“Apotemnophilia” by Safee Ali

“Apotemnophilia” is published in The Hart House Review 2013.

Apotemnophilia 1

He’s going to do it this time, he’s really going to do it, he tells himself.

He is sitting in his darkened room in an armless office chair hunched over his pale left forearm. His downward gaze is fixed on his up-turned forelimb and he trembles irregularly. The interior surface of the room is stamped with a fractured field of faded yellow light that corresponds in a warped manner to the shapes in the outer stencil-like casing of the faux oriental style lamp that sits in the far corner. The filament of the 60-watt halogen light bulb in the lamp is weathered and causes the output of the light to also tremble irregularly.

It is not as if the course of action he is about to undertake has never occurred to him before; he has found himself in this starting position on several occasions, being held back only by the rationalization that he may simply be insane and that he has in fact been compelled to this course of action by a delusion, albeit a persistent and unwavering one. Yet even this rationalization that “he may simply be insane” is not cogent enough to render the feeling that pervades throughout his inner being any less potent. The feeling is an unrelenting intuition gnawing at the bounds of his psyche, trying to tell to him that there is something wrong, that things are not the way they “ought” to be, that the pieces do not “fit”.

At times, when reflecting on this feeling, he has understood what it has been trying to express to him. It has been saying, “It does not belong to you, this part of you, of your body. It is not yours.”

It has convinced him down in that part of people’s stomachs where conviction can sometimes really be felt that it does not truly belong to him, that it was never a part of him to begin with, that it is alien to him and a parasite with which he has maintained since birth a seemingly symbiotic relationship. But he knows it is not truly symbiotic, he knows that “symbiotic” entails a two-way relationship of benefit between both parties, and he knows damn well that in this bond he receives no benefits.

There is an antagonism between him and it: while he is desiccated, it thrives; while it lives, he lives longing to rid himself of it. He needs to cut it off, sever it from his self entirely, and he knows that when he does, he will finally feel complete.

He has now traced with a black waterproof permanent marker the line of incision where he will begin the operation on his left forearm. He knows precisely down to the millimetre where the parasite ends and where he truly begins.

It is not as if his left hand and partial forearm are out of the range of his conscious control, as if they act by themselves possessed by some demonic entity; no it is not like that. They respond to his conscious commands and communicate to him pain and pleasure just as they ought to. This is not the problem. It is that they simply do not belong to him, they are not his hand and partial forearm, and they were never his to begin with. He does not know whose they truly are, just that they are not his. This is the problem.

He is unable to describe this feeling of alienation in a very literal way to others. Even when he finds himself experiencing that rare sort of comfort with another human being that one associates with fragmented childhood memories of their mothers, or those of lying with lovers in post-coital pools of mingling breath and body-warmth—all attempts at a meaningful verbal articulation of this feeling fall short of anything intelligible. As soon as he opens his mouth to express the hidden disharmony within himself to another, it is as if the densely packed fervour that grips at his innards and causes them to writhe in bouts of anxiety dissipates into nothing but empty and disconnected vibrations in the air about him; as if his mouth is a portal through which only the most abstract and disfigured articulations of emotions can pass. He is bound to this measly degree of empathy among others, to this vast degree of estrangement, simply because he is a statistical outlier—a point among the edges of the bell-curve that graph the variation in human mental behaviour, a consequence of the commonwealth.

But do not be mistaken. This does not stop him from being “normal”. He is a fraud of the first degree. Carrying with him every day an impressive array of masks, he has honed the ability to change them inconspicuously as a sort of second-nature that has become a first. He goes about living his external life as one would go about dancing with strangers at a masquerade ball.

Still sitting amid a bullet-train of thoughts (the type of train that flashes by one’s understanding in a timeless moment but in reality would require very many minutes of speaking to describe thoroughly) he considers how he is going to cut through the thicker tendons and saw through the radial and ulna bones in his forearm without any local anaesthesia or an electrically powered saw; or how he will quell the consequential bleeding, which he imagines will come forth in spurts in sync with the outward pumping of his heart; and finally how he will make his way to the hospital where the professionals will do their best to salvage whatever mess he leaves of his own partial forearm. Now he considers how he will even make his way to the hospital’s emergency room without falling unconscious from blood loss or from the shock of such intense physical pain, and it comes to him that he could just die here in his room without even finishing the procedure.

How long would it be until they discovered his body? What would his colleagues at the firm think about the deeply unsettling circumstances of his death? What would his mother and his friends conclude? That he was unhappy with his life, and that his whole life up until this point was a sham underneath which raged an internal struggle between him and his impending suicide? How would they know that this was not what it was like; that he was able to find happiness at times and did have meaningful relationships with people, and that he hadn’t even meant to die, he had just meant to rid himself of this foreign entity that was his left hand and partial forearm, and that if this feeling of dissonance with this particular part of his body wasn’t so perennial and consuming he would never have even considered doing something so horrific and absurd as conducting a shoddy amputation on himself without any of the proper medical tools or drugs required to perform and undergo such a procedure—he stops himself.

He considers that maybe this isn’t the best course of action, and that he could in a few weeks use some of the vacation days he has been saving up for nothing in particular to fly out to California and meet with the neuroscientist at the University’s psychology department who had expressed interest in his case when he had mailed him a few months back about his unique and seemingly delusional condition.

He recalls that he was given a reply he never followed up on because he was caught up in administrative matters at the firm while simultaneously dealing with the recent death of his father. This barrage of emotional input had convinced him that he was simply insane and utterly selfish for devoting so much time and mental energy to feed this festering delusion of his, time that he could have instead spent communicating with his father who he never really had communicated with throughout his childhood.

Yes, he decides, he will see the scientist. He reclines his body, still casting a slit-eyed gaze at “his” arm.
The buzz of the apartment ringer yanks him away from his trance-like state of fluid thought, his attention flutters about and he realizes that he has made plans with an old friend for the night, that they will likely go to a quiet bar and when comfortably drunk, return to his place to watch a movie and perhaps smoke a strain of the pharmaceutical grade marijuana his friend receives for a chronic nervous condition.

He begins to put away the tools he has brought out and walks to the door, rolling down his left shirtsleeve, concealing the parasite once again.

From the Ancient Greek apo (away) + temno (to cut) + philia (love)
Noun. (psychology) A compulsion to become, or appear to be, an amputee.
Note: Although aptly named, the disorder seems poorly defined as the compulsion to become, or appear to be, an amputee is only incidental to the compulsion to remove a particular limb for reasons of subjective dissociation with the body-part. The definition seems to overlook an important quality of the affliction; a more accurate definition of the disorder can be found under that of Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID).

Safee Ali is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto who has spent the past few years studying various subjects in the faculty of Arts & Sciences. Ret- rospectively, this was in the hopes of flourishing into a contemporary renaissance man, only to realize soon after the infeasibility of this task due to the highly specialized structure of modern academia and his own unparalleled indolence. He has instead resorted to studying Philosophy. In his free time he likes to lament over his past decisions and procrastinate in general.