CW: sexual violence
I am told that my skin remembers moments that my mind and heart forget. That those instances of trauma lie on my epidermis, settled within crevices and clinging to curves. But these haptic memories don’t account for the ways in which trauma turns into stress and emerges suddenly with a crack of the knuckle, with a stretch of the back, with a twist of the ankle. Stories written on patches of skin don’t account for the ways in which different kinds of traumas become convoluted, interlaced to form an overall mess within. Trauma is not only written on the skin; it is much deeper. My memories are entangled together in the knots hidden in my muscles, and even the best of massage therapists cannot locate these knots to knead them away.
Whiteness told me that my memories are grouped into the different parts of my skin. That the clamminess of my palm has nothing to do with the brazenness of my knee. And so, whiteness forced me to compartmentalize my identity, to understand different kinds of trauma as divorced from each other, as lying atop different patches of me. Western thought taught me my dysphoria has nothing to do with my experience of child sexual abuse. That my being, like my skin, is mere patchwork. Since homophobes told me I must be broken because of some past sexual trauma, queer activists taught me never to speak about my sexuality in relation to my experiences of sexual abuse. Feminists told me that the violence of being in a gender has nothing to do with the trauma of being sexually violated. Anti-violence advocates obsessed with the term “gender-based” implied that the abuse I experienced from cis men was more real than the abuse I experienced from cis women. And I often believed them, but my body did not. The tense muscles in my calves, the trigger points in my back, the conglomeration of my vessels, intertwined and interchanged these different instances, knotting together longing with pain with faith with movement.
I was eleven when I started telling people that I’m actually a boy. My aunt told me I was a tomboy because I wanted to be like my older brother. Like all the girls who idolize their older brothers, she said. I was twelve when my older brother started to sexually abuse me. I was thirteen when I told myself that I was a woman and created walls between myself and the gender that felt right for me in some ways, the gender that was embodied only by abusive boys and aggressive men. In my late teens, I read a lot of Kishwar Naheed and embraced womanhood because the only way to be a feminist was to be on one side of the gender binary. To detach from the enemy. Men were abusers. Women were survivors. So he must be man and I must be woman. Many years later, when I figured out I was nonbinary, when I realized that gender binaries were just another form of violence, I decided to cut my brother out of my life. It took years to actually move past the tugs of familial love, past the hold of the genes that linked us. But sometimes when I listen to Junoon and Noori and other 90s Urdu music, I still feel that pull of the stress knot, shooting lactic acid from hip to back to neck, reminding me that my blood is still in some ways knotted to his.
His fingers did not only skim the surface, but went deep within my pectoral muscles, my fatty tissue, my tangly lobes, my veins that braided all these together. I have often wanted to rid myself of these bulges that hold all that muscle and fat and tissue, these bulges that are both beautiful and alien, but the knots of stress that wrapped everything together held me back from surgery. I thought I had to honor parts of me that were violated. To reclaim my violated self, I had to ignore the fluidity my gendering self. The only way I knew how to be boyish then was boy-like-him, so I decided to keep my memories guarded. Scratched the surface often, but kept the depth safe. Let the memories build knots in my back. Let those tension knots carry me through, across borders, across apartments, across heartbreak, across the perpetual low of goodbyes.
When I first flew from Islamabad to New York and entered this dystopia called a country, a security officer felt me up, non-consensually, like always. She rubbed the knots of trauma sitting under the skin of my chest, she prodded here, probed there, and I looked vacantly into the past with my arms raised as more tension knots accumulated inside me. Such instances of security-based sexual violence are so normalized that I still don’t consider them assault. Last year, the same form of touching happened again by a security officer who looked me up and down, made a jibe about my longer hair in the passport photo, and then randomly selected me for a lusty pat down. I wondered if her gaze was directed at my suspicious passport or my suspicious gender, but I know that both these suspicions knotted together to mold me into the caricature of an almost-terrorist, one who is almost-nonconforming, almost-gender-deviant, but not quite. Soon after a pat down, and a subtle but firm rubbing of my crotch, she muttered an “okay ma’am you may go.” I stepped away from her gaze, holding my proximity to whiteness intact as I saw other people continue to be violated, continue to harbor fears of that ultimate detention. Some do not have the privilege of being okay ma’am-ed, even when it misgenders. Some are always considered threats, and so, are always threatened. But I could move on, so I moved out of the airport, took a shuttle, popped a Tylenol, forgot about the flight, forgot about the security officer’s condescendingly blue eyes. My mind forgot, but my muscles, my tissues, my bone remember the abasing contractions, the quickened heartbeat, the tension spreading from my back and into my neck, triggering the beginning of a week-long migraine.
I get headaches a lot, but the prolonged incapacitating migraines are the ones force my attention to the tension in my muscles, waiting there, begging to be seen. In a way, migraines help me make sense of the neglected memories inside me. When I stay hydrated and eat well, I do not get migraines, but now and then, I run into the white woman who assaulted me, and my mind and body blaze with emotion, squirting an insidious white flash through the nerves in my neck, similar to the flashes of my early morning migraines. Rage at her, pity at her, hopelessness at how the conversations of sexual violence that conflate survivorhood with “women and femmes” rob me of any language and space to process my experiences. And then I feel the stress deep within my neck shoot the onset of a migraine, triggered not from her, but from the tension knots building in me since that morning I woke up with her feeling dirty while she continued to bask in her perpetual innocence, her perpetual white woundedness. There is no linear cause and effect that connects health to trauma. The doctor wants to locate certain “triggers” for my migraines. The massage therapist tells me I have knots in specific parts of my shoulders because of my grad school routine. The auntie tells me my back hurts because of my bad posture, that if only I focused more on sitting and walking straight, on being straight, my muscles would be less sore. The world tells me that there are different parts of me that need different ways to heal. First this, then that.
Western thought wants to sew my memories into clear patchwork, wants to divide my body into neat compartments. One for queerness. One for survivorhood. One for disability. One for spirituality. One for the days I cannot get out of bed. But the inner workings of my anatomy react against this medicalized compartmentalization. My gendered muscles overlap with the surviving tissue. The queer vessels wrap around sore tendons. The tension knots of familial violence move up and down, slithering over dysphoria, sliding under nausea, messing with sexual desire, fucking up serotonin, provoking unruly gestures in my hands, eliciting enraged movement in my tongue. The lactates accumulate together and fire burning sensations throughout my arms and legs and back and neck, stretching my fibers, restricting my blood flow. And it all happens simultaneously. There is no way to locate one painful experience for one trigger point in my body. A body is not a map. It is a mess. Of grief and intimacy and anger and love, all waiting to erupt into a collage so entangled and so dispersed that no theory of gender trouble and no technique of psychotherapy can ever fully comprehend its totality.
Aqdas is a writer, reader, educator, and dreamer from Islamabad currently living in Washington DC. These days, they are thinking about spirituality and love through the framework of prison abolition and queer liberation.