This morning, I lost someone I loved. I never got to tell her that I loved her, but I did. She was warm, compassionate, intelligent, honest, courageous, independent-minded: everything you could ever want and more. My friends wanted to meet her. She was a dream that enters reality only a handful of times in your life. Needless to say, she meant everything to me. She was a woman whose life I wanted to make better. And that scared the fuck out of me. Because aside from living a life where close people seem to relish in abandoning me, the last time I loved someone like this, I was left for dead and ended up falling into an abyss of homelessness and joblessness and heartbreak that I crawled up from with a strength and valiance and resilience that I didn’t realize I had in me. Of course, that had been a pit of my own making.
You see, I have a problem. I live with a terrible demon inside me who is very frightening, who has this ability to wrap his scaly tentacles around all of my sterling characteristics and take over. He doesn’t come out as much as he used to, but he’s still there and he wants to destroy every good thing that happens to me and take down a few people if he can. He is a fearsome entity driven by fear who invades my core and tells me that I am not deserving of happiness and he persuades people who love me to stay away for the rest of their natural days. He sprouted during a time in which I experienced unfathomable pain and abuse, where people in my life would tell me that they loved me as they burned me with cigarettes and beat me and molested me. And this demon is so infamous that lies and rumors and conjectures about his existence have pervaded the literary world. Just about everyone in my family has the demon, which is one of many reasons I can’t have relationships with them, but some are not as aware of their demons as I am and, in some disheartening cases, they have not done the very difficult work in attenuating the demon or putting safeguards in place that ensure that the demon’s appearances last seconds rather than days.
I hate the demon with every fiber of my being and he revels in that hate. And even though his appearances in my life are very brief, and have been notably briefer in the last year thanks to work I’ve done and because I have surrounded myself with more positive and more honest people, they are frequent enough to dwarf the substantially wonderful qualities I also have, the character that causes many people to appreciate the sui generis being that I am. But the demon tells me that not a single soul will ever love and care for me. The demon makes people despise me and causes me, at times, to live a very solitary existence.
And now he has come out again and has scared the needless bejesus out of a tremendously kind woman who I let very deeply into my heart, someone who now wants nothing to do with me, someone who I said that I would give space to and then didn’t, someone whose inner peace I betrayed. And I have spent much of the day in tears. Because I didn’t know the demon was waiting in the wings, ready to chew up the scenery, and I couldn’t stop him from hogging the stage. This demon is a deeply evil and inconsiderate beast who is responsible for everything that has gone wrong in my life, yet the hell of it is that he’s also responsible for getting me to many places that I might not otherwise have reached. Just as people are never entirely good or evil, so too are demons.
I have sought considerable help in many forms and varieties against the demon. Many perspicacious professionals and fine minds have tried any number of techniques. The one thing that has worked is positivity. Perhaps it took getting humbled and severely knocked down for me to appreciate everything I have, which I remain grateful for every day, but positivity, whether it comes from me or from others, is not only its own reward, but it has this remarkable power against the demon. For the first time in years, I have lived many months without a single appearance by this scabrous all-consuming villain (although the demon’s more benign cousin, the grumpy commentator, does crop up on Twitter from time to time). And it’s all because I’ve opened myself up more to wonder and curiosity and joy and vivacity. So when I meet other people who have demons, and detect how much they are steered by them and see how little they recognize what is rollicking about inside, I go well out of my way to make them happy. Indeed, giving in many forms and performing secret good deeds and helping people out is what separates those who live with their demons, by which I mean an existence that involves knowing what conditions will keep the demon in check, from those who become totally consumed by them.
Being positive doesn’t mean turning your back on the world’s problems or ignoring social ills or adopting some treacly disposition. (I will, for example, remain staunchly opposed to Love Actually‘s morally contemptible and saccharine vision.) What it means is seeing possibility where others see hopelessness. What it means is working very hard to solve the insolvable, even if you fail and even if you only win back a small scrap of territory. What it means is life’s equivalent to how the marvelous Iris Murdoch once described the very greatest art: invigorating without consoling. Because who needs another “Sorry for your loss” when a loved one kicks the bucket? What everyone needs is the courage to go on, to live as gracefully as possible even as the worst things happen. Laughing through tears, summoning positive memories of people that our demons are telling us to despise on the spot, and being there for people are all effective ways to stub out pernicious fire.
I’m writing about my demon not only because I want to hold myself accountable, but because I want anyone who lives with a demon to know that they can live positively. I want them to know that even though I experienced what still feels like an earth-shattering loss, I’m still summoning some positivity. A friend’s funny cat photos, sent midway through the course of writing this essay, invigorated me greatly, as did another good friend who was gracious enough to meet me for lunch on last minute’s notice, where we had an honest and positive and far from humorless chat about this tricky dilemma of living with qualities that tear us down. It is this positivity, not unlike the joy that often flies high in the face of disaster, the “emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive” that Rebecca Solnit documented in her excellent book A Paradise Built in Hell, that flenses the sebeaceous muck from our souls and returns us to that essential duty of living. You can never entirely conquer your demons, but with positivity you can live with them.