By Fr. Thomas Kulp
It was only when I finally awakened this morning that I realized my whole life since I was fifteen has been nothing more than a very long and convoluted dream, that I had really and truly died back then—though I can barely remember the precise cause of my untimely death. It does seem to me that something very vital had been surgically removed from my body. Perhaps it was my heart, which would explain my total lack of feelings and emotions. The funny thing is, though, that while I am now a living corpse and have long since ceased to exist, thoughts and memories persist. How can this be? I have died and ceased to exist, yet I continue to walk and breathe… which can mean only one thing… I am immortal!
So how, you may ask, had I come to know that I was dreaming? Simple! You see, I had come to a certain point of awareness wherein I realized that everything was so utterly absurd that it could not possibly be real. I was walking about a city I had never to my knowledge been to before, and then I entered into a crafty type shop (I’m sure you know the type) where I bought this handsomely bound journal as a present for my husband, though as far as I know I never did have a husband (well, how could I… I was fifteen when I died). So I returned to a house where supposedly my husband and I had been visiting, far away from home, and I realized I had left the journal I had purchased on the counter. And so I seriously considered walking all the way back to the shop in order to retrieve my purchase, but for some reason I was loathe to do so. But then the realization struck me that I was probably only dreaming after all, in which case there would be no need to trouble myself further. There was a problem, though: while I was fairly convinced by then that I was dreaming, I couldn’t quite be sure, because despite it all, everything did seem to be so solid and real. And so (clever me) I came up with an idea that might confirm my suspicions: I would run through the streets of the city as fast as I could. I would run like the wind! And if it was after all only a dream, I would go on and on and never tire, because it stands to reason that a dream body is not subject to exhaustion…. And that is just what I did, until I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that this was indeed all a dream that would very soon fade away….
And so I awoke, thoroughly convinced that whatever reports of my death there may have been had not been exaggerated. Why I was not by now a pile of bones tucked away somewhere in a coffin six feet under I was (and still am) unable to explain, but the facts are as they are—no matter how contrary they may appear to be according to human logic and medical science. I awoke lying in a bed with a man I had never seen before… I, the mere shade of a fifteen year-old girl! The light of dawn was just beginning to seep through the drawn drapes into a totally unfamiliar room shrouded in shadows, and suddenly I found myself racing down the hallway towards a bathroom, all the while thinking that my heart should be beating furiously, my breath labored, except I knew full well I had no heart, and that the breath of life within me had long since been extinguished. And then—having entered into the bathroom—I twisted the faucet in the rose tinted, shell shaped wash basin and splashed cold water onto my face, feeling absolutely nothing, and when I glanced into the mirror—the image I beheld was alien, bearing not the slightest resemblance or connection to the person I might once have been. So this is what it means to be dead, I thought… to wander about without aim or purpose in a body without substance, in a world that itself possesses no substantial reality.
It was then I heard a voice calling a name (not my name, surely, since it is impossible to name that which is non-existent)—no doubt uttered by the same man who had been lying by my side when I awakened. Well… whoever this man might claim to be, it was certain he could have no connection with a living corpse such as I had become. Besides, it was more than likely that my mere presence in this house would contaminate any living person unfortunate enough to encounter the residue of my previous existence.
And so I fled at once down the hallway and out the front door into the murky shroud of fog that obscured the spectral landscape, somehow finding myself scantily clad in a silky white gown – though the damp chill of early morning could not, of course, penetrate the void where there had once existed a living and breathing soul. I was effortlessly borne aloft upon bare feet that my confused and possibly deluded mind inexplicably perceived to be lacerated by sharp stones and an occasional shard of glass – though the oozing red blood could not, of course, have been mine – for it is obvious that a dead body cannot bleed.
Finally, I found the place for which I had been seeking, and with great relief I passed through the gates of the cemetery into the realm of the dead. The profound silence that enveloped the tombs consoled me at last, and I would have breathed a sigh of relief had I not been already dead for these past seventeen years. I had, it seemed, come home at last to the place where I truly belonged, and I should have been at peace, if only…. The pitiful wail of a baby seared the space where my heart had once been like a burning ember. Having been abandoned and irretrievably lost and left to die in a limbo inaccessibly hidden away somewhere within the interstices between the worlds, the infant needed nothing more than to be embraced by the loving arms of its mother. But how can I – a mere shell of humanity encased in a rotting corpse—dredge forth even an ounce of compassion in order to soothe and to comfort the inconsolable suffering of this infant soul?
