Friday, March 13, 2015

The Elephant in the Room Doesn't Move

Rest, peace, tranquillity – all appealing concepts. Inertia sounds less inviting, but what else is rest?

Then there is the elephant in the room: death.

Sooner or later, all of us will be unable to move. We will be inert. If the soul, spirit or life-essence can survive on its own (as I suspect it can), it will leave the limp flesh behind. The greatest athletes, those who have physical abilities I could probably never attain, even with training, will eventually find that nothing works. The body will have run its course and be ready for retirement.

We don’t like to believe this. We also don’t like to admit that death has ever tempted us. In Western culture, there is a widespread belief that suicide is always a symptom of mental illness, and that a truly sane person would want to live forever, even in a deteriorating body. In Christian terms (specifically according to Catholic rules), suicide is a great sin, parallel to murder. It is a violation of God’s will.

Then there is the difficulty of reaching a state of eternal rest. As Dorothy Parker put it:
"Razors pain you,/Rivers are damp,/Acids stain you,/And drugs cause cramp./Guns aren’t lawful,*/Nooses give./Gas smells awful./You might as well live.”

*apparently less legal in Canada than in the U.S.

There you have it: a neat explanation for why I am still here – and why many other people are still alive, even though they have been told in various ways that they are using up too much air to which they are not entitled.

When I reached puberty, and my body developed into the shape, more-or-less, that it still has, I was told by everyone around me that women’s bodies (va-va-voom!) are beautiful, fascinating, an endless inspiration to artists, rapists, and serial killers. I was supposed to feel blessed. I was also supposed to be filled with shame, according to all the followers of Saint Paul.

For the rest of my life, as far as I could see, everyone around me would be so distracted by the appearance of my body (which would always be breathtakingly glamorous or breathtakingly hideous – there was no middle ground) that I could hardly expect them to notice any part of me that wasn’t physical.

There were “women’s magazines” to help me define my “figure problems” and try to fix them. There were numerous products to help me look my best. I was supposed to feel grateful for all the help.

When guys noticed me in public places, and yelled out comments about my body and what they wanted to do to it, I was supposed to figure out what I had done to attract the wrong kind of attention, and resolve to stop doing that to myself.

There seemed to be only one way out of the giant fishnet of double-binds. If I were not living in my body, no one could mistake it for me. Anyone could do whatever they wanted to the empty shell, and I wouldn’t care. I would not be living there.

There are various ways to go partway there. One can “disassociate,” as psychologists put it, by choosing not to be fully present in one’s body in the moment. One can try hard to live somewhere else. One can develop an “eating disorder,” which tends to shrink the body, possibly to the point at which it can no longer survive.

One can boldly go where many have gone before: swallow something that seems likely to cause death. In my case, they were sleeping pills, available without a prescription, because I wanted to avoid excruciating pain, if possible (I had read about the results of swallowing caustic household products) and I didn’t know where to get something powerful and illegal, such as heroin. I’ve always wondered if the pills would have worked, if I hadn’t been found in time.

I only tried it once. Failing at suicide seemed even more pitiful than continuing to live in a body that would always be vulnerable to attack.

So I am still “ert,” if that is the alternative to being inert. I wake up every morning, wash, dress, make myself as presentable as possible, go here and go there.

I assume I am much closer to eternal rest from “natural causes,” however those are defined, than I was at age nineteen. Maybe that’s why suicide no longer feels tempting.

I’m willing to ease into long-term inertia little by little. I’m sure I’ll get there soon enough.


  1. Jean, you, more than most, have manage to transcend functioning strictly as a conforming physical entity. Your readers, students, friends, and more others than I can give names to have reason to be glad that you've survived, and to hope for many more years for you.

    It didn't seem like it at the time, but I may have been lucky in my early teens to feel so much an outsider, so irreparably lacking in social and physical appeal, that I just didn't give a damn. When a neighbor accused me of not even trying to be like everyone else, I looked around (figuratively) at what her "everyone else" was like, and thought, "Hell, no!"

    I was extra-lucky that by my late teens I'd found fellow iconoclasts (nerds, geeks, whatever intelligence implied then) and we we could say, "hell, no" together.

  2. Thank you, Sacchi!

    I'm glad you found a congenial group in your late teens. I found some fellow-iconoclasts too, sort of, in an innovative Fine Arts program in my high school, but not all iconoclasts belong to the same breed. In a pre-feminist era, I hoped that geeky, nerdy or rebellious boys would be my fellow-travellers, but Mary Wollstonecraft's famous statement proved mostly true. (In the 1790s, she said,"When it comes to the Woman Question, every man is a Tory.") And the Dope Crowd (I still wonder where they got their apparently limitless stash) was understandably suspicious of outsiders who might rat on them, and I continued to be an outsider as long as no one offered me anything intoxicating & I didn't know where else to get it, so there was another Catch-22. This was prob. just as well -- imagine the addictions and prison sentences I've missed. :)

  3. A most fitting conclusion to an amazing two weeks, Jean, though this is a distressing revelation for me. Having known you for a long time, through many years of blog-based self-disclosures, I didn't know you'd attempted suicide as a teen. And it's terrible that you were driven to this by the double-bind you felt about your body.

    I'm not sure that we are inert even in death. After all, if we're buried, our bodies decompose and the nutrients return to the natural cycle. If we're cremated, that transformation is faster, but still occurs.

    Your post did remind me of the Warren Zevon song, "Life'll Kill Ya":

    Some get the awful, awful diseases.
    Some get the knife, some get the gun.
    And some get to die in their sleep
    At the age of one hundred and one.
    But life'll kill ya,
    That's what I said,
    Life'll kill ya,
    And then you'll be dead.

    Clearly, you hadn't reached your time. And I agree with Sacchi - the fruits of your life make me glad you failed.

  4. Have had successful suicide enter the family on two occasions. My brother and Momma's brother. One was a grave mistake due to mental illness, the other, everyone wondered why not sooner. My mother also tried. Have also had acquaintances succeed. Like Lisabet said- The perfect ending to this topic. So sorry it ever entered your mind, Jean.

  5. Hi Jean!

    I'm always amazed at the levels of disclosure and even trauma that exist here. Some have experienced rape. Some attempted suicede. Its an interesting band here.


  6. Jean, such a sharp and wonderful post. I'm glad to have read it, and I wish I'd read it closer to posting time so my comment would be more likely to reach you. I laughed at the Dorothy Parker quote, and also at your line about artists, rapists, and serial killers, and also at how neatly you summed up the amazing "fishnet of double-binds."

    I'm glad to know you, and glad that suicide did not work out for you. At the same time, I absolutely understand. I like the way you suggest that suicide may not in fact always be a symptom of mental illness. For me, it's really helped to shift some of the blame off me. Damn right I don't always manage to walk that tightrope you laid out. There was a time when I felt so responsible for that, and now I see how the cards have always been stacked against me. A certain kind of anger really does help me.

    I've done the math you explained, eliminating options as too unpleasant. I've never made a serious try, though I've engaged in dangerous activities with a sort of hope in the back of my mind. On the whole, though, I really like being ert, and I'm ultimately not really willing to get out of people's way and become convenient… So here's to that, and here's to you!


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