CN: This piece includes discussion of trauma and sexual assault.
This is a waltz
Thinking about our bodies
What they mean
For our salvation
With only the clothes
That we stand up in
Just the ground
On which we stand
Is the darkness
Ours to take?
Suspirium, Thom Yorke
She is sitting in a coffee shop, her phone in her hand. There is a cup of camomile tea steaming on the table and a plate of scrambled eggs on granary toast is on its way. It’s dark outside, and she is still bundled up in the brown wool coat she has nicknamed ‘The Bear’, hunched over the screen, trying to fill her lungs.
Her chest hurts. She feels ravenous and nauseous. Her lips are dry and sore, and there is blood fizzing in her feet. She has been hurting.
This is what happens, when she is in a relationship. Eventually, after about six weeks, after all the lust and the excitement and the happiness begin to settle like sediment, there will suddenly be pain, and the pain will be unbearable. She has very rarely experienced extreme physical pain in her life- she can only think of the one occasion, when her eardrum perforated, and she sat on the edge of her bed with the heel of her hand pressed to her ear and hinged at the waist back and forth like a broken automaton, gasping for air, howling for it to stop.
She has only howled like that once in her life from physical pain. She has howled like that from emotional pain twice in the last week, and she doesn’t know why.
It’s happened before, in previous relationships, and anything can trigger it. It might be a text message that takes too long to arrive. A misunderstanding, a miscommunication, a minor conflict, the merest suggestion of a loss of interest. Suddenly her head is a warzone of questions and fears and brutally declarative statements: she can’t do this. This is too much. They’re withdrawing, they’ve realised she’s too much. They can’t do this, she can’t ask them to. She needs to get out before they leave her. She’s not safe. What does she need to feel safe? How does she express what she needs? She need too much, they’ll be revolted. It’s revolting. Is she expressing her needs or trying to manipulate? What if she thinks she’s asking for what she needs but she’s actually being manipulative? How is she supposed to tell the difference?
She wants to be sick, wishes she could vomit all of this out. She doesn’t want to do this any more. She can’t do this. She can’t, it’s too much, it’s going to kill her. Someone’s going to kill her.
She’s convinced, on some visceral level, that the people who care about her have the ability to kill her.
So there she is, in a cafe, wrapped in a coat like a sad cold bear, hunched over her phone, reading a list. She has read lists like it a few times over the years, without properly taking in what she was reading. it is a list of life events that can lead to PTSD, and for the first time she is counting and ticking off those she has experienced.
Adverse childhood experiences: neglect/ witnessing domestic violence/ sexual abuse. Tick. Tick. Tick. Serious and violent sexual assault. Tick. Any event where you fear for your life. Tick. (Same event- does it count as two ticks or one? Fuck. Whatever. It can just be a bigger tick than the rest. That feels fitting). Witnessing a loved one undergo serious injury. Tick. The first boxes ticked as a baby, and then at 8 years old; the biggest at 19, the last just 3 years ago, at 39. Suckerpunch. Suckerpunch. Suckerpunch.
Suddenly it all makes sense.
Nearly thirteen years ago she looked at her life, at the chaos and the underearning and the shit relationships and the vomit and bruises. She realised it was all fucked and that she seriously needed to unfuck it. She stopped drinking then looked at her eating disorder. She did therapy. She did the work.
She got better; not better enough quick enough sometimes, and it wasn’t a straightforward, linear progression from fucked to unfucked. But eventually, after about a decade, she felt less broken, like she had made enough progress that she could stop hiding and deal with all her fear and discomfort and try having intimate relationships again. She felt like finally she had done enough to close up the gaping chasm inside her that had previously just kept expanding, always needing something to fill it, whether the something was booze, bad sex, sugar, carbs or compliments.
So she started. She went on dates, a few of them. They were funny and unmemorable but she walked away from each one thinking, I’m doing it, this is it. And then she met a man who became her boyfriend, and her first Dom.
The relationship was incredibly intense, and sometimes she felt like it was not very healthy, because it was so difficult sometimes and she felt so terrified when it got difficult that she wanted to be sick, and said things she’d promised herself she wasn’t going to say. She had panic attacks, and howled sometimes, lying on the bed with her knees pulled in close to her body, her fist in her mouth, unable almost to breath.
But then, what if it wasn’t the relationship? What if the relationship made her feel unsafe because nothing made her feel safe, actually, nothing at all? Oh, maybe she had felt safe sitting on a meditation cushion, fleetingly, or hanging out with her nieces, or, you know, watching swifts swoop against summer skies and all of that shit. What if generally she felt so completely unsafe that she didn’t even know how unsafe she felt most of the time?
He didn’t want to harm her. Hurt her, yes, that was part of the fun- but not harm her. None of them wanted to harm her, not for a second. They cared about her, wanted her in their lives, wanted her to be happy, to have pleasure. And still, out of the blue, she felt like they were going to kill her. It was not, she suddenly sees, a proportional response.
‘What is your body trying to tell you?’
