In the past few years, I’ve undergone quite a number of medical tests and procedures, some highly invasive (spinal cord surgery), some much less so (Holter monitor). I started to notice that a kind of emotional exhaustion would occur after some of these procedures that I couldn’t explain only by the strain of having health troubles in general. Nor could I attribute it to the potential seriousness of whatever I was being tested for, nor the other factors involved in doctor visits (travel, time, waiting rooms and such).
As time went on, I discovered that the exhaustion was cumulative – not over broad stretches of time, but specifically over short spans. Recently I came up with a theory, or a metaphor, that I think explains what’s going on.
I think our bodies are kind of like gas tanks. There’s a kind of precious fuel inside, an amorphous emotional Stuff, within a shell that keeps it all in one place. You can do all sorts of things to the outside of the gas tank and it may have an effect, good or bad, on the overall mechanism. But there is a specific sort of experience that occurs when you physically puncture the tank. Stuff leaks out. Probably slowly, if it’s really just a puncture. Possibly faster, if it’s a bigger breach, like a slice, or many punctures.
It’s reparable, of course. You plug the leak, and then you fill up the tank again. But the filling may take a while. So if you puncture the tank several times at once, or over a relatively short period of time, more of that Stuff inside leaks out, and then it takes even longer to fill it back up. The breach itself doesn’t have to be physically big. But there is something about having a hole deliberately made in your skin that allows psychic Stuff to leak out in a way that’s somehow different from other bodily experiences.
Context is everything, of course. I think the intensity of the psychic leak caused by a physical “tank” breach – a needle, a scalpel, a dental drill – is affected by the emotional quality of how it happened in the first place. Medical procedures may have eventual positive effects, and we usually enter into them consensually. But for the most part, they aren’t what I’d call positive. Rather they are an unfortunate necessity. Sometimes we’re lucky and we get a medical practitioner with the right kind of touch – firm, gentle, attuned, present – who provides a substitute container to help limit the Stuff leak. But sometimes medical practitioners are brusque, detached, sloppy, inconsiderate, even cruel. The medical profession gets our consent before doing things, but we often get limited say in how it all goes down, skin to (gloved) skin. And sometimes we’re numbed against pain, or even knocked out completely. The breach still occurs, and our bodies and souls still know it even if our conscious mind doesn’t experience it directly. The Stuff still leaks out. We weren’t really there when it happened, but we sure do feel it later.
Other types of tank breach show us how this can go differently. Acupuncture, let’s say. The breach occurs, but the practitioner who’s doing it is actually doing it deliberately in order to interact with the Stuff – to move it around in a way that’s beneficial, sometimes immediately and perceptibly so. When done well, it’s the most minimal breach possible with the maximum possible substitute containment. So we might walk out feeling a little disturbed, but the leakage is minor compared to the immediate boost to our system function.
This raises the related idea of intention. Not overall intention, but intention in the moment. I think that in most cases with a breach, the human being who performs it “injects” something of their own Stuff into us. Imagine, for instance, the difference between having blood drawn by a nurse who’s clipped, cold and rude, versus by one who’s warm, friendly, who waits til you’re ready, who makes pleasant conversation or makes sure you’re seated comfortably. The same procedure – the same sharp needle entering the same vein with the same skill level – can feel really different depending on how you’re being treated while it happens. An acupuncturist’s practice is entirely focused on reaching into you to move your Stuff around in a beneficial way. A nurse’s or doctor’s isn’t, exactly; even if the overall end goal is to improve your health, their skill isn’t necessarily focused on providing an immediately positive energetic experience along the way, and certainly not via the precise means of the tank breach. You may luck out and get someone who understands how their own energy influences yours or leaks into you when they breach your flesh, but that awareness is not built into their practice.
Let’s take it in yet another direction. Let’s think about piercings or tattoos. In this case, the breach isn’t either an unfortunate necessity toward long-term healing, or a therapeutic intervention with immediate effect. The purpose here is (often) purely a pleasurable one. The breach itself might be challenging to undergo in the moment, but we actively seek it out, and for only positive (and elective!) reasons. Adornment, personal symbolism, ritual, the cultivation of a larger aesthetic, the desire to demonstrate membership in a culture or subculture – we get pierced and tattooed for many reasons, but not usually because we’re sick or hurting and need to fix it. As well, we choose our practitioners. We ask our friends, we look at portfolios, we make an appointment to consult. We go elsewhere if we don’t like the artist. We choose our own body art and where we’d like to have it applied.
