Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "Touchbacks"

This poem came out of the July 21, 2015 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by a prompt from [personal profile] moonvoice. It also fills the "scars" square in my 6-16-15 card for the [community profile] hc_bingo fest. This poem has been sponsored by Anthony & Shirley Barrette. It belongs to the Polychrome Heroics series. (I wasn't paying attention earlier and posted things out of sequence, so this predates "The Surface Tension of Injured Souls.")

WARNING: This poem contains graphic, subjective descriptions that some readers may find disturbing. Highlight to read more detailed warnings, some of which are spoilers. Daphne has survived six years of extreme trauma, following a plane hijacking that left her stranded on an artificial island inhabited by minions run wild. As a result, she has severe physical and mental scars that make it difficult for her to reintegrate with everyday society. Her PDSD has left her with multisensory flashbacks, intrusive ideation, touch aversion, hypervigilance, normalization of violence, and other challenges. Much of society around her is really unsupportive and making matters worse. Fortunately she makes a new friend who helps counteract that a little bit, but this is still a very rough ride and the inside of Daphne's head is a fucking miserable place. Please consider your tastes and headspace before deciding whether this is something you want to read right now.


There are scars you can see,
and scars you can't.

Daphne knows all about scars --
she has enough of them, although
most of them don't show in street clothes.

She doesn't wear debutante dresses anymore
with the bared shoulders and open backs.

Once was enough, when the seamstress touched
the corrugated skin between her shoulderblades
left by a sizzling splash of acid, and exclaimed,
"Jesus Christ, what happened to you?!"

That was all it had taken to yank Daphne back
to Freiländ, to the piss-on-hot-metal smell of the acid,
the sound of her flesh dissolving, the wall of pain
slammed against the whole back side of her body.

Every time it happens, it's like a cargo cord
snapping taut to pull her into the past, as if
the elastic of experience can stretch only so far,
and then she's right back to where she was,
emotions folding away like the blade of a knife
vanishing into its handle when not needed,
bringing out the jagged saw or the ice pick,
survival instincts laid bare and blinking
in the unforgiving light of civilization.

Daphne has scars on her body,
but the ones on her mind are worse.

Every moment is might and maybe,
every interaction an anxious balancing act,
waiting for something to push her out of
her precarious connection with the present.

The sound of an airplane is enough
to shove Daphne back to the hijacking,
her mother fighting grimly with the men
who tried to take over their private plane,
dying but taking one of them with her.

Daphne's psychiatrist calls it
Prolonged Duress Stress Disorder.

Daphne calls it survival.

Her psychiatrist drones about
hypervigilance and intrusive ideation,
but to Daphne the situational awareness is
as necessary now as it was during the six years
of her ordeal. The flashbacks described in the textbooks
don't fit, because it's not the muzzle flare she recalls
but the slam of the gun's butt against her shoulder
or against the side of her face, the bitter taste
of gunpowder between her teeth.

What she feels are not flashbacks
but touchbacks.

The exercises don't help much.
They are mostly for different problems
than the ones Daphne is having.

She keeps going
only because it is expected.

Daphne learns that parties are pointless
when the first one she throws after returning is
a fiasco of polite demurrals and less polite no-shows,
when the only person who speaks to her is
that black sheep Claudia.

No amount of wealth can buy happiness --
Daphne already knew that -- but she is
surprised to learn that it can't even
buy a little acceptance.

It doesn't matter.
Freiländ is always waiting for her,
eager to take her back.

It requires no more than a moment,
when every touch feels like acid, like frostbite,
a casual pat or bump dropping her into Kampfringen,
the motions of it branded into her bones,
her muscles, her nerves.

Eating out is a lost cause
when all she can think about
is scavenging for canned rations
or killing seagulls with rocks, when
the taste of bile and charcoal
overwhelms the filet mignon,

when Chanel's enthusiastic account
of her stomach-stapling operation
triggers a memory of being gutted,
and under the table Daphne's fingers
stray to the graft of dark brown skin
that stands out so boldly against
the pale expanse of flesh between
her navel and her pelvis where
the meatball medic had to
patch her back together.

