How to Preserve a Body by Lauren Cross

cross atop a building from a distance

Wayside crosses often serve as markers to represent dangerous places.

***

My hand was first. Often preoccupied with what a hand might mean — how it can both take away and offer, rescind and reach — it was always the first part I noticed on anyone’s body, including my own. To look at my hands, I didn’t need to look in a mirror. I liked it that way. I didn’t stop to think about what it might mean to cut such a visible place on my body. In high school, I took a multi-tool nail clipper from the bathroom my brother and I shared with our parents and cut a quick, short line — less than an inch — in the meat of my left hand just below my thumb. Just enough to draw blood.

***

When my grandparents took my cousins and me to their Baptist Church in our hometown in New Castle, Indiana, we always stopped at a Marathon gas station — the one where two roads intersected — where my grandfather always bought packs of gum with five sticks in each. We stayed in the car with my grandmother while he went inside. Being the only girl, when my cousins played with their own Gameboys or Pokeballs, I was often left in the back of the van with my own hot pink Gameboy Color. My grandmother had given me a golden necklace only to be worn at her house and church, and it held a heart-shaped pendant. She later gifted me this necklace, nearly twenty years later, and reminded me to always know I was her girl. When my grandfather returned with a rainbow of choices, my cousins always picked Juicy Fruit, but I always wanted Big Red or Winterfresh. During the service, I wanted to chew enough gum to make my eyes water. I wanted the heat or the ice to burn my eight-year-old tongue. I wanted to feel enough pain until I didn’t feel afraid of the preacher or of sin, until I didn’t feel hungry. Until I didn’t feel anything at all.

***

In high school, I chiseled pieces of myself away. A college therapist later said to stop cutting meant to rewire. When I said I didn’t really cut anymore, but the urge still lingered, she asked if I wanted to die, and I said, No. She asked when the cutting started, but I didn’t know why its origin story mattered when it felt like the true crux of the matter was that the desire to cut had never been worse than at that moment in my twenty-one-year-old body — I’d reached a point where, without help, I knew I’d never really stop. A friend, Alex, reminded me, while drinking coffee in our university’s library, that even though there were still days filled with hurt, with the urge to hurt, I was still healing.

“What makes you feel better?” Alex asked.

“Validation,” I said.

She reminded me that healing wasn’t linear, and some days would be bad.She reminded me to forgive myself, but I feared that I’d keep spiraling and spiraling at this intersection of hurting and healing and hurting until the two became so tangled that when I stopped spiraling, I’d be wrapped in the hurt.

When my therapist asked when it started, I said, “Sixteen.” She asked why I started, and I said,“I don’t know.”

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) suggests nonsuicidal self-injury is not an indicator of another illness. Even so, individuals with NSSI sometimes do show symptoms that meet criteria for other diagnoses, such as eating disorders. Sitting in a college body, somewhere between wanting to heal and wanting to cut, I wasn’t sure if there had never really been a reason. I warmed my hands underneath my legs until they sweat so much my fingertips stuck to the leather couch and I thought about the half-eaten clementine I’d meant to finish for breakfast and I thought about the blade wrapped in a white Mainstays washcloth hidden in an old makeup bag pressed in the corner of my closet.

“I don’t know,”I repeated when she remained silent.

That’s the thing about nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI): It isn’t premeditated. It helped at sixteen when Matt, my then-boyfriend, and I fought. We fought because, after cheering him on from the student section of the bleachers during a Friday night basketball game, I said I couldn’t go to church the following Sunday because it was my mother’s birthday. When I said I’d rather work in the Sunday School than sit with the congregation, we fought. When I said I didn’t want to hook up in an empty nursery room surrounded by empty bassinets, we fought. I said, I said, I said. We fought, we fought, we fought.

But cutting wasn’t solely a response to fighting, and it shouldn’t be mistaken as a response to a singular event. When I ate too much at dinner and couldn’t make myself throw up, I cut. When it was a Tuesday afternoon or a Wednesday night or really any time at all. When I was lying in my college bathroom and didn’t know what the fuck else to do. When I needed a moment of reprieve.

***

When I first met Matt’s family and they asked about my last name, he said, “Cross. Cross like Jesus,” as we stood in their living room displaying wooden and wired crosses from Hobby Lobby.

