suRGe (suppressor)

Camilla Griggers

We give our patients toxic substances and must ensure
their safety as best we can.

-- George Dominiak, M.D., "Psychopharmacology of the Abused"

To speak of the breakdown of rational consciousness and its institutionalizations is to face the task of speaking around the unspeakable, mapping like an archeologist the premises of a repressed topography under disclosure, knowing all the while that the breakdown will never be found finally in any one place, in any location. Meanwhile the unspeakable as all that accompanies the breakdown of rational consciousness flows constantly around us, in waves of recollection and amnesia, in peaks and troughs of (dis)closure and repression, the amplitudes and frequencies of exposure and concealment--a flow modulated by any number of institutionalized suppression mechanisms for which the breakdown functions as the successful failure of feminine subjectivization--the antiproduction of feminine subjectivity. Beyond the unspeakable, only morbid symptoms remain to be located, recovered, mapped--the bulimic vomiting of the toxic maternal, the anorectic refusal to take in the phallus, the neurasthenic introjection of the social feminine as slow suicide, the autistic refusal of the social body as "real" percept through sensory mutilation--mnemic signs providing both clues and impenetrable screens for affects and events present but unrepresentable. Within the politics of channel/surge/suppress common to the production and anti-production of feminine social subjects and their self-representation, psychiatric and psychotherapeutic interpretation of the breakdown's mnemic signs functions as a mechanism of surge-suppression, screening the breakdown's machinic social function with the belief that individual subjects have signed these symptoms, that a central Nervous System has produced them. The breakdown both discloses the limit of this belief and provides the scene and the bodies for its production. While the breakdown (dis)locates the subject in the turbulence between body mnemonics and the machinic mnemonics of the social, between the organic body and the abstract faciality of social production--"recovery" territorializes for the social the breakdown's deterritorialized zones, relocating the subject within a zone of functionality and intelligibility while screening the workings of the social machine and its limit. Between the politics of interpretation and the institution of "mental health," recovery discourse and mental health therapy perform a modulating function in a micropolitics of memory, affect and desire.

While the breakdown is represented in our culture as an event occuring within the individual, nowhere is the abstract organization of the feminine more apparent than in the moment of its breakdown, when one can glimpse the (dys)functional organs of a feminine post-human body. A daunting creature, when all her systems run she's a hyperthymic overachiever, technologically loaded with electronic-prosthetic memory, neurochemical-prosthetic personality, and her media-prosthetic desire. But breakdowns are common. She typically drives too fast while complaining of being driven, consumes too much while rushing to the toilet to throw up. Sometimes she acts out. Often she's chronically "depressed," not to mention psychoneurologically wired for psychosis.

The feminine is an abstract machine and as such precedes any concrete actualization of potential conjunctions between sign-flow and matter-flow in the process of subjectivization. Its function is to regulate and channel the flux of signs and things into individuated forms of feminine social being. And in doing so, it regularly produces "dysfunctional" subjectivities--enough of them in fact to stimulate "mental health" as a growth industry within a repressed economy. Though abstract, it produces material histories that organize and regulate concrete social relations and material forms of expression of social identities. Indeed, just as the flow of matter-things is constantly being abstracted into legitimate forms of social expression, so the abstract feminine is always becoming concretely embodied in the bodies that comprise the social. All too often that embodiment constitutes an experience of private pain if not sheer terror.

My argument here is that femininity as a cultural category is constituted partly as a potentiality for receiving and signing the flow of social violences, that the feminine position is constituted as such within a Nervous System producing women as victims/survivors, self-mutilators, dysfunctionals and designated crazies. Within that ground of being, to adapt (to not suicide) is to (mal)adapt. And the potentialities of that (mal)adaption are subject to any number of policing and surveillance mechanisms typically organized around suppressing and channeling the relation between memory and affect in the anti-production of desire.

