Lauren Westerfield

Creative Nonfiction

Lauren W. Westerfield is an essayist, poet, and editor from the Northern California coast. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sonora Review, [PANK], Hobart, Phoebe, Permafrost, Noble/Gas Quarterly, Redivider, and The Rumpus, where she has also served as an Assistant Essays Editor. Lauren is a Centrum Fellow and MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Idaho, where she recently earned Honorable Mention for the Academy of American Poets Prize. Other projects include work on CTRL-Shift, co-coordinating the POP-UP PROSE reading series in Moscow, Idaho, and serving as the Nonfiction Editor of Fugue.


The Need to Use Your Teeth

El Niño storms are eating up the sand of California’s coast, wet bite by bite. Think of the ocean as a body diseased—turning in upon its shores, ravenous and swollen. Gnawing at the sand like skin. Gnawing at the flecks of other little bodies—corals, mollusks, reefs—rendered pink or white or black, peppered over with volcanic glass. Gnawing at the borders of its own capacious body.

The hypnotherapist had two small dogs, white terriers. The more outgoing one always pressed his hot, squirming body up onto my lap as I tried to lean back and relax, week after week, in the beige pleather recliner. Lean back and relax, he’d say, even though it felt like something charged was moving through my body—something electric, something I could not release. Anxiety is energy, he’d say, his voice a murmur, Nutella-thick, behind my shuttered eyes. You are letting it consume you. You are eating yourself. The skin along my neck prickled and rose; I felt a swelling at my throat. What is it that you aren’t allowed to do? To say? Throat swollen to the point of shut—shut-up. Ask yourself: why this hunger? Why the need to use your teeth?

Lesch-Nyhan syndrome (LNS) is an endocrine disorder produced by gene mutations to the X chromosome. These mutations warp the body’s uric acid balance—a balance normally maintained by kidneys, by the way they cleanse the blood. In turn, the LNS-afflicted body loses other forms of balance: fluid levels, kidney function, neurological stability. Such bodies, thus disrupted, turn cannibal. As children, patients with LNS begin to bite and chew their lips and fingers, to experience involuntary or compulsive motion of the limbs. Strange appetites; unbidden flails. Nearly all recorded cases of full-fledged LNS occur in males. But there are milder cases—less serious, less obvious—and these can occur anywhere, in any body.

I started biting young. Age three, or maybe four. The inside of my lower lip, the plump smooth flesh against my cheek, the soft tissue up against my nails and cuticles. Nicks and bites to peel off flecks of pink-white skin. A nervous habit. Nervous, as in: edgy, jumpy, skittish, brittle, tense. Nervous, as in: the Latin nervosus for sinewy, vigorous. Vigor, as in energy. Dynamic. Powerful. The boundaries of skin perhaps too fragile, too unstable to fight back.

Coasts, as boundaries between land and water, are characterized by the geologic nature of the land, which is unstable and often fragile, and the dynamic power of wind and sea. As a result, coastal environments are constantly changing as they seek to achieve and maintain equilibrium among the many opposing natural forces[1].

This hunger ebbed and flowed. Sometimes all I needed was a gentle pressure: teeth against my lip. Other times it soaked me through: this need, the gnawing. The hunger brimmed within me, coursing vein and muscle, compelling hands to rise and press, telltale, against the mound of cheek curved soft above my jaw. I was ashamed. I felt diseased. I wanted to know why as much as he did when, twenty-odd years later, I asked for help: body stuck against the pleather, warm damp of terrier breath against my palm. I wanted to know if there were others like me—anxious cannibals—turning in upon their shores. Wanted to know so I could ask them: why this hunger? Why the need to use your teeth?

A body is a storm-gnawed ocean. A body is volcanic nerves and pink-sand skin, wet tongue and teeth as sharp as glass. A body out of whack reveals pathologies. A body builds up waste when something can’t get out. A body is a thing of unknown hungers. A body is an ocean is a swelling is a sickness is a hunger is a swelling is a throat that’s swelling, swollen full against the portcullis of glass white teeth—and then it shuts.

[1] “Coastal Erosion and Land Loss Around the United States: Strategies to Manage and Protect Coastal Resources,” by S. Jeffress Williams, USGS, Coastal and Marine Geology Program. August 2001.

It’s funny how permission works—self-permission, in particular. When is it too weird, too intimate, to write about a sense of crisis living in the nerves, the skin? And when is it just right—the timing, form, container? For me, the answer—in relation to bad habits, bitten lips, tics I’d spent years trying to keep secret—came out of left field, in the form of research. Reading up on my home coast, on the disappearing sands, was like stumbling on an uncanny horoscope: myself, revealed in the ocean, in the details, at once damned and absolved.