“Ah, then you’ll fit right in,” his smiling father said as though last names were chosen with our own hands rather than given.

I had attended services with friends and my grandparents, knew the words to every hymn. I knew what to wear. I put my allowance in offering plates and colored Biblical scenes on continuous form paper with pre-printed green lines. I painted ceramic pots every summer during Vacation Bible School. I napped on blue mats smelling of Lysol and sweat and washed down animal crackers with too-watery lemonade. The daycare where I lost my favorite stuffed Piglet was an extension of the Baptist Church, connected by a breezeway. But I’d never taken communion.

Matt could only date a good girl, a clean girl, a Christian girl, a girl who stood along the sidelines and cheered him on during basketball games or during services when he shared his annual testimonies of building homes in Honduras. He could only date a girl who always placed herself behind him and God, his parents always reminded me.

The first time I took communion at Matt’s church, I asked if we’d drink real wine. Though some of my earliest memories involve eating Cheerios in the blood-red pews of my family’s Baptist Church, we relocated to a nondenominational one for its more relaxed dress code and free donuts before simply abandoning the religion when I was ten years old — after my uncle died, after my father asked over dinner, “Do you believe in God? Your mom and I have been struggling with it, and we want you and your brother to know it’s okay to question.”

“Do you really think they’d give us wine?” Matt asked, laughing.

Every week, his father’s sermons seemed to address abstinence or jealousy or the sanctity of building relationships focused on Jesus, and I feared he’d read Matt’s and my texts. We were sixteen and we were sexting and Matt had asked if I’d ever have a threesome with him and another girl, under the pretense that everything we typed would happen after we were married, of course.

“If you were ever raped, I don’t think I could be with you,”Matt texted one night. “You wouldn’t be mine anymore.”

I later learned his father had read our texts when we could no longer be left alone at their house. Sunday services became mandatory. I started throwing up in the church’s bathroom every week as though to purge my body of sin and desire. When Matt’s parents found a condom in the pocket of his basketball shorts, they called a meeting, and the four of us met in a room at their house typically used for men’s Bible study. His parents asked me to not tempt their son, as though this sin was mine to give.

***

My therapist asked when I started starving, and I said, “I don’t know.” Before cutting. After throwing up. Cutting seemed like a good thing to do. If I was careful with my cuts after the first slice on my hand — out of sight and not too deep — they went unnoticed. By a good thing to do, I meant I’d never felt comfortable in a congregation, but I always wanted to be a part of something, a group of people who wanted me as much as I wanted them, and when I was alone, this careful welcoming of blood felt more ritualistic than prayer. I was thankful for its offering.

In eighth grade, my best friend, Anne, said she carved a heart into the palm of her hand just to see what would happen, but she didn’t draw blood. I didn’t yet know in this moment, but this conversation forever linked us, a thread tying together our identical desire to hurt. I wish I could return to this moment and shake myself for not reacting differently than I did. I wanted to be a comforting force willing her to stop. Deep in the throes of my own illness, I merely asked, “Are you going to do it again?”She said she wouldn’t.

***

My hip was second. A hidden place. No warning signs.

I stopped recutting the scar on my hand and started cutting my hip, easy to reach and easy to hide. When classmates or teammates saw the cuts in locker rooms, I joked about being the only player on the softball team to prefer diving head-first into bases. When high school and college partners saw the lines on my hips as we tangled our bodies on loveseats and in backseats, I noticed their second glances, but before they could fully ask what happened, I interrupted with a kiss, a shift in position, a new offering.

I cut in frantic, rabid slices. Only after did I realize I’d cut two crosses into my hip. What good is a warning sign in a hidden place?

***

Atropos in Greek mythology was one of three goddesses of fate and destiny, otherwise known as the three Fates. Mortals were tied to earth by thread, spun by Clotho, and the thread was measured by Lachesis. But it was Atropos who was the inflexible one — the one who ended the lives of mortals by cutting their thread of life with her own claws.

***

In ceremonial usage, making the sign of the cross can be a profession of faith, a prayer, a dedication, but there’s a thin line between devotion and obsession.