The discourse of psychopathology, technologized in its postmodern form as psychopharmacology, reproduces the distributional flow of social power by suppressing the assemblage of desiring-machines in touch with the historical social experience and memory of the group. Psychopharmacology functions as a surge suppressor, putting a 'break' on certain tendencies for the collective flow of feminine bodies and signs to flux, i.e. to change direction, speed or intensity. In short, it puts a brake on non-hegemonic desire, which can express within the collective social flow only as surge--sudden accelerations of sign-flow away from established meanings. As an interpretative machine, psychopharmacology modulates the potential flux in desire and affect caused by historical social memory embodied in the individual subject. The abstract-machine of rational cognition and behavior as it is institutionalized in psychopharmacology, and the modulations if not antiproductions of desire that it expresses, articulates on two planes: neurochemically wherever subjectivization is localized as embodied knowledge (i.e., at the organic-social interfaces of memory, affect and desire) and representationally whenever signification is localized to the realm of the individuated self.

On the plane of subjectivization in psychopharmacology's double articulation, psychopharmacological treatment rewires the traumatized subject's desiring body and faciality through a process formally expressed within psychiatry as "symptom management." Symptom management modulates subjectivization by deterritorializing potential conjunctions between neurochemical processes and abstract social facialities, working at a neurobiological ground zero of social being and becoming. Psychotropic drugs enter the subject through the organic body, territorializing three neurobiological systems of the brain: the serotonergic system, the limbic system, and the autonomic nervous system.

Each chemical intervention actualizes potential conjunctions between adaptive defensive mechanisms presenting as "maladaptive" symptoms and "normative" (i.e., functional, intelligible and socially acceptable) ideation, affect and behavior. For example, episodic violent outbursts associated with anamnesis (surges of recollection) and abreaction (release of repressed emotions) can be regulated with the anticonvulsant carbamazepine (Tegretol). Counterindications of carbamazepine include potentially hazardous side-effects on bone marrow and liver, skin rashes and lightheadedness. Carbamazepine regulates behavorial "dyscontrol" by modulating "epileptoid overactivity" of limbic structures--those parts of the brain responsible for generating emotional experience and memories and for influencing emotion-related behaviors (Dominiak 106). "Emotional storms" produced by asignifying turbulences traversing the individuated and alienated subject can thus be nipped in their neurochemical bud if not in their social context. Angry women overcome by surges of rage and violent acting out behavior, self-mutilation and suicidal actions, caught in a cycle of dissociation and intrusive abreaction, can be suppressed at the very neurobiological root of emotion and memory and at the neurochemical point of origin of dissociation.

The most pervasive psychic defense mechanism, dissociation appears across a vast strata of symptomatologies, including schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, multiple personality disorder and post-traumatic stress syndrome. Dissociation is generally understood to be "temporary alteration of the general integrative function of consciousness," characterizing states ranging from splitting and psychogenic amnesia to depersonalization and multiple personality (Shapiro 43). Within the micropolitics of subjectivization, dissociation can be understood as the de-molecularization of memory and affect, the reduction and separation of memory-blocks into simpler groups or single particles, and the deterritorialization of associational affective formations. Dissociation and splitting are the fundamental symptoms of schizophrenia, the term coined by Bleuler in 1911 to designate psychoses characterized by zerspaltung (disintegration and fragmentation) and spaltung (splitting of thought into two groups) (Laplanche 408). Dissociation can also present as psychogenic amnesia, a symptom historically associated with hysteria (Shapiro 44). While dissociation may well function as an internalized surge-suppression mechanism articulated through the subject's limbic system, in its extreme forms of expression it becomes itself "pathological" and must, in turn, be suppressed. While antidepressants and anxiolytics (tranquilizers) suppress depression and anxiety, however, they don't affect dissociation. In cases of multiple personality disorder, lithium can be prescribed to suppress pathological dissociation expressed as "switching," though clinicians admit that rewiring multiple personality disorder with psychotropic medication presents the risk of suppressing more regulating personalities and activating "unwanted alters" (Dominiak 103).

