How to Hurt
Larissa Pham explores the aesthetics of suffering in our inner and outer worlds
I was told at age sixteen in self-defense class that if you dig two fingers under someone’s collarbone like a lever it causes them unbearable pain. To protect our sparring partners, we practiced it on ourselves to see how it felt, which is the same theory I utilized two years later giving myself a stick and poke tattoo in my friend’s attic apartment. Now sometimes I slide two fingers under my own clavicle to remind myself I’m alive, that I can hurt others.
First tweet after the breakup. “Cool thing about being raised Buddhist is that you grow to be really noble about your suffering.” I want to be holy, I think. I want to be beyond reproach.
Pain has an aesthetic; that’s why we use anaesthetic for its removal. It’s very glamorous to suffer but everyone knows you have to do it the right way, with grace and generosity. Otherwise your pain is as mundane as everyone else’s and no one wants their pain to feel anything less than uniquely palpable. When I was eighteen I learned how to cry prettily because my boyfriend hated me and we fought all the time over Skype. In the little window where the app showed the mirror image of me I could manage my angles, though perhaps it’s worse that I cared how I looked because he always wanted to control how I looked, too. He wouldn’t let me cut my hair and he liked when I wore feminine earrings.
Now when I cry I look up and let my lashes tremble and the tears come rolling out, sideways; the way pretty girls do in the movies. No grotesqueries. No wailing. It’s clean. After, he sends me home in a car. I resolve to be good. I resolve to be perfect. This resolution crumbles.
Water isn’t always supposed to be clear, though it’s most useful to us when it is. A sudden profusion of algae in a body of water – salt or fresh – is called a bloom. They occur when there’s an excess of nutrients in water, as in through chemical runoff or the dumping of fertilizers, though sometimes they happen naturally. Algae blooms can be enormously large, clotting whole lakes and churning around islands and continents. Some blooms can be literally toxic. Their consequences are often catastrophic, a chain reaction spiraling from the outgrowth of tiny, sometimes single-celled organisms that, from above, look like swirling clouds descending upon uninterrupted blueness.
It’s not pretty to be ugly about one’s suffering. This is a very patriarchal idea – that pain ought to be minimized and made small and delicate. Daddy says ‘be pretty’. Daddy says ‘pain should not take up space.’ I want my suffering to be totallyfuckable. What’s pretty: anorexia, cocaine, meditation. Not pretty: binge drinking, vomit, subtweeting. Outward expressions of pain are toxic, because ugliness is toxic. Abjection bleeds into everything around it, polluting its surroundings like a chemical reaction. Suffering holds its head above the algae, thick with pain, which is a color.
Or maybe if you pretend something doesn’t exist, maybe, somewhere, it stops existing. Like right now it still hurts too much. Sometimes, when it gets really bad, I imagine that I’m a creature made of light, and that the light is burning right through me, and then I don’t exist.
I want to be good, I think. I want to be so good you’ll want me back.
I love reading about saints. They’re so noble. They die so horrifically. My favorite ones are the ones as ascetic as I dream of being, the ones who go off into caves and grow unrecognizable. The ones whose starvation diets give them fever dreams. Are you noble if you deny, deny, deny? That’s a great question. Are you choosing to be noble for the sake of being noble?
Sometimes I’m fairly certain I have a holier-than-thou complex. I’m convinced that as long as I perform goodness well enough it’ll keep me from being susceptible to ordinary human weakness. This must be how you win all your battles, by being noble, and all I have ever wanted is to win, in the end. I suspect it makes me worse, that I try so hard to be good when there’s a selfish dirty instinct at the heart of it. It’s like minimalism: you have to have enough before you can content yourself with less. The effort must be made out of denial, not in one’s lack. When you read about saints you realize that almost all of them starved themselves in life, even if they took other routes to death. I’m referring to that corrosive elimination of self, which seems like the only route to ‘holy’ if you believe that kind of thing. I wish I did less. Asceticism is an unstable practice.
What happens when that purity can’t sustain itself? A lake is still a lake, and nobody gets to walk on water, even if its surface is clouded beneath an algal bloom so thick you could write in it. There’s no holding yourself above the pain that becomes you. The prettiest way to deal with pain is to hide it, but even a swan’s legs churn beneath the surface.
I have, beside the stories of denial and graciousness and purity, stories of how I hurt myself and others in terrible and messy ways. Almost all of them involve vomit, my least favorite way to excise something from myself. There was the time I said I was fine. There was the time I went straight from his house to fuck his friend. There are the weeklong, sometimes month-long binges of anonymous sex and sheets stiff with come, and so much cocaine my nose bled and my hair matted with grease, and my cunt nasty with sweat and my cheek resting on the toilet seat, and the long ropes of my snot and my spit mixing because I was throwing up and crying at the same time, and eventually there was nothing left inside me, not even bile, and still I retched.
There is and then. And then. And then. Are you still good if your motivations for being good are bad? Do all saints just hate themselves?
Do you really think you’re not like everyone else?
A toxic algal bloom is sometimes referred to as a red tide, though depending on the type of algae they can be anywhere from rust-colored to bright green. Blooms kill in a multitude of ways. They can contain neurotoxins that directly devastate marine life, poisoning up the food chain, which in turn kills humans who eat contaminated seafood. Their sheer numbers combined with their small size can interfere with the gill systems of animals, causing them to asphyxiate. And as algal blooms are allowed to run rampant they grow, die, decay, and deplete the oxygen in the water, leaving waste in its place.
Suffering has a long white neck and a bony clavicle. The long neck of suffering holds its head up above what threatens to make it less pure. Suffering’s beauty rests solely on its purity. I like to imagine my suffering as having a long neck as opposed to any other anatomical object because neck implies some kind of expanse of uninterrupted vulnerability. A pale underbelly to mimic the sun shining through water. Suffering is a swan. A clean bright creature rising above the green algae of a lake. White throat waiting for the guillotine.
Every day that self-defense class met I dreaded it, how unguarded I became, how visceral it made me feel, how I grew ugly and bruised and contorted my face and how we all perspired in damp patches that made the room stink. Still. I had to grow through it. Still. We’d throw ourselves onto the mats, over and over, our skin sticking to the plasticky surface, crystalline with sweat.
What’s the best way to hurt? I don’t know. I’m trying to find it. For a long time I tried to convince myself it was in elegant denial, but pain’s too messy for that. Denial is just the white swan atop the clotted lake. (You do not have to be good.) Does the algal bloom know it’s killing everything around it? (You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.) Is denying yourself the vital expression of suffering still as toxic, just at a slower rate? Does your suffering know it’s swimming in such toxic waters?
Why are you holding your head up like that?