To cut

December 21, 2014

Cutting. Self-injury. Self-harm. Cool, precise, surgical terms. Back in the day I called it what it was to me: Self-mutilation.

I was 15 the first time I took nails to flesh. I had fought my last boy earlier that year and without the ability to express my violence outwardly my head was shriekingshriekingSHRIEKING and there was no-thought no-thought no-thought just dig.

Hm.

Dig again.

Deeper.

Flesh gummy beneath my nail.

Unlike the movies, blood doesn’t come pouring out. It seeps up. To quote myself, I was “digging irrigation ditches.” And there’s not much blood. Not this way. There’s just the digging, the gouging, and the blissful, blissful  s i l e n c e .

To quote myself again, “It would be years before I would see the parallels with drug addiction.”

Someone I love, someone in my heart, cuts on a regular basis. She started when she was twelve. She’s now eighteen. Her therapist tries to get her to exercise instead. Please. If you’re ready to cut, you’re lucky if you have anything in you besides an overwhelming need to do it do it do it. It’s all-consuming. This therapist focuses on the cutting and ignores the fact that my dear one doesn’t know how to feel her feelings. She feels deeply, keenly, and her only way of expressing herself is to carve love notes in her wrists and ankles.

I tell her that if she cuts safely, shallowly, in areas with lots of fat instead of nerves and tendons, she can focus instead on just trying to change one variable in the equation. She doesn’t have to pick up a pencil and draw a picture. She can just try to blink. One. Two. Then go back to cutting. Then blink. One. Two. Just try to interrupt the pattern. She hasn’t been able to change anything yet.

MytherapistLynn says all wounds can be healed but I don’t know. When there has been so much violence, so much pain, so much violation, how do you get to the other side? I can’t see it. We constantly make breakthroughs in therapy but I am moving in slow motion while time slides quicksilver by.

I started beating up boys after my best friend’s father, Ron Hampsten, started sexually abusing me when I was about eight. Or nine. Or ten. We don’t know because I didn’t tell anyone. And no one noticed. There just came a point after a few years where I was banned from the school football games because I was having too many fights under the bleachers.

I never fought girls. Boys were my enemy. Boys and men. Boys and men with the power to do all the things I couldn’t. Boys and men who would put their hands on girls and women unless I stood in their way. I beat them bloody.

There was a group of girls in grade school who decided they were going to get me, I don’t recall why. They were older girls and for two years they would pursue me on the playground. They never caught me. I remember clearly the day the group of them almost surrounded me but I ran to the juncture of two walls so if they wanted to get at me they’d only be able to come head-on. And no one could get me that way. They were tough girls, hard and wiry, who would let the boys stick their hands up their shirts when they played “nigger pile.” I was afraid of them. I was contemptuous of them. I wanted to be them. Powerful. Except I wanted to avenge all my sisters by beating back the hands of all the men and boys who had ever crossed the line. Who even thought about crossing the line. After all, it was our line.

I recall an odd instance in eighth grade art class where I challenged the boys to try to beat me at keeping our hands under hot water. One after another they tried putting a hand under the tap across from me while I let the hot water burn my hand red continuously, huge grin on my face. My skin could’ve come off in rags and I’d still be grinning. Because I could take it. I could take the pain. They couldn’t. I wonder sometimes if my lack of manual sensitivity dates to that time, if I did some sort of permanent damage, or if I was able to sustain the activity because my nerves aren’t as sensitive in my hands. I’m useless at all manual skill. My sewing is a joke. I have a slight perpetual tremor in both my hands. When I’m jittery, the rest of my body stays perfectly calm but my hands and arms spasm outward like some manual Tourette’s.

I started with digging. Gouging. It worked, so I did some more. I dug into the sides of my wrists, along the line of the bone, on both hands. A small, tentative start. A longer line next to it. And then one long canal on my left side, sure now. The voices gone. The self expanding into the void. The power of silence.

