Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "Your Pain, Your Greatest Ally"

This poem came out of the March 1, 2016 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by a prompt from [personal profile] eseme. It also fills the "need" square in my 2-29-16 card for the Villain Bingo fest, and the "trust and vows" square in my 10-1-15 card for the [community profile] trope_bingo fest. This poem has been selected in an audience poll as the free perk for the half-price sale in Shiv selling out. It belongs to the Damask thread of the Polychrome Heroics series.

Warning: This poem contains some intense topics. Highlight to read the warning, some of which are spoilers. It features discussion of self-harm, discussion of tattoos, conflict inside a multiple system, BDSM, complaints about no-harm contracts in therapy, more positive exploration of play contracts in kink, poor communication among headmates, practical challenges of being a multiple system, secrets, discussion of marks, nonsexual kink play, therapeutic use of BDSM to process prior trauma, consensual use of superpowers in kink, horrible memories, but at least they're getting sorted now, Keane crying, heavy-duty hurt/comfort, anxiety about the future, problematic management of communal resources, Clarity throwing a tantrum, epic scapegoating, rude mention of masturbation, Clarity reaping the consequences of alienating Keane, and other challenges. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.

"Your Pain, Your Greatest Ally"


I know that my headmates
have a point about self-harm;
it's risky and messy and there
has to be a better way of
getting the job done.

The tattoo is safer, and
I think it's beautiful, but
they hate that too.

So I keep looking for
other alternatives, and
one day I discover the ad
in the Urbanburg Enquirer.

Shadowplay Parlor of Pain & Pleasure
Do you need help dealing with
the darkness within yourself?
Come explore your physical and
emotional limits with Shadowplay!
Bondage * Discipline * Domination
** Intense Sensation a Specialty **

Oddly enough, there is no
contact information provided.

I search online and find nothing.
Then I try surfing the shadow net,
and the website pops right up.

The prices seem reasonable
compared to similar services --
which is to say expensive, but
not entirely out of reach.

There is a pain play contract
which lays out the kinds of things
that will or won't happen in a session,
depending on the customer's tastes.

I can't help remembering
the stupid "No Harm Contract"
that Clarity and Clement brought
home from the Student Health Clinic.

All it does it make me feel worse
about who I am and what I do.
I was born to deal with damage,
and no piece of paper is going
to get in the way of that.

They can put it in the binder,
but they can't make me sign it.

But the Shadowplay contract
is a whole different story.

It's customizable -- I can say
what I want and what I don't want
and what I'm not sure about yet
but would like to try out.

I can list things that upset me
(telepathy) and what helps with them
(hurt me enough that I can hang onto
front until I calm down).

It's equal -- it has spaces
for the top to fill in information
about their health and needs also.

I run my fingers over the screen
and admit that I want this.


When I go to make out
the grocery list and plan time
for a shopping trip, I notice that
there's a chunk of Saturday
that just says "Reserved."

We have to be so careful.

We have to block out our time,
write down all our future plans,
just to have a chance at
living six lives in one body
without a catastrophe.

I ask around, but nobody admits
to making that entry, and
so I just leave it there.

We still lose time occasionally,
and I can't afford to mess up
an appointment or activity
that might be important
just because I don't know
what it might be about.


The address takes me to
an alley, inconspicuous
and surprisingly clean.

A nondescript back door
opens onto a set of cellar steps
going down and around through
a rounded brick tunnel.

The basement foyer has
handsome furniture done in
black lacquer or leather and
chandeliers overhead.

Shadowplay herself is quiet and
confident, dressed in black leather
with a little domino mask.

She shows me the equipment room,
which has a little space for activities,
and then the play room, which has
a lot more space and special furniture.

There is even a bedroom for aftercare.

She sits me down and we fill out
the contract together, or try to.

"There's something you're
not telling me," she observes.

"I can't yet," I say, because
some secrets aren't mine to tell.
This could be over before
it even begins.

"I won't turn you away,"
she assures me. "This just
limits some of what we can do.
Don't worry about it -- trust takes
time to build. If you enjoy yourself,
you can come back another time,
tell me more, and we'll do more."

This feels right in a way that
all the pushy worksheets and
student counseling never have.

