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EXTRACT: Corpsing by Sophie White

By March 27, 2021No Comments

*TW: Self-harm*

Our extract this week is from the new book Corpsing: My Body and Other Horror Shows by Sophie White, a collection of essays about death, mental health and addiction…



I went to a festival two weeks after my dad died, and blurted into the middle of a pleasant, ordinary conversation, ‘My dad died the week before last.’ It was simply a fact that couldn’t be helped. The week will come in all our lives when it’s a week and a half after a cataclysmic loss – the two things so wildly at odds, one an unbelievable aberration, the other a mundane metric of time. However, my flat affect was, I see now, odd. Not making a big deal of it. I can see now that acting outwardly throwaway about the death of a loved one was fucking weird. I thought downplaying it was coping.

At what point does coping become corrosive? Up till then, you’d never have caught me displaying any signs of anguish. It is a very dubious badge of honour. Where did this need to appear to be unfeeling come from? This may seem outlandish but I genuinely blame the nineties. It was a very disturbing time to grow up. Not as disturbing as now, of course – this pastel dystopia where people glue extra bits of hair and plastic to their bodies is wildly weirder. But still, the nineties were a time.

In my teens, we wore our glib apathy as an accessory, like our studded dog collars and parachute pants. It was trying for me because I was actually an innate emoter and a massive cry-baby, especially in my early teens, but I gradually got the memo: feelings are weak. Remember the teen landscape is littered with unholy bitches just waiting to tear you down. I got older and it became anathema to be visibly vulnerable. In my late teens, a close friend tried to take their own life, and it seemed preferable to pretend to be bored by this horrific episode rather than troubled. Anything rather than express a feeling.

Feelings were a terrible encumbrance back then; it was deeply uncool to have any at all. You wouldn’t have been caught dead daring bravely in that decade of studied indifference. I think A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was the beginning and end of my emotional education as a teenager. I envied Eggers’ sly cool when it came to his personal tragedy – both his parents died within a month of each other and he had to raise his eight-year-old brother. I vividly remember his audition for MTV’s Real World in the book, when he describes with self-referential irony how, should he be selected, he can make his trauma ‘play’ any way.

‘I can do it funny, or maudlin, or just straight, uninflected – anything. You tell me. I can do it sad, or inspirational, or angry,’ he tells the TV executive.

This is where I got the idea that it’s not cool to be sad or affected deeply by the things that happen to you. Be callous or calculating, just don’t be wholehearted, it’s too risky.

And I think this contributed, at least in part, to our generational instinct to suppress unpleasant feelings at all costs, rather than allow them to be exorcised in tears or rage. Hence our jealousy a decade later when the next cohort – who we’ve mockingly dubbed the Snowflakes – wisely opted not to perpetuate this impotent and damaging affected stoicism.

Maybe this lack of outlet is why my monstrous hands have always soothed me. I say ‘monstrous’ because, while they’ve soothed me, they have also been the undoing of me. They were the purveyors of narcotic solutions to difficult feelings: drugs and wine – putting various things in my mouth. These are the things that worked with varying success for years, until they didn’t.

A far better success story than drugs, on the other hand, is simply stoppering the mouth altogether. Just as I don’t remember a time before words, I don’t remember a time before my thumb. Mostly, science agrees that thumb-sucking starts in utero and about 10 per cent of people persist with it into adulthood. I think of it more as the thumb persisting. It’s an involuntary action on my part. I’ve usually only realised I’m doing it because of the reaction of those around me. Their features reshuffle to surprised amusement or intense fascination and I realise it’s happening. I’m being a thirty-something ‘serious lady’ sucking her thumb at a meeting or the cinema or a restaurant. This has rarely tipped into problematic territory, thankfully. Except for the people who think the thumb-sucking is my coy hint at some invisible-to-the-naked-eye erotic undertones. Seeing as I have this unique opportunity to clarify: it’s not. I always thought of it as a nice bit of relaxing. It’s hard to compare the sensation to anything more universal. It’s not like eating when you’re really hungry, nor like a narcotic rush. It’s not a feeling of adding to the equation but rather a setting of something to rights. It’s close to the feeling I used to get from the first much- anticipated glass of wine when I was an active alcoholic.

