University of Baltimore MFA student Sierra Hallmen recounts her young love, lust, and suicide attempt, and what they taught her.
I have a thing for bodies. I love the way they look, what they wear, how they talk to me and to each other. I need to know what skin does when I can’t see it. I have a thing for the way bodies are when they’re doing body things, like legs crouching over public toilets or feet tiptoe jumping into skin-tight jeans. I love the shape of thighs, fatty handles, jaw bones, crow’s feet. Each a postage stamp of things done, undone or yet to be done. Each a howl in the dark night saying, touch me, I’m warm. Ask me about my body and I’ll tell you its story: the itches, the dry spots, the wet ones, the love, the languid slip between creases into folds or curves or bone jags, the rift between where my body ends and another begins, the unending parting.
When I was 10, I started taking tours of my mama’s clothes. She had platform heels in rainbow colors, stilettos in candy red, strappy numbers in velvet, plastic and leather, knee high boots in chocolate, ankle booties in fuchsia, and floral summer wedges. There were short, sporty black dresses and long velvet or tulle gowns, see-through jackets and two-piece pant suits with shoulder pads. Her dresser held sheer, glittered crop tops, skin-tight leotards, small bedazzled brassieres, maxi skirts, cotton crop top turtlenecks, black, nude and sheer pantyhose, muscle tees and pleated school skirts. The underwear drawer cradled lace and floral thongs, matching padded bras in lilac, amber, dusk, ivy, charcoal, and lemon, beaded waist chains, decorated corsets with garter attachments, silky nighties with fringes and slotted cups, lace garters in vermillion, nightfall, candlelight, and autumn. I’d mix them together and strut in front of the mirror. Fabric on skin. I could feel electric. I could find a piece of my body I hadn’t noticed before. I could touch the woman I hadn’t yet become. What kind of woman would that be? Would her body dress lavishly in a skin-tight velvet bodysuit with kitten heels, dripping diamonds? Was her body like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman or Jennifer Lopez in Selena? Did her hips move like Shakira’s, was she utterly un-virgin like Madonna? I wanted to know her body. I wanted to know what I would do with it.
Bodies don’t lose their virginity. It’s not like misplacing car keys or a wallet. It’s like being 15, lying down on a cold tile floor in the boys’ locker room while my boyfriend tells me about his love for bodies, about his need to feel mine. It’s like slim, chill-pimpled legs trying to hold onto hips, savory tongues trying to hold onto the taste. I was finding out what kind of body I’d be. I was newly aware of what she’d be used for. Virginity gone is like a sacrifice, a price paid in exchange for something else—a glimpse into the next room, the next space my body will occupy. I could walk, childlike, to the door, then pass across the threshold, a woman, the kind of woman who wore skin-tight jeans and a crop top if only just to take them off.
My first year away at college, I found Jessie’s body, then Kris’s, Jay’s, and Shane’s. I found myself at frat parties, taking 10 shots of Amsterdam on an empty stomach. Then disappearing into a bedroom, and disappearing altogether. In the morning I’d revel in the freedom of it all before breaking into pieces in front of a toilet while muffled voices called public safety. Monday through Sunday I’d repeat. I found I had a body with an eagerness for new positions, alcohol, and, ultimately, drugs. The drugs—a Big Spence cocktail of breathable herbs—flushed taste, muted the minute senses in fingertips, numbed the cold breezes up my shirt, and the hands. I got high by the window of his dorm room. I’d inhale then blow, then get on my knees and do it again. I could flood my senses, turn the internal lights down and let my body gearshift. I could be hollow and test my limits. There’s a thrill in losing control. A self-destructing girl is a vibrant thing, terrible, but vibrant, and inherently sexual. Midway through the semester I stopped being able to feel anything. My body began dizzying then darkening and re-awakening on a toilet, or hallway carpet, a tile floor, or a couch, a bed. Even then, I could see the infinite madness and the intimate darkness of those nights.
That spring, I reached her limit. I could feel that magnetic pull, the one that draws objects toward a black hole. I scattered the contents of a bottle of fat-burning pills out on my desk, poured a glass of tea, and decided I didn’t want to live in my body anymore. I swallowed again and again, holding them down with tea in between, the oblong powdered shapes leaving dust on my tongue. I fought them down for an hour, but they burst back up my throat into flames. My body became a fire breather, a dragon. The trashcan filled with lumping, fleshy truths of pills and purpose and directionless bodies. Dying is nothing like the movies. My body became a cage of pain. I felt trapped in the rhythmic spasms. I’d explode then unclench my stomach, shoulders, fingers, knees, vagina. The un-strained muscles mimicked relief. My body shook as if it were another body, as if I were watching someone else’s arms hold up a torso through an earthquake. I broke in the silent choking. I broke in the affirmation that I’d been emptying, and hollowing, and splintering. I had no way of knowing who’d been in control or who was to blame—my body or me. But we were both on the floor, slipping violently out of consciousness and into the next room.