In the recently articulated clinical syndrome connecting sexual abuse to post-traumatic stress disorder, legitimized within the clinical community and popularized by Judith Herman's Trauma and Recovery (1992), a direct relation has been recognized between experiences of victimization and the presence of dissociation. The clinical recognition of a post-traumatic stress syndrome among the abused disputes Freud's reading of hysteria as a fantasmatic production of incestuous desire on the part of the daughter, and is a beginning step toward interpreting "hysterical" symptoms as actual outcomes of the Nervous System. In cases of abuse trauma particularly when the victim is a dependent child, dissociation is seen as an appropriate way for the mind to escape what the social body cannot (Shapiro 44). What is repressed through dissociation, however, does not remain dormant but returns as a sequelae to abuse trauma: nightmares, memory flooding, somatization, depersonalization, and parasuicidal behavior. In other words, dissociation (suppression) presents in a wave structure with intrusions (surge) expressing as intrusive memories, flashbacks, night terrors, auditory hallucinations, and memory fragments that can generate their own psychic reactions in the fluctuations of surge and suppression. Clinical research in the area of abuse, psychopathology and psychopharmacology suggests that dissociative states are not usually responsive to neuroleptic intervention in the long run (Dominiak 100), while clinical practice suggests that for all dissociative phenomena, healing involves verbalization and the integrative processing of memories and affect associated with the traumatic stress and its prolonged repression.

While dissociation, understood as the formal expression of the subject's alienation from her own memories and from social representation, cannot be successfully "treated" with neurochemical intervention, the secondary symptoms produced by dissociation are regularly treated with psychotropic medications. Post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, like bipolar disorder, tends to express in a bimodal fluctuation of states of hyperarousal (agitation, anxiety, abreaction, anamnesis, memory flooding, flashbacks, hypomania, micropsychotic breaks, intrusive thoughts or voices, acting out, intense mood shifts, insomnia, self-mutilation, and suicidal behavior) and states of avoidance (splitting, emotional shutdown, fugue states, minimizing, denial, depression). The symptoms associated with each of these states can be treated psychotropically. Propanolol, for example, can be prescribed to suppress autonomic hyperarousal. Complications from propranolol include altered cognitive functioning, depression, delirium, and hypotension (Dominiak 104).

Hyperarousal of the autonomic nervous system, which includes the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems regulating the heart, intestines and glands, can also be suppressed at the neurochemical level with benzodiazepines, or "tranquilizers." Benzodiazepines can produce side-effects of chemically-induced amnesia as well as over-sedation, physiological dependence, and enhancement of behavorial dyscontrol if taken with alprazolam (Xanax) and lorazepam (Ativan) (Dominiak 105). The traumatized subject can self-regulate hyperarousal, producing an internal calming effect by stimulating stress-induced analgesia through cutting, starvation, head banging, etc. When this circuit of self-regulated psychic pain modulation becomes "pathological," the psychopharmacologist can prescribe naloxone--a receptor blockade with opiate antagonists that suppresses the processing of endogenous opioids, though this intrusive form of chemical intervention (the drug must be delivered intravenously) has shown little long-term effect on subjects whose sphere of psychic and social control has already been reduced to the interiority of their own physical body, as in anorexia-bulimia and other forms of para-suicidal or suicidal self-mutilation (105).

The abstract-machine of rational cognition and behavior institutionalized by psychopharmacology articulates not only neurochemically on a plane of subjectivization but also on a plane of signification by modulating and channeling sign flow in the body politic's economy of representation. Kate Millet's autobiographical account of her institutionalization and placement on lithium for manic-depression recounted in The Looney-Bin Trip (1990) provides an example of the workings of psychopharmacology's double articulation. The relation between subjectivization and signifiance, between the neurochemical and representational strata of the breakdown's double articulation is rhizomatic.

