I started learning to dissociate when I was about 15 years old. Having just faced defeat in the attempt to liberate myself from the custody of my abusive father, the well-meaning adults in my life advised me to deal with his verbal/emotional abuse by just “blocking it out.” This often meant sitting in my room for up to 4-5hrs at a time while he stood blocking the door and screamed at me about how worthless I was. I used my mind to take myself somewhere else and did my best to just not hear the words he was screaming. The more I practiced, the less I was able to let in.
Despite the fact that my father’s abuse had never been physical (at least not in the sense of hitting me), I soon learned that I could do the same tuning out with physical sensations. At age 18 I attended my first real concert in NY, and I was physically assaulted by a girl who wanted my spot at the front barricade. She grabbed the skin under my upper arm and pinched and twisted it trying to get me to move, but I remembered that I could just block it out and not respond to her. I gave her an eerily calm look and she backed away, spooked, and the next morning I had a huge bruise under my arm but I was proud of having stood my ground.
A similar experience happened the following summer when I ate sushi for the first time. I was out with an older crush and his friends, and the friends were all egging me on to try the wasabi. I put a small piece in my mouth and said “Yeah it’s pretty hot.” They kept encouraging me to try more. Finally I picked up the entire piece off my plate and ate it. “Fine,” I said. “Yeah, it’s pretty hot, whatever, it’s not that bad.” My crush turned to me and said “Alright, now we bring out a candle to put your hand in and find out that you’re not human.”
Three years later I found the BDSM scene, and again, I found that through dissociation I could explore a wider range of play and also impress the sadistic men I wanted to like me. My ex the dungeon owner praised me very early on for being a real player, and not one of those girls who found S&M as a way of giving themselves an identity and wearing hot outfits. I don’t think there was ever a time that I felt I couldn’t safeword during our play together, but the incentive of approval NOT to was so strong that I kept pushing my limits of my own volition.
As a frame of reference, in my four years in a 24/7 D/s relationship I was (consensually) beaten, whipped, caned, suspended with rope, cut with scalpels, pierced with needles, electrocuted and literally set on fire.
I left the BDSM scene in 2008; I attempted a few power exchange relationships after that but my days of heavy play were mostly over. That didn’t mean that my dissociation was, however. I continued a number of physically high-risk behaviors (including parkour) and found myself continually having my boundaries pushed by men who didn’t want me to have autonomy over my body. I wouldn’t come to think of most of these incidents as assaults until later; I just knew that there were a lot of things that happened that, after my will had long been worn down, were easier to let happen than to fight.
In 2013 I broke my hand in parkour. I went to the urgent care because I noticed my knuckle was moving in a funny way that the others weren’t. The doctor poked at it. “You’re not feeling any pain?” “No,” I said, confused. “Wow,” he said. “You have a remarkably high pain tolerance.”
One of the things they don’t tell you about dissociation is that in order to make good decisions for yourself, you have to know what feels good and what doesn’t. For most of my adult life I made decisions based on what I thought, logically, should feel good, and not what actually did – because I couldn’t tell how my body felt about most things. This led me to a lot of emotionally and physically traumatizing experiences and also amassed me a lot of expensive shoes. I felt certain that if I acquired the kind of value that the outside world was telling me I should, then surely people would start to treat me better. At the same time I underwent long periods of depressive anhedonia because, aside from the presence of a lover I thought might serve to protect me from the ghost of my abuser, there was nothing that made me feel good. When you leave your body so as to not feel pain, you also rob yourself of the ability to feel joy and connection and pleasure. We lose organic happiness as the price we paid to survive trauma.
I’ve spent the past several months finally coming to an understanding that this is no longer an acceptable way for me to live. And it sucks. Going back into my body is one of the worst, most awful, most vulnerable things I’ve ever done. I’ve started to feel the effects of all the assaults I underwent, all the times I failed to enforce my boundaries because I didn’t feel that my internal experience was worth fighting for, and for the first time in my life I understand what survivors mean when they say they feel dirty. I feel the sensation of a million unwanted handprints on me, energetic bruises I didn’t even know were being left because I was so convinced that with the power of my mind I could make it as though they weren’t even happening.
One of the things my bodyworker Yerasimos Stilianessis said to me after our first session when I described this feeling was: “With this kind of healing process a person must ‘walk back through the door he/she came in,’ which is exactly how you described it. So yes, some of those physical pains, along with any repressed psycho-emotional ones stored inside most like will be revealed (they have to come up to be experienced before they go out of the body).”
This means as I keep going further and further back into my trauma history, I’m about to feel what it actually was to be beaten, whipped, caned, suspended with rope, cut with scalpels, pierced with needles, electrocuted and literally set on fire.
And I’m terrified.
I’m now at the point in my adult life where I have gone the longest without sex since I became sexually active at age 22. Obviously this is by choice, or at least by radical discernment – I’ve turned down more sex than I can keep track of this year, and I feel great about that decision. And what it feels like now is that all the sex I’ve experienced up until this point in my life hasn’t been sex at all – it’s been watching a movie, experiencing the narrative of sex outside of my body instead of experiencing the sensation of sex within it. And all the theoretical things I learned about sex as a sex educator feel completely useless in the wake of this understanding, that my mind may be one of the most sexually experienced minds in the country but my body itself, in some ways, is still a virgin – completely without frame of reference for how anything feels.
Sex for me was about narrative because the narrative was so crucial to my survival. As a child of an abusive parent I was taught at a young age that I wasn’t allowed to enforce my personal boundaries, and so I looked in vain for someone else to rescue me and do it for me. If I had to belong to a man, I might as well try to belong to one who would protect me as an asset. My submission enabled my putting my partners’ wants and needs before my own, but my choice in doing that was understandable when you consider that I internalized the belief that it was unsafe for me to exist in the world without a protector, because as a child of an abusive parent I wasn’t allowed to enforce my own personal boundaries. Prioritizing my partner’s needs so that they wouldn’t leave me was just a misguided way of protecting myself; the threat of abandonment wasn’t just about abandonment – abandonment also meant losing my sense of safety. Sexual fulfillment for me came in the feeling of safety I experienced when I had been pleasing: “I have pleased you, I have submitted to you, I have given you what you want and therefore you have no reason to leave me, so I feel safe right now.” I’m not sure I even know what my own sexual pleasure is like. I’m not sure I want to know right now, because being in my body feels so awful.
The thought occurred to me last night for the first time – what if I can’t do it? What if I can only go so far before I fail? What if this is too much for me? In truth I don’t think it’s in my nature to give up, and I don’t really see that being a part of my story. But that’s how overwhelming it feels. Healing feels so overwhelming that I’m not sure I can do it.
I know that I’m on the right path right now, but let’s not get it twisted, the right path is really difficult sometimes. And right now I feel awful. I feel exhausted. And I feel scared about knowing where to go next – while I have a team of professionals each working on the various aspects of my trauma with me, ultimately the only person who can know where to go next or when I’m done is me. And I’m so scared that the work I’m doing won’t stick, that it’ll feel better temporarily but that ultimately the core wound here is a never-ending pit of sludge that will constantly have to be drained, that nothing can reverse the fact that I’m damaged goods.
So that’s where I’m at today. I’m hoping the days to come will be better.