When a body has to be a mind

Four or five years ago I was suddenly much heavier than I’d ever been before. I had put on lots of weight but oddly, I had some sort of desire to keep it. Even though part of me wanted to shed the recently acquired pounds, I felt rebelliously reluctant to slim down- and bewilderingly, not for reasons of avoiding restrictive diets or exercise regimes. I felt grief at the idea of being thinner.

I understand now that I was enacting on my soma something I wanted for my psyche: I wanted to be substantial, I wanted to be expansive and take up space and be considered someone with ‘gravitas.’ I wanted guts and soul and heart and bones inside of me. I craved solidity. I recognise now that I wanted to gain psychic weight. But I was so emotionally stunted at the time, only a year or so into therapy, I couldn’t name this desire as an emotional need, not a physical one. At the time, I was still numb and confused: I didn’t have the wiring for an emotional life, nor did I have the language to unpack what I might be feeling, so it had to be signified through my body.

One of the things that sometimes happens to people who enter therapy is they realise how impoverished their emotional lives are. Perhaps their range of emotion is shallow- they ping-pong between anger and numbness for example- and they don’t feel able to experience the full spectrum of human feeling. Certain parts of their soul are dead or embryonic or too terrifying to tread into. This was certainly true for me. Culturally, we are so bad at cultivating emotional lives in children: we shush, dummy, feed, bounce, distract and talk infants and toddlers out of their big feelings instead of being-alongside-them and witnessing their dark night of the soul. The result is lots of half- baked, semi-emotionally literate adults wandering through their lives feeling a little bit empty or fragile or inauthentic. We also don’t pay much attention to developing the skills to unpack unconscious and emotional life to ourselves, which means much of our implicit memory (our infant memory before we acquired language) remains coded in our bodies, unsymbolised. Translating these codes is gruelling work and it takes more than just one session to realise that, for example, that punched-in-the-gut feeling is called ‘shame.’ For some of us, interpreting these bodily responses can take years, depending on how emotionally half -baked one is. I was pretty half baked.

I like to think that every time I blazed a trail into my psychic wilderness or integrated some part of myself I was ashamed or afraid of, or claimed some part of my history or retrieved a dissociated feeling-state or memory, I was gaining a little bit of soul. Putting some meat on my soul-bones. Alongside being able to make meaning of my experience, I also thawed and started feeling my feelings. The more frustration and love and longing and grief I felt, the more satisfied I was, and I began to feast on my life. I gained psychic weight. As I claimed more and more of my own psyche, I began to relinquish my physical fat. The meaning of my weight shifts are more complex than this, but one major factor of both gaining weight and letting it go again is acquiring the ability to symbolise, the ability to make meaning of my history and emotional life, and the ability to feel even difficult feelings.

As I came to access more and more of my inner life through words, I was able to stop using my body as a cypher to carry meaning. I freed my body to be a body as I grew my mind.

In her beautiful essay on concrete thinking in eating-disordered patients, Sarah Flanders describes one patient’s weight gain as, ‘the concrete solution,’ which ‘obviated the need for mental work.’ She explores how the incapacity to bear loss and difficult feelings traps the eating disordered patient in the concrete. Doing the ‘mental work,’ as she calls it, is risky, lonely work. Dieting and binging and controlling and producing a body is work too, and all-consuming work, but it is not the vertiginous, vulnerable emotional journey that facing a terrible history that has been written in our nervous system is. Learning to inhabit a body fully means first and foremost claiming our soul, our emotional life, our history. It means doing the ‘mental work,’ which seems thrillingly paradoxical. It is impossible to be fully in my body unless I am more than a body. When a body can be a body, it can do what bodies do like breathe and enjoy sensation and movement and it can only be a body when it has a fully functioning mind to symbolise for it, to decode emotional experience. When the psyche is able to do the job that psyches should be doing which is meaning- making and feeling emotions and thinking-through. And only then, once there is fully developed mind, can there be some integration of psyche-soma: my body now is a body that is inextricably intertwined with my feelings, and it is a body I can live from and enjoy. Because my body is just my body now, not a mind, and because I don’t often collapse the difference between physical needs and emotional ones, I am liberated to experience myself as both flesh and spirit.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

Sarah Flanders fascinating essay, ‘The dream space, the analytic situation and the eating disorder: clinging to the concrete,’ can be found in Karnac’s ‘Dreaming and Thinking’

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