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The Magic Of The Lizard Self

On the bodily experience of crisis and the importance of cognitive dissonance.

February 11, 2020

July Westhale
lizard by Dylan Baugh

he older I get, the more in tune I feel with the animal of my body.

Hear me out — I’m not saying this cavalierly. I’m not talking about connecting to my primal instincts or tapping into a kind of annexed consciousness, though I wholly believe in those modalities, too.

What I’m talking about is the very bodily experience of crisis. The ways our brain, in all of its loving, wise, sometimes ill-equipped prudence, tends to go into overdrive when a big, de-stabilizing event (or, in this case, series of events) happens.

I’m talking about the moment, in The Year of Magical Thinking, when Joan Didion decides to not throw away her dead husband’s shoes because you know, he might need them. I’m talking about the trauma relationship between Francis McDormand and Woody Harrelson in Three Billboards — the moment when, mid-fight, Sheriff Bill Willoughby spits blood, and the two of them crumble in the knowledge that he is about to die. I’m talking about the moments when we learn of someone’s death, and write to them all the same.

It’s a kind of cognitive dissonance. Okay. It’s exactly cognitive dissonance. But because it’s tapped into some kind of unconscious knowing — connected to the body, through the hallways and byways and high roads of our brain’s shadowlands — it does seem magical. Doesn’t it?

By cognitive dissonance — since we all have different ideas of what happens when our selves astrally-project away from our brains — I mean the totally brilliant moment when you recognize two (or more) simultaneous (and often conflicting) truths and choose to believe them both at once, despite all of the evidence that one is not quite reality.

Example: last year, when my friend Bean died, and I heard the news of their passing, then texted them to ask if it was true. I knew in that moment that my friend would never get that text, much less respond, but the need to send it to verify was overwhelmingly, physically strong.

Example: one year, while going through a particularly heinous breakup, and while also in class (I was in an MFA program), I snuck to the bathroom to sob and then ended up having sex with another person who just so happened to be in there at the same time. I was both devastated, and also carnally-motivated. I didn’t particularly like the person I slept with, and they knew it and I knew it, but the need to be fucked into a different self, in that moment, overtook me.

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I also think, like most nebulous magic, it changes and evolves, makes itself more or less known, takes over or holds back — as we get to know ourselves. This could be through the power of therapy, somatic practices, meditation, exercise, sex, substance, healing through intimacy — whatever it is that moves at an octane different than normal so that you’re marginally unself-ed while doing it.

That’s the important bit: the psychic contrails, the specters left behind in this rapid, unlikely movement.

As I’ve gotten older, navigating crisis hasn’t always come with the intense, physical need to respond, but that dissonance is still there. It’s just a little quieter, a little more considered.

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A decade ago, I worked as an Outreach Director for a methadone dosing clinic in Hunters Point, which serviced mostly Black, HIV+, homeless men. My boss, Alfreeda, used to tell me that there was very little separating us from our clients — it’s easy, she’d say, to find yourself lost.

My interpretation of that has always been: it doesn’t actually take very much to get to the bright line, the very thin moment that separates an abundant, well-resourced you to a scarcity-driven, stretched weary you.

For me, that moment was rats.

While the home I’ve lived in for the last near-decade has always had problems (break-ins, busted pipes, gas leaks, broken heaters, a brick thrown through the front window, flooding, caved-in ceilings, rotting, backwards windows, terrible neighbors, no insulation — to name a few), it was offset by two very distinct things: it was beautiful, and it was cheap.

The terrible thing about beauty is that we become accustomed to it.

I always think of that scene in All About Eve, when the woman whose husband is cheating on her says that heartbreaking thing I’m about to bastardize — something about how all of the things her husband once loved about her are still radiant…

But he’s just grown too used to them. They no longer marvel.

I remember the day I moved into my house. I took in the golden wallpaper and the vining plants and the abundant sunlight and I said to myself, don’t you ever grow old of this.

The other terrible thing is that nothing in Oakland stays cheap forever.

For the past two years, it seems like my home has bucked up in rebellion against me: terrible neighbors, busted windows, a mainline plumbing issue, four inches of standing water, and a fridge that has refused to work in over a year.

The last straw? I was homesick on Thursday and, coming into the kitchen for a post-nap pear, discovered a rat sitting on the dining room table, eating my pear.

After having a meltdown that included scooping all of my animals and evacuating my house in my slippers, I called my landlord with all of the casualness I could muster.

“Saw a rat today in the kitchen,” I managed to get out.

“Oh yeah!” his roommate answered. “We’ve been having that problem for months.”

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We all have our wounds and behavioral manifestations of said wounds. I have friends who always carry abundant amounts of snacks, having suffered from food insecurity as children. I have friends who take their most prized belongings with them wherever they go, having never felt secure in their childhood living spaces.

As a child who moved around a lot due to family upheavals and generational income insecurity, I also suffered well into my twenties from not having access to safe, clean, affordable living spaces.

For me, my phobia of rodents — which I can now fully say is my bright line — comes from the complicated place of a) actual fear for the safety of myself and my loved ones and b) the nuanced and twisted-together mess of what rodents indicate to me: filth, poverty, and the inability to access clean and habitable residences.

There is, I suspect, a deep part of me that still does not believe I deserve beautiful, affordable, safe housing — that it is a dream too swollen for my small life.

And while I rationally understand exactly where this thought is coming from, I also, as a person now in my thirties, with a savings account and a robust community and access to resources, know that I am privileged and allowed to do what I can to care for myself and my family.

In the car with my two terriers whimpering in the backseat and the cat making sad whale sounds from her carrier, I called my landlord back and told him I was moving out completely.

It is one thing to come into the limbic or lizard self of feeling or reacting rather than taking a minute to respond — to ground, to give context, to take breaths, to turn your face to the sun. The incorporation of the two is something I’ll spend my life learning to do — but at least the latter is now an option. I spent years not knowing I could self-soothe.

Perhaps the lizard self is part of the cognitive dissonance, the known plurality of two opposing selves that exist together but in opposition.

Crisis is real, no matter how small it might seem from outside, or years later, through the dishonesty of hindsight.

Because this is an essay and must be tied up with a bow — though the process of navigating crisis and trauma as a non-static entity (i.e., as a human) who is particularly interested in my capacity for healing is anything but simple, or tidy — I’ll tell you what I’ve learned: Be kind to yourself — put a hand to your chest. Feel your own self continuing to survive.

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When I was younger and had less self-soothing, less resources, less..skills… It’s almost as if the physical responses to things functioned as a kind of way to shock or jolt me into action. This makes perfect sense; what else is going to work on dissociation but the extreme? And now that I’m older, there’s a throughline of stability, even when things are rocked, foundationally. And perhaps, in addition to that, there’s the very clever wisdom that life simply must be dramatically altered from time to time, in order to keep us moving along and learning and evolving.

I have loved the house I’ve lived in for the past almost-decade. It was the first thing in my adult life that offered itself to me as a sign that I could hope for, and have abundance. It held me as I went through the worst — and best — of my twenties: breakdowns, hilarious dating escapades, poverty, the deaths of family, the deaths of friends, falling in love, writing every single one of the five books I’ve written.

Friends came to my house to seek refuge, to stay when they had no resources, to try to get pregnant, to connect with lovers, to write/create art, to pursue scholarship, to get sober. My house has held animals — my own, those of my community, and the weird time I had a dog boarding hustle. I’ve gone out of my mind on MDMA in that living room, and fucked on those countertops and cried in that entryway and conceived of entire, beautiful, brilliant lives for myself in my bedroom.

The throughline is the bright, beautiful, tumultuous, entirely human self.

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