First Person

Death and The Author

Audio: Read by Emily Simmons.

Content notes: discussion of death, suicidal thoughts, and mentions of graphic violence.

I wish I could remember more of what it was like to be a child, a proper child. Squishy and giggly and snotty and complete. Does that make me sound older than twenty-one? My memory started slipping away from me early, the sort of symptom no-one seems to tell you about. Or maybe someone did, and I forgot.

Back then, peeling away the layers of her skin would seem silly, and boring. She really could see the forest for the trees. She didn’t know what disability was, or neurodivergence, or (a)sexuality, that these things could alter so much for anyone, let alone her, let alone the world. She had no use for complicated words like that. She was a writer, too, in coloured crayons, on little scraps pilfered from the printer. She knew death, too. But death was her friend, nothing more. I can’t say the same for me.

Let’s lay down some groundwork first. I am aroace. I have fibromyalgia (unusually severe for someone of my age, a doctor explained with a charming mad-scientist delight). I’ve been marinating in a complicated potion of mental illnesses for over half of my life. Ah, and I’m a little obsessed with death. Thanatos. The grim reaper, if you like. Though if I call myself a ‘student of gothic horror’, I sound a tad less bonkers.

Death and I have been close for a long time, in all senses of the word. My favourite imaginary friend was the local cemetery’s black dog. Even as a wee-un, tottering around the playground, imagining a massive sheepdog—all dark shaggy fur and cavernous eyes—I seemed to sense a bond between us, some point of commonality. If I really understood my folklore, I would have known that, while he was busy watching over my wandering soul, he should’ve been at work herding the lost souls of the village’s dead. He’s been good to me, in the only way he can. When I was a teen, he would rest his head on my shoulder and say, “I can take you now, if I must. If that’s the only way left. But I would rather I didn’t. You’re not quite ripe yet.” It’s not his fault that I hurt from my bone marrow to the hairs on my skin (not directly, anyway). All those years hooked up to a malfunctioning brain, telling my body she is/will/should be dying [delete as applicable] finally caught up to my nervous system. Now it’s all confused.

The black dog and I are, of course, one and the same. But I think it is useful to separate the two of us out into component parts, in the same way that it is useful to separate out my disability, my asexuality, my aromanticism, my mental illness, like organs in an autopsy. It’s good practice in general, when I’m reading, when I’m writing, when I feel my emotions toward a piece of art bubbling up from my gut, to ask: which aspect of my being is responding? Which chunk of me is etching itself onto the page? Are my eyes those of the disabled woman, the queer woman, or the mentally ill woman? Perhaps the mentally ill child? I am a blooming gothicist, I say to myself, and so it is in my nature to sigh and coo at vampires, zombies, and all those ghoulish corpses. Ah, but were it so simple.

Before I had adopted this habit of self-dissection, if you had asked the question, “Would you still call yourself aroace if you weren’t disabled?” I would have scoffed, rolled my eyes as far back as they’d go, and say, “Of course I would”. How do I know? Because asexual is what I have always been. I know no other way to be. Not once have I looked at a person and desired sex, in any form. Not once have I looked at a person and dreamed of romance, of intimate physicality, of a shared bed and house and white picket fence. But how do I know? I have been mentally ill since I was a child. I understood suicidal ideation before I could fathom sexual attraction (I’m still working on the latter). I can’t guarantee that one did not smother the other. I can tell you that I am still here, still unwell, post therapy and medication, and lo and behold, still asexual. But perhaps, where the depression settled down to a warm simmer, the fibromyalgia took over. Some of my kind swear by sex as the best painkiller Mother Nature ever conceived; others are devastated that they cannot bear the agony. Either way, it inspires nothing in me, no long-suppressed epiphany. “Aha, I have it! Sexual attraction, at last!”

