louis – Changer: méthode
Exactly one year ago today I had myself admitted to a psychiatric rehabilitation clinic. About my stay there and the underlying factors of my problems, as one is wont to say, I have previously written elsewhere. What I want to write about now is the work—for which the Germans, of course, have a specific word—that had to be done after I was discharged. After all, I finished the last therapy session of my follow-up trajectory a few weeks ago. It feels as if something has come to a close, something accompanied by all the tendencies towards dramatic tension and symbolic meaning that an author can’t help but reveal throughout his life—perhaps even in spite of himself. This essay is about that very something.
Let me start by saying that I’m doing well. And, more importantly: I no longer distrust the fact that I’m doing well. I refuse to think in phrases such as ‘I deserved all the good things that happened to me in the last year’ that would imply that I also deserved everything that came before. Or I would get stuck in the philosophically untenable stalemate that all the good things that happen to someone are deserved, and all the bad things are undeserved. I count myself extremely lucky, but I have also been able to create my own luck in certain ways, through a combination of bluff and intuition. Perhaps luck always mostly consists of bluff and intuition.
My biggest stroke of luck is the geographical location I was born in, almost thirty years ago. I can’t overestimate how important the self-evidence of social security in my country of birth is, even as this self-evidence is increasingly put under pressure by the outrageous marketization of what we still, stubbornly, have to call Humanism. One can quip, as we in Dutch and Flemish tend to do, that ‘to measure something is to know it’, but then one ignores the fact that this knowledge doesn’t imply understanding. It’s a kind of numerical fetishism behind which the political class can hide its incompetence. The budget cannot err, and citizens pay for this with their (quality of) life. If we, as Oscar Wilde does, define cynicism as the attitude which pretends to know the price of everything, but the value of nothing, then we may very well be living in the most cynical of times. Nothing is as cheap, but simultaneously as expensive, as cynicism.
I was already convinced of this as an unchancy philosophy student. But I only understood its consequences when I stayed in Los Angeles for two months last summer. My imagination was completely contradicted by the view of all those tents in the streets. City of Angels? City of Crackheads. If my story had taken place there, I would most certainly have ended there too, in the midst of the incomprehensible prayers that echoed through the abandoned streets of Skid Row. I saw a man who, I guess frenzied by despair, was trying to shove his lover in front of a bus, after which she stood up again, unfazed, and followed him back into their shared tent. They were using a towel with Elsa from Frozen on it as a door curtain. The American Dream, for me, became this portrait of a snowy white ice queen behind which people lay perishing. We can only anxiously await her (imminent) emergence on the streets of the Old Continent.
Because you can’t do this by yourself. I didn’t have to do it on my own, anyway. The days of applauding healthcare workers lie far behind us, now that we are expected to take up our responsibilities once again. Nevertheless, I wish everyone, even those who place their own narrow definition of freedom above others’ wellbeing, can get the help and care they need, whenever they need it. Medicinal, psychological, and religious help. Because one of the unsung heroes of my story is the pastoral counsellor who freed up a few hours in her busy schedule every week to help me articulate the doubts I feared I was succumbing to. My story is always also a story of regaining control of language.
I’m doing well, and I can prove it too. I’ve got the receipts. This past year I met more amazing people than I, a socially awkward and extremely shy introvert, ever dreamed of, including—and I’m choosing my words carefully here, considering he’ll read this too (although he’s still sleeping, here in the same room I’m writing this in)—the love of my life. In the wake of this miracle, a colourful crowd of idiots washed ashore, and among them I—compassionate as I am towards the concept of ‘family’—was able to dress up in the garb of a golly sisterhood I had never known before. Balloons as ersatz-breasts and all. They are the ‘chosen family’ of which there is so much talk in same-sex pop culture.
Professionally, too, I’ve had more chances to develop my talents than anyone who wants to steer clear of the power games and behind-the-scenes squabble of the art world would ever dream of being granted. More than ever, I saw myself validated by my environment, even in certain artistic fields I had never aspired to be a part of. I was even forced to come to the conclusion, during my last therapy session, that I possessed something I had no choice but to define as self-worth. In social media terms, I’m what they call #blessed.
But many other things happened, too, things that aren’t as fit to brag about on social media. I have mourned a lot this past year. For friendships that proved not to be resistant to the more unmanageable facets of my personality. For the ideal of a family—an ideal that I, ironically enough, eventually exercised in a different, unexpected environment. That doesn’t take away, however, that I had to give up its more conventional form, and with it my own expectations of it which I, aiming for recognition, was pursuing in vain.
