The Pain of Aspiration

Let me begin my letter to you today by giving an impression concerning the story of my life. In my youth, I dropped out of college because of my mental illness, and I decided to return twenty years later to the same university to try again. I was ashamed of being disabled, and I wanted so much to find success in the eyes of normal people, to regain a sense of pride and accomplishment, while overcoming my personal shame and disappointment. After my previous failure at school, my rejection for military service afterward, my proven inability in the world of work, I thought that — for some reason — the passage of time could heal these wounds, that I would get a second chance, that I could just start over, and to establish my place in the sun. I began by wandering about the campus, going into the library, and visiting the campus bookstore to look at course numbers and to examine textbooks. What I didn’t realize was that I was already too old to fit in with the other students. As I strolled about in the university commons, a girl who was sitting on the grass under a tree turned to her friend, after looking up at me,  asking, “Does he work here?”

If I had been thinking clearly, I would have taken this incident as a sign that my plans would never work out. I mentioned in my previous letter that my ideas tend to be grandiose — my aspirations were magnificent back then, too. What I wanted from East Carolina University was an old-fashioned liberal arts education. I wanted to be a scholar of English, gaining intellectual achievement and recognition, and to become fluent in Latin and Greek, even though the university only offered a two-year course in both. So I signed up for classes on borrowed money, and I did well in my first two years, even though my fellow students were sometimes hostile toward me. During my second semester of Latin, the feelings of persecution and anxiety which had been slowly building up reached a climax and I had a nervous breakdown. My medication got changed around in the hospital and, not admitting defeat, I returned to school the following fall. That was the semester I signed up to learn ancient Greek, and the professor was a good one. I did well at first, but a couple of months later, the same problems returned. It was a fast paced classroom where the professor would call on you at random. Whenever the teacher would call on me, expecting a brisk and correct response, I would freeze up and get confused. As this generated an increasing sense of apprehension and embarrassment, I sensed that my inability to keep up was holding back the whole class, and I began to sense that the other students were all staring at me. I didn’t know what to do. I began to seek out help in the department which supplies tutors for handicapped people, but I was discourteously rebuffed. I went to the department which assists students with mental health problems — I had a file there because I had dropped out of school for this reason the previous year — and the counselor told me that my diagnosis was impossible to overcome, that I should consider leaving the university, and to find other pathways and other endeavors. I signed a document with an unusually illegible signature, since I felt so lost and alone, I was terribly upset and didn’t care about being neat and intelligent anymore. The counselor hugged me and said goodbye, but I refused to listen to him, and made one last desperate move to salvage my dream. I approached the Greek professor, telling him I had a brain disorder, that I was having problems getting assistance by the university, and this was interfering with my ability to think rapidly. He accepted my explanation with a sense of misapprehension, but I hoped that he wouldn’t call on me in class in front of the other students because of this, and this meeting had disastrous consequences, because after that he took a paternalistic attitude toward me in the classroom — he still kept calling on me and I kept making absurd mistakes, confusing English letters with Greek letters based upon their shapes — and my feelings of anxiety and panic at being singled out in the classroom in front of the others with a question was being replaced by a sense of humiliation, dehumanization, and collapse. I had finally reached my breaking point, and as a broken person, I would not dare to set foot in my Greek class again.

My failure in this one class had a domino effect upon all my other classes, and not long after this, in failing at all my exams, I was ashamed to go to school at all. A month later there was an incident at Virginia Tech, where a student with mental health problems burst into a classroom with an assault rifle and turned it into a bloodbath, murdering over a dozen people before killing himself. The news shocked the campus community, and some ECU students began hanging out at Barnes and Noble wearing Virginia Tech jerseys, in solidarity with the traumatized students over there. Soon I received a form letter from the same counselor who had advised to leave the college, fearing that I might have the same proclivities as the gunman in Virginia, stating that the university knew about my plight, and still wished to help me somehow. The letter was impersonal and stale. One afternoon, after the semester was over and the students had gone back home, I made the mistake of going to Barnes and Noble myself, and as I was sitting in a comfortable chair examining a book I was thinking of purchasing, I felt a slight bump. I looked up and it was the Greek professor in casual clothes, who accidentally struck my chair with a stroller carrying a two-year old. We both turned toward each other, and with an element of surprise, we faced one another, I, embarrassed because I felt I had let him down, he, confused about a student who was the same age as himself who claimed to have a mysterious dullness in his mentality. We repelled one another like the opposite poles of a loadstone, not acknowledging one another, the professor rolled the stroller toward a different side of the store and I quickly left.

