In the past ten years I have slowly opened the locked down places within my psyche bit by bit. In this opening my perspective on self-harm and my personal history continues to unfold in new ways. Based upon my personal experience, I believe that the act of self-harm, especially cutting, can be an attempt to create a sense of “self”, to individuate. I was literally cutting myself a Self to attain a sense of wholeness. This sought after wholeness is an aspect of what Carl G Jung defined as the ‘individuation process”. In his book The Development of Personality, he said very simply, “I use the term ‘individuation’ to denote the process by which a person becomes a psychological “in-dividual’, that is, a separate, indivisible unity or ‘whole’” (1954, p.212).
The goal of individuation is to move into the state of finding your own personal wholeness by first finding the strength to separate yourself from others. This process is a painful one, yet I have stumbled upon experiences of wholeness while traversing the terrain of my own journey through mythology and metaphor. Becoming who I have always been, this waking and return to my true Self is my own heroic journey. In Joseph Campbell’s (1949) book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he constructed the idea of the mono-myth based upon the idea of the timeless journey of the hero. There is the separation. The hero receives a calling to adventure and ultimately accepts this call and embarks on the quest. This stage is followed by the initiation stage, full of trials that push the hero beyond limits, and finally, there is the return. The hero returns in possession of a priceless boon; wholeness. In Campbell’s description of the initiation stage of the journey, he discussed the road of trials. Within this chapter he presented the myth of Innana, a Sumerian myth that serves as the embodiment of the “passage through the gates of metamorphosis” (p.105).
In this myth Innana forsakes everything, her position, her heavenly reality, and her self to descend into the underworld. Before she began her descent she adorned herself in fine jewels and her robes of royalty. She prepared herself to enter, as Campbell said the “land of no return”, reminiscent of the entrance to Dante’s inferno: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” Innana makes the conscious choice to descend into the unconscious realms where her sister (and enemy), Ereshkigal, reigns as supreme queen of the dark realm. As Innana, the queen of heaven, begins her descent, she comes across seven gates. At each one of the gates she is stripped of a possession. She is stripped, first, of her persona symbolized in the removal of her crown, her jewels, and her robes. Finally she is stripped of her sense of self, made to bow naked before her sister. Ereshkigal looks at her sister in hatred and it is described that, “At their word, the word that tortures the spirit, the sick woman was turned to a corpse, the corpse was hung from a stake” (Campbell, 1949, p.108).
Despite the unspeakable horror of this journey, it was only through the descent that the dark (Ereshkigal) and the Light (Innana) could come together and find wholeness. I have always been drawn to myths and tales of the descent into the underworld. Through my exploration of self-harm, and through my stumbling journeys, I have found that actually accepting the call to initiation is the greatest challenge. I have stopped at the gates of hell repeatedly in my life, trembling with an innate sense of the horrors below. Being left to rot like meet on a stake makes my insides quake with mortal fear. The fear is based upon a lack of faith that such a gruesome initiation actually brings forth transformation, new life, and a return to the true Self. Innana is reborn and returns to the light and her heavenly realm. The time spent standing at the thresholds of initiation, the threshold of the unconscious and conscious choice to allow the darkness to surface, instead of stepping forward towards the dark stairs of descent; I attempted to create my own initiation.
In Bill Moyer’s (1988), The Power of Myth, interview with Joseph Campbell the absence of initiation in western society is discussed. Campbell responded to Moyer’s question, “We have none of those rites today, do we?”, and “I’m afraid we don’t. So the youngsters invent them themselves…that is self-rendered initiation” (p.82). This quote captures my own longing for some sort of initiation rite to define myself as moving forward on my life journey as a separate individual. I spent years trying to control my fear by believing and enacting a form of self-created initiation. A razor blade parting my flesh, exposing the brilliance of the blood, captured my hope for transformation. With each wound I attempted to control my own heroic journey by initiating myself, yet, always aware that the true possibility for healing, transformation, and a return to my Self whole lies in the decent and the willingness to invite the unconscious to speak. Innana requested to be received by her sister in the hell realms knowing that she would face trials. Innana did not know she would be stripped of her self, persona, ego, everything and left to rot, yet she did know the only way to return to her place of light was to move forward into the darkness. My own heroic journey continues and I have stood at the gaping mouth of hell a thousand times and will a thousand more. Sometimes I descend into the depth, returning with new insight, transformed, and closer to wholeness. Other times I turned in desperation to the blade, attempting to control the psychic process, yet I found myself always moving forwards towards spiraling levels of healing and transformation. It has been decades since the first time I chose to cut myself and it has been over a year since the last time. This period of healing and transformation is my boon, as the blade is no longer my burden.
Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Campbell, J. (1988). The power of myth with Bill Moyers. New York: Doubleday.
Jung, C.G. (1954). The unconscious, and personality, The collected works of C.G. Jung (Vol.17). New York: Princeton University Press.