One of my most vivid childhood fears was the act of disembowelling. Images and stories of martyrs were a part of my literary diet growing up: I could almost feel the sharp hook the torturer would use to draw and quarter the flesh of some saint, and I feared the uncoiling of entrails, the slow gutting, the emptying, the ensuing pain and nausea. And perhaps it wasn’t an idle fear. Maybe, to borrow Winnicotts phrase, the gutting I feared had already happened. Maybe my psyche had latched onto this metaphor as a way of symbolising an implicit memory of chronic emotional gutting . Perhaps I really was gutless. Empty. Perhaps I had nothing inside me, no internal life. I certainly felt empty.
Half remembered episodes from my childhood speak of why I might have escaped into my head and avoided feeling too much: my knotted hair that would be combed out bi annually by a visiting aunt or grandmother. The roaches in the peanut butter and stacks of dirty dishes lining kitchen counters. The smell of smoke and rancid bodies. The years supply of tinned food in case of apocalypse. Not reading a parental mood correctly and being shouted at or tuned out. Regularly waiting somewhere for hours because I’d slipped out of their mind again. Being told often that I was the reason my mother couldn’t pursue an art career. Having to clean her c-section scar because my awkward birth was the cause of her infected skin. Learning my fathers favourite Kipling poems by heart to please him, to connect with him. Caring for my mother as she descended into her chronic illness. The years of silence in rural jungles and mountains and deserts, trapped in a xenophobic paranoid bubble of Jesus and homeschooling and nuclear family.
That was one long childhood. It was lonely and bewildering. I was not welcome in the world I found myself in. Worst of all, it was pretty meaningless. I couldn’t make any sense out of my own experience, it was too excessive to metabolise. I had no guts, no soul, no way to symbolise my own story to myself.
When I first began to desire, I was alarmed. There was a starving child in me, and I mistook that historic hunger for what actually is. I imagined myself a Medusa, a clutching, tentacled monster. I was too big, too greedy, too demanding, too intense, too hungry. I wanted too much. My emerging appetites: for food, for sex, for emotional connection, for time to myself were strange and unsettling. Running parallel to the truth of my desire is the notion, maybe a zeitgeist of late stage capitalism, that if I want something I should try and satisfy my desire. Perhaps it sometimes is couched in moral language: I owe it to myself to pursue what I want. If satisfaction is not just one possible response to appetite but an imperative, being a many tentacled desiring medusa can indeed feel pretty monstrous and out of control.
One of the great insights of psychoanalysis is that feelings of thirst, desire, frustration, wanting, needing, loneliness, loss, sadness, appetite, hunger, rage, disappointment – are not feelings to be avoided or soothed. They are feelings to be cultivated. They don’t always need satisfying.
I call this insight ‘eating octopus.’ Instead of conceptualising the many- tentacled monster of desire as a ravenous beast who needs slaying, I imagine eating the feeling itself, making room for her many tentacled majesty to expand inside of me. ‘My job,’ says poet Sharon Olds about her husband leaving her, ‘is to eat the whole car of my anger.’ My job is to eat the whole octopus of mine. I let my loneliness fill me. I lower anger into me to thrash around in my guts. Lust pulses through my veins and I love how it courses through my whole system, pumping through my heart and down to the tips of my toes. These feelings of lack are satisfying in themselves.I think of Franz Wright’s line, ‘thirst is my water,’ which articulates this paradoxical truth. I am a passion junkie. I crave intensity and these feelings I have just described are some of the most intense. I don’t need these emotions soothed away by lovers, snacks, soulmates, duty, martyrdom. I need them in my guts, in my bones, in my brains. These feelings are for me, they are what tell me who I am, they are what I gorge on, they are what make me full of myself. When I suddenly, as I did a few weeks ago, find myself lost in a Saharan desert of loneliness, it reminds me that not now, but decades ago, I had to live in that desert. It is a chemical memory, a feeling that goes so deep it is inscribed in the structure of my brain. It reminds me of my dark history, it reminds me of what I have escaped from and how raw and vulnerable I was. My story, told through spikes of adrenaline and heart twisting plummets into my parasympathetic nervous system is one thing that is really mine to have all to myself, the thing that is all mine to digest through symbolising it. My feelings are replete with meaning, and the more I can bear the full spectrum and intensity of them myself, the more guts and soul I have to feast on, the more internal world I have to enjoy and sustain me, the more material I have for reverie. I make a meal of myself now: I want to devour me.
I now view blame and projection not just through the prism of relational violences done to another, but as acts that alienate me from myself. It is only recently that I have come to understand that I could ‘feast on my life,’ as Derek Walcott describes in the poem Love after love. Before, I might have tried to twist the release valve on these intense feeling states by fantasising that if only I could find people who were emotionally available, I would never have to feel lonely again. Instead of feeling the feeling and recognising this pain as part of what makes me who I am, I looked to lovers and friends to erase my history and all the traces of my suffering. Every time I blame or idealise or project a wave of emotion, I miss a chance to connect with my authentic self. Feeling the feeling, all of them in all of their intensity, is the gesture of putting away the torturer’s hook and carefully folding my entrails back in and then sewing up my own stomach. I want it all back in, I want all of me for me, I want to feel full of myself.
Copyright 2017 Diana Smith
Sharon Olds, ‘Pain I did not’ from Stags Leap
Franz Wright, ‘Untitled’ from Walking to Martha’s Vinyard
Derek Walcott, ‘Love after love’