[CN: mental illness, self-injury]
Say, is my speech or wild and erring now,
Or doth its arrow cleave the mark indeed?
They called me once, The prophetess of lies,
The wandering hag, the pest of every door—
Attest ye now, She knows in very sooth
The house’s curse, the storied infamy.
— Aeschylus, Agamemnon
“Between killing and dying, there’s a third way: Live.”
— Christa Wolf , Kassandra
Long before I designed my own undergraduate major around the literature of Greek mythology or wrote my senior thesis on modern adaptations of ancient Greek plays, I was obsessed with the characters. Even before the obligatory grade school units on mythology, complete with afternoon trips to the library where we all colored in our own mimeographed faces of the Olympic gods, I knew all their names and backstories.
I had grown up with them, you see. To me, Greek heroes and gods were the stuff of bedtime stories.
My mother, who had herself majored in classics and kept a copy of Winnie Ille Pu (the Latin translation of A.A. Milne’s classic) on her bedside table, pulled myths from her memories every time I pleaded “tell me a story, mom, please make me a story, make it a good one.” These tales felt like place-markers for invention, filled with lacunae where our own stories could take root. In time I came to know for myself the source materials she drew from — and realized how even the ancients manipulated myth-telling for their own creative purposes.
I haven’t read Aeschylus or Euripedes in decades now. Nor Homer, Plato, or Sophocles. My memories are become gentler, names and details mere flotsam in the wine-dark sea of my mind.
I like it this way. All the easier to tell you stories of my own.
• α • ω •
In ancient Greek theater, the chorus member played not a man but an everyman. He played every Everyman. He hid his own face behind a stylized mask that bore the same expression as every other chorus member, so that collectively they formed a herd. A populace. Defined by this mask, this shell of anonymity, the chorus provided a foil against which the brilliance and hubris of the tragic hero shone.
The hero himself was forged from the divine. Fathered by a god, guarded by nymphs, taunted by the cruel Fates spinning at their wheel. Even his inevitable fall through pride could not diminish such grace. After death, a hero’s body was often flung into the stars, where his face gleams still today in the winking pinpricks of our constellations.
We all know how such tragic myths go. The hero gets the girl, the glory, and finally the agony. The chorus gets not even its own face.
Just a paycheck. It’s steady work, after all, being Chorus Member #4. All you have to do is memorize the same lines as everyone else.
And never let your mask slip.
• α • ω •
Even more than by the Chorus, I am fascinated by the ancient plays’ portrayals of women. Though performed by men, female characters existed in the tragedies. A hero needs women, if he is to be greater than just a man.
He needs a wife to betray, or his own mother to seduce. He needs war booty to fuck and then discard. He relies on daughters ranging from sacrificial Iphigenia, bent compliant beneath his dagger, to fanatical Electra, urging bloody vengeance upon his death.
A hero needs goddesses too, to please and displease, to pluck him into salvation. The first deus ex machina to reach a hand down from the heavens came adorned with Athena’s careful manicure.
• α • ω •
The only adaptation of myths I have ever violently objected to appeared in a book recommended by a therapist. I was a few years past graduation when the self-injurying I thought I had left behind with the rest of my bright college years made a decisive and bloody return.
“She’ll like you, you’re smart,” said the person recommending this therapist.
“You’ll like this book, it’s myths,” said the therapist on our second meeting.
We can look to myths, the book argued, for answers to all our emotional pain. Narcissus became an entry point to discuss healthy self-esteem. Demeter — goddess of the harvest, whose grief at her daughter Persephone’s annual return to the Underworld gives us winter — became a symbol for depression. But just as fields must lie fallow to be restored, so too our dark moods teach us to appreciate ourselves more when lightness returns. What can your depression teach you? How can you make friends with your own sadness?
I called bullshit.
“What sources is the author drawing from?” I demanded to know. “I mean, which Demeter is he even referencing: the Homeric hymn, Hesiod’s Theogony, something else talking about the Eleusinian mysteries?”
Admittedly, I was an arrogant pedant and frequent blowhard at age 24. I was also not depressed — and I stand by my claim of BS. [Though present-day me is more likely to point out the savagery of using a distraught woman’s grief for her raped child as the marker for when we should simply make peace with our situations. *sigh* We all grow up eventually.]
