[content note: self-injury]
A few months ago, I talked to my therapist about it.
I apologized first.
“I want to talk about masturbation,” I said and apologized again.
She assured me she would listen to whatever I wanted to say. That I could talk without concern for her well-being. We sometimes take turns reminding me that she can take care of herself in our conversations.
As I described the paroxysm of grief that had overwhelmed me the night before–how the gasp of orgasm had become a wail of sorrow, how sobbing overtook me and did not let go for a full half-hour–it occurred to me that she might not understand the particular shame I was apologizing for.
“I’m not ashamed to tell you I masturbate,” I said, head cocked to one side and eyes focused on her intently. “I mean, I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. I always assume most adults are the same.”
She cocked her head back at me and waited.
“I’m not talking about this like, ‘well, everybody masturbates,’ or a joke the way TV shows run laugh tracks when the guy pulls a vibrator out of the woman’s drawer. And not ironic or academic, either. Not like reading a study on whether lesbians prefer their dildos realistically phallic-shaped or not.”
I paused, then continued in a voice so quiet she had to lean forward to hear me.
“I’m saying it matters to me. I’m saying I do it because I like it, and I like that I like it. I like that it matters to me.
“And I care that I am now frightened of what happens in my head when I do.”
My therapist nodded slowly as she took my words in.
There was a brief period last summer when I masturbated almost every day. I took immense pleasure in doing so.
I know many depressed people don’t have much sexual interest. I certainly hadn’t in the months leading up to my stay in Unit 6, the locked-floor ward at a local hospital where I spent one long weekend last June after my third suicide attempt–nor in the weeks immediately after. Though there was some dispute between me and members of my treatment team whether or not “depression” was a productive diagnosis for my condition, I took all these private fumblings as a sign of recovering mental health.
I think of that time now as the body reasserting itself. The primacy of the flesh, reveling in all that an alive body can do that a corpse cannot.
A distinctive feature of all this self-intimacy: I kept my mind strictly out of it. No fantasies at all. No disembodied hands caressing my body, no invisible lips openly wetly against mine. Absolutely nothing to suggest other bodies of any gender coming into contact with my own.
These urgencies eventually subsided, and masturbation returned to an occasional activity. Something I did to relieve insomnia, or at those moments when anxiety asserted itself as a hungry clenching between my thighs. I continued to keep any sexual visions tightly corralled. In their place, I created a Netflix login labeled “smut,” under which I curated an otherwise-incoherent list of movies that each contained at least one scene of graphic sexual coupling. I cultivated fast and furtive watching to accompany my fast and furtive strokes.
Then, a few weeks after Christmas, sexual pleasure reentered my thoughts. It was unwelcome, and–like most things denied–it came back angry.
Here a brief tangent is required: I have a history as a self-injurer. A cutter. For 11 years, I mediated, manipulated, and refused a variety of emotional states at the point of a knife or the edge of a razor. While I have not dragged a blade across my skin now in over 12 years, the memories remain, imprinted in my brain like pressings into wax, and certain thoughts or feelings still come accompanied by phantom sensations. A troubling thought occurs to me, and I can feel the stab of a kitchen knife in my arm, its heavy triangular blade piercing to the bone. A particularly tense day, and I may feel the kiss of a dozen razors nicking up and down my legs for hours.
In December, cutting thoughts began manifesting in the sensation of gashes opening along the length of my forearms. I would see in my mind, as I felt in my limb: skin and tissue parting open in the wet, white split of flesh the moment before blood fills a deep cut.
At first only a single wound opened at a time. Then multiple. Then they began to open across my face.
On a Tuesday night in January, I stood at an intersection in West Philly waiting for the walk light to change as I felt my face begin to come apart as if run through an industrial slicer. Damn, my brain whispered to me appreciatively, as the gashes slid down my face and I felt even the skin of my eyelids split open in thick and juicy silence.
…damn, this feels even better than sex… my brain whispered its lies in my ear.
It was after that night that sexual memories began intruding into the rigorous isolation of my masturbatory rituals.
Sometimes I can tell in advance if it will not be a safe day. Other times I break off before my fingers even become slick with myself, panting in moans that have nothing to do with excitement, and I wrap my arms around my chest and rock until a calm can reassert itself.
Some days there is no warning. The release of an orgasm flings me into an abyss of grief and despair. I choke with sobs and gasp for air that will not fill my lungs, and inside myself I am falling falling
It is frightening to come back the next time. To assert again my right to put my hands on my body, wherever and however I choose. Frightening to write these words asserting not only my right but also my desire to put my own hands on my own body.
It matters to me.
And it matters to me that it matters.
“In Which I Talk Shamelessly…” is part of an ongoing memory project.
Additional installments can be found here.