Something in me wants
to trust her. Something in me
wants to take my sweet time
learning how to trust her.

"You like pain, but you
haven't mentioned much
about your erotic interests,"
says Shadowplay.

"I'm not really in it for
the sex stuff," I admit.

"Plain top and bottom
sensation play, rather than
sexual or domination games?"
she asks, leaning forward.

"Yes," I say, and that fits.

"You're processing something,"
she guesses. "The pain helps you."

"It really does," I say, "but there are ...
people who don't understand, and
that makes it harder. I tried getting
a tattoo, but that, uh, didn't go over
well at all. So I'm still searching."

"What about marks?" she asks.

"I'd love to, but ... people would freak,"
I say. The idea of visible souvenirs
appeals to me in ways that I can't
describe in so many words.

"How about minimal marks for
our first session," says Shadowplay.
"That's what I recommend anyway.
I can't promise no marks, but I'll
do my best to reduce the chance."

"Okay," I say, and we fill in
the last few details before signing.

Then Shadowplay lays out
some toys on a sheet for me:
three different floggers, a riding crop,
a coiled whip, and something that
looks like a long leather switch.

"Choose three," she says.

I take the suede flogger
and the riding crop, then
hesitate between the whip
and the leather switch.

The whip looks exciting,
but also scary, so I leave it
for another time and pick up
the switch instead.

"Now pick your position,"
Shadowplay says, waving
a hand at the play room with
its fascinating furniture.

There's an X-cross propped against
the wall, and a couple of weird thrones,
but what grabs my attention is a bench
with thick padding that looks
incredibly comfortable.

"Will this work?" I say, running
a hand over it. The red leather feels
almost alive under my touch.

"Yes," says Shadowplay, and
pats the surface. "Now, take off
your clothes and lie down."

There's no sauce or sneer in
the way she says it, none of that
dominatrix stuff that some people like.

She's just a guide, showing me
what to do, and I do it.

The bench is even more comfortable
than it looks -- memory foam
under the leather, perhaps.
"This is amazing," I say.

"Do you want a blindfold?"
she asks. "It can help intensify
sensations, so that you feel
more with less force."

"Yes, please," I say.

Her voice drops to a whisper.
"Silk, leather, or superpower?"

Goosebumps race across my skin,
even though the room is warm.
"Superpower," I reply.

One hand covers my eyes,
and I can feel her energy
shiver through me.

It makes my headmates stir, and
I bite my lip to block them out.

When Shadowplay lifts her hand,
I can't see anything, the world
black as the inside of a cave.

I must have gasped or tensed,
because she presses a hand to
my shoulder and says, "Give
yourself a minute to adjust.
If it doesn't settle, I can take
it off the moment that you
say Yellow or Red."

The weight of her hand
holds me down, pressing me
into the bench, and that's enough
to ground me. "Green," I say.

"Good," says Shadowplay.
"We'll start light, with the flogger.
If you're playing for sensation,
especially for emotional work,
it's best to go down slowly."

Slow it is, soft strokes of suede
flopping against my back,
my butt, and my thighs.

The heat builds gradually
as the texture of the leather
begins to drag against my skin.

Shadowplay leans into it
a little more, and I can feel
the first sting starting to creep
into the edges of my awareness.

The slap of the flogger against
my skin seems louder in the darkness.

When a slow burn has spread evenly
over me, Shadowplay lays aside
the flogger and says, "Crop next."

This toy leaves little spatters of pain
sprinkled across my butt and thighs.

She taps it lightly at first, just
a small snap like a rubber band,
pattering back and forth.

Then she picks up the pace.

The riding crop thwacks into me
with a brisk swish-slap!

I can feel things in my head
starting to move, to shift position,
so that I can put them into order.

The memories of Mindflare are
in there somewhere, jumbled and
broken from the way that he
cut us apart one by one.

Clarity is always saying that
we have to think of the future,
but I can't focus on the future
until I've taken care of the past.

The pain isn't something I want,
it's something I need, as much
as Ham needs to protect us
or Mira needs to hide.

"Harder," I say, and Shadowplay
gives me what I ask for, even as
my breath quickens and I start
to grunt under the heavier blows.

