Roaring waters

Sex on Tuesday

photo of columnist cassandra branch

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Every night, I fall asleep and I run. My dreams are a series of evasions, chaotic images of me sprinting away from every skeleton lurking in my closet. Most mornings, I wake up in a panic. 

Some nights, an ex is hunting me down. Other nights, my father screams for me from the top floor of a skyscraper. Sometimes, it’s a faceless man forcing me to do things I don’t want to, it’s having sex only to look up and see my abusers, it’s lurking tigers and trapped doors. I’ve dreamed of being in glass rooms, and water rushing in from all sides. I have dreams about being in hotels with endless floors and nightmares on every level. 

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been running. What I realize now is that these dreams are not self-contained, they are a reflection of a life spent avoiding the massive wave behind me, just waiting to swallow me whole. 

I’ve lived life with water nipping at my ankles, and sometimes, I’ve allowed myself to be submerged. I’ve hurled forward and into the seafloor and against the sand and the kelp, wondering if this might be the end of it all, catching a breath before being quickly thrown down again. 

When I allow myself to examine my memories, they are like those breaths — quick and sharp and fleeting — and all the rest is just crashing, roaring water; my dreams feel a bit like this, too. In fact, for as long as I can remember I’ve been swimming as fast as I can, trying to make it out of some wave, some dream, some nightmare.

The water is the murkiest and the dreams are the most terrifying when I think of sex and sexuality. Whether it be in childhood, when I contended with my own father’s abuse and fought desperately to be seen, whether it was as a teenager dating men who mistreated and took advantage of my pain or whether it be in adulthood, as I contend with these past demons and try my damndest to forge a life despite the constant feeling that these terrors are lurking just outside my front door. 

There are memories that I choose not to swim through, appearing to me only when I close my eyes and surrender to the thoughts I otherwise ignore. These memories are the most painful, the water rushes in, and I’m left to reconcile a life of violent tides and even more violent neglect. 

I was never taught to see myself as a child and was instead forced to manage the needs of everyone around me. I come from addicts, from fiends, from people who’ve lived life untethered like some unhinged trolly car careening down a hillside. In all of that, I never found the space for myself. As I grew older, I became more and more afraid to look in the mirror, to find that space. If I was real, if I was actualized, then all of the hurt and anguish was real too. 

I gave myself to men who reinforced my belief that I was nothing, I gave myself to friends who didn’t care about my well-being and I did this so that I could continue to feel less than. Never wanting to look into my reflection, perhaps not knowing how, I allowed my personhood to rest in the hands of others.

In maybe the ultimate act of self-effacement, sex became the way to escape my own body and ignore my needs. The worse the sex was, the more I could shun the parts of me that wanted to be cared for and justify the abuse I couldn’t reckon with. 

With this, came hurricanes. I’ve lived a lot of life, too much of it in between bed sheets and against creaking headboards and smothered against wrinkled pillowcases. Because I didn’t know how to see myself, I looked into the reflections of eyes attached to faces with mouths that said: “You like that shit? Tell me how good it feels, bitch.” 

I denied my sexuality, my past and my present. I swept everything under rugs and into dustpans. I was terrified to look back and see myself in the reflection of the waves rushing toward me. I moved forward without ever stopping, afraid of what would happen if I did. 

Lately, life has been more peaceful. Since coming to Berkeley, I’ve had some distance from the ebbing tide. It’s been here that for the first time I’ve felt brave enough to peer into the water, and glance at my reflection. As my life grows larger, and I gain more distance from the relationships and mindsets that I once used to deny my personhood, the ocean becomes a lake becomes a pond. 

My dreams may still bring me underwater, but when I wake up I am always mercifully ashore. Now, I’m next to the girl of my dreams in our studio on Telegraph, where I know that the water will always be waiting when I want it, for me to look into and see the wonder of myself.

Cassandra Branch writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.