Matilda Syndrome

When I was younger I used to write poetry, and some of it was pretty good. It was just like they tell you about: a thought or mood or phrase would suddenly erupt at the center of me, and there was nothing to be done but to sit down and work it out until it turned into a few stanzas at least.

Things were different then. I was lonelier, for one, and had more time to myself, to sit around and be overcome by things, for good or bad.

When I was about 15, during one of many summers I spent at my parents’ house with nobody and nothing much to occupy my time, I walked down to the park in the middle of the night under the full moon. There was a heavy fog, and I went

Wading as through the cloudy dregs
Of a wide, sparkling cup.1

It was an unforgettable night, even though now — now that I am used to having people around, and no longer feel quite so often the need to retreat — the thought of walking to the park by myself, in the middle of the night, with nobody around, sounds intolerably lonely. Is there anything wrong with that?

I also don’t sit around and get overcome by classical music anymore, even though there was a time when Rocky II2 would move me to tears, and Bach’s English Suites were like wandering through some byzantine labyrinth, and Bartok’s fourth string quartet was like a revelation from an underground world, deep and fiery as Bism.

Is that intensity gone, or is it dispersed? Have I truly lost anything — or is it more like Roald Dahl’s Matilda, where at the end she loses her psychokinetic powers because she’s no longer two grades too low, and the Trunchbull has been defeated, and Miss Honey has taken her in, and she can just get on with the quiet business of living?

I’m not sure, but it’s a good place to be. Sorry, Teen Self, but if it’s a choice between romanticism and the buoyant freedom of the ordinary, I’ll take the latter. And if (as I suspect) that turns out to be a false dilemma, so much the better.

1 From Richard Wilbur’s In the Field
2 I mean, of course, Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto.

33 Comments on “Matilda Syndrome”

  1. Sarah says:

    This could have described me perfectly until a yearish ago. Right down to the poetry and solo midnight walks through the park. My favorite thing to do was go see a movie by myself, (rejecting any offers for company) but arrive at the theater an hour early and read until it started.

    “Is that intensity gone, or is it dispersed? Have I truly lost anything — or is it more like Roald Dahl’s Matilda, where at the end she loses her psychokinetic powers because she’s no longer two grades too low, and the Trunchbull has been defeated, and Miss Honey has taken her in, and she can just get on with the quiet business of living?”

    Okay, as someone who is going to start dealing with all my crap, and not knowing quite what that will mean yet, I hope I can ask: do you think it’s the medication? My being intense, though I realize a lot of it comes from kind of messed up places in my head, and it can be problematic at times, I guess I am a little scared to lose it… in a way… It’s been part of me for so long– almost all my life, I think– that I might be a different person without it.

    There are times where I consider that and think, “I don’t care. I will do *anything* to not feel so much, and to not feel this way.” There are times I swear I’d get a lobotomy if it meant feeling better. There are times that I am truly excited to find out what kind of person I am without feeling like life is crushing me all the time.

    I am still an intenser-than-average person, but I think just maturing helped me figure out how to reign it in at least a little bit so I’m not weeping or screaming all the time. So, I do know what you mean about less intensity being a good thing, and I know it might not be due to medication, and I understand that it might not necessarily make you a totally different person, at least not for the worse… I’m just not sure, I guess, how much the dial can be turned down before I’m not me anymore.

    1. I understand. I had the same reservations about meds. But actually, most of those changes were pre-medication. I’d say I’m still intenser than the average bear, and rather than being less myself, I’m more free to be myself because I’m less dominated by my dark, withdrawn spells.

  2. Christine says:

    I am also less intense than I used to be. I used to read papal encyclicals in my spare time and was planning to get a PhD in theology. Then the depression hit badly. It took a lot out of me. Now the only things I want to read are fun, relatively mindless books. I don’t have the drive to do PhD work. I’m not sure how much of that is medication and how much of it is not being fully recovered from depression. In any case, if it is the medication, I would not trade the meds for the drive I used to have. Without meds, I was suicidal and had no appetite and could not sleep at night. With them, I am functional and even occasionally happy. Maybe my drive will come back one day, too.

