… a thought making crooked all that is straight.

Bodies Under Siege: Christ as symbol & beauty in the pain

I am currently reading Bodies Under Siege: Self-Mutilation and Body Modification in Culture and Psychiatry by Armando R. Favazza, M.D. It is the first comprehensive attempt at dealing with the subject of self-mutilation from a cultural psychiatric perspective. I am only about 20 pages in, but I already feel that this man has understood the concept of self-mutilation not only from a cultural and ritual perspective but from the perspective of a mentally ill person.

Many people, knowing either vaguely or intimately my personal belief systems and practices as a witch, question and frown upon my use of a crucifix in my practices, and the fact that I often wear one when I am in a particularly bad “demonic” phase. The fact is I take great comfort in aligning myself with the voluntary self-mutilation that the mythic image of Christ allowed to be imposed upon himself. The crux of Christian myth is based around this voluntary sacrifice, but the issue for me is not sacrifice for another but identification with excruciating internal and external pain.

The images of Christ on the cross have been graced over the centuries with a virtual delight in the gore and excruciating agonies of this man-God. As such he can become the epitome and symbol of a self-harmer’s attempt to make peace with the forces inside and to say yes to life; because self-harming is not a suicide attempt but an attempt to avert suicide.

Quoting a discussion about Fakir Mustafa by Graver, Favazza says:

[Fakir] feels [the pain] not as a foreign invasion of the body but as a sensation of the body that separates the body from the mind.

And this is certainly one of the prime motivations for my own self-harming urges – to demarcate boundaries between mind, body, and I would add, soul, to separate out the mix and to ease the pain of their co-existence.

Suppression is a beautiful tool which can facilitate the survival of someone who has lived through the unspeakable; but it can too easily become a means of self-destruction, where the emotions that should be focused on “enemies” is turned inwards, thus indeed creating a form of social self-sacrifice. Favazza elucidates this point:

Blood has awesome symbolic and physiologic powers, as evidenced by its role in religious sacrifice, healing, the formation of brotherhoods, and blood feuds. When harvested properly, it can alter the course of personal and communal history. It is my contention that some mentally ill persons mutilate themselves as a primitive method of drawing upon their blood’s ability to foster bonds of loyalty and union among members of their social network, to demonstrate their hatred of and conquest over real and imaginary enemies, to heal their afflictions, and … to set right their relationship with God.

Favazza discusses the subject of self-mutilation within Christianity extensively, identifying possible schizophrenics, anorectics and self-harmers amongst the martyr crew. He writes:

It is clear that the individual human body mirrors the collective social body, and each continually creates and sustains the other. Misperceptions of reality, feelings of guilt, negative self images, antisocial acts, and all the other symptoms we associate with personal mental illness defy understanding without reference to the psychological, social, cultural, and physical integrity of the communal “body.”

Which leads me on to the disgust, bewilderment and rejection that self-harmers continually face from the “communal body”. Favazza’s statements support my own experience of the anger, disgust and fear that self-harmers illicit not only amongst passers-by but even amongst their so-called “caretakers”. Nobody truly understands the self-harmer from a psychiatric perspective and instead dismisses the person saying, e.g. it must be a chemical imbalance, or part of borderline syndrome, or a way of getting attention. Favazza summarises self-mutilation amongst the mentally ill as a morbid form of self-help, but warns that it is nothing to trifle with and that for those individuals who cannot control the behaviour it may end in unsightly scars or even “the loss of an eye”.

Personally, I wear my scars as a warrior would those won in battle. When your insides resemble the direst of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings, and your outside is that of an amicable, sweet and smiling Englishwoman, there is a sense of relief when your external appearance begins to resemble the internal reality. Naturally this comes with extreme forms of social and familial rejection. Nobody likes to see pain, nobody likes to be forced to imagine what’s inside the person wearing the scars. There are very few who would reach out and kiss the scars, saying, “There is beauty in such life-affirming pain.”

©StarofSeshat 2011

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