The haunting, gut wrenching cry soon faded away, and it was easy enough to convince myself that I had never really heard it at all—because I am, after all, dead, and therefore insensate as a rock. Assuming that anything at all truly exists outside that bundle of fevered imagination that claims to be me (an impossible claim, since “I” do not exist)… if anything out there does truly exist… then that empty shell that claims to be me must in any case be impervious to its impact.
For the briefest interval, it seemed to me that time itself had ceased to exist and I found myself poised on the edge of a dark and formless abyss of non-being – but something or someone drew me back before I could plunge into its unfathomable depths – and I observed the self I supposed myself to be approaching a solid gray stone sepulcher, its wrought iron gate swung wide open upon rusty hinges… and so I entered at once into the musty darkness of the tomb, and I knew that I had found at last the place where I most truly belong: a place of refuge and repose among the dry bones and ashes in the realm of the dead. Only vaguely could I hear the sound of the persistent voice calling a name that in no way belonged to me. It no longer mattered, though, because here I was safe, deeply submerged in a sea of forgetfulness and a state of peaceful oblivion….
…until a flood of blinding light burst forth and penetrated into the chamber and the peace I had thought to be so secure was shattered in an instant. I was lying on my back upon a cold, smooth marble slab, my eyes wide open, but I was incapable of movement of any kind – which was only to be expected for one who had been so long dead. And then… the next thing I knew… I was being lifted aloft by the strong arms of the man from whom I had so recently fled. What utter desecration! I screamed inwardly. How could anyone dare to so callously disturb the peaceful slumber of the dead! And so I was carried against my will into the bright light of day, my desiccated body stiff and unyielding. My dearest Sheila... the man seemed to be murmuring. I would never have found you had it not been for the trail of blood you left behind. Only then did it occur to me that perhaps I knew this man after all… intimately. But how could this be, if I am dead (as I most surely am) and a mere girl of fifteen? I shuddered inwardly at the thought, unable to comprehend the enormity of all that was seemingly implied.
I felt in that moment as fragile and weightless as a paper Mache doll, and it seemed to me that I might have been easily snapped in half like a dry twig and cast to the winds. But I am bound to admit that the man held me gently, as though I were a valuable specimen to be placed in a museum within a glass enclosed and hermetically sealed cubicle – an idea that held for me a certain appeal. I allowed myself to imagine the perfect peace of remaining there undisturbed, drifting upon the sands of time, until the building itself crumbled into a heap of dust and finally time itself should be consumed by the bright light of eternity.
This, of course, was not to be. Instead, I was placed not so gently in the back of a motorized vehicle and bombarded by shrill voices and poked with needles. I wanted to tell them not to bother, that I was already dead and only required a decent burial, but of course I had no breath to form the words, and besides – my vocal cords had long since shriveled away. And so I was whisked away and conveyed to a building that I could only surmise to be a hospital, where I was placed upon a bed in a white walled room and stuck with more needles, while a flexible tube of some kind was stuck down my parchment lined throat. It was all very confusing: did they really think it was possible that they might revive a rotting, maggot infested corpse by such means? Or perhaps “they” were not really present at all, and the whole experience would prove to be nothing more than a disturbing dream. But then I remembered that I had long ago ceased to exist… so why after all should any of this be disturbing? This too will pass, whispered a voice out of nowhere, and I knew with certainly that it was just a matter of time (if in fact time itself existed) before the rightful order of things would be restored.
And so I was set adrift upon a sea of fragmented dreams and memories, punctuated by brief intervals of wakefulness during which I mused that none of these phantasmagoric figments could have any sort of connection to whatever person I might once have been. A persistent thread woven throughout it all was the reverberating echo of those pathetic cries of an infant, coupled with images of bright red blood spouting and oozing from some invisible source. I have, mind you, never believed in any religious notions of an afterlife. Otherwise, I should surely have considered that I had somehow descended bodily into hell. This seemed at the time as good an explanation as any for the scorching fire of desolation and loneliness I experienced while my decomposing dead body lay motionless and insensible upon the bed. When I finally awakened from this nightmare, two things struck me as incongruous for a person who was surely dead and had long ceased to exist: first of all, I was ravenously hungry; secondly… I was apparently weeping copious tears of deeply seated sorrow.
I was well aware, of course, that a veil of deception had descended upon me: a rotting corpse can neither hunger nor weep. It was perfectly obvious, therefore, that I was not that person… that pathetic woman whose reflection I had glimpsed in the bathroom mirror that very morning. It was she who hungered and wept, and so – when the nurse arrived with the tray of food – it was her, and not I, who willingly allowed herself to be spoon fed. Meanwhile, I slipped aside and observed this woman from a distance, idly wondering what connection she could possibly have with a teenage girl who had long ceased to exist.