I know now, as hindsight is 20/20, that I had to bid farewell to the ideas in my head, of how things were supposed to be. The ideals that made it impossible for me to see how things actually were. Last year I carried to the grave that part of myself that was naïve enough to believe that life would yield to the principles I’d been spoon-fed, not realizing that these principles had not actually taken into account the possibility of me. I tried to keep myself upright, in accordance with the bourgeois tradition I was raised in, which still relies on principles based on shamefully stigmatizing all the desires a body like mine may have. My release from this naivety became the condition for the most romantic year of my life. My homosexuality saved me. I now often hear that I’m doing so well because I found the love of my life, but the truth is that I only found him because I am doing so well. (And because of Tinder, of course.)
But initially, the purpose of this text wasn’t to reveal how well I’ve been doing. This exposition was only necessary in order to create the context in which I was able to reflect on what I lost. That’s why I will not talk about the people who were there for me: the Racoon family I spent each weekend with; the friends who called me weekly and whom I went on walks with; the Pianist who, although our relationship didn’t survive my admission, kept taking care of me. Once again, proving the absentees wrong is talked about, rather than enjoying the comforting choir of those who showed up. Their presence weakened in the face of what I was missing. Maybe it’s true, le bonheur se raconte mal, but nevertheless, I decided to write about mourning.
Connie Palmen, Queen Connie to her friends (which we aren’t (yet)), wrote that mourning is like falling in love without the deliverance. So heartache is also a mourning of sorts. You are overcome with emotion, longing for an object that isn’t there (anymore), and the hole left by that object can’t be filled by those emotions, but instead fuels more longing. The heartache about something that never was takes up a special, almost exemplary position. I remember how once, a few years back, I sat in a café crying about a love that was never reciprocated—a love, one might say, that never existed in the first place. I needed to make my loss a public thing, theatricalise my mourning, to be able to dare to believe I even deserved to feel this way. All this contradicted by the fact that the target of my love was still walking around, seemingly denying the emptiness I felt inside. The embarrassed looks of the other pub-crawlers turned out to be necessary for me: they proved that something was indeed lost. I think that writing this down is a similar necessity.
I’ve always experienced my friendships as infatuations. Especially at first, they followed the pattern of a mating dance akin to falling in love, including the rituals of attraction and teasing rebuff, of praise and tender delusion, of playfully taking on new roles and simultaneously bashfully exposing yourself. Mourning these loves has therefore also taken on quite obsessive dimensions. For months I was afraid I’d encounter my (still-)living dead. With every invitation, I asked who else would be joining. I cringed when their names were said, even when these names didn’t refer to them specifically. Whenever I unexpectedly came face to face with them, I was afraid to lose myself all over again. I didn’t even have the courage to look them straight in the eye. They had become the embodiment of a time I hoped to forget as quickly as possible.
Even when one of them explicitly apologised, I didn’t know how to react. I thanked him and wished him a pleasant evening. (Before, I’ve said: ‘I’m not willing to negotiate which reasons are deemed acceptable for your total absence.’) This awkwardness is now interpreted by some as anger, as if I would hold a grudge. But I don’t think that’s it. Now that I’m no longer angry, I notice how angry I really was, although that anger wasn’t really directed at anyone in specific, but instead at a world that kept on spinning while I didn’t even have the energy to go after it, let alone keep up. I’ve been angry, yes, but those apologies above all reminded me of the chasm I had experienced. I had understood the indifference of other people as a failure on my part. A failure that I had tried to cover up.
After one week on the secured division of the clinic, I was moved to the open ward and, more importantly, I was prescribed a lower dose of tranquillizers, which allowed the haze that had swallowed the previous week to make space for the clarity that in turn enabled me to chart my own demons, one by one. I started by doing what I always do. The only thing that has always remained, even when everything else seems impossible. I started writing. Less than a month later I found myself in a slightly absurd position: in my hospital ward, behind my computer screen, while my fellow patients were in the TV room, watching the ceremony at which I received an award for an essay about my stay in the institute that had not yet come to an end.
Suddenly, I was flooded with messages. Even though I had been locked up for a month and a half, the reception of some prize abruptly made it possible for the outside world to contact me. Those I hadn’t heard from all that time were now sending me messages about my courage, my strength. Someone even hoped that I would find a lot of time to read and write during my stay. I read these messages in between two outbreaks of utter despondency and self-contempt. My right lower arm still shows the souvenirs, the little scars of the cigarettes I, when I thought I had hit rock bottom, burned into my flesh to remind myself that I still existed.
