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Self-harm is riddled with fruitful contradictions. Do we hurt ourselves in order to kill ourselves, or in order to save ourselves? It would seem that often our acts of self-destruction indicate an indomitable will to live, as though our symptoms are compromises which have formed for the sake of our own survival.
I take the existence and operation of self-destructive behaviors in humans to be a philosophical conundrum of the highest order, and I strongly dispute any theories which point to ignorance as the answer. This is why I take a thorough investigation of phenomena like self-harm to be so vital for understanding the human condition.
The many valences of self-harm
Fiona Gardner's book Self-Harm investigates the experiences of patients (mostly female) who physically harm themselves, while offering in the process some crucial insights about the essence and contradictions of self-destructive behavior. What emerges is a fascinating look into how humans grow attached to the very thing which is killing them.
Patients who harm themselves, be it cutting, burning, or hitting, offer unique explanations for why they do so and what the act makes them feel, but all of these accounts seem to be marked by the operation of conflicting drives.
On the one hand, you have a patient like "Rosie" who tells Dr. Gardner that she needs to inflict the pain so she can "feel real again." Somehow this pain which Rosie inflicts on herself enables her to reconnect with herself, as though she must feel pain to be truly real.
On the other hand, we also find patients like "Anne" who report that, while she is plagued by anxiety and thoughts of past events, cutting is the only thing which can distract her from the things which haunt her. She finds it freeing to only have to think about one thing – the raw experience of physical pain.
Thus we find that, for Rosie, cutting brings her back to herself, but for Anne, it allows her to escape herself. The urge to destroy is operating for both women, but the self-harm seems to serve a radically different purpose in each case.
The text includes other reports of many valences this act can take on in the life of a patient – a sense of mastery over one's body and circumstances, a way to acceptably exhaust aggressive drives, even the sublimation of psychic wounds through their literal externalization as wounds on the body.
And yet, surely, all these young women's behavior display a desire to live, albeit one with a strange and twisted form.
We see this especially in how Dr. Gardner's patients are so attached to their acts of self-destruction. When asked to stop, the young women resist giving up cutting or hurting themselves. They reply with "I need to" or "Don't try to stop me."
I think that these young women sense that they will lose something important, and find themselves dragged back into some yawning void, if they were to stop harming themselves. They cling to this lifeboat in the midst of a savage storm.
In a twisted way then, self-harm seems to be mobilizing the death drive in service of life. In more ways than one, we are all killing ourselves in order to live.
But what are we staving off?
The Fusion Fantasy
What horror do we postpone through our various rituals of self-destruction?
Dr. Gardner finds that this question for her patients always circuitously comes back to childhood and its memories. In particular, she explores the infant's "fusion fantasy," and she tries to anchor an explanation of the seemingly contradictory and oscillating functions of self-harm in this dynamic infantile fantasy.
In the fusion fantasy, the child longs to return to a state of union with the mother, an experience like it enjoyed in the womb, but this desire to merge with the mother also simultaneously arouses anxiety in the child because a successful fusion would destroy them. To fuse with someone or something is to disappear as a separate entity, and thus this desire which the child experiences to re-unite with the mother is understandably terrifying.
As the child navigates the stormy waters of these contradictory drives to merge with mother and to preserve a sense of self-distinction, one way that the child can cope with this situation is through what Dr. Gardner describes as a withdrawal and a lashing out at the dangerous object – this external object which the child wishes to merge with, but which it also senses poses a threat to its very existence.
This withdrawal and aggression in response to the dangerous object seems to closely resemble a general theory of the anxiety we experience in proximity to others. The presence of the other makes us aware of ourselves as distinct, and arouses in us all of the conflicting emotions which proceed from this – what am I? what do they want? will they reject me? will they try to objectify me? will I get the love that I crave so desperately?
There is something profoundly anti-egoic about self-harm, almost as though one of its primary functions is to achieve dissociation from being a self. Through the clarity and intensity of the experience, the ego evaporates as a concern, allowing us to escape all of the painful and conflicting feelings precipitated by being an other for an other. We are released back into the pain of existence itself.
However, although these acts of self-harm seem to provide an escape from the other, they appear nonetheless to be addressed to an other. This ritual of self-mutilation holds a cryptic message, sending a message of distress to the other, all while we desperately hope to receive a reply of love in return. Like a child who waits anxiously for its mother to return to the room, wondering in that gap as it cries for help, will I receive the help that I need?
To understand the nature of human distress, and to inquire after a vision of human flourishing, we have to see past the self-destructive symptoms which spring up at the site where the human being avoids what they fear most. The various self-destructive symptoms which we develop are not the problem, although they certain are a distinct form of harm. Rather, in approaching the question of self-destruction, we must begin to see these acts as contradictory ways of seeking survival rather than healing.
We stop short of life itself, choosing instead to simply postpone death. Sometimes this is enough. For in this place of struggle, we discover a clearing where broken creatures can become objects of grace and love.
I've been heads down this week working on another paid piece which has been demanding my time. Thank you for faithfully tuning in each week. I realize that not everything I write will connect with everyone or in the same way, but my prayer is that nonetheless I can provide you with something of value which you can carry with you on your journey.
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