[The following is an excerpt from the second edition of Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction edited by Sabrina Chap with the kind permission of Seven Stories Press.]
It’s my first month teaching dance at this school and every day is a slow victory, a bumbling trial-and-error of finding my place amidst the tide of teenagers. It is a balancing act, to know myself and know my students, to figure out what to give them and how to guide. In my last class of the day, an awkward, too skinny girl’s shirt slips up over her stomach during warm-up. On the skin revealed, I notice cuts, the red lines carved below her belly button, sharp angles forming a word. The moment interrupts me; I am jarred into recognition. She catches my eye; she knows I’ve seen it. The words tumble out of my mouth before I can choose them, “I have to speak to you after class.” Her face reddens, her eyes shift away. She asks to go to the bathroom. “Okay . . . quickly.” I imagine what she is doing while stuck in the small bathroom stall. Looking at it? Picking at scabs? I remember this: the moment of being seen, the terror and the relief.
After class, she stands by my desk while I sit looking up at her. She seems impossibly tall.
“I want you to answer this honestly: Are you cutting yourself?” (Already, I feel lost)
“No.” (The answer is short, a wall she builds around herself) “Then what’s on your stomach?” (I don’t want to be confrontational)
“Notes for a test.” (As if cheating wasn’t bad)
“Can you show me then?” (I wonder if this is okay) “No!” (Her heart is speeding)
“I’m going to ask again, and be honest. Are you cutting yourself?” “NO.” (Now she’s angry)
I pause. I am not going to win. She will not let me in.
“I want you to think about all the adults in your life. Think if there’s anyone you can talk to about this. Cutting doesn’t deal with our feelings. It only makes us avoid them, and that doesn’t help us with them. It can also lead us to think of or try killing ourselves.” I groan inside. I sound like a Public Service Announcement. I want to sound like myself. I want to tell her how much I know about cutting, about the way skin breaks apart and shows the mess inside us, about the grey fog of panic that evaporates like steam as the marks are made, about when I was thirteen. But there are two of me: the one who has been her and wants to tell her how I changed, and the teacher who can only say these words, sanitizing my experience into a script to be read.
“Okay.” She leaves the room in a huff.
It’s me in the tiny bathroom stall, staring at my arm. My stomach twists; chest is tight. When I find myself tangled in my life, I want to cut my way out of it. There’s a sliver of shame that I am even imagining cutting, the quick emptying of feeling from my body. I still want to, after all this time. It’s like a lost lover who doesn’t leave the edges of the heart. It’s not the action of cutting I find so disturbing; it’s the persistence of the desire, the need.
I can’t remember the first time. I remember this: when I was eleven I was suicidal. I took out a knife and wrote a note. The feelings were real, the intention perhaps less so. It’s the feeling that remains significant, an ocean-sized despair, claustrophobia, and hurt, like my whole life was a blue-stained bruise. I am not sure why I hurt so much, and I’m not sure it matters why. My family was intact, we had money. I went to good schools and did well in them. I had friends, I had talent, I was ambitious. But my life was divided in two: the outside which looked good, and the inside where I was suffocating. I couldn’t make sense of them, how they could exist together. Cutting aligned the mismatched reality, brought the chaos to surface and appeared to control it. I could see what I felt by looking at the red lines and scratches. The curiosity lay in whether or not other people would see. And if they saw, would they respond? Would they see what I needed them to see?
My mom’s eyes catch the red lines on my arm, sliced through a cigarette burn I gave myself. “What’s that?” she asks. “Nothing,” I say. She doesn’t press any further and turns away. In her silence, I am terrified. What more would I have to do to get her to keep asking? What courage would she need to find to witness both sides of me?
What is so hard about not cutting is that cutting worked. It made the invisible story exist on the outside. Unlike anything else destructive I ever did, it just doesn’t seem to hurt that much. The damage always heals. The body is so resilient.
Maybe it is the body’s resiliency that drew me to dancing. When I was six, I would put on records in the living room and spin my body around, jump into the air, carve shapes and sculptures with my muscles and bones. Dance could pull what was inside out, it made me seen, it made me feel real. I asked my parents if I could take dance classes, and they found a small, funky dance school at an old soap factory in the industrial zone of the city. It was perfect for me. I would not have made it in ballet or jazz classes, emphasizing perfection and prettiness. I was already making dances and showing them in the living room, thinking in choreography, mapping movement into time and space.
