Wednesday, October 5, 2011

"That Really Hurts! Do it Again.": On Fight Club and Self-Injury

All quotes come from Fight Club

For Art History majors at my college, a Fine Arts minor was built into the program-- so even though I really suck at creating "art" I'm technically somewhat of a trained artist. Somewhat. Minorly.

One of the studio art classes I was forced to take was a sort of "how to create" class...I don't know how to explain it other than "freaking useless"-- so much so they changed the way it's run now and incoming kids don't even have to take the stupid least not two semesters of it. We were given assignments and the teachers would kind of nudge us here and there to make things...the talented artists did really well, and the rest of us less-so. The idea was to expose us to different ways of creating and thinking, and how to approach future assignments in college-level art classes. The problem was 99% of the kids taking the class in the first place were Fine Arts majors who have been drawing/painting/sculpting/whatever-ing their whole lives so they knew what they wanted to do and how to do it, while the rest of us took many, many cigarette breaks.

One of our projects was to interpret a phrase from a book, movie, song, poem, whatever. We had to bring in a bunch of examples of phrases that we thought would be good to use, then our teacher helped us narrow it down. I remember my teacher, Mark, was fired up as hell because a couple of my phrases came from Fight Club.

He wasn't attacking me when he said this, I think he was looking for how serious I was, but God, I remember it like it was yesterday: "Tell me, why do you-- as a young woman, early 20s-- identify with Fight Club? This, this treatise on the struggle of the modern male with his masculinity?"

On the spot much? Luckily this wasn't in front of the whole class, it was just me and him talking, but boy did I have to think fast to cover. I don't remember the lie I told him-- something about gender roles (my project would eventually become using girls to recreate scenes from the movie as I had taken a stage makeup class and could do bruises, black eyes, swelling, blood, etc.). But the truth? The truth was I understood the pain. I understood the craving for violence. I understood the complete disregard for your own body. I understood the emptiness tearing you apart until you want to set the world on fire. I understood the self injury.

The project came right in the middle of my lowest of low moments (My Story)...and so had Fight Club, just a couple of months earlier. I'd heard of it, of course, I knew it was a big deal and that Edward Norton and Brad Pitt were the same guy, but I'd never seen it even though it’d been out for a couple of years at that point. But when I finally did see it, I remember having my friend pause it so I could go into her bathroom to cut.

I loved it, though, I loved every second. Edward Norton's dry, half-dead narration. Tyler Durden's cold, logical anarchy. It tasted so good.

So what does self-injury have to do with sweaty half-naked nihilistic anarchists pounding each other into the ground?

"That really hurts. Do it again."

The Narrator and Tyler are the same person, so when The Narrator and Tyler fight, The Narrator's self injuring. The Narrator even says the first time Tyler hits him: "That really hurts. Do it again." If someone asked me to sum up my life as a self-mutilator, I imagine I'd say that, or something close to it, because that’s what it all goes back to: the pain. "After fighting, everything else in your life got the volume turned down. You could deal with anything." Change "fighting" to "cutting" and that's how I spent years of my life. After I cut it was like a pressure valve being released—all of the little annoyances of the day just melted away and I could manage just like everyone else. “I became the calm little center of the world. I was the zen master.” It would give me such a serenity, nothing else mattered for a while…but then the pressure would start building again. But those moments right after? “Calm as Hindu cows.” Cutting was often the last thing I did before I went to sleep.

“You weren't alive anywhere like you were there.”

But I also did it to wake up. The act itself, of course, varies from person to person. My favorite tool was a can opener on my Swiss Army knife, but I’ve used other knives, scissors, and once in an “emergency” I broke a clear plastic pen to use the sharp end of one of the pieces. I really, honestly, don’t know why I did it. The clinical answer is the pain triggers the release of adrenaline and endorphins (feel-good chemicals) and you get addicted to the “high” like with any other drug. That rush is exhilarating. “You weren't alive anywhere like you were there.” I imagine it’d be something like mild cocaine. I vividly remember running laps around campus at 2 a.m. while it was snowing and doing brutal jumps and pirouettes up and down the dorm hallway one weekend everyone had gone home—like Tyler riding a bike in the house or playing with nunchucks. That same energy also translated into a quickness to anger and a slowness to get over it, and God, would it have been nice to fight. "I got in everyone's hostile little face. Yes, these are wounds from fighting. Yes, I'm comfortable with that. I am enlightened." To struggle against something corporeal for once…something with a name and a face and a reason for being there, a reason for wanting to hurt me. I’d’ve fought in a heartbeat. Unfortunately I hadn’t lived the kind of life that got me into fighting situations, um, ever…but I would have given anything to do it. I guess it was a side-effect of being in such strict control over my body and emotions that I craved the opposite: a chance to completely lose control, to let the rage take over, to beat out the pain—like the Narrator does on Angel Face. “I felt like putting a bullet between the eyes of every Panda that wouldn't screw to save its species. I wanted to open the dump valves on oil tankers and smother all those French beaches I'd never see. I wanted to breathe smoke…I felt like destroying something beautiful.”

“Without pain, without sacrifice, we would have nothing.”

