Photo by Justin Rosenberg
By: Arielle, Founder, The Sensualist
TW: death, sexual assault
When my mother died I counted the time that had passed in weird milestones. The first full day after. Then the first week, the first movie I watched, my first period since it happened - all evidence that the world was carrying on without my mother. Life went on and I guess these were the signs that I had to as well.
But I dreaded the idea of going out - having to put on a smile for my friends who just wanted me to be ok. I didn’t want to have to make myself brave, so that I could alleviate their discomfort. In the beginning I didn’t crave socializing - it seemed the last thing that would make me feel better. Later though, I became lonely. I needed a reprieve from my solo grieving - a break from myself and my feelings. Yet hanging onto my conscience was guilt telling me that I shouldn’t have fun. It had such a hold on me that I couldn’t imagine I would ever go out again, ever get drunk, stay up late or have sex.
Sex especially felt wrong. It felt like something that would get in the way of my grieving. I also had this icky idea of my mother watching over me. In the back of my mind I believed that now that she was dead, she would be able to see me have sex and would judge me for that. I feared the idea of having to tell my partner that there was an intruder between us - my dead mother who was always with me.
I also couldn’t imagine experiencing pleasure while feeling this deep sadness that lived with me every day. I couldn’t imagine being present to the experience. There was so much guilt and pain on my heart constantly, that to take a break from this seemed not only impossible emotionally, but also something I didn’t deserve. I believed that I had to go through pain like my mom did, and that I shouldn’t choose anything which would lessen it.
It took almost a full year for me to feel comfortable with the idea of sex. And one day, it kind of just happened; before I had a chance to warn my lover that my mother was in the room with us. I didn’t have a chance to tell him that this was like my first time all over again. Everything before my mom got sick felt like another lifetime, one that I couldn’t recognize as mine and I felt like a virgin to my new, motherless life. I felt like a child who needed to learn how to be an adult.
Occasionally a thought would slip into my mind - of my mom watching me, disapprovingly of the man I chose to share a bed with. It freaked me out. I was afraid if I was too loud, it would wake her and draw her to me. I know this sounds insane, but death is confusing. I didn’t know how it worked.
Sex after this point was rote. I relearned my old tricks - the things I used to do to elicit an orgasm. Though there was always a heaviness on my heart, I pushed it away when I was performing sex. That’s what it was - a performance proving that I was fine. Like the performance I put on for my friends and family, through my body I was trying to say, “See, I’m all better now”.
Looking back now, I see how I wasn’t ready. I was still confused by the feelings I had about sex after my mother died. I never addressed it - never felt safe with a partner to talk about it. So instead, I separated my heart from my body, the way I always had. Sex then was two bodies moving through the motions; and me being half-present to the moment, half-present to my sadness.
And then one day I had sex that dislodged something in my heart. It was the first time sex touched my soul. I realize now that I had never made love - only had gentle sex with lots of kissing. That is what I thought the definition of love-making was; but in those instances my heart was still locked away.
But suddenly, this was love-making. All the feelings I had about sex, about my body, about my mother being dead, about my femininity being buried under the ground with my mother’s body - all of it came up. I had an orgasm that was real, guttural. I was embarrassed for myself and then sad for myself and I cried.
I cried during sex; and it made me confused. I was embarrassed.
And then the floodgates opened and every trauma came bubbling to the surface. Not just that of my mother’s death, but all the sexual trauma that I hadn’t even begun to address.
I thought about all the times I didn’t want to have sex, but the need to please my partner won out and I forced myself to do it. I thought about the millions of times I was coerced by a partner until I finally gave in. How I was only eight years old when a strange old man grabbed me and forced his tongue down my throat. I thought about the time I was pinned down as a man rubbed himself against my leg and ejaculated as I frantically begged, “stop, stop, stop”. I thought about the time a man I was having sex with removed the condom without my knowledge; thought about being slapped in the face when I said no more; roughly fucked when I didn’t want it like that; throat-fucked so hard that I threw up... all the punishments I took for some guy’s repressed anger. What also came up was the way I was the receptacle for my ex-boyfriend’s daddy issues - how I made him into his father when he hit me.
And my mom. I thought about her face twisted in pain, her frustration, her deep sadness. I thought of a sob that came from the depths of her soul that haunts me to this day. I thought of how towards the end, I ignored her heart that was starting to break, because I didn’t want it to be so.
I thought about myself - everything I had been through taking care of her. Taking work calls from her hospital bed, traveling back and forth between “everything is fine”, and falling apart. Excusing myself in the office to go cry in a conference room, being that girl that cried on the subway, standing on my roof and screaming at the top of my lungs when I got the call that she had died and my delayed flight meant I missed saying goodbye. I remembered all those emotions that I hadn’t let myself feel lately.
It is crazy how sex can bring up all of this. A memory reel of everything that I hadn’t let myself feel sad about in a long time flicked through my mind as I was racked by aftershocks of orgasm.
This was love-making because I experienced love for myself, for the first time during sex. I forgave myself and accepted all the pain, all the mistakes. It was love-making because my partner made me feel safe; gave me the space to experience that - to go there, to push past the point of no return.
So what I want to say to you: you who have trauma, who have pain, who are horrified of the thought of having sex right now - give yourself that time. Talk to your partner if you have one. Journal about what you're feeling. Don’t rush into sex right now. I promise that one day you will be ready to have sex again.
And maybe one day you will have sex and it will heal you in some way. In that sacred act of love-making you will find forgiveness, empathy, joy, love. It will bring up what your conscious self cannot; and it will release it. You will make love to yourself.