There is a demon that lives in me. That does not let me be. It rouses me to go fetch the mail, open it in an avalanche of paper—bank statements folded in quarters, credit card statements in triplicate, offers of free CDs and magazines—when I’m at the point of making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich because I have been so busy the whole day creating lesson plans, correcting essays, pointing out deficiencies between sentences and imposter sentences, while in the midst of inspecting the mail pile I discover an overdue car insurance notice—“pay the full amount of $1,214 by January 31st or else your insurance policy will be dropped, with . . . possible prison sentence, etc., etc.,” for which the demon prods me—“Go-go! Go find that misplaced checkbook that you last heard fall behind the computer’s back and the desk’s foam board.” And so I run, to shove the heavy computer desk crammed with my recent areas of interest—Quaantum physics, HTML Web Design, creative window treatments, and the history of cultural rituals in the Scottish Highlands, all partly read, but not one finished.
But as I do this, I remember! “Oh my God! I have to add the bleach to the laundry!” I dash, dash to the washing machine to find I have just missed the wash cycle. Drats! So where was I? Oh yes, to find the checkbook, but on my way back to the bedroom to search for the misplaced checkbook to pay for the overdue car insurance payment I discovered while in the as-yet unfinished process of going through the weekly mail, I spot a stray sock that needs washing. So the demon urges me to pick up the sock and take it to the bathroom and as I deposit the stray sock into the laundry hamper, by chance, I catch a reflection of myself in the mirror. Those blasted black chin hairs! Again! Those straggly stubborn hairs that grow on average every second day after I’ve completely plucked them out of the bottom of my chinny-chin-chin. “MUST PLUCK THEM! MUST PLUCK ‘EM!” the demon weedles me. So, I open the medicine chest and start finely squeezing the thongs of the “plucker” just at the head of these black hairs, the plague of my Mediterranean womanhood, when Brrrrinnggg!—the phone rings. I stop everything and get the phone.—It’s my sister. She talks on and on about her day and I about mine. Twenty minutes pass. “Em,” I say, “I gotta let you go. I’m really busy. I have to write a check by today before they suspend my insurance. And I haven’t eaten anything all day.”
When I get off the phone, I turn around and go back to what I was trying to do. “What was I looking for? What was I doing?” Was it writing a check? No, I had to find the checkbook. Was it plucking my chin hairs? No. I was making myself a PBJ sandwich, while keeping an eye on the laundry. I look around the apartment. Dirty laundry in three disparate piles, half-in, half-out in various degrees of sorting. Computer shelves collapsed with an avalanche of books on the floor. An hour has gone by and the only thing I’ve managed to accomplish is find a stray dirty sock and deposit it in the laundry bin.
This is the demon that lives within me. I liken myself to “Taz,” Bugs Bunny’s nemesis, the Tasmanian devil who does not walk, but spirals and gyrates into a tornado wind ruffling, disturbing, and consuming everything in his path.
“Everytime people ask me about you,” my sister tells me on the phone, “I tell them a whirlwind. My sister is a whirlwind. Can never stay put in one spot, without doing something. Always going somewhere, always doing something. You have too much energy to just stay put and write.”
Standing still is the hardest challenge of my life. I schedule too many appointments in one chunk of afternoon, have too many to-do lists to do; have too many pots going on all at once on the range.
“You just don’t know when to stop, do you?” an acquaintance remarks.
I only know when to stop when my thoughts race faster than I can think them, when before I’ve accomplished one daunting task, the demon sends me on a mission impossible to another, until I have spent every ounce of mental, emotional, and physical energy in my body and then—collapse. I exhaust myself to the point of coma.
“You must think about this, Irene,” my therapist prods. “Why do you choose to be so busy? Is there something you are trying to avoid by being less busy and having more time for yourself? What are you afraid of? What would happen if you just sat still?”
For many years, I never knew I was the one doing it to myself. I was making those choices. I started tasks without fully finishing any one like an ever-unfolding lotus flower whose first row of petals are not fully opened before the second row of petals opens up. I made my life a chaotic disarray of loose ends where something is always happening but nothing gets done.
“Your grandmother was a demon,” a family member remembers. “She would be talking to us about something and then if she’d see a spot on the wall, she’d start cleaning it and if she’d see another she’d leave off rubbing off the one and head for the other.” A demon, that’s what she was. A fireball of energy. Couldn’t stop talking or walking or cleaning.
For many years I never knew, there was a demon inside me, dictating, hanging me like a puppet on a string.
“Perhaps you need some medication,” the therapist suggests.
“Medication?” I look back astonished. “What for?”
“I note some form of mania in your behavior.”
“Manic? Me? How do you know it’s mania and not just the way I am? I mean, I have a lot of energy and I do a lot of things. That doesn’t mean I’m crazy, does it?”
“But not when it interferes with the quality of your life. Not if you get up in the middle of the night and can’t control the urge to replaster your bathroom.”
No, I don’t go to those extremes. Yet, in my own way, I know there is a little demon that lives in me, that creates havoc when I enter a room, makes me begin talking to one person when I’m not yet finished with another, starts a chain of questioning even while I’m lecturing, going on in a roundabout circular fashion, so that in the end my students’ faces are left blank—have lost the main point of my lecture.
It has taken me a long time indeed to distinguish between the demon and me. But now that I have summoned it out of its black somnambulant hole, called it by its name, “mania, mania, mania, mania,” I have begun to tame it. Like those little red dancing shoes that drove their victim to dance to death, I’ve started to untie its laces.
“No,” I say to those asking too much of me. “I can’t make that appointment in time to keep the other one.” I make sure to tell myself—“STOP! STOP! You’re doing too much, too many things at once! Let’s finish this before we go on tothat!” I do not feel guilty about doing “nothing” anymore; now I call it “resting” or “reflecting.” I’ve cut down my jobs from four to two. I am not ashamed to ask for help.
When I hear the whisper of the demon, I answer back with the Jesus Prayer. “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” I repeat the prayer on the komboskini, prayer rope, over and over. “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” I repeat this unceasing, eternal prayer and still the tempest; beyond the susurrations of the demon, I embrace the present, the now, and in the ebb and flow of the prayer in my breast, inhale–“Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God,”—exhale, “have mercy on me, the sinner” and touch the hem of the eternal one stitch at a time.