Eating the Body, Consuming the Self
I dreamt of a woman reaching out to me in feigned tenderness. She had long red hair, fair skin, and might have been lovely if the green eyes that held my gaze had only been kind. I knew she intended me harm and that the caress of my neck would turn quickly to death grip against my throat. I was calm though, as she was. I knew what to do. I had first to maintain that steady gaze. A blink, a hesitation, a glance in any direction would be my death. Then slowly, gently—imperceptibly, I hoped—I turned my chin to the right, opened my mouth, and captured the base of her hand in a fierce, unyielding bite.
What happened, of course, was that I bit my own hand. I was the woman in the dream, the red-haired, solemn beauty reaching out in that deadly caress. And I was the dreamer, looking out, the one who knew what to do to ensure her own safety.
I’ve learned through the years when such dreams happen—clear and vivid in their terror—to lie absolutely still upon waking. To focus on every detail of the vision before me—every color, every texture, every nuance, every sound—and wait for the lesson that follows. It comes quickly and begins, nearly always, with a benign platitude.
“You’re skating on thin ice,” was the first and clearest example of this, over twenty years ago now when I started my first dream journal. It was part of an independent study related to Carl Jung, a course my professor and I had designed together. I wanted to more clearly understand concepts of archetype and myth and hoped to focus on Joseph Campbell. The professor insisted that to understand Campbell, I had first to understand Jung. He’d studied for a time at the Jungian Institute in Zurich and seemed to me then, as he does now, brilliant. He was also tall, handsome, decades older than I, and recovering from a painful divorce. I was thirty years old and married, happily, I still believed, though living apart from my husband while finishing that degree. We were painfully aware of our attraction to one another, and “thin ice” was a crystal-clear metaphor. The unconscious, I discovered, is direct and kind. It watches out for us. And it has a sense of humor.
That early training helped me recall the most intricate and vivid details of the dreams I’d always had. I quickly began to recognize patterns of the shadow self, always kind in the midst of her darkness, and I gradually came to understand that even the most terrifying nightmares can foretell the best of things yet to come.
When in the decade following graduate school, I felt nearly tortured by an unending sequence of bloody dismemberment dreams, I recounted the worst and most recent to my psychiatrist—also Jungian—who threw his head back and laughed. “How wonderful!”
Aghast, even with all I had learned, all I already knew, I struggled to trust what he told me. “What comes apart,” he said, “comes together again to form a new whole. These aren’t dreams about death. They’re about rebirth. Wonderful things are about to happen.”
The dismemberment dreams followed years of cyclone dreams—and it would be several more years before either stopped completely. In 1999, clinically depressed and feeling stymied by that devolving marriage, I attempted suicide. Three weeks into hospitalization, I was finally able to say that I wanted a divorce. I left the hospital, moved into faculty housing, and all of it seemed a new start…until two campus police officers showed up to tell me I needed to get to the hospital. A tornado had destroyed the home we still owned together and in which my husband was still living. “Don’t panic if you get there first,” the officers told me. “They’re still digging him out.”
Cyclones chased me through the guilt I felt for not being there when it happened, for having left him just a few months before, for refusing to have children, for being so very, very happy having left our life behind while he now faced surgery after surgery on a broken body that would never be the same. Those twisters, sometimes on the horizon but most often chasing me from behind, haunted me. They never touched down, and I saw no damaging results. There was only fear.
It was not until the dreams shifted to dismemberment that I saw the bloody carnage at last, terror rising into the crescendo of feeling myself frozen permanently in place. And it was true. I had not moved on, not really, even all those years later.
Eventually, I did, clumsily but determinedly, trusting my doctor’s explanation, trusting even more an instinct I’d not yet learned to name. I had no idea of all that was still to come. All, that is, of what comprises a human life. Career change, health crises, a new marriage, stepchildren. Fear and frustration. The crises of children, which are so much worse to witness than our own. Aging. Joy. The continual reminder to return to the moment, focusing only on the breath.