I stopped therapy after our fourth session. I continued cutting.
• α • ω •
Are you familiar with Narcissus? The man-boy so enamored by his own beauty, he fell in love with his reflection in a lake — not realizing he was looking at himself — and gazed down so long he withered away and died. I think how we tell his story today is misdirected.
Problem 1: A narcissist does not look at himself and think he is seeing someone else. A narcissist looks at another person — and sees only his own perceptions, reflected back.
Problem 2: Most tellings leave out Echo. Absent the wood nymph who tried to love him, the story of Narcissus is itself…narcissistically myopic.
Echo herself withers away because Narcissus neither recognizes nor values her devotion. She tries to become what he insists she already is — a mere reflection of himself — and in the process, loses her very body itself. She dwindles into nothing but a voice forever echoing another’s words.
What solution is there for that? What peace with her own inner darkness can Echo possibly make that will bring her body back to her?
I wonder sometimes if she and Narcissus started out as family.
• α • ω •
Losing one’s body is a gradual process.
I began to lose mine not when I picked up that first blade half-way through college — wondering now: does cutting accelerate the separation or is it actually an effort to suture flesh and soul back together? probably both — but years before. I have followed the trail back to my senior year of high school. To my sophomore year. To even sooner. I cannot locate the point at which my body started to feel like not-mine. I cannot identify any before-time in which it felt fully mine, either.
I knew the loss was complete two Aprils ago. That night I pulled a razor blade along the length of my calf and felt nothing, not even when I looked down at the unintentionally gaping wound and saw deep into the meat of me.
Listening later to my description of what happened, my current therapist made a suggestion: “There’s a rare condition called ‘depersonalization disorder’ you might wanna look up. Sounds a bit like what you’re describing. I know how you like reading this sorta stuff.”
• α • ω •
Reading, I begin to understand for the first time Narcissus by the pool. It is a heady experience, to see your own reflection out in the world…
DEPERSONALIZATION DISORDER (DPD)
I. DIAGNOSTIC CRITERIA: Per the DSM-IV, depersonalization disorder (DPD)† is an “alteration in the perception or experience of the self so that one feels detached from, and as if one is an outside observer of, one’s mental processes or body.” 
- altered physical sensations, as if one’s body is distorted in shape or size;
- emotional and/or physical numbness;
- a sense that one’s memories lack emotion;
- confusion as to whether one’s memories are or are not even one’s own. 
A DPD patient may at times perceive herself and her body as being entirely separate entities.
In cases of wider personality disorders or responses to trauma, a patient may compensate for the lack of predictable physical sensations through self-injurious behavior such as cutting.
II. ONSET OF SYMPTOMS: DPD generally develops between the ages of 16 and 25. It is chronic, with symptoms worsening over time. A small percentage present before age 16; in such cases, the disorder tends to be more severe and resistant to treatment.
III. ETIOLOGY: The most common causal factor for adult patients with DPD is emotional abuse during childhood, specifically “experiences of rejection, terror, exploitation, isolation, and denial of emotional response.” 
Trauma complicates and exacerbates the disorder.
IV. DIAGNOSTIC CHALLENGES: Patients with DPD present with normal affect; thus, a patient complaining of her inability to feel emotions may still exhibit what appears to be a normal emotional range.
Since DPD patients also maintain intact reality testing — that is, they remain aware that their perceptions do not correspond to objective reality — they tend to describe symptoms through “as if” comparisons: “feels as if my body is dismembering itself”; “feels as if I am several people.”
Clinicians who overlook this pattern may erroneously diagnose psychosis and prescribe anti-psychotic medications that exacerbate a patient’s symptoms. Conversely, clinicians who ascribe such similes to a patient’s mere preference for florid or poetic language may significantly underestimate her level of distress.
V. PHENOMENOLOGY: Patients commonly express the perception that “I am not human.” This feeling leads to existential ruminations (eg, “who or what am I, really?”) that often become repetitive and intrusive thoughts. Such obsessional self-observing worsens and prolongs symptoms of depersonalization, while also highlighting the importance of the pre-morbid personality. 