It's the recent events that come clear
first, things that we couldn't sort out
among us and so they got tumbled in
with the disorganized memories, and
I swear this is part of why we lose time:

fighting with each other over who is
holding front, or dropping memories
because nobody wants to touch them.

It's working, though, and I slot away
the heartaches, the insults of my headmates.

"You're crying," says Shadowplay.
"Do you want to keep going, or
do you need a breather?"

"Need to cry," I say. "Keep going."

"Last toy is the switch replacer,"
she says, and hits me with it.

This is nothing like the others.
This pain is bright and burning,
like a line of lightning streaking
across the length of my ass.

I yell, and then realize
that she hasn't hit me again.
"Green," I manage to gasp.

She lays down another blazing blow,
and then more, striping my whole butt
faster and faster with strokes of fire.

Soon I can remember what it was like
when Mindflare made us out of Maisie,
and it's like digging my hands into
broken glass but at least now I can
concentrate on it, the pain like a key
to open the past and an anchor
to keep me in control so that
nobody can interrupt me.

I am sobbing into the soft leather,
my voice giving the pain a place to go,
and I notice that Shadowplay has
paused, her hand stroking my back.

"Pay attention to what you feel,"
she coaches. "Sorrow can show you
truth and teach you compassion. Keep
your heart open, and feel what you feel.
If you let it in, then your pain can
become your greatest ally."

Her words sink into me like
rainwater into dry soil.

This is what I've been trying
to tell everyone, that pain is an ally
to be welcomed, not an enemy
to be fought off at every turn.

This is what gives me the strength
to deal with the things that nobody else
can seem to face -- because I don't try
to fight it, I open to it, and let it
flow through me instead.

Shadowplay squeezes my hand,
and yeah, I remember that too,
it's one of the check-in signals.

Still it takes me a long minute
to find my hand and flex it
to let her know I'm okay.

The memories are starting
to stiffen up, though, and I
manage to say, "Hit me again,
just a little more, I'm almost done."

Well, not all the way done, but
as close as I can get today. Even I
can only take so much pain at once.

There's a tangle of feelings wrapped
around our origin, like barbed wire, with
the death of Maisie and the agonizing mess
that it has made of her -- our -- family life.

Gently I reach into it and begin unrolling
the twisted wire, laying it out and then
wrapping it around a spool in neat turns.
It will have to be dealt with later, of course,
in considerably more detail, but at least
I can start putting it in some kind of order.

Grief over Maisie's death.
Confusion over what followed.
Guilt at all the lies and deceit
required to keep us safe.

Needs, caught up in the feelings --
Ham's desperate insistence of manhood,
Clement's yearning for another healer,
Maze's aching desire to tell someone,
anyone, what happened to Maisie.

We're not ready yet, but we'll have to be,
someday, if we want to have a future,
because family is more about trust
than about vows, which is just
one more thing broken now.

I'm bawling on the bench again,
and Shadowplay soothes me through it,
her hands rubbing gentle circles on my back.
"Cry it out," she urges. "I don't know what
the matter is, but it sure sounds big.
Get out as much of it as you can."

It helps, more than I can say,
just to hear someone assure me that
it's okay to cry, that it's a good thing,
and not try to shut me up or push me
back into my headroom so that
they don't have to listen to it.

Shadowplay is willing to stay with me
in this place, to keep me company
in my pain, and that is a precious gift,
far more potent than her superpower.

When my sobs start to die down
to occasional whimpers and hiccups,
she passes her hand over my eyes
and suddenly I can see again.

"There you go," she says
as I blink in the dim lighting
that somehow seems bright.

Shadowplay pulls a bottle
of lotion from somewhere
under the bench and begins
smoothing it over my skin.

"I didn't hit you as hard as you
probably feel like I did," she says.
"You might have a few spots come up,
but I don't think there's much bruising.
Do pay attention to it, though, so that
you can tell me if you decide to come back."

"I'll try," I say, although I can't promise
because there's no telling when I'll be
able to front again or whether Clement
will haul off and heal anything he finds.

"Do you want to stretch out on the bed
for a while?" Shadowplay offers.

"I can't," I say, shaking my head
with regret. "I don't dare fall asleep."

The last thing she needs is one of
my headmates waking up in a dungeon.
They don't need to be pissed at both of us.

