Thursday, July 17, 2008
What I Know, Part 1
Elizabeth asked her readers a while ago to share what they know about the world. I’ve been turning this idea over in my head, asking myself if what I know about the world is true and worth sharing. I’m not afraid to argue politics or religion, but writing responses to other people’s ideas is much easier than forming my own ideas out of thin air. I am vain; I worry that what I‘m writing here isn‘t any good. Nevertheless, here I go.
When I turned 18, I went out and got a tattoo that I had been planning for a long while, that I had drawn myself. The tattoo was a picture of a dragon, something like the sketch at the top of the post, and the primary inspiration for it was the book The Hero and the Crown. The relevant part of the story goes like this: Aerin kills dragons, which are small, mean vermin. It is nasty work, not fit for a lady like Aerin, but she does it so that she has something that she is the best at, to earn a place in her father‘s house. She is the only one who kills dragons, so when the dragon Maur comes down out of the mountains, big as the sky and capable of swallowing a man whole, she is the only one there is. So she goes out, though she thinks she cannot win, because she must. And she kills him, but he burns her in the process, leaving her grievously injured so that she and everyone else think she will die.
The story gets less grim as it goes on, but the grim part was the most formative for me. Sometimes, see, when you ride out all proud with your head held high, the dragon kills you. Sometimes the hero dies. Even when you succeed, sometimes success and failure look a lot alike. Life is brutal and ugly and exhilarating and beautiful in equal measure, and you can’t separate these qualities from each other. All you can do is face life with courage and endure the pain for the sake of the beauty.
I took this knowledge in two ways. First, looking to the future: I got this tattoo to remind myself not to shrink from something because it looked difficult or unpleasant or impossible. If success and failure look alike, then the thing that looks like it will be your greatest defeat may turn into your greatest victory. It is impossible to tell the future, so you ought always to advance in all things with your head up, eyes forward, taking your fear in your hands and refusing to be mastered by it.
Second, looking back to my past, my dragon tattoo was a reminder that although the world around me might not notice, I have faced and overcome things that could have killed me. See, I used to self-harm. I had a chunky red pocket knife I used to slice my arms and legs open, I had a set of candles I would light and use to heat up little bits of metal or wood to burn little circles into my skin. I remember one night in particular. I was twelve, and I stayed up past midnight so I could use the bathroom while my family was asleep, because I had to clean up blood I had dripped all over my bedroom floor and find some way to close the gaping hole I had put in my shoulder. I still have the scar: its about an inch long and a quarter inch wide, although I‘m sure it would have healed thinner if I had gotten stitches. Getting into all the reasons why I used self-injuring as a coping mechanism is complicated; I could write a book on it without making my motivations clear, I think, but the point is that it was something I used to help myself cope with various pressures on my sense of self.
I don’t remember when I started self-harming, but I remember when I stopped. I came to a point where I realized that although self-harm may be a coping mechanism, its not a very good one. I wasn’t happy with the situation, so I just… stopped. Cold turkey. The short-term consequence was a dramatic downward spiral into, as the shrinks say, suicidal ideation, and then a much slower trip back up as I deliberately learned other ways to cope with the pressures I couldn’t change, and learned to change the things I had power over. It was messy and amateurish, sometimes silly, sometimes pathetic, and perhaps not as wholly successful as I wanted, but here I am. And the dragon is dead.