A patient will often describe feeling like an actor playing a role, rather than a person living a life.
VI. TREATMENT: At present there is no accepted treatment for DPD.
• α • ω •
I felt despair when I first read how no standard or reliable treatment exists for this disorder. When there is no map, there is no sure path home.
Then I realized: no right way means no wrong way, either.
No wrong way to make peace with one’s own mind, once you have a fixed point to steer by. If no North Star presents itself, fling your own self into the constellations. Cleave to your own truth. You write the scripts; you adjust the myths. The hand of the god that reaches down, ex machina, to save you can be your own. Seize the hero’s role for yourself.
As to genre? Leave the tragedy alone, I decided. I’d rather aim for epic.
• α • ω •
ALICE: Host character. Also goes by the name, “AUTHENTIC SELF.”
CORE: Private self born the year ALICE turned 15. Twin sister to SHELL.
CORE is a writer, who has aspired to publishing poetry (or perhaps surrealist romance novels) for as long as she can remember. CORE is emotional, supportive of friend and stranger alike, loyal to a fault, and weeps at pictures of babies or kittens. She has difficulty paying bills on time, and her greatest fear is of dissolving when left alone in a dark room. CORE often believes she has no skin.
Although ALICE suspects that she herself dreams, the only fragments she ever remembers are almost certainly memories of something CORE dreamt first.
CORE looks identical to ALICE.
SHELL: Public self born the year ALICE turned 15. Twin sibling to CORE.
Also goes by the name, “MASK.”
SHELL prides him/herself on being ruthlessly efficient and highly productive — the ideal employee. S/he is witty, sarcastic, occasionally cruel, and an unreliable friend. His/her primary motivation is a desire to murder CORE and obliterate all evidence that she ever existed.
SHELL looks identical to ALICE.
BODY: Slavishly devoted friend to ALICE.
Date of birth unknown. Age and gender unknown. Motivations unknown. Interests unknown (though ALICE suspects “more broccoli and walks in cold weather” top the list).
Unless otherwise noted, BODY appears in every scene and stands stage left from curtain rise to curtain drop, watching the other characters intently. BODY never has lines of its own.
ALICE looks identical to BODY.
• α • ω •
Often, sitting amid a roomful of people, I still feel as if countless invisible hands are touching my hair and stroking my neck, or tracing the curves of my ears with their fingertips. These feathery-light touches feel like the hands of disembodied children, or of ghosts. With practice, I find I am able to quiet my head-jerking tics (which never dispel the creepy caresses anyway) by centering the all sensations in one spot on the back of my neck, like the gentle breath of someone standing close behind me.
I find this breathing soothing. I imagine I have a quiet companion trusting me to lead her out of darkness and back to light, though I don’t know who she is.
I like to pretend she is myself.
• α • ω •
SETTING: The stage is dimly lit, as if at dusk. It appears empty at first, until a soft spotlight comes up directly over center stage to show a single chorus member standing alone.
He wears a black robe. His white clay mask is expressionless.
The mask begins to grow. It swells until it hides the actor’s body from view and seems to hang in the air, unsupported and weightless. After a pause the length of a heartbeat, the mask explodes like silent fireworks into glittering flashes, with hints of smoke and traces of descending ash.
The twinkling bursts resolve into the shape of a woman. She is robed but unmasked.
The woman takes one step downstage and stares directly at the audience, breaking the fourth wall. She slides her robe off her shoulders and lets it fall in a tangle of fabric at her feet. Her revealed body is a gleaming column of marble.
From numerous scars drawn across her skin, light beams emerge. Their effulgence expands until her whole body shines like white hot brilliance at the center of a fire or in the corona of a star.
She tilts her head back and opens her throat as if to shriek or howl.
Instead, a single note: at once keening and joyful, pitched impossibly high, held improbably long. Her singing is the sound of starlight.
Slowly, with infinite patience, the curtains draw closed upon both song and singer.
(END OF POST)
# # #
“This marble column, gleaming” is part of an ongoing memory project.
Previous installments can be found here.
†In the DSM-5, DPD was combined with derealization and is now classified as DDD, or “Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder,” which also explicitly excludes cases in which symptoms result from medications or other drugs.