"All right, it's up to you," she says,
and lets me loll on the bench until
I feel like I can sit up without falling.

"Thank you," I say sincerely.
"This session helped me a lot."

"You're welcome," says Shadowplay.
"Come back whenever you can."

I hope so, but I know it's a long shot.


"WHAT in the FUCK?"
I shout, looking at
the checkbook.

Somebody went and
spent a hundred bucks
on something marked
"expressive therapy."

I bail out of front and
storm into the living room
inside our headspace.

"I demand an explanation
for this right now!" I say,
waving the memory of
our battered budget
like a battle flag.

"I did it," Keane says
from the couch corner.
"You hated the tattoo,
and you won't shut up
about self-injury, so I
hired some help."

Fuming, I turn on him
and say, "You what?
Blew a hundred bucks
on some kind of mistress?
Why the hell can't you just
masturbate in your bedroom
the way Ham does?"

"Whoa, leave me out of this,"
Ham says, raising his hands
to fend off my temper.
"I am outta here."

I watch him flee, and
the others look little better.

Keane is always causing problems.

"Now look what you've done,"
I tell him, pointing to the budget.
"I have to clean up the mess
that you've just made."

"I'm sorry for the inconvenience,"
says Keane. "I needed the release --
and you don't like it whenever I try
to take care of my needs alone. I
thought hiring help would be safer."

I throw up my hands in despair.
I hate disorganization, and
some of my headmates are
a simmering crockpot of chaos.

"Fine. Whatever," I say.
"Just stay out of my hair
while I try to figure out how
to keep the outstanding checks
from bouncing and costing us
even more money."

"Okay," Keane says quietly,
and his bedroom door
clicks shut behind him.

I turn my attention back to front,
shaking the body out of its daze, then
plunk down hard in the desk chair
so I can start sorting things out.

My tush twinges unpleasantly
and I stand right back up,
trying to rub it away.

But Keane doesn't come out
to deal with the pain.

Well ... drat.

* * *


Shadowplay (Delonda Barros) -- She has dusky skin, brown eyes, and long straight black hair. She is mixed race including black and Hispanic. Bullied because of her superpowers, she dropped out of high school and sought work that did not require a degree. Shadowplay discovered a talent for kink play and turned that into a successful career. She lives in Urbanburg, where she works as a professional dominatrix.
Origin: She developed pityriasis alba as a tween, and sought medical attention for the rash and pale spots they left behind. A new medication being tried out for cases of hypopigmentation created an unusual reaction which left her with superpowers.
Uniform: On duty, she dresses in sexy black krevel and dexflan. Off duty, she still likes black but also ivory or a Mexican palette of colors.
Qualities: Master (+6) Trustworthy, Expert (+4) Dominatrix, Expert (+4) Emotional Intelligence, Good (+2) Intimacy Skills, Good (+2) Leathercrafts, Good (+2) Strength
Poor (-2) High School Dropout
Powers: Average (0) Shadow Powers
Motivation: To help people deal with the darkness within.

* * *

"Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life's search for love and wisdom."
-- Rumi

can happen for many reasons. In Keane's case, he needs pain to fuel his superpowers, hold onto front, and do some crucial headwork. Self-injury is one way to accomplish that, but it has drawbacks. The Hurt Yourself Less Workbook was designed by and for people who hurt themselves and want to reduce it.

Self-harm is challenging but not impossible to manage. The use of no-harm contracts in therapy has raised serious concerns, because it can make matters worse. Often it imposes on a relationship that doesn't exit yet, and thereby prevents the formation of a supportive relationship between therapist and client. It also demands that people solve their own problems before they are permitted any help for their problems! The results of this can be disastrous. It happens less often in Terramagne-America than in local-America, but it still happens; Cassandra has mentioned running afoul of this therapeutic abuse, and sure enough, it made her feel worse.

Some people use contracts for kink. These facilitate discussion of desires and plans, thus maximizing the chance of safe fun. Here is a checklist of activities and a sample contract.

BDSM has multiple benefits, and people may explore it for different reasons. There are beginner tips for doms, tops, submissives, and bottoms. See text and cartoon lists of safety tips. It is important that everyone understand endorphin levels and aftercare.