Sidenote: That’s the lingo, pals. To differentiate my dormant (never extinct, never truly vanquished) alcoholism from my hale-and-hearty, climb-a-mountain, jump-in- a-lake active alcoholism.

Think of the feeling of comfort returning. The gasping relief of stopping after running full tilt. Slipping my thumb into where it belongs, gently clamped between tongue and palette, is my resetting to neutral. If I’m really settling in, the fingers of my right hand will find some hair and begin a little repetitive ritual of twisting, crunching and pressing. If I’m really getting into it, the fingers of the left hand get involved. I keep the nail of my fourth finger slightly long so that I can run a looped piece of hair under it, over and over.

Writing this feels funny: it feels as intimate as telling you about my masturbatory preferences. The mouth is an intrinsically intimate space; it’s a passage that is neither internal nor external. The pink soft tissue is outrageously sensual when you think of it. It’s an absence and an undu- lating organ at the same time, just like the vagina. Maybe it’s me who’s being facetious announcing there’s no eroti- cism to be found in the soothing sucking.

And of course masturbation is one of the great soothers in this life too, even among children. I often imagine that the original soother was invented by some hysterical devout parent to keep the kids from getting too hands-on with themselves. Though digging around the internet, I learn that the OG soothers were often rags dipped in brandy, or stuffed with poppy seeds, which seems to bring us full circle to the more socially accepted narcotic self-soothing of contemporary times.

So there I am hunched, sucking, sucking, sucking and tugging and twisting my hair.

After more than a decade of dispatching feelings both good and bad with every predictable substance available, I feel I’ve actually come to a point where I would have something to offer students of a coping class.

I’ve come to realise that it’s not my duty to not disturb other people with my pain – it is my duty to metabolise these feelings, face them, handle them even though grief is painful to touch. It is actually more selfish to smother it and tamp it down. What’s braver and ultimately safer is to own up to it. To look right at it and name it: I am desperately sad. I’m so sad that I have turned on myself because it simply feels so unacceptable to turn these feelings outward. I was wrongly commending myself for never breaking down, for never crying, for holding myself in check. Pain will not be stamped down and neutralised, for having an inburst instead of an outburst. If you don’t address it and connect with it and accept it, it will become toxic and infect the people you love. Now I highly recommend having an outburst. Fucking scream if it hurts. Not screaming could prove fatal.

My other method of self-soothing is less adorable than my babyish thumb-sucking. I think we sometimes see self- harming as a self-indulgent sort of exhibitionism. It calls to mind teenage eye-rolling and emo angst. I felt that too, and still do to some extent. It is mortally embarrassing to admit to it here but having crawled inside the strangely comforting realm of inflicting this pain on myself, I can report it is a compulsion and as my psychiatrist said ‘more a symptom of a problem rather than necessarily a problem in and of itself’.

I can’t exactly remember when it started, but I do remember that when I had my babies was when I finally had to consciously acknowledge it, because now I was hurting a shared thing. My body was their home and so hurting it required new stealth on my part. Their existence forced me to confront this thing I needed to do from time to time. Before, I could rake my nails across my scalp, pinch and scratch my flesh, bite my hands and hit my head on the wall when the shriek inside overwhelmed. It was a desperate but satisfying release.

I was capable of unleashing this passive abuse and move on with barely a moment’s pause. I never wondered at it because I was fundamentally embarrassed by it. The most acknowledgment of it I would allow would be a sneering thought: You’re so pathetic, or This is the most privileged, first-world bullshit of all time, get a real problem, and then I’d move on with my day.

After the babies were born and began to roam my soft, useless morass of a body, it brought a new shame around my self-harming. Because certainly in the first years of their lives – while they may have left the cavity of my womb, they didn’t go far – it began to feel like I was inflicting a communal punishment. Their juicy new bodies were a relative of my own; they matched me; their skin had the same texture and hue of my skin. And hurting myself began to feel like hurting them.