  3. Mark from PA says:

    Hi Steve. Kind of cool. Just got back from a walk and then I got to read about your walk. I haven’t taken a lot of walks later at night but some I suppose. It may not be so lonesome, I would hope. It is hard to be a teen sometimes though. I can relate. I think things hit us harder sometimes when we are young. I read about Rhode Island being the last New England state to approve of same-sex marriage. I also read the statement of Rhode Island’s bishop. He pretty much told people to shun gay people, or the “same-sex attracted” as he mockingly (in my opinion) called them. It really discourages me when some people feel the need to put down others. I think of Mildred Loving and what she went through. She and her husband were arrested in the middle of the night and thrown in jail for being married in defiance of Virginia’s laws. She was black and her husband was white. I wonder if any bishops felt the need to put people down when the Supreme Court ruled that laws against inter-racial marriages were against the law. Or perhaps those bishops that were opposed (80% of Americans were against inter-racial marriages 50 years ago) just kept a respectful silence.

    1. Mark, is this the statement you mean?

      I don’t see anywhere where he uses the term “same-sex attracted”. I also don’t see anywhere where he talks about gay people at all, much less puts them down or tells people to shun them. He calls the legislation “immoral and unnecessary”, but doesn’t say anything about gay men or women.

      Maybe you are referring to a different statement. But if not, please be very careful not to spread false information about people.

      1. Mark from PA says:

        Steve, if you look to the right of that statement there is a link to a letter that Bishop Tobin wrote about same-sex marriage in Rhode Island. You need to read what he wrote in the letter. I am not spreading false information, I am just reacting to the letter. Reading that letter makes me understand better how many gay people struggle against depression because the way some people view gay people and treat gay people is truly depressing.

        1. “As I have emphasized consistently in the past, the Catholic Church has respect, love and pastoral concern for our brothers and sisters who have same-sex attraction….Our respect and pastoral care, however, does not mean that we are free to endorse or ignore immoral or destructive behavior, whenever or however it occurs.”

          I think he’s right on target, and I still don’t see anything in there that tells anybody to shun gay people, and I don’t see anything mocking in his tone.

          1. Mark from PA says:

            You think he is right on target, Steve. You stopped too soon in reading that letter. He went on to say that same-sex marriages are sinful. And also, “Catholics should examine their conscience very carefully before deciding whether on not to endorse as relationships or attend same-sex ceremonies, realizing that to do so might harm their relationship with God and cause significant scandal to others.” What happens when a couple gets married and their parents don’t want to attend the ceremony because of what the bishop said. He goes on to mention, “Despite this serious regression in the public morality of our state.” This bishop needs to realize that other religions do perform these ceremonies in their churches and don’t view them or the persons as immoral. I remember when I was a child and my parents attended weddings in other churches and even went to a few Jewish weddings and bar mitzvah’s even though back then the Church cautioned people not to attend such ceremonies because of causing “scandal” to the faithful. I don’t think the Bishop Tobin realizes the pain that his words could cause to young gay Catholics who already feel rejected by the Church. It is nice that Bishop Tobin spoke of love and respect for people early in his letter but what followed was not so loving and respectful.

          2. Mark from PA says:

            DavidM, when I was growing up I never heard the term “same-sex attraction.” Until I got the internet I never even saw or heard this term. Where I live this term is not used. I have never heard anyone say this word. I don’t care for the term for to me it seems to reduce a person to their attractions. I would never use this term to refer to myself as I find it demeaning. So you think if a person feels pain at someone’s words it is their fault? On a religious site I had a person refer to me as a “sodomite.” I have never had a sexual relationship with a man but still in the eyes of some, I am a sodomite. But I guess that is just my failing that I don’t like being talked to like that. This week in New York City, four men were attacked and beaten because of who they are. Just because they are gay is it their fault that they were beaten? You say that I don’t respect that Bishop Tobin is a Catholic. Well I am a Catholic too. I went to Catholic school for 12 years and am an active member of my parish. I go to Mass every Sunday and often another day or two during the week. I know that Bishop Tobin loves the Church and that he loves Christ. He doesn’t love me as he doesn’t even know me. I live in another state and I am of no concern to him. But the young gay people who live in Rhode Island are his concern and I think he needs to be careful with his words. It is hard enough for these young people without being made to feel unwelcome. Society is becoming much more accepting of gay people and young people are “coming out” at earlier and earlier ages. So there is support and acceptance for these young people in many places. I think the Church should be a safe and welcoming place for them too.