And part of the complete disregard for your own body, and part of this causing so much damage to yourself, there’s a sense of…not quite invincibility, but that any kind of injury that comes along doesn’t matter, or doesn’t even faze you. You just accept it. Glad of it, almost. “Guy came to fight club the first time his ass was a wad of cookie dough. After a few weeks he was carved out of wood.” It’s a certain kind of strength...a weird kind of strength. I’m not sure it can be reached any other way. Maybe less of a strength and more of a hardness? Or a power, even. Like before I started injuring I really, really hated getting shots, but after injuring I gave donating blood no thought. Actually, I enjoyed it in a weird way, further weakening myself and enjoying the loss of blood. I wasn’t afraid of heights or dangerous situations, I wasn’t afraid of wandering around alone at night. I wasn’t afraid of dying. A guy that sat behind me in one of my classes was mugged at gunpoint a block or two from campus, after which I couldn’t help but wonder what I would do if someone threatened to shoot me for my wallet…laugh? Nothing mattered, not even a little, because what’s a moment’s discomfort compared to the eternity we’re going to spend moldering under the ground?

“It'll hurt more than you've ever been burned and you will have a scar. Stay with the pain, don't shut this out. Without pain, without sacrifice, we would have nothing…What you're feeling is premature enlightenment. This is the greatest moment of you life…You have to know, not fear, know that you are going to die.”

Is that your blood?"

It’s not hard to find pictures online of self-injurers “trophies”—a Google image search for “self-injury” brings up over two million results. “Is that your blood?" "Some of it, yeah." For me, very, very few people knew what I was doing when I was doing it—and most of the time there was no one that knew. A handful knew that I used to, but 99.9% of the people in my life had no idea because I hid it so well—and I was proud of that. But I was proud of my marks, too. I cut my thighs, and the worse my legs looked the prouder I was. I took pictures. I stared at my legs in the mirror. I ran my fingers up and down my legs to feel the warm welts with hot breaks in my skin at the top of the weal; I could even feel it through my jeans. After a day of particularly intense sessions my legs, my thighs, were so swollen I couldn’t get a pair of pants on, and I didn’t have any skirts with me, so I had to skip class. You can bet I took pictures of that, too—kept them hidden in a file on my computer. People get nervous when other people use their computers thinking they’re going to find their porn stash or the dirty sites in their history—I was afraid someone was going to find my deeply hidden file of pictures of my self-harm and drafts of suicide notes.

"Fell down some stairs."

"Don't talk to her about me. Ever." Keeping people from knowing was surprisingly easy, but, for me, absolutely necessary. When it comes to this, people want to believe the lie. "Fell down some stairs." I haven't worn shorts in years, and skirts never above the knee. Partly because I have weirdly shaped, fat legs, but most of the reason is the scars. The hardest was trying to get out of wearing shorts when I was receiving physical therapy on my hip and my practitioner was a family friend. I tried to say my legs were badly scarred, but she just said nobody would notice-- not realizing the point was she'd notice thousands of thin, slightly raised scars on my legs...scars that could only come from one thing. There was another close call when I broke my leg (Spaz Girl Walking): at the hospital the nurses ripped my pants open to just above my knee to better visualize my leg. Little did they know they stopped the tear a fraction of an inch from a recent cut.

I grew up with a pool in my backyard. I love the water, but I sure as hell haven't been in a bathing suit in the past six years. I'd love to be able to play in the pool with my nephews and brothers, but it's something I've had to sacrifice to keep the secret. They still don't know. And they sure as hell don't want to see the scars.

“It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything.”

I have no formal background in the world of psychology, but I’ve done some reading over the years. There’s a belief that, psychologically, human beings need or seek out things in life in a certain order, like you need food and shelter before you need a social group. The order’s usually shown in a pyramid, with the basest needs, the physiological needs of food, water, and warmth at the very bottom; safety being the next level with shelter and security; belonging is third with friends, family, and community; then self-esteem (achievement, recognition) and finally self-actualization, or the fulfillment of potential, at the very top. Tyler is a car stuck in the mud, spinning his tires and going nowhere, at level three. He’s fixated on his relationship with his parents, blaming them for his current place in life. Well, them and the world he grew up in: “We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives.

When the Narrator is recovering from the car accident Tyler caused, Tyler tells the Narrator his dream for the future. “In the world I see – you're stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you'll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway.” Tyler craves this as relief from the depression. Living in a world where he’s concerned about where the next meal is coming from would move him back on the self-actualization path—he would no longer need the acceptance of his peers. Of course, he was also fed up with society’s greed and this would certainly take care of that.

“He was killed serving Project Mayhem, sir.”

Project Mayhem, being the escalation of Fight Club, is the escalation of self-injury. Like with any drug, eventually your body gets used to the chemicals you start out with and you need to progress to bigger things.

With the cutting…eventually it gets out of hand. Either the old number of cuts doesn’t do it anymore, or you get upset about something, or maybe because the sky rose in the east that day, one day you go too far. I lost control a couple of times and my scars show it. I really should have gotten stitches two or three times but, of course, I didn’t go.

The point is that there’s always an escalation—or even more than one. It’ll keep getting worse until it stops.

“Only after disaster can we be resurrected.

In the end, Tyler is the beast. The demon. The devil whispering in your ear. Tyler is the depression, the one that skews every thought, every word, every action, into an attack against you. You’re The Narrator—what Tyler says sounds good until you wake up.
If it weren’t for Herbert I’d probably still be cutting…I still think about it every day. It’s an addiction like any other, and it cannot be overcome until the consequences of continuing outweigh the benefits.

I hope I shed some light on this for you. Please leave a comment—or if you’re uncomfortable commenting but still would like to talk to me please email me at

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