Relating to Quasimodo: The Abject Suffering of Self Flagellation and Ruminations
“The Flogging of Quasimodo” hits me at a very visceral level, as it taps into a wellspring of pathos, and a metaphorical empathy for the tragically miserable existence of Victor Hugo’s protagonist.
While I have not endured the abject suffering that Quasimodo did during his heart-wrenching time on this Earth, I do relate to him and his wretched existence.
While my Bipolar Disorder, my Alcoholism, and my other addictions have brought grievous suffering into the lives of others and into mine, and they are inextricably linked with the emotional/psychological wounds that I received in my family of origin, perhaps the most torturous pain I have experienced has been the mental floggings I have administered to myself, relentlessly and mercilessly, for the “crimes” of failure to meet impossible expectations and for being an unworthy outcast, like Quasimodo.
Having walked this Earth and having managed to function in society with a severe mental illness for 52 years, I have experienced some tragic blows and significant suffering. More than one painful divorce, bankruptcy, arrests, estrangement from two of my children for 10 years, three psychiatric hospitalizations for depression, mania, and suicidal ideation, a fall into a vat of caustic chemicals heated to 200 degrees, loss of loved ones to death, job losses, self imposed isolation, unbearable anxiety, the spiritually caustic effects of hatred and resentment, beatings, and more.
Yet none of these instances and periods of pain and suffering can quite rival the mental self flagellation to which I subjected myself for many years.
As far back as I can remember, I felt inferior and ashamed of who I was. The distorted and perverted version of “me” that my family planted deep within the fertile soil of my young psyche was that I was metaphorically like the hunchbacked, hideous Quasimodo. But unlike Hugo’s character, I wasn’t blessed with the knowledge that I had a good heart, and that my quintessential goodness greatly over shadowed any ways in which I might have fallen short of false social constructs and expectations.
So naturally, I “had to” find a way to compensate for my shortcomings and deformities. Growing up in a society where the twin idols of achievement and accomplishment are worshipped like gods, and in a home where perfection was the expectation, naturally I became an over achieving perfectionist.
I excelled in academia and at disciplined obedience. Hence, I was driven to be the highest achiever throughout my schooling. And to push myself mercilessly in areas of my life where I didn’t naturally excel. Both so that I could earn my right to exist. Every day I woke up worthless and had to create my value. It was like perpetually running on a treadmill, knowing that if you stopped, you would be diminished to an absolute zero.
In my mind, I had no intrinsic value as a human being. I was a human doing (John Bradshaw coined that) whose self worth was completely dependent upon my achievements AND upon the opinions of others. If I wasn’t achieving, I was worthless. If anyone, and I mean anyone, in range of my perception, had a negative opinion of me, I became worthless.
I was absolutely powerless over my need to achieve, my need to “perfect” every “flaw” I had, and over the opinions others had of me. The nature of this foundation for my sense of self worth virtually ensured that I felt worthless much of the time.
Despite having forgiven her, and despite recognizing she didn’t intentionally damage me, these deeply rooted distortions and perversions of my humanity were drilled into me through years of modeling and indoctrination by a martinet of a mother with a with a very harsh demeanor and a frigid heart.
Over time, as the indoctrination deepened and the pain of feeling worthless intensified, I developed self flagellation as a faulty coping mechanism.
My inner critic was born and grew more and more powerful as time passed. His role was to pounce on every little mistake that I made, real or perceived, savagely attacking me with crippling ruminations of an action I had taken that was imperfect -subjecting me to shaming, hateful recriminations and horrific anxieties while stripping me of my whatever self worth I was experiencing at the time, and occupying my mind to the extent that I struggled to function.
Until I started self medicating with alcohol in my early 20s, these floggings were a daily occurrence. And the longer the beatings continued, the more my morale diminished.
My self flagellation kicked in at about age 18. My response to it at that time was to restrict my food and run obsessively, which resulted in my weight dropping from 160 to 119 over a 6 month period. My body fat bottomed out at 3%. Finally, after three more years of torturing myself with no relief, I discovered the “magic elixir” of alcohol and would drink until I blacked out or passed out every time. Because that was the only thing that relieved my pain.
Today, by the grace of the Higher Power of my understanding, years of therapy and AA, prescribed medication, and the application of all the healthy coping skills and ways of living I have learned, I no longer have to suffer. That inner critic is still with me, and I believe always will be. I have simply learned to live with him, to appreciate the fact that he kept me alive as a faulty coping mechanism, to surrender him to my Higher Power, and to live in such a way that he is supplanted by my spiritually fit self.
God willing, and if I do my part, the floggings will, for the most part, remain a memory. And a voluntary return to that torment for anyone or anything is non-negotiable.