Thursday, March 29, 2007

Self Injury

The book I am currently reading, Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn is remarkably well written. However, it brings up some difficult emotions for me.

The protagonist of the story, Camille Preaker, is a journalist living in Chicago who returns to her small hometown of Wind Gap to investigate and report on some gruesome child murders. The profile of that small town reminds me a bit too much of my own growing up place, a community I fled at age sixteen without ever looking back. Being a misfit, an outcast, a weirdo in a town like that was worse than a death sentence.

There are plenty of secrets in tiny Wind Gap. One by one some of the dirty laundry of the local residents gets aired as the police and and the journalist both peel away surface smiles over the course of the investigation. However, meanwhile Camille has a gruesome little secret of her own. For many years she was a cutter, one who repeatedly sliced and gouged words into her skin with razors and knives. Her entire body, except for her face, her hands, and the parts of her back where she just couldn't reach, are an erratic road map of scars. The scars that don't show, the ones in her head, come out throughout the novel is chilling eloquence.

My best friend of many years when I lived in Michigan used to do self-injury. Alison cut. She burned. She pulled out all her eyelashes. She was not a well girl. There were parts of Alison's spirit that were a joy to be around. But she had such a dark side, such a tormented, tortured part to her soul that it was hard work loving her well. She was in and out of psych wards every few months for a week or more at a time - wrestling with demons that led her to suicide attempts and days of hurting herself. During the times she was well she was truly a delight to be with. But when she got sick it was frightfully scary. I grieved so for her pain, but scarcely knew how to respond.

Whenever she went into the hospital I'd go to her apartment to clean out the food from the refrigerator, bring in the mail, water the plants. I was the designated person to call in case of emergency, so more than once I got calls in the middle of the night from emergency room doctors who had an unconscious body on their table and needed to know who my friend was and if she had any allergies. She had A LOT - from about a dozen different kinds of meds right down to latex. I'd whip out the list from my nightstand and read it off to the doctor on the phone...a routine that got too familiar and too creepy for words.

Alison went through a particularly rough patch the last year of our friendship. She sank down and down and down without seeming to bounce back up. She was hurting herself in more serious ways. She nearly died from an overdose. I was furious at her for hurting the friend I loved, and felt betrayed that she would do this again. All the counseling and the hospitals didn't seem to be helping. I was losing her to the demons. Bit by bit she was leaking away from me until the person who was left was nearly unrecognizable to me.

I loved my friend ferociously and tried every way I knew how to be of support. But something inside me snapped after that last serious suicide attempt. I just couldn't keep watching her try to destroy herself. So I pulled back. We had one last visit in the hospital where things were said that hurt us both. After that I didn't see her for three months. When I tried to contact her again, to see if she was getting better, she would have nothing to do with me. She felt I had totally abandoned her when she was down, so she'd lost all trust. She refused to speak to me or see me ever again. I kept hoping that over time she'd soften and we could reconcile. Sadly, that was not the case.

Alison legally changed her name (which is the only reason I will use the name I knew her by) and did everything she could to transform into a completely different person. I've always felt my friend died of suicide that night, even though her body survived. The person that came back to the world was not the girl that I loved.

In the book "Sharp Objects" Flynn writes:

"They always call depression the blues, but I would have been happy to wake into a periwinkle outlook. Depression to me is urine yellow.....washed out, exhausted miles of weak piss."

Those words remind me so much of my old pal who would sink to a level of despair so deep she didn't want to live anymore. I think of her more than she will ever know....remembering her crooked smile, her love of purple, her tie-dyed mania. I often wonder if she ever did get better, or if she is still battling her demons, or if she finally cut too deep or swallowed too many pills without someone nearby to save her. I have no way of knowing if she is alive or dead.

People who knew Alison has such serious problems would wonder why I would choose to stay friends with her for as long as I did. For me the answer is quite simple. We are ALL broken in some fashion or another. Her breaks, unquestionably, were more extreme than most. But between the cracks, she was a remarkable person, so worthy of deep loving. She was funny and smart, insightful and kind.

I miss my friend. I probably always will.

1 comment:

Marie said...

My brother teaches teenagers at the state mental hospital and while the kids there have been through a lot of the same horrors, he says it's a lot more common for the girls to self-injure than the boys. They would often skip class to cut themselves because it was such a psychological release. They couldn't have anything sharp in the class -- not staples, scissors, or metal rulers.

I visited his class when he was teaching the girls. You'd look down the rows and many of them looked so normal and then you'd glance at their forearms and almost without exception they would have long, ugly gashes -- as if their pain ravaged souls, twisted by rape and violence and abandonment and drugs, had been transformed into physical wounds. It was really traumatic to see. The discussion that day was about growing up in foster care, as many of them had. They were asked what it was like to wonder all through childhood if you would ever be adopted and have a real family. One girl who was maybe 12 raised her hand and said, "You feel like a puppy with a broken leg in the pet shelter. Nobody wants to adopt the broken one, but it's the broken ones that need a home the most."

Oh my word. Ripped my heart out. Just writing about it made me cry again.

And yet I know that it's hard (and sometimes dangerous) to love people who are self-destructive, though my experience isn't as extreme as yours. It's such a difficult thing to know when it's right to keep offering help and when it's time to separate yourself from the poisonous cycle.

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