CW: Brief mentionings of self-harm
The first time I choked myself I was about twelve-years-old. Depeche Mode’s “Policy of Truth” loudly thrummed through my headphones, effectively drowning the sounds of my dad’s yelling and my mom’s desperate crying, the door to the bedroom I shared with my younger sister locked as my hand searched between my legs and found escape. There, hand on throat, face pressed against my pillow with pleasure blooming below, I learned the value of being quiet.
Growing up poor, you get used to suffocation. You become accustomed to small spaces and searching out even smaller spaces to call your own, even if that space is under the bedsheets with your sister sleeping less than eight feet away from you. In second grade during recess, I once called a tree hollow my own as I ran my soft, pale wrist up and down its rough, gray bark until beads of red formed and I leaned into the pain, so warm and inviting even on the coldest of Oklahoma fall days.
When people learn about me now, they assume someone sexually abused me—my dad, brother, uncle, a neighbor. Had to be someone. Memory is a tricky ghost, sure, but I can only claim to be the heir of childhood physical abuse. It was bad but it’s not something that wakes me in the middle of the night, sweat-drenched, and it’s not something I can point to and yell, unequivocally, you made me this way. I don’t know if that’s an adequate explanation for others; people seem to like clean answers. Hell, I like clean answers too, but I stopped trying to explain it to myself the first time a man took in my nakedness as I asked him please hurt me, narrowed his eyes, and told me I was sick in the head.
His words, his mouth dripping with disgust, choked me. I lost my voice. I disappeared.
And, for a long time, that was that: I was sick. The pain I craved, self-inflicted for so many years in those suffocating spaces where I found brief peace from the chaos around me, it was wrong. To please myself was wrong; to ask it of someone else was worse. How could I be right when this man who claimed to love me unconditionally found the one condition that made the difference?
During those years, the failed relationships, the buried first marriage, I held on to a single image from my early teens: HBO late Thursday night, the show, Real Sex, and a scene involving a large BDSM party in New York City. I didn’t know what BDSM was then, didn’t know the names of the implements of pain I saw used—floggers, canes, whips, bondage—but I understood somewhere deep in my gut that what I saw on the TV screen meant I wasn’t alone. I may be a sick person, but there was a slew of other sickos just like me. I have my dad to thank for that realization. No matter how poor we were, he found a way to have HBO.
Even with that HBO image playing in my mind, it took me two years into my relationship with my second husband to look at him straight on and give him the clean answer: I enjoy pain, I have for as long as I can remember, and I’d really appreciate it if you would choke me hard during sex.
And he did.
A dam opens and releases in you when you finally get what you need. Yes, need, although some have tried to convince me that it’s a want. Often, these are the same people who look at my husband, the most calm, laidback person on the planet, and passively assure me he’s an abuser. I don’t get angry. I don’t try to explain consent to them again or that it’s me who dictates my limits and desires. I imagine how I feel is very much how some people feel when they speak about their faith, that elusive gleam in their eyes as they discuss how God cleanses their spirit, freeing them in this life.
Before, mine was a lone church with one parishioner, that HBO episode my crucifix, my sexuality a single, flickering candle and every relationship prior a threat to blow it out. Together, my husband and I wrote our own religion and learned how to speak through each other, to shed those choked voices we once owned as truth.
Now, when the dam in me opens so wide I’m not sure it’ll ever close again, these are the times I sense my husband’s fear that he’s prayed too hard at my altar. No, I tell him with my body, these are thankful tears.
I am cleansed. I am free.
I have my voice.
Heather L. Levy is a born and bred Oklahoman and graduate of Oklahoma City University’s Red Earth MFA program for creative writing. You can find her most recent nonfiction in Dragon Poet Review as well as Prick of the Spindle. She also authored a nonfiction series on human sexuality, including “Welcome to the Dungeon: BDSM in the Bible Belt,” for Literati Press.