Milos As A Symbol (I Could Love You If I Were Somebody Different), Or: Dating With Dissociative Identity by Jessie Berry-Porter

By Wasafiri Editor on March 16, 2023 in Essay

Wasafiri is pleased to publish the pieces shortlisted for the 2022 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize. The poems, essays and short stories in this series showcase the best new writing from the best new writers across the globe — in all their diversity and complexity. In Jessie Berry-Porter’s piece of life writing she dwells on dating, dissociation, mental illness, and the ‘many almost-good things’ and endings.

The 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 30 June 2023. You can read the full terms and conditions and submit here.

1. Five days into a two-week liquid fast she takes a combination of diazepam temazepam kava and whiskey before arriving at his apartment in the city. He appears glad to see her. She offers a high smile mistaken for a sober smile. There’s a cheek kiss, hand squeeze. They enter a lift. His apartment is shiny and modern, a compressed space surrounded by city and sky. She notices a candle dripping wax. Industrial lamp near the TV. No plants. She says warm light makes for the best light. He nods: I hate white light it’s far too abrasive. They drink tea near the heater and watch Leaving Las Vegas, her choice. She allows one tear to fall and that’s all. He doesn’t turn emotional because he wants to discuss the score. He pulls her across lap and holds her limbs tight. Presses kisses into hair. She rolls her cheek against his chest to face the city lights flickering yellow and alert outside. 

2. I resist throwing body against glass window into a sky that could pass for an ocean: frequent thought when faced with an easy out. To imagine broken body is to imagine broken china. I don’t foresee torn skin spilt blood or snapped bone. I see cut china. Think, cracked teacup holding nothing spilling nowhere. My death-sound isn’t a primal sound, there’s nothing animal about it. Cold and sharp. Spider-crack followed by one decisive shatter. There’s no evidence of a kill, only the hint of an accident (spilt milk minus milk). I pause on this thought, turn away from this thought. Drag him to the bedroom.

3. They have clumsy sex for the second time because it’s their second date and the first time was meant to be the last time. She’s not used to having awkward unsatisfying sex and knows this will gnaw at her for days. Given her (dis)ability to regulate distress it will cause toxic shame processed through physical manipulation because her body is arena for managing damage.

4. Realise I’m dissociated when I catch myself watching limbs distort and make shapes from pressed ceiling corner. I critique my ass thighs stomach face, think, wish I could be better at being myself. I get him off with hand job and feel defeated. He doesn’t understand why and I don’t explain it.

5. If a different part of her were present during this interaction she would’ve screamed, beat her face purple with fists. Lucky for him she’s not here right now.

6. I don’t tell him about my penchant for a slow suicide, or the push-pull vertigo experienced daily. He’s unaware of the self abuse behaviours executed on-the-hour with careful precision due to a lifetime of practice. Instead, he studies body, taking note of the healed ridges separating inside from out and figures damage done is damage finished performed by a prior personality unknown to him. She is tucked out of sight and out of mind, removed from periphery. Or, better still: discarded, perhaps killed. He will never know this person (he’s decided). A scar is a mark of survival because a scar doesn’t weep. Or: her body carries a heavy history but this history no longer moves through her. A scar illuminates a past pain and this makes all the difference. No use saying: a voiceless scream i.e. scar might be the evidence of a scream but it says nothing of the scream. He looks, tries to measure: inaccurate. If he were to witness my behaviour an hour before meeting or an hour after meeting he’d realise the teenager who spaghetti sliced her body in attempt to erase her body did not disappear or turn redundant, she grew up, acquired better tools, learnt how to execute an unassuming violence without making a noise. My body no longer spills itself, and because there’s no mess to clean up, no carpet stain, no stiches applied to contain a leak, he assumes no injury. No one has seen my adult body in the correct light with the appropriate lens because a brain on fire does not bleed a body. I drip on the inside and how do I show this?

7. If they continue dating, she’ll cut the cord once feelings develop: familiar pattern operating outside of control. Or, a discarded story inside discarded video-tape rolls above her life and when she dates this parallel trajectory dips down, collides, is no longer observable from above (as it’s now in front). He wants to see more of her because he believes the person he met is a complete person. More refers to more of what he already knows (an impossible scenario). Her self-concept is cracked. She’s not an onion, the analogy doesn’t fit (an onion is layered but it’s a contained package): depersonalisation places the self outside of measurable parameters, resisting demarcation. He’s been acquainted with one fragment of her but doesn’t know it. The remaining split-off parts do not touch him, they remain unknown, outside the text. They only speak to me.