The nurse departed shortly thereafter, leaving me to enjoy once again my blessed solitude… but only briefly. It wasn’t long before another presence entered the room, whom I recognized at once as the very same man who had disturbed my peaceful repose in the tomb and had arranged for my conveyance to this place of glaring white light. He was accompanied by another man who was small and dark, and wore a white coat. The two together approached the bed warily, as though fearing I might somehow be startled or frightened… which made no sense at all, considering that I am nothing more than an insensate bundle of decomposing matter. And yet… and yet… I did feel a tinge of fear as I seemed to recognize the taller man as someone with whom I had once been acquainted… if only in a former life I had lived in the far distant past.
He drew up a chair by the bed and abruptly grasped my bony hand – so tightly I could not help but wonder why the fingers did not simply snap off – and he was repeating the same name he had been calling while I stood staring at the strange image in the mirror, just before I fled the house that morning. Sheila, he said softly but with a firm resolve. I know you can hear me. You are safe here, and I promise I will protect you. Wherever you’ve gone to now…please… come back! But of course there was no way I could have come back – even had I wanted to. Whatever sort of person I may once have been has long ceased to exist… surely he must know that. Besides… just who is this Sheila he seeks to summon forth from this collection of dry bones and shriveled sinews that I have become?
Meanwhile the man in the white coat was busy murmuring words of his own, but try as I might, I could make no sense of them. Nor did it matter in the end, because I was drifting away now, having descended into a dark and shadowy world submerged in a vast sea of profound silence and forgetfulness.
An intense surge of electrical current seared my brain, triggering waves of convulsions throughout my body, jolting me to full awareness, until I emerged at last from my slumber, a scream of white hot anger issuing from my parched throat. I would have arisen at once to confront my torturer – to scratch his eyes out even, though I knew I should come to regret such a violent course of action – but I was like a limp rag, drained of all energy, and besides – I was apparently tightly strapped onto some sort of padded table. Fortunately for my tormentor, the initial impulse of fury abated quickly and I slumped back helplessly against the cool, hard table. A strange, dark man wearing a white jacket and thick horn rimmed glasses loomed over me, pulling my eyelids open while he aimed a bright beam of light into my eyes.
“W-water, p-please,” I croaked. The man nodded, loosening the straps at once and somehow repositioning the table, raising the top part of my body to an upright position, then offered me a plastic cup filled with chips of ice. Despite my state of depletion, I managed to grasp the cup with both hands and began at once to greedily devour its contents. Only then did the man speak, his thick accent unidentifiable but strangely appealing. “My dear Sheila… welcome back to the land of the living.” (It would be too tiresome to duplicate his accent, so I won’t even try).
“Why do you call me that?” I snapped. “I am not Sheila! She’s nothing but a pathetic looser who thinks she’s dead, and so she is… I killed her, you see. Except for her reflection in the mirror, she has ceased to exist. Gone at last… and good riddance to her!”
If I had expected to force a reaction out of the silly man in the white coat (a doctor of the mind, I assumed), I was wrong. His expression remained unreadable as he calmly gazed into my eyes, like he really thought he could read my mind or something, but I wasn’t about to give anything away. I gazed right back, daring him to deny the truth of what I had just said.
But he did no such thing. Instead, he just nodded and asked me point blank, “So… what is your name?” This simple question threw me for a loop, I will admit, because honestly I had no idea what my name was… assuming I even had one. So I blurted out the first name that popped into my head – from where, I could not have said. “Elaine.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Elaine,” the doctor replied politely enough. “My name, by the way, is Rama, and I’m here to help you… figure things out. So tell me… how old are you?”
“Fifteen last September,” I said at once, because that at least I knew to be a fact, though I wasn’t at all sure what sort of things I needed help in figuring out.
“Fifteen… yes, I see. I would have guessed you were older than that, but of course… looks can be deceiving, can they not?... I assume then that you – being such a young girl – still live with your parents.”
Now I was really and truly flustered and confused, because so far as I could remember, I never did live with any parents – whether mine or anyone else’s. In fact – if truth be told – I had no memories at all of a past in which I had lived as an actual person. “N-no,” I stammered. “I’ve been away, you see… for years and years! I’ve just got back, and so… I haven’t had time yet to live anywhere!
“So you were living abroad,” Rama said thoughtfully. “What can you tell me about that?” But I was no longer really listening, I was done playing his games. I turned my head aside and closed my eyes tightly. My head was pounding, and besides, I was suddenly feeling very tired… empty… hollow… lost…. All I wanted in that moment was to go home – yet I knew with an utter certainty that I had no home.
Multiple Personality Disorder… is there a cure for that? the man was asking.
