Her Body is Burning

“Mary Sutton” is an assumed name to protect the author’s identity in an era of Google searches and background checks, and in a culture in which addiction is still a source of great stigma and shame.

It is 1991, and my body is burning.

Doctors mark my skin in ink, drawing borders around areas that are hot to the touch. Like wildfire, infection advances across these boundaries in a matter of hours, sometimes faster. I am possessed by fever extremes of hot and cold that refuse to be regulated. A river of antibiotics floods my system, killing good bacteria along with the bad. The boundaries we draw stop nothing. My tissue swells with poison and turns black as it dies. This is the nature of necrotizing fasciitis, also known as the flesh-eating bacteria.

Saving my life requires medical experts in infectious diseases, gynecology, plastic surgery and other specialties.

The only way to stop the infection is to cut it out. Across the entire width of my abdomen, down through my pelvic region and part of my left leg, metal tools carve into my skin, through the subcutaneous issue, removing everything above the fascia, and forever changing the landscape of my body.

* * *

Two decades later, in 2011, I was doing well at work as a corporate communications professional, had a loving spouse, and was living a comfortable life. Yet I had the nagging sense of participating in a sham. My skin felt too tight. I was agitated and uncomfortable. I wanted to break out of what I was in and enter into… I didn’t know what. I felt there must be something else, something more.

I began to have dreams. Night after night they came. Some showed me violence, loss and death. Some included images and iconography that were foreign to me, but which I later learned are significant in other cultures. Some dreams presaged events or conversations, teaching me that time is unbounded in the dream world. Frequently, the dreams involved animals. I researched their geographic origins, their spirit-totem associations and their habitats, trying to understand what they might be trying to tell or teach me. Initially, it seemed that most of the animals that visited my dreams were endangered species. Over time, the dreams made it clear that all animals, including humans, are endangered; again and again, I learned that the primary threat to their survival is our way of living. Through the dreams, animals became my primary source of awakening to the danger facing all life:

A reindeer, her dark hindquarters strewn with white speckle-stars, comes with her little one. I learn that the reindeer, and the cultures in which they are at the center, are in jeopardy.

A doe and her daughter graze in my yard until a lone gunman shoots them just because he can, then leaves them on my doorstep. I am catapulted into grief.

A mule deer teaches me that wildfire and overdevelopment are eradicating its habitat.

A snow leopard appears in the heat of the summer sun, and I learn that climate change and poaching are two of the greatest threats to her survival.

* * *

One night in 2012, I held the question before sleep: “Where is the rest of me?” I hoped I might glean insight into the source and nature of my longing, and the persistent sense that something was missing—something important, and maybe essential. In response, an epic dream-journey returned me to several life events during which had I left my body. The dream, which I titled “Re-membering,” allowed me to finally feel and integrate those moments of dissociation.

A bear comes and gives me explicit instructions for reclaiming lost parts of myself: “Go back to the woods. Go back to the water.”

I return to the scene of a frightening and painful betrayal in the beloved woods of my childhood home. Pinned beneath a trusted friend like small prey, my face in a bed of dead leaves, I feel confusion and terror, the threat of violence, as he mockingly thrusts himself against me from behind. I hear his dry laughter when he finally releases me, as though it was all a game. I want to flee from him, from our friend who witnessed and also laughed, and the flood of embarrassment, hurt and fury that fills me. Then, separate from the memory, I hear, “I wandered out of the woods and got lost.”

Next, I am in the hospital pool after the surgery for necrotizing fasciitis, where each day, my wounds are debrided in bleach water. I lie on my back as the nurse moves me around the pool, doing her work of cleaning the surgical site. My flimsy hospital gown floats up around my chest, exposing the rest of me. Looking up, I am mortified to see that through a window above the pool, I am being observed by a large group of residents. They see the most private parts of my ruined body, the body that even before the surgery was a perpetual source of disappointment and shame. I feel the violation of their unannounced invasion of my privacy, their detached, clinical regard for their “subject,” the nurse’s failure to cover me or turn me away from their gaze. Then I am alone in my hospital room. I slide out of bed and position myself in front of the mirror. Defying the doctors’ recommendations, I undo my bandages, and for the first time since the emergency surgery some two months earlier, look at my body, willing my eyes not to leave the mirror. It is not my body, not the one I remember. Spanning the entire width of me is a deep, raw, gaping space where the smooth white skin of my belly used to be. Gone is the line of peach fuzz that led from my belly button down to the curly dark triangle of womanhood—and that, too, is gone—all of it replaced by the glistening red hole where the center of me used to be. My stomach roils as my grounding gives way to an inky darkness of shock, horror, fear and shame. Swells of dizziness accompany tingling at the top of my head as I try to comprehend that the wreckage in the mirror is me.