There are two "incidents" of Millet's "madness," the first resulting in institutionalization and lithium treatment and a second brush with institutionalization and madness six years later articulating around her refusal to continue psychotropic treatment because for her "lithium represented collusion" (95). Both incidents exemplify the institutional antiproduction of Millet's subjectivity as a remembering, thinking and desiring body. In the first breakdown, a social field of sign-events becomes localized around Millet's individuated body. On the plane of representation, madness is a signatory slide and as such must be cordoned off, contained at all cost at the level of some one, of some body. Much like Kaysen's function as the "designated crazy" within her family, Millet becomes the designated crazy within the community. Sign-flux within the body politic is reduced to Millet's personal breakdown and institutionalization. Frantic to assist in a civil rights intervention on behalf of Michael X, a writer and activist eventually executed illegally by hanging in Trinidad, Millet becomes fatigued and hyper. Family and friends feel she spends "too much of her own money" flying to England to represent Michael's case to the media on behalf of Michael's wife who is not allowed in the country. She becomes consumed with the project, giving it "too much of her time." She begins to act "irrationally." At the same time, though married, Millet has fallen in love with a woman, Sita, and does not see her commitment to both relations as contradictory.

Eventually signed into the psychiatric institution by her family, Millet herself becomes a sign-attractor reordering a destabilizing surge of asignification in the body politic's ideology of "sanity." On the plane of representation, Millet's breakdown (represented as an asystematic psychotic break within the individual, i.e., insanity) screens the community's collusion in the Nervous System's circulating violences, that is, in a manifestly violent social reality, signed by the terrorizing injustices channeled to the sacrificial body of Michael X. For Millet, Michael X's unjust execution, coupled with the failure of her personal relations and her own institutionalization, begins a signatory slide which signs the madness of the body politic that her own insanity will function to screen.

But be honest. You've had some moments. The looney-bin trip, the Thorazine, even just the terror. Everything becomes symbol and significance, echo and gesture, doubles and representatives. Did you tell yourself that last time it didn't happen or you didn't see it, disbelieved it, remembered it only blurringly in fleeting recollections as irrationality, embarrassing grandiose illusions? Like your cavalier comparisons with Joan on the way to the insanity trial--that must have been it, that was craziness, I'd say to myself. Or confusing the cleaning woman in the hospital lavatory with Sita; their age, their darkness and humility--that was crazy. And I would wince that here, surely, was confusion as to persons and places. The way the black man in solitary at Napa was Michael X, as all blacks in imprisonment were counters, doubles. (85)

From the point of view of the psychiatric institution, however, the body politic isn't insane; Millet is.

Diagnosed as manic-depressive, the "cure" is to place Millet's individuated body on lithium to stabilize her depression and to prevent future "manic" episodes. Once placed on lithium treatment, however, the treatment itself signs Millet as crazy--a sign function which becomes manifest when she announces she's getting off the medication. Suddenly, her actions become suspect and subject to public and private surveillance. She becomes too excitable over another "idealistic" project. Turning a farm into a feminist artists' community, she spends too much money. Struggling over accounts, she becomes insomniac. Discouraged by petty infighting and a creeping lack of vision and commitment among young interns within the community, she becomes irritable and short-tempered. Her judgments are scrutinized for signs of irrationality; she goes to a horse auction to buy a horse and comes home with five horses she can't really afford because she can't bear to see them sold to the package house buyers who, for a small profit, are willing to turn them into so many pounds of dogmeat. Isn't it perfectly clear that without lithium Millet risks full-blown insanity? After all, she's already been diagnosed. Friends and family descend upon Millet's New York apartment to "intervene" a second time--armed with a psychiatrist and two psychiatric hospital ambulances replete with strong-armed men with white coats and stretchers. Millet is saved by a black New York City street cop who backs her up--in New York state hospitalization without consent is illegal. In other states, or if she had been less informed of her rights, she might not have fared so well.

