I’m watching this tv series called River, in which the title character is a police detective in England who has this rather large problem: he sees people who aren’t there and has conversations with them. Usually dead people he knew, or people related to a case he’s working on, or characters from books when no one he knows is quite evil enough to suit. It’s not supernatural. He has a mental illness.
There are all kinds of things I like about the show, including that they never put a single, reductive label on him. I think mental illnesses are so individualized, each person’s mind so complex, that they really should have their own names for each case: Katperidottimorstultus, Wingneed Disease, Stump Icebergium.
I don’t mean to be flippant, or even to pump for the show. But here’s how it’s relevant to me: River sometimes gets so upset by the people he talks with that he hits or pushes them. The camera shows him shoving this evil-talking guy, and then cuts beautifully to him shoving nothing—nothing but air. He is trying to push air away from himself. When I saw that scene, I thought, “It’s imaginary. What’s causing him pain is imaginary.” And for the rest of that day, my own pain became ghostly, easier to shrug off. My conviction that I’m getting dumber as I age—imaginary. My sense of failure, of being a burden on loved ones, of being helpless to ward off disaster—imaginary.
I’m not saying the pain isn’t real, my friends. Any of us who have experienced depression or supported a loved one through depression know that it is. But it is somehow also imaginary, a phantom, a vision. Usually my logical brain finds ways to support my depression, lining up arguments like I’m writing a persuasive paper. But when that word—imaginary—flits through my head, it disrupts the arguments, sends them spinning off, unmoored.
Oh, it’s not an infallible reframing that makes me feel better every time. It is a useful metaphor. A reminder that I actually live in the here and now. When the strings of thoughts get out of control, tangling themselves into nooses and knots, I ask myself, So what is real?
The wind chimes I hung on the porch of this rented house, singing in the background.
There’s a word for bringing your attention back to the present moment, your immediate surroundings: mindfulness. It is a goal of many meditators—me included—to be mindful in everyday life. But sometimes that word sounds alien and abstract, or as unreachable as fame and fortune. But imaginary—that’s a word I’ve known since childhood, when I knew enough to build fantasy worlds in my mind’s eye and then, when the dinner bell rang, to blink and run through them like mist, back to the world where somebody loved me.