How does one cut off one’s own finger with a plastic knife?

January 29, 2009 at 12:06 am (Tabitha) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

When I was thirteen, I was so convinced that I was in love with a boy. I was head over heels for him. Crazy about him. Perhaps a little too literally. For this reason, I thought it would be a great idea for me to carve his nickname into my arm using a pin. I wanted to be permanently marked by him. I, unsurprisingly, regretted this very quickly and had to scratch away all around it so that it was just a scarred patch, rather than a word. DUMB. For a while it looked a little like a birth mark, and now I can barely find it, even when I’m squinting… thank goodness! Did I ever mention that I was a little idiot as a teenager? Yeah…

Anyway, the point is, that I am comparably quite sane and much less hard core according to an article I read in the SMH. It informed me that Ivan Milat had cut off his own little finger using only a plastic knife and had put it in an envelope addressed to the Australian Government. This set off a cascade of thoughts which I will now subject you to.

I am aware that a picnic knife was probably not his implement of choice. I mean I’m sure it would have been much easier for him if he had a cleaver or an axe on hand. But this method,  even though it wasn’t his first choice… really shows determination, am I right? It just makes me think, surely there’s a point at which you’re cutting on yourself and the reflexive pain response would make you unable to continue?  Apparently not in some cases.

Like Van Gough, who famously cut off the lobe of his own ear lobe with a razor blade (or “riseuplide”, as Andrew’s Grandma’s hilarious book of Australian pronunciations says). And the people (who I have been unable to avoid seeing on Space Ghetto) who participate in Body Nullification, like the self removal of parts of their own genitalia.

How are people able to complete such feats of self mutilation in the face of such immense pain? I do understand it a little more if you’re in a life and death situation like Aron Ralston (warning: this video is a detailed description of this man’s self amputation and may be disturbing) . He’s the climber who had to amputate his own arm with a two inch pocket knife in order to free himself from a fallen boulder after 5 days of being pinned there by it. But, even with the knowledge that you will die unless you do this, and the endorphins and adrenalin pumping around your body helping you to survive and dulling your pain… this is extraordinarily excruciating work, and it’s incredible that anyone could see it all the way through.

I wonder if the motivation for the people who do this voluntarily is so strong that it overcomes their immense instinct to stop? I mean, Ivan Milat was attempting to send his finger to the Government. Maybe he felt he had a vital message to send them? One that could outweigh the pretty powerful desire to desist injuring his hand. Or maybe, his desire to be remembered by the public was so intense that it could spur him on in the face of huge self-induced trauma. He has been on a well publicised hunger strike before.

Maybe Van Gough too, felt that sending a message to the people he knew that he was in such distress was important enough to endure the discomfort of cutting off his own ear lobe. After all, he did it after a relationship breakdown and gave the severed lobe to a local prostitute for safe keeping.

Members of the Sadhus, a religious group in India devoted to liberation through meditation, sometimes walk around for decades with one hand continually raised, which can cause the fingers to eventually “withdraw into a stump”. Is this behaviour a self-harming attempt to communicate to others about their beliefs? I don’t know. If so, their need to communicate that message must be pretty damn strong.

I suppose it is possible that the need communicate a critical message  is all it takes to keep a person’s ‘mind over matter’ powers high enough, but somehow I doubt that it is the entire explanation in these extreme cases. I would argue that it is  probably a contributing factor only. I think it must also have something to do with the physical adaptations to stress, such as adrenalin and endorphins enabling you to do incredible things and bear much more pain than you ordinarily could.

It would not surprise me at all if Van Gough’s paranoia, delusions and anxiety could trigger his body’s fight/flight Sympathetic response to turn on. Nor would it seem strange to me if the same thing resulted from whatever extreme  emotions might fill Ivan Milat’s head at a time like that, possibly aggression, anger, frustration or helplessness.

Wiki tells me that a possible reason that a person might perform a penectomy on themselves is that they might view that organ, or masculinity (of which the penis can be seen as a symbol) as connected with rape, abuse or aggression. For some this leads to a desire to cause it harm or remove it from their body due to complete revulsion or a feeling of being dissociated from it. I can also imagine that having such overwhelming negative feelings about a body part of your own might be so unbearable and distressing as to cause your body to prepare for danger. Especially if you know you’re genuinely tempted to cause yourself drastic injury! I reckon that would get my heart rate up and give me a bit of a “rush”… not a good one though!

I know that some medical disorders can cause similar problems. For example, in Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome (a genetic disorder caused by deficiency in an enzyme because of a gene mutation) the sufferer uncontrollably bites their own lips, tongue and fingers and tries to harm themselves by vomiting compulsively, answering test questions incorrectly and refusing treats and rewards. This behaviour is exacerbated by stress. In many cases the physical damage is permanent. If you are interested in horrible things, there are some pictures of people with this disorder: here and here. This, to me seems in line with the idea that the physical component might be the largest one that allows this type of large-scale self harm to be carried out without backing out.

On a side note, some of the patients I was treating during my Neurological Placement in a Stroke Ward suffered from Hemispacial Neglect. When I would ask them to move an arm or leg on their effected side, the common, very calm, casual response was, “that’s not my arm/leg”. Most of the time they’re completely unaware of it, but when they are forced to acknowledge it’s presence they just claim it belongs to someone else. It’s interesting to me that these people seem amazingly unperturbed by the notion that a limb that does not belong to them is attached to their body. They DON’T have any desire to harm or remove this unfamiliar body part. I think I might, cos it’d freak me out more than a little! I guess this means that dissociation from a body part alone is not enough to cause extreme self mutilation. At least, not in stroke victims.

Conclusion? Git away…I aint got one! I was just musing :p



  1. andrewcrisp said,

    Who needs conclusions with links like these? I can’t believe that guy ate his own nose.

    I’m glad people muse about these things. Makes me feel a bit more normal*. I know many people would simply say “well, they’re crazy”, as if that adequately summarises what’s going on.

    I can think of a million things Ivan Milat might have wanted to say with the finger, and most probably it’s “Hi guys, I’m still alive! Pay attention to MEEEEEEEEEE!”, and you know what? If someone cuts off their finger just to troll people, that’s dedication. I’ll give them a few seconds of brain-bandwidth.

    *I know, it’s probably just Tab and I. But crazy loves company!

  2. juliadactyl said,

    I’m fascinated by this stuff, too! Also because Milat sent his finger to the high court, who have absolutely nothing to do with his case. SOMEONE should’ve paid more attention in his year 10 history classes, then he would’ve known this.

    But yeah, I’ve seen all the people who irrevocably alter their bodies (particularly genitals) on BMEzine, and it makes me feel good that I can’t really understand what that’s like.

    Or maybe I can, maybe it’s like my trichotillomania, but instead of being all “this hair is wrong, it needs to go” it’s like, this limb, this organ, this digit is wrong, it needs to go”. This makes me feel better, because hey, hair grows back.

  3. Danoot said,

    I can’t get my head around self-harm, either. Though I do understand wanting to mark self in ways (I have a theory that modern western society does a lot of weird shit because we don’t have any appropriate liminal rites, so no-one is ever sure when they’re a grown up or not, so people seek out experiences and events that they can use as a marking line, like, now I am a real person and a grown up, before I was just a kid. I will maybe talk about this later) and am considering getting Batman on my arm (and have considered having metal implants under my skin in my upper arm, also), I can’t get behind piercing and cutting.
    All my self-harm type things are just kind of conspiracy to fail, preventing myself from being awesome because sometimes I don’t think I deserve it, etc. Maybe I will talk about this later also!

    Maybe Ivan wants to be cool like Chopper?

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