8. Enduring mental illness provides the recipient with a suitcase of tricks. Meaning: if I’m required to maintain A Life for others (and I am), necessary manipulations occur. She carries a chest of weapons between her ribs. She allocates what she needs when she’s tempted to cease herself. For this reason, her skillset is particular. She cannot hold down a nine to five job but she can punch her thighs without making a noise or leaving a bruise (it’s in the way you turn a fist). She cannot buy groceries without contamination fears flooding nerve-endings but she knows the exact combination of vitamins required to avoid an emergency hospital admission after fasting for two weeks and exercising in sixteen hour loops with a BMI of twelve. She can throw up a meal, any meal, without force in three seconds without mess or sound. She can overdose and not die four times a week. She can dissociate on cue without any surrounding body in the know (she’s doing it right now). Her skillset is narrow, vulgar, but she’s perfected it. She could make a scene if she wanted to: I know the artery I’d need to hit to create a mural and turn myself into An Artist but why would I do this? I’ve been taken off this edge enough times to know there will always be another edge, and it’s far easier to craft a multitude of discreet different edges disguised as something else. This way I can remain in a juxtaposed state of pain and elation (self-harm is an addiction: the rush of endorphins before, during, after, is real) and no surrounding bodies are ever suspect. In this way, no one questions if I’m up to no good (and I’m always up to no good).

9. He lives his days embodied, in communication with his limbs. When he shuts eyes he maintains an awareness of his corporeal self. She’s spent her life trying to remove her body, oddly convinced this process of removal has little to do with her self-concept (once the body is removed I’ll remain, right?). When she closes eyes she merges into the chair, turns into the chair. Extending out and across she blurs the space surrounding Things. He stays put, defined by space, separate and whole, easy to name.

10. After: he rolls over sighs asks her to stay. He kisses face and neck, mouth. I feel her kiss him back, wishing I could be the kissing party and not the observer. I let him do this, not sure why he bothers. I wonder if this is what girls want. I wonder why I don’t want it. She leaves his apartment at 5AM aware the relationship patterns dictating her life dictated her relationships a decade prior. Meaning: I’ve ended up where I was heading, yet feel surprised and somewhat embarrassed to find myself here compressed inside this space despite it being the only space I’ve ever gifted myself.

11. He wakes the next morning feeling hopeful perhaps excited. She wakes disorientated. She reaches for the diazepam, unsure of what transpired the night before and too afraid to ask. She spends the day in bed trying to piece together moments, making yet another daisy-chain-noose of memories. He sends cute messages and says he’s excited to have met someone so honest so alive to be around. She doesn’t have the heart to tell him she doesn’t recall anything, or that the version he experienced is just that, a version: a slice of identity that cannot be maintained for more than a few hours at any one time. I’m real in That moment, but when considering all of me (something he cannot do because he hasn’t considered the possibility) the witnessed moment is not authentic, not at all.

12. Later in the day, memories re-integrate. Think, steady drip before the flood. A familiar swallow makes for a slow drowning. Or, her body falls across convex mirror, gets stuck, and just like that it’s care in the community. It’s eternal return. Or, she finds me out. I find her out. Words lack.

13. The first night we meet I welcome him inside home knowing boys like him don’t like girls like me and girls like me don’t understand boys like him. I tell myself it’s an experiment: a way to predict a future trajectory in a realistic way (endings are easy if the beginning is ominous). But no revelations are uncovered. We unmask old news. She’s lovable as a phony (incorrect blanket term) and as long as she remains a phony a healthy relationship is possible (a trick for two reasons: remaining a phony is not achievable, and healthy love is honest love and there’s nothing honest about what I’m doing). When she asks him about regret he describes a grey pain existing outside of him, read about in books. His emotional reasoning remains balanced irrespective of experience. The pendulum doesn’t swing for him because there isn’t one. To him, a volatile affective state is a foreign state and if said state is experienced by another it’s chosen. Meaning: a mood that swings is a ‘mood swing’, a failure of control. He doesn’t factor in mental illness. He doesn’t apply the term ‘emotional dysregulation’. Instead, a symptom is a choice, tethered to a particular type of girl (my type). What he doesn’t know: the girl dressed in Mary Janes stockings tiny dress with hair curled eyelashes extended, the girl who makes jokes discusses records and shares kisses on a rainy May night is not real once appropriate context is applied. She’s not sick in a manic-pixie-dream-girl way. She’s sick in a boring, ‘I fit DSM criteria for several diagnoses’ way. She experiences each moment of each day via chronic illness but because emotional dysregulation is familiar, she is (on occasion), able to hide this dysfunction and name it a mishap (at worst an inconvenience). She can play pretend for an evening.

14. A frequent thought: dating is like escorting without the reward. Arduous. And nothing is real unless he factors in what is Not Seen during a meet (and nobody factors this in). Client or date, I leave the occasion exhausted. I don’t present a fabricated self, but she does throw a weighted blanket across three quarters of my brain before I knock on his door. He (who is everyone behind the door) experiences a fragment of what is real, the best fragment I can give at any one time, and unfortunately for everyone involved I’m much more than this fragment.

15. After third date: I’d like to paint him a complete picture but the window has been open since we met and he hasn’t bothered to look. He gestures with limp wrist, says, but is it a nice view?

