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“Suicide is painless” according to the theme-song for M*A*S*H – although, in fact, many forms of suicide are rather painful indeed. Pain, however, can be beautiful.
A couple of weeks ago, a number of callers to Newstalk ZB voiced their concern regarding Emos. As far as I can tell, Emos are a sort of small, adorable flightless mammal, prone to moodiness brought about by their lives’ general comfort and stability, which means that no-one can understand their pain.
While the parents who called Newstalk were largely supportive of their children’s emo-fashion and scene-music (invariably noting that they went through similar phases during youth), they voiced some concern that the Emos’ impressionable widdle hearts would take to cutting themselves, feigning depression and perhaps even getting into suicide because it’s, well…cool.
Now, while some suicides may have valid reasons for their departure, it is never pleasant to bury Your Special Baby whom you’ve nurtured. Depression may be romantic, inspirational and character-building on one level, but on another it’s just plain suck. Feeling not merely alone but unable to reach out, having Something to Say but being incapable of making yourself understood. Watching the years roll out in front of you, empty, occupied with internet porn, cigarettes and stealing the neighbours’ mail – it sucks. So, of course, we want to help our buddies overcome such despair.
Having got all of that out of the way, we come to scarification.
Many teens mutilate their skin out of frustrated self-hate. However, if you want to help self-harmers who don’t really want to hurt themselves, but are crying out for help, you’re going to have to accept one potentially unpalatable fact: many perfectly sane and intelligent people like pain because it is fun. It is not only possible, but unspeakably enjoyable, to cut, burn, scour and rend your skin without a single ounce of self-hate. This is because scarification releases that focusing, pure adrenaline rush that comes from experiencing pain in a totally controlled, open and unworried state.
But what is pain? The term “pain” represents a field of sense perception, ranging from dull (bruise pain) to sharp (burn pain); from excruciating, to slightly annoying, to lovely. In most cases, pain is our body’s way of alerting our mind to tissue damage: the energy produced in tissue-damage is converted into a code of electrical impulse within receptive nerve-endings. This coded pattern is then sent up the spinal cord to the brain, where it is converted into conscious pain.
However, doctors Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall (the foremost pain experts of the last century) point out that tissue damage can occur without pain, and pain can occur without damage. They cite the case of Miss C, a Canadian girl in the mid-20th century who was congenitally insensitive to pain and died at the age of 29 from multiple mouth infections, after chewing her gums, cheeks and tongue into tatters without feeling a thing.
On the other hand, we have sufferers of phantom limb pain: people who feel pain in a part of their body which does not actually exist.
So while pain is generally initiated by tissue damage, what we actually feel is determined by our psychology. Melzack and Wall cite the case of US soldiers, who broke limbs in the battle of Monte Cassino: where most civilians immediately feel extreme pain after breaking a limb, the majority of these soldiers felt nothing for some time. One factor which influences the perception of pain is control: burn patients who participate in the removal of their damaged skin feel less pain than those who lie still, since they feel they are in control of their pain.
This is exactly what happens in the case of scarification: by meditating upon the pain, by blocking out anxiety, it is possible to enjoy pain. It may be that this is accomplished by a release of adrenaline (c.f. the Monte Cassino example). What makes pain a negative experience is not the pain itself, but the the mix of pain and anxiety. Remove the anxiety, and pain becomes a high.
If scarification flies in the face of pain vs pleasure rationality, this is because rationality is both unrealistic and undesirable.
According to psychologist Dorothy Hayden, masochistic sexual behaviour is most common among high-stress, successful people who are sick of being “on top”. And while this may sound kind of kooky and deranged, look at the relatively “normal” behaviour of athletes pushing their bodies past the pain barrier, or women who subject themselves to painful cosmetic operations. ‘No Pain, No Gain’ isn’t exactly the hardest slogan to understand – or, as the military school of life would have it, “What does not kill me only makes me stronger”. And hey, scars are beautiful.