An eye for an I! A beginner’s guide to auto-enucleation
I have to say that I have no idea what it must be like to lose an eye (i.e., enucleation) but one thing I can’t possibly begin to imagine is what it must like is to remove my own eye (i.e., auto-enucleation). However, there are many clinical and medical reports of people that self-mutilate by stabbing or removing their eye(s). Arguably the most infamous auto-enucleator was Oedipus (in Sophocles’ play) who removed both his eyes after he realized he had unwittingly slept with his own mother and killed his own father.
The psychiatrist Dr. Armando Favazza defines self-mutilation as “the deliberate, direct, non-suicidal destruction or alteration of one’s body tissue”. Dr. Niraj Ahuja and Dr. Adrian Lloyd writing in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry also add that self-mutilation relates to bodily self-damage without wishing to die. Dr. Favazza also believes there are three fundamentally different types of self-mutilation. Enucleation is included in the first type (major self-mutilation) and is the least common. Other forms of self-mutilation in this category include self-castration, penectomy (cutting off one’s own penis) and self-limb amputation.
The second type includes “monotonously repetitive and sometimes rhythmic acts such as head-banging, hitting, and self-biting” (which according to Dr Favazza occur mostly in “moderate to severely mentally retarded persons as well as in cases of autism and Tourette’s syndrome”). The final and most common forms of bodily self-mutilation are moderately superficial and include a compulsive sub-type (e.g., hair-pulling, skin scratching and nail-biting), as well as an episodic/repetitive sub-type (e.g., skin-cutting, skin carving, burning, needle sticking, bone breaking, and wound picking). Many of these self-harming behaviours are a symptom and/or an associated feature in a number of mental personality disorders (e.g., anti-social, borderline, and histrionic personality disorders).
Reports of auto-enucleation in the medical literature were first described in the 1840s. By the early 1900s, the act of removing one’s own eye was actually termed ‘Oedipism’ by Blonel. Auto-enucleation is (of course) exceedingly rare although a couple of studies in the American Journal of Ophthalmology (in 1984) and an analysis of 1,146 enucleations between 1980 and 1990 in the British Journal of Ophthalmology (in 1994) estimated there were 2.8 to 4.3 per 100,000 in the population. However, some papers (such as those by Dr. Favazza) on major self-mutilation have put the incidence as low as one in 4 million.
Enucleators are also known to be at increased risk of further self-harming, and (predictably) are more likely to be living in psychiatric institutions when the auto-enucleation event occurs. They are also at increased risk of removing the second eye at a later date if they didn’t pull out both eyes to start with. A review by Dr. H.R. Krauss and colleagues in a 1984 issue of the Survey of Opthalmology examined 50 cases of self-enucleation and reported that 19 of them had bilateral auto-enucleation (i.e., had removed both of their eyes). A 2007 paper by Dr. Alireza Ghaffari-Nejad and colleagues in the Archives of Iranian Medicine examined the many theories behind self-harming behaviour. They briefly overviewed theories ranging from Fruedian psychoanalytic theory to biologically-based theories. They wrote:
Psychoanalytically self-injurious behaviour has been linked to castration and explained as a process of failure to resolve oedipal complex, repressed impulses, self punishment, focal suicide and aggression turned inwards especially in cases of depression. [Other authors] have postulated interpersonal loss preceding self-injurious behaviour and linked it to rejection sensitivity…Biologically serotonergic depletion preceding self-mutilation has been linked to aggression and depression…Some authors have claimed strong moral, religious and delusional component”
A recent literature review by Dr. Alexander Fan in the journal Psychiatry reported that the vast majority of auto-enucleation cases suffer from psychotic illness (particularly schizophrenia) although other medical and/or psychiatric conditions associated with auto-enucleation include obsessive-compulsive neuroses, severe depression, post-traumatic stress disorders, drug-induced psychoses, bipolar mania. There are also case studies where auto-enucleation has been linked with structural brain lesions, Down Syndrome, epilepsy, neurosyphilis, and Lesch-Nyhan syndrome (juvenile gout). These are similar to other forms of extreme self-mutilation. For instance, self-mutilation in schizophrenia in response to auditory hallucinations has often been described as Van Gogh Syndrome (in reference to the painter’s self-excision of his own left ear)
Other reviews of the psychiatric literature have reported that those who remove their own eyes commonly have delusions (typically sexual and/or religious) and that when asked about motivations for self-harming include reasons such as guilt, atonement, sin, evil, etc. Although some authors have noted that enucleators with religious beliefs are often Christian, other case studies have made reference to other religious faiths (e.g., Muslims). Finally, another paper by Favazza in Hospital and Community Psychiatry concluded that:
“Males in a first episode of a schizophrenic illness that is characterized by delusions associated with a body part or religious delusions are at the greatest risk for MSM [major self-mutilation]. However, MSM of this severity is so rare that it cannot be predicted accurately unless there has been a previous attempt at self-injury or the patient has spoken about wanting to remove or injure an organ. Threatened ocular mutilation deserves special mention because it may occur in a hospital setting, and the case histories suggest that one-to-one nursing is not always be sufficient to prevent enucleation”.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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Fan, A.H. (2007). Autoenucleation: A case report and literature review. Psychiatry, October, 60-62.
Favazza, Armando (1998) ‘Introduction’, in Marilee Strong A Bright Red Scream: Self-mutilation and the Language of Pain. New York: Viking.
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Ghaffari-Nejad, A., Kerdegari, M., & Reihani-Kermani, H. (2007) Self-mutilation of the nose in a schizophrenic patient with Cotard Syndrome. Archives of Iranian Medicine, 10, 540-542.
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Rao, K.N. & Begum, S. (1996) Self enucleation in depression; A case report. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 38, 267-70
Witherspoon, D., Feist, F., Morris, R. & Feist, R. (1989). Ocular self-mutilation. Annals of Ophthalmology, 21, 255-259.
Posted on April 9, 2013, in Case Studies, Compulsion, Gender differences, Obsession, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Psychiatry, Psychological disorders, Psychology and tagged Auto-enucleation, Compulsion, Delusional behavior, Delusions, Eye mutilation, Eye removal, Oedipism, Oedipus, Personality disorder, Religious beliefs, Schizophrenia, Self-castration, Self-enucleation, Self-mutilation, Van Gogh Syndome. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.