I have a lot of problems with my throat, chest, and stomach. Mysterious shooting pains; long-lived scratchinesses and nauseas; difficulty swallowing. Occasionally, one or more of these symptoms will cause me enough distress to go to a GP. They’ll look me over, examine my medical records, nod sagely, and invariably say something which amounts to:
‘There’s nothing really wrong; it’s just anxiety’
This response is a far more troubling symptom than any of the personal problems I have described. It is a symptom of a world which cannot take psychic pain seriously. It is a symptom of a world in which nothing is real if it is not physical. The analytical psychologist Edward Edinger talked about this in terms of ‘objectivity’ and ‘subjectivity’ in his 1972 book, Echo and Archetype:
‘When we use the word subjective, we usually say or imply only subjective, as though the subjective element were of no consequence. […] in each case human meaning is being sought where it does not exist – in externals, in objectivity. The unique, particular, not-to-be-duplicated subjectivity of the individual which is the real source of human meanings and which is not susceptible to an objective, statistical approach is the despised stone rejected by the builders of our contemporary world view’
Edward F. Edinger, Ego and Archetype (Shambhala, Boulder, Colorado, 1972)
There is a word which describes the symptoms that I have described: psychosomatic. Combining ‘psyche’ (the mind) and ‘soma’ (the body), these are phenomena that present as physical problems, and have their root in the mind. Psychotherapists might describe this channelling of psychic energy into physical symptoms as ‘conversion’. The idea of psychosomatic symptoms is not a new one for me, and it is a widely known and accepted concept even among people who do not read psychology. And yet, until recently, it was a word haunted for me by Edinger’s ‘only’. If anyone – a doctor, a friend, even a mental health professional – told me that my symptoms were psychosomatic, the implication was that they were not real; that they were illusory products of the mind.
This, incidentally, is the same mistake that ‘new atheist’ types make when with one sweep of the arm they dismiss millennia of religious thought because it is ‘untrue’. ‘Truth’ has become tied to ‘science’, and our symbolic faculties have become neglected, dis-ordered and vulnerable. We become liable to channel worshipful energy into inappropriate conduits, of which the 19th and 20th centuries had many well known examples, and out of which capitalism still survives, with ‘the market’ forced awkwardly onto heaven’s throne, with all the disastrous consequences one would imagine.
The body occupies the throne in medicine. For the past few centuries, we have amassed a great deal of knowledge about our bodies, with tremendous results: lives are longer, cancers are becoming treatable, entire diseases have been eradicated. But all the while, the soul has been neglected. Therapy is still seen as a bourgeois luxury by many, especially long-term therapies such as analysis. It’s often prohibitively expensive.
The truth is, healthy souls are not beneficial for capitalism. The sicker we are, the more we consume. We’re conditioned to think of happiness as something objective that resides in products, not something subjective that we nurture in ourselves and our relationships. As long as we’re just well enough to clock on every day, it’s all to the good; then, when we become overwhelmed and unable to do our jobs, ‘getting well’ is just a euphemistic bridge to ‘getting back to work’.
In a world which so privileges the objective and the physical, it seems only natural that the psyche should seek to communicate through the body. Unfortunately, ‘psychosomatic’ becomes just another sweep of the arm, an explaining-away, and those of us prone to these symptoms are left to puzzle them out on our own. For a long time, I thought of myself as defective, and my pain as random or vindictive. If it had any meaning at all, it was that I was fragile, broken, weak. At best, I was unlucky; at worst, I was getting what I deserved. This isn’t a unique experience – it’s systemic.
Luckily the soul is resilient, as is our search for meaning. It permeates our language; when we’re children and we bump our knees, our parents tell us that the pain is our body ‘telling us that something’s wrong’. Physical pain is there to help us, not to hurt us. It’s an old, rudimentary and flawed system, and millions of people the world over suffer with chronic pain as a result, but in the majority of cases pain is there to help, and it does a pretty good job.
Psychic pain has its chronic sufferers too. Just like with physical pain, though, the non-chronic distress that comes from our psyche comes with a message. It’s telling us something about our inner lives. At the beginning of this post, I briefly mentioned that I suffer from a variety of throat, chest and stomach complaints. When I thought of them as meaningless, they seemed undealable with and unfair. Slowly, I’ve begun to adjust my responses.
When you eat something bad, you feel sick and your body ejects it. But sometimes when you feel sick, you haven’t eaten anything bad at all. In fact, sometimes there seems to be no physical cause for what you’re experiencing. This is, in fact, a well known phenomenon. Everyone’s seen a film, read an article, or even met a person who makes them feel sick. But in each of these cases, there is an obvious and immediate cause, a trail to follow. So what’s going on if you’re feeling nauseated on a daily basis entirely at random? I want to be clear that I’m not even remotely qualified to talk for anyone except myself here but, in my experience, there is always a trail if you look hard enough. For me, that trail has led to anger.
I am not a confrontational person. If someone does something that hurts me, I tend to take it on the chin. I don’t retaliate. I don’t even react with passive aggression if I can help it. I retreat into myself and I practice avoidance and appeasement. In other words, I try to keep everybody happy except myself. Unsurprisingly this builds up a lot of anger and resentment, but I can’t direct it at other people; I’ve spent so much time telling myself that I’m to blame for everything that it’s become second nature to incubate the poison inside myself instead. If you can’t throw up, you’re going to be rolling around on the bathroom floor in agony for hours and that, psychically speaking, is what I’ve been doing for years.
Just like there can be no real handbook for dream symbols, so the psychosomatic symptoms we experience are unique to us. It might be useful for you to examine them through a symbolic lens – I’m certainly seeing my stomach settle down as I learn to be a little more assertive – and then again, you might not. I’m not here to rail against the pharmaceutical industry (today, anyway), to proselytise for any particular form of psychotherapy, or anything of the sort. In fact, the crux of the matter isn’t symptoms at all; it’s cause.
We’re each of us home to a soul – fragile flames that contain infinities. It’s our life’s work to nurture them and watch them grow. I guess what I really want to say is this: no matter what our society tells us, the search for inner meaning is not a luxury. It is a necessity.