When I was four years old, I was gifted a desk with a built-in pencil holder. I admired how I had too many markers and pencils — how I had to choose which were worthy of display. But my favorite part of the desk was the light: By flipping a switch, the desktop turned into a makeshift artist’s tracing table. I traced all of my favorite books: The Little Match Girl and even my children’s Bible. I wanted to trace Jesus until I knew him. I wanted to know his emaciated sides as though by tracing him I could save him from death. I wanted to know him without the blood. I wanted to preserve the three unbloodied crosses standing in the sunlight.

***

In the Bible, 1 Kings 18:28-29 says, “So they shouted louder, and following their normal custom, they cut themselves with knives and swords until the blood gushed out. They raved all afternoon until the time of the evening sacrifice, but still there was no sound, no reply, no response.”

After my hand, I never left too-visible scars. I often snuck from my upstairs bedroom to our family’s desktop computer to look at photos of emaciated girls who starved and bled. But I didn’t want to be like them — I wanted to learn from them and go unnoticed. Like cutting, I never starved enough to cause third-party alarm until I was sixteen and had already trained my body to survive on so little that when my mother one day noticed me walking into the kitchen only to walk out, she said, “You look sick.”

When I stopped eating and started cutting, I skipped school. Because my parents thought I looked sick, I told them I was. I often said I’d thrown up that morning or had a headache — and sometimes I really did — but even though these events erupted from my own volition, the vomit and the headaches were never alarming enough to warrant a missed day. I begged my mom to let me skip school because it seemed like a good thing to do. I didn’t check my phone or even MySpace. Even though I craved community, I shut most of my friends out. Silence. No responses. I watched The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Full House and pretended I could be that happy. I think I was. At one point.

I live in a scarred body that has cut through layers of skin. I’ve seen cheek-to-cheek photos from high school with childhood friends. Our big, open smiles and eyes looked like they belonged to real girls. With the volition of teen girl want, we wore athletic shorts and sweated through our hair, trespassing on neighborhood properties we made our own. But these memories are often disrupted when I think about the fresh cuts under those shorts and how blood could stain nylon. And somehow, that was only the beginning.

I didn’t realize then that years later, in college, when other students packed lunches with meats and starches and veggies for long days on campus, I’d pack yogurts and coffee and sharp objects.

I didn’t realize that when reading Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed,I would cry. In the titular entry, Strayed tells her twenty-something self that even when she feels like shit, when a little girl offers her the strings of two purple balloons, she is still worthy of tiny beautiful things. She still deserves to hold what’s delicate. She deserves to hold herself with that much care. I’ve seen people devote their entire lives to Jesus: His name is mentioned before husbands or wives or children. A relationship more important than any other. Reading Strayed’s essay, I wondered what it would’ve been like to hold myself with that kind of devotion. That was the only time I cried in a classroom. I wrapped my arms around my body — a cross over my chest as though by removing them I’d float out of my desk — and thought, You are here. You deserve to be here. I looked at the clock, at my professor, and somehow believed it.

When house-sitting for my professor over a year later, I found razor blades in a bathroom cabinet when looking for spare toothpaste. They were sharper than any blades I’d used, and I took them for the most hidden cuts — still on my hip bones, which were easily hidden beneath underwear or a bathing suit. Blood stained my pants. I carried the blades with me and made frantic, rabid cuts in public restrooms before meals as though committed to prayer.

***

When Atropos cut the thread of the living, I imagine their bodies unbound by thread or by gravity, floating.

“When you dissociate, try to find the smells,” a therapist said.

As an undergrad, I often left my body. I tried to dig my fingers into wooden pews, classroom chairs, the seat of my boyfriends’ cars, as though to tether myself to earth. I tried to smell the lavender in my locket, the Gain laundry detergent in my sweaters. I painted my nails clear just to smell the ethyl acetate before chipping it off once it dried. But I started cutting deeper, leaving more noticeable scars on my hips. When the blood came, I stared, watching my body scream for healing, reach for air, create neural pathways, train itself to hurt.

***

My last church service was years after Matt, years after I started cutting. It was an Easter Mass with a college boyfriend who eventually raped me. This was the only Easter Mass I attended with his family because even they only attended church on Easter and Christmas Eve. And while there was not a correlation between the service and the rape, I realized it was okay to leave something that only brought pain.

***

Even though many stories surrounding the Fates are inconsistent, one story remains: Atropos dealt with the inevitable and unstoppable.

