SIX TIMES TOUCH BURNED, SIX TIMES TOUCH WAS SOFT
content warning: self-harm, restraint, force-feeding, mentions of queerphobia, explicit references of childhood sexual abuse in #10
1. a nurse i’ve never met before stands in front of me, bright purple scrubs match her clipboard. i don’t remember her introducing herself. she speaks over a walkie-talkie; i hear her mutter indistinguishable words and the click of the radio. we’re on an eating disorders inpatient unit that i was just admitted to that morning. i’m fifteen. it’s a hallway, densely packed with emaciated girls trudging ahead of IV poles. it’s all shades of gray here. i’m standing in the unit’s bathrooms. i’m wearing a hospital gown, ties loosely knotted around my waist. nurse says, “sorry, but it’s got to all come off. bra and underwear, too.” i obediently take them both off, still standing in the ill-fitting hospital gown. she picks up her clipboard, shuffling through her papers until she finds the form labelled BODY MARKINGS AND SCARS IDENTIFICATION CHART. it’s labelled with a patient ID, a jumble of numbers. i don’t see my name listed anywhere. she pulls at my gown, revealing a stretch of my body at a time until she’s combed through every inch of my skin, marking each self-inflicted scar with a red pen on a diagram of my body. she pauses at one, a gaping, raised one -- thumbing over it for a moment. “it’s okay, it’s protocol. and i’m used to seeing cutters like you.”
2. it’s the summer before 7th grade, and my best friend had just gotten her first period. we’re at her house, and she’s only twelve. her older sister has moved out; we don’t know where pads or tampons are kept in the house. eventually, she finds a tampon under the sink. she comments on how “cute” the design of the wrapper is and pulls out the applicator. “okay, i’m going to go try and put this in.” she gestures to the outdoor bathroom. i’m in the pool, waiting for her. i haven’t gotten my first period yet. i don’t know how to help her. she doesn’t seem all that anxious, and her coolness makes me love her a little more. and god, i love her. at twelve, i thought i knew everything about love because of her. i wanted to know everything about her. she comes out of the bathroom, grinning. “it’s in.” she jumps into the pool, clinging onto me when she comes to the surface. we talk about the boys and celebrities we like for hours. our affection for each other is so pure, so casual. she lays her legs across me while we watch a movie, she slow dances with me in her bedroom to a boy band. we send texts to each other every night when i get home. “ily”, she types. “ily2”, i type back.
3. i had my first long-term boyfriend when i was sixteen. he was taller than me, his hair greasy and slicked back with too much hair gel. he wore too many, thick silver rings on his fingers and smoked too many cigarettes. after i introduced him to my nana and he kissed me on her couch, we made the relationship official. to celebrate, he took me to a spot on the walking path near our houses. it was a thick patch of rocks, big enough to climb up on and sit on. we watched the sunset together. he offered me a cigarette, i took it, wanting to please him and make him feel the same butterflies i did when i sat with him. (i didn’t know that butterflies could feel the same as anxiety.) his fingers graze my stomach, and i smile at him, expecting him to kiss me. he slides his hands up my skirt, pushes his fingers inside of me. he asks, “does that feel good?” i want to throw up. but i tell him, “yeah, keep going.”
4. i’m holding down the side of my jeans to expose my hip, where a deep self-inflicted cut is sitting. nurse is cleaning it out with saline. she wears blue medical gloves. her eyes transfer from my hip to my eyes, checking in with me silently. the rubbing alcohol wipe stings, but i don’t wince, she does. she apologizes. “you know what, i really don’t need these.” she removes her gloves, and she is so gentle for a brief moment as she smoothes the creases of the bandage out. “pretty girls like you don’t need to do this, honey. it’s ruining your skin.” she says. “what will you do when you have a boyfriend?”
5. when a code is called on a behavioral health unit, you get too many nurses and mental health counselors and residents surrounding you. there’s hard plastic straps around each of my wrists, each of my ankles, across my waist. a thick plastic nasogastric feeding tube has been hastily taped to the side of my face, and a nurse is syringing a nutritional supplement into my stomach. i’m thrashing; inconsolable. residents gawk. a mental health counselor, she’s probably barely twenty-five, kneels down and sits cross-legged next to me. nurse warns her not to get too close to me when i’m “in this state.” she takes my hand and holds it, brushing her thumb up and down. i settle, they remove the restraints and tube. she holds me on the floor as everyone disperses, not once shushing me; not once telling me it would get easier.
