I left a six-year-long abusive relationship in November of 2017. Like so many of us, I had approached newness and the possibility of love without caution. By the time I left, I was something very different.
During those years with my abuser, I saw manifest in her eyes a growing resentment. Every day, I felt the magnitude of her disgust with me and my dogged efforts to be the person who did her right, the person who did not leave, the person who actively sought both her pleasure and her desire, the person who would accept her no matter how diabolical and cruel her punishment. I bore witness to the tirelessness with which she schemed and planned. Her steady work, for years, to eviscerate my love for things that were simple and safe and easy, was remarkably successful. Communication around consent, to ask for yes, was met with glowering disapproval. The fact that I had existed as a flagrantly queer and sexual person before we met had always repulsed her and so she belittled my desires, degraded my gender presentation.
She vilified my body and, in this way, was able to extract other values from it, mainly as a means of wresting financial gain from my labour by working me as much and as hard, on as little food or sleep as possible. Work is what made me butch and hot, not my interest in the roots of my desire or how I experience pleasure, how we all experience pleasure. And so, for her, shame became the tool.
After barely a year together, she never touched me again sexually and for those remaining five years, she steadily removed all other iterations of touch until the only time our bodies made contact was by accident or when she became physical. In moments of care or interest, erotic or suggestive, all forms of touch were confiscated and I was told implicitly, through various acts of violence, how untouchable she felt I was.
This had all made sense to me, initially. I had already come to believe that my value existed only in what I could do well and correct, in spite of everything. My use was my value. And so it became a test of how much I could endure to prove that I was worth hanging on to. How small could I make my life to make hers feel indispensable?
As queer and trans people, we know how it feels to grapple with a world that relentlessly polices our desires and our bodies. We learn the power of wanting and the alchemy of our bodies from one another. When we talk about LGBTQ intimate partner violence, we can understand how it becomes essential for an abuser to excise that dignity from us before anything else. When we embrace and are embraced for all of the dazzling ways in which we deviate from the ordinary, abusers will invariably seek to alienate us from it. It is intentional and it is violent. And so, when we finally leave those abusive relationships and begin to come back to the world, trusting queer community again can be a challenge. After living under a curse for so long, how do we trust in magic again? And when we begin to reintegrate with our bodies, how do we uncover what pleasure means to us? What does pleasure even feel like? Do our bodies know that we’re finally safe?
For many years, my abuser allowed me no more than ten minutes in the washroom. This was the only time I was able to be alone and to experience silence. Sometimes, due to acute sleep deprivation, I would lose consciousness while showering, only to jolt upright as my knees began to buckle under me. Often, I just stood under the water and felt nothing. I pressed my palms into my cavernous face, held my empty stomach, touched between my legs and sensed only a dull memory of desire and pleasure, as though I had been gelded. A phantom limb. The shower had been the only place I could be kind to my body, the only time I wasn’t being surveilled. Strangely, all these years later, the shower is the one place I’m still besieged by flashbacks of the myriad ways in which she terrorized me. I stand under the water and endure again my old and abject sadness, at times powerless to stop it.
I have tried to explain my recovery as one might discuss a flesh wound: The cut, the blood, the bandage, the scab, the scar. I try to describe the physical pain in my body after years of imposed malnutrition, acute sleep deprivation, isolation, forced labour, physical violence and emotional torture, sexual neglect and degradation, theft and fraud, surveillance, stalking, gaslighting.
After I leave, I feel pain that bewilders me; cloaks me from my life. My emotional barometer is confused and I find myself numb with uncertainty. My abuser focused on scarcity and extraction, so I had dumped or tucked away anything superfluous in order to focus on what had been most essential: my survival.
My memory is broken, my vocabulary is so limited I forget words constantly. As a writer, this loss devastates me and I’m terrified it is permanent. I realize that I cannot describe what happened to me, neither can I say what is happening to me as I begin to recover. There is something that precedes the words and I wonder if I have it in me to do this work.
