Touch Stains Colors on My Skin

(photo by Lindsay Rogerson)

When I was a teenager I loved reading J. D. Salinger. These days I don’t remember what his stories were about but one thing has stayed with me all these years; the idea that touch can leave colorful scars on my body. I couldn’t for the life of me remember which story I’d read it in but it’s been on my mind lately and when my therapist brought up the same idea in our first session I scoured the internet and found it in Salinger’s Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters. Here’s the paragraph:

“If or when I do start going to an analyst, I hope to God he has the foresight to let a dermatologist sit in on consultation. A hand specialist. I have scars on my hands from touching certain people. Once, in the park, when Franny was still in the carriage, I put my hand on the downy pate of her head and left it there too long. Another time, at Loew’s Seventy-second Street, with Zooey during a spooky movie. He was about six or seven, and he went under the seat to avoid watching a scary scene. I put my hand on his head. Certain heads, certain colors and textures of human hair leave permanent marks on me. Other things, too. Charlotte once ran away from me, outside the studio, and I grabbed her dress to stop her, to keep her near me. A yellow cotton dress I loved because it was too long for her. I still have a lemon-yellow mark on the palm of my right hand. Oh, God, if I’m anything by a clinical name, I’m a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.”

Oh, do I have colorful scars on my hands from touching others and all over my body from being touched!

My therapist and I were talking about how my tendency to isolate myself and be self-reliant perpetuate my depression. I feel so much shame about my depression and anxiety because I see them as a direct result of having been sexually abused as a child. If people could see how depressed and anxious I am they would also see how damaged and broken I am. They would see how I am, on some fundamental level, at fault for being hurt. The logic is flawed, I know, but distorted thinking is one of the hallmarks of depression. I can let people share the burden of my chronic physical illnesses (and that has taken years to achieve) but my mental health is something no one else should have to suffer for. And that is one of the most destructive byproducts of sexual abuse; it causes victims to isolate themselves and feel responsible for the pain they’re experiencing.

My therapist explained how she thinks of sexual abuse like this:

There’s this lovely, pure, present child who takes joy in almost every aspect of existence. Once they are abused, it’s as though the child is covered with mud. The mud can be scraped off, cleaned off with therapy and other healing arts, but in a lifetime the abuse survivor will never be completely pure again. In other words, doing healing work is important, vital even, but it isn’t going to make things the way they before the abuse happened. But my therapist suggests that we are also made more colorful by the touch of others as we go through life.

So I will never be completely rid of the mud of the abuse but I have certainly added other, more loving colors to my body as I’ve traveled down this difficult path. When I think of the joyful or supportive hugs of dear friends I feel encircling arms of purple and yellow wrapped around my neck and torso. The moments when each of my children were first laid gently on my chest have left peaceful greens soaking into the tissues of my breasts and the bones of my ribs and sternum. The firm pats my grandmother has given me on my shoulders and back glow with a vibrant orange. My whole body has been forever stained with every color and hue by the loving and passionate touch of my husband. My hands are most certainly bright and multi-colored from holding hands with one close friend. Even certain sounds and sights seem to have left color on my body. My sister has a way of laughing and rolling her eyes that is like a dark, royal purple splash. The sight and memory of my oldest child dancing in the rain and hail more times than I can count is a bright blue wash of color.

So I will continue to scrape away at the mud but I will also try to remember to see the blessings of having so much loving touch in my life.