Getting Clear

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Getting Clear: Body Work for Women, Anne Kent Rush, The Bookworks/Random House 1973.

In my first encounter with this book, I found it at a thrift store in Cambridge MA around 1998. It looked old and kind of cool so I picked it up for 50 cents. I don’t think I even paid attention enough to realize what it was about that day.

But a few months later I flipped through it absent-mindedly, and then mentioned it to my therapist. “Oh yes, that’s a great one”, she said, “it’s helped a lot of women. Especially women who suffered sexual abuse, but really all women. You should try to read it.”

Like a lot of transsexuals, I was at war with my body. I’d been on hormones, got an orchi, off hormones, feeling miserable & hot flashes, back on, plus a lot of electrolysis at various points, which is really uncomfortable. Not to mention all the insulting hurts. (You know how people are.)

So one night I was home alone, and out of booze so I couldn’t just get drunk until it was late enough to go to bed. I started to read a few pages of Getting Clear, and I came to the exercise “Tuning In”.

“Ok I’ll try it!” I thought. I wasn’t going to get naked, but I took off my shoes, and lay down on the couch. My right arm was a little scrunched against the back but at least it was a long couch and I could stretch my legs all the way. I closed my eyes and took a few breaths.

I felt a little jumpy and it was hard to lay still. “Focus your attention inside your body” I thought. So I tried. But all I could feel was pain. Like a million knives inside my body, slicing me apart from every angle. I felt it in my stomach. I felt it in my arms. I felt it in my chest. I felt it in my legs.

I swung bolt upright in shock: “I’m physically in pain!”

As crazy as it sounds, this was a revelation to me. I hadn’t been able to figure out what was wrong for the life of me. It was March, and over the previous winter I’d gotten so drunk I fell ill and missed a week of work. Not once, but twice! Both times, I could remember the exact moment I got sick, while I was at the bar. “God I’m so drunk, and I’m so tired,” I thought. “And suddenly my throat has a horrible tickle. I should just go home. But fuck it!” And then, both times, I ordered another drink.

They were mad at me at my job, which probably goes without saying. Besides all the sickness, I’d spent a few weeks focused on trans activism after my friend got murdered, which really wasn’t my job description. I was playing in a band but I’d been missing a lot of practices, and getting in arguments when I showed up. They were mad at me too. I was an alcoholic, and I was dating an alcoholic.

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Slowly it all started to make sense. “When I walk down the street, but I feel so terrible and I can’t stop thinking about falling into a pit and getting impaled by rough wooden stakes, it’s because my body is physically in pain!”

“When I have somewhere to be, and I’m on my way there, but then I duck into the thrift store to look at used records ‘just for a second’, and then next thing I know it’s three hours later and I missed whatever I needed to do, it’s because my body is physically in pain!”

“When I think I’m going to run out of weed and I start to panic I won’t be able to sleep so then I buy two bottles of wine on my way home, one for today and one for tomorrow, but then drink them both, it’s because my body is physically in pain!”

This insight was a shock to me. For three or four years, as my life got more and more dysfunctional and my horizons kept shrinking, I had just assumed that my brain was broken. I was “chemically depressed” (like my mom kept insisting), or just a loser, or weak, or too scared.

I was scared. I was scared for very good reasons! I still remembered in great detail the lessons I’d learned in high school: if you take care of yourself and put time into your appearance, you become a target and you will be punished. But if you don’t shower for a month and wear the same dirty jeans every day, that’s fine!

Or the one about “Really the problem is you’re acting gay, but since I can’t articulate that I’m going to institutionally punish you for ‘being a rebel’ even though you’re in all the honors classes, you don’t talk back to teachers, and you don’t do drugs. Not that I can say this, but you’re an easy target.”

Or the one about the townies driving the white Lincoln. Or the one about the skinheads at that Fugazi show. (I mean, really? Wasn’t that supposed to be a progressive band?)

Or later on, the trouble I had intentionally sought out on my own: that month snorting heroin during a heat wave while everyone in New York had diarrhea when the city water went bad, or that weird day I had a terrible headache until I spent four hours smoking crack with some random dude who’d just got out of prison in the alley behind a building, or that weird night at the sex club when the Bridge & Tunnel guy with the heavy Italian accent and the cheap suit wouldn’t stop following me around until finally I got irritated and gave him a handjob with the hand where I wore three big rings hoping that would put him off, but it still didn’t, or that time it was my birthday so I went to a bar by myself and sat in the corner drinking scotch by myself but while I was riding my bike home my pants got caught in the chain (it was a fixed gear) and I sprained my ankle, but I had a job interview the next morning and I limped in still drunk and they sent me home after ten minutes?

Seriously, I was a piece of trash. I had thrown myself out. I decided I wanted to live like a tree, just observing my environment but not reacting to it or controlling it, so I wore the same outfit every day for two years and spent my time drunk. When I got evicted from my loft, I couldn’t separate the broken children’s toys and torn scraps of paper I’d inadvertently picked up from the artifacts I held closest to my heart. My friends showed up to help me move, thinking I’d be packed and ready to go, and the floor was covered in a uniform six inches of debris. Talk about a feeling of shame.

But actually I wasn’t a piece of trash! I had been a person at one point before. I would be a person again. But with all the bullshit I had internalized, my body was physically in pain! It wasn’t that I was mentally defective. My mind had stored all the hurt in my organs, my limbs, and my skin.

I never opened up Getting Clear again, because that was as much as i could handle at that point, and the next time I moved I gave it back to the thrift store. But it was a watershed moment for me.

After that day, when I had anxiety, it didn’t make me depressed on its own. I reminded myself that my body was physically in pain. When you’re in pain like that, it’s normal to have anxiety and depression. I forgave my mind for its problems. And in forgiving my mind’s failures, anxiety, neediness, drunkenness, hatefulness, my body started to let go of the pain it had stored.

This was a really slow process and it took a long time. But that’s how it started.

So why am I telling this story now? I hadn’t thought about Getting Clear for many years. But recently I went to a hot springs with a friend. Floating in the pool, I got stuck in an important solipsism – floating allows the body to release tension, but also to release mental tension – this was a space for healing – but what did I need to heal from this time? Was it really just that the small of my back has been sore for months? Shouldn’t I just stop running, or take a break from riding horses, or get a new mattress?

My war with with my body is so much more subtle now. I exercise every day! I wear yoga pants to the grocery store! I walked around in public naked and didn’t have a panic attack! I eat fresh vegetables and meat every day! I often drink too much wine, though I stop before I get sick.

But I still have a lot of hurt. I have hurt from sex I had that I really shouldn’t have had. I have mental hurt and physical nerve damage from the srs. I have hurt and anxiety from my failure to find love. I still have hurt from childhood bath time – did that count as sexual abuse, since it was on my genitals, but wasn’t erotically motivated?

When I got back from the hot springs, I got on the internet and ordered a new copy of Getting Clear. I just got it in the mail today. It smells like the incense the woman who used to own it burned. Kind of earthy and hippy and a little awkward, like the drawing in Tuning In.

I’m really glad this book has come back to me again, I think I can get a little further this time.

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