Daphne can still feel
the knives and the needles
sliding in and out of her skin.

It is ... distracting.

The hubbub of city life is
overwhelming to her honed senses.

So Daphne does the minimum
required to keep up appearances,
while inside she does what she does best:
she survives.

She learns how to modify
her fashionable clothes so that
they can be stripped for parts in a crisis --
buttons and hooks and belts.

She has more than enough money
to create caches throughout Westbord --
spare clothes, ration bars, cash cards,
and all manner of weapons.

The feel of the bricks beneath her fingers
is familiar and essential, and she knows
that no amount of expensive sandals
can ever erase the memory of
sand enclosing her bare feet
or the sudden incisive betrayal
of hidden glass slicing into her sole.

It does not matter how far inland she goes,
whether she sleeps in the beachfront cottage
or the townhouse or the mansion in Sacramento --
she always hears the ocean now, as if
her skull is an empty shell.

So she hides, she conceals,
she pretends everything is normal.
Nobody around her needs to know that
to Daphne, torment is normal now.

They see what she wills them to see,
know only what she chooses to tell.

Daphne looks down at hands
covered with tiny white nicks and ridges
from scrambling over the ruins. She spreads
Cle de Peau Beaute Synactif Intensive Cream
over them before bed, but what she recalls
is the tacky glide of old motor oil.

When the wild thing inside her
can be contained no longer, Daphne
takes off her designer clothes and
dresses in a black leather biker jacket
over green canvas cargo pants, with
black-and-green paracord bracelets
clasping her wrists. She straps on
a slingshot and a survival knife,
a handgun and a pain pistol.

When Jerryrigger goes hunting for trouble,
the civilized criminals of the city
have no idea what awaits.

The Westbord police are baffled by
the trickle of crooks begging
to be put into prison.

Jerryrigger sees reality as it is,
not as other people wish it to be,
and she deals with it exactly as
harshly as it has dealt with her.

She splices the past into the present,
turns touchbacks into touchstones.

Only when she comes home
and exchanges the light armor
for thousand-count cotton pajamas
does Daphne return to herself.

The bed, tall and soft as a cloud,
still reminds her spine of stones
where she slept in the ruins.

It is these experiences which
make Daphne understand that
she can leave Freiländ but
she will never be truly free.

There are scars you can see,
and scars you can't, both
the visible and the invisible
layered each over the other
in a palimpsest of pain,
but all of them, all,

are tangible.