This encounter is a recurrent theme in my nightmares. I dreamed about him last night, the first time in over a year, and I don’t even remember his name, but it is common for people to remember faces rather than names. The professor had plump features, with a double chin, and long, brown, curly hair which covered his ears, with a prominent nose and a high forehead. I dreamed that we stood toe to toe — head to head — in one of the hallways of academia, being so close to each other as to mutually violate our personal spaces, he was speaking to me as I gazed upon the lips, tongue, and teeth, which were so eloquent and filled with Greek poetry, articulate in the language I loved but no longer had access to. Then suddenly he opened his mouth as wide as he could — conversation turned to confrontation! — with his incisors folding upon themselves, turning into hollow cylinders, and as they began to sprout upwards, downwards, and outwards, growing rapidly, twisting around and around into obscene spirals, the sparkling white enamel with razor-sharp points at the ends were curving towards my cheeks, and beginning to bore holes in my face! I awoke — startled — lying there in the dark. I turned on the lamp sitting on the nightstand, realizing the interpretation of my terrifying dream. My teeth were very sensitive even though they did not give me any pain, and these sensations were carried by my afferent nerves from these hard, bony appendages into certain centers of my brain, where they were synthesized with a trauma swimming in the magma chamber of my subconscious.

My molars had been of concern to me lately. A week ago I noticed a flexion in the muscles of my jaws and, for some unknown reason, I was grinding my teeth. As I continued to feel the solid texture of my molars, rubbing the crowns against one another in a rolling motion, the pressure of my jaws became increasingly intense. These were voluntary movements, coming after a strange realization that I had been deriving some bizarre pleasure in my mouth without me even knowing about it. Now that I had full awareness, I began to grit my teeth even harder, with a grotesque urge toward self-destruction — pressing down as hard as I could — and with my damaging gyrations, I began feeling the roots buried in the mandible. This was the warning bell that began to sound. If I didn’t stop doing this, I would be in big trouble. I can’t explain why I was doing it, and after I stopped, my teeth were a little sore. They felt different, but I it looked like I had quit in time.

At least, I didn’t have to go back to the dentist whom I recently fired. I used to go to his office every six months for a cleaning, X-rays, and an examination. My teeth always checked out fine with no cavities, even though there was a tiny crack in the underside of my molar that was furthest in the back. After seeing this same dentist for a couple of years, my teeth did not change, but suddenly Dr. Caldwell tried to talk me into letting him perform a root canal on that back tooth, even though it didn’t hurt. I knew that my insurance wouldn’t pay for it, for one thing the procedure was unnecessary, and for another, the molar could be pulled if need be, for it was all the way in the back of my mouth. I really began to suspect his motives when I came in for a check-up the last time, and he began to discuss my case with the dental hygenist behind my back. The receptionist made an inquiry on my insurance without my knowledge, and I was shocked when I received the paperwork in the mail. Dr. Caldwell wanted to dig out all the old fillings in all my molars, refill them, and place new crowns on top of them all. Of course the insurance company wouldn’t pay for any of this either, and I was convinced that the procedure was unnecessary; my teeth were not bothering me, and if I allowed Dr. Caldwell to proceed, he would want to do root canals on all my molars if there were complications. The price of these adventures would be over two thousand dollars. After I learned about all this, I recieved a call from the dentist office to see if I would go through with it. I didn’t even answer the phone, angered as I was with this businessman, who wanted me to raid my savings to support his lifestyle. I still had an appointment set up with him in March, but I called to cancel it and refused to reschedule. The receptionist knew I was firing them and tried her best to talk me out of it, but I was resolved to receive dental care from somewhere else.

I brushed aside these concerns about my oral health, along with the pointed night terrors emanating from the past, as I crawled out of bed and got dressed. I went into the kitchen to make coffee (I’m up to over a pot a day now) and turned on my reading lamp upon my eating table, where I picked up my novel with a bookmarker in it, to hold my place, setting my eyes upon the Wagnerian prose of Marcel Proust, my eyes traveling from left to right while sipping from my cup filled with espresso. In Search of Lost Time is a six volume work, and I’m on the cusp of finishing the final installment, Time Regained, where the protagonist and all his characters are aging like me, with Proust beginning to reach out in an effort to claw back the time that had slipped away from him.

The past flows back with our memories. We hear, see, smell, taste, and touch things which suddenly brings back the embedded and interconnected remembrances, weaving a tapestry of people and objects which form the character of our lives. Unlike Proust, I never search the past for the life I used to live. The past for me is a death, and I don’t care to resuscitate it nor look for its rotting corpse. My life at present is my best life. Even though I never search for lost time, it sometimes appears that lost time is searching for me. I will read an innocuous phrase, or hear an unimportant statement, or view a harmless and benign object, and it will trigger an avalanche of harsh memories and violent fantasies. When this happens, my emotions swing about like the branches of a tall tree in the gusts of a mighty storm. I experience a deluge of agitation, drowning in the fits of the rage commensurate with a free man restrained in the chains of injustice.

And as I was reading, the morning sun hidden by dark clouds began to bring light to the shuttered windows of my apartment, the patter of rain becoming noticeable as it was striking the roof, I found a good stopping place in my epic story, realizing that it will soon be time to meet Laura at her house and to wake her up. It was a cold and wet winter morning. I bundled up with my jacket and hood, along with my umbrella and gloves, and walked in the raw and nasty weather. When the wind blew, I could feel the freezing sensation down to my bones. As I walked down the deserted streets, the bad thoughts and moods embedded in my psyche started to calm down, and soon I was under Laura’s car port, collapsing the wet umbrella upon itself and calling her on the phone. Laura came to the door in her gown and let me in the house. Since today was the third Saturday of the month, we talked about having to stand in line at the food bank this morning, outside in the blustering weather, Laura to receive her free food and me to carry her bags for her. As Laura got dressed, and I helped her with her knee brace, pants, and shoes, we procured Laura’s empty food bags and got into her car.

