‘I’m still the kid with the nuclear explosion inside him’

Author Ewan Morrison on power, pain and a painted bomb… plus an extract from his new book.

A couple of years ago I had four or five sessions with a Jungian Therapist. She was an elderly woman and seemed to have ridden out the period of History in which Carl Jung was viewed with deep suspicion. In her commitment to Jung’s methods she seemed almost like a bona-fide first generation Jungian and quite exotic in our age of psycho-pharmacology and CBT. 

Why did I go to see her?

Because I have suffered from serious depression since the age of about 17 (I am now 52) and although CBT and psychodynamic therapy (the two things offered to people like me on the NHS) have given me some useful techniques in dealing with these lifelong cycles, I am always left feeling that I’ve not ‘got to the bottom’ of what really ails me. I’ve not come close to finding anything that could make the depressions stay away.

The Jungian therapist and I had a very constructive session around a recurring image in my life. That of a painting I did when I was a teenager: It was an image of a nuclear explosion. We analysed what that image meant to me, and in that session I had an extraordinary realisation about the role of art in my depressions.

Some might read this and “image analysis, pah!” “Jungian therapy – well that really is the last ditch!” You’re entitled to your opinion, but I plead an exception. While I disagree with a lot of Jung’s metaphysics (his adoption of Platonism in his ‘archetypes’ and ‘collective unconscious’) there is something in Jung’s methodology that is uniquely useful to people like me – artists.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that CBT and so many modern therapies have a huge black hole when it comes to the psychology of artists. 

The modern take is that artists may have developed a “secondary gain” from their mental health problems; that making art is a compensatory activity, but a kind of crutch that creates its own problems. After all, it is living in a kind of fantasy world. And an artist is a dubious type who makes a living from selling fantasies,

The reason why art-making is then viewed with something like suspicion through the cognitive behavioural schools of thought, is that there seems to be a lot of hocus-pocus and mumbo-jumbo fastened to the arts. Poetry, painting, fantasy fiction – these all maintain certain ‘dated’ or ‘romantic’ ideas about ‘the soul’ and so are to be viewed with suspicion by anyone involved in the sciences of psychology and psychiatry.

Now, I’m pretty convinced that I don’t have a soul, but I can only talk from experience and claim that as an artist, Jungian Therapy worked for me. Here’s how.

Let’s get back to that painting of the nuclear bomb.

My Jungian therapist had been getting me to try to identify images in my personal repertoire, images that seem loaded with meaning from my past, and so as we were talking I remembered this old painting that I’d made between the ages of 13 and 15. Yes, I had actually worked on that same painting for two years. It was about a meter wide and it showed a nuclear explosion of vast size, annihilating a distant city. The ground around the city was already desert-like and in the foreground, at the top of a hill was a ruined church. From the ruined church rose huge crystals. It was as if they had been shaken into life by the nuclear explosion.

You might think, “Ah, young mister Morrison was clearly influenced by Rock album covers of the 70s”, and yes, I was. However, it was only when I looked again at this image with the Jungian therapist, some 30 years after painting it, that I had a breakthrough. 

The therapist asked me what had been going on in my life at the time, and I told her that as a teenager, I’d been violently bullied and had developed a chronic stutter, I’d had very few friends and that I preferred to spend my time, alone, perfecting my image of the nuclear explosion. 

A CBT therapist would have most likely seen this as an example of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Avoidant Personality Disorder; the Jungian therapist saw it as the birth of my artistic self. She told me there was nothing to be ashamed of in being an introvert, and she asked me what I’d felt when I was painting that nuclear explosion again and again.

I told her that I’d felt powerful, inspired, adrenalized and moved. Sometimes the beauty of the colours within the mushroom cloud, moved me to tears.

I was a bullied child and, of course, I was fantasising about an armageddon that would destroy my bullies, their families, the town we lived in, and this could been a form of psychotic revenge fantasising, but my Jungian therapist helped me discover something else. She asked me how I felt if I didn’t get to spend time on my ‘power-making beautiful explosion’. I told her that at such times I’d felt demotivated, weak, and depressed. 

She asked me what age I was when my stutter went away, and if it was connected in any way to the image of the nuclear explosion, and I was amazed to find that yes, it was. It was when I brought the painting I’d been working on for two years into school that I suddenly gained respect from the kids who bullied me. This was at a time where I could barely put two words together without stuttering. The explosion sat there at the back of the art class and it even annoyed the art teacher how much all the kids in the class admired it.

I suddenly had friends and my stutter got better.

“So, are you saying your explosion painting was your power and your voice?” the therapist asked. 