During this time, I don’t know how I am supposed to feel, how I am supposed to think or make decisions, or how to rest. The first woman I date tells me that when I fall asleep, I groan. How do I explain to her that falling asleep feels so inconceivably painful because my body cannot accept that it is allowed to relent? I am so estranged from myself that I have become two dissonant parts: some old part says we’re okay, but my body is bound in terror, chattering at me like a film reel, I don’t know, I don’t know. I am not safe. How do I trust you? I do not know you. In this same way, pleasure comes like an ambush; dangerous, unreliable and gone before I know its face.
We are strangers to one another — my body and I — and I feel, palpably, that it no longer trusts me to take care of us. I am ashamed of myself for not protecting us. I keep stepping out of myself, smiling and playing the part my new life requires, walking beside myself as though I were a stranger. But I don’t want to be a stranger to myself. I just want my body back.
This is when I first read the work of Joan Nestle, a Jewish working-class femme elder, archivist, activist, writer. Every page I read drips with fuck, pulses with dignity. The marginalia, where my thumbs sweat and stain, marked over and over with yes. The desire in her language was so precise and I felt, unconcealed, that precision, as though the tips of her nails had dragged down the inner seam of my jeans. Somewhere inside of me a match strikes. I have somewhere to start. I can see the way.
In therapy, I speak to myself for the first time in years. The first time ever, really. I speak to the parts of me that have never stopped trying to protect me and keep me alive. I am terrified and penitent. I beg their forgiveness; my own forgiveness. I place my hands on my chest with compassion and say I know. I was there. And it’s okay. I learn the power of bringing myself back, by saying This is not that. We’re not there anymore. I find my words again.
I meet lovers who show up for the hard parts, and others who just can’t. I practice making boundaries and holding them, even when it frightens me to do it. I make mistakes. Sex both shatters me and puts me back together again. I finally have names for myself and my gender and my desires. Kink reminds me that my presence is critical; that consent and negotiation is not only vital, but deeply erotic. That care is reciprocal and furthermore that it is possible. Love and pleasure and trust should never be held in suspension the moment we say no and mean it.
I look back on our LGBTQ history and our tremendous capacity to fight, to heal, to take care of one another and to share in so much joy. We also hurt one another in terrible ways and that, too, begs mercy of us.
Queer community, lost to me for years, comes trickling back. I am reminded of how we’ve survived in a world that doesn’t understand us in all of our complexity. We have persistently carved out space for pleasure, for dignity and for our liberation and power. Our queerness is soldered to our history and it simply astonishes me. We are alchemists! I am utterly smitten.
I meet someone, and love eddies back into my life in the slowest, most gorgeous way. She is wonderfully singular and I am stunned. I no longer float away from myself when I feel her hand on the back of my neck, or her fingers tracing my forearm in the simplest gesture of kindness. We are tethered securely, but it feels generous and spacious. We are fortified in our ever-present and loving yes. We keep showing up for that magic and it’s a surprise every time.
The process of writing this all down has surprised me. When I felt myself shrinking or expanding into the pain of remembering, I spoke a spell for myself and felt our queer ancestors at my back. It’s the gentlest thing I can think of to remind me that we are always within reach of ourselves: If you cannot be in your body: it is the river, it is the mountain, it is the tree. If you can be in your body: it is the river, it is the mountain, it is the tree.
I am now 39 years old and for what feels like the first time, I get to envision how pleasure might look and feel. I think of my gender as the aperture of a beloved broken camera: it expands and contracts, never settles into focus, but every image is unmistakably me. I finally understand what it means to be moved to tears.
My body, my sex, my wounds and my joys are not dangerous and vile monsters, but grounded and true, kind and generous, perverse and powerful. This body kept me alive when I was sure I was going to die; when I prayed to live long enough to meet myself again.
I no longer have to stare into a mirror to recognize myself because I am learning to feel that recognition from the inside. I am getting to know my guts and the very broth of the marrow in my bones. I keep hearing myself say: There you are. My body is revived, once again a source of power. My body is a lighthouse that calls my desire back home.