The final image of the dream was one I did not recognize, and could not reconcile: A newborn is submerged in a pot of boiling water, then pulled out and held up with forceps. It is beet red, arms and legs clutched tight, its entire body trembling, its face contorted in a shattering scream.

I woke terrified and choking on tears. Afraid of whatever in me could have conjured this last image, I told myself it might be a depraved metaphor for something I couldn’t quite decipher, perhaps related to the bleach water in which my wounds were debrided.

* * *

One year later, I was reading Eve Ensler’s memoir, In the Body of the World. There on the page, in even more gruesome and impossible detail than in my dream, was the infant. A woman in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo, was telling her story to Eve, reliving it. Raping soldiers cut the baby out of her best friend’s belly, tossed it in the air and then into boiling water. The soldiers held a gun to the mother, forcing her to eat her baby or be shot. Eve writes, “It was here that I walked out of the world…. Here where I decided to exit, to go, to check out. Here in the suspended somnolent zone where I told my body it was time to die. It was not a foreboding, as I thought. It was in fact a longing, a decision I made…I saw how death had been my only comfort. I had quietly and secretly been moving toward it.”

Not long before reading this, I had a dream in which elephants self-selected to be culled: Take me. Take me.

* * *

I knew something about making the decision to check out of the world, had lived my own version of “Take me”. Before contracting the flesh-eating sickness, I was on a path to starve or drink myself to death, or both. Starvation took me out of my body, away from its persistent needs, its softness and vulnerabilities, away from its intrinsic and dangerous proclivities for “sinful” thoughts and behaviors. Control became my religion, and my body was my offering. Life lost all color and nuance. I began to see the world, to live it, as a series of extremes: good or bad, yes or no, all or nothing. I measured my worth by the numbers on the scale. Achieving “success” as an anorexic (and later, bulimic) became a solitary endeavor, one in which I was at the center of everything: how I looked, how much I weighed, what I would eat or not eat, how I felt, who or what might be an obstacle to getting what I wanted or needed. There was little room for anyone or anything else. My body became an empty, arid landscape—all hard surfaces, straight lines and sharp angles. There was no such thing as going too far or getting too thin. The sensitive, artistic, intuitive, and compassionate girl I once was got smaller and smaller. I was going to make her disappear.

Drinking, on the other hand, took me out of my head: a reprieve from the logic, discipline and control that dominated my daytime behavior. As the alcohol flowed, it carried me along, loose and free, from initial buzz to blissful oblivion, where I could feel nothing. When I drank, the introverted, prudish anorexic became something of a “wild girl”—I laughed too loud, danced with abandon, spoke with confidence, tested my sexuality. But, just as there was no “too thin,” there was also no “too drunk.” More was always better, and I overindulged—in alcohol, food, spending, and sometimes risky and irresponsible behavior. Most days, I spent many hours hiding in some bathroom, sick from the last night’s drink, or the box of laxatives I had eaten before bed, or a morning binge. The potentially rock-bottom moments—stealing from a roommate, sexual assault during a blackout, repeatedly soaking the bed with my own urine—failed to move me to change.

What the starving, purging and drinking had in common was to sever me from my heart, from the messiness of feelings. It was this I craved most of all.

Having finally depleted my immune system to such a degree that I had no defenses, my body succumbed to a shock-and-awe attack from Streptococcus A, the bacteria that caused the necrotizing fasciitis, and put my slow march toward eventual suicide on the fast track. That I survived is a mystery and a miracle.