We had problems finding a parking place out by the public housing projects, but after getting settled, we took the bags and opened our umbrellas, walking toward the community building where the people were already queueing up. The apartment buildings all around us had no atmosphere of domesticity, but were the austere, dingy, and jagged environments consisting of conforming brick structures along with the white plastered walls, concrete floors, tiny windows encased in steel, doors made of sheet metal, and drooping electrical wires that displayed the hallmarks of an institution instead of a home. It would be over an hour before food distribution, but everyone comes early so they could receive the best victuals before they run out.

When the local Food Lion opened its doors in Robersonville, it deliberately undercut the prices of all the other grocery stores in town to drive them out of business. Andrew’s and the Be-Lo were slowly transformed into empty shells before they left behind their vacant buildings. Then the Food Lion immediately jacked up their prices, and now Laura and I were standing in line with the people who could no longer afford to shop there. The groceries we now received from the Food Lion were delivered to us through the back door, after sitting upon the shelves for weeks, and loaded into a van instead of being thrown into a dumpster. This is the nature of capitalism and socialism. Using hunger as a means of social control, the government encourages church organizations to make concessions to the poor and to coordinate with places like the Food Lion so the state can cut food stamp benefits. I once saw some Republicans in Congress launch a campaign to reduce them even further, in an appeal to the working class people who can keep good jobs but have no education — the ones who hate people like us — who like the idea of getting tough with the shiftless and lazy. “The best way to get off food stamps is to get a job,” the congressmen declared. A lot of people on food stamps already have full-time jobs, but they don’t pay enough for the employees to feed themselves properly at home. The rest is disabled and elderly. The lawmakers knew all this, but said and did these things to stay in power. With great fanfare they took a dollar a month away from us, but started silently giving it back three months later.

As I stood in my place with Laura, quietly reflecting upon society and politics, I could see Karen walking beside the line of people still waiting, the queue getting much longer now. She was a volunteer like Laura, and the people inside the building opened the door for Karen so she could help with food distribution. Soon the line started moving. When Laura and I entered the building, and she scribbled her signature upon her sign-in sheet, Laura approached Karen as she stood behind a table. Laura opened her bag, with Karen giving her a cheerful hello, placing two cans of food in it.   I have mentioned Karen once before in a previous letter, after seeing her at the late Mrs. Roebuck’s birthday party, and, seeing her often, I once was quite fond of her. This past fall I would walk to the local convenance store to get coffee and often saw Karen walking her dog. I have also seen her in the library. The most salient feature of Karen’s personality is her sense of humor, but after a while I began to notice that her wit was always at someone else’s expense. Last month she saw me sitting in a chair because I could not stand and she cracked a joke about my back injury, throwing her head back and laughing at me, so now I don’t like her anymore. The manager of the food bank, Tina, always has a box of free food prepared for all her volunteers, but Karen is too proud to take it. I know she doesn’t have much money. Karen gets a disability check, (but she has money from a divorce settlement and an inheritance to go along with it) driving a clunker and living with her sister. Karen’s sister used to be a cashier at the Food Lion, but she isn’t anymore because her drawer kept coming up short every day, and the manager realized that she was stealing cash out of the register. Karen is one of those people whom the author Chris Hedges describes as “always willing to help the poor, but doesen’t like the smell of the poor.” The fact of the matter is, Karen is damaged goods just like everyone else in this bread line, and despite what she might think, she is no better than the people she likes to condescend to.

After Laura received her largesse from Karen, she moved along to the person next to her, who put more food in her bag. Going from person to person, keeping the line moving, I took hold of Laura’s bags as they filled up and we finally left the building. Time was moving so slowly as we stood in line; now the floodgates were opened and we rushed to the car, avoiding the puddles of water, the rain now turning into a misty drizzle. When we arrived at Laura’s house, I placed the bags upon her kitchen counter and she sorted out the cans, bags, and packages. She often asks me if I want something to eat whenever I visit her. I was thankful that now her freezer and her cabinets were full.

3 thoughts on “The Pain of Aspiration

  1. Your writing is so eloquent, I could read it all day. In fact, I’m late for work now reading this! Your letters are so beautiful and poignant.
    I’m sad to hear of your time at uni. I have bipolar disorder which makes uni challenging at times. I refuse to give up on my dreams of doing my doctorate (but also acknowledge that I have many grandiose ideas!). I too have had lecturers advise me to quit when they doubted by ability, but I’m too stubborn and that just made me work harder. It was easier for me though, in the sense that I don’t usually experience too much anxiety & I didn’t have face to face classes.
    I look forward to reading more from you 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Sarah, for sharing and for your kind comments. College is not easy; there is a lot of work involved as we both know. Good luck on getting your doctorate, and I’ll be on the lookout for your next blog post. It’s nice meeting you.


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