When neural pathways form as a result of NSSI, pain can become necessary for reprieve. The deepest cuts don’t initially bleed. There’s a pause. The first time this happened, I thought something was wrong with my body. Similar to the way my body forgot how to cope without a cut, I thought my body forgot how to bleed. The longer the pause, the longer the cut bleeds.

In college, I spent Tuesday nights at Mug Club. After buying a $3 reusable plastic cup, we drank $2 double well drinks all night. Rent was cheap in Muncie, Indiana: $300/month. I was a senior whose classes didn’t start until three o’clock the next afternoon. I smiled at the bartenders and drank $2 amaretto sours until I forgot that I was supposed to feel pain. I left my rapist that year. I drank up and hooked up and started smoking American Spirits and went up up up until I finally returned to the ground. The longer the pause, the longer the cut bleeds.

It’s a misconception that there often is a correlation between tattooing and NSSI. While there are many differences that negate this misconception, the biggest difference is that tattooing is premeditated, while NSSI is often reactive and compulsive. We want others to see our purposeful tattoos. We hide our cuts.  

My first tattoo was an impulsive decision: three dots to symbolize ellipses. We can always remove what’s unnecessary in order to move forward. But my second tattoo took place on a snowy afternoon in Muncie, Indiana. I was twenty-one, had recently cut off all communication with my rapist, and I asked for a balloon on my right side, directly on my ribs and away from the cuts. I asked my friend, Anne, to come with me. Living in small-town Indiana meant that when we made childhood friends, we tried to keep them around. I’d known Anne and the tattoo artist since I was five years old.

Some people get tattoos to cover their cuts as a way to start anew, but I wanted mine in a visible place as though to remind myself I was whole. I often wondered if Eve wished she could remove Adam’s rib. If she wanted to be whole on her own. Sometimes I still felt like I was spiraling, but not as fast and not as often. I wanted to heal, and I wanted to brand myself with this reminder, this emblem. After I got the tattoo, I admired its artwork. I admired my body — a body with scars, a body I didn’t want to harm.

“This is going to hurt,” the tattoo artist said.

I’d dabbled lavender essential oils on my wrists before leaving for the tattoo studio. I wore my locket that held more lavender oils.

“Hang on, I’m dizzy,”I said to the tattoo artist as I tried to smell the lavender.

“When you dissociate, try to find the smells,” my therapist said.

But this is not dissociation. This is not my alert mind hovering over my body. This is my body trying to shut down. This feels like fainting, like blurred vision, like when something that is not my own tries to penetrate my own body, and so the only way my body knows how to respond to fear is by fainting. You have to save something in order for it to be preserved. I tried to smell the rubbing alcohol on my ribs, the Vaseline. Does Vaseline smell? Why doesn’t Vaseline have a smell? Rubbing alcohol often makes me feel faint, and so I tried to preoccupy — to protect — my mind by feeling uncertain rather than fearful.

The word preserve comes from Old French preservatif, which means “a protection or defense.” Consider how a body that has both self-harmed and been harmed could remain defensive, could spiral at the slightest trigger of pain or a smell, could look forward and try to see the good.

Anne — the Anne who, after I told her I didn’t think I could ever give birth because I’d pass out from fear, said that she agreed — knew I was leaving. She saw my blank face, my pale face. She stood from her chair and grabbed my hand. “Breathe. You’re here. I’m here.”And somehow, knowing why I was there, knowing why I wanted that tattoo — the balloon — I stayed.

This is how to forget what’s irrelevant. This is how to preserve a body, a body that has scars: the scars on her hip from blades it held in its own hands, the invisible scars by the man who raped her, the tattoos that remind her she survived. This is salvation: my body, alive, choosing to go forth in the direction of healing, choosing to forgive myself. I’ve come to live in new moments of reprieve. I choose to see the good. I lie on my front porch, and my body expands with the sun, catching light against the edges of concrete and columns. I pause and count to thirty. The scar on my left hand, just below the thumb, is barely noticeable. When the tattoo gun pierced my skin, black flooded into blood. White towel coming up red, she wiped my skin.

Meet the Contributor

Lauren Cross was a finalist for Fourth Genre’s 2020 Michael Steinberg Memorial Essay Contest, and her work has appeared in Catapult. When not admiring pastries or her favorite haunts, she serves as the nonfiction editor for Sweet Lit and teaches at Ball State University.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Valerie Everett/Flickr Creative Commons

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