Now we come to the final post on Feelings of Being and my thoughts on this book. Previous posts are:
- Part I: Background on phenomenology
- Part II: Minds and horizons
- Part III: Delusions, poetry, and propositions
- Part IV: The mad movement
Let’s summarize the ideas so far:
- Phenomenology gives us a framework for understanding mental illness as its a philosophy grounded in the absolute nature of the subjective
- Existential feelings are feelings that are constitutive of the world
- Constitutive feelings build a person’s ability to relate to the world around them, both in their understanding of it and the interface of objects within it—what you can do with the things around you
- This view of the world in terms of understanding, past, future prediction, and interface is what’s called the phenomenal horizon
- Many—most?—mental illnesses can be understood as existential feelings that lead to a horizon that is lacking in some ability to relate to the self, others, and the rest of the world
- Much of what we consider separate mental illnesses are actually on a spectrum: the difference between the Cotard delusion (the expressed profession that one is “dead” or “not real”) and depression is mostly one of degree and ability to express the horizonal loss experienced
- Delusions are not propositional statements but are non-literal, poetic, ways of conveying experiences that are not straightforwardly explained in language
- The phenomenologic understanding of subjectivity gives us a theoretical underpinning to the ideas of the early mad movement
Now, what are we going to talk about in this final part? I want to talk about the ways that existential feelings relate to cPTSD in particular, with an emphasis on a topic I’m personally familiar with: early childhood sexual abuse.
My basic point is that cPTSD is best understood as a kind of deep-seated horizonal damage, that it’s a world-constituting feeling. My evidence of this claim is going to be more based on my personal experience rather than a rigorous argument. Given that this is about subjective experience in the first place, I think I can be forgiven for this indulgence.
Growing up as I did means that there are many things that don’t occur to you naturally, or at least not without years of concerted effort and retraining. Things like
- the right to bodily autonomy, the ability to say no to people who assert their right to touch you or comment on your appearance
- For example, the first doctor I went to see to get a prescription of hormones groped me during the monthly visits she asked of me. I could, of course, physically stopped her. To do so didn’t even occur to me.
- the right to make your own decisions or question the decisions of others
- the right to disagree with opinions, particularly from people who assert moral authority
- the right to disagree with facts
- My biggest example of this is that until my late 20s I didn’t know how tall I was. Which sounds bizzare until I explain that my father insisted that he was roughly 5’11. I am a few inches taller than him. When my height was measured it said that I was a bit over 5’10. There was an unresolvable contradiction until, as an adult, it finally occurred to me that he was exaggerating his height.
Now some of these behaviors get called “learned helplessness”, a term that I quite dislike. Not just because of the implications of the phrase but because I think it’s the wrong emphasis: this isn’t helplessness, this is horizonal deficiency and damage.
In other words, it’s not that it doesn’t occur to you to take matters into your own hands it’s that you are alienated from even the knowledge that there is anything possible to do.
My partner Tor once gave an analogy for this experience: it’s like growing up shackled in a room with the key within arm’s reach, but you’ve never seen a key used, you don’t know what keys are, and you’ve never had your shackles unlocked. The problem isn’t that it doesn’t occur to you to try the key in the lock, the problem is that the categories of “key” and “lock” are inaccessible to you.
I have often felt, in my life, that trying to convey this experience sounds as “crazy” as when something experiencing Cotard describes themselves as dead: only, what we’re experiencing isn’t “crazy” it’s very real, very visceral in the body. In fact, I don’t know if there’s anything that’s “crazy” in the common sense of the word—but that’s neither here nor there right now.
I have seen the way people look at me when I talk about growing up or the way it effected me. I have seen the mixture of pity, confusion, and disbelief. I have heard all the “why didn’t you _” questions that I can’t respond to beyond trying to explain what it’s like to have entire classes of thought be unthinkable.
It is an experience that can’t be conveyed in ordinary language nor easily understood by those cannot relate to it.
Even though the text offers very little in terms of therapeutic tools based on these observations, I deeply appreciate the phenomenologic framework Feelings of Being provided for helping me connect cPTSD to other experiences of extremely difficult mental illness. Recently David MacIver, who recommended the book to me in the first place, commented that it seemed like I got a lot more out of the book than he did. I hope this post explains why that might be the case.