Public safety found me pressed between the door and the frame, halfway into the hallway, as if I’d been trying to crawl. Bodies can be involuntary like that. They’re all designed to sustain life, not end it. And so I lived. In place of death, came pain, the buzzing of E.R. nurses, and a call from my mother.
“I see here you said you took a bottle of fat-burning pills, is that correct?” the male doctor asked. He was an Indian man in his late 30s, and I could tell from the way he peered over his glasses that he was not on my side. I nodded yes as he checked my ankles for swelling.
“Why would you do that? You have everything going for you,” he insisted as the nurse poured charcoal down my throat. It’s impossible to explain despair so I didn’t try. The body sustains life but it’s no measure of quality.
I passed the next 14 hours holding my mouth open so I wouldn’t swallow, begging my body to die. I didn’t even notice that I’d drifted into sleep until I woke to throw up. The charcoal worked to push the pills back up. Every heave felt like I was forcing out the last of my will, pushing myself closer and closer to exhaustion. Any minute something would break. For a while, the world disappeared; all I had was the pain in my throat and the heat in my belly.
At some point a nurse came in, said, “Your mother is on the phone,” and handed me a corded headset. I can’t recall exactly what my mother said, it’s a blur of wet sobs and crackling sounds. In my mind there is only the sound of my soul crushing itself against my body. Only the sound of a body shattering against the tile of the hospital floor and the numbness that shivered through me afterwards. I struggled with the idea that I’d nearly killed my mother with this, that I’d taken more than just my body to the point of breaking.
When the doctor came back to tell me I had two choices, I knew that was a lie. He said I could go to Sheppard Pratt voluntarily, or I could be escorted forcibly by the police. I had never felt more like a criminal. I agreed to leave of my own free will, dragging my body onto the ambulance gurney. I prepared myself for the ride.
My first Pratt roommate had a habit of throwing plastic group therapy chairs and biting nurses. Her name was Tatiana and she had straggly blond hair, bull-terrier eyes, and crooked teeth. They strapped her body to the bed and I didn’t have to imagine how it would feel to be her, to lose control, to be trapped. She scared me but her chaos comforted me in the lesser vertigo of my own tumultuous body. They moved me to another room when she started ECT treatments. My second roommate, Brianna, tried to have sex with everyone in the unit. I woke up during a fire drill to find her naked in front of my bed, lathering lotion onto her sandpaper skin and smiling. No one had to tell me it was an invitation. I felt the cold pulse of my hollow body. I turned over and closed my eyes, then went into the hallway. A nurse looked in behind me at the naked girl near the side of my bed, and made a face that said I hate my job. She looked back at me, “Well you’ve just got the worst luck, sweetie.”
The mirror and my body were not friends. It reflected back the splotchy red trail from my eyebrows to my mouth. It reminded me of the red glow on my dorm room ceiling, the icy salt taste of Jessie’s upper lip, exhaling my power into the vacuum of sex. Behind the skin of my arms, which tracked bruises and scabs across the veins, I felt tightness. I felt it in group therapy. I felt it in my mother’s hugs. I felt it when the sun reached out from the window to kiss me. Every day they made me rate my feelings and on Wednesdays I painted my tight emotions. My body, the machine, ate at meal times, swallowed pills at meds time, and slept at bedtime. Without the machine, I don’t think I would have survived. After a week of near silence, I began to speak. At first, I spoke of things like alcohol and the high school boyfriends that had broken my heart. Then I began to speak of truth—of mother’s lace dresses, of calico bruises on my legs from the belt, of screaming, of cutting patchwork patterns on my arm, of being told I wasn’t human, of the ways a body can be used. And with each word, the tightness shifted. It lowered from my arms to my wrists and then to my fingertips before disappearing elsewhere. Slowly, I began to hear a rhythmic healing, a steady thrum of a heartbeat. I started to remember what it was like to feel sunlight on the pimpled skin of my arms, the steam from a fresh shower, the soft skin of my mother’s cheek.
By the second week, my body held no evidence of what I’d done. I was new, fresh to the touch and bright. I let the mirror reflect. I let the light streak from the window to my skin, and I didn’t recoil. I saw myself, looking back from across the glass, screaming with every cell what I had learned to do, and would continue to learn: to be fully alive.
Sierra is a first-year nonfiction student in the University of Baltimore’s M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts. She needs a vacation, a laptop, and a good view.