Memory is not just for the mind.

Swathi Muthu

“Until humankind finds a way to a super-human, immortal existence, I am stuck with this body, and I might even die with it”

I’ve been a Hypochondriac from a very young age. The slightest change in the surface of my body (inside and out), used to set off an alarm of panic and dread. As young girl of eight, I remember fearing illness. I diagnosed myself with leprosy. I read up from various sources available to me (including hospital pamphlets), and got convinced that I was suffering from leprosy and that it was only a matter of time before I die. This catastrophic thinking was followed with thoughts of death, decay and disappearance. The idea that an individual can be wiped off from the face of Earth, with no reminder of their existence, completely fading away with no remains, scared me endlessly. The vastness of the universe, the prodigious splendor of the stars and planets surrounding us created within me a sense of surreal awe and deep existential dread. It was a two way thinking — happiness and curiosity for the beautiful, beautiful universe and fear and helplessness at the precarious nature of my mortal body. From that point on, I’ve had a very complicated relationship with my body. It’s been a struggle between repressing it, abusing it and nurturing it. It took many years to accept my very mortal, very perishable body. Until humankind finds a way to a super-human, immortal existence, I am stuck with this body, and I might even die with it. From all this it can be seen that I had a history of splitting the mind and the body. My mind, I thought was the real me, while my body was not me. It was a vessel at its best and an obstruction at its worst. This idea of mind and body was challenged very late in my life, nevertheless I am happy it happened. It all began in an English Literature class, two years ago. We were being taught William Blake’s poetry. My professor pointed out that Blake espoused mind/body integration. He stood against the repression of bodily needs and desires. Romantic love isn’t just a divine pursuit of minds but it should also involve and include the carnal desires of the body. This thought was rather radical at his age because the general convention was that the pursuits of the body was lowly while the pursuit of mind was noble. Blake’s poems had a central image: the human body. Although I wasn’t able to grasp the full meaning of his lines, I understood that his essential thought was against ignoring the body. The mind and body needs to exist in unity, otherwise it leads to detrimental consequences. I never thought that my exploration on this subject would start from a Dead, White, Romantic poet.

“There needs to be an interdisciplinary conversation about the mind and the brain, between neuroscience and philosophy, literature and medicine”

Fast forward two months, I was busy reading for my area of research interest: Trauma and Memory Studies. Throughout the course of reading different theories and works, both fictional and non-fictional, a whole world opened up to me, most of which is beyond the scope of the topic I’m writing about. However, there are few interesting conclusions that I made in relation to mind and body while engaging with Trauma theory. By Trauma, I mean actual physical trauma. I read about violence on the body, maiming of the body, war neurosis, memory of violence and violence of memory. Trauma could be caused by common events that is unbearable to a person but normal for others. For example seeing animals having sex could be traumatic for some individuals. The kind of trauma I read about is about intense acts of violence that threatens the integrity and boundaries of the body (and also mind). For example, genocidal violence on a community. So, the ideas that interested me from reading up on this area are three fold. First, Trauma and Memory should be studied together. How the mind remembers intense trauma and how it re-constructs the self (broken mind and broken body) in order to maintain its meaning and individuality can be studied by reading Trauma narratives. Second, memory is constantly in a state of flux. It changes, re-arranges, and re-structures itself in order for the individual to survive. Third, there is not just mind and body, but there is Mind, Brain and Body. People take it for granted when we talk about the mind and the brain. It is often a coalesced mixture which is perceived as an abstract unity. But I feel that there is some distinction. In medical discourse, the brain is often connected to the body. It is treated as an organ that can be cured and repaired with sufficient resources. In philosophy, the brain doesn’t find any space. The mind occupies philosophy’s obsession. Few philosophers like Spinoza and Catherine Malabou has talked about the brain as an autonomous entity that needs to be discussed and sensed with. They discuss in convoluted, abstract terms about how the changes in the brain changes the person itself (It’s really not that simply put. Fancy terms like “destructive plasticity is used). While medicine is busy inventing drugs to cure mental illnesses, philosophy is busy talking about the brain very sparsely and abstractly. I think this gap needs to be bridged. There needs to be an interdisciplinary conversation about the mind and the brain, between neuroscience and philosophy, literature and medicine. These are ambitious yearnings. Meanwhile, I think psychology is doing a pretty good job in exploring the mind. It is much more necessary than finding drugs to “cure” anything, because it understands the environmental, cultural, historical, and social impacts on behavior. There is no pill you can give to your controlling mother to cut you some slack or to wipe away years of oppression on a particular race. Hence you can’t really be an empiricist when it comes to matters of the mind. There needs to be an all embracing approach to emotions, body, brain and rationality.

