Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Meaning and metaphor

Laura Collins over at Eating With Your Anorexic posted an interesting entry today, on a topic that's close to both my heart and my obsessions. Writing about our tendency to ascribe meaning to experience after the fact, she points out some of the "meanings" that have been ascribed to eating disorders over the centuries, from piety to family pathology to cultural norms around thinness. Her point is that eating disorders neither represent nor are caused by any of these hindsight insights, and simply are biological diseases.

It's a point I can agree with. Only I find that I keep wanting to add, "But there's more!"

As a poet and a journalist, I know both sides of the dichotomy. I've written here about growing up with panic disorder, and have alluded to the levels of meaning I assigned to my anxiety over the years. I've been through more than my share of therapy for anxiety, and have often gained insight from dreams, journaling, and exploring the metaphors and allusions that come with this disorder. Writing for me became a redemptive act very early on. Even in my teens I was aware that I wanted to make meaning out of suffering. If an important poem grew out of many nights of insomnia and philosophy, existential terror and affliction, well, maybe it was all worth it. And if not, I'd still created something beautiful—or at least meaningful—out of my pain. I'd made something out of, well, not nothing, but nothing useful.

The journalist part of me understands the concepts of neurotransmitters, genetics, and brain chemistry. I've had ample evidence of my panic disorder as a biological disease, often triggered by hormonal shifts and other physiological upheavals.

But. Still. I don't think that makes the poems, the metaphors, or the insights less important or meaningful. In fact they are deeply meaningful to me and, I hope, to others.

But. Still. Years of insight-based therapy have not changed the panic attacks or anxiety in any appreciable way.

So what does it all mean? Is retrospective insight always a chimera? Should we discount it altogether and stick to the facts, ma'am, just the facts?

I think when it comes to treatments for eating disorders and other psychiatric illnesses, the answer is yes. If I dream, as I once did, that my grandmother is trying to pierce my ears with a blunt knitting needle, and causing a lot of pain in the process, I don't believe this is a clue to the roots of my panic attacks.

But I'd hate to give up the relentless and quintessentially human quest for meaning and metaphor. That's the fertile terrain of all art and much spiritual and emotional growth.

All of which is a very long-winded way to say that I think what's needed here is a separation of church and state. When it comes to causes and treatments of eating disorders and other illnesses, I'm with the scientists; give me DNA and anatomy and chemistry. But when it comes to being alive and human, I need meaning and mystery and the indirect but often achingly apt language of symbol and metaphor. We need it.


Unknown said...

I LOVE this! This is absolutely the very struggle of it, you've nailed it.

Metaphor is integral to fresh thought, to personal growth, and even for political and social change.

Yet metaphor can also be used to confuse, to abuse, to intimidate. The wrong metaphor, the wrong narrative, can do material harm (smothering mothers force children to use food as weapon). The right metaphor can enlighten and free a person locked in unhelpful explanations.

Externalizing the illness, for example, is a powerful use of metaphor.

I like your separation of church and state idea. And count me in as another person who needs meaning and metaphor in my life.

Harriet said...

Yes, that's exactly what externalizing the illness is--metaphor that helps so much when you're in the thick of it.

Meaning and metaphor. It has a nice ring, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

I came across this Native American metaphorical story the other day. It has a lot of truth in it and is very simple. I thought of my sensitive daughter, who struggles with guilt, with being critical of both herself and others, with anger, with anxiety. Yes, I believe a lot of these traits are genetic and that she was heavily genetically 'loaded' toward anxiety, depression and an ED. Yet, yet...this story reminds me of the power of positive thinking, of unloading the guilt from our lives and of taking and active role in helping to ditch an ED (just as one might decide to partake in cardiac rehab or AA). It's a beautiful little story...and I even like the reference to "feeding" the wolves. It just seems apt.


One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, " My son, the battle is between two "Wolves" inside us all.

One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is Good. It is joy, peace, hope, love, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."

Harriet said...

That's a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it.