Long term treatment… complicated case… sorry, but your insurance won’t cover…. snatches of words spoken by Dr. Rama, and it was all (apparently) about me. But why the fuss? I could not help but wonder. Except in a deeply buried corner of my own mind, it seemed to me that I no longer in any real sense existed. Why was this man not willing to just cut me loose? I was, after all, clearly a lost cause, damaged goods, already dead if not yet buried, a murderer, for heaven’s sake! Surely he must see the blood on my hands. Stupid me, thinking that I could just wash it away, but no… the stains were permanent, and no amount of scrubbing could take care of the mess… not in a million years.
I was apparently being kicked out of the hospital, and the man who had brought me there to begin with (it seems he could no longer afford the $800 a day it cost to keep me there) was hell bent on taking me “home.” From the snatches of conversation I had overheard, I was finally beginning to piece together the puzzle: somehow this man (whose name, if he has one, still eludes me) had somehow convinced the authorities that he was my husband. Well… anything’s possible, of course, but it seems unlikely that a fifteen year-old girl who has willingly consented to shed the blood of an innocent child would agree to marry a middle aged man for whom she felt not the slightest degree of affection. Besides, the fact remains that I died in that very instant when the child – having emerged from the womb alive – was brutally bludgeoned to death….
So it seems that I truly am being released from this place of confinement, given over into the custody of the man who insists on calling himself my husband… driven “home,” he says, to that place still haunted by the shadows of my past, where the life I had so desperately been trying to hold together finally shattered apart into a thousand fragments that cannot possibly be put together ever again. Sheila is convinced she is really and truly dead, that she is a walking corpse – but I know this to be a logical impossibility. It is surely more sensible to conclude that I have simply ceased to exist.
But somewhere along the way, as we traversed the wooded stretch of road where sun-dappled leaves fluttered in the breeze, I was struck – in a suspended moment of time – by a sudden and totally unexpected revelation: the very notion that I had “ceased to exist” is absurd. The real truth is that my ego had been so inflated that it can conceive of no existence outside of itself. It is not “I” who have died and withered away, but rather the all-consuming and unconditional love of God, which alone possesses the power to draw me forth from the dark abyss of hell.
My real concern, it seems to me now, was not so much for the innocent child whose life had been cut short before it had seen the light of day – but rather for my own miserable and (or so it seemed) irredeemable self. How could I have done such a thing? I thought, not because I desired to repent, but rather because I was ashamed and pitied myself! Having allowed myself to sink into a dark hole of despair and hopelessness, I fervently (yet falsely) believed I could never again prove myself worthy of existence… let alone love. I do confess that I never really believed in God – except, perhaps, as some sort of abstract concept – ultimately unrelated to that living death I imagined to be my life in this world.
Only after having come to this realization could I begin to perceive that pure and resplendent light that enlightens every soul that comes into this world, and in this light I beheld the child I had thought to be lost and abandoned forever. The heart I believed myself to no longer possess was caressed and warmed by her serene and joyful smile, and though she did not utter a word, I knew beyond knowing that I had truly been forgiven….
Recovery means to get back something which one has lost, and over the next several months that is precisely what I did. First of all, my memories: I was indeed a thirty-two year-old woman named Sheila, married to a remarkable man named Erik. At the tender age of fourteen, I managed to escape from the orphanage – a dreadful place, where I had been horribly abused (both sexually and emotionally) for as long as I could remember. Having neither family nor friends, I had nowhere to go… but I was a survivor.
I shudder now to think of the perils I faced as a child living alone on the streets amidst the squalor and decay of a big city, but I quickly learned how to be invisible (or nearly so). Wandering about like a ghost in the shadows, I eluded the authorities while engaging in the most shameful perversions – behaving like an animal guided only by the basest of instincts. Of course it is easy now to say that I didn’t know any better, and up to a point this is true, except… there was indeed the persistent nagging of an inner voice that could only be silenced by drugs and alcohol. Nevertheless – though it was a rough and tumble existence I had chosen for myself – I always somehow managed to land on my own two feet. That is… until a year had passed and I discovered I was pregnant, and made that fateful decision that no fifteen year-old girl should ever have to make. Now I won’t say I considered this decision to be “right” at the time… it was simply the only decision I could conceive of making.
Nevertheless, when the child was somehow born live (despite the best efforts of the murderers) and the still living heart was brutally ripped from the body before my very eyes – it seemed to me that I too had died. (In fact – due to the massive loss of blood – I almost did die, but soon enough they patched me together and cast me out once again onto the streets).
