Self-harm, heartache or toothache – which is worse?

I’ve just come back home from a minor operation, and the memory of the surgeon’s knife cutting through flesh, sinews and bones has set my brain neurons hurtling all asunder. Of course I didn’t feel any pain during the actual operation itself, thanks to the sweet liberation of anesthesia. But the very mention of the word ‘cut’ is enough to derail anyone’s equilibrium, isn’t it? Send us hurtling as far away from its source as possible?

Or is it? Can pain sometimes be an emotional release? Is that why some choose self-harm as the best way out of an intolerable situation? When your mind focuses on something as exquisitely fine-tuned, focused and searing in its single-mindedness as physical pain, there’s no room for despair to become your master. The emotional agony is cast aside and at least for a while there’s release, breathing space, uneasy calm despite the wincing and groaning – a bizarre eye of the hurricane before the real pain comes back. Life.

The following two extracts are taken from an earlier novel of mine, Thirteen States of Being, in which the protagonist – a single mother struggling to come to terms with the new status of her marital break-up – finds comfort in this kind of release. In the first extract, by natural methods; in the second, by far more sinister means.

Pain 1

Agony. Unutterable, unspeakable, unquashable agony. She’s tried to quash it all right, with far too many pain killers and sleeping tablets. The result? A temporary release of sorts – at least from conscious knowledge, from memory, from awareness. She still lies there, intermittently moaning and writhing on the huge kingsize bed, but mercifully spared the sharp edges of her ugly reality, mercifully delirious on drugs and pain alike.

Toothache, to be exact, although that measly term belittles what she’s going through.  Toothache with extensions in her jaw, neck, ears, cheeks, eyes, forehead … so many extensions, she wishes she could chop off her head and cease to exist. Not just to stop the sizzling lava-flows of white and crimson pain spewing outwards from her tooth, but also to stop the extended pain spewing out from her bedroom, her flat, her town, the air all around her, the thoughts within her, her entire lifePain like this is just not on. It is unacceptable. She wishes – as far as she is capable of wishing anything in her delirium – that she had no life. She already virtually has no husband, no future, no hope, no desire, no fond memories to fall back on because now they’ve all been soiled … so why bother with life at all?

The torture is simply too much for her too bear. It is too much for any ordinary mortal to bear. Inside and out. Poisoning her deepest roots and contaminating the molecules that surround her. It makes childbirth seem like childsplay.

There is no comparison to this. This particular type of pain. This red-hot, white-hot, lava-flowing agony that brands her flesh and scars her mind and flays the delicate web of her sanity.

Agony. Unutterable, unspeakable, unquashable agony.

Pain 2

The bath is luxurious, decadent, intoxicating. Somehow, nothing matters quite so much in a bath. The steam swirls round the black tiles and mirrors, making a ghost of her white, watery limbs and her red, diluted blood. There’s a vacuous smile on her face, only partially visible in the swirling vapours. But she can see her smile clearly now, vapours or not, because the twelve months that have passed by since then act like a window-cleaner on the filthy smudges of time.

She smiles at her delicate left arm, floating on the bubbly water, foam and blood making pretty collages of contrasting textures and colours. Here the foam is milk-white, there it’s sorbet-pink, here a delicious mixture of both – strawberries and cream, mmm! And there – red as the stain of rich, ripe blackcurrants, and just as sharp. The pain is rich and sharp, cathartic, brilliantly precise in its amputation of malignant emotions.

Her right hand still holds the gleaming razor, partially submerged by bubbles and blood. Just three sleek, deep slashes, timed to perfection. Minutes ago tears merged with bathwater; now they have been painted red. Sobs of self-pity, rage and jealousy have been substituted by a clean intensity and exquisiteness that cuts away all former superfluity of consciousness. The vicarious pain beats in wild rhythm with her pulse, rising to climactic peaks that her hollowed-out sexuality once longed for. It beats to a timed crescendo, rising, subsiding, rising again, subsiding …

She doesn’t want this pain to end, this precision, this perfection … this clinical purgation. When it does, she knows the other will return.



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