Millet's account exemplifies psychopharmacology's double articulation at work. On the plane of subjectivization, lithium is a neurochemical antiproducing Millet's personality by modulating at the organic ground zero of her brain chemistry what in her desire, articulated in her affect and behavior, causes surges in the communal flow of signs and bodies. On the plane of signifiance, lithium is an order-word, a sign-attractor and a retroactive signifier modulating sign-flux within a community of significations screening everyday social violences--including the violence, executed even by family and community in the name of rationality and care, of selectively policing minority bodies and desires.

The psychopharmacological production of a chemical prosthetic feminine subject recently entered a new mass culture phase with the newly developed and aggressively marketed seritonin-specific drugs--Desyrel (trazodone), Anafranil (clomipramine), and the trendy and popular Prozac (fluoxetine). Serotonergic systems of the brain interface with the autonomic Nervous System, and the seritonin-specific drugs suppress hyperarousal and relieve depression by blocking the absorption of excess serotonin in the brain, thus increasing serotonin levels. Billed as the "personality pill" in the June '93 issue of Mirabella, Prozac has been attributed wondrous capabilities by the mass media, from making timid introverts socially gregarious and adept to making businesswomen more productive and self-assured. With fewer side-effects than the tricyclic antidepressants (counterindications of Prozac include mild nausea, shakiness, insomnia and, often downplayed in the publicity literature though commonly reported by users, anorgasmia), Prozac is the 1990s psychotropic medication for women that has gone mainstream, much like Valium did in the '60s and '70s, grossing for Lilly roughly half of the two-billion-dollar antidepressant revenues for 1992.

While the pharmaceutical industry claims that "personality enhancement" with "cosmetic psychopharmacology" promises to be the great democratizer for people made "vulnerable" by trauma or by innate neural chemistry, psychopharmacology obviously provides a tool for reinforcing cultural norms, reproducing the Nervous System's body politic, and channeling abstract machinic criterion onto real social bodies. Peter Kramer, psychiatrist and author of Listening to Prozac (1993), has observed that "Women on Prozac often become more active, slightly less attuned to feelings, less concerned about their responsibilities to others. In short, less 'feminine'" (Stone 88). In terms of channeling the social flow of signs and bodies in the cultural process of becoming-woman in postmodernity, Prozac might well be the successful and ambitious (wo)man's medication of choice, the facilitator of a new hyperthymic (if non-orgasmic) definition of feminine normalcy and functionality. A chemical prosthesis for democracy proffering "healthy" social functioning even to those social subjects who have suffered economic or social deprivation or traumatic stress from the circulating violences of the Nervous System, Prozac promises to be the miracle drug for traumatized and vulnerable populations, a cure for those millions whom Kramer describes as "people who have suffered serious trauma [who] later find themselves vulnerable to what, for others, would be minor losses or threats of loss" [italics mine] (Stone 92). The postmodern pharmakon for social illnesses articulating at the level of individual bodies as depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, bulimia, etc., Prozac has already been prescribed for four million people in the United States and another four million worldwide (Stone 86).

The problem is that treating depression psychotropically means not only altering the subject's brain chemistry, but also altering her memory and affect. Ironically, Kramer understands this is what Prozac does, but seems oblivious to the political implications. In Listening to Prozac, he discussed the relationship of brain chemistry, social experience, and personal memory in relation to two of his famous Prozac success stories–the cases of Lucy and Tess. Here he understands memory to be a determinant of both personality and physiology, and he understands Prozac to alter what he calls the "memory of the body":

And part of what we consider personality--the part corresponding to traumatized monkeys' reluctance to explore--may be directly encoded by trauma. A parsimonious, though not entirely comfortable, way of describing these events is to expand our concept of memory. We readily accept the notion of cognitive and emotional, or at least emotion-laden, memory. But perhaps sensitivity is memory as well--"the memory of the body," as we might say "the widsom of the body." In this sense, social inhibition and rejection-sensitivity are both memory. That is, they do not stem from a (cognitive, emotion-laden, conflicted) memory of trauma; they represent or just are memories of trauma. According to this way of thinking, much of who Lucy is--her neural pathways, her social needs--constitutes a biological memory of her mother's murder, just as Tess's social style is a memory of her precociously responsible childhood. (124)

