I have entered middle age.
I am overweight, and I live with a little dog and two cats. I have been alone for more than seven years.
I keep a journal, as Jenny Craig suggests, about what I eat and how I feel about the things I eat: it is emotionally exhausting.
The entries include the following sad arcana:
—The delicious white border of a bad steak, what the sea leaves when it drags its waves back.
—Fat, as yellow as custard, but sweeter than that. I touch and caramelize my glowing flesh.
—The livid red marks that jag like lightning below my stomach are a fire I cannot extinguish.
I have let myself go….
I was almost beautiful once, and am the trash of that now.
—Lynn Crosbie, Life is About Losing Everything
Lynn Crosbie’s Life is About Losing Everything is surreal, mesmerizing, claustrophobic. The crowds of painful experiences; the hoards of brutal relationships; the nostalgia. So much of what she writes in this book is rooted in the body, a body established in these early passages, revealing the “livid red marks that jag like lightening bolts below my stomach” the “glowing flesh,” the “trash.”
Going through my shelf of memoirs and memoir-like texts, I re-encounter Life is About Losing Everything and begin to panic. The passage from Crosbie that acts here as my epigraph contains the opportunity for me to write about something only hinted at in Broom Broom—something so integral to my experience of grieving my mother that it’s essential to the story—yet it’s dangerous too, and, more significantly, it’s crazy.
But writers like Lynn Crosbie, Lidia Yuknavitch, Jowita Bydlowska, and William Styron convince me that writing about madness, shades of madness, and states of mind that might look like madness, must, for some of us, serve as threads through the fabric of memoir. If these are our experiences, should we not overcome our shame? If memoir’s significance is embedded in the communal, in empathy, then courage and risk necessarily push the genre past safe zones of conversation into the dangerous but potentially redemptive territory of revelation and avowal.
When I was 30, I moved in with my dad for the summer. The year before, I’d had an affair with a married man, I’d been hit by a car and broken my collarbone, and my mom had gone into full-time nursing care. These experiences cumulatively thickened a depression that had been looming for years and somehow I found myself—at their tail end—manic, heartbroken, feeble, and ensconced in a fog of self-hatred. Words my mother could no longer speak—I hate you. You’re worthless. You’re a bad person—were now firmly recorded on my mental soundtrack. She was mute, but I carried on, the vile spell spinning me toward suicide.
I didn’t think I was suicidal. When attempting to be objective, I would admit to “going through a hard time,” but I thought I could handle it, endure it, turn it around. Meanwhile, I was unemployed, homeless (hence living with my father), and in a new relationship, this time with a man who was mentally and physically abusive. He was the perfect surrogate for my mother and I relished the acid churning in my stomach, the bruises on my body, the endless arguing, and his unpredictable lashing out. The man helped to give form to the war within and he provided the winning side, the self-destructive side, armaments and shelter.
It was during this time that I began cutting again, even though 30 is too old to cut. Cutting’s for adolescents, attention seekers, drama queens. When it’s contextualized within the teen years, self-mutilation is fairly common, especially among girls, and although it’s sometimes read as a symptom of borderline personality disorder, for the most part those of us who suffer from a desire to cut in high school remain undiagnosed. We find that, as we become adults, the urge passes and the behaviour is relegated to a tumultuous time that’s put in the past. We learn healthier, more productive coping skills. The fear of psychosis or severe mental illness fades and we learn to accept ourselves as “normal.”
When self-mutilation resurfaced as a mechanism for externalizing my inner turmoil, I knew I had become a monster. An adult who cuts is a freak—finding no excuse in immaturity, lack of experience, or failure to know better, I was forced to think of myself as sick, crazy, fucking insane. And so I hid it, because I wasn’t prepared to admit it or deal with it publicly. And as the summer wore on, I drew more and more dangerously close to self-annihilation.
It began with what I call “little operations” or “aesthetic modifications.” Removing a skin tag or a mole with nail clippers or cuticle scissors. Soon it escalated to gouging my skin with a pen when my brain was spinning so fast I needed to feel anchored to the physical. This would often happen when my boyfriend was twisting his verbal shiv—I would manifest a physical injury. The behaviour continued to spiral until one night, when my dad and I were entrenched in a raging argument—that had him galvanized as calm, cruelly exacting, and robotic—and had me fomented into a rabid, animalistic tumult—I grabbed a kitchen knife.
Foot hiked up on marble countertop, I violin-bow a boning blade against my right calf to find the deep carpet of white.