From this I came to realise that the periods in my life in which I am most depressed are the ones in which I have no means of self-expression. Periods in which I am silenced by others or by my own self-doubts. These are periods in which I can’t turn a blank page into an explosion, or turn suffering into something that I find beautiful.

The therapist asked me what became of that painting and I told her that years later I became ashamed of it, and tore it up. I’d never connected the dots before but this act of destruction occurred just before one of my first big depressions in my twenties, when I lost my sense of direction.

In the symbolic language of the Jungian, I had torn up my own voice. Destroyed my own access to power or self-empowerment. 

So, a few years on, what have I learned from the Jungian? That I’m stuck with art. That my art making and my depressions are intimately interconnected; that if I don’t use my voice I feel powerless and become depressed.  I’ve also learned that I’ll just have to learn to live with not being ‘normal’ or well adapted. 

My art these days is writing fiction, and like my teenage self once did with painting, I get lost when I can’t create. I’m dependent on this ‘secondary gain’ for my sanity and that is a precarious way to live, but my Jungian therapist was right – that nuclear explosion I painted when I was 14 is a big part of me, it’s still radiating its power through my life 35 years later. For better or worse, I’m still the kid with the nuclear explosion inside him.

Ewan Morrison’s new novel How to Survive Everything concerns a family of preppers who believe the world is ending. It is published on 1 March 2021 by Contraband. Morrison’s last Novel Nina X, won the Saltire Fiction Book of the Year Prize 2019. Read a Q&A / extract from that book.

Extract from “How to Survive Everything”

It was like a fairy tale all screwed up and back-to-front. Dad was both the hideous monster and the sleeping beauty. I didn’t want to leave his side, in case he woke up without my being there or he stopped breathing, so what I did is that one crummy thing you’re supposed to do, like, in all the movies, when someone’s in a coma. I read. I read out loud to him. 

I spent a whole morning trying to locate all the books in the safe house and the results were pretty disappointing, actually. Mostly, there were user operation manuals. One for Ray’s jeep, one for the quad bike, ten for the wind turbines, and one for each one of the weapons and so on. Like, sixty of them, and who’s going to read the Armalite M15 Series Rifle Operations Manual out loud? 

The only novel was this thing called Fifty Days of Black. It was a cheap rip-off of the real Fifty Shades and many edges were turned over, usually on pages that featured the words ‘throbbing’ and ‘gushing’, so it had to be Meg’s. 

Then there was the home doctor manual and Dad’s survival guide. 

And that was all. 

It blew me away thinking that, if we survived, we would one day disseminate the wisdom contained in these books around a ravaged planet. These, the pillars of the new world. A million years from now aliens would say that these were clearly their sacred texts for the last humans. 

Winston thrust his throbbing manhood into Cecilia’s...’ 

Note for pandemic preppers: Please hoard vast libraries of the most important books in the world. 

It made me shiver thinking about what had happened to books out there in the real world. They’d burn well and winter was coming on and my guess was all the toilet rolls in the world had already run out. 

No books would ever be printed again. 

There was no way I was going to read Meg’s porn book to my dad. So, I read to Dad from his own book. There was one chapter called ‘Coping’ and in it was a section called ‘The Awakening’. I propped it up beside his head and, in the breaks between tending his wound and topping up his IV and the hundreds of other chores, I read in the hope that hearing his own words might awaken him. 

This is what he wrote: 

The Awakening.

On the day when you have accumulated and sifted all the facts, once you have told yourself that this is the future the world faces, you will wake early and will want to kill yourself. 

I know this to be true.Be kind to yourself, on this day. Give yourself one more day.On this morning, go for a walk. There is no point in going to work and it is early yet, the sun has not risen. Don’t bother to call in sick – why should you? When the final pandemic strikes, your job will cease to exist. No more career plan, no more glass ceiling, no more ambition or bosses or pension plan. Walk the city and let the world undo itself before your eyes. 

Today, you are going to say goodbye to everything. You are going to start your ‘List of Last Things’. For some, compiling this list may take weeks or months. At the end of this process you will either wish to kill yourself or you will awaken and know what you must do for you and your loved ones to survive. 

Go and walk this city that you think you know. Start to compile the list as you pass things by.Go to spaces of transit where people rarely walk. Find a forgotten pedestrian overpass, stand alone and watch the six lanes of cars rushing like a river. Rush hour is just beginning and the sun has not fully risen. The cars have their headlights on. Maybe you listen to music on your iPhone when you do this. It might help you cry. I listened to Mahler. Crying, alone, outside, is a public part of the awakening. 

