Case Studies in Taking Umbrage


Iron is an unclean and imperfect body, engendered of Argent-vive [quicksilver] impure, too much fixed, earthy, burning, white and red not clear, and of the like Sulphur: It wants fusion, purity, and weight: It has too much fixed unclean Sulphur, and burning earthiness.

Roger Bacon, “The Mirror of Alchemy” (translated in 1597)

I’ll do my best to resist surrendering the following experiences either to politics or pathology. Both have provided valuable perspectives and served as the cornerstones and keystones of my recovery.

The immediate experience of the downward spiral, however, was psychic. It still doesn’t quite feel right to say “this was how I collected base matter for alchemical processing” because I can’t even see how this leaden thing had any potential to transmute into gold.

Modern fantasy has created characters around what must be a common human phenomenon: Dementors in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World, Spectres in Philip Pullman’s Ci’gazze, and the Dromes of Terry Pratchett’s Fairyland. Thieves of happy memories, instincts, and clarity.

It would be so easy to blame those. I could chalk them up to echoes of some entity on a spectrum between inspiration and personal gnosis, and deliberate a similar personification of my own, name them Wallows or Wraths or Wraiths and claim to be haunted.

These are more on the notional, billowy, character (object? item?) end of the personification spectrum though.

The following are personal experiences with a particular sort of billow. The emotions and forms are different each time, so the notion would be something more subtle. I do also associate these billows with emotion, or state of mind, and with the situations in which they manifest. Perhaps these were metaphysical experiences to signify some prodromal depression… or some other neuro-divergence with a hallucinatory aspect that indicated a co-morbidity with actual depression.

I don’t know. Regardless, I feel moved to organization, so I file these under “taking Umbrage” as the main symbol was indeed some sort of darkness, like an umbra.

I. The Forgotten Lake

The problem with childhood, I think, is that everybody’s still learning about themselves and the world. We don’t know how to communicate clearly and constructively. We don’t even know what we’re communicating, a need or a want? We don’t know the effect that our actions have on other people. We don’t know our learning style. A bully victim’s attempt to “rise above” or ignore the bullying could serve either as an example, or free the bully from any consequences that they can understand.

Parents and guardians might advise what they wish they did, or what seems to be convenient for them in the short run, taking for granted that whatever we suffer in our pre-pubescent years will be like footprints on a shore to be washed away by the rising tides of Bigger Things To Worry About. We’re supposed to learn firsthand that maturity changes people just so much that what once felt like a devastation can be recognized as an act of mere ignorance, even innocence, from somebody not fully awake or alive just as we were once not yet fully awake or alive. After two decades or so, the harm might as well have happened to somebody else, and any apology might as well come from a completely different person.

Total codswallop. After three school transfers and one harmful social dynamic found three times, I just decided that I shouldn’t have friends. I couldn’t figure out how to heal after trust had been betrayed, and never felt up to risking a friendship with anyone. I could never convince myself, either, that my abusers had been wrong. Maybe I did do a lot of harm by just being myself.

So, I isolated myself, becoming generally unhappy rather than mired in raw misery, which was somewhat of an improvement but still not a good thing. I just tried not to feel anything at all. I was never excited enough to try anything new, or to try at all. Schoolwork wasn’t a challenge, but I never had the energy to do my homework, or bathe. I’d do as I was told, but in this life and in this body, nobody was really home. I was 13.

In all that, I still had imaginary monsters that couldn’t be imagined away, terrifying episodes of sleep paralysis, and alternated between intense anxiety and exhaustion every waking moment.

My problem with childhood was that I didn’t know yet that life wasn’t supposed to be this difficult.

My first clue to the contrary was, at 15, I felt a welling in my chest, at the base of my sternum. It wasn’t sudden, but it grew bad enough and quickly enough that I keeled over. This was one afternoon, after physical education class. As I recognized it as not entirely physical, and partly because I didn’t want to be a bother, I lied when concerned teacher’s assistants came over to ask what was wrong. Acid reflux, it just runs in the family. Menstrual cramps. Stayed up all night re-playing Final Fantasy IX, sorry, won’t do that again but I can’t help feeling sleepy…

All the while, an image filled my mind, that of a stagnant fluid, oily, moderately cold, and vast as a lake under a rusty brown sky. I give all these traits, but I had no body with which to touch this substance and decide to describe it as oily and cold and all that. I just knew. When I tried to snap out of it, the image in my mind could only “distance” itself enough that I could see the lake contained in a round-bottomed flask.

I can’t take this anymore, I thought, even though I had only taken it for a moment. I can’t keep living with this stagnancy.

But this was real life. This was normal for me. So, I perished the thoughts and continued on the downward spiral.