* * *


Jerryrigger (Daphne Dalton) -- She has fair skin with freckles, brown eyes, and straight brown hair that falls halfway down her back. She is tall and fit, with moderate breasts and narrow hips. Her ordeal left her with a lot of scars, including small nicks on hands and feet from scrambling through the ruins, patches of shiny corrugated skin from acid or frostbite, surgical slices, and most dramatically a graft of dark brown skin between her navel and pelvis. Most of those don't show in street clothes, but she doesn't wear skimpy debutante dresses like she used to. Daphne speaks Argentine Spanish, English, French, and German. She lives in Westbord. Her family is rich and famous; Daphne is particularly known for throwing fashionable parties. She was 22 when hijacked and is 28 now.
Built by a team of German gizmologists and super-gizmologists after WWII, the artificial island Freiländ was among the first of its kind. It began as a secret base with elaborate lab facilities, hidden by forest and beach outside. Later it suffered a major failure of its foundation and part of it sank, causing the leadership to abandon it. But some of the minions were left behind to survive if they could, and in later years it was also discovered by smugglers. It turned into a hellhole of zetetic wreckage inhabited by psychopaths and criminals.
As a result of her experiences, Daphne has Prolonged Duress Stress Disorder. She thinks that things like pain, torture, and betrayal are normal. She doesn't want to, and she's fighting to overcome that; but it's like an addiction because hurting other people meant she was in control and thus not in immediate danger. So it's a struggle for her to give up those things. Daphne dislikes being touched and feels jumpy in crowds. She has trouble relating to people and prefers to isolate herself. Trust is impossible and even reliance is difficult for her to manage. Daphne finds the time gap overwhelming, especially the news she missed and the technological innovations; she hates smartphones, preferring the older vidwatches.
Her family relationships are similarly strained. Daphne's mother was killed by the hijackers, sensibly fighting to keep them from taking over the plane -- and actually managed to kill one of the three in the scuffle. Her father is struggling to function as a single parent, largely relying on nannies and other hired help. He expects Daphne to pick up where she left off, either going to graduate school (the original plan after her vacation) or getting married (intended for this approximate age). Daphne's baby brother Jude is another challenge. She left behind a cute toddler just beginning to talk, and came home to a troubled eight-year-old whose emotional outbursts grate on her nerves. Most of her college and socialite friends have moved on without her.
Many of Daphne's skills developed on Freiländ, and some of her others improved for sake of survival. Jerryrigging includes the ability to scavenge for materials and then build whatever is needed. It gives her a tendency to collect and hoard everything from food to bobby pins, which bothers the other rich people. Instead of a formal lair, she caches useful items everywhere. Her interrogation methods include plenty of torture, thus making the results erratic. Kampfringen is a German system of unarmed self-defense including punches, elbow strikes, headbutts, jointlocks, chokeholds, and to a lesser extent kicks. Her strong constitution helps with a variety of survival aspects such as resisting illness, healing from injuries, and enduring harsh conditions. She is skilled at sailing, surfing, swimming, and other water sports.
Her escape from Freiländ has left Daphne with a determination to recover from the horrors she suffered (and inflicted on others) but her toolset is not ideally suited to that, so she has a lot of work ahead of her.
Origin: Celebrating Daphne's graduation from college, her mother took her on a vacation to South America. The family's private jet was hijacked and taken to Freiländ, an artificial island off the coast of Argentina but located in international waters. While there, she was tortured and subjected to mad science experiments that left her mind and body scarred. She escaped, and then had to dodge the other inhabitants until she could steal a sailboat and make her way back to Westbord. By the time she arrived, six years had passed.
Uniform: On-duty Jerryrigger wears a formfitting black t-shirt and bike shorts for insulation and light armor covered by a black leather biker jacket and green canvas cargo pants, with a leather belt, black-and-green paracord bracelets, and hiking boots. She has another knee-length coat for light armor. A black multifunction scarf mask can cover her face. She also has a helmet, gas mask, and armored vest for extra protection. For weapons she carries a cyclone gun, a handgun, a pain pistol, a slingshot, and/or a survival knife. A rucksack contains survival gear. That collection is inspired by the kind of stuff she found on Freiländ. Off-duty Daphne wears customized clothing that looks like high fashion but incorporates all manner of things that can be stripped off to use as raw materials: buttons, zippers, hooks, rings, pins, belts, cords, etc.
Qualities: Master (+6) Jerryrigging, Master (+6) Wealth, Expert (+4) Hostess, Expert (+4) Kampfringen, Expert (+4) Keen Senses, Expert (+4) Physically Fit, Good (+2) Constitution, Good (+2) Interrogation, Good (+2) Languages, Good (+2) Political Science Degree, Good (+2) Water Sports, Good (+2) Wilderness Survival
Poor (-2) PDSD
Vulnerability: Daphne's keen senses make it easy to detect things that most people couldn't -- distant whispers, subtle color changes in a drugged drink -- but leave her vulnerable to loud or sudden noises and bright or fluctuating lights. Physical touch can be uncomfortable or painful. Strong smells and tastes can bother her too, especially artificial fragrances or flavors. She has difficulty with mass-produced food products because on Freiländ everything was either preserved rations or foraged wildlife. The hubbub of city life is overwhelming; Daphne tends to hide her feelings and pretend that everything is fine, but inside she hates it and the flashbacks wear on her. That belief that misery is normal has hindered her ability to adapt and learn ways of compensating for the sharpened senses.
Vulnerability: Secret identity. Daphne doesn't want people to know about the Jerryrigger side of her life. The thought of anyone finding out makes her anxious, and she goes to great lengths to protect the secret.
Motivation: To recover.

