First Love. Fire Healing.

Shannon Barber
Oct 25, 2018 · 10 min read

CN: drug use, mental illness, suicide, grief and body modification.

All of the men who held me down while one branded me are dead. I miss them. I miss so many of my friends from those days. The branding was preceded by months of madness. Six months before, I was working at Tower Records, one of my best friends was not shooting up anymore and we were talking about renting an apartment together. He was a beautiful weirdo with big crooked teeth and dimples. We met outside of a grocery store, both of us stealing roses and walking away giggling at each other.

I loved him like I’ve loved few people in my life. He was my scumbag puppy. We wrote each other secret messages in the Missed Connections, I could call him at 4 AM and we’d talk about writers we loved and poetry and being queer. We told each other our deepest most shameful secrets. Sometimes when we saw each other we’d lay on the ground in Volunteer Park after buying whatever coffee we could afford, we’d look at leaves and nap and exist together.

He told me once while we sat in the basement of a house during some shitty punk show, that he heard voices and he was afraid. I took him to the County Doctor and he was evaluated and we got our HIV/STI screenings together. Before I knew what anxiety was, I was anxious and often it meant I was too shy and afraid to go places. He went with me. He held my hand in the bookstore while I worked up the courage to ask for something. He was afraid of the dark and sometimes, if he was staying with his Mom I would go over after work and sit with him.

Next to and inside the fairytale platonic love was terror. Not long after we met, he started doing heroin. At first, like many addictions it seemed okay. He said it helped him sleep and quieted the voices. He said he hated the medication the Country Doc gave him and I believed it because I wanted to. I had to believe it because I loved him. Things got bad fast. He took to junkiedom with a robust gusto.

Once, I showed up at his apartment and found him with a needle in his arm, foam on his lips and his eyelids blue. I took the needle out, I hit him in the face, I dug my fingers into his mouth and shouted and beat him until his eyes opened. I gave him a black eye and when he came around, he rolled around on the floor laughing. He called me Tyson and my rage dispersed a little when his eyes were clear and full of mirthful tears.

As happens with addicts, things got bad. I saw him shit his pants and lay in it in a heroin stupor, I listened to him cry about letting a dealer fuck him raw for a bag. I held his hair when nobody was holding and he got sick. I refused to see him when he was stealing and when it was the worst. I couldn’t deal with the idea I might see him take a hot shot and die or get stabbed trying to cop I couldn’t.

When you love an addict, sometimes part of you is ready for them to die. Even when he completed rehab and was heroin free for a while, I already knew his ghost. Things between us were repaired and then broken, we almost got arrested screaming at each other in the middle of the night on Broadway. That night, I was so angry I walked away from him and slept in a doorway to avoid being close to him and having no bus home.

For a little while, he was improving. He got his medications fixed up, he went to therapy and found a job he enjoyed. We had the dream that many people have when they love addicts, everything was going to be okay. I’d keep working at Tower Records, he’d work at his job, we’d have a little apartment and a few cats. We planned dinners to cook together, wines to try, we imagined a life together.

Our tiny lives entwined again and we spun tiny dreams together. Until I showed up at his apartment for dinner and found him on his floor, blue and frothy at the mouth. I didn’t really know what to do so I slapped him, I punched him in the balls, I screamed in his face and watched him come back. I raged and cried while he struggled to wake up. I was so angry. Not that he was using again, I understood that. I was mad he almost died.

He promised his use was minimal, that he wouldn’t take a hot shot. He reassured me that his dealer understood him and his needs and never sold him what he couldn’t handle. I wanted to have our little dream life so bad, I wanted to believe it could be that way. After the first time I found him almost dead, I knew how it would end.

A few weeks or maybe a few months after he was down in it again. I got in a fist fight in a crack house when I went to take him out, I played Lolita to his dealer after he bought a bad batch and threatened to kill him with a screwdriver I wanted to punch it through his skull. The madness was coming, I felt it brewing as the sludge of dread in my belly.

When he disappeared, I thought he was dead. His Mother told me that she’d had him committed like his father, it was a lie. He’d gone to some motel in Oregon, broken his lease and on a Thursday, night took a hot shot. The policeman I spoke to on the phone informed me that the note gave my number. Other friends drove me south to identify his body.

I don’t remember the morgue or the town or even talking to his mother until at his funeral I saw that she’d had his hair cut and he had on an ugly Sears suit. I called her a bitch and a liar. I remember the service waxed generically Christian about sin and forgiveness, I wanted to firebomb the thing. It was all disrespectful and awful.

At the viewing I waited until everyone else had gone by before I said goodbye. I fixed his eyebrows. I tucked a pressed rose into his pocket and kissed him in our secret special pattern. Lips, each eye, cheeks, nose and lips, our Morse code for everything would be okay, our secret language of promise and love. I gave him one of my favorite rings, put on his little finger and I told him I hated him.

My grief turned cold and put a void between me and the world. I left my job at the record store, I stopped talking to my other friends. I wore his boxers and late at night read through the box of notebooks given to me by his Grandmother. I burned every page after reading. I was so angry, he’d had secrets too terrible to share. His schizophrenia was escalating and he had been terrified.

His Mother had been threatening to have him institutionalized, he was afraid he would hurt me, his last few months were a quagmire of terror and addiction that he thought he could cope with on his own. It broke my heart. I blamed myself even though, as he’d pointed out a number of times in our short relationship there just wasn’t anything i could really do.

