(First Published in Exetera Magazine, Issue 12 (The Body Issue); Spring 2015, pgs 16-17
“I think therefore I am”- René Descartes
“My mind’s telling me ‘no’/ But my body, my body is telling me ‘yes’ “- R.Kelly
R Kelly’s R&B classic “Bump and Grind” immediately sets out a clear distinction between the body and the mind. Philosophers as far back as Plato have championed this division, with René Descartes providing the most lucid elucidation. The French thinker, prefiguring R.Kelly, wrote in the 16th century that “it is certain that I am really distinct from my body, and can exist without it.” This mind/body dualism formed the existential starting point for much Western thought throughout the modern era, and continues to shape the way we talk about illness – particularly in the distinction made between mental and physical health.
For all the scientific and technical advances in the medical industry, mental health continues to occupy an awkward place in our socio-cultural imagination. Problems begin at an early age. While young children are given the language to talk about physical injury, our vocabulary for mental pain is limited to the hyperbolic and parodic. Words such as “mad”, “insane” and “mental” are meant to articulate complex and distressing psychological states, but do not even begin to describe the destructive and debilitating emotions that mental illness can produce.
This gap in language can, I think, be put down to a wider structural privileging of physical health over mental wellbeing. If the quantifiable results of my own mental illness – a regular prescription, several deadline extensions and several trips home- were attributed to, for example, a broken bone or glandular fever, then such events would surely be readily be acknowledged as a necessary step towards recovery.
As it is I kow that some people by their own admission, dismiss such mitigation as sitting somewhere between a mild annoyance and an undeserved academic privilege. Even when friends express sympathy for my condition, I cannot help but detect a strong sense of suspicion they may truly wish me the best, but, deep down, this sincerity is often tinged with cynicism. Whether I am paranoid of not, there is no ambiguity about the result: I often feel like a fraud when asking for help in a way that wouldn’t ever occur to me with normalised, physical illnesses. It seems that suffering is legitimised in the prevailing medical discourse only when the healthy body is physically violated.
With this in mind its, little wonder that self-harm is seen as one of the few options to those whom language has failed. Self-harm unites the mind and the body through giving inner turmoil a physical – and therefore legitimate – symptom. Pain, in other words, is represented in a way that does not require conventional language. For once, mental discomfort erupts on the surface of the body in its most visceral and visible form.
This fresh appearance of pain on the skin of the body is undoubtedly cathartic providing inflictors with momentary physical release. The pain one feels provides and immediate corporeal reprieve from invisible inner torture. But perhaps more significant is the social signposting: self-harm makes pain intelligible without the need for language. The many forms of self-inflicted abuse – from cuts to scratches and bruises to burns- turn bodies into things that speak for themselves. In this understanding, the landscape of mental illness can be crudely mapped onto a corporeal canvas that declares: “look at me, I need help.”
Nevertheless, this desperate plea is often lost in translation, dominant cultural narratives about self-harm immediately absorb and neutralise any intelligible meanings. As soon as self-harm is mentioned stereotypical imaged immediately spring to mind: the angst-ridden teenager with a penchant for My Chemical Romance and black hair-dye, or perhaps the attention seeking bulimic adolescent displacing one self-destructive strategy with another in a “phase” of self- loathing. Whatever the image, self-harm is usually dismissed as an immature reflex to the aging process. This reductive cultural narrative aestheticises self-harm, reading scars as little more that a fashion accessory for superficial sub-cultures rather than as potent corporal expressions of inner distress.
While this line of thoughts may be true of some piercings and tattoos, cutting oneself is premised on an entirely different teleology. Rather than prioritised the finished product, the act of self-harm often finds its locus in the process of mutilation. It is through the action of slicing the skin that individuals – my 15-year-old self included – experience a moment of clarity: the inner turmoil has, for an all-too-short moment, taken a visible form. But unlike tattoos, the damage is not usually meant to be permanent.
Instead, such fleeting acts are perhaps better understood as signalling a profound disillusion with the way we talk about mental health. It is in this vein that many troubled individuals are, in my view, forced to adopt a corporeal vocabulary to try and express the inexpressible. This includes 13% of 12-to-18 year-olds – numbers that they Royal Collage of Psychiatrists warns are extremely conservative due to the immense number of unreported cases.
This is not to promote self-harm as a productive way to cope with depression, anxiety or any other codification of inner turmoil. Instead. It’s a call to understand self-harm as a regressive but understandable reaction to the poverty of language when it comes to discussing mental health. Cuts and scars are perhaps best seen as a last-ditch attempt to render the inner workings of the mind intelligible. But such cries for hep are ultimately mediated through a limited and restrictive body of language that is – tragically, ironically, unspeakably – all too quick to dismiss them.