I heard about Debbie Nathan’s book Sybil Exposed on NPR the other week, and immediately went out and borrowed it from the library, fascinated by the idea of Sybil as a cultural phenomenon. The woman known as Sybil, Shirley Mason, was diagnosed with multiple personality disorder by her psychiatrist, Dr. Cornelia Wilbur in the 1960s; later Mason admitted that she had lied. (‘Course, it was also discovered that Dr. Wilbur had practiced some…uh, unorthodox techniques in therapy with Mason. Sodium pentothal, anyone?) In her book, Nathan approaches the case as if it is metaphor, asking the question: What were Mason, Wilbur, and Flora Rheta Schreiber (who wrote the best-selling book, Sybil), reflecting from the culture in this elaborate performance?
Nathan uses the psychological concept of “idioms of distress” as a framework for her investigation — that is, that outward manifestations of illness are nonverbal communication about what’s emotionally or spiritually wrong. It’s not a new idea that women have often demonstrated what’s broken in a culture with their bodies via “illness.” Reading Sybil Exposed sort of reminded me of the Salem witch trials — a moment in history when women were negotiating daily life in a new place, far from all that had been familiar. Did the girls of Salem feel they had to create an emergency in order to have any sense of personal authority? Were they jealous of the wise women in their midst who knew so much about the natural world and could practice its magic? I wonder if Dr. Wilbur, Shirley Mason, and Flora Schreiber also thought, subconsciously, that to be seen and acknowledged they had to manifest a spectacle — albeit not as violent as the one the Salem girls created.
(Sidenote: This kind of thing happens now. In a recent New Yorker article Emily Eakin describes the small town of Le Roy in New York state — the birthplace of Jell-O! — where many of the high school age girls have been experiencing unusual symptoms such as facial tics, body twitches, vocal outbursts, and seizures. Doctors have tested for infections, contamination of heavy metals, Tourette’s, and haven’t found anything amiss. Hell, Erin Brockovich has conducted her own investigation. So what’s going on? What are these girls trying to say? “The symptoms are real, but their cause isn’t genes or germs; it’s stress,” Eakin writes. The scientific name for this phenomenon is “conversion disorder.” The popular term is “mass hysteria.”)
And of course, women don’t express distress with their bodies only psychologically. They form and mold themselves physically in not-so-subtle ways. Caroline Knapp writes in her book Appetites about how denying herself food and making her body rail-thin was a way to outline the edges of her life, to protect herself at a particular moment when she felt overwhelmed by possibility. “[Not eating] took place in a context of enormous promise and enormous anxiety, for me and for women in general. A year shy of graduation from an Ivy League college, I was facing a landscape of unparalleled opportunity…and as blessed and wonderful as all that freedom may have been, I suspect I found it terrifying, oppressive, even slightly illicit, as though the very truth of it somehow contradicted a murky but deeply-held set of feelings about what it meant to be female.”
I can relate. I’ve tried to control my body my whole life, depriving myself of food or exercising compulsively to change my shape or stuffing myself to the point of pain in an attempt to numb myself against the relentless perfectionism that dogs me. I’m caught in a feedback loop: Be-thin-and-controlled-and-smart-as-a-whip-okay-I’ll-try-but-oops-I-can’t-exactly-so-screw-it-I’m-eating-a-bag-of-cookies-oops-now-I’m-going-to-get-fat-better-run-10-miles. The shame I feel when, over and over, I fail to “control” myself according to insane standards drives me back to the cynical and irrational belief that if I am not perfect I am worthless.
Does it sound melodramatic? Perhaps. But I’ve come to understand that this the so-called “pain body” speaking, as Eckhart Tolle says in The Power of Now: “The pain body wants to survive, just like every other entity in existence, and it can only survive if it gets you to unconsciously identify with it…It will feed on any experience that resonates with its own kind of energy, anything that creates further pain: anger, destructiveness, hatred, grief, emotional drama, violence, and even illness.” Tolle’s idea of “pain body” is another way of describing “idioms of distress.”
So what am I really trying to express when I abuse my body with food — or lack thereof? What is hiding under the obsession with being perfect? What comes up is something like this: Hmmm. I’m past 40, and apparently the clock is not running backwards. Am I living as deeply as possible? Am I happy enough? Is happiness possible? Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing, now that my life is half over? How do I handle these chronic health problems that keep cropping up? Am I actually going to be one of those people who dies?
You get the idea.
When I allow my particular “language of distress” to get my attention, I connect with a deeply disturbing sensation of not knowing: not knowing how to release whatever gifts I’ve been given, not knowing how to live in a clear, centered way. It’s more familiar to express that unease through the idiom of food and body abuse — after all, I’ve been doing it for years now — and to slip into that good ole’ functional despair in which I do the laundry, I write the articles, I make the breakfasts and lunches and dinners, I help with homework and walk the dogs but it all happens in a two-dimensional haze of painful self-absorption. It’s a lonely place, and perhaps Shirley Mason, or Cornelia Wilbur, or Flora Schreiber felt that, too.
Turns out, smothering the real stuff going on inside oneself — staying stuck in that lonely place — is actually dangerous. To counter this I’ve developed a support network of people who can help me allow my scary and uncomfortable feelings to flow through my body rather than getting all knotted up. Sure, sometimes I make use of the support and sometimes I don’t, but at least it’s available. So when I read about people like Shirley Mason, that’s the prayer that comes to mind: May all of us – women and men – find the help we need to translate our own idioms of distress into plainer, less destructive language.