I remember my freshman year in college I was in a freakout in my dorm room and I smashed a light bulb against the door, sending glass everywhere. I dove onto it, snatched a shard, and dug it into my skin. And nothing happened. I keep pressing harder but it didn’t break the skin. Now it makes me laugh—all those movies where a broken bottle means blood everywhere, but here I couldn’t get shards of glass to even cut the skin. I smashed a plastic jewelry box that was the gift of my mentor and settled down with that instead. By that time I had long graduated from the sides of my wrists to the delicate interior at the base of the palm, plus arms, legs, face, ankles. I just wanted to cut and cut and cut. Mutilate. Let. It. OUT.

At Drake’s workshop this summer, he talked about the epidemic of self-harm among teens and how it’s perhaps indicative of a shamanic awakening. Ritual scarification.

I held my arm in candle flames. Just let the stink of the hair and the flesh fill my nostrils as I blissed out.

But the best part was the days after. In the moment there was just numbness. There was hardly any pain at all. But in the days after, oh, the pain. The fire. It was glorious. It was baptism. In the midst of all the grey madness, it was the one indication that I was truly alive. It was a clarion call of reality amidst the shadows that crowded my mind. I could doubt all else, but I could not doubt the burning. That gorgeous burning.

I remember being in a clothing store with my mom and sister when I was in high school. I reached out for something on a rack and as I did so, my sleeve rode up, exposing long jagged scabs on my wrist. My mother grabbed my arm and stared up at me with this overwhelming lost little girl look. And I stared down her eyes victorious. It was such a high. I had superpowers. Powers she didn’t have. I bore the stigmata.

My tool of choice at teenage parties was a bottle opener. Made for very dramatic gashes, and even more dramatic scenes as half-drunk girls screamed out loud and gathered around me, rushing me to the bathroom. The boys were silent and held back, unsure in the face of this women’s mystery of blood and toil.

Knives had their own kind of pain. It was very intense. A very fine line. There was more blood. Using my nails was more diffuse. Sloppier cuts but less deadly. It wasn’t until I was nineteen or twenty that someone pointed out I could’ve cut into muscle or tendons. From then on I was more careful.

I don’t remember why I stopped mutilating. I know I stopped before my Saturn Returns. In a gorgeous ritual I faced that side of my self, that side that sought to give me life by giving me death, and I thanked her and forgave her and let her go.

But I still have the urge. Frequently. It’s not surprising. I am still prohibited from beating the crap out of boys and men, which leads me to my fallback of beating the crap out of myself. I’ve held off for about twenty years. I don’t know why. Like now, as I think about it, I don’t really care if I cut myself or not. It’s not a big deal to me. But there is some part of me, some facet of this many-faceted jewel, that believes it’s important not to. High Priestess comes to me, takes both my hands, and says seriously, “We don’t do that anymore.”

Can all wounds be healed? I remember going in for an evaluation at a mental health clinic and after I’d filled out their ridiculous questionnaire, The Man asked to see my scars. I showed him. “Where are they?” he asked. “Right there!” I cried, waving my wrists in his face. Yet another time when I suddenly was thrown out of consensual reality and left terrified that maybe all these years I hadn’t actually been self-mutilating—maybe all this time it was hallucinations, just like all the other hallucinations I had. I twisted into multiple parts, fractured along my many personalities in that magic moment, not knowing where I’d come down. “And what is truth?” Pilate asked.

There has just been so much violence. So much directed at me. So much caused by me. I feel it in my flesh, in my muscles, in my marrow. I feel the impact on my skin. I hear it—Gods above, how I hear it!—in the thousand voices screaming in my head. I am staring into the eyes of a man who is deciding whether or not to kill me. He has his hands around my throat. And the moment just goes on and on….

How do I learn to live with what I’ve been? With what has happened to me? With what continues to happen? I am trapped in the past—PTSD makes sure you stay firmly rooted in the trauma, so it’s happening now and now and now and now and now and now.

I was crucified by time once. Long, incredibly thin, red-hot needles just poured down on me with every second, piercing my skin and bones. I could literally feel time. I was gasping for breath, screaming, pinned to the couch, utterly terrified. Would it ever stop? Because it was happening every second, every tickticktickticktickticktickticktickticktickticktickticktickticktickticktickticktickticktick.

How do you learn to live in a world where such things happen?

How can you be happy in a world where such things happen?