16. My grip on executive functioning lessens when someone I like likes me in return. I’ve many edges to run body across, the most dangerous and ominous being other people. Lucky for me (and others) I don’t develop feelings often. Unlucky for me (and others) I do develop feelings for some people, some of the time. It’s a typical and embarrassing story, one I try place myself outside of despite it fitting like black tea and biscuits. Meaning: intense connection occurs (think trauma bond) and a disproportionate fondness grows inside chest-cavity like expanding balloon or well-fed parasite. I soon become convinced I’ve met my soul mate and this time around the balloon won’t burst and no one will get hurt, no damage done. Of course, I don’t communicate these feelings. If anything I’m aloof and measured, a body of balance despite escalating waves of electricity shocking flesh-suit like full body paxil brain-zap. I’ve mastered the art of masking, but if he were to stop looking for his reflection inside my eyes and take note of what’s immediately in front of him he’d see the mask barely fixed across my face. But he does not do this. He looks to see himself. And just like that I return his gaze only to see the reflection of the next body.

17. It’s not love, it’s the fear of a ‘lasting love’ that maintains a death-grip. I keep quiet about it. A kernel of terror resides inside desire. I feel it waiting and wanting to be witnessed by someone. The longer I ghost it, tiptoe around it, the larger it grows. A tumour triggered by hope. Once my head-spin slows and my vibrating veins turn sticky, I hear it laugh. It rises inside throat before flaming the bridge binding my body to his. How does one swallow a feeling that bites before demanding to be chewed? And to then explain this? Harder still.

18. The euphoria of Someone New lasts for several days, a week at most. The crash is relative to the rise. I fall hard and fast. During the fall my brain switches into self-preservation mode. I experience a need to flee the scene. I pull away and don’t explain why. I turn myself into someone difficult to love in attempt to repel, aware I’m mirroring the dynamic I have with my father. Think, if I leave him before he leaves me (and he’ll always leave) I won’t experience loss: a typical and embarrassing narrative. I could tease this out but to unravel a memory doesn’t change a neural network. To do this I’d need to manage behaviour and behavioural management requires emotional regulation: I’m required to face her.

19. It ends before it begins like so many almost-good things. It’s not possible to miss him because I’ve no idea who he is. I possess almost-memories, and it’s a small handful. I’m tempted to crush them between fingers, an easy enough task, but my desire to watch them fade out triumphs. I’m itching to erase him, like the ones that came before, because it’s the way I cope with endings. Run a match across it. Another romance on fire. Find a new face to wear and begin again.

20. Her life consists of several different lives and no one trajectory connects with any other. Each strand, once severed, remains frozen in time and space. If I were healthy, I’d say: I’m ready to gather and braid my parts now, I’m willing to risk the knots. And: I’m fragmented, but I haven’t gone anywhere. Or: the people I’ve been are still here, waiting to be acknowledged and perhaps forgiven. Followed by: what I seek is seeking me and it’s not Milos (Milos is a symbol). And lastly: I’ve looked for death and death has found me in myriad ways, so if I were to flip this, choose to chase integration instead, integration has to present itself. Breakdowns lead to breakthroughs. Not always, but sometimes. But I am not Her. Tonight, like most nights, I am the watching party.

21. She spends her time hunting for the correct words to paint the right picture. Each day she fails. She turns to poetry penned by others. She locates her affective experience in four lines. It’s gratifying before it’s not. To be seen by a text written by another weighs heavy because it means language isn’t failing her, she’s failing it. The words she requires are right there (see?), but they are not there for her. She scrambles to pinpoint feeling-state, to capture and condense it, only to lose it before she can sound it. For nine hours she sits at my desk, her mind tick-ticking. Internal chatter bends ears and still the right words don’t come. Her aloneness turns to loneliness: a reliable measure of routine. She moves away from desk at dusk, rubs my bruised spine, stares at the bookshelf with clouded eyes. I hear her sigh at the blank word document. I watch her make a cup of tea and find temporary comfort in the empty refrigerator. Think, why don’t you write about living with anorexia? I laugh, chastise her: you’ve tried this. Whichever way you word it, it’s a lie. Writing about anorexia makes it sound more interesting than it is. She nods, she knows, she’s been writing about anorexia for years. Each new metaphor takes her further away from the truth.

22. Light candle and turn to music. Body deflates, collapses across carpet. I wonder if this is the day I finally go insane: if I can’t give form to my affective experience my affective experience will eat me. She knows she treads the line, it’s in her makeup her family tree. As time passes, ills grow more restless, disobedient. Health turns weary. I need him (but He could be any witnessing party) to know how I feel before I lack the capacity to say anything at all. Think, I could love you. It’s not much but it’s the closest I’ve come to some sort of truth so please don’t leave. But she’s no longer addressing him. She’s talking to me. So I respond. 

Jessie Berry-Porter is an autistic writer based in Melbourne. Her lyric essays have featured in Overland, Westerly, The Lifted Brow, The Suburban Review, Dizzy Limits: Experiments in Australian Nonfiction and elsewhere. She was awarded second-runner-up in The Lifted Brow Creative Non-Fiction Prize and shortlisted for the Scribe Non-Fiction Prize and Calibre Essay Prize. 

The 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 30 June 2023. Submit here.

Photo by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash