e were the ones who stuck together. The survivors and rioters. Visionary movement-makers. Feminist collective, queer contingent—believing the world could be different. We held each other up—symbiotic saviors. Discussed accountability. Discovered the bonds of community.
There, in Chicago, above my bedroom door, the purple-painted wooden sign that said Intend. Meaning: Harm-reduction. Trauma-informed. Self-advocate. Boundary setters and keepers. Intentions we set so we could heal from oppression. Live differently. We kept each other strong and empowered, regardless of our struggles. Gave each other care, confidence, survival. Gave each other that sense of thriving—together.
My community extended beyond my friends as it unfurled throughout the neighborhood in which we lived. Those spaces made of safe, well-lit sidewalks, flourishing community gardens, and the open courtyards of our apartments. Rainbow flags hanging in many windows. This was our little corner of Chicago. The neighborhood—my neighborhood—I floated through, peacefully, on that one particular July night. Weaving my way from bar to home, alone, I soon heard a jogger’s footsteps barreling down the sidewalk behind me, toward me. I stepped aside to let him run by, but the end of his run—that finishing line—wasn’t beyond me. It was me, my body.
Hands pulling, clawing. My screaming and fighting until I finally broke away from his grasp. Then he turned his back to me. Walked away, empty-handed. Violated, the terror of that one-minute interaction became a memory I could never ungrasp. That night, I sobbed my way home, hyperventilating as I walked down the sidewalks of my community that no longer felt like mine. The panic and hyper-vigilance and anxiety that stemmed from this assault would forever reverberate, ricochet within me, ripple out to my community. Yet stay caged within my skin. The trauma begins.
There is a decision to cut. It is not a decision. There is a need and there is a desire to make that need go away, to simultaneously want and not want to cut.
The complication here is about how cutting gives you sense of control, a feeling of letting go. And then later, eventually, after just a few weeks since you started, the cutting begins to control you.
Once I started, I didn’t want to stop. No, I did want to. It’s that I couldn’t. There was a space between my veins and skin that I had to get into—I needed to see what was missing, what didn’t feel right. I couldn’t resist such disparate pleading, needing to see what was in there, to explore those places where my skin no longer felt attached to my body, no longer enveloped my muscles and tendons, my skeletal system below, beneath it, further down and underneath that hollowed-out sense. It’s a space that felt separated from the surface and stifled what was inside—a struggle to feel alive. I thought the razor could help me find it, that space within myself I could no longer locate, so I carved deep canyons in my skin to empty out my body’s memories, hoping I’d find something that would save me. What rose up to me was a steady stream—rarely a trickle—of blood. My blood. That substance inside me. A part of me now seen. I licked it, yes, I licked it. It tasted razor-blade metallic. And then past the blood, if I spread open my fresh swipe, I saw translucent flesh and globs of yellow—fat beneath the skin, an inner layer of supposed protection.
I was assaulted on a Sunday and didn’t leave my apartment until Wednesday when I went with my feminist friends to tape signs to the sidewalk where I was assaulted. I was terrified of going outside, certain I would be assaulted the second I did—a trauma-induced, hyper-vigilance consumed me—but three days after that Sunday assault, my friends finally coaxed me out of my safe cave, cooked me dinner, and then we took Sharpies to poster boards to do some reclaiming:
“My short dress does not give you the right to grab me.”
“He took my safety but not my strength.”
“I was assaulted here X on Sunday.”
“Protect your community.”
My lover even amended a nearby “DO NOT ENTER” street sign:
I tried to feel empowered in those moments of sidewalk reclamation and revised signage.
There wasn’t any hope within me, just the ripple effect of trauma cycling through my skin, having originated from the places where he grabbed my body. It went like this: his touch created physical memories that created flashbacks that created panic attacks that created regrettable drunken razor blade actions that created permanent visual reminders of his touch—his touch created physical memories that created flashbacks that created—
Trauma isn’t a linear experience. It loops.
Regardless of the care we held for one another, regardless of the support and strength my community gave me, I still felt scared, anxious, defeated. Violated. Flayed, even. Needing to get away from the places he touched, I discovered a strategy to do this. Create a physical sensation to pause it all, to momentarily calm down what was inside my body by controlling its surface. Skin terrorized by the places he struck, I needed to separate myself from it.
The skin is the body’s largest organ. It covers the entire body, shields against heat, light, injury, infection. It regulates body temperature and stores water and fat. There are three main layers that compose our flesh. The epidermis is what you see, the solid outer layer that doesn’t contain blood vessels. Cut through that and you will run into the dermis. This is where the blood vessels, nerves, and muscles run through the body. Cut even farther down and you hit the subcutaneous fat layer. Here, it is yellow. Here, the flesh turns pulpy and soft. Here, more blood, more nerves.
My skin did not protect me against injury. Against him. Against me. As I cut, I went through my epidermis and dermis, slashed straight down into my subcutaneous layer. All of me was there. Skin layered on top of itself, covered in blood and nerves. I was searching for that empty space I sensed, trying to locate what was missing, what he took. I never found it. Each morning I woke up with pieces of torn fabric tied to my skin, an outer layer of cloth to keep back what was bleeding from within. To protect what was open and raw. Vulnerable.
Covered in fresh wounds, I still felt emptied. Within a few instances of razor to skin, I was no longer in control of cutting.
I cut until I needed stitches. Then I cut again. I cut until I had to go to the psych ward, then I got out and then I cut again and then I went back in. When I got out (again), I continued to cut. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Self-injury is a type of trauma—it, too, loops. I cut enough one early morning that by nightfall I was still bleeding. Sleeping next to my lover, my arm draped over her naked stomach, the sharp lines on my skin dripped, seeped. The feel of self-harm’s red liquid woke her up. She stayed calm that night as she wiped clean the places where the cuts had wept onto her abdomen. But soon after, she started her retreat from me. My community followed.
We were the ones who stuck together.
Until we didn’t.
We were the ones who supported one another. Until we weren’t. Until the stress of supporting me became too much and my community had to break away. Leave. Six months after the assault I was still cutting when they needed to attend to their own struggles and didn’t have the energy to continue to attend to mine. Because one friend’s sister was in the hell of an active eating disorder. One friend was working to heal from the violence of her last relationship. One was depressed. One was labeled unstable because she wanted to be he. Another friend lost her food stamps. Another lost his father. One friend lost her partner.
My community then lost me, severed me, actually. Emptied their hands of me, hoping I would find someone else to hold me up since I still wasn’t capable of doing it myself.
Suture kits in every hospital contain a similar inventory: antiseptic towelettes, curved hemostat, sterile scalpel blades, surgical probe, operating scissors, suture lip scissors, non-suture wound closure strips, pointed forceps, benzoin swabs, and a spool of black nylon. Hemostats are scissor-looking clamps that hold onto the skin while the sutures are sewn in. Once the wound is numbed by injecting an anesthetic, the nurse prepares the sterilized instruments to bring the skin back together. Although the anesthetic does numb the injury site, you can still feel the pull and tug of flesh as it is sewn shut.
The nurses never asked if I could feel it. Perhaps they did not want to know, didn’t want to hear what my answer would have been: an ecstatic, Yes.
Yes, there was a time that my community did take care of each other, but caring for ourselves was an essential part of that. You can’t be a friend to someone if you’re not a friend to yourself. Simple as that. My community couldn’t help me because I wouldn’t help myself. I cut. I wept. I drained their energy, their resilience. Their patience.
How can we be there for someone who has already vacated herself—someone who has left her body because she couldn’t escape her memories?
Let go or be dragged.
For their own sanity, their own emotional safety, they turned their backs to me.
Like my assailant, they walked away, left me shattering.
Self-harm is believed to be a morbid form of self-help. For people whose emotions are hyper-reactive or for those raised in an emotionally chaotic environment, cutting or creating physical pain feels like the best way to silence anxiety, to shut out memories. After surviving a traumatic situation, a person will often relieve the reactionary anxiety with physical harm. Like popping a balloon, the anxiety seems to just go away.
I do not remember my first cut. I do not know what made me take that initial swipe. I know I was drunk. I know it quickly became my nightly routine.
Then I cut so badly (again) that I needed to get stitches (again). It would be the fifth time in less than a year that a nurse had to pull out the suture kit upon my arrival. By then, the fascination had worn off. Watching the suturing was still interesting but no longer exciting. Actually, it was more like routine, shuffling its feet towards the mundane. This last time, though, I wasn't drunk when I cut, but hungover. I drank the night before. I cut the night before. When I woke up feeling raw, hopeless, still stuck in a well of depression and still friendless, I did what I thought would assuage it. I cut.
The cut finally hurt.
There is a certain type of silence that permeates a psych ward’s hallways at 2 am. It’s comforting, safe because the chaos of life doesn’t exist when in a secluded and locked unit. Since the support I needed was beyond my community’s capabilities, I cut my way towards needing the professionals—those who had the resources to stitch me up and help calm me down—to swoop in and save me.
The psych ward protected me from the razor. Once removed, I realized I had been trying to figure out the story of my experience, of my body, with swipes and slices. But the cuts only silenced me, cut me off from my community. I had to find a different way—one that didn’t harm me—to put language to my pain.
