Born in Blood
It’s a dangerous game for someone who gets off on handling the un-handleable. Dangerous for someone who wants to take it all, feel it all.
Do I mean sex? Yes of course I mean sex. But I also mean birth. I mean it all.
It’s a gift that we can separate them—sex and birth—and the varieties of sex we practice that will never lead to birth are testaments to our creativity and our pointless playfulness. But I also suspect that anyone who has given birth crosses a darkly glowing threshold and enters a territory where the separation is harder to pull off. (Can I say this and resist essentializing? That’s a more difficult question, I also suspect.)
But this is about pain. Back to the pain. And pleasure too, because they are mostly inseparable.
I was standing in the grocery store. I was pregnant. I had a strange new feeling growing in me, a feeling I’d never had before. I fought myself having it. I wanted to unfeel it hard enough to erase the fact of feeling it to begin with, and it was mostly this: something is really wrong.
I did not yet have those words, though. All I had was a sticky unease.
Two weeks later, as they prepared to slice me open and pull her tiny body from me, the spinal tap’s magic flooded me with a wave of unfeeling, and I realize now—years after the fact—that what I had been feeling in that feeling, the one I wanted so badly to unfeel, was pain.
Was there something wrong with me, I wondered, that I could not identify it in the moment, in the grocery store.
Slap me and I feel a sting. I know it to be a mild pain. I know it. I recognize it, I have experience with it. But rearrange my existence as an organ in my body begins to slowly fail, and I have no fucking clue what I’m feeling. “Pain” does not cut it.
The trouble, the danger: continual rearrangement is what I seek with my life, through my life, as my life. Repetition of the recognizable does not work for me for very long.
Each new feeling means I meet each new me. Pain is a particularly productive feeling. It forces new arrangements into being faster than any other feeling. And because of this, it’s not really pain anymore.
It doesn’t lose an edge, it doesn’t lose its power, it just stops going by a familiar name. It takes on thousands of names, millions of names.
I keep giving birth to myself over and over and it’s hard. It demands everything.
Hours before the spinal tap, as I moved through a full day of what many imagine to be the peak pain experience for humans (labor, the expelling of a baby), the nurses checked me again and again. “Look at the screen, sweetie, these contractions are off the chart, above the scale—are you ready for pain meds yet?” I had never heard such a stupid question in my life.
I did not know what pain they thought I was feeling and how they could assume it was correlated to the numbers on the screen produced by the movements deep in my body assessed by wires and receptors taped to me. “Pain” was so far off the mark.
Physical pain, anyway.
What I was doing was feeling. Breathing. Walking. Crying. Pissing. Singing. Shitting. Rocking on hands and knees. Talking to a tiny baby, saying I’m sorry I’m sorry I know it’s too early but you have to come out, you’ll die in there. I saw no possibility of eliminating any of it with the nurses’ pain meds.
I don’t know what my eyes looked like as I said it, but I said, “I won’t be able to rest until I know she’s alive and well” and I wanted to take it back immediately, because some part of me knew that that might be months away, might be years away, might be never. They didn’t ask again.
It was the realm of suffering, I believe. Far beyond pain, but that’s something you can only know in retrospect.
The first time I did MDMA after having a baby, I was brought back to this night. Or maybe it was day. The labor time. The no-time. The all-time. The outside-time. The twelve plus hours, the not-knowing, the feeling too intensely.
It was the sudden intensity of the drug, cut with too much speed—it was the way it threw me up against a wall, the way it put me in unmarked territory, the way everyone was so ready for fun, the way I saw a more carefree version of some former self reflected in them. I suffered.
If you are reading this somewhere, somehow, S, please know that you were safe, far from me on this night. Your safety has always been the first priority, but I am proud to say that you have never been an alibi for our sins. Never. You are a real person.
I felt I was crawling on my hands and knees through some interminable dark hallway with no sights or sounds to orient me. I wanted out. I understood it as suffering, not pain, probably because there was no other life on the line, because I knew it would wear off—unlike the suffering of the labor, the not-knowing, the will-we-live? because that was too vast and reorienting to be understood as suffering at the time.
Days later, “You did ecstasy and you suffered?” a friend says. “Fuck, Lindsay, something’s wrong with you.” She shakes her head and we laugh.
I was naked on the operating room table, a spotlight illuminating me, a small curtain shielding my eyes from the work of the surgeon. I felt only pressure as they sliced through seven layers of flesh. (A number that seemed and still seems excessive to me—how is there that much of us?) The feeling of pressure was nothing more than the sensation that I was being rummaged around in.
They were removing my uterus and slicing it open, and then, extracting a baby, alive and worryingly small but very strong. “Twelve or so hours in the birth canal is what only the strong ones can handle,” the midwife had said. She can handle a lot, the midwife meant. Uh oh.
As the surgeon removed the baby, the nurses told Philippe he could look behind the curtain. It’s the custom. Dad gets to see the birth, a kind of birth, but not the slicing and rearranging. They don’t even let them stay in the room for the spinal tap.
Philippe looked behind the curtain as instructed, and his only stunned words were “There’s so much blood.”
The nurses whisked the baby away to the opposite side of the room to check her vitals, to see how desperate and serious the situation was, now that she was out of me.
With tears streaming down my face and the surgeon stapling me shut, I shout-whispered across the room “hi baby,” conscious of drawing on my last reserves of strength, drowning in the most potent pleasure-pain cocktail I have ever known.
The anesthesiologist in training who had been instructed to watch the entire scene closely and who had stood nervously next to me (I could feel his fear throughout) wiped away a tear and let out a small breath of laughter and confusion, like he was experiencing awe. Wonder. Wonder in the face of suffering.
I hope it rearranged him.
Some nights I lie awake and I wonder. Will she want to feel it all too? If she does, what will it do to her? If the strong ones can handle more, does it mean they should?
Lindsay Lerman is the author of I'm From Nowhere and What Are You (coming May 2022). She lives in the U.S. She co-edits Black Telephone Magazine. She has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.