Shortly following my release from the hospital, after the surgery that saved my life, I resumed a cycle of dieting, binging, and purging. And drinking. Having come so close to death, my body radically and irrevocably changed, one might assume that I woke up, took my great good fortune to heart, and made different choices. The truth is, I did not. I continued to struggle with disordered eating for another nine years. It was another eighteen years before I got sober. I never mourned what the illness had taken from me, never celebrated or gave thanks for my survival. I got on with it, pushed forward. I moved through the days functionally enough to acquire some trappings of “success”, and spent my nights in search of “the flat line” – a quiet state of numbness, a placebo for inner peace. Shutting down was reflexive, like a series of steel doors slamming shut from the pit of my stomach to the top of my throat and across my chest: Access Denied. Vulnerability, needing others—these were the hallmarks of the weak and undisciplinedand were to be avoided at all costs.

Now, nearly twenty-five years after surviving necrotizing fasciitis, and in recovery for the disordered eating and drinking that made my body an ideal host for the infection, I am beginning to understand that my illnesses were a microcosm of what is happening in the dominant culture and on the planet. Dreams have come to weave a story of connection and disconnection that has helped me begin to understand the nature of our world, though it has taken me years to piece it together.

The “Re-membering” dream tells me: “I wandered out of the woods and got lost.” In the moment of my friend’s betrayal, my body and the woods had become unsafe, and I fled them. In doing so, I quite literally became a lost soul, untethered and disconnected from my body and the earth’s. The bear’s instruction, “Go back to the woods,” suggests that to reclaim the lost parts of myself, I must return to the forest, rebuild my relationship with it. The bear also tells me, “Go back to the water.” I understood this to mean that I must return to the ocean—one of my greatest sources of comfort and inspiration. Along with bathing suits, I had avoided it in the years since the surgery. The image of the infant in this dream sequence connects me in an uncanny and terrible way to Eve Ensler, whose work has been significant to me since I discovered it in the late 1990s. We both have a history that includes being unable to really live in our bodies, and now my psyche and hers share this hideous image.

The dream of the elephants who self-selected to be culled helps me to understand the anguish of other species that are being asked to witness and bear the unbearable: the slaughter of their families, communities, and habitat at the hands of humans. If humans can decide that the only comfort or hope of relief is death, could not animals decide the same? How do we live with this possibility?

Through the lens of these dreams, I began to see that the cultural mindset that causes men to systematically destroy women and children in the Congo is the same mindset that causes them to brutally decimate communities of elephants for their ivory. It imagines, enacts and justifies horrors such as the genocide of Native Americans, the African slave trade, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the global war on women, and ecocide. It is this same mindset that caused a young woman to turn against her own body, to view it as an enemy to be dominated and controlled, and to ignore the grave risks and dire outcomes of her life style.

In my understanding, this mindset arises out of our profound disconnection from the earth, the great body from which we all emerge, and by which we are sustained. Life itself has become the “collateral damage” of our rapacious hunger for more power, control, property, resources, and wealth. We take with a sense of entitlement and impunity.

In Columbus and Other Cannibals, Native American author Jack D. Forbes puts it this way: “I call it cannibalism. …But whatever we call it, this disease, this wetiko (cannibal) psychosis, is the greatest epidemic sickness known to man. The rape of a woman, the rape of a land, and the rape of a people, they are all the same. And they are the same as the rape of the earth, the rape of the rivers, the rape of the forest, the rape of the air, the rape of the animals. Brutality knows no boundaries. Greed knows no limits. Perversion knows no borders. Arrogance knows no frontiers. Deceit knows no edges. These characteristics all tend to push towards an extreme, always moving forward once the initial infection sets in.”1

In my own prolonged state of disconnection, I perpetrated countless acts of violence and betrayal against my body. Eventually this led to a rapid and irreversible die-off, as infection devoured my skin and left only gangrenous tissue in its wake. Cannibalism, as Forbes describes it, consumes the lives of others; gangrene consumes its living host. I think about illness as metaphor and wonder if gangrene is a form of cannibalism turned inward—a disregard for the sanctity of life that can eat us alive.