A few years ago, I experienced something I still struggle to name. It was an opening to and engaging with the pure, divine love of the universe. It happened after a season of simply paying attention, and I was guided into it by that same psychiatrist who’d listened to those nightmares so many years before. It was simultaneously the easiest and most difficult thing I’ve ever done, just as each of the most important things that have happened to me were both the best and the worst that could happen. Tao explains this as well as anything. Yin and yang. Push and pull. The wisdom and character of paired opposites.
I expected my life would be drastically different, and for a week or two, it was. But if we come to know anything in our age and experience, it’s that change is constant. And that stubborn patterns of resistance have ways of sneaking back in.
So now, faced with the red-haired woman before me, her steady gaze, her tender, lethal touch, I realized that for the first time my shadow self was a figure of light: the fairest skin, the brightest and clearest sky and landscape behind her. She reached to kill me, and I was saved.
I was this time not skating on thin ice. But I had for some reason bitten the hand that feeds me, chomping down fiercely on my own right hand, the one that lifts food to my mouth, the one that provides my sustenance in the most literal way.
I’ve always likened repeated dreams—the ones that happen several nights in a row or that recur over the course of several years—to a small child tugging at the hem of his mother’s skirt.
Even the most loving parents fall into a pattern of responding with only a distracted—
“Just a minute, please, dear.”
“Don’t interrupt, dear.”
“You must say ‘excuse me,’ dear. I’m busy right now.”
We don’t like our routines disrupted. It is not convenient. Even if we know something needs tending, we put it off, waiting for whatever we perceive to be the “right” time. Later. When we can really focus. “My goodness gracious,” we hear ourselves say. “That child will be the death of me yet.”
“WHAT? What do you WANT?”
It’s not until we bellow out that final, frustrated, going-out-of-our-mind response that the child begins to quiet, his need for attention finally met. Our dreams are like this. Ignored, they hound us. Acknowledged, they subside.
I can trace the twin angsts of anxiety and depression back to my earliest memories, ages three and four. They climaxed at fifteen when I became fully agoraphobic. With therapy and medication, my life returned to normal by nineteen, and I was perfectly happy and healthy for the next ten years.
By twenty-nine, working on that second graduate degree, anxiety and depression snuck back in, the anxiety bad enough that it led to self-injury. I started to poke at the soft, smooth skin of my inner arms with pencils or paperclips before finally just using my fingernails, scratching enough to leave bright red welts that always disappeared by morning. Eventually, I started scratching deeply enough to draw blood and then cutting with various kinds of blades. It became harder and harder to hide. I had not, at the time, ever heard of anyone else doing such a thing. It was a terrible secret to live with. I was the happiest I’d ever been, living in a tiny efficiency apartment, in love with my studies—and yes, also, I feared, in love with that professor.
Guilt is a terrible thing to live with and so often unnecessary. It would take several more years for me to admit my marriage was no longer working, that what I wanted most was not another man but just to be left alone. It would be easy to explain self-injury as self-punishment. Too easy. I believe now the wounds were their own metaphor, that there was something inside me that needed to get out. I was an egg needing to be cracked open, a piece of fruit ripening and wanting to be sliced. But what was clear then was only that the practice was dangerous. It needed to end, and with therapy and medication, it did. But that’s when the bloody intrusive thoughts began, developing during occasional periods of stress, and they’ve come and gone ever since.
Intrusive thoughts are not the same as dreams or nightmares. They happen of their own accord but in the clear light of day, while we’re still quite fully conscious. I believe they started as an occasional urge to cut, and they were likely variations of suicidal ideation—my earliest thoughts of suicide had always involved cutting my wrists. I kept seeing myself cutting, even when I had no desire to. The imagery elevated, though, from simple cuts and scratches to deep and horrible wounds, flaying my skin completely away from the bone, hacking my hands off completely, and then my arms, bit by bit, to the elbow. As the visions worsened, they traveled upward, to my face: cutting myself to complete disfigurement; sliding the knife into the flesh at my temples in order to separate the skin from my skull; wielding another knife large and sharp enough to sever my neck to the windpipe, leaving muscle, ligament, and empty bone exposed.
