When I was in sixth grade, my school did a drama production that was a hodge-podge of many different productions. It was my first experience in drama, one I never even intended to audition for, and it was a blast. Minus one number. I don’t remember the song anymore, but I remember we were scientists in white lab coats and there was a modicum of flirting involved. It was the most frustrating experience at the time, because I didn’t know how to use my body that way. I remember the confusion that flooded me with the directions we were given. You want me to toss my hair? Bend and snap? What?? I wasn’t more than twelve (is that how old sixth graders are??) but I already knew I didn’t want my body to be on display. I already knew my body was an object to be used, that I didn’t own it, that I never would, and to act that way would illustrate some connection to my body that I absolutely did not feel.
To this day, whenever I watch the VHS tape of that number and I can’t help but cringe at how awkward I am. I never learned these skills, and I’m almost 35 now. I learned different skills–how to cover a bruise; how to placate an angry man; how to pretend I liked sex until I didn’t care enough to even pretend anymore. He took, and he took, and he took, like so many before him had, and sometimes I gave because that was what I was supposed to do, and sometimes I didn’t, because that was just the way it was.
Sit down. Be quiet. Do what you’re told.
I don’t know what it’s like to enjoy being touched. I hate being touched. I don’t know how to display my body, and I don’t want to. And I hate projecting an aura that says I may want that. I don’t do sexy.
It has always been important to me to do the right thing, perfectly, the first time. This bleeds into everything I do. I don’t share my first book with anyone because it’s not perfect. I’ve struggled with submitting writing work and missed deadlines because I can’t get the words just so. I show up to all of my clients at the precise time I am expected even though I have an arrival window. I wear clothes that disguise my body and its myriad of imperfections 99 percent of the time. I don’t do things where people can see if I’m not confident I can do them correctly. Hell, I don’t do those things where even only I can see. They taught me my body was a temple, but they didn’t teach me how to use it, how to worship it. They didn’t teach me how to own myself. After all these years, I am still owned by the world around me and how I appear within and to that world, and it’s scary to think of things being any other way.
Last night was round four of this weird quest I’m on to get in touch with my body. Pole class, but with a different instructor. A man. I worried it was a mistake signing up, but I let my therapist push me. I found myself very up in my head about it once in the studio. He was very sexual, more so than the usual teacher we’ve taken class from. And it caused a fairly immediate shutdown in my brain because I’m not that. At all. His way of teaching was so different from the first instructor we had, as were his expectations. I couldn’t do the things he could; I couldn’t make my body move and look that way, and I knew it. He came up behind me at one point to give me a spot, and I was very much done after that, at one point even uttering that I wanted to leave the studio. I knew then he was watching me, and that the more mistakes I made, the closer he would get–and he did. It got to the point where I didn’t want to take the pole when it was my turn; I scoped the room out to see where he was and would do a single sweep before hopping off in the hopes he would not approach.
My head told me my body is not mine. It’s everyone else’s. To be looked at. Gawked at? Used. My head told me I am incapable of executing any move that might look good or beautiful. Elegant? Worth looking at. My head told me I could never put myself on display, that that would give too much of what’s left of me away. My heart cried as that old tape wound its way through my brain of the same insults I had learned from the negative people I had in my life, and I couldn’t do a single thing on that pole without imagining everyone looking at me. He told the entire class that we could never bail, to always look like ‘we meant to do that,’ to always end with our sexy push-up (which, might I add, I still have not mastered). But I did bail. I quit without finishing move sets. I walked away after every skill to stand in the corner.
I turned to the wall and I almost started to literally tear up right there in the studio. And in those 90 minutes, I ruined a new hobby I’d just started to really enjoy. I didn’t thank him as we left. I didn’t say goodbye. I’m pretty sure he told me to smile and I wanted to smack him because I didn’t feel like smiling in the slightest.
PTSD is a bitch. But it’s more than just that. It’s a lifetime of habits, of thought patterns about myself, that I am worried I’m too old now to change. I’m worried it’s too late.