Today I finished reading a book about a woman whose entire life is ruled by her facial scars. At the end she walks out into the rain and her scars are erased. I felt this tremendous release. I wept. I want to be washed clean, too. I want bad things to have never happened. I don’t want to be able to still feel those hands around my throat. I don’t want that fucker Hampsten with his hands inside me. I don’t want to feel the thud of flesh under my fist. I don’t want to know what I’m capable of doing to myself. “I am Hitler, I am Stalin, I am Pol Pot.” I want to start over in the rain and find peace amidst the pouring water. I want to be able to smile and not have to fear that my mouth will keep getting wider until my face splits in half and my skull is revealed. I want to feel safe. I want to be safe. I don’t want to experience violence or cause violence ever again, except in defense of those who need it. But what I really want I can’t have. I want to forget it all. I want my body to be free of it. I want to be clean. But that can never be.

Can all wounds be healed? In a multiverse like ours, I suppose it’s possible, but just how many scars will I have? Would there be any part of me left innocent?

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The character of water

December 10, 2014

At the end of Season I, episode 3 of Xena (“Dreamwalker”), Xena and Gabrielle are at the side of a small lake. They have a conversation which has always struck me deeply:

Xena: See how calm the surface of the water is? That was me once. And then…(she throws a stone into the lake) the water ripples and churns. That’s what I became.

Gabrielle: But if we sit here long enough, it will go back to being still again; go back to being calm.

Xena: But the stone is still under there. It’s now part of the lake. It might look as it did before, but it’s forever changed.

I take it as it was given in the show—Xena realizes her dark past is a part of who she is. It began when she picked up the sword and embarked on a life of violence and murder. And now she lives with it. Her challenge is not to be controlled by her past, but to assimilate the stone and accept the changed self.

Messages of this kind always strike me because of my own past, where I have not always acted as I wished, and where I have been subject to the nightmare of mental illness. Many stones have been thrown into me. My journey now is to become calm, and make the internal adjustments that bring peace.


364 + 1

December 7, 2014

I performed this at the Storyzilla show last week. Names have been changed for privacy. The show was “Holiday Edition: The Ties That Bind.” My story was a series of vignettes that contrasted the family I had at Christmas with the family I had the rest of the year. Much of the comedy doesn’t come through the written version, so you’ll just have to trust me: Some of this was funny.

It’s Christmastime and my two sisters, my eldest brother Dyvan, and my mom and I are putting up the tree. My dad always says, “Why buy a live tree when you can buy a perfectly good artificial tree for much cheaper??” So we have this ancient, discombobulated thing that is so warped my mother has to tie it to the curtain rod over our bay window in the front room to keep it from falling over.

John Denver is on the stereo: “See the sunlight through the pines / Taste the warmth of winter wine.”

Christmas was a time of truce in my family.

Dyvan, his hair black and his face covered in beard and mustache, wearing a big plaid flannel shirt, takes the glass-blown spire and places it at the top of the tree, where there is always a white light shining.

[beat]

Summer, 1986. Dyvan and I are having a titanic fight in my parents’ bedroom. He’s had enough, he’s heading for the door, but I get there first, I stand in his way. He grabs me by the throat and throws me into a bureau. But I’m not done, I run after him down the hall, screaming, “You’re shit! You’re shit! You know you’re shit! You look down inside yourself and all you see is shit!”

[beat]

It’s Christmas Eve at Grandma and Grandpa’s. This could be any Christmas Eve from infancy to age 14 but perhaps this is the year I’m wearing the white polyester dress my mother made for me with the gold brocade waistband, my white tights, and my shiny white vinyl shoes.

We have about eight million relatives and they are all crammed into this tiny two-bedroom house. All of us kids are just squeeeezing through the adults’ legs in a bid to get to the food table. We are all sweating from the heat.

When we’ve had enough we go gallopingcharging up the Very Steep Stairs into the attic. The attic is finished off but there’s no heat, so we go from 90 degrees downstairs to 20 degrees upstairs. The change in temperature is like a slap in the face. We can see our breath.

But we don’t care because we are jumping on the beds and pulling out games to play and, most importantly, raiding the pantry for Grandma’s Marshmallow Fluff. When we’re done we go gallopingcharging down the Very Steep Stairs in search of the red, white, and green chewy mint candies that Grandma keeps in a clear glass Christmas tree-shaped jar on top of the 1956 stereo console.

[beat]

It’s summertime. Again, this could be anytime from infancy to age 14. Every year my dad gets three weeks paid vacation and for some reason decides to take the whole family—all eight of us—on a camping trip somewhere across the country. This is a mystery to me because [leaning into the mike] he hates us.

So we’re setting in some generic campground at some generic picnic table eating some generic food and he is yelling like he always does. I don’t know what he’s saying, I mostly tune it out, it’s always the same thing, “Why can’t you” “If only you” “You are all” “In my day” blah BLAH but the piece de resistance is when he looks around and yells, “Start having fun or you’re all grounded!”

[beat]

It’s Christmas morning. Like always, my five siblings and I go crashing into the living room to find an explosion of white packages under the tree. I pick up a box and, like always, it says, “To Carol From Santa” in red magic marker. I am holding out for a drum set but instead I get a record album recounting the story of the Prodigal Son from the Bible. Maybe next year. [Puppy dog eyes]

But I don’t care because it’s time for Egg McMillses! Egg McMillses were born after McDonald’s came out with Egg McMuffins. My dad said, “Why buy them when we can make them for much cheaper??”

So we’re all crammed into the kitchen, all eight of us, and each of us has a job to do. It starts with a toasted English muffin, slathered with butter, then grape jelly, then four whole slices of bacon, then a piece of American cheese, then a fried egg, then the top and oh my Gods I am slavering just thinking about it. Cholesterol BOMB and one of the best things you’ll ever eat.

But the thing I love about it is that we’re all in there together, everyone helping out, everyone with something to do.

[beat]

Three hundred sixty-four days of the year, my mother slips deeper into the bottle as she makes 13 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches—alone. As she fixes three square meals a day—alone. As she does at least three loads of laundry a day—alone. As she does all the sewing and darning and child-rearing—alone.

[beat]

It’s Christmas Eve. We are all gathered around the Nativity which is placed on a shelf in the bookcase which my dad made for my mom. There’s the white quilt batting that represents snow, and the little Baby Jesus, and all the familiar characters in plastic. There’s a beautiful warm glow coming from the multi-colored lights on the Christmas tree behind us and there are candles all around.

We are doing a ritual which the Catholic church has made for families. On Christmas Eve we gather and tell the story of the Nativity, sing carols, and recite prayers. One of those is the Nicene Creed, which always trips us up. We know the Apostle’s Creed because we say that every Sunday in Mass but the Nicene Creed sounds something like, “I believe in God….Uh, Jesus something? Ummmmm….He descended into Hell (that’s always easy to remember). Shmer shmer shmer, Amen!”

I look across the semi-circle to my brother Seamus. Seamus is the clown in our alcoholic family, all red hair and freckles and funny as hell but with a cruel streak where he’s always making fun of someone and inviting everyone else to make fun too and he never gets in trouble because he can talk like Donald Duck. And Seamus is loud and garrulous and angry and larger than life and there he is gently singing, “O come, o come, Emmanuel.”

Now it’s time for the family photo. Dad used to be a photographer in the Navy during the Korean War so he knows how to arrange us in two tiers and with the dog on the floor. He sets up the camera, hits the timer, and slides smoothly into place next to my mom. And there it is—click—the photo of the family we’re supposed to be.

[beat]

It’s August, 1986. I am standing in the doorway of my bedroom. My father’s hands are around my throat. And his thumbs are just twitching, twitching with the mad desire to snap down. I stare deep into his hazel eyes with only one thought in my mind: “Do it.

[beat]

It’s Christmas Eve. We are driving home from Grandma and Grandpa’s. We are warm because all eight of us are stuffed into the station wagon. We are coming down off our sugar high so we are sleepy. We are peaceful and happy because we’ve had such a good time.

We’ve asked Mom and Dad to please get home by midnight because someone somewhere has told us that at midnight on Christmas Eve, animals can talk. And we are eager to get home and hear what Shannon, our shetland sheep dog, has to say.

I am so sleepy. I slowly lower my head to my sister’s shoulder—this head which she has slammed in the bedroom door—and I drift off to sleep because I am warm, and I’m happy, and I’m safe, safe, safe.