It's hard to explain intrusive thoughts to someone who’s never had them. Yet nearly everyone has had some variation of them. It’s not uncommon, for example, that, tired, stressed, driving in heavy traffic, one experiences the passing thought of swerving the wheel to move into the path of an oncoming truck. It would be easy. It would solve a lot of problems, albeit only for one’s self. It’s an eerily mundane “what if” notion that most people are able to shrug off quickly, wondering what on earth could have put the thought there in the first place.
My own intrusive thoughts, at their worst, don’t stop. They run like a continuous-loop film in my head while I simultaneously manage to go through all the motions of an otherwise ordinary day: work, laundry, writing emails, pulling weeds, cooking dinner, watching TV with the family. It is perfectly possible—and exhausting—to function as normally as any other person on the planet, all while the horrible film plays over and over again, brilliantly bloody scenes run completely amok.
A good deal of the exhaustion, I’ve learned, comes not from the intensity of the thoughts themselves but from the energy involved in fighting them off. I don’t want the thoughts in my head. I push them away, keep myself busy, try to ignore them. I’ve continued to rely on therapy and medications of various kinds—most recently the natural supplements and bio-identical hormones that helped me transition through an astonishingly difficult menopause—but I’ve learned that what helps most is to simply let the movie play. It’s less frightening, much less exhausting, and soon enough, the thoughts go away. More than once, I thought they’d gone for good, that they were part of my past—a difficult chapter in my overall troubled health history—that I was moving forward to a better, easier, saner future. But suddenly, at the most secure and supported time in my life, they returned.
It somehow never occurred to me to connect the intrusive thoughts to dreams, though they are, after all, a kind of daydream. I tortured myself instead, wondering why they happen at all. Why me? Why now? Why, especially, when I had moved on with my life, my career, my creativity, when I’d partnered with the man who did more to support and understand me than anyone ever had? This is a man who loves me, laughs with me, delights in me. We have a family that presents easily as many joys as it does challenges. I do not doubt my stepchildren’s love and support; I don’t think they question mine. Why, at the safest, healthiest, most creative, most spiritual time of my life, had the intrusive thoughts returned at all, never mind elevated to the complete dismemberment of my own physical body? How is it that when I’d learned at last to open myself to all of what the universe offers, all of what the world simply is, I simultaneously skittered back to the darkest part of my psyche?
I felt myself whole. Why was I falling apart?
Why, in these visions, was I cutting myself to pieces?
And there it was: dismemberment.
Perhaps, it occurred to me, just as those nightmares terrified me so, just as my doctor threw his head back and laughed—How wonderful!—these visions, too, were gentle things, intending kindness. Perhaps they, too, were the child at the hem of my skirt demanding only the attention that affirmed my love.
I started a walking meditation practice around the metro-park lake not far from my home. After circling the lake once, I slipped into a tiny knoll just off the main trail. There was a just-barely-noticeable opening where, ducking down a bit to slide into the underbrush, a perfect spot opened for more focused, seated meditation. The brush behind me slipped back into place, and I was covered by low-hanging branches. Seated, I had a perfect view of the lake. I could see joggers far across, bobbing, their brightly colored T-shirts flashing in and out of the brush as they circled the trail. I could sometimes see a fisherman or two standing in one of the little clearings close to the shore. They generally wore darker clothes, standing mostly still but for an occasional cast of the line. I was invisible to them, dressed in black, still and silent, and completely recessed in this deep shade.
After seeing the red-haired woman, I became determined to engage with the intrusive thoughts so heightened in pitch and intensity. What was left, after all, but to welcome them into the guest house Rumi so beautifully described? “This being human is a guest house,” he wrote. “Every morning a new arrival./A joy, a depression, a meanness,/some momentary awareness comes/as an unexpected visitor.” It’s a beautiful poem, a lovely meditation, and a terribly important life lesson. It’s a large part of how I learned to stop fighting thoughts as they arose and simply acknowledge them. But I needed to do more now than witness these damned visions—an approach that was doing little more than keeping me, on the worst days, bedridden. “The dark thought, the shame, the malice:/meet them at the door, laughing,” says Rumi, “and invite them in.”
