The War of the Worms
Tales of Addiction Recovery: Watching my sister getting thinner and thinner is an ordeal. She’s a wisp of a wind now. The chemo makes her so tired, she’s near constantly asleep. I’m tired too. The year that’s been has taken a lot out of me.
I’m plagued by a kind of madness. It’s whimsical in that magical sense. Bipolar plus anxiety disorders can make recovery from drug and alcohol addiction that much trickier. I manage though, however there are colourful incidents.
Like, for instance, The War of the Worms.
What happened was, I thought my cats had tapeworms. This would normally gross people out, but they’d just go to the vet. Get their cats checked out. Give them medication. Leave it at that.
I, however, have a dark, dastardly fear of them. A fracking phobia. They drove me mad.
When I was really young, my mother bought an encyclopaedia collection called The World Books. She got them because we’re one of those library-collection families: an entire room dedicated to books (okay, it was just a study). And she knew I would go wild.
I was one of those kids who never grew out of the “Why?” stage children go through – where they just try their best to make sense of the world around them.
And wild I went. Other boys ran around outside kicking balls or throwing them. I was talented at catching them – in the head. But reading… that I was good at.
I loved sitting cross-legged, on the study’s carpeted floor, after selecting a random letter of the world books (being an encyclopaedia collection, there was normally an entire book dedicated to one letter’s worth of subjects), and page through it.
Whenever I found a subject that caught my eye, through interesting title (such as The American Revolution) or fascinating picture (Picasso’s Cubism style of art!), I would devour that section with all my attention.
Which was pretty amazing, because normally – in school classes – I had the attention span of a gnat. But when I heard something that piqued my interest, I couldn’t wait till I got home, to pour myself over one of these illustrious tomes.
Then when I was ten, a great disturbance was felt in the Force. It was a tumultuous night in Durban. Outside, lightning flashed across the sky as the Heavens ravaged the earth with hard rain. Thunder claps broke ear drums all around the drenched city. Gusty winds blew poodles from their loving mistresses and flung them far off into the darkened sea.
I opened Book T. Flipped through pages as the lights dimmed momentarily. Then I saw it. A picture out of nightmares. The true face of horror. A grisly alien head, with spikes coming out the top, and three large sucker-like eyes grotesquely puckered out. I went white. What manner of thing is this?
I looked to the entry this terrifying creature’s picture was part of.
I saw the title Tapeworm. Suddenly, a crash of thunder bellowed as lightning struck our garden’s largest tree. I read what would remain with me for the rest of my life:
These things live in you. Feed off you. Grow to many metres within you.
Consume your soul.
So when I thought my cats had tapeworms, I went mad. My phobia ran screaming and crying and spinning within me.
This caused a mass panic within the senate that is my mind, its senators dropping all rationale discourse as they scampered around flailing like their arms were on fire.
I would rather make out with a lawnmower’s spinning blades than have a tapeworm inside me. Because if my cats had it, so did I.
After weeks of being convinced I had these worms – and there were segments let loose from the feline buttholes of hell all around my apartment – I wrote, as part of my therapeutic process, a “war journal” of the battle going on in my brain. It is delightfully crazy with hyperbole:
Thrice now, I’ve brought the vets suspected segments found on the battlefield, but they dismiss my concerns. For one reason or another, the segments I find, photograph, grab, bag and tag either lack a characteristic or have a nullifying characteristic of tapeworm segments.
I’m really not cut out for field work, I think, with a sigh of relief. It’s all fine, I’m just flustered in the mind, I tell myself. The horror of the first war had resulted in some latent PTSD. No problem. All groovy.
But I can’t stop looking down as I walk through the trenches, and then I spot another one. Another suspected segment, and this one is different, this one fits the characteristic I was told.
Am I losing my mind? It’s like Reality itself conforms dream-like to my thoughts. Just not the nice ones, like fraternising infringements with hot members of the office corps, but the negative, scary ones. It is terrifying, out there, in what used to be a safe zone. Not knowing, at any moment, what horror I will see on a spot of carpet that seemed to have just popped into existence. What horrors the worms have for me.
I find myself constantly using soothing techniques, like spinning a fidget spinner indefinitely while trying to rationalise everything. Then, something unexplainable is seen, a white or off-white rice grain-like object, suspiciously where it wasn’t that same place this morning.
