Monday, September 20, 2004

Challenging Reason to a Duel

When I think about what makes a person sentient, I think about reason. Reason gives us the capacity to think, to create and to change. It also gives us perspective.

Anyone who has suffered from a high fever or a debilitating stomach flu knows that acute illness distorts your perception. You shiver and sweat in a room that stays the same temperature. You can sleep for days and still feel exhausted. You have disconnected dreams, fragments and clips of different movies spliced together in a macabre tapestry.

The worst part of being mentally ill is being well enough to know that you are sick. I can still see myself as others see me. I know that my lax monetary discipline of late is a manifestation of a burgeoning mania. I realize that being impulsive is an indication of being up. I know that it is not normal to get emotional over the texture of a cheeto. But just as a person with a fever cannot simply will it to go away, I cannot stop thinking the way that I do. This is an illness that infects your mind before thoughts have formed; it's attached to a part of you that predates sentience, a raw, animalistic side of our nature governed by impulse and instinct.

The animal in us knows no reason. It leaps before it looks. It takes action to preserve itself.

When I was in highschool, a dear friend of mind told me that she used to wrap rubberbands tightly around her fingers until the tips turned black after her father would scream at her. It was like the discomfort was a liferaft, keeping her from taking more dramatic and damaging action. She eventually graduated to cutting herself with a sharp piece of glass she kept on a bookshelf. She said she couldn't feel the pain of each cut, but it felt like some of the emotions she couldn't name would escape through each slice.

She never learned how to process those emotions. She let the animal take over her reason. She started drinking Draino.

Pain is a funny thing that way. To me, it hurts. To her, it provided a cathartic release from an emotional maelstrom.

In psychological parlance, she failed to develop appropriate coping skills.

But maybe, pain is a way of controling the animal in us. One of the women on my listserv wrote her profound thoughts on self-injury:

"I read a question from someone asking if anyone cuts. I cut, pinch, or scratch myself when my anxiety is kicking. The pain brings a blessed release that I could not live without. I bought myself a box cutter, the blade I can adjust so I won't get too deep and need medical treatment, and I always cut on places I can easily hide. The scars bring up questions too because I've cut my wrists so many times. My body is a maze of scars, dark and light streaks of skin, some long, some short, but all subtle proof of a part of me I can not control. No one really knows I do this still, they think I've stopped because they don't see the new injuries. They don't need to know though, it would only cause unneeded bullshit in my already upside down life. We all have our own little ways of dealing with things."

This is just one of my many questions for psychiatry to answer: Why is it that while one person can cope with tragedy by planting a garden, another person finds their only release from inner torment in pain?

And I don't want some bullcrap theory about messed up childhoods. I want answers.