Nonetheless, Kramer and other proponents of biopsychiatry don't see the alteration of the body's memories as a suppression of the history and experiential reality of particular social groups, particularly the experience of women as a social group. Nor do they see the chemical treatment of those memories as being detrimental to the long-term healing process of that group. To what extent, for example, does Tess's "social style" (a virtual masochistic subjection of her own needs and desires to the needs and desires of those around her, accompanied by a high tolerance for inappropriate behavior and recurring depression) constitute the social style of most women who have experienced abuse in childhood (a childhood experience which Kramer in this passage screens as "a precociously responsible childhood")? Kramer glosses this aspect of Tess's case in one brief sentence in the opening of his case study: "She was abused in childhood in the concrete physical and sexual senses which everyone understands as abuse" (1). And what kinds of political action might emerge if Tess connected her lived "body memory" with those who have had similar experiences, rather than rewiring that bodily memory with Prozac? One should note that this recognition of a "memory of the body" is the basis for a variety of alternative, non-psychotropic therapeutic practices, including biofeedback, soma-therapy, and herbal and nutritional therapies. In other words, the memory-body connection does not in and of itself rationalize psychopharmaceutical intervention.

Dr. Michael Norden's Beyond Prozac, published in 1995 and written for popular audiences, challenged Kramer's uncritical endorsement of Prozac with a review of the literature on natural antidotes. Norden, a psychiatrist and professor, supports alternative and natural supplementary treatments for depression. He reads serotonin depletion as a common neurobiological effect of stress. Natural treatments, including light therapy, exercise, adequate sleep assisted by melatonin, negative air ion generators, and nutritional changes designed to adjust hormonal balances of insulin and glucagon to stabilize the brain's supply of glucose, have been effectively used to replace or supplement prescribed drug treatments for depression and anxiety. In other words, depression is a symptom of modern society brought on by environmental stress in the form of alarm clocks that break natural sleep cycles, cars that make walking obsolete, 60-hour work weeks that cause fatigue, natural light deprivation, breathing recycled indoor air or polluted city air, and improper diet--including not enough fat intake from the 'no-fat' diet trend. But significantly, he also acknowledges that childhood trauma can permanently damage a person's serotonin system in its developmental phase--which he theorizes to be the body's stress-coping system (17). Norden doesn't push the social-environmental connection far enough, however. For example, he discusses the Dan White case without once mentioning White's homophobia as a crucial determining factor in his murder of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone in 1978 (18). The point is that psychopharmacology should not be used to normalize the effects of a systematic flow of violences through the social body, but the fact of the matter is that it can be used that way, and often is used that way. There is little doubt that clinical judgment distinguishing between psychopathological dysfunction and adaptive functionality is subject to codes of race, class and social status. For example, the environmental supports of the patient, including familial, social and financial resources, are a standard criterion for psychopharmacological evaluation, along with the individual's psychiatric assessment (Dominiak 108). By this standard of evaluation, the underclasses would be by definition more prone to psychotropic treatments than non-pharmaceutical ones. It's no surprise that the psychiatric network finds it easier and more efficacious to diagnose mental illness and prescribe medication than to bolster social and familial resources for the poor.

