The following text contains much more explicit references to trauma and abuse than in my usual writing and will probably be an upsetting read for most people.
An idea I kept returning to for the past few weeks – writing down my exact history with uncleanness and trying to summarize how it as a concept affected my life.
As a child, I was familiar with two kinds of uncleanness: a more literal one, presence of visible dirt on something, and a more ephemeral one, a vague sense that something is dirty and coming in contact with it makes other things dirty. They rarely overlapped – in fact, getting physically stained by something and feeling dirt under my fingers did not weigh on me the way having touched something invisibly dirty did. Some places in the house, such as the floor, the toilet, the trash can, were pointed out to me as dirty by default very early in my childhood, the feeling solidified, and I felt their immaterial residue on me after coming in contact with them. I always was meticulous about washing my hands after them, and I was criticized and berated for that a lot, because it dried my skin and made it rougher and prone to bleeding.
What my relatives especially did not like about my behavior is the contrast with my much lower concerns about regular, visible dirt. As a really small child, I often objected to routine hygienic procedures. My relatives’ approach to bathing me was making me stand upright in the bathtub and pouring hot water on my head with a dipper (we did not have a shower or a showerhead in the bath), and after that wrapping me in blankets and making me sit in bed for a couple of hours. I did not like it (nobody would) and I recall trying to run and hide or fight back on some occasions. Many other hygienic procedures my relatives insisted on were similarly forceful and honestly baffling to look back at – for example, they never washed my genitals in the bath, instead they made me lie on my back in bed with spread legs and wiped me with wet cotton. At some point I started trying to pick dirt out of my vulva myself, when they couldn’t see, and then they gradually stopped doing it. I wiped my fingers on the floor carpet, and that further strengthened my view of floor as dirty.
It’s worth noting that they did not actually teach me to wash – my constant fights with them over this subject have led them to believe I simply wouldn’t do it on my own. By the age of 10 or so, I was already big enough to make forcing me too much work, and they had to let me more autonomy in this subject, and I started washing myself, first with my grandmother’s supervision and comments, then finally alone (the right to lock the bathroom door was also something I had to fight for). Around that time a doctor commented on dark “pigmentation” on my chest, which turned out to be dead skin stuck in pores. My relatives still tried to make my washing process as complex as possible – my mother insisted I can only wash my head if I plug my ears with my fingers, so someone had to pour water on it.
A year or so later my first period started, and we had to come back to the topic of washing my genitals, and that was one of rare cases my mother was collected and competent and capable to actually help me learn. What did not help was my fear of the toilet and the sexual trauma I received a few months later that made me equally afraid of touching myself. At the age of 14 or 15 I somehow lived through a yeast infection without regularly thoroughly cleaning – not an experience I’d recommend.
While most of these things were not something you’d see if you were just a stranger, what people could see was my dirty hair, dry cracking skin on my hands, and the acne on my face that appeared with puberty. I was reminded of these things and told over and over again that people won’t want to stand next to me or touch me. I slowly started internalizing the idea that I too am in the category of things dirty by default. I remember the sense of a huge gap between myself and other people. Dressing up and going shopping or in theatre with my mom made me feel like I was undercover, mimicking a normal person, and like people were going to distance from me if they ever look at me for long enough. Curiously enough, it did not make me want to change anything to appeal to them better, rather it made me just feel alert and alien. Several years later, when I was already in university, I automatically attributed girls’ lack of physical affection towards me (as opposed to with each other) to something like that. Only in my last year of university I actually thought about it and realized they clocked me as queer.
By the age of 19 I got my hygiene on the level my family saw as acceptable, but it did not change how I felt deep inside. What helped was my first relationship, and my boyfriend disregarding what I saw as obvious physical flaws and obstacles. That relationship also partially healed the sexual trauma I carried for the previous 8 years, and I was able to take better care of myself because I stopped being actually afraid of my genitals. From that point onwards I got much more invested in owning my body and being the one in control, and the process of healing started. Not without issues – I ended up grouping material belongings of an abusive relative in a category of unclean things, and it caused more fights. But still, I started getting somewhere in a better place mentally.
A long time has passed since I had any problems with physical hygiene – I still have skin issues like acne (worth a separate conversation), but they won’t go away just from washing more – yet the feeling that in some way I am fundamentally not clean is still there. And like when I used to go somewhere fancy with my mom, it brings me a sense of uneasiness and suspicion towards other people. My mind always gives a different reason for this feeling. Sometimes it’s my views being too extreme for the average person’s comfort, sometimes it’s the fact that I see the society from a very unflattering angle and lost faith in a peaceful dialