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?


Still a fighter

May 14, 2014

Last Saturday I took an acting master class with Constance Macy at Cardinal Stage Company. In one of the exercises, two people took the stage with a set of keys. Person A was supposed to try to get the keys from Person B. Their only line was, “Give me the keys.” Person B could speak if they wanted, but they were not to give up the keys. It was an exercise in seeing how many interpretations could be brought to a single line. It was also an exercise in responding to what your partner gives you, similar to the “Yes, And” improv game.

There were two pairs who went before me and I saw them being clear, powerful, wheedling, seductive, and threatening. But nobody was doing what I felt in my gut. I jumped up at the next chance and took the keys. I would be the “no” character. My partner was a tall, middle-aged, talented man who is currently working on Les Mis at Cardinal. I felt a little intimidated because I’d seen him in a few things and he definitely knows his stuff.

Unlike the people before us, he’d come up with a reason for wanting the keys: I had had too much to drink and he didn’t want me driving home. This was a good reminder to me to give lines a context. But I was immediately belligerent. “No fucking way. You want the keys, come and get them!” He circled around me (everybody did that, it must have been the most obvious character choice) but I stayed hostile and kept my distance.

Then I followed my instincts and got right up in his face. He was yelling at me and I was giving it right back. I felt adrenaline coursing through me and I was on a kind of high as I prepared to fight him. I held the keys in my right hand up near his face, taunting him. He grabbed that arm really hard and stared me down, really angry, really wanting the keys, yet not willing to take it to the next level and hit me. I then did something quintessentially me: I tossed the keys from my right hand to my left hand right in front of his face. No words, just the motion that said, “Ha ha, I am in control here, I’m going to show you how puny you are.” I felt like I was a teenager. He squeezed my arm even harder (Method, anyone? I thought for sure I would bruise, it hurt all day) and we just continued staring each other down, right in each other’s faces, until the instructor called “Enough!”

I found it fascinating that it was so easy for me to go back into that part of myself. After I was raped repeatedly by a friend’s father when I was between 8 and 10, I started beating up boys. I had all this rage inside of me and I resented the societal order that gave all the privileges to men. I never beat up girls; rather, I was their protector. Especially as we got older and the boys started making unwanted sexual advances on the girls, I would call them out after school or at the football games (I eventually was banned from the games for fighting so much) and I would beat the crap out of them.

I was under a lot of pressure to stop fighting. My parents, the principal and vice-principal, the teachers—all the adults in my life wanted me to “stop acting like a boy.” They wanted me to be “ladylike.” My vice-principal said, “Carol can’t decide if she wants to be a boy or a girl.” The pressure just mounted and mounted. I still feel it as a physical weight, pressing me down.

And so I snapped. The same year I stopped fighting boys, I started cutting myself. That was acceptable. That was ladylike.

For most of my life, people have been uncomfortable around me. I have been a polarizing figure. The way I look, the way I talk, the way I move, the way I think, the values I hold dear, are all threatening to a lot of people. And they try to disappear me. Self-mutilation was a good thing for them because it could always be ignored. I could come to the dinner table swathed in bandages and not a word would be said, but if I punched a boy in the face there were his parents to contend with. Better that I should be docile.

When I was 17 I started fighting again, only this time it wasn’t physical. And it was against injustice in general, not just men. I protested with words and deeds but I had been converted to non-violence and civil disobedience. My family didn’t respond well to that. We were a classic alcoholic family and I was threatening to disrupt the lie that we were happy and normal. They turned against me in the end. It got physically violent. My therapist says that was their fault but I still feel responsible because I was so provocative.

There was one time where one of my brothers and I were in a room yelling at each other. He reached his limit and tried to flee. I dashed over to the door before he could get there and, just like on Saturday, got right in his face and taunted him. He grabbed me by the throat and threw me across the room. I got up in a flash and charged after him down the hallway, screaming, “You’re shit! You’re shit! You look down inside yourself and all you see is shit!” It was true and I was reveling in the freedom of finally yanking the rock up and exposing the sordid underbelly of our family dynamic. By “forcing” him to be violent towards me, I had exposed him. And I was on cloud nine.

There were other incidences, all following the same pattern. It was not pretty. But I actively wanted them to be violent towards me, to break the lie that said we were a happy family. I hated the deceit of the dysfunction we were living. There came a moment where my life was in danger and all I could think was, “Do it.” Not just because a part of me wanted to die. More than that, it was so that it would prove, once and for all, that we were not the controlled, polite family projected in Sears portraits on the wall. I would rather die than perpetuate the lie.

And apparently that impulse is still somewhere inside me. Don’t piss me off. 😉