I turn off the water and step out of the shower, slowly, deliberately, and I hold myself in a rigid position, balancing myself on the end of the towel rack. I hold on firmly as I step out and then reach across to get my towel. I’m almost there. I’m almost done.
As I dry my face, I notice a musty smell coming from the towel. Goddammit! The towel is sour. I’m suddenly furious, almost beside myself. Have I been drying off with a sour towel for days? A rush of anxious anger tears through me like a storm. My sense of smell is highly variable — either it’s on 150% or it’s almost nonexistent, maybe 25%… maybe 10%. Sometimes I have no sense of smell at all. In the past when I have toweled off with sour towels and I didn’t smell it, I would find out that I stank much later in the day, when there was nothing to be done, other than keep away from people who objected to my smell. Discovering I am drying off with a sour towel is not a small thing for me. Especially not this morning, when I have so little margin for error, to begin with.
Even though I’m still dripping wet, I stalk out to the hall way to get a clean one out of the linen closet. I’m wet and cold and angry, and I’m very much on edge. I try to move quickly, but my movements are jerky, and for a few moments I have trouble opening the door to the linen closet. As I look through the shelves, I cannot see a towel that I can use. Some of the towels are for me, and some of them are for my partner. I never use hers, and she never uses mine. I search anxiously, finding plenty of hers, but not seeing any of mine.
Then I look up to the top shelf and spot one I can use. I pull it down and walk carefully into the next room where the hamper is. I toss the sour towel into the laundry basket and take my fresh new towel back into the bathroom. I close the door behind me and return to my toilette, sniffing the towel like a little animal.
After I’ve satisfied myself that the towel is fresh, I dry my hands, and then dry off from head to toe in the same sequence as usual: First my face, then my hair, then my neck and shoulders, then my back. I lift one foot — then the other — onto the side of the sink and dry my legs. As I do, I check myself for bruises or other injuries.
I check myself for injuries, bruises, cuts each morning. My sense of pain is maddeningly variable — some things, like damp clothing and some fabrics, irritate me to no end and I cannot escape the feel of them. Other things, like bumping into sharp corners and banging against objects, are all but undetectable to me. Sometimes, I really bruise myself badly, but I have no recollection of having made contact with anything. Or sometimes I notice when I made impact, but then I promptly forget about the pain. Only when I check myself later, do I realize I’ve actually bruised myself. I’ve found deep purple plumb-sized bruises on my shins and thighs, with no recollection of how they got there. Sometimes I wonder if I walk in my sleep and get them that way.
Once, I made the mistake of mentioning this phenomenon to a therapist I was seeing. She had some 40 years of experience working with women who were trauma survivors, with issues like self harm and dissociative disorders, where they “blank out” under traumatic circumstances and have no recollection of having done something – including self-harm. When I told her I checked myself each morning to see if I’ve hurt myself, she suddenly became very attentive and her demeanor changed. She started gently suggesting that I talk more about my past traumas, as though there were a terrible, deep, dark secret I was keeping from her.
I didn’t understand at the time, but later it occurred to me that, given her professional history, she may have thought that I was talking about checking to see if I’d self-harmed while I was in a dissociative state. Years later, after thinking back over that exchange and the direction our therapy sessions took after that, I’d bet money on it. What a waste of time (and money) that was. And all because she never imagined that my sense of pain might be variable. I tried to tell her, but she’d already decided what my “real problem” was.
As I dry off today, I examine the old bruises on my shins to see how they are healing up. Blue and green and yellow splotches tell me I’m doing fine. Everything seems to be healing up well, and I don’t have any new injuries.
Now I can get on with dealing with the rest of the world. I take a deep breath and walk slowly into the bedroom.