6. by the time i’m sixteen, i have spent much more time in physical restraint holds than i have being given physical affection. during one of my admissions to the eating disorder inpatient unit, i pick up on the habit of banging my head against the walls in my room — hard. at least two staff members run into my room, one placing her hands behind my head and the other pulling me away from the wall and wrapping her arms around me. she grips so hard there are nail indentations on my upper arms when i’m released. i am contained here. i start to think that maybe this is what it feels like to be cared for.
7. i’ve had too much wine and i kiss my friend on the bed. she’s a girl. i don’t know what’s wrong with me. but i know it felt good. i know i would do it again.
8. i fall in love again when i’m twenty-one, but it happens so slowly i don’t even notice. she spends the night (or the weekend) almost every weekend. i drive an hour to pick her up because she doesn’t drive. she’s the one person i can talk to for hours and hours while still feeling so in awe of her. she wears so much color, and i think she radiates it. she pierces my ear; i give her a stick-and-poke tattoo on her forearm that reads “stay.” (i wonder, now, if she got it covered.) one night, i come to her apartment because she doesn’t want to be alive anymore. she curls up beside me, resting her head on my shoulder. i kiss the top of her head but i don’t think she notices. i start writing poems about her. i give her last year’s winter coat. i take her to holiday markets and holiday light shows. i make a joke about how people think we’re dating. she says she wouldn’t be opposed to it. i want to kiss her, but i tell her i feel like we’re “queerplatonic.” at my twenty-second birthday party, she sleeps in the bunk above me, sits beside me on the couch. i want to hold her hand. my friends all talk about valentine’s day plans, ask me if i’m doing anything special. i say “i don’t think so.” she says, “i thought we were spending it together.” my heart drops, because all i want to do is spend every valentine’s day with her. but all i say is, “oh, i totally forgot.” but i remembered. i think i’ll always remember.
9. i got sick again at nineteen, spent a couple of months on the same inpatient unit i was at three years prior. prone to flashbacks, i’d curl into myself, scratch at my hands until they bled. inside my head, i would think, “i hope someone finds me here. i hope someone just holds my hand, brings me back down to here.”
10. i was read to a lot when i was little. we had to beg one of my family members to ever read to us. when he did, it was a special occasion. he started getting me drunk in the basement by the time i was seven, and he’d “read” us stories about one side of the family. i loved hearing his histories. i felt like i was learning a secret that only i was allowed to know; insight into the people around me. i stopped liking it when he started getting drunk, too. when he pulled out his pocket knife and made that first cut, he covered my mouth. later, he apologized through tears and told me if i wanted, he’d “kill
himself to repent.” i forgave him. he bought me vanilla soft-serve ice cream.
11. i started working in elderly care and hospice at twenty and was assigned a beautiful, spirited ninety-three-year-old woman with an infectious laugh. i spent two years caring for her, brushing her hair back, helping her dress, sitting with her in the sunshine to watch the birds outside, painting her nails, helping her stand. i held her hand when she was dying. before i left her house that day, i gave her a last dose of morphine and lightly pressed chapstick to her lips as she slept. she passed in the night. i’m so glad i held her hand.
12. the most recent time i harmed myself to stop the flashbacks, the tool in my hands slipped and i needed medical attention. too terrified to go an emergency room where a doctor could sign away my life under the guise of “saving my life”, i went to the only person in my town i felt safe with. she asked permission to sit closer to me. (a small gesture to some, everything to me. it made me want her to sit closer.)
for the most part, now, i can’t tolerate touch without crying. if i am touched with gentleness, without motive, without sexualization — i don’t want to move for days. i can be cordial: briefly hug my friends and relatives, shake a stranger’s hand. to physically comfort is inherently intimate. intimacy means reciprocity, it means needing. it’s queer. to unapologetically love, without awkwardness or shame — is to be queer. it is to blur the lines of all your relationships, because we love with intention and without hierarchy. and yet, i think, we are not set up for that. we hesitate. we are a deeply monogamous culture, a deeply black-and-white culture, a deeply performative culture. to be queer is to be a little bit in love with people regardless of their role in your life. when we make contact with another person, we are not just touching a body. and to know this is queer intimacy. to know this is to take just a small piece of power away from the mental health industrial complex. to know this is to love fully.
JOCE LEO (any pronouns) is an MFA candidate studying the history of madness and engaging in artistic and written work around psychiatric abuse. she has a BA in psychology and visual art from roger williams university, and continues to radically oppose the mental health industrial complex and advocate for queer love and spaces of peer support. as a psychiatric abuse survivor, joce's work is rooted the knowing that lived experience and professional experience are one in the same.