That’s what I wrote in Broom Broom and it’s not a metaphor. The deep carpet was fat. I had sliced my leg open, down to the white, and its shiny lumps blooming red shocked me into stasis and silence. All this, my dad witnessed. He saw the flesh rent open, the blubber hanging loose on my lower leg. I was a shark that had eaten into my own meat.
He called 9-1-1 and I sat in the middle of the kitchen floor, pressing a tea towel to my calf. Surprisingly little blood. A year before, I’d been taken to the hospital in an ambulance when I’d been hit by the car—that time the paramedics had been sympathetic, concerned. Now I was stretched in the back flanked by a man and a woman trained to deliver triage in an emergency. They clearly considered me a waste of time.
At the hospital, a disgusted surgeon sewed me up. He did a messy job and I bear a wide papery scar where cinched flesh cratered and failed to heal smoothly. The most humiliating part is that I nearly shit myself on the table as he was suturing me, my bowels a soup I wasn’t sure I could detain. I had to ask him to hurry those last few stitches, to finish so I could hobble to the toilet.
When I finally walked back out to the reception area, repaired and contained, both my dad and my best friend, whom he’d called, were waiting for me. I couldn’t account for my behaviour to these loved ones, these dear ones. I felt like a vile, abusive parasite. I saw their love and their horror and their concern. We shared a few stuttering words of greeting, not knowing where words should go, how one can speak in the wake of such violence.
I was sent home without seeing a psychiatrist or a psychologist. I can’t account for that oversight and it frightens me on behalf of others who may be at risk due to similar negligence. But I was lucky; I survived without the help of therapeutic intervention, without admittance to an institution. My mental healing was by no means swift, but the fear and the shock, facing how extreme I’d become, sparked a dedication to self-care. I broke up with my abuser and left the province to move in with a friend, someone who’d gone through her own personal anguish and who became my confidante and my supporter. I consciously worked to overcome the thought patterns that had seduced me toward cavernous injury.
Self-mutilation is a perplexing thing, even to me, someone intimately familiar with the compulsion to ruin my own skin, to epidermilize the evidence of self-hatred. The drive to self-harm is the closest thing to a trance I’ve ever experienced, a possession. Because the stupor is so consuming, it becomes nearly impossible to rationalize it or to tame it. I only realized the power of the grip I was in because my fixation mushroomed to a level beyond easy containment and I was suddenly accountable for my brutality to a public audience—an audience I read as condemnatory. It seems delusional—and I guess it was—that it wasn’t until the episode in the hospital that I suddenly realized the trajectory of my behaviour. I had a vision that, if it were possible, I would have thrown my body into a blender.
Lynn Crosbie isn’t talking about self-mutilation when she says she is the “trash” of her former, more beautiful self. But I recognize something in her phrasing, the way she describes her body in particular, grotesque detail. I came to see myself as a piece of garbage, something to be crumpled up, torn up, and thrown away. Skin is a written document. Livid red and scars mark where we’ve been and what’s been in us. Although I used instruments to write on the surface of my calf (and my thighs and my arms and my stomach), it often feels more like the language of grief erupted onto my skin from within.
Progressing beyond grief, I must incorporate this living record into my version of "moving on," moving forward. It's pretty difficult to reclaim a word like trash, a noun that can't rise above its companion verbs, actions of disposal. We pitch trash; junk it; jettison it; we put it out to be picked up and taken out of sight. But indulge me while I invoke a cliché: some find treasure in what others discard. Free, roadside household items have helped me decorate many an apartment, and I admire the aesthetic comfort of friends' homes only to learn that this table and that bench were reclaimed items rescued from a neigbour's garbage. The body isn't merely a document of disease; the blemishes we bear demonstrate the healing necessary to get out of trauma alive. Like the old trunk in my living room that serves as a coffee table—the dinged up, stained, and weathered antique that I cherish and safeguard move after move—my hull is the worn and enduring artifact I learn not only to tolerate but also to preserve and hold dear.
My body was once almost pristine; as evidence of both sickness and repair, I am the trash of that now.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Brecken Hancock's poetry, essays, interviews and reviews have appeared in Event, CV2, Grain, The Fiddlehead and Studies in Canadian Literature. She is Reviews Editor for Arc Poetry Magazine and Interviews Editor for Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. Her first book of poems, Broom Broom, was published by Coach House Books in 2014. She lives in Ottawa. Visit www.breckenhancock.com for more information.