Amid all this neurochemically induced euphoria over cosmetic psychopharmacology, however, the fluctuations of memory (as surge) and anti-memory (as suppression) continue to drive the breakdown of abstract yet concretely embodied postmodern feminine subjects while simultaneously structuring their "successful" recovery. In this context, we can't forget that psychopharmacology functions as a modulating mechanism within an abstract machine materially articulated by psychiatry and psychotherapy for regulating the sign-flux between personal memory and public representations of social history, between public expressions of affect and private memory lacking public validation, and between constructions of (group) desire and the individual's social behavior. Psychopharmacological treatments of the Nervous System's symptomatologies modulate and channel the social production of the traumatized subject at its point of public manifestation, deterritorializing its symptomatic (dys)functions as the raw material for techno-industrial capital development and market expansion. Within the general economy of psychopharmacology, the (dys)functional woman is simultaneously the product of social organization, the raw material for production, and the consumer market. Within such a political economy of signs, the (dis)ordered and (dys)functional feminine subject that Prozac and all psychotropic medications promise to hold at bay if not to "cure" is the postmodern subject in one of its most "normative" forms of social expression.

The political stakes are high for current psychiatric practices that channel and modulate the outcomes of deterritorializing desires and of alienated memory and affect which can express in the public sphere only as dissociation and abreaction (i.e., mental illness). It is doubtful that a "healthy" cultural politics in touch with the historical social reality of the group could ever emerge out of a discourse of recovery as long as "recovery" continues to institutionalize the individuated feminine subject as a screen for the psychopathology of a social body to which she is neither completely exterior nor interior. What (individual's) recovery would be meaningful if the body politic at large remains ill? What would it mean to "recover" from the effects of the Nervous System? From the point of view of cultural healing, what the traumatized subject needs is not a chemically induced repressed memory and prosthetic personality, but the reintegration, molecularization and group expression of her fractal memories and disconnected affects and desires, not only within the private sphere of her own individual psyche and in her direct relations to the institutional workings of the Nervous System, but within the public sphere of collective representations of embodied social reality. Accomplishing such a molecular politics would require of the traumatized feminine subject not only the ability to remember and articulate publicly violence's past and her role in that past but also the capacity to forget--not as an act of repression--but as a conscious act of deterritorializing the politics of desire and the social process of subjectivization at the micropolitical level of her own memories, emotions and desires. Whether or not in doing so she uses psychotropic chemical prostheses is not the issue. The question is whether the psychopharmacological machine is channeling her or whether she in some way is channeling it toward a historically informed collective notion of what would constitute a meaningful social response to being subject to and becoming woman within postmodern culture's agitated Nervous System.

While I fought with all my strength not to let myself sink in the
Enlightenment, I saw things mocking me from their places, taunting me
threateningly. And in my head foolish phrases floated around without
let-up. I closed my eyes to escape the surrounding turmoil of which I
was the center. But I could find no rest, for horrible images assailed
me, so vivid that I experienced actual physical sensation. I can not say
that I really saw images; they did not represent anything. Rather I felt
them. It seemed that my mouth was full of birds which I crunched between
my teeth, and their feathers, their blood and broken bones were choking
me. Or I saw people whom I had entombed in milk bottles, putrefying, and
I was consuming their rotting cadavers. Or I was devouring the head of a
cat which meanwhile gnawed at my vitals. It was ghastly, intolerable.<p>
In the midst of this horror and turbulence, I nonetheless carried on my
work as a secretary.
-- Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl

I can feel it again, the way I did so many years ago.

Bending a Coke can back and forth, back and forth until it tore and made a knife. Cutting myself. Doing it carefully, very carefully, so that just a line of red opened behind my blade's slow progress.

Or a little burn, perhaps, the edge of the iron as I was pressing a skirt for school.

It wasn't masochism so much as a sort of drug. The small, specific sensation, the red color, was calming to me. That strange way pain can make you taste metal in your mouth. Not from licking the blood, that's not what I mean: just a taste that comes into your consciousness along with a smell like ammonia, something you might be thinking rather than sensing. It didn't hurt, not really, it felt.

I didn't know why I did it, not then. But now I do. I longed for a wound that showed.

-- Kathryn Harrison, Exposure




Works Cited

Camilla Griggers is Mellon Chair in Women's Studies in the Division of Humanities at Carlow College.