For most of us, the bruises we wear and carry are internal...
They are bruises from feeling insecure, inadequate. They come from broken relationships with friends, lovers, or with family. Sometimes these bruises are unintentional, a consequence of what I might actually call original sin. Other times, these bruises are given on purpose by those entrusted to care for us. Sometimes they happen by mistake, and other times they are very pointed, directed, and intentional. We are meant to bleed from the inside out as a visible sign of control and power, someone else’s power.
It’s been a long time since someone else left a bruise on me as a sign of their power and control over me. It’s been a long time since I let anyone have such power over my body without my consent. On here, I’ve alluded to my experience of physical abuse but rarely talked about it. Mostly, this is because I love my mother (and she reads my blog sometimes) and try to respect the Southern notion of “what happens in the family stays there.” Well today, I need to talk about it a bit. And if you're reading this Mom, I hope you can understand...
I wasn’t the kind of kid who got beaten, not like we see on TV or in the movies. There were times I was slapped open-handed. There were times I was punched on the top of the head. Moments I was kicked in the shins or legs. Mom loved her fingernails, keeping them sharp and well tended. I, however, did not love how they felt digging into my skin. I did not like having my blood drawn to the surface. I did not like to think of my mother as an abuser. But at times, she was.
Other times the abuse I experienced was more verbal and emotional, but don’t be misguided: those instances left bruises, far more painful yet invisible to the naked eye. And while my physical bruises ultimately healed, fading from red to brown to yellow (or whatever order the colors go), the internal bruises lingered, sticking around for years. Bruises of homophobia, of inadequacy, of invisibility, left not only by my mother but by many others around me, peers mostly. The odd part is that I would have rather been beaten physically than made to carry those internal bruises. I would rather have bled or been sore or had bones broken than forced to carry the internal pain of self-hatred and isolation. That’s what verbal abuse does: it makes you feel small and alone. From where I stand, it’s what we do to each other on a regular, daily basis. It’s the nature of living in a broken world.
The marks humans leave are too often scars — John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
Being someone of my nature, I feel emotional pain very deeply. Not just mine but of the world around me. At times I am able to raise my shields and have a moment of respite. Other times, times when I’m anxious or worried or nervous, those shields drop and it’s like having the communal emotions of my immediate context attack me as if I were Pearl Harbor. The problem is not knowing how to cope with that pain, how to give it voice. Sure, writing helps, but as I’m sure many of us know, sometimes pain cannot be expressed in words. Words just don’t cut it. And so I sought out an alternative.
My husband, and many of my friends, like pain. They like to experience pain, and I won’t attempt to name or explain why it is feeling pain is enjoyable for them. Early in our relationship, Frankie shared this with me and, truth be told, I recoiled. It didn’t make sense to me. Why would one subject oneself to such an experience, voluntarily at that? But as my time in seminary and in therapy went on, I realized that I wanted to experience this for myself. Usually, I’m pretty wimpy when it comes to pain, yelling expletives when I merely stub my toe or bump my funny bone. But I wanted to connect with Frankie in a new way, and I wanted to experience a healing from my past that meant facing it.
I knew of a friend who is what some call a pain top, or as many in the general culture might say, a dom. We’ll call him Pan. We were acquaintances but not very close when I reached out and asked, “How would you feel about beating me?” almost as casually as I might ask a neighbor for a cup of sugar. It was one of those moments where I internally thought, “Am I really doing this?” Going over to his apartment the first time, he began — very intensely. I had to interject, asking for a “warm-up.” I also realized I probably should give him some more info about why I wanted to be beaten, to experience deliberate physical pain in the form of floggers, canes, and other such tools of the trade.
He was taken aback at first, but he seemed to understand. I asked him to find a way to mix pain with affection, and I verbalized that I might not be able to say “stop” or “no more.” I wanted to redeem my past of pain and explore a way of giving voice to my internal pain, both that of my adolescence and that of being someone whose profession is bearing the burden of others’ grief and loss. In other words, my reasons for wanting to be beaten were pretty intentional and pointed, and I understood if he wasn’t comfortable. Thankfully, he was.
I can’t remember exactly when Pan and I started meeting for these “sessions," but I remember leaving that first night with circular bruises from the suction cups being put on my shoulder blades and feeling a certain sense of pride from those.
Sadly, since that night, I’ve yet to have marks last for more than a few moments — certainly nowhere near a day or longer. It’s kind of sad. I wish I physically bruised more easily. I wish I could have a tangible sign on my body of the efforts I’ve made to heal from some of the inner wounds to which I’ve been subjected over the years. Over the years, Frankie has had different bruises from different experiences. I honestly envy his ability to bruise. I wish I could.
When I’ve shared this with some of my friends who are either less familiar or not familiar at all with BDSM (bondage/domination/sadism/masochism) happenings, they’ve been surprised, concerned, leery, or in worst case scenarios, appalled. Other times, my friends have been kind understanding, or supportive, realizing that their method of addressing the pain of physical abuse might be different from my own. Ultimately, it became my goal to understand why I might want to use the experience of physical pain to redeem my past experience of it. In fact, I felt very much like early theologians that nothing but my assuming a posture of pain would catalyze my healing and redemption. I could never see pain as a good thing unless my own understanding of it had been changed.
And so Pan beat me. Floggers. Canes. Half single tails. Punches. Metal claws. Dog brushes. Rabbit pelts for those moments when I needed to breathe, needed a moment of affection, of tenderness. Suction cups for sustained pressure on my shoulder blades. His chest of goodies has yet to be fully used on me, but in every instance, he has made sure that I’m okay, that he respects my boundaries while still pushing my comfort zone. And in every instance my trust for him deepens and my internal bruises heal a little more. Some nights the sessions were an hour but felt like a quarter of that time. Other nights they were half an hour but felt like a day. Every time was good. Every time was healing. Every time made me feel a little more like myself, less afraid, more resilient.
On those nights where I dress down and sit in the chair in front of Pan, I feel a little bit of my past heal up and a little bit of my present release itself out into the open. My load lightens, and I’m able to walk away (albeit more slowly) with a little less emotional pain and a little more energy, a little less broken and a little more whole. I might still wait for bruises, but in the meantime I can rest assured that I’ve taken my healing into my own hands.