This is about more than bodies. It’s about voices, stories. It’s about the space needed to explore those voices, those stories. To put words to what feels incomprehensible. Why this? Why me? To feel like someone is listening. I needed that space in which I was supported by people, not forced to be fixed. It was about understanding. About letting me return to myself in my own way, in my own time. It was about writing my story of survival in my own terms, my own words. Without a community to talk to, I turned to writing.
I had adjectives and verbs, had stories built inside of me full of metaphors and allusions and specific words that wanted to be heard. The stillness and safety of the psych ward gave me the space to write the pain out of me, to put down the razor and pick up a pen.
So that’s what I did.
I put down the razor.
I picked up a pen.
I inked my way towards repairing the ruins my life had become.
Writing was a process of discovering. Each time I wrote, I found a new angle into my past, a new way to approach and consider life. It was about getting that narrative out. Words as ushers. I wasn’t so much documenting trauma, but transforming past pain into a tangible story. Surviving this life is an art. If I didn’t tell my story, the traumatic memories would keep replaying in my mind—a continuous loop of what I wished I could leave behind but couldn’t get out of me. No matter how harsh and harrowing the words were, I had to write them out of me to cultivate some understanding about who I was—and especially who I was without my community, how they had to continue without me. How I could do the same without them.
I was turning pain into art. Crafting it. Gaining strength by inciting a voice.
Ten days after I checked myself into the psych ward, I was ready to leave and emotionally equipped to let that voice be heard. Writing was a way to see it all, right there in front of me, on the page, and I knew that I needed some witnesses, knew that I wanted other people to see what I had created so I could keep cultivating my voice. So I could keep discovering myself.
I discovered a different community, one that knew how to listen, how to care for me by encouraging self-exploration through writing. By volunteering to read submissions for a nonfiction literary journal, I was able to witness other people’s stories. My new community spawned. There were the writers and editors I worked with at the journal, then the online writing groups I joined and the friends I made through them. Then more writers and editors I met by submitting my work for publication and eventually entering into a low-residency MFA program—my new community was snowballing into something amazing. Exciting. Sturdy. I had found my tribe of people who would never walk away from me, even if there was too much pain and not enough healing going on in my life. No, these writers became the ones who encouraged me to speak more about that pain, to find new ways to write about it, new ways to heal from it. I encountered writers who told me to roll up my sleeves and dive right into those darkest moments of my existence. Don’t avoid. Don’t be scared. Don’t give up and walk away. Go deep. Excavate beyond the cuts. Exhume as the scars form.
Having figured out how to attend myself, I could finally be there for someone else. I could create that co-healing space. I could share my writing, could read. Listen.
My new community exists in my Google contacts, my friend lists, my connections. We “follow” each other in non-stalker ways. We learn even more of each other through publications and reviews and interviews. The rough drafts friends send to me. The emails I send to them asking for their opinions on punctuation. We are all one email, one post, one website away. Many of the people I consider my best friends are women I’ve never even met in person. But we don’t need to be in the same physical space to feel the strength of friendship and the community we’re all a part of.
We are the ones who stick together as we read each other’s work, the ones who know and share the power of words.
In Minneapolis, Marya writes about mental illness. In Seattle, Bernard writes about drug addiction. Kristina writes about painful tragedies in Philadelphia, and Abe in Austin un-silences the secrets of incest. Melissa explores independence and freedom from domestic violence as she scrawls down words in Michigan, crafting her memoir. In Tel Aviv, Morgan reckons with her body. Tayyba in Houston figures out her American identity.
I read my friends’ stories as I continue to put words to my own.
There’s a type of encouragement that flows from each sentence, each story. Readers witness our painful experience. They face the trauma with us, tell us to keep going, that we have a right to tell our stories. How a word after a word puts us back into the world.
We are the ones who craft language and let it flow so that we can let go. Connect.
We stitch our stories together, never cutting out or cutting off what feels too harsh—that place where we know our narratives begin.
(Parts of this essay were previously published in The Rumpus and Tikkun Magazine.)
Chelsey Clammer is the award-winning author of Circadian (Red Hen Press, 2017) and BodyHome (Hopewell Publications, 2015). A Pushcart Prize-nominated essayist, she has been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Normal School, Hobart, The Rumpus, Essay Daily, The Water~Stone Review and Black Warrior Review, among many others. She is the Essays Editor for The Nervous Breakdown and a voluntary reader for Creative Nonfiction magazine. Chelsey received her MFA in Creative Writing from Rainier Writing Workshop. Her forthcoming essay collection, Human Heartbeat Detected, looks at the ways in which we are “human” to one another. Clammer is also currently writing a craft book about lyric essays, Sound It Out. You can read more of her writing at: www.chelseyclammer.com.
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