Dance did what cutting did, sort of. My body found control and then abandoned it to fall, dive, fly. Dance brought my inside story out and made it into movement, instead of marks on my skin. With both, I wanted someone to see the hurt I could not understand and could not handle. But I could not pick dance over cutting; I could not stop hurting myself, hating myself. I carved deeper divides between my two lives. I had a life where my body was a tool, my instrument, where I made dances about the parts of life where my skin felt too thin. And I had a life where my body became a canvas for my rage, my inability to be in the world, an emptiness I could not avoid, rub out, or escape.
I’m in the doctor’s office. She notices four red lines on my arm. She asks me something about them, I can’t remember what. She asks me if I have been raped. I say yes. She asks me if I want to get help, see a therapist. I shrug. Afterwards, I snort lines off the toilet seat in her bathroom. Everything is blurry and I have a panicked feeling like I can’t breathe. The bathroom seems very clean and very safe. It is gold and white. Somehow I am aware that I am barely able to be at all.
Space grew between my two lives. One where I danced, another where I cut. One where I was responsible, another where I was drank too much. One where I was a feminist, another where I binged on food and starved myself. One where I accepted my sexuality, another where I was had sex with people I didn’t want to. One I could control, one I couldn’t. One where I wanted help. Another where I didn’t. I endured injury after injury and missed shows and opportunities. I became raw from having no skin and no edges, no truth I could withstand.
The awkward student begins to find a passion for dance. She comes to class excited to move, to create her own idiosyncratic dances about what she believes in, about war and peace, about everything and nothing, ideas large and small. We don’t talk about cutting again. I see white lines on her arms—old cuts. I promise to report anything new to the school administration, but I haven’t seen anything. I know too well that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I hear slivers about her thirteen-year-old life, about parties and dates, friends and high school. Sometimes I am afraid as I listen, afraid that she will be hurt too much by the situations she creates. She seems to be continually in danger, pushing the boundaries around her. But even as she struggles, she’s finding a joy in dance. The school’s annual dance concert is approaching. She is performing in three pieces, uniquely leading other dancers in each one. I don’t think her life is painless. But I see her discovering a love for something bigger than her. She says to me one day, “I think I’ll go get my BFA in Dance, and then go back to school to become a teacher.” I hope one day she will quietly lead her students, and look at her arms without longing to mark her skin anymore.
It’s after midnight. I had only two drinks at the party. I am in the car going home. I know I want to die. I go home and take out the same knife. Once again, the feelings are real, the intention is questionable. I call my girlfriend. She calls my parents. They come downstairs. They are angry. Later I will realize they were scared. I can say only two things: “ I want to die” and “take me to the hospital.” In the car, my hurting knows someone has seen it. I almost feel better, I want to say “Stop, it’s okay, let’s just go home.” I don’t say it. At the hospital, they decide to admit me to the psychiatric unit. The next day I wake up, completely empty, almost numb, but the emptiness is louder than numbness. I don’t know it, but from this emptiness a new life will begin. One life where I am not in pieces. I only want this life because I want to dance.
For all the failed cases that come and go through psychiatric hospitals, I was lucky. I wanted something enough to want to change. I didn’t know I would learn to change everything. I would learn to start talking instead of hoping people could read my mind or my body. I would learn to look at the world from a different perspective, to see more of the joy and less of the suffering, I would learn to create a foundation that anchored me. My learning was slow, a slow dance. I stumbled many times, falling back into my small patterns of fear and gradually breaking away from them. In dance, I knew how to try and fail and try again. I knew vulnerability, to share the heaviness inside me, to trust that even if I fell apart, I could be mended. I knew I didn’t know everything—to have faith and be humble. Dance was my constant partner, the guidepost for what I was seeking. It became more than just why I lived—it was the way in which I lived.
After spring break, my student is not in class. The kids mumble something about her being sick again. I pass her homeroom teacher in the hallway, he says, “it’s complicated.” Turns out she was hospitalized for psychological problems. When she comes back to school three weeks later, she is subdued. Her edginess tapered off, her mood quiet like a dark pond at dusk. It was the hospital that was a crossroads for me, but she has not turned onto any path out. She sulks, staring at her stomach in the dance room mirror. I feel like I am standing on the outside of a glass bubble. The best way to help her would be to tell her my story. But the school rules, and the strange mandate of teacher-student relations, keep my mouth shut and a line dividing what I know and what I tell.
Is this the silence of my mother? Maybe. But it is not that I am afraid to see her pain, it is that I am afraid to speak. As much as I have repaired the fragments of me, I’m still forced to split and divide, to keep the inside in, to dissociate from my history. The balancing act is fragile. I hold onto this small hope: that I can tell my story in ways beyond words, in action, in movement, that what and how I teach can make up for what I cannot say.
Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction
Edited by Sabrina Chap
Seven Stories Press
Copyright 2008 by Sabrina Chap