As babies, we are incredibly possessive of and fascinated by our mothers’ bodies. We perch on their hips and burrow into their comforting warmth. It’s impossible to imagine such proximity in maturity. We’ll never know another closeness like it. Cuddling is more fleeting, sex often strangely solitary despite the connection, but being held as a baby is a complete merging. For months or even years, our experience is buffered by the body of our mother. She is the ship on which we sail. A sanctuary. A home.

When my body became home to my babies, my mistreatment of it began to shame me more and more. Instead of revelling in our strange and fundamental connection that seemed to defy description, I was scared of it. I was frightened of what they saw in me when I loomed over their field of vision. You cannot live in such certainty of your own wrongness and not be constantly terrified that others will detect it too.

In the most literal sense, I was spoiling their home, polluting the food supply. Consuming myself with an appetite that couldn’t be sated with either booze or food. It was as though I’d entered a phase of hunger that was beyond placating with mere things, where instead physical pain was providing me with gratification.

And, more worrying than anything, presumably I was teaching them to torture themselves too one day. As Father Richard Rohr wrote, ‘If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it – usually to those closest to us’.

Having tried every easy way in which to dispatch pain – yes, self-harm, be it through food, drink, drugs and mauling your own flesh, is comparatively easy compared with acceptance – I have finally come to something of a solution. Sit with it. Submerge yourself into the frightening unknown of it. You won’t get lost, which I think is our prevailing fear.

After I had my first baby, I was manic. I swung between elation and anxiety, terrified to trust myself with my tiny precious son. I begged to stay in hospital, trying to avoid the formless dread I was convinced lay beyond those walls.

‘Surely everyone begs to stay?’ I argued after the midwife had shook her head kindly. She was mystified at my refusal to leave. ‘But you can bring your baby home today,’ she said.

She didn’t get that to me in this new world, there was nothing more sinister than ‘home’. I wanted my son and I to be confined and monitored forever now. I wanted to inoculate us against every potential danger that lay ahead. I wanted to be placed under observation forever, or at least until my son was raised and had survived my mothering unscathed. I was wild with these new fears. Life now seemed to contain despair beyond anything I’d previously conceived of. I oscillated between clinging to the new boy and ignoring him in his plastic crib. I was scared of him and I’d also fallen for him. Hard. Like psycho hard. Save him from me, I wanted to shout at the midwife. She calmly suggested I go and have a cry in the shower.

‘Go in there and let it all out.’ She was scarily intuitive. ‘I can’t,’ I said.

‘Why not?’
‘Because I’ll start and it’ll never stop.’

I got in the shower and roared. The situation felt desperate. Blood leaked onto the tiles. It was a horror show. In the corner of the shower, there was a stool presumably haunted with the anguish of all the other women who had stood here broken by the new love that was so unexpectedly harsh – so tinged with pain and awe and foreboding. Jesus Christ how did Kate Middleton get a blow-dry and put on a dress after this thing?

I cried, and after a while it actually did subside. I got dressed, feeling like I hadn’t touched the bottom of that despair, but it had been appeased for another few days or weeks.

In my son’s first year, the events of my life yanked at me mercilessly. I was caring for both my new baby and my father, who was dropping out of sight at a rate of knots. One day, confused, he grabbed my hand and bit it, and I felt sorry for myself. This self that had become progressively cowed and battered by its situation; it struck me how wrong things were going for this body. A baby had been sliced out of it; I laid into it for being soft and useless. I drove it forward with a manic dedication to appearing ‘fine’, like nothing at all was going on. I catalogued its food and soothed it with booze instead of compassion. Then I clawed it and hit it and now it was bitten by a man who I could barely believe was my father, so ravaged was he by his illness.