But the truth is, I can’t make any promises. I can’t declare with certainty that my queerness is some free-floating creature, soaring around my being like an electron, untethered. On the contrary, it keeps catching on other parts, like a belt loop around a door handle. Some of the most viscerally terrifying intrusive thoughts I’ve ever experienced were sexual in nature. And this is coming from someone who has been drowned, boiled, bisected by chainsaws, and walloped by several buses. My various disabilities, the long task of diagnosis, the longer ordeal of treatment, have all required that I get familiar with this body in ways I had no need for before. I sometimes wonder, a little self-centredly, if my asexuality is not a strange blessing, that the grief chronic pain instils in me would not be even heavier if I had any investment at all in sex, in bodily intimacy, in romantic attachments. I’m not ignorant to the fact that my aromanticism comes across as more of an appendage to my identity, not unlike the fibro. Both are relatively recent developments, ones I have not quite wrapped my tongue around comfortably yet. I recall fearing that the adoption of the green flag, the ‘aro’ before my ‘ace’ was a defensive mechanism—that with my asexuality, my mental illness, and physical disability meshed together, I am now so wholly abject, so repulsive, so unfitting with human desires, that romance is beyond me.

But, does it matter? Does it matter that my queerness might be somehow sewn onto my disability? Is this not what intersectionality is made for, to accommodate these overlaps? The question, “Would you still call yourself aroace if you were not disabled?” is fascinating to me, in that it teases out these points of contact, like an ever-expanding Venn diagram, circle upon circle into a strange, complicated kaleidoscope. But my blooming fascination cannot escape from the reality that, when this question is usually asked of me, the meaning is not the same. “What if you just haven’t met the right person yet?” “Have you spoken to your doctor about it?” “So, do you not want children?” My answer tends not to be a rambling essay, but a curt “Nun’ya business.” (Why does it always come back to kids, anyway?) The inquiries seem to emerge from a place of kindly concern, a desire to fix my problems for me. And as well-meaning as this may be at heart, I can’t help but take issue. Why is my asexuality the problem here? Why should I be worried? Why should I treat it as a sickness? My OCD makes me miserable. My depression makes me miserable. My asexuality does not. The intrusive thoughts telling me I’d be better off dead sure as heck make me miserable. Chronic pain makes me miserable. My struggle to find work makes me miserable. My asexuality does not. I don’t need to fix it. I don’t want to.

There is something monstrous about the disabled, aromantic asexual. Quietly monstrous. Like the black dog on the rooftop, every aspect, every ventricle, represents extinction. I sit here, eating breakfast, typing away at my desk like the heat death of the world. I find it difficult to envision my future as much as anyone. I believe it is a problem of language. I am constantly defined by absences, lack of sexual attraction, lack of romantic desire, lack of able body, lack of that world-shaking will to survive. I am not this. I am not that. What am I, then? I am nothing. I am death. I am the end of the family tree, the end of the line. I must admit, I am still rather bitter about it. I managed to smother the voice in my mind telling me I might as well be dead, only to turn to the big, blue world and have it ask, “What’s the point? Surely you might as well be dead.” I am a frog being constantly poked with a long stick, strangers peering down from above, muttering, “Come on. Do something.”

I quite revel in the dark depths. Call me extinction, if you like. I’ll be writing more novels, dressed all in black and silver, lace and corsets. Sorry, world. I do not believe I am capable of raising happy, healthy babies, sex or no sex. I am no mother. I do not believe I am capable of marrying my work, not if I can’t drag my arse out of bed some days. I am no Nikola Tesla-type. I am no wife. I am no professor. I do not know what I will do with myself, when I am old and flabby-skinned and single and childless. I don’t think my society knows what it will do with me either. For now, I am a writer, and an artist, a gothicist, a sister—a decent one, I hope. I wonder, though, how other monstrous folks learn to thrive, those who don’t wrap themselves gleefully in the garb of death, who derive no joy, no self-satisfaction from being denounced as annihilation embodied. What if I could not spill my bitterness and my bemusement onto paper so audaciously? What if I had not made death my friend? If I think too much, it frightens me. It frightens me to realise that the systems of my world were not made to house me, that I might be left out in the woods to rot. I am not alone. There are others, out here, like me. Better than me; stronger than me; angrier than me. We’re not going anywhere. We’ll keep. We’ll manage. We’ll be waiting.

About Author

Madeline (she/her) is a writer, artist, newbie gothicist, literature student, and lover of all that is spooky. She is currently working on a self-published series of dark fantasy novels, exploring themes of trauma, monstrosity, and haunting (and a big bad wolf).