Mental Health Monday: The Hidden Pantomime of Sorrow
What I’ve got they used to call the blues
Nothing is really wrong
Feeling like I don’t belong
Some kind of lonely clown
Rainy days and Mondays always get me down—Karen Carpenter (1950-1983)
So I picked up a book I had almost finished reading recently—Appetites: Why Women Want, by Caroline Knapp. I read the next-to-last chapter: “Body as Voice: The Hidden Pantomime of Sorrow.” Knapp shares stories of three women she interviewed. Each acted out their sorrow, their emptiness, in a different way. One was a shoplifter. One cut herself. One was bulimic. And she herself was an alcoholic and also anorexic. She points out numerous things these women have in common, including mothers who didn’t give them what they needed:
“Some of the saddest women I know, women who seem particularly prone to fits of sorrow and despair, are the ones whose relationships with their mothers felt somehow compromised or distant or tinged with resentment, who grew up with the feeling that their mothers didn’t really like them…. [Some of us grew up with] mothers who were too depressed or nervous or unavailable to soothe us…. Whatever paradigm inspires it, the sensation whispers and tugs, it keeps you up at 2 a.m. on a bad night, it compels you to reach for things, for food, for objects of comfort….”
I realize I did a post on this subject a year ago, just as the autumn leaves began to fall and the change in seasons began to tug at my memories. (“Grilled Cheese Sandwiches and Tomato Soup”) And another one just a month ago, “Eat, Drink, Repeat,” but guess what? It’s not over. This may be a lifelong struggle. As Knapp says, “Sorrow is stubbornly resistant to insight.” I’m not offering answers. Just lighting a candle at each little nugget I discover that helps in some way.
Knapp doesn’t blame her anorexia and alcoholism exclusively on her mother (and neither do I) but it’s helpful to understand the part she played in my personal sorrow. As she says:
“But I do think my relationship with her left me with a particular kind of emptiness, a sorrow-laced brand that’s by no means unique to me. The wounds of childhood, deep and pre-verbal and way beyond the grasp of memory, are like footprints covered by new snow; they get hidden with time, sealed over, the traces of felt anguish difficult to perceive, even harder to access. And so the sorrow behind hunger tends to be acted out, described in symbol and code instead of nouns and verbs, a woman’s body and behavior communicating what words can’t quite capture.”
I’m thrust back in time to the years I spent teaching aerobic dancing (in the 1980s), standing in front of my class, in a room with too many mirrors, staring at myself in spandex, weighing 115 pounds and still thinking my thighs were fat. My mother, who owned the aerobic dance business that I ran in Jackson, Mississippi, criticized my choice of leotards and encouraged me to wear running shorts over them at times. And all this when I was an adult, in my 30s. No words of praise for having lost 25 pounds. For my transformation from a chubby teenager to a finely tuned athlete. She just continued to raise the bar. And the bulimia that started in junior high school reared its ugly head again and again.
After moving to Memphis, I signed on for more mirrors by teaching aerobics at the Downtown YMCA, this time also exposing my wounded psyche to the men who came to the coed lunch hour classes. And although I think most of them were really more concerned about their own shortness of breath than my thighs, exposing myself to that much scrutiny, in retrospect, wasn’t a healthy thing for me. At times, I felt superior to those men—many of them lawyers and business professionals in suits, dressed down to t-shirts and shorts, huffing and puffing to keep up with me as I put them through their paces—possibly acting out my anger at the men in my life who had let me down. My grandfather. Religious and community leaders. Yes, it wasn’t just my mother who made me feel like such a failure. But anger, according to Knapp, is just the tip of the iceberg:
“There is anger in all these behaviors, certainly: rage at the mother who ripped you off, rage at the mother who inspired so much need and failed to meet it, rage at the self for needing anything at all. But underneath the anger is the most powerful sadness, too: the sadness of children who feel unloved and unlovable, who blame and hurt themselves because of it, who remain speechless in its presence, who engage, instead, in a pantomime of sorrow, a shadow acting out…. The pantomime begins when the hunger overwhelms, when it exceeds the organizing capacities of language. When words fail, you fall back on the body, you permit its behaviors and compulsions and urges to say what you feel and need, to explain the inexplicable.”
If you weren’t already sad on this rainy Monday morning, I’m afraid I may have pulled you down by now, if you are still reading this. But if any of this resonates with you, I hope you can find some comfort in understanding more about the struggle. Next week I hope to share some more positive thoughts from the final chapter of Knapp’s book, “Swimming Towards Hope,” so please come back.
I’m going to hunker down on this rainy day in Memphis and write a synopsis for the novel I have just finished revising. But I might allow myself a grilled cheese sandwich and some tomato soup for lunch first. I feel better already.