- Dog Brain
We are at a spiritual retreat in a Florida state park in January, and it is below freezing outside. Inside, the heating vents are loud—so loud we are nearly shouting to be heard—and cigarette smoke fills the upper third of the large room. This is the last habit we kick.
The retreat is for addicts. While it is welcoming to all, most of the attendees’ primary problem is one of substance: cheap liquor thrown up first thing in the morning, lighter burns on finger edges, track marks in the armslegsfeet. Once the substances are gone, other problems linger. We make wishes on lottery tickets and card hands. We struggle to leave abusive partners. We tear open our bodies with sharp objects. We watch pornography compulsively. The retreat allows for celebration of time away from vices, for discussion of how they remain.
The retreat feels cult-like at times, theoretically nondenominational but closed with hymnal songs that make reference to unending mercy, and this nagging impression is exacerbated by the knowledge that there are similar weekends held across the United States. People travel hours to attend, and it is common to see familiar faces, old-timers, at the ones scattered throughout the southeastern states: in woodsy cabins on the outskirts of Gainesville; next to a decrepit barbecue shack in Brooksville, Florida; on the shores of Lake Allatoona, an hour north of Atlanta. The location is the most defining part of the experience; the rest blurs together in three nights of sleep deprivation, too much caffeine and nicotine, and familiar faces talking about similar pains.
Our second night in the woods, we sit and listen. A man stands at the front [End Page 77] of the smoke-heavy room. He thanks everyone for his presence at this retreat, for his general continued existence. He is grateful for their love. It makes all things possible. He talks about his struggles, about how he drove past the Hard Rock on I-4 to get to this weekend. He says he wanted to pull over. And what’s more, he dislikes his body, has now switched one bad habit for another.
“I’m fucking fat,” he says. “I hate myself. How I look. But here I—”
He turns in my direction.
I don’t notice at first. But then he says my name—and I hope she doesn’t mind me saying this—and I know what will come next. Hackles rise.
The crowd is now watching me, not him, and I look up and meet his eyes to avoid everyone else’s. What happens next is inevitable.
He says I am beautiful, keeps repeating the word. He says when I took off my shirt to go swimming when he met me so many years ago, he was struck by the contrast of me—beautiful—and my scars, thin and raised and white like tiny tracks down my right arm and up my sides. Beautiful. I am torn between resting on its three syllables of praise like a crutch and rejecting it for its superficiality.
He says my lack of self-consciousness, my beauty despite the scars, as if they could somehow be separated from my body, inspires him to hate his own figure less. His eyes fill with grateful, loving tears. I smile and nod. I am gracious. But I do not feel empowered or empowering. I am resentful.
This man brings attention to parts of my body and life I’d rather ignore, act like they never happened. I am self-conscious, and the feeling lingers. The next time I go swimming in public, nine months later, I think about my sides, about wrapping my arms around myself and resting a hand above each hipbone. I feel echoes of teenage embarrassment, a familiar desire to disappear. I do not want anyone to see my body and think about its contrasts, to be inspired in any way by its raised lines.
The authors of the DSM-5—the fifth edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—have finally suggested that self-harm is not necessarily linked to suicidal desires or an indicator of another...