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In his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat Oliver Sacks tells the story of Christina, whom he describes as “the disembodied lady”.
Christina is an active intelligent woman of twenty-seven, working as a computer programmer and a mother of two young children.
Before the illness, she would never complain about her health. To her surprise, after an attack of abdominal pain, she was found to have gallstones, and was advised to remove them. Following an antibiotic treatment in preparation for the surgery, Christina started losing the sense of her body.
She was able to stand only if if she looked down at her feet, she could hold nothing in her hands. Her face become expressionless and her jaw fell open. With the continuing loss of proprioception she felt that her body is dead, not hers — she cannot appropriate it to herself, ‘I can’t feel my body. I feel weird — disembodied.’
She was, according to Sacks, in a state o total proprioceptive deficit.
Having learned about the uncertainty of her prognosis,
That first week Christina did nothing, lay passively, scarcely ate. She was in a state of utter shock, horror and despair. What sort of a life would it be, if there was no natural recovery? What sort of a life, every move made by artifice? What sort of a life, above all, if she felt disembodied?
There was no neurological recovery a week, or a year, or eight years later, — Christina had to live the nightmare she most feared.
Christina has shown tremendous fortitude and mental strength. To compensate for the loss of proprioception Christina was using her vision to monitor her body movements. At first, Christina had to consciously monitor herself by vision and fell every time she was distracted. After some time, she reached a certain degree of automatism. As a result she gradually developed elegant but clearly artificial postures that become her second nature.
Christina also had to develop a new voice, it was a stagey, theatrical voice. And with her face, too — to compensate for the lack of proprioceptive facial posture, she artificially enhanced her facial expressions.
She had to learn everything anew — to walk, sit, talk, care for her children, use a computer, live in society. The latter was especially challenging. Christina’s disability is not immediately noticeable. Her condition is alien and incomprehensible to others, therefore they have neither sympathy nor compassion.
[…] when Christina, painfully, clumsily, mounts a bus, she receives nothing but uncomprehending and angry snarls: ‘What’s wrong with you, lady? Are you blind — or blind-drunk?’ What can she answer — ’I have no proprioception’? The lack of social support and sympathy is an additional trial: disabled, but with the nature of her disability not clear — she is not, after all, manifestly blind or paralyzed, manifestly anything — she tends to be treated as a phony or a fool. This is what happens to those with disorders of the hidden senses […].
Through different kind of emotional and neurological adjustments she has been able to lead her life, some kind of life, reappropriating her disembodied body and developing compensatory strategies for its loss. This story, though, has no happy ending. The mechanism Christina developed remained compensatory and alien. Christina could function, but her life did not become a “normal”, full life, forever remaining only its semblance.
When Kristina watches a video of herself with her children, taken before her illness she can’t come to terms with what happened:
I can’t identify with that graceful girl any more! She’s gone, I can’t remember her, I cant even imagine her. It’s like something’s been scooped right out of me, right at the centre . . . that’s what they do with frogs, isn’t it? They scoop out the centre, the spinal cord, they pith them . . . That’s what I am, pithed, like a frog . . . Step up, come and see Chris, the first pithed human being. She’s no proprioception, no sense of herself — disembodied Chris, the pithed girl!’
Sacks further reflects that Christina has both succeeded and failed,
She has succeeded in operating, but not in being. She has succeeded to an almost incredible extent in all the accommodations that will, courage, tenacity, independence and the plasticity of the senses and the nervous system will permit. She has faced, she faces, an unprecedented situation, has battled against unimaginable difficulties and odds, and has survived as an indomitable, impressive human being. She is one of those unsung heroes, or heroines, of neurological affliction.
But still and forever she remains defective and defeated. Not all the spirit and ingenuity in the world, not all the substitutions or compensations the nervous system allows, can alter in the least her continuing and absolute loss of proprioception — that vital sixth sense without which a body must remain unreal, unpossessed.”
You (but not you)
“Normal” human lives, that is, those that are not affected by such disastrous events, seem to be the opposite of Christine’s life. But is this so? Isn’t the case of Christina just right for understanding the general dynamics of each human life? Doesn’t what happened to Christina happen to each of us, albeit (if we are lucky), in a less pronounced manner?
The generally accepted idea of “normal” life suggests that a person is a consistent integrity that never loses itself; ideally its formation is devoid of ruptures, only a harmonious and progressive layering of the acquired experience.
If we discard such a perspective, it becomes obvious that human life rather consists of ruptures — an endless succession of losses, followed by the impossibility of finding oneself, not even a split personality, but its ruptures — when you are, simultaneously, not you.
Ruptures and discrepancies disclose a tragic dimension of life, the one from which we are trying to heal ourselves, run away, withdraw this dimension, assuming that it is secondary and optional, hoping that the basic underlying dimension is coherence, connectedness, consistency and continuity. But what if we turn this perspective around and recognize that it is precisely the tragic dimension that is basic to life?
All consistency and bearability of life are the retroactively assigned features, more or less successfully (but always superficially and unreliably) applied to the underlying discontinuities.
In the course of their life, each person inevitably gains experience that they cannot assimilate and make part of themselves. Such an experience destroys them and the person has no choice but to live on, bearing the burden of this non-assimilable experience into them. Passing through betrayals, cruelty, grievance, disappointment, mistakes — all that is familiar from experience to anyone — we continue to exist having lost ourselves.
Not only others rob us of ourselves, we ourselves cope quite well with this. After experiencing out-of-control attacks of anger, jealousy, envy, disgrace we cannot recognize ourselves in ourselves, refuse to believe it was us, unsuccessfully justifying ourselves, trying to connect the rupture between acceptable and unacceptable self-perception.
One can never be healed from traumatic experience they once acquired, it never becomes a coherent part of us, but always remains not completely assimilated. We continue to exist, losing ourselves, trying to recover, but never returning ourselves back — only in the form of a strange monster that is you and not you at the same time. Our personality consists of acquired experience, that is, of discontinuities and ruptures — dissimilar pieces that do not fit together.
We are trying to fill the ruptures: we develop new life strategies, trying to figure out how to reverse what happened, but our strategies always remain compensatory in nature, they are not able to fully compensate for the experience. Life is also full of happy moments, but they are rather just a temporary relief of life’s tragicality.
Discussing Christina’s case, it is difficult to hide the basic tragic dimension of life, although Sacks could have tried to do so by avoiding going into discussion of ambivalence of success and failure. He could admire the success of Christina, presenting it as a happy ending — we would readily believe him.
In accordance with a more realistic perspective, a happy ending is impossible even in Hollywood films, where at first the viewer observes a series of ruptures and tragedies, and the conditional happy ending is presented as their culmination: supposedly, all misfortunes led to some significant happy moment. But the protagonists will forever remain those to whom everything that happened has happened, none of the happiest event will fully compensate for and erase the memory of what has been experienced.
Not only you are Christina, but every person is an unknown hero of their life, irrevocably losing what is crucial for their survival. But while experiencing our own tragedies, we are not able to fully understand the tragedy of others, and others are not able to fully understand us. Mankind is a bunch of half-dead idiots, doomed to endlessly lose themselves and misunderstand others.