Death and Other Distractions Three: The Little Animal

The stories in this series involve me being unusually frank and graphic about some fucked-up stuff, and therefore have the following blanket content warnings:

  • Child abuse
  • Self-harm and suicide
  • Violence
  • Drug abuse
  • Mental illness
  • Sexual assault and rape
  • A shit-ton of swears

I’ve never wanted to die.

I know that’s hard to believe, coming as it does after thousands of words about my suicidal ideation. But that’s the thing, isn’t it? It’s not really about wanting to die, exactly.

There are a lot of resources for survivors of suicide and their families. We don’t hear from the suicidal folks themselves very much, though. Part of it is that a portion of them put themselves permanently out of reach for comment. A bigger part is that suicide is the “bad end,” the “negative therapeutic outcome.” It’s the thing your therapist is there to prevent, and so you’re left with the distinct impression that getting better means not thinking about killing yourself anymore, which in turn means that if you do think about it — you’re thinking about it now, aren’t you? — you are not getting better. So when your therapist asks, “How’s the suicidal ideation these days?” you say, “Oh, it’s better! I’m feeling good today.”

I am feeling good today, that’s the truth. Here’s another truth:

I’m thinking about what my throat would look like in the few seconds after I plunged a box-cutter into it on one side of my neck and swiftly dragged it around to the other side, a smooth, sweeping cut that yawns to reveal the biggest, reddest smile you’ve ever seen. Nothing happened today. I don’t want to die. But if you tell me not to think about cutting my own throat, what do you expect to pop into my head?

Here’s another:

There’s a nest of scars on the upper side of my right arm, about halfway between the wrist and the elbow. They’re thick and ragged, and they skip and jump across the skin, because I gouged them into my arm with a plastic stylus. It was blunt at the tip, and it didn’t penetrate with the first jab, but only when I dragged it down. There are eight straight lines and a host of diacritical marks. As it is, it doesn’t spell anything. Only I can see the word it started to spell. I see it there all the time, cut deep with a real edge, flashes of bone at the red heart of the word.

Here’s another:

I got into BDSM fairly heavily in the last few years, and it’s helped me immensely with this and all my other issues, but I have only a few times in my life truly understood masochism. I don’t enjoy pain — my parents shamed me for my cowardice regularly when I was a kid, and picking up a self-harm habit didn’t actually change that. I could never bring myself to do what I saw in my head, the long, slow cuts that would pour blood across the blade. I jabbed quickly with sewing needles, gouged with scissors, punched walls and trees until my knuckles split. Anything that I could initiate in a moment of — what to call the mental state in which you cut yourself? Passion? Right idea, but not the right flavor; table that inquiry for now. Anything that I could initiate in a moment of catharsis and not retract when the pain began was my preference.

When it came to BDSM I discovered that stingy pain was not my thing; get ye gone with your snappy little bunny-fur floggers and rattan canes. I liked the heavyweight whips, the thuddy, punishing feel of elk leather. And then one night I was laying at the bottom of a cage, a tiny woman in weighted gloves perched on my hips and viciously pummeling my legs, arms and chest, and I could not stop giggling. I can’t explain the ecstasy I felt in that moment, the helplessness, the peace. Above me I could hear my tormentor laughing too, delighted by my delight. She left me limping and aching for days, swimming in endorphins. If I’d had my glasses on and been able to see her face, I might have fallen in love.

The woman who brought me to that event — I don’t have a cage complete with tiny bouncer in my living room, to my continued dismay — is one of the few people to whom I’d spoken about my mental health issues. She struggles with many of the same things. Recently in her company I made a joking comment. “It’s so frustrating that there aren’t many ways to really hurt yourself without causing permanent damage.” I wasn’t worried that she’d scold me for the impulse, and I thought she might chuckle. Instead, she disappeared into her room for a moment and returned to hand me a wand topped with a plastic Hello Kitty.

“As a response, that’s fairly abstract, but okay.”

“It’s a misery stick.”

It’s a carbon-fiber rod ending in a pink plastic cat, and its virtue is that it produces lingering pain and dramatic marks with very little force. I offered her my arm to test the sensation, but was more impressed at the stark red Hello Kitty it left on my skin, glowing with agony for whole minutes after.

“You can have this one actually; I got another one I like better.”

My doctors told me to stop hurting myself. To stop thinking about it, stop talking about it, stop dwelling on it. Go cold turkey. My friends in the BDSM community told me, “Wal-mart is the best place for cheap toys. Have you ever been hit really hard with a Nerf bat? It’s amazing if you’re into thuddy stuff. Check out this bruise!”

So often it feels like in order to heal we have to reject the hurting person we’ve been, repudiate their actions, repent their sins. But the little animal inside me that tore into my arm didn’t do it because she wanted to die. She didn’t do it because she liked the pain. She did it because it was the loudest she could scream. Trying to shut her up or drug her down has never worked, and shaming her never silenced her the way it did me. I promise my doctor that I’ll never cut myself again, and the little animal responds with a plan for my comprehensive auto-evisceration that plays before my eyes, starring in our own personal snuff film before I’ve finished my sentence.

 

But when I pulled back the misery stick and let it snap against my chest, she came close and got quiet, the way she rarely is anymore. And I realized I don’t want to climb out of this Well and leave her behind, the little animal, the person I’ve been down there. She’s got sharp teeth, and she’s shortsighted in the very worst way, but she’s a goddamn fighter. We’re alive today because of her.

Here’s one more truth for today:

This has never been about trying to die. This has been about trying to keep living. These scars are the ones I gave myself when I chewed my own leg off and left it in the trap. I’m not ashamed of them and I will not cover them up. When I think about hurting myself, it is not a sign of weakness or an indication that I’m not getting better. It’s me listening to the little animal. She’s telling me that this place, this thing that’s happening, this person, reminds her of somewhere we’ve been before. She’s reminding me where the Well is, so I never lose track of it in the tall grass, so we never fall in again.

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