Monday, May 05, 2014

Dragon-slaying is Overrated: Treatment, Tradition, and Taming the Tarasque

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten. –GK Chesterton, in “Orthodoxy”

 Most of us are familiar with the phrase, “Here be dragons.” In the days of yore (what does yore even really mean?) it was included on maps to indicate the outer bounds of what was known; the dangerous and unexplored territories beyond the limits of the cartographer’s knowledge. In a psychological sense, too, dragons may fill this function in fairy tales, myths and legends: something dangerous, something unknown or unknowable, something that must be battled in order to move on to the next stage of whatever quest is underway. One of the clinicians at the treatment center, in fact, has the GK Chesterton quote prominently displayed in her office. Perhaps that is why, over the last several weeks of my own questing—sometimes frantic, sometimes paralyzed, almost always overwhelmed—dragons, and the beating thereof, have been very much on my mind.

I, like most people I know, am most familiar with the story of St. George and the dragon: this is my understanding of how dragon-beating is supposed to go. Not just dragon-beating, in fact, but dragon-slaying—an important distinction to which we’ll return. St. George came upon a distressing tableau as he was riding through the Libyan countryside: A fell beast arching out of the water, teeth bared! On further examination, the beast was ready to devour a princess who was standing on the shore in all her finery, an offering for the good of the village (from a feminine and feminist perspective: SNORE. Again with the damsel in distress thing? Oy). At any rate, St. George charged the beast on his white horse, lanced it through the side, “wounding it grieviously,” and lo, the dragon was killed. Ta-da! No more princess-munching, no more havoc-wreaking. The dragon had been disposed of, once and for all. 

In our own lives, whether struggling with our own dragons or (as helping professionals) attempting to rid others of theirs, we often adopt this Western, militaristic, once-and-for-all approach; and, I would argue, to our detriment. True, there is something inspiring and intoxicating about the idea that our personal dragons—eating disorders, addictions, depression, etc.—could be slain at one fell swoop, over the course of a single (though no doubt draining and arduous) battle. After a month of treatment, we’re on a meal plan and regaining some weight, so the dragon of anorexia must be vanquished! After starting Zoloft and a few therapy sessions, we’re feeling better, so we have smote depression to the ground and it will never rise again. We’ve abstained from alcohol for six weeks, or six months, or six years. We have a sponsor. Surely the dragon of addiction has been pierced to the heart! 

Similarly, the treatment methods that exemplify modern profit-driven medicine, even psychiatry, are often of this type. Treatment for anorexia, for instance, focuses on behavioral methods (are you eating X calories a day? Are you gaining X pounds per week?) and once these goals are met, even if only for a few days, insurance is unlikely to continue to pay—there is no time for the investigation of the trauma, shame, or perfectionism that fed the disorder in the first place. The dragon need not be known; it must simply be killed (as shown by normalized lab values and vital signs). It is assumed that with normal blood potassium and borderline normal blood pressure comes relief from what is actually the most painful part of the illness—the incessant calculation of calories, obsessive body-checking, endless drive to exercise, the profound and heart-rending self-loathing. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Dragons have a way, like their cousin the hydra, of sprouting new heads and resurrecting themselves in new places if we take St. George’s hit-and-run approach. Yet what other option presents itself? If killing the dragon isn’t the way to peace, what is? 

This past week, leafing through one of the approximately six books I’m currently reading (a bad habit, as I now can’t remember which book I found it in) I stumbled upon the legend of St. Martha and the Dragon. My first thought was, “No, not THAT Martha,” but in fact it WAS that Martha, familiar from the Gospels. The domestic scold, or the faithful servant, depending upon your feelings—was apparently sent out from Bethany in Judea, and ended up (as so many characters in mediaeval hagiography do) in France. She came upon a small village near Avignon where the people were being tormented by a huge beast, part dragon, part bear, part lion, which lurked in the rivers. This monster was known as the Tarasque. It would regularly run ships aground, or sink them and gobble all aboard. Once again, it is interesting that dragons seem to situate themselves underwater or in caves—dark, inaccessible spaces rife with wild and shifting shadows, where they cannot be clearly seen. This is the quintessence of the dragon: in Jungian terms it would be allied with the Shadow self, that part of us that is neither ego (the way we experience ourselves, from behind the various shields of our defense mechanisms) nor the persona (that mask which we present to the world). This is the darkness that stands behind us, yet is attached inextricably to us, the part which not even we—and certainly not our compatriots, if we can help it—fully know.