She tried to write about this prompt a couple of weeks ago, when she was still their girlfriend. She tried to write about the ease with which they were making her come, how loud she was, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, yelling and writhing and hollering. How good it felt not to muffle the noise of that triumphant, arcing leap out of herself, not to be allowed to muffle the noise of it. How easy it was to give into pleasure with them- to open her legs and feel tongues on her clit, kisses on her thighs, the soft pressure of his hand on her throat, the magic of her lips on her cheekbone. How she was coming with such unaccustomed ease, how simple it felt to lie in their arms afterwards, gasping and laughing, letting herself be kissed and held, breathing their breaths.
She knows now what her body was trying to tell her. It was shouting as loudly as she was: you are safe, you are safe now. It was both totally true and extremely wishful thinking.
She tells her therapist about that realisation- that, when it’s not good, that she believes on some dark subterranean level that the people she cares about could kill her. She says that she think she knows where that comes from, and her therapists nods, in a business-like way. Intimate relationships retraumatise her. She goes into a physical post- traumatic response. She has never dealt with her trauma. They nod, and they agree, and suddenly everything is different.
Her therapist- beautiful, soft and sharp and sweary, with pink hair and a hologram manicure- asks her to think of somewhere she feels completely safe. She thinks for a second and answers: the yoga studio.
Why? Because it’s warm and bright and open. Because nothing bad has ever happened there: no, not true- there was that time when the sweaty Ashtanga bro with the deep v-neck and the top-knot and the ostentatiously shifting nutsac made those mucus- y hockling noises every time he shifted into chaturanga- but that’s as bad as it’s ever been. Because over the last ten years she has always felt only comfortable in her body there. No, again not true, but the discomfort- the twinges in her sacrum, shoulders, her hmastrings, the tightness in her thigh muscles which prevents her opening her legs too wide (a subconscious self- protection mechanism, she thinks, she knows)- has been more permitted there than anywhere else.
She lies on the mat and breathes. The breath moves her chest, swells her ribcage, lifts her belly warm and soft beneath her palms. She feels her back flat against the mat and beneath it the pine floor, listens to the seagulls in the rooftops outside, the click of high heels against cobblestones, the emphatic huff of a neighbour exhaling a lungful into the quiet air. She breathes and sighs, present and safe and free, for the moment, from memories.
The teacher says to roll the legs gently to one side, stacking the knees above each other and splaying the arms out onto the floor at shoulder level. Supine twist; sleeping foetus from the waist down, murder victim from the waist up. It was in this pose, in this room, in that first ever yoga class, that she found herself spontaneously crying for no reason that she has ever been able to pinpoint. Tears rolling hot from her eyes, into her ears, down her neck.
She rolls onto her side and looks past her right hand at the matt white stone wall. Suddenly there are memories: the peppermint flavour of his breath, the feel of her lips against tattooed collarbone, the happy gentle pressure of all of their limbs entwined, damp with sweat beneath the warmth of the duvet. She was free of memory and then with a new movement she is heavy again, laden. Her chest hurts, her heart throbs in her ears, and she clenches her hands slowly into fists, wanting to grasp the memories and punch them away at the same time.
She breathes. She listens to the instructions, to relax into the twist, to let effort slip away. She tries not to remember but it’s no use; she can’t help it. Better to breathe it in. Better to surrender.
She thinks about whether it’s possible to write about any of it, any of The Stuff. How to write about what happened, in that alley, on that night 24 years ago. She thinks about what to keep and what to leave out, what is necessary: if any of it is. The brick wall and the gravel, metal against her neck, the look of fear in his eyes. The swing of his arm and the taste in her mouth. Looking down and seeing colour on her skin, on her turquoise suede boots. How nothing hurt, none of it hurt, how thinking about it has never hurt. How talking about it has not been something she has done a lot of, but how when she did she always looked for it to hurt and always looked in vain.
She thinks about how much detail the audience needs, how much to leave out for them. To stop them feeling sick, upset, angry, panicked, short of breath, endangered. How to stop her audience having a reaction to those details which she herself has never had.
She wishes there was a sweet, tidy, inspirational end to the story. There isn’t one. There just isn’t. She gets up every morning and showers and brushes her teeth and gets dressed and hurts. Nothing has ever hurt as much as this. People ask her if she’s okay, and she usually has to censor herself because the actual answer to that question is so huge and unmanageable that there’d be no coming back from it, leaving her and the other person stranded in a foreign land where unspeakable truths are spoken.
She lies on a mat. She breathes. Tears fall into her ears. The teacher walks the length of the room to see if she’s okay, brings her a glass of water, nods in encouragement. The kindness guts her. Too much kindness feels like it could kill her too.
She thinks about her body. How the language of ownership, of letting men say they owned her flesh and person, always made her soar, because the unspoken assumption was that before it was theirs to take it was hers to give. Hers, all of it- arms, face, belly, tits, cunt, lungs, hair, scars. She thinks about looking at her face in the mirror that night after being fucked in the arse in front of a red- walled room full of strangers, an act so audacious and edgy that the only reason she can think of to have done it was to have said, without words: this body is mine. I choose what is done to it. I choose how it is used. My sexuality is mine. It’s mine, you fuckers. It’s *mine*.
She gets up every morning. She brushes her teeth. She talks to her therapist. She lies on a mat. She breathes. Tears fall into her ears. She tries to stop thinking, to stop remembering, to let all the memories happen, to feel safe in her body while she remembers, while it hurts. She is in her body. Her body. Her body. Her body. She breathes.