Our society doesn’t know how to deal with suffering. Certainly not with the mental kind. Unless it’s wrapped in the kind of narrative that talent shows keep presenting us with: a narrative of triumph over this suffering. Despite everything, the resilience of mankind. The social obsession with the paradigm of rebirth, something Serge Daney already pointed out in the 80s. It is only when the suffering is transformed into victory, when we manage to gain something from it, that it can be acknowledged. Only winners can be losers. It was not until the well-wishes came my way that I noticed I was also stuck in this (faulty) logic. In the idea that I had to cash in my suffering, otherwise it would have been for nothing. The idea, too, that I had to be the best possible patient, just so I could distinguish myself from my fellow patients. ‘We’re all suffering, sure, but at least I’m putting it to use.’
I believe that, in some sense, I imprisoned myself with that essay. I sold my suffering as a literary victory. Maybe I needed it at the time, maybe I also kind of liberated myself by writing that text, but it did make it impossible for me to bounce back from that victory, in order to tell people what really happened. In order to tell them how often I had lacked the courage to keep going.
I first met the love of my life almost on the exact day I was discharged. He got to know me towards the end of my emergence from the depths, and afterwards everything went so fast—meeting new people, achieving professional success—that I suspect he doesn’t fully realize how badly I was doing, prior to our meet-cute. Maybe he doesn’t need to, he already does so much for me just by being himself, but somehow it grates. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have felt the need to write this text.
This seems to be why I didn’t know how to respond to those apologies. I would have liked to ask why they were apologizing, but realized immediately I would never find the courage to admonish them: how they didn’t have a clue about what I’d been through, and that it was my own doing, too. I wasn’t angry—I was afraid. Not simply afraid to be reminded of this period in my life, but afraid to have to admit to myself: I hadn’t triumphed over anything. Afraid that I lied to myself, and that I could plunge back into those depths at any moment; afraid that, if people would find out, they would quickly swallow their apologies to once again surrender me to the indifference that had almost done me in.
The loneliness I lived in during those three months of hospitalization—I don’t wish it on anyone. I still carry its injuries with me, on my skin and underneath it. At night, I still wander through the brightly lit halls, looking for someone who can convince me of my continuing existence. What torments me the most is the distrust I am left with, towards the outside world. My mourning is a mourning for the break with the self-evidence with which I used to trust loved ones. In its stead, I find an endlessly looming sense of apprehension, of fear that I will relapse into that God-forsaken loneliness. An abyss has been grafted into me.
I don’t believe writing can be therapeutic. If it were possible to ‘just write everything off my chest’, I wouldn’t be attacking the same themes so obsessively, the same events from ever-changing points of view, using ever-changing words. What writing does, on the other hand, always do, is that it gives me a sense of competence. There is always something I can do. In that sense, writing has always, however narrowly, saved me. When I manage to write as little as just one sentence, I feel like I am slightly more in control of life. It never lasts long, however—only as long as it takes to write. As long as I am immersed in the practice of writing, I manage, despite everything, to feel a sense of unity within myself. Insofar as writing, for this writer, is really about control, it’s a type of control that he hopes to need increasingly less when he’s not writing. Control used as an exercise in the loss of it.
That’s why I want to prevent myself from turning this text into another self-contained whole, into a victory. The discovery of how angry I have been, the discovery I made while writing this, has somewhat taken the sting out, has enabled me to endure the coming steps of my Trauerarbeit—after all, the five well-known steps are, sometimes more, sometimes less subtly, woven into this text. But that doesn’t mean that the process has come to an end. You can consider this text an interim message-in-a-bottle.
Every one of us is surrounded by our dead, alive or otherwise. If, one year after my submission, I conclude that I am doing well, it means I have been able to clear the necessary space to welcome them, instead of chasing them—at all costs and convulsively—away. As this process ends with acceptance, for me, this is the acceptance of what’s missing. The hurt did not disappear, but I am no longer cultivating it. What was lost will be present still, the dead will continue to haunt me. But the house that is my writing has hereby been expanded, adding an attic where I can offer shelter to my demons.
Michaël Van Remoortere (1991) is a writer. He publishes essays, stories and poems in a large number of journals. In addition, he creates theater performances and art installations. At the moment he is working on a poetry collection entitled mythomaniën and a novel entitled Autodafe.
Translation: Miriam van Klinken & Fannah Palmer