This is the entrance to the dungeon. Stairs lead down to the couch in the entryway. See the equipment room, play room, and bedroom. These are the kink toys offered to Keane for his first scene.

Submitting to pain is part of kink for most people who take the receptive role, although some people have other goals. Processing pain can be done in negative ways (which blunt the sensation) or positive ways (which don't). Learning these techniques makes it easier to access the benefits of pain play. Some factors can still interfere with pain processing, which makes it difficult to enjoy a scene. Bottoms often seek to skirt the edge of what they can handle.

Traumatic stress can cause a spectrum of effects ranging from acute stress reaction (a normal response that fades after a few days) through acute stress disorder (a "stuck" crisis state that lasts up to a month), PTSD (a "stuck" crisis state lasting more than one month), to PDSD (a "stuck" crisis state involving repeated traumatic experiences over time). In this case, Damask have traumatic stress, but not a disorder, because the problems are troubling but not debilitating and are getting better over time as the headmates work through them. This does not make it okay to ignore the problems, which are liable to get worse if left untended. PTSD is fundamentally a failure of processing that happens inside the brain. When the mind cannot file traumatic memories properly, then they don't integrate into experience, which disrupts the ability to recognize context. The events get "stuck" in a processing loop within the mind, which turns those memories into triggers that cause flashbacks. Some new therapies focus on the body as a way to "unstick" those memories and thus heal the mind. That's exactly what Keane is doing, only instead of conventional therapy, he's hiring someone to beat him in order to knock things loose so he can put them away properly. This works, and he's not the only person it works for.

Difficult emotions are challenging
, but accepting them is necessary for good mental health. Mindfulness offers steps to work with them, and that involves learning to sit with painful feelings. Here Keane uses physical pain to achieve catharsis, which relieves pressure and can facilitate sorting processes in the mind. Many people who are into BDSM appreciate it for this reason, in addition to or instead of the erotic aspects. It's just a way of kicking the brain machine until it starts working.

Ideally, you should also understand how to handle other people's difficult emotions. Be prepared to sit with their pain and validate it. Remind them that it's okay to cry, everyone does it, and it helps. Even if you cannot fix the source of their pain, you can provide a nonanxious presence so that at least they are not alone with it.

BDSM can help people heal in many ways. It has been used in therapeutic contexts. Finding this type of therapy is a little easier in T-America than in L-America, but it's still not prevalent. Due to the context of trust and psychological awareness, kink can be useful in recovering from rape and other types of trauma. Keane finds it very soothing and supportive after his experiences with kidnapping, mindrape, and let's not forget his headmates picking on him all the time.

Lotion is advised as aftercare for the skin following a play session. Gentle touch also contributes to emotional aftercare, assisting the bottom in the return to everyday headspace.

Conflict is a natural and necessary part of family life, households, and other relationships. It has a range of healthy to unhealthy forms. Know the signs of fighting dirty. Keane's headmates resort to a lot of dirty tricks; in particular, this is the first time we see Clarity (who is typically calm) throwing a fit. Healthy relationships require that people fight fair. Learn how to improve communication, reduce family arguments, and mediate between relatives when necessary.

Scapegoating is a psychological process in which one person or headmate takes on the burden of everyone's problems. In multiple personalities, the system scapegoat serves this purpose. Keane is not bad, it's just that he deals with a lot of dark stuff, his methods bug the other headmates, and they really don't appreciate yet how much good he's doing. Scapegoating is particularly common in cases of bereavement, which relates to what happened with Maisie getting chopped into several pieces. There are ways to overcome the scapegoat role.

House rules are how the members of a multiple system maintain internal discipline. Almost every system establishes House Rule #1: Do Not Harm the Body. This supports both survival and convincing other people to tolerate the system rather than locking them up as a threat. However, it undermines many forms of self-expression such as kink and body modification; and it puts tremendous pressure on headmates who manifest (often communal) trauma through destructive habits. Everyone else crapping on Keane about this is not helping. Trying to be someone you're not is life-destroying. They need to sit down together and discuss how he can meet his needs in acceptable ways.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, family skills, fantasy, fishbowl, gender studies, life lessons, poem, poetry, reading, weblit, writing

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