          3. Mark from PA says:

            DavidM, I never really used the term gay to refer to myself, but that doesn’t change biological facts. I think a lot of people, especially those that lives in areas that don’t have a lot of openly gay people, aren’t open about this because they are afraid of hatred and discrimination. Look at the Catholic Church, about 30% (maybe more) of priests in the US are gay. But very few are openly gay. There seems to be some kind of a code of silence about this. Many are probably afraid of prejudice and discrimination. But most people know that gay priests contribute a lot to the Catholic Church. However, there are some Catholics who have a strong dislike of gay people. Many of these people want to see gay priests out of the priesthood, gay seminarians out of the seminaries and gay Catholics out of the Church. Most of these people would tolerate homosexuals in the Church as long as they are closeted, not open about it, don’t appear to be gay, and keep a low profile. I really wasn’t aware of this when I was a young person as I never heard any anti-gay talk from any priests or nuns and never heard anything against homosexuality or gay people from the pulpit. I was aware that some priests were gay. From talking to people on the internet I have come across some people that truly hate gay people and it has been a learning experience for me. I just have to accept that some Catholics dislike and even hate gay people. This has been a challenge to me to accept this. It is painful to me that some higher ups in the Church don’t want to alienate the people that dislike gays. So when gay people are subject to discrimination, prejudice, hate and even violence, many of our Church leaders tend to look the other way. I was taught that as Catholics we were all brothers and sisters in Christ but I have come to see that if you are gay some Catholics don’t consider you a brother or sister. To some Catholics gay people are considered disordered, defective, inferior. I have learned here from reading what Steve has had to say. How many gay people do suffer from depression and feelings of inferiority due to how they are viewed by others. It is sometimes depressing to realize that some people just don’t like gay people and that is something we have to learn to accept.

  4. Rachel says:

    I am not on meds and not depressed, but I know what you’re talking about. I also have an intense personality, but was more so as a teen. I didn’t write poetry, but I did write novel length stories. They were terribly written and now I’m going back and rewriting those same stories. Sometimes it’s like going back to my emotional self then and wondering how in the world I came up with such intense characters/situations. I don’t know that I’d think of those stories in my life now.

    So, I guess I’ve mellowed a little. I used to think it was because I had kids and didn’t have time to be alone and intense. But I mellowed before the kids came along so I think it’s more a maturity thing. When you’re a teen your emotions are raw, but as you age, the intensity is still there, but you’ve learned how to manage it. I’m still writing the stories I came up with as a teen and still channeling those emotions, but I feel more removed from them. They’re also better written as I’ve learned the craft more so I’d say my talent has really grown.

  5. Vanessa says:

    I’m hoping you write a book soon, because I love your writing. You capture raw emotions & ideas so well:

    “I’m not sure, but it’s a good place to be. Sorry, Teen Self, but if it’s a choice between romanticism and the buoyant freedom of the ordinary, I’ll take the latter. And if (as I suspect) that turns out to be a false dilemma, so much the better.”

  6. Zach says:

    Rach 2 will move me til the end of time.

  7. RM says:

    I have been following your blog for some time, and though I don’t struggle with SSA I have had my share of struggles with social anxiety and depression. SO many of your experiences are so familiar to me. Thank you for your powerful witness. As a singer in the arts I have many homosexual friends and acquantainces, and it is so refreshing to see someone striving to live out chastity as a person of faith, particularly as a Catholic.