* * *

During a recent meditation, I ran my hands across the forehead and down the trunk of an elephant, then along the broad and weathered expanse of her side. Moving around to the back of her, I regarded her tail, imagining I might hold onto it like a young one, following wherever she led. Before I could grab hold, she began walking ahead of me, turned back and looked at me for a moment, then continued walking. In an instant, she disappeared into a smoky blue mist with the words, “We are all becoming extinct.” I was bereft.

Whatever else may be required to bring healing, I have learned that I must know my grief: for the animals, for the earth, for humanity, the future, and myself. Occasionally, the enormity of it has overwhelmed me. But grief has brought me back into my body and my heart. It has been the glue that has helped me begin to reassemble the lost and missing parts of myself that I could not piece together even a few short years ago. I feel more human, more whole, for having entered into relationship with it. Sometimes when it comes, whether unbidden and urgent, or having simmered just below the surface before breaking through, I think, “Okay, thank you, I am still real, I can still feel, I am here.”

Each of us has a gateway, or portal, to our grief; the animals are mine. They are suffering greatly as a result of our ways of living. They are grieving, too. My dreams tell me that they want us to grieve with them for all that we have lost, are losing, and still stand to lose.

During the meditation, another elephant told me to go to Stonehenge. He said, “There you will know ancient. There you will know devotion. There you will know memory.” A Cree woman once told me that the Stone people have borne witness to everything since the beginning of time. Like the elephants, they are beings of long, long memory. Good teachers, both, for without memory, there is no wisdom. The real world wants us to remember how to live in a way that furthers life. It is willing to help us, if we listen for the ways in which we can ally with it and act accordingly. “I wandered out of the woods and got lost.” “Go back to the woods, go back to the water.”

* * *

Through my own particular suffering, dreams, and memories, I have come to understand that I carry the grief of humans’ disconnection from the body—the earth’s and our own—and the consequences of this disconnection. I carry it in and on my body, its scars the evidence of my betrayals. When, as a young girl, I wandered out of the woods and out of my body, I entered into the cultural mind of “I.” This mindset is the real disease. Anorexia, alcoholism, and necrotizing fasciitis were my symptoms, and, one might say, central characters in my personal story. I no longer experience the illnesses as “something terrible that happened to me,” but as allies that were trying desperately to get my attention and signal that something had gone terribly wrong.

* * *

Four years ago, I huddled under five layers of covers, the windows draped in quilts to keep out the cold. Outside, pines and maples, oaks and beeches groaned and cried in the night wind, their limbs snapping like bones under the weight of snow and ice. Whole trees came down with a sickening sound that knotted my stomach and brought tears to my eyes. This was no dream; it was Storm Alfred, which arrived in New England two months after Hurricane Irene, and four months after the Northeast tornado outbreak. I wept to a friend, “The trees are the front lines.” Alfred took thirty-nine human lives; more than a thousand trees are estimated to have fallen in Central Park alone. Twenty-two hundred trees in the New York Botanical Garden’s old-growth forest were damaged.

The following spring, I hiked through a local game refuge, and wept again at what appeared to me a battlefield strewn with bodies of trees. The woods on my own property have lost some of their density due to the storm. During the past two winters, they have thinned even more as the deer with whom we share the land have, seemingly in desperation, stripped the bottom six feet or so of the hemlocks for food. This year, for the first time I can remember, the brook on my friend’s property was bone-dry. My friends out West have been praying for rain for four long years; across the country, we are losing millions of acres and animals each year to mega-fires.

It is 2015, and Her body is burning… Wildfire… advances across …boundaries in hours…. Extremes of hot and cold refuse to be regulated… A river floods… killing the good … along with the bad. The boundaries we draw stop nothing…

When I do as the dream tells me to do, and return to the woods and the water, I am right-sized, no longer at the center or the apex of things, as our culture would have us believe, but one miniscule part of a living, breathing, interconnected organism that is constantly communicating. In the presence of brook or ocean, under a canopy of birch and conifer, I begin to remember what I come from, what I am made of and belong to, what I must attend to, and what is at stake.

About the Author

Mary Sutton lives with her husband and cats. They happily share the land with bears, deer, foxes, coyotes, rabbits, hawks, skunks, squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, vole, countless birds and crawlers, a gorgeous variety of trees, and generations of Stone people.

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