The War Within
By Ben Bartee - January 04, 2024

Originally published via Armageddon Prose:

I fantasized in elaborate detail about killing myself today, an occurrence far more common than I would prefer.

This obsessive-compulsive demon has a hold of me, whether literal or figurative. I don’t mean OCD in the colloquial sense that people use it to describe an anal-retentive need for paintings to be straight on the wall or tax records neatly filed.

I mean OCD in the sense of a demon, literal or figurative, hijacking my mind and running it into a wall with nonstop, invasive, recurring, unwanted obsessive thoughts from dawn until dusk, with never anything close to a resolution, followed by soul-crushing, ritualistic compulsions in a vain attempt to exorcise the demon. Since I was ten years old, every waking moment has been spent with this monster. Sometimes it’s quieter than other times, but there are no vacations. I am a prisoner in an invisible prison.

No volume or variety of self-medication — and I’ve tried them all, short of renouncing the world and relocating to a monastery on a Himalayan mountaintop — have thus far yielded any lasting relief.

To this demon I attribute years of substance abuse — including a hellish alcohol and Xanax addiction that took years of effort to overcome — and various other coping mechanisms in a desperate attempt at escape, but which have only extended and enhanced the misery.

I remember vividly — the most vivid memory I have, perhaps — like it was yesterday the moment it got ahold of me. The most striking aspect of its onset is that it came apparently apropos of nothing.

At ten years old, circa 1997, I sat watching 2001: A Space Odyssey on the television in the living room. The day was overcast; a drizzle fell outside all around the Georgia pine trees right outside the window. Then it came over me in a flash: existential dread; something was very wrong. I felt sure that tragedy was imminent. But the damnedest thing was that there was no environmental stimulus to cause it.

This was my first panic attack, but I lacked the knowledge or vernacular to understand what was happening. It was far from the last. Maybe if someone had been there with me to nip it in the bud, I might have foregone a lot of pain. But they weren’t, and it festered.

Does writing this down make me weak? Am I supposed to figure this shit out on my own in a closet like old times? It certainly gives ammunition to my enemies. C’est la vie.

I want nothing more than to vanquish it, but at times, like today, I come to the end of my rope. A poet or a philosopher or someone once observed that “irony is the song of the bird that has come to love its cage.” I know the tune — and if you read Armageddon Prose you’ve seen it sung — but I don’t want to sing it anymore. It’s a rotten, dead-end hymnal.

Among such many attempts in vain to fix this, I’ve talked to a Ukrainian psychoanalytic therapist located in Lviv for a while now, whom I digitally met by way of a tangential connection to my wife. While I’ve gained some insights, it hasn’t helped much, which I don’t necessarily fault her for.

Anyway, my wife once asked me not to talk about it with her parents — which I wouldn’t have anyway, as I would wish them to believe they’ve given their only daughter over to competent hands — because, in Slavic culture, talking to a shrink is considered a mark of shame.

A guy in her village killed himself a few years ago over some psychological/spiritual affliction, and as a consequence, he was buried in the corner of the cemetery — a tainted soul, even in death. It’s healthy to socially disincentivize self-indulgent navel-gazing and suicide to some extent, which I respect. But that no one got to him before he took the ultimate trip is a tragedy.

Is there a point to all of this suffering, or at least a merciful end to it that doesn’t involve the end of everything? I hope so.

What I hope to get out of sharing this intensely personal albatross with you, I surely don’t know — but not pity, a drug as poisonous as fentanyl. Perhaps it’s to feel a little less alone in this prison. Maybe someone can relate. Maybe you.

Here’s hoping I summon some better answers in 2024.

Ben Bartee, author of Broken English Teacher: Notes From Exile, is an independent Bangkok-based American journalist with opposable thumbs.

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