    I was just musing on this very thing recently, I too used to write poetry but as my life has become more fufilling I don’t feel inspired as much as when I was struggling to keep from drowning in my loneliness, sadness, confusion, and hopelessness. I think I can handle the trade off 🙂

  8. Jane Hartman says:

    There was one Christmas Eve when I was the only person watching a movie in the theater. Pathetic actually, but I have the Matilda syndrome mainly because of my conversion into the Catholic Church. I’m being fed spiritually and life is so much easier with that nourishment. Life isn’t perfect but I no longer feel as if I’m carrying the heaviest burden of depression and despair. “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

  9. Joseph says:

    I know what you mean about the music though. For me, the first listens of Individual Thought Patterns by Death, and Focus + Traced in Air by Cynic were essentially out of body experiences, and now are only occasions of casual listening.

  10. DavidM says:

    @Mark from PA: “I don’t think the Bishop Tobin realizes the pain that his words could cause to young gay Catholics who already feel rejected by the Church. It is nice that Bishop Tobin spoke of love and respect for people early in his letter but what followed was not so loving and respectful.”

    Mark, the causation of pain is more complex than you seem to realize. First, it is not always wrong to cause pain. Second, when someone feels pain as the result of some others persons words or actions, it sometimes indicates a failing in the person feeling the pain, not in the person whose words or actions happened to instigate those feelings.

    Regarding love and respect: Bishop Tobin is a Catholic and you seem not to repect that. He loves the Church, he loves Christ, and he loves you. This is *real* love though, not “I want to make you feel good no matter what”-love, but “I want what is best for you, I want you to know the truth and to be set free”-love. You may not be able to accept that kind of love at this point in your life, but try to at least have an honest appreciation of what the Catholic understanding of love is and how that is being faithfully and respectfully expressed in Bishop Tobin’s comments. You can’t very well just say to whoever disagrees with you, “Agree with me – otherwise you don’t love or respect me.”

  11. DavidM says:

    …also, there is absolutely nothing *mocking* about the notion or the term ‘same-sex attraction.’ That you would read this sentiment into Bishop Tobin’s statement surely says much about you, and nothing about the bishop.

  12. Mark from PA says:

    Sorry, DavidM, I replied to you but it ended up further up instead of at the end. I am interested in your take on my reasons for not liking the term “same-sex attraction.” I also feel that in reality “same-sex attraction” is something that is present in almost all people to some extent. Most people are attracted to people of both sexes but in different ways. For example, many women like to watch beauty contests, Miss America, for example, and of course many men like to watch men play football and other sports and may have favorite players. This is just part of human nature. So “same-sex attraction” is really part of being a human being but some people who look down on gay people and don’t want to use the word “gay” use that term as a label on a group of people that they don’t particularly care for.

  13. DavidM says:

    @Mark from PA: “I don’t care for the term for to me it seems to reduce a person to their attractions. I would never use this term to refer to myself as I find it demeaning. So you think if a person feels pain at someone’s words it is their fault?” – Not necessarily, but often, yes. And in this case, yes. This happens all the time in all sorts of contexts: people take things out of context and get offended, although they have no right to be. You know that, surely? When people refer to SSA they are usually referring to erotic, sexual attraction. They don’t mean, “I love watching Rafael Nadal play tennis.”

    If someone calls you a sodomite (and especially if you’re not), maybe just move on – probably not worth talking to, especially if you’re sensitive, as you seem to be. But don’t go doing the same thing yourself: accusing people of nasty things in an ignorant way.

    Re. the word ‘gay’: some people who are gay (who have SSA) also don’t like to apply the term ‘gay’ to themselves, because they don’t like the baggage that comes along with it. I don’t see why that ought to offend you. Can you explain?

  14. DavidM says:

    Do you really think that being gay or not is simply a biological fact? I’m quite certain it’s not. Even ‘having SSA’ is more than a simple biological fact, but is in fact much closer to being a pure biological fact than ‘being gay.’ Thus your negativity towards the notion of ‘having SSA’ seems not to make sense, if you’re going to appeal to ‘biological facts.’