“My body was expressing, but I wasn’t listening”

Going back to the mind/body divide. It took me many years to understand that my body actually bears witness to my history. From the time I was at school, I often complained about pains in my body. I panicked so much that I won’t be satisfied until a major test was taken. I’ve taken numerous scans, X-rays, blood tests, etc. Almost all, the time, there used to be nothing wrong with me. When I was in my twelfth standard, I had a major issue of pain at the back of my head. I suspected that I had cancer. I was in so much mental agony. My parents took me to several doctors, all of whom said that there is nothing serious to worry about. Even after getting, a CT scan done, I wasn’t convinced that I didn’t have cancer. We finally visited a Neurosurgeon, who recommended a brain scan. I was relieved that somebody was finally listening to me. I was preparing myself to face the worst. However, the brain scan turned out to be normal. I remember the doctor talking something about stress, telling me to chill off and relax. I didn’t take anything he said seriously, I wasn’t even listening. I just remember crying in the consultation room. I didn’t know the reason then. I thought I was over-reacting. I chided myself for shedding tears and making a scene. But now I interpret that scene in a different light. I was actually in so much emotional pain. I was very successfully suppressing it all. I had lost my grandfather a few years ago, he had died of cancer. I saw him suffering, I witnessed his death. A year after that, I witnessed my grandmother’s death. She died right in front of my eyes. It was so sudden and unexpected. A few months after that, I lost my uncle to cancer. All these three people were not the same to me. Not all of them were that important. However, I just wasn’t prepared to deal with three consecutive deaths along with familial issues, abusive episodes and academic expectations. Looking back, I wonder how I kept going on. I never cried, I lived a life of fake happiness, repressing all negative memories and thoughts. My body was expressing, but I wasn’t listening. When asked how I was doing by the doctor, my mind just broke down. Hence, the tears at the consultation room.

“I am more in touch with my body than ever before. It isn’t a distant, separate, working machine. It is so interconnected to my mind that the body showcases the reverberations of the mind”

A few years later, I was still keeping it all under control. I pushed back my mind and my body and kept ignoring the signals. I tried really hard to pretend everything was alright. Then started my digestive issues. I was diagnosed with GERD and Duodenal Ulcer. The gastroenterologist said that it was stress related. I didn’t pay him much attention. For around three years, I’ve been on and off ulcer medication. It gets better, only to go back to its previous state. I’ve taken every possible test, consulted different doctors and they all give me the same treatment that has no permanent effect. Last year I started taking antidepressants. It really helped me in improving my mood. My body too, felt relaxed and my ulcer was under control. However, there were so many side effects. I stopped taking antidepressants and experienced several withdrawal symptoms. Some of them were really scary. I somehow adjusted until it all disappeared. My digestive system, however, had gone back to its defective state. Few months passed and I went back to my gastroenterologist. Surprisingly, he prescribed me the same antidepressants that my psychiatrist did. As usual, my symptoms and mood improved. Yet, there was this gnawing feeling that I was getting used to this drug. I completed my course and discontinued. I had some realization that my mind and my stomach was somehow connected. If I had to cure my stomach then I have to first deal with my mind. Hence I started to actively search for a good therapist. Now that I have finally done that, and made some progress, I have a much better understanding of the whole issue. My bodily pains and digestive issues are far from gone, but I am more mindful of them. I am aware of the exact situations and stressful events that trigger a painful, physical response in my body. I am more in touch with my body than ever before. It isn’t a distant, separate, working machine. It is so interconnected to my mind that the body showcases the reverberations of the mind. I understand that I have to embrace my body, pay attention to what it is expressing and try to nurture it. It is not inferior to my mind. I should learn to give it the same attention I give to my mind. I don’t know when my bodily discomforts will stop, but I do know that I am working towards that. Through therapy, I got educated that anxiety has physical effects on the body. This is something that is not talked about in mainstream conversations about mental health. Listening to your body is important to know what is happening to you. Noticing the tense shoulders, cramped muscles, shaking hands instead of dismissing them away is a step towards nurturing and comforting oneself. Often we don’t realize we are caught in a toxic situation. But the body always expresses. By paying attention to it, you become more aware of yourself and your surroundings. These are my thoughts summed up:

  1. Not just your mind, but your body also remembers abuse and painful events. Hence the unexplained pains and discomfort.
  • Give your body its credit. It is expressive and indicates that something is not alright, not just physically, but mentally as well.
  • Be mindful of the various feelings and sensations in your body and try to understand what they are communicating.
  • Humans are an organic whole of the mind and body. They are inseparable and one is not nobler than the other. Nourishment for one while ignoring the other won’t help.
  • Having a body is what makes us humans. Our physical bodies are the actual spaces that gets abused, violated and transgressed. We should not get out of touch of the materiality of our existence.
  • Accepting our mortal body will also lead to a deeper understanding of the human condition. What does it mean to live? What can the world offer me? What can I offer to the world with my short, precarious life? It is much more better than a nihilistic approach to life that nothing matters and there is no meaning to anything.

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