St. Martha went to the people of the town, who promised to convert to Christianity if she could rid them of this danger. With this charge she strode out to the dragon’s lair armed not with a shield and sword, but with holy water and an armamentarium of holy songs. She did not go on a dashing, ethereally white steed, as St. George is so often pictured; she walked, connected to her earthiness, at the Tarasque’s level. She sprinkled the Tarasque with holy water, fended it off with the sign of the cross, and calmed it with her mellifluous voice. Thus becalmed, the dragon allowed her to wrap her girdle around its neck like a leash, and she walked it back to the village, tamed. This is the more feminine, Eastern, approach to beating a dragon, a counterpoint to the martial Western method exemplified by St. George. The dragon is not slain, but rather tamed; it is not hacked to bits, but is coaxed and seen and known. 

Though this method of beating a dragon—taming rather than slaying--is not the one we are most familiar with, I believe in the long term it offers the best chance for true healing and change. Violence against the shaded, reptilian parts within us is still self-inflicted violence; hating hate does not lessen it. Rather than charging bloody-mindedly at our injuries and addictions with lance in hand, perhaps it would behoove us to sing to them, tame them, get to know them. Note that this is not the same as agreeing with the dragon’s agenda. St Martha didn’t go to the Tarasque and say, “All right, let’s go eat some more fishermen. And how about attacking the village? You haven’t set fire to it in several weeks, from what I hear.” Rather, I imagine her saying, “I know you; I see what you are. I see what you’re doing, and why. However, you still have to get on this leash. You can’t hurt people anymore.” Similarly, our own dragons require understanding if they are to be tamed. What is a person struggling with alcoholism actually thirsty for? What is she trying to forget or numb? And most important: what non-drug experience could provide her with that same sense of heady intoxication, or comfort, or release? From there, the roots and functions of the addiction can be parsed, and healing can begin. What is a woman with anorexia really afraid of (mayonnaise, let’s be honest, is not inherently frightening)? As she begins her second hour racing around the track, what is it—in her past or in her present—that she’s running from? If her motivation is to have ironclad control, what in her life has been out of control, and how can that be addressed? If her motivation is self-punishment, what does she believe she needs to be punished for, and how can compassion and forgiveness replace that drive for self-destruction? 

In a way, St. Martha’s path is more difficult than St. George’s. The splatter and shimmer of a single, epic battle is replaced by the far more fraught work of dialogue and contemplation. It is a process rather than an event. It is (sigh) a journey. It is relatively easy to stay on a white horse, slashing at those parts of us we have labeled ‘the enemy,’ never bothering to learn their stories or their names. What requires true courage is venturing into the shadowy glade by the river, barefoot and afraid, and meeting the dragon eye-to-eye.


James Andris said...

Interesting and fun. In my early life, my dragon was weight control. My mother always bought my clothes two sizes too big and then fed me dutifully so that the transformation would occur, and it did. My diets were military campaigns against my waistline. Then, in retirement, I realized that I didn't need to diet, I just needed to control my diet. Dragon tamed, but like the elephant in the COPD ad, it's still just peacefully sitting there, and I notice it every once in a while in a bag of potato chips or a box of Bissenger's.

Evangeline Wolfe said...

Ann, I so enjoy your writing. Your insights on dragons are food for thought (yum--dragon meat!). Can't wait to read your novel. Sending you much strength and good humor as you journey through med school.