From that point on, my memories are jumbled and confused. Having descended into the depths of desperation and hopelessness, I got careless, exposing myself to danger, no longer caring whether I lived or died (since in my deluded mind, I was dead already). I know I spent some time in jail, but eventually I was committed to a lunatic asylum and pumped so full of drugs I could barely function beyond the level of a zombie. I was released, nevertheless, to a so-called “therapeutic community” – which was where I met Erik. He was, at the time, a state inspector who found conditions in this “mental health” facility so horrendous that he demanded in the strongest possible terms that it be shut down. Which it was… but meanwhile he had, inexplicably, fallen in love with me.
And so he rescued me and gave me shelter in his home, asking nothing in return (until, of course, he married me). The first thing he did was to wean me off the medications – rightly considering them to be dangerous poisons. And so I gradually got “better” – to the point where I was able to set aside (or rather, to repress) the wounds of trauma that had so plagued me in the past, and we succeeded in building for ourselves a reasonably contented life. I even mustered the courage to take some courses at a community college and worked for a while as a dental assistant, while Erik pursued for himself a new career as a mortician (morbid, I know, but it is what he had always wanted to do). I was profoundly grateful for all he had done for me, and though I was incapable of any sort of grand passion (not to mention the bearing of children), the rhythm our life had settled into was pleasant enough. But though I willingly shared with him numerous details concerning my past, I never could bring myself to the point of confessing the one sin I was certain could never be atoned for.
Our relationship might have gone on like this forever (though I sincerely doubt it), had it not been for the singular event that triggered my total and complete relapse. I had every reason to believe, you see (due to the brutal butchery of the murderers) that I was barren. Still… after years of trying… I did somehow manage to conceive. I knew this for certain… and both joy and fearful apprehension were intermingled in my mind in equal measure. I did not, however, dare to share this wonderful news with Erik, for you see… I could not shake off the sense that God was somehow mocking me, setting me up for a devastation total and complete. And so it was that my dreadful sense of foreboding was seemingly confirmed when I gushed forth blood and miscarried the night before I finally cracked apart… and apparently died. (I had considered myself irredeemably unclean – stained beyond measure by the blood I had shed – a filthy rag abhorrent to God and fit to be burned, its ashes scattered upon a dung heap. But I had forgotten that the Blood shed by our Savior upon the Cross is more than sufficient to wash us clean of every impurity).
It occurs to me now that a single human life is worth infinitely more than all the conceivable treasures of this created universe. It should be remembered, though, that a life not illumined by the love of God is not truly life at all, but rather a living death. Thus, it is somewhere written by a man who was caught up into the third heaven (whether in the body or out of the body, he knew not), “Awake thou that sleepeth, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.”
“Keep thy soul in hell and despair not,” another God-illumined soul has written – and though I do not pretend to quite understand his words, I do know beyond the shadow of a doubt that the love of God is fully manifest even unto the those souls languishing in the depths of hell – a hell of their own making which God can, in an instant, transform into Paradise.
Cotard’s Delusion (otherwise known as Walking Corpse Syndrome) is a rare but recognized psychiatric disorder that induces in people a conviction that they are walking, rotting corpses with missing organs; or, that they have simply died and are somehow still walking around; or, on a more existential level, that they no longer exist. Paradoxically, this conviction can co-exist with the delusion that they are immortal. Derealisation, on the other hand, is a broader disorder that causes a feeling of disconnection from one’s environment.
A belief that one is already dead can lead to extreme depression, anxiety and suicidal behavior. The condition can best be described as “existence denial,” and it is sometimes accompanied by feelings of guilt, anxiety, negativity, insensibility to pain – and an inability to recognize one’s own face. In short, this condition is an extreme expression of the plight of post-modern man – alienated, atomized, and cut adrift from the sustaining grace of God, by whose power alone we can be redeemed from the dark abyss of non-being and transferred into the Kingdom of Light – wherein we are given the potential to become partakers of the Divine Glory.
As for Sheila and Erik, well… they eventually opened up their home as a place of refuge and safety for children cast off and dehumanized by a morally bankrupt society (those whom many consider to be the off scouring of the human race) – a commodity that can easily be discarded for the sake of convenience. The house was too small, of course, to fully encompass the requirements of a heart inflamed by the love of God, and therefore various additions were added on periodically, but in the end… the couple managed to adopt and to nurture in excess of one hundred souls – all precious beyond measure in the sight of God.
And so, dear reader, I beseech you to consider: what have you done to “redeem the time” – a gift so graciously granted unto you by the grace of God? For truly the end is drawing near, and the time of reckoning is at hand. And so it behooves us all to strive in this earthly life to fulfill the commandments of God – that we might at last be accounted worthy of true and eternal life in His Heavenly Kingdom.