A good tattoo or piercing experience is all about the positive. A good tattoo artist or piercer knows how to provide some of the substitute “Stuff containment” their client needs. They set the client at ease, check with the client about placement of the jewelry or art, talk them through the process, give them breaks to breathe or gather strength. A body artist who doesn’t do these things well will probably not get a lot of return business. Beyond the average person’s positive motivation to get tattooed or pierced, perhaps the capitalism inherent in much body art motivates good practice – nobody’s obliged to get a bicep band or a nose stud for health reasons, so to maintain a business, the practitioner needs to keep the process at least somewhat enjoyable.
If we go by the continuum I seem to be setting up here, it seems to be partly about lead-up – what is the emotional quality of the reason the breach is happening? how at choice are we about the process and the practitioner? – and partly about execution – assuming equal technical skill level, how well does the practitioner contain your tank breach to help limit your Stuff leakage, and what Stuff do they leave behind inside you as they work?
If we go to the far end of the spectrum, we can think about play piercing or cutting in the context of BDSM. In this case, the experience is perhaps the purest: there is no health-related obligation or need. There isn’t even a desire for an end goal of beautiful body art – though that can be part of the fun, for instance with decorative temporary piercing or image-based cutting. Usually the reason for purple-hanky play is to have the experience itself: a deliberately chosen tank breach with a practitioner picked for their skill at making that experience positive, or for the energetic connection you wish to feel with them. You get play-pierced because you trust the practitioner to breach your tank and to see and touch your Stuff, and perhaps because you want a little bit (or a lot) of that practitioner’s Stuff to enter you.
I’m not saying everyone who does play piercing would think of it this way, or that this is always the reason for it. But I do think for those of us who like blood play, which is often discussed as a technical or artistic skill set, it might be useful to think about the energetic implications of that play, and to consider them as part of why we do it.
I didn’t have this kind of metaphor to work with when I first play pierced another human being. I’m glad I had the very good first experience I did – because well over a decade later, I still carry a drop or two of her Stuff with me, and it is sweet and beautiful. I think that’s true, for me, of pretty much everyone I’ve pierced. It makes me see piercing as far less appropriate for casual play as compared to, say, a flogging. This perspective also helps me appreciate the value of universal precautions not just for blood safety and hygiene, but also as part of a containment ritual that’s energetically and symbolically appropriate. It’s no coincidence that blood play (at least in the circles I run in) is often done as part of ritual-based scenes with spiritual intentions or implications.
For those of us who undergo a lot of tank breaches as part of medical procedures, maybe having this framework in mind could help us come up with creative ways to contain our Stuff leaks. For instance, every time I go for an MRI, which involves a tracer injection, I sandwich the procedure between visits to my trusted piercer. He removes my permanent jewelry; we catch up. I put my metal in a small leather pouch and carry it with me. When I head into the MRI, I hand the pouch to my partner, who keeps it safe and hands it back right afterward. I put on as much of my metal as I can, and the day after, I go back to my piercer, who sterilizes everything else and reinstalls it. I bring him chocolate. He asks how the test went. The ritual creates a kind of safe pseudo-tank breach and repair on either side of the real tank breach and somehow, the process feels better overall.
Similarly, a couple of weeks before I went in for my second spinal cord surgery this spring, I got a small tattoo under my left collarbone, over my heart; my sweetheart got a matching one. It was an energetic thread that connected us when all my metal was out, and she couldn’t be right next to me, and my body-tank was cut open in a big way. And you know what? It worked. That extra Stuff containment helped. My recovery time was half as long as it was in my first surgery. I’m sure other factors were at play too, but I can’t help thinking that creating a deliberate, desired, beautifully marked opening so soon before the unfortunately needed one helped get my Stuff flowing the right way for healing.
Anyway, this metaphor clearly has its limits, and I’m sure it doesn’t work in all instances. Thanks for indulging my thought experiment. It’s been a long time since I last wrote, or theorized at all, about SM play and its related practices. My time, energy and body have been so consumed by medical concerns, and all the resulting Stuff leaks, that it’s been hard for me to even want to play, let alone actually do so. Maybe the fact that I can think about this at all means my tank is slowly filling up again. Maybe at some point I will feel like I have enough Stuff in there to fuel myself as I take the sharps in my own hand once more. Maybe I will once again feel like my Stuff is the kind of Stuff I don’t mind leaving a trace of inside someone else.