I remember leaving him that night and feeling close to screaming, but even as an overwhelming despair seemed poised to break over me, I felt I had no right to this grief. This wasn’t happening to me, the inner monologue hissed. My beautiful father was losing his mind; my mother was losing her husband – I was just being self-absorbed, it spat. I sat in my car and, instead of crying, I slid my thumb into my mouth and sucked, and when that didn’t work, I ground my teeth down into the flimsy skin and hard bone underneath. And that seemed to do the trick. My bites didn’t break the skin, but purple marks came up and I cringed that anyone might notice that I self-harm and, worse, don’t even do it with much conviction. I am not a cutter – I am a scratcher and a puncher. Cutting seemed too definitive a violence for me; scratching and pinching and hitting seemed conveniently closer to the kinds of touching we might all do in the course of having a body. The boundary of when scratching crosses from appeasing a tickle on the skin to inflicting pain is undefined, especially if you don’t look directly at the thing you’re doing. Likewise, a fist connecting to a head can be a mere clip or it can be focused and savage and really who’s to say at exactly what moment one thing becomes the other? This probably sounds unhinged to anyone who isn’t trying to frantically rationalise their self-harming.

‘I only self-harm a bit!’ When I was a teenager, I worried at my skin with a needle once. My friend, on seeing it, was furious. I think she thought it was pathetic attention-seeking, which at the time I very much agreed with. It was the last time I was careless with the evidence of my little habit.

An early study of self-harming, which appeared in Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine (1896), talked of the so-called ‘needle girls’: young women who stuck themselves with needles and glass and other objects. The authors George Gould and Walter Pyle classed this self-injury as a form of hysteria – that catch-all malady of women – and those who engaged in it as deceitful and just looking for notice. As recently as the late 1990s, most clinical literature still equated self-harm with severe psychiatric disorders until they realised how bloody common it was.

In the early 2000s, psychologist Janis Whitlock published a study of self-injury. The results were shocking (or comforting if, like me, you’re looking for confirmation that hurting yourself isn’t the most unstable thing you can do): 20 per cent of women and 14 per cent of men said they had self-injured at least once. Even more revelatory was the fact that the group were young people at Ivy League universities. They were not prisoners of extreme mental illness. They were not compromised severely by social and economic hindrances. They were seemingly high function- ing. This provides me with even more slightly incongruous comfort. Sure we’re all at it, I tell myself.

But why? The question pummels me. After my second baby is born and my dad dies, my drinking is peaking, and along with it my self-harm. I give in to it because it feels like the safest way for me to rage and grieve without alienating friends and family, but really it still doesn’t seem right. Does it? I reluctantly start to analyse it.

I learn that the processing of emotional pain in the brain is closely knit with the processing of physical pain, which makes sense to me. It is always when the rage is bearing down on me that I need to visit the soothing pain on myself. It reroutes the fury, mutating it into some- thing so much more quantifiable and therefore manage- able. I am no longer blazing with wild, frightening, ram- paging anger; it is replaced by mere hurting. So much more preferable.

As the ‘needle girls’ article suggests, self-harm is often seen as more of a woman’s thing, and while this assumption is wrong, I wonder – in the aftermath of a bout of impressively contained, expertly modulated violence in the privacy of my office – if we were taught how to express our anger as women whether we would still be dragging our fingers across our flesh or sticking them down our throats half as much.

If we were more frank about grief, told grief will be constantly shape-shifting and it won’t necessarily be sad but will hurt, that it will possess you and suffocate, maybe I’d have been more ready for it then. Instead, I’m left managing this futile impulse that would be verging on slapstick if it wasn’t so pathetic.

You’re a joke. I harangue and bully myself endlessly. You don’t matter. You are worthless. None of this pathetic posturing even matters. That’s the terrible trick of mental illness. You. Don’t. Matter. The stigma of mental illness feels like it’s been vanquished sometimes. We talk more openly, we have hash- tags and awareness weeks, but the ingrained messages still come and they come from our illness. We whisper them to ourselves in the night. You. Deserve. This. You. Don’t. Matter. You. Don’t. Deserve. Help. You. Are. Pathetic. Being mentally ill is bullshit, everyone else can cope – why can’t you?

That I self-harm is one of the most shameful things about me. More than any other story in the book, I wanted to bin this one. It’s the grossest thing I do. While there are people whose bodies have failed them, including people I love, and people whose bodies are hurt and stigmatised and murdered by our very society, here I am damaging my perfectly healthy, privileged-as-fuck-one. You think I don’t know that’s disgusting behaviour? I do.

Corpsing: My Body and Other
Horror Shows by Sophie
White is published by Tramp
Press and available now.