I went to the lake with purpose, sat in my secret shaded spot, bit the tip of my finger to calm myself. This was a habit I’d developed to keep anxiety at bay. In the midst of a busy day, if I felt the intrusive thoughts rising, I would bite down hard at the first joint and hold it. It was a simple enough gesture and effective in bringing me back, at least temporarily, to the present moment: the sensation of moisture at my fingertip, the resistance of bone I could feel through the skin, the dull ache in my jaw. “You are here, my love,” the sensations told me. “It’s not so easy to cut through this flesh and bone. Your flesh and your bones are strong. They contain you. They carry you. They protect you.”
Sometimes, when I was lucky, the message got through. This time, at long last, something shifted. I bit the tip of my finger clean off and swallowed hard.
It was satisfying.
I bit down fiercely at the second joint and swallowed again. I bit down to my knuckle and swallowed a third time, my finger gone completely. I proceeded with the next finger, biting and swallowing one joint at a time, and then the next, until I’d consumed my whole hand. The smooth, tough, keratinous nails were the hardest to chew, and I mostly swallowed them whole. The cartilage in my joints crunched loudly, and I delighted in their splintering. I raised the stump of my wrist and opened widely, molars gnashing through radius and ulna until I’d gnawed and swallowed my arm clear to the elbow.
How strange I imagine this must sound. I pause to clarify that this was a meditative exercise, and not one I’d ever been taught. I suppose it must be similar to other forms of death meditation, to witnessing or contemplating the decay of the body. I knew only that this strange self-cannibalism, eating the body, consuming the self, was bringing me back to ecstatic calm.
I raised my arm higher to chomp at the humerus, listening to the crack of bone against my molars, using my tongue to lick and suck at the softer marrow. I chewed and chewed to the ball and socket at my scapula where I paused and started again with my other hand.
The unconscious, ever kind, always with that sense of humor, made me suddenly mindful of a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “It’s just a flesh wound!” the Black Night cried.
I kept at it, eating my way to the other shoulder before chewing away at my toes. I was an infant discovering her feet for the first time, marvelously flexible, renewed. Surely, truly, this was a rebirth. I would guess by the time I’d reached my hips, limbless as ever the Black Knight was, I’d been sitting there for an hour and a half, maybe two. I could see that slant of afternoon light and felt the obligations of home hearkening me back. I wondered how on earth I could consume the rest of my body—how indeed might one eat one’s own head? But I trusted that, when I returned, the process would complete itself.
It takes, almost always, a good ten or twenty minutes of focusing on the breath before my slightly arthritic joints loosen enough for me to straighten my back and draw my legs into something resembling half lotus. I pass the time staring into the mirrored surface of the lake until treetops and clouds blend into fish and muddy reeds. On my return to the lake, summoning energy and trying to relax, I watched a duck, bobbing slightly, whom I thought must be feeding but finally saw was two ducks, mating. Their heads separated as they pushed at one another affectionately, and their unified mass shifted silkily in a slow, lazy circle. The red-winged black birds overhead fluttered and fussed. Dragonflies hovered. When I finally focused, limbless once more, I knew what to do.
Eagerly, greedily, cracking off each of the winged ends of my pelvis, I swallowed them nearly whole, anxious to get to the base of my spine. I took the coccyx into my mouth and became an ouroboros, sucking my tail, drooling joyfully, spinning wildly through my stillness. And I understood, at last, the dismemberment of my dreams, my psyche’s need to dismember itself.
We don’t like feeling ourselves fractured. It conjures fear, and that tends to translate falsely into shame. Or weakness. Or illness. We believe what’s broken needs to be fixed. Worse, we think it needs throwing away.
But what if we all learned to recognize the rising? No bird flies still clinging to its shell.
The mirrored surface of the lake before me contained both sky and muddy reed. I felt myself dissolve into dragonfly and duck, water and wind. I was part and parcel of worlds seen and unseen. I was the red-haired woman, reaching out. I was the dreamer, awakened.
I swallowed my spine in eager gulps, slurping my skull into perfect collapse.
I was, at last, divinely devoured.