Look down at the cars, white lights oncoming, red receding, and tell yourself that there will be no more cars. Listen to the music and say, there will be no more MP3s, no more singles or albums or recording artists or record companies. Take the headphones out and tell yourself that there will be no more streetlights and traffic lights when the pandemic comes. There will be no more petrol, no more radio stations, no more news bulletins. 

You will feel a terrible rage in your chest, against those in power who let this get to the point where the pandemic is inevitable. The immensity of the collective delusion they have created. The billions they have lied to. 

Everyone who passes beneath your feet is going to die, the slow death of infection, the slower death of starvation, and the brutal death that comes to the survivors. The blood on their hands. 

Picture the thousands of cars abandoned and burned beneath your feet as you stand on the overpass. Cry or shout at the cars. No one listens. Learn from this. 

You have to get beyond anger, because impotent rage without outlet will kill you. It is already killing hundreds of thousands of people who also know what you know. They know the truth but it rots inside them because they believe they are powerless to do anything. The world won’t listen. The truth-tellers are locked in lunatic asylums, medicated, fired, divorced, imprisoned. So they kill the truth, they pretend they don’t know, they drink and take drugs and seek a way out through sex, they bury themselves in distractions, walking amnesiacs, the pre-dead, they choose the slow suicide that the world has pre-packed for them. 

Keep walking. See the advertisements for alcohol on the roadsides and in the housing estates, see the adverts for sexualised products and sensory distractions everywhere. You may find yourself weeping in the car park of a shopping centre. Cry at the sight of families stuffing their branded boxes into their cars, and their children, faces smeared with ketchup, with ice cream, screaming for more. Their whole lives are mapped out like products with planned obsolescence built in. 

Tell yourself, there will be no more toys. No more credit cards or credit, when the pandemic hits. No more ice cream. You pass advertising hoardings with the faces of smiling people, the exposed bodies of women. Tell yourself, there will be no more adverts for holidays, for insurance, no more desire for things of status. Stand back and watch the thousands drive out of the retail parks and join a traffic jam, and see them as rows of caged animals in a vast bio lab experiment. That is what they soon will be. 

Your anger may shift. Perhaps you will feel a hollowness developing as you empty yourself of illusions. You may be overwhelmed with compassion or pity. These are useless feelings. Add these emotions to your list of last things. Pity will leave you and the ones you love defenceless. 

Walk forgotten sidings and glimpse the future without humans, the weeds reclaiming the concrete architecture. Walk to a train station. Watch the young people, so attractive, so vital and hopeful. Tell your- self, there will be no more power lines, no more timetables. No more time to catch or kill. 

Look at them. Sixty in the carriage, all on their smartphones, texting, playing games, making no eye contact with each other. Picture the spread of the virus in the air between them. And tell yourself, there will be no more dating apps, no more games, no more upgrades. No more memory. 

Remind yourself that there are four vast conglomerates who control all news media and technology. Two of whom also fund bio-warfare laboratories. 

You want to scream out what you know. Scream, save yourselves! But it is futile. No one will listen. 

Today you must give up on everyone. 

Walk through the city centre to the shopping precinct. Consider a world without electricity. What is the carbon imprint of six billion dead and decomposing bodies? Add ecology to your list of last things that no longer matter. Tell yourself, there will be no more recycling, no more charity. 

Ask yourself why you should even try to save these people who laugh at you. They would only be competitors for the last remaining resources. 

If they survive, they will take food from your children. 

No democratic processes, no media revelation will change what is to come. Give up hope of that. Learn to live with your knowledge as a secret. The last thing you need is for others to know. Let the power of the secret locked inside you fuel you, like a contained explosion in a nuclear reactor. 

Walk through a mall and take the elevator to the car park, go to the top floor and stand looking out at the hundreds of people far below, as small as a virus in a petri dish. Tell yourself it is too late for them – let them die in your mind. Then look out to the skyline. 

You must face death now.Kill yourself and all anxiety will end.Or walk away and start your life again from zero. Turn your despair into action, but know that these millions will be against you, everyone will think you insane. 

Feel the wind, hear the distant sounds of shoppers. See how easy it would be to jump. Feel that hollow expand within you. Look down and tell yourself your list of last things. There will be no more stores, no more fashions, no more buskers playing pop songs in the streets, no more traffic wardens, no more credit cards, no more special offers, no more debt. 

Jump or don’t jump. 

The words blurred and I turned to Dad’s face. Behind his lids his eyes were moving as if he was walking miles alone in some parallel universe. I squeezed his hand and whispered, ‘Don’t jump, Dad, please.’ 

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber