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Depersonalisation and Touch: Making Sense of My Promiscuous Self

This is an old post from my old blog, but it fits well with the links I am making about shame and dissociation and relational healing over the past few days, so I am adding it here. I wrote it in the autumn of 2017, after I made some links between my promiscuity, touch and the fact that I experience almost-permanent depersonalisation and derealisation. It links with things I had realised previously about my core self being formed around shame, and the shame and guilt I feel when I see my Mum from a distance e.g. across a room, and how this led me to dissociate even as a baby. I dissociate from all and any feelings, which is starting to make even more sense now – I was trying to reflect back to my Mum what she needed and wanted to see and so I hid my real self, even from myself. I literally made myself unreal, i.e. depersonalised, so I didn’t get annihilated.

“To live without a functioning sense of touch is to live in constant fear. Fear of imminent annihilation, fear you are not real. “Touch” is not tactile. It is a sense located in the organ of the skin, an awareness of the skin as a boundary, a boundary that gives you certainty that you exist and are an entity, something real. The place your spirit can exist on the earth. “Touch” is what allows you to take in and perceive the world and form memories. Memories that you can access and name. Without a sense of touch a soul has no boundary, no container. Memories have no place to live and the feelings cannot coalesce into something cognizant and meaningful. They are just pure emotion swirling around, nameless, overwhelming, annihilating”.

I’ve spent my life chronically dissociated, mostly depersonalisation and derealisation, although in more recent years the existence of dissociated parts, frozen in time since their original trauma, have made themselves known. Some of those parts have branded themselves ‘sluts’, unable to forgive their promiscuity and the shameful situations they found themselves in. Others have shown classic signs of borderline personality as they have grappled with the triggers of intimate relationships. And still others are starting to feel horrified by how obsessed they were by boys, how even as they studied hard and had other interests, it was boys who took over their minds and gave them a reason to live. Only now are we making sense of the reasons for this behaviour, the desperate longing to be touched and filled and to feel like we mattered, how the seeds for this behaviour were sown before we could even walk.

When an adult experiences chronic, near-constant depersonalisation it usually means there was frequent trauma and abuse before that adult was 9 months old. Depersonalisation – the sense of not being real, of having no edges because there is no ‘you’ to come to an end. Depersonalisation – watching your hand move across the page and letters forming, but having no sense of that hand belonging to you. Depersonalisation – cutting your legs just to feel real, feeling no pain as the blood flows, seeing the cuts later and feeling comforted, the stinging pain reminding you the pain is real, that you are real. Depersonalisation – looking in the mirror and there being no connection between the face you see and the person inside. Depersonalisation – being trapped behind frosted glass, needing someone to reach out and break it but not being able to move past your own experience to tell them. Doubting your own existence. Doubting you are real. I didn’t realise I felt like this as a teenager, but I did, it’s in my writings. It’s how I explained my anorexia. It explains why I drank myself to oblivion. And it explains why I let random men use me and discard me, over and over again. For me, depersonalisation didn’t just mean a lack of boundaries with regards other people, but that I did not exist to myself. I have not felt real for most of my life. Feeling someone’s hands on my skin gave me edges, gave me skin, brought me to life, gave me a place in the world – for seconds, minutes, hours, however long they held me, I felt something and I knew I was there.

I spent my life trying to be invisible. Hiding and hoping to be left alone – at school and at home. I also spent my life desperate to be seen and heard. I lost my virginity at 14 to a man 12 years older. We met at a club. I was drunk and passively borne along by events that felt entirely out of my control – I had no sense of being able to say no, even if I had wanted to. Writing ‘I’ feels strange; I have no sense that person back then was me. Whoever it was lay there, in his bed, desperate for it to be over, trying to block out what was going on, telling herself it would be over soon. It was. And then the man fucked her best friend as well and they both went home. I know now this was statutory rape; in the eyes of the law I was not able to consent. I was too young and he was too old. He should have known better, though under our patriarchal system I can understand why perhaps he didn’t. Around this time I was also obsessing over his house mate; beautiful, mysterious, enigmatic Ben. I had met him at a party, spent hours the next day trawling the streets trying to find his house, turned up at his work a week later. He told me I was too young – I was, he was right – but his rejection threw my very existence into doubt. After this there were more boys. My Mum had thrown me out at the start of the holidays. I went to a party on the moors and fucked a 17 year old in his tent. I let boys shove their fingers inside me, ignoring the discomfort, the pain, the shame. I kissed anyone and everyone I could. I obsessed over another boy all summer, someone I didn’t even like until he showed me he liked me. We kissed constantly. I felt alive when we were kissing. I pretended I felt the same when he said we shouldn’t turn it into anything serious in case it ruined our friendship, I could feel him slipping away from me and I would take whatever I could get. I acted out my hurt by kissing another boy in front of him. I returned from a holiday and he was ‘going out with’ another girl. I was the one people wanted to kiss and fuck, not have a relationship with. He told a friend he couldn’t love me because I didn’t love myself. I had no idea what this meant. I hated myself even more for not loving myself enough to make him love me.

