Custance, John - Wisdom, Madness and Folly - The horrors and insights of the depressive phase
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
Wisdom, Madness and Folly - John Custance
A crumpled pillow is quite an ordinary everyday object, is it not? One looks at it and thinks no more about it? So is a washing-rag, or a towel tumbled on the floor, or the creases on the side of a bed. Yet they can suggest shapes of the utmost horror to the mind obsessed by fear. Gradually my eyes began to distinguish such shapes, until eventually, whichever way I turned, I could see nothing but devils waiting to torment me, devils which seemed infinitely more real than the material objects in which I saw them.
They had names, too. There was the god Baal, with a cruel mouth like a slit (a wrinkle in the side of a bed), waiting to devour me as a living sacrifice. There was Hecate, who used generally to appear in pillows, her shape was, I think, the most horrible of all. When I went out I saw devils by the hundred in trees and bushes, and especially in cut wood, generally in serpent form. Even now, I can still see them on occasion; the trick of illusion by which they appeared remains with me to some extent; and now that I am depressed again I cannot help wondering if they will reawaken the sense of utter terror that they did when they first appeared. I thought I had exorcised them, but now I am not so sure.
With these visions surrounding me it is not strange that the material world should seem less and less real. I felt myself to be gradually descending alive into the pit by a sort of metamorphosis of my surroundings. At times the whole universe seemed to be dissolving about me; moving cracks and fissures would appear in the walls and floors. This, incidentally, is a phenomenon which I have often noticed in the opposite state of acute mania, though it has then, of course, a totally different underlying feeling-tone.
The climax of this sense of unreality was an extraordinary vision which is difficult to classify .....There was a series of sporting prints round the walls of the ward day-room. They were so placed that, if you sat in an arm-chair with your back to the large windows, and facing the prints, you could see, reflected in the picture-glass, the buildings of No. 9 ward, on the opposite side of the small lawn on to which the windows looked out.
I used generally to sit concentrating on a novel-that was another good way of keeping the horrors at bay-with my back to the windows; there seemed to be fewer devils in the ward than there were outside, somehow. Little by little, over a period of about a month or six weeks probably, the reflection of No. 9 ward was distorted. The chimneys left the vertical plane and moved round to the horizontal, eventually to forty or fifty degrees below the horizontal, while the reflection of the building itself became correspondingly curved, until the whole vertical structure formed a sort of inverted U.
This puzzled me greatly; I don't think I was horrified at first. What could it mean? My vision was otherwise quite normal I could play badminton, billiards, and so on. But whenever I sat in one of those chairs and looked at the prints, I could see this strange phenomenon.
Certainly I was bewitched. But that was no new discovery; it did not frighten me more than I was frightened in any case.
Then, suddenly, the answer came. Bishop Berkeley was right; the whole universe of space and time, of my own senses, was really an illusion. …. I and all around me were utterly unreal. There in the reflection lay proof positive. My soul was finally turned into nothingness except unending pain.