The Unraveling, when the threads of anxiety become physical
Anxiety is a complicated bedfellow to manage. Stephanie talks us through how bondage changed her internal knots…
Anxiety is a rope that binds me, and for a while the only way I could loosen the bonds was by finding someone to tie me up for real.
I’d had fantasies of being tied up from a young age, and I’d dealt with anxiety for just as long. But it wasn’t until I began my first BDSM relationship at the age of thirty that I realised how closely the two were connected. For a time I thought I’d discovered the solution to my sickness: by securing my limbs, I could free my mind. But minds aren’t so simple, and as my relationship continued I found the knots within my own consciousness were only growing stronger and more tangled.
It Started With A Knotting
Adam, a man about my age with close-cropped dark hair, blue eyes and muscular arms, stood behind me and bound my wrists together. I was wearing only my underwear. We were in his apartment, near his bed. I had spent an hour at most with Adam, probably less. We’d met for coffee after a mutual friend had introduced us, and had hinted to Adam that I might be interested in exploring my BDSM fantasies with him.
I was anxious as Adam circled those ropes around my wrist. I’d had some kind of incident at work that day, though I can no longer remember what it was—a snippy comment from a coworker, maybe? Something inconsequential that at that moment seemed like the end of the world. That was the mind game anxiety played with me, making monstrous tangles out of threads of thoughts so fine that if I had left them alone they would have dissolved to nothing. By that afternoon, the tangle had grown formidable enough that I’d almost canceled on Adam.
Once I was in Adam’s room, though, the angst from work was entwining with the stress of being intimate with someone I barely knew. I worried about the way I looked, about doing or saying the wrong thing, about whether I would like what Adam did to me and whether I would have the guts to tell him if I didn’t. All those concerns left me uncomfortable, standing nearly naked with goosebumps rising over my flesh, my hands taken away from me, unable to brush my hair from my face or adjust my bra strap.
But I would have felt nearly as uncomfortable if I was fully clothed and at home in my own familiar apartment. What it came down to was that I was uncomfortable with me, with existing inside my own skin, with the knowledge that I might do something wrong or that something terrible could happen at any moment, and I wouldn’t be strong or capable enough to fix it. That was anxiety, and since it lived inside me and followed me everywhere, I couldn’t escape it.
Adam pulled the ropes around my wrists tighter, so I could feel the cord biting into my skin. He tied my ankles together too, crossing layers of rope between my legs in an intricate dance, wrapping me up until I had no hope of escaping. Then he pressed my top half down to the bed, face-first, and I had no choice but to let my body fall and my cheek sink into the sheets, my hair splaying out wherever it wanted to go. Adam ran his hands over every inch of my body, gentle in some places and rough in others, and as I settled into the sensation of the ropes holding my limbs, I began to transform.
All those threads of worry untangled in my mind and slipped out of me, so subtly I was barely aware it was happening. With each minute that passed I felt lighter, the weight of my flesh lessening. It was as if white puffs of dandelion seeds were blossoming from my skin and releasing, scattering in a soft breeze. And then all at once it occurred to me that the worries were gone.
Later, after Adam had untied me, he held me close and I believed, for once, that I was in exactly the right place. My body was no longer a fortress of tension I wished I could escape. My anxiety, it seemed, had been vanquished by the strength of the rope binding my ankles and wrists.
It Became An Unraveling
That sense of freedom didn’t last long—I had to get up, get dressed, go home and face my life and all its problems. However, now that I knew how I could find relief from my worries, I wanted more. I went back to Adam’s apartment and he tied me up in every way I could imagine, and others I couldn’t: a hog tie that made me think of a reverse fetal position, arms and legs tucked into myself but behind my body, so I could barely move a muscle; standing with my upper body bent over and my arms tied to my legs, my rear-end exposed above the rest of me; lying down with my legs lifted, attached to a hook in the ceiling.
With each new position I left my worries further behind, until the bite of the ropes became a kiss and I floated. Even when I was untied, when Adam held me and I melted into him, that feeling of peace lingered. My mind, along with my body, had been switched off, and I savored the moments before it would wake up again.
Wake up I did, though—and when it finally happened on a larger scale it wasn’t pleasant. I had become emotionally as well as physically attached to Adam, but he wasn’t as careful with my feelings as he was when he tied and untied me. Adam could be controlling and angry, and I began to fear his mood-swings. Though he never hit me, he would say cruel things and accuse me of not caring about our relationship. Soon Adam’s demands became another source of anxiety, one that carried over into our physical activities. I no longer trusted him, so I could no longer relax into the ropes as he bound me.
When I broke up with Adam, I lost both a man I’d cared for and an activity that had unwound my tight, taut mind in a way nothing else ever had. Perhaps I could have found another partner to practice bondage with, but the entire process had been tainted for me. I saw bondage for what it was: a temporary respite, one that could be useful but could not permanently alter the relationship I’d developed between my own body and mind. My mind had made my body, my self, into a prison, and only I could change that. Someone else’s hands wrapping ropes around my body, tightening and loosening, could never accomplish what I needed to do for myself.
Some Loose Ends Needed Tying
I haven’t yet resolved my issues with anxiety, and I haven’t asked another partner to tie me up—though I’m not ruling it out as a possibility for the future, when I’m ready. In the meantime though, when I catch myself envisioning my body as a trap I can’t escape, a place of painful thoughts and imminent disaster, I try to imagine the anxiety as something separate from myself. It’s a trick I learned from a counselor—she wanted me to understand that my worries are not me, and she told me to picture my anxiety as an adorable little monster inside of me, its words silly and non-threatening. It was a good idea, but now I’ve put a less-PC spin on it.
I see my anxiety as an echo of myself, a girl with rigid limbs and startled eyes; a plastic doll. When I really look at her, she’s so small that I don’t need rope to contain her—a ribbon will do. I choose soothing colors, the green of dewy morning grass and the blue of a calm summer sea. Starting at her feet I work upward, wrapping carefully, lovingly, cocooning her plastic limbs, entwining the ribbons and creating something beautiful. When I reach her pink-painted, half-open mouth, I leave it uncovered. I can let my anxiety speak; as long as I know that she is not me, that I am bigger and stronger and more flexible, more flesh-and-blood than she, she will not overpower me.
Sometimes I forget about my little worry doll, and my anxiety grows into something monstrous again; a Medusa who distracts me with her snarling snake-hair while she freezes me with her eyes. Conquering her is a process, and some moments are more challenging than others. Sometimes I still long for the simple, tactile reassurance of rope against flesh.
But the human mind is not so simply tamed. The mind is not simple; but it is strong. My mind is strong enough to distinguish the real threats from the false ones, my true beliefs from the monstrous voices in my head.
Anxiety is still a rope that binds me—but now, I know that only I have the power to unravel those knots.