Obsidian (Claudia Du Pont) -- She has fair skin, long straight black hair, and green eyes. Her heritage is French. The black sheep of her very rich family, she befriends Jerryrigger at a party where almost none of the invitees came. She doesn't care what people think. Her rebel skills include theft, snooping, vandalism, hacking, and pissing people off. As a hobby, Claudia enjoys growing plants with black flowers, and the mostly-white ones that bloom at night.
Qualities: Master (+6) Wealth, Expert (+4) Impervious, Good (+2) Gothic Gardening, Good (+2) Perfect Health, Good (+2) Rebel Skills
Poor (-2) Black Sheep

* * *

Visible scars can result from acid or other injuries. Severe ones often cause psychological and social damage. Some but not all of Daphne's scars may be hidden under street clothes. There are ways to improve body image and even find beauty in scars.

Invisible scars can result from emotional abuse or other psychological trauma. Understand how to recover from it.

Disfigurement often results in discrimination which is difficult to handle. However, talking with a disfigured person increases compassion. Rich people can be a whole new level of intolerant about imperfections. When interacting with someone who has a disability or disfigurement, be polite.

Trauma can result in PTSD or PDSD. Know how to cope with traumatic stress or help someone with it.

Flashbacks are common for trauma survivors. They come in different types and can affect any sense. Daphne's are primarily nonvisual. There are ways to manage flashbacks or help someone through a flashback.

Panic attacks also happen due to traumatic stress. Understand how to get through a panic attack or soothe a panicky friend.

(The following links on experimentation, abuse, and torture are extremely gross)
Human experimentation is most famed among Nazis, but America has done it too, and in fact still does. In Terramagne, soups are preferred targets for mad science. Part of the "mad" scientist moniker is just having such low self-preservation that they consider it a good idea to torment people with superpowers.

Medical abuse has happened in places like Auschwitz and Guantanamo. Regrettably it tends to turn everything medical into one giant trigger, making it difficult or impossible for survivors to tolerate help ever again.

Torture causes many lingering effects on mind and body which make recovery difficult. There are steps to overcome torture and to help torture survivors.

Hypervigilance is an exaggerated wariness out of proportion to current threat level, caused by extreme threats in the past. Understand how to feel more safe and how to help others with hypervigilance. Here is a safety tracker that may help analyze the current level of safety.  This workbook on overcoming trauma also has a chapter on safety.

Intrusive ideation or repetitive thought is common in people with PTSD. Take steps to overcome intrusive thoughts.

Cle de Peau Beaute Synactif Intensive Cream is among the most expensive skin creams in the world, actually designed to support and heal skin. While primarily meant for anti-aging use, it's also a good choice for skin stressed by years of wind, sun, and assorted torture. A little pampering is good for survivors anyhow.

Normalization of violence happens in war zones and in ordinary communities. It can easily spread throughout society. Restorative justice is one way to reduce violence in society. Understand how to stop personal violence and live in peace.

Soldiers often have difficulty reintegrating into society after deployment, and the same applies to anyone separated from everyday life by time and trauma. There are ways to support veterans and help them return to family and community. Similar techniques work after other types of separation and return.

Trauma tends to shatter worldview, identity, and relationships. This makes it impossible to go back to the same life as before the experience. Incorporating this into a life narrative may help people form a post-trauma identity. There are exercises and healing techniques which can help with this reconstruction. Family and friends can assist trauma survivors in the process. Daphne's family is a source of more stress, as are most former friends, but Claudia is much better at this.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, fantasy, fishbowl, poem, poetry, reading, weblit, writing

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