Another one night stand in my friend’s sister’s bed. Disgusting and drunken. He left in the early hours and I felt empty and used and hollowed out. I pretended it was fine, one big joke. I felt proud of the pain, of being hardly able to walk, my muscles stiff, my tender flesh sore and raw inside; proof that someone had wanted me. More men. Pulling 20 men in a night was standard. Letting them grope me on the dancefloor, letting them take me places and do things to me I didn’t want them to do, just so I could have a cuddle. Making them watch as I moved on to the next. Those days remain a jumble of excited obsession and agonising rejection that happened to someone else. Not me. Every man I met in a club or pub was going to be the one – they were gorgeous and funny and this time they would want me. Eventually one did. He was the double of Kurt Cobain and I fell hard and fast. Luckily so did he. He was 9 years older – I was just 15. We saw each other every day. I was too young to spot the warning signs, how he would shake if he hadn’t had a drink, his mood swings, the derogatory way he would talk to me sometimes. He told me he loved me. He didn’t fuck me. He left me for someone else and I wanted to die. Six months after this the one night stands started in earnest. Joe, Tobey, Chris, Billy, Malcolm, Anthony, Julian, Owen, Big Pete. Most of the time I didn’t even think about it going anywhere. I brushed them off with a ‘see ya later’. Apart from Lux, Lux was different. Lux wanted me and I wanted him so much. He was older. He was dangerous, I could sense it. He made me feel more alive and more wanted than I ever had. He would drop me home after a weekend in bed and the emptiness that invaded me was the worst pain I had ever experienced. I felt annihilated. I couldn’t see how I would ever be okay without him. My neediness was palpable, even as I played it cool.

The obsessions continued, mostly over girls, sometimes a man. I took detours to get home so I could walk past Emily’s house, desperate to see her, unable to talk when I did. I obsessed over Sarah K at work, unable to talk when she came near me, writing poetry and dreaming of her constantly. All I wanted was for her to touch me. At university the one night stands and embarrassing, shameful situations began again. Mike, Rob, Matt, Tom, James, James, the ginger pikey. At age 18 I had slept with 21 guys, some of whose names I didn’t even know. And I had had the most intense and exhilarating experience of my life kissing a girl called Amy for hours and hours, until her boyfriend came to lead her home. It stopped for a while, with my first real boyfriend. I felt alive with him, but the long-distance took its toll on me – having to say goodbye every week broke my heart. I was lost without him. He became my life. Being apart from him was agony. My disorganised attachment played out time and time again as I told him he couldn’t be with him, I was too fucked up. I begged him to leave me. The opposite of the classic borderline “I hate you, don’t leave me” – my version was “I love you, please leave me”. Terrified he’d discover my rotten core or that I would unknowingly infect him with my filth. He stayed. I cheated twice because whenever there was an offer of closeness, skin-to-skin contact, waking up next to someone, feeling ‘loved’, then I was powerless to say no. He stayed through physical illness and depression and I got my degree because of our strength. He told me he was leaving me and I threw up in the road, so disturbed was my sense of self. I didn’t know who I was without him.

More one-night-stands and short-lived romances with boys who were dangerous and unsuitable, men who I felt nothing for, men who physically repulsed me. I let them all fuck me. I pretended I liked them, but not too much. Ben, Paul, Aidan, Alex, Alex, Kate, a man in a cupboard at a party who I hadn’t even talked to. The pain of one particularly intense entanglement with a spectacularly bad-for-me chef named Paul ending led me to try and take my own life. I fell for men I didn’t even like. Too scared to tell one to use a condom, in case it made him realise he didn’t want me after all, I ended up pregnant. That stopped the carousel a little. In 11 years 4 relationships, 2 almost-relationships, 1 one-night stand with a total druggie on medication for psychosis. One that should have been a no-night-stand but after we had drunken sex (he made me cry so of course I fucked him after that) I was so consumed by shame that I let myself fall for him in the hope I could stave off the guilt for getting closer than I should have by getting even closer. A million reasons to end it with each of them and yet it took me such a long time to find them, because the tidal wave of abandonment and annihilation would sweep me away when I tried. With the last two, I remember how I could never get physically close enough to them. Even when they were inside me it wasn’t enough. I would hold them close after sex and have this excruciating sensation of never being able to hold them tight enough. I needed them inside me, consuming me, merging with me and filling me up. I learnt to walk away. I learnt to tolerate the pain. I learnt to end relationships from a distance, when my body wouldn’t cry out for their touch as they tried to walk away.

What now, though? What now? Can I absolve all my parts of guilt and shame and self-loathing for this slutty, promiscuous, obsessive behaviour? Now I can see that experiencing chronic abuse as an infant and young child led to me not having a skin of my own, led to this crazy sense of not existing unless someone else could see and touch me, can I forgive us all for needing more, more, more all the time? Maybe, just maybe. One day. All I know is I’ve had enough empty sex to last a lifetime. Ironic really, when all that time I was hoping it would fill me up, so that one day I would be enough, all by myself.

And so to therapy. What do I get? It’s really quite simple. When I’m with my therapist I exist. Under her all-seeing gaze I am coming to life. When she goes away so do I. Without her my experiences no longer feel real. I am thrown back into a wordless place, where I feel nothing, where my internal experience does not exist. Where do not exist. She is helping me find my skin and then to draw a boundary around it in which I feel safe and contained. I have been told that as a child I was self-contained; I wasn’t, I just had no one to contain me. I was uncontained and hiding myself inside a body that was not mine, lest I spill out and infect my parents and make them sadder, madder, more resentful, even less there, even less willing to be there. I grew up without a functioning sense of touch. I grew up without a boundary around myself. I grew up not existing to myself. Now it makes sense that when my therapist goes away I feel I am facing annihilation. When I lost my skin, that’s what I really was facing.

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