II. Iron of Ironies

At 16, I transferred schools again. This new school was the only place I’d ever been happy. The curriculum was exciting. I actually felt like I was learning something. I could pursue my interests. My teachers would take it as a personal offense if I didn’t try, and would want to know what was really wrong. My classmates were never organized enough to bully anybody. There were just people who didn’t get along with each other. I could stick with my friends and just not get in their way. My mental and emotional wherewithal mysteriously restored, I stopped being afraid of the dark. I grew a healthy obnoxiousness. I began to think of the future…

…which, as it turned out, is useless to plan because my mother lost her job and kept me out of school for a year to save herself the shame of sending me to a public school.

Of course, I grieved the loss of all the friends that I was just beginning to make, but who might not understand or relate to what had happened to me. They had plans for their own futures that they could follow through with. I couldn’t drag them down. For my family, besides, I had a pretense to keep up…

Without money, we could still have had honesty, compassion, hope, purpose, authenticity, trust, even happiness. We didn’t. When I look back on how I grew up, I don’t believe we ever did have any of those things.

Since I hadn’t been checking in on The Forgotten Lake, and aforementioned Lake had not been particularly insistent, I don’t know if this event was a development of the lake or something entirely new: The middle of my back felt wounded.

At the same time, I would get terrible headaches and stabbing pains in my throat as I tried to teach myself not to cry. I stopped eating, developing ulcers and acid reflux that gave me ceaseless heartburn.

Those were all very physical. Intuitively, I sensed, the wound at my back was something else. It billowed with smoke.

I lived with that for 9 years before I figured out how to heal it, and the healing itself is one otherreal how-to and a surreal short story that’s still ongoing.

III.  Planet

My mother passed away, survived by another daughter of hers that I must cruelly name Miasma, and myself with the incomplete education. I resented my mother immensely, intensely, for orchestrating a family dynamic so dysfunctional that I could only spiral down to a sub rock-bottom depression at which she would insist that this was my choice when I hated it and saw the accusation to the contrary as conveniently self-serving of her. Her death came as a relief, and I expected that after the funeral obligations that I could perhaps truly begin to heal now that my life would be clear of her iron-fisted influence.

It would be slow. Miasma would voice her reflections about our mother, and I would steel myself and listen. Miasma told me that I wasn’t allowed to breathe another word about some sexual boundaries that had been violated by our mother’s lover, considering that this person was financially supporting us after our mother’s death. That was fine. Really, it was…more upward spiral than downward, most days.

My resentment was still rather raw by the time Miasma demanded that we do something special for our mother’s death anniversary. “Do what you need to,” I told her, “But I’ll pass.” I try to reframe this as she was truly grieving and needed my presence for emotional support, and there was just no good way to reconcile that equally valid human experience with my personal boundaries and limitationsbut the truth is that Miasma was intolerant of my agency. She wanted me there like a security blanket or a stuffed toy or a favorite doll, not like somebody with a subjective experience and consequential human reactions. She convinced a mutual friend, really her friend and my ex-mentor in psychism, to bully me into conceding and then shaming me for standing by my limit.

(That had another surreal effect, that granted me what I now understand to have been the base matter to form a sort of surreal alchemically-symbolic weapon, but I won’t talk about that yet.)

Miasma took to alcoholism. I put up with it until she damaged me in a drunken fit, at which point I had a talk with her about which she was dismissive. She ran of to my ex-mentor in psychism, acted remorseful enough for him to scold me, and then returned to me with renewed self-righteousness and no remorse at all to the one she actually damaged. It was enough that she’d found somebody to enable her abusiveness.

So, I left. I had nothing else going for me except for Miasma’s support, and I still left. It was that bad, that I’d rather take my chances out there in the world as a nothing than stay with her.

I stayed at my godmother’s house until she tried to reconcile Miasma and myself, at which point I knew that I wasn’t safe, and I went to stay at another mutual friend’s apartment instead.

My default emotional state shifted from depression to wrath. I was in good company, this mutual friend seemed to be the only person in the world who really knew what it was like to be abused, and she believed that I could make something of myself even with an incomplete education. Alpha and her son, Ace, had been just as unlucky with friends as I had been at his age. Ace and I played Dungeons & Dragons together.

So, wrath was something that I carried all the time and expressed none at all. It utterly flabbergasted me when people would advise me to release my anger, as if it were a conscious effort to hold onto it. Wrath happened to me, moved through me.

And then it was bigger than I was.

I would sleep on their couch, and when I closed my eyes, I felt my bitterness and wrath for Miasma. It came to my mind in the form of a perfect sphere. Unlike the Lake, this wasn’t in my body. It waited, suspended, in some surreal outer space. It was darker than the back of my eyelids, hard as coal, and smoldered at the edges, blurring its horizons.

It was vast. I can imagine that it would take a millennium for this planet to make one revolution without breaking the speed-of-light limit.

Fortunately, this was an imaginary planet without such limitations, whose revolution (in another sense) would happen sooner than that.