    Re. depressing: Sure, stuff can be depressing. People get depressed about all kinds of things. But I think depression often comes from within (biological, psychological, spiritual, personal relations) more than it comes from without (social attitudes). Anyway, ‘being gay’ is no doubt a special challenge, but so is being addicted to pornography, for example, which also has pretty clear biological causes/symptoms. It’s natural to get depressed and ashamed about your shortcomings, I guess (whatever they might be), and to want to hide them from others, and this happens in regard to all sorts of things. But whatever the issue, the challenge is still to be honest about the fact that we are all part of the same corrupt race and we all must turn in humility to the gracious mercy of God to help us with our struggles and defects. So when you say, “To some Catholics gay people are considered disordered” – well I sure hope so! We’re all disordered in various ways and degrees. Why would any Catholic deny that (apart from ignorance of or defiance towards what the Church clearly teaches)?

    Why do you think that 30% or more of American priests are gay? I don’t think that is true.

    1. (DavidM wins the clarity of thought award for today. Carry on, stepping out of the way now.)

  15. DavidM says:

    One more point to consider: Are you aware that a lot of people also just don’t like faithful, practising Catholic people (like Bishop Tobin, for example)? It’s not just gay people that a lot of people don’t like. It seems a lot of people didn’t like Jesus, for that matter, and I think Jesus said something about taking up your cross and following him, which might seem depressing (which is why we have the term ‘the scandal of the cross’), but still not actually optional if you truly want to be a Catholic. St. Peter Damian once wrote, you cannot love Christ if you do not love the cross. So take courage, brother; we’ve all got crosses, but with perseverance, trust in the mercy of God, and humble submission to his will, we can hope that they will lead us to the glory of eternal union with Christ, right?

    1. Mark from PA says:

      DavidM, I think that “having SSA” and “being gay” are two expressions that refer to the same thing. As I have said, the term SSA is not used where I live. I think SSA is a term that some people that dislike gay people and dislike using the term “gay” to refer to gay people, use to refer to gay people. I haven’t really been exposed to a lot of people that don’t like Catholics. There are not a lot of people where I live that belong to religious sects that dislike Catholics. In regard to 30% of priests being gay, that is an estimated figure that I got from Richard Sipe. I realize that the number is just an estimate. It is higher in some places and lower in others. Also it is a figure for the US so it may be lower in other countries. However, most people know that a significant number of priests in the US have a homosexual orientation, a number much higher than the percentage of gay men in the population as a whole. These priests are a significant part of the Catholic Church and have contributed much to our Church. Again, when I was younger I wasn’t aware that a lot of Catholics disliked or even hated gay people (a small minority for sure). I know that this is something that I have to accept but it is a challenge for me. I feel sad because this has caused me to feel a certain sense of alienation from the Church. When I was younger I had a very idealized view of the Church and some of the things that have gone on in the Church have been hard for me to understand.

  16. DavidM says:

    Mark, here are some words to consider on this feast of St. Matthias:

    “To the greatness of his fidelity was later added the divine call to take the place of Judas, almost compensating for his betrayal. We draw from this a final lesson: while there is no lack of unworthy and traitorous Christians in the Church, it is up to each of us to counterbalance the evil done by them with our clear witness to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.”
    -Benedict XVI, October 18, 2006

    It may be good to remember that from the very beginning the Church has not lacked in unworthy and traitorous Christians. I guess, similar to yourself, the apostles may have been pretty shaken about Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of the Lord. Anyway, maybe it’s tough, not what you expected or wanted, but there is evil in the Church and you are called to work to counterbalance it (not to groundlessly criticize faithful bishops).