So many of these things have been explained away, but the handful that haven’t – they haunt me. So does the oppressive sense of constant vigilance. Menace. Insidious parasites. The sense of decay matches the Existential Dread I’ve long fought against, that takes away from the human experience of being. Instead, we’re reminded that we’re just walking meat… to be fed on by predators and parasites
Without hard liquor, my former comrade, lover, torturer, I’m forced to confront what might be the hardest thing in the world to face:
A fractured mind, so easily distressed, a mind that can make-believe a high-functioning grown up person in the world of adults, a world a far cry from the toy soldiers that little boys play with.
But make-believe only lasts so long. Then we have to confront terrifying truths, like the fact we are frail fragile creatures easily infested by grotesque horrors that feed off of us, living within us, dwelling in darkness, deep in our bowels, slithering through our intestines…
It has made me question my sanity.
There are cultist markings left by the worms. Some on the floor tiles, in the bathroom. In the lounge. On my bedroom’s wooden desk. In the kitchen. No reason for their existence, except as remains from the War. They are white, chalky and worm-like segmented imprints… The worms’ bodies and forms gone, now only aggressive ghosts that mark territory taken. I have seen these markings even within my jeep. How the dickens did they get there? I ask myself. But no answer is forthcoming.
Their appearances don’t make any sense. I photograph them, to check I’m not going mad.
I rationalise it as, well, having a logical, non-terrifying phobic explanation that I’m just drawing raving correlations to, because phobias are, in their way, a kind of self-aware psychosis. Phobias, true phobias, are mind worms that crawl through logic and reason to eat at primal fear, the fear that kept us alive in an era of sabretooth cats ravenous for our flesh, but now act as tripwires to normal functioning.
But the markings, the white, chalky, worm-like segmented shapes, they knock-knock on the dome of my sanity, reverberating it with distortive waves. There’s only so much one can take.
And so, finally, I chose to face my fear, my worst, most deep, darkest fear. My fear that I am being consumed and will be perpetually consumed for all of my time, never ever free of these things, never ever cleansed.
In order to retain my sanity, I had to do what any good soldier in the service of his king must do. Sacrifice himself for the cause. My sacrifice would be to lose my mind.
It’s only counter-intuitive if you use real-world logic. Real-world logic doesn’t apply in the realm of the Mad God. Not in a dream world. Or it’s parallel, the waking nightmare.
So, I knelt down, in the middle of the war zone, and ripped off a blanket sheet. I crawled, dragging it behind me, as I grasped a broken branch, that was just lying there. I tied the sheet to it. Then I stood. My legs were shaking, but I lifted the branch, and I waved my white flag. With all my strength, I waved it.
I accepted the madness.
I chose to accept it all. The worms are all around me. They were in me. They would always be part of me. They would never let me go. They existed. I had them. They didn’t exist. I didn’t have them. They both exist and don’t exist – at the exact same time.
I felt a wholeness, coming over me. A relief. The distress had ended.
I stroked my cat Maxine, her beautiful, black, infested, soft fur. And she purred, she purred beautifully soft love.
The worms responded. And they didn’t respond. It was an unreality moment, which was both true and not true at the same time. Maybe it was them… maybe it was something that had a perfectly rational explanation and was just a(nother) coincidence:
Because, I looked down to see something on the bicep of my left jacket sleeve. It was a white, chalky, worm-like segmented shape. Just… mysteriously there. But I knew better.
They had marked me.
As their own.
Post-script: Houghton House’s excellent counselling team don’t just help you get over drugs or alcohol. They’re talented in other issues in your life too, making them excellent in continued therapy during your first year out of rehab. They helped me not go completely mad during my war against imaginary worms, which it turned out did have a rational explanation. Kind of. Actually, we’re really not sure. Life’s like that. We choose to accept a truth about the world that fits best with our expectations, or with what’s comforting to us. Whether or not that truth is actually Reality is a debate best left to the Philosophers.
Post-script ii: Insanity, I believe, is the condition of having another version of the world imposed on the accepted one. The mind is a fascinating thing. We humans developed an extremely energy-hungry, complex brain in the course our evolution. The theories for this are related to an off-set of traditional advantages other animals have. We became bipedal, and lost speed. To compensate, we developed endurance, allowing us to hunt animals by exhausting them with persistence. We lost raw strength compared to other creatures in the animal kingdom, and it was compensated with opposable thumbs (to hold tools and weapons), an ability to communicate more efficiently (to allow for ambush strategies when stalking prey), and a brain capable of imagining tools and weapons (think a stick and a stone – our brains allowed us to conceive of combining the two: a sharpened stone and a sturdy stick become a spear). Our brains, however, being so complicated, developed quirks… errors… that have a way of manifesting in interesting ways. In some people more so than others.
Post-script iii: See? You don’t need drugs to have fun. You can have a mild psychotic break!