The last notebook was mainly letters to me. I hated myself for laughing while reading them. He admonished me for eating cheese, he wrote a full page of instructions reminding me how to calm myself down from my shame spirals. He told me he loved me and believed in me. I raged. I was full of hate.

My rage lived in me and crept out in bad behavior. Dangerous behavior. I got in cars with strange men. I lost my sense of self preservation and took risks that put my life in danger. I didn’t care. I was too angry to live. I wasn’t suicidal in the classic sense, but in the sense that my life meant nothing to me. I delved into bloody masochism, I stripped illegally at parties, I consented to lovers doing things to my body that had nothing to do with pleasure.

My life was on a trajectory to end painfully and likely as a blip on the news. I knew that. I’d thought about it, I joked about it to a few friends. They told me they were worried about me and the idea of that was okay, in reality I felt nothing about it. After a few close calls, running from a man with a knife, having to crawl out of a window at a party to avoid being assaulted, four friends decided to help me.

We made plans to go to a little cabin on the Olympic Peninsula and have a healing. We all suffered various ills both emotional and physical and felt that if we raged, if we did something maybe we could get through. I was skeptical but willing. Now, most people would call those men modern primitives. The heavily modded types, they had the sort of body modifications that back then one only saw in magazines.

After much discussion and one epic meltdown, I decided that what I wanted was physical pain. We tossed around ideas for scarification, one of them had training from his family in traditional hand tapped tattoos, another was willing to scalpel in a piercing for me. None of it sounded painful enough for me. The last option was a brand.

After the rituals for the others were finished it was my turn. We stripped and taped my left breast in place so it wouldn’t jiggle too much. I’d settled on half a broken heart to be burned into place forever. I was warned about the pain, and the healing and everything else and didn’t care. Even if the scar came out ugly or otherwise messed up, I needed the pain.

Three of my friends held me down in front of a roaring fire and I watched the other heat the wire. The first strike hurt so bad, I couldn’t make a sound. My whole awful universe and consciousness shrunk to the smell of my burnt flesh, the searing pain that went straight into my chest and soul and the tiniest glimmer of hope.

The second strike, sent me into outer space and unlocked my vocal cords. I howled. I cursed and tried to bite. I descended into a state of savage transcendent pain and rage that came out of me in smoke, screaming and unhinged rage. Everything I thought about my own grief, my questionable humanity, my depression and anxiety, everything rose to the surface and in the face of the pain, exploded away. While i bucked and burned, none of the emotional chaos happening inside me mattered.

By the third strike, the pain had transformed. I was crying and laughing, drooling and starving. The hate I had for my friend for leaving me and ending our little dream was there but, it didn’t burn the way my breast burned. Before the third strike, my friends stroked my body and cried with me. They told me they loved me. They brought me back to earth, back inside my body and prepared me.

The third strike hurt the worst. I remember that last intense burst of pain and then nothing. I blacked out for a while and woke up being cradled, a wet towel being dabbed on my cheeks and tears in my eyes. It hurt so bad for the first time in a while, I didn’t want to die. I felt my body in a way I hadn’t in months. The fog was lifting away from my nerve endings.

It took months to fully heal. It hurt gently most of the time. A dull throb or occasional sharp irritated pain to remind me that i had a body and still existed. It was a secret. No one saw it, my friends didn’t tell anyone. The scar healed and looked like a birthmark. Most of the time when people saw it, they didn’t question it really.

The scar, like my friends is long gone. The visceral memory of the pain of my friend dying and the ensuing months of rage and grief has faded. I don’t hate him anymore and I understand why he had to go. The friends who helped me through the worst of it are gone too. One to HIV, another to suicide, another to a mysterious death.

In the two decades since then, I have known a lot of loss. Old lovers, friends, enemies, heroes and family members have gone. The grief rolls and flows, sometimes it is sharp and fresh enough to make me yearn for the physical pain of being marked, sometimes it is soft and bitter. The pain of loss has turned from the thing driving me to my own end to something I carry without the need to end it by any means necessary.

What I’ve learned about grief and loss in these years is, as bad as it has been, not feeling it is worse. To know grief and pain so deeply, is to me, to know that I have loved and loved hard. Love lasts, the pain does too when it is lost to death but, I’ve learned it doesn’t have to rule me. I can mourn my dead, and carry them in my heart and not poison the rest of my lived life with self-destruction.

When I think of the events leading to my ritual branding, I don’t know how I survived. Out of all of us, how did I make it? How did I find that wonderful little group of men who loved me enough to hurt me so bad? I don’t know how I made it. Logically, I should be as dead as they all are. I am not an enchanted mystical being with some esoteric knowledge on how to survive grief to sell.

I don’t have the balm or the answers. What i do know is that there is no right way to grieve. Sometimes, in our grief the ugliest parts of us are exposed. At my friend’s wake, I got drunk and called his mother a bitch. I had to be taken away and I remember sitting in the backseat of someone’s car crying so hard I had to crawl out to vomit and lay on the sidewalk. Grief has by turns broken my heart, fired my spirit, caused me to seek out physical pain and scars to try to feel pain past it.

So many of my friends are dead. Suicides, overdoses, murders, illness, old age and other mortality fuckery. I miss them so much. I mess my first love and the men who helped me heal. I take from this memory one comfort.

There is pain beyond grief that can sometimes help me through and for that lesson, I am eternally grateful.

This is for Pete, my love and first of so many things. Thank you Doodoo. I don’t hate you anymore. I’ll love you forever.

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