    BTW, I know that few people dislike Catholics, per se. That is because most Catholics are no different from non-Catholics. What I was referring to was the minority of faithful, practising Catholics who take seriously the call to follow Christ. For example, did you see what happened when, a few years back, Pope Benedict mentioned that condoms were not a true solution to AIDS in Africa? The intense hatred, bigotry, and contempt for the Church displayed in the reaction to this faithful practise of Catholicism was astonishing. Or what about Rick Santorum mentioning something about the dangers of contraception? That guy has been exposed to extreme hatred and bigotry. Sure people will like you if you keep your mouth shut…!

    1. Mark from PA says:

      DavidM, I am sorry if my criticism of bishops bothers you. As a younger person I thought that all bishops were holy men. When I think of all the bishops that looked the other way when children were abused it makes me upset. I think of Cardinal Law and the sins that he covered up for and perhaps worst of all was his lack of compassion for the victims of childhood sexual abuse. Cardinal Law was rewarded for his loyalty by a wonderful position in Rome, with a nice villa to live in, and servants to wait on him. He certainly made out a lot better than the abuse victims in Boston did. Cardinal O’Brien in Scotland, spoke out against gay marriage and gay people in committed relationships. But at the same time it was OK for him to have not so committed relationships with some of his underlings. Isn’t being in a committed relationship better than using other people in such a way? Now it seems that the Church wants Cardinal O’Brien’s silence but I actually wish he would speak out and explain. Perhaps the truth could set him free so to speak. On the other hand a majority of our priests and nuns have been faithful to their vows and have given wonderful service to Our Lord and His people. There is so much positive in the Church too. I was just looking at the Catholic Site, Fortunate Families, and was inspired by the love and support that is shared by the people in this organization.

      It is interesting that you mention Senator Santorum. I have actually voted for the man several times and I respect his devotion to his family. I remember a case when he gave a graduation speech at Cheney University in Pennsylvania. This is a most African-American University in SE Pennsylvania. Many of the graduates were unhappy to have him as a speaker at the graduation, they wanted an African-American speaker not an Italian-American Catholic, so many of the graduates sat with their backs to him at the graduation. I thought that was very rude, unwelcoming and inconsiderate. I supported Senator Santorum in many area but I am sad that he has a certain dislike of gay people so that is one of his negatives. Even though he doesn’t care for gay people, I think some of the criticism of him has been in poor taste.

  17. Sjfhsns says:

    I think that if you really look at the Church though history, at all of the good and the bad, the bad outweighs the good. From the crusades to the child molesters, the Church is covered in evil.
    When Lutheran created his 95th thesis everyone should have left the Catholic faith and created a new, holier church.
    Just my opinion.

    1. I think you’re forgetting the hospitals and the hospices and the universities and the scientific advances, and the fact that the Catholic Church is currently the largest charitable organization in the world. Just my opinion, and history’s.

  18. Sjfhsns says:

    I’ve gone to a Catholic school for four years, where I took four years of theology. It’s done just as much bad, if not more, than good.

    1. I’ve gone to Catholic schools for about eight years. It’s done very much good and very little bad.

      But my experience doesn’t prove anything about Catholicism in general. It just says something about me and about the teachers I had.

      The same is true of your experience.

  19. Mark from PA says:

    I went to Catholic school for 12 years and I was taught by a lot of great nuns. I had mostly nuns for teachers and a lot of them were good role models. I went to a small Catholic high school and it was really great. I think we had the best education in English and Social Studies. Actually I think in high school the Religion classes were a weak point. The one Religion teacher that I had was a predator but I didn’t know it at the time. The guy never really talked to me or had anything to do with me but I feel bad for the kids that he harmed. When I was in high school things were kind of wild at the public schools so I was glad that I went to Catholic school where the atmosphere was better. I was also glad because we had Mass often and actually had confessions for the students once a month.

  20. mikell says:

    I’m sorry if I offend Mark and others, I just don,t know when to keep my mouth shut. I was ashmed of my call to a homosexual body for a long time before I learned it was my god given soul. God gave it to me with the way for it to lead me to heaven and thats what I;m trying to do. It can be my way in the door if I follow Christ. I can’t take a breath without being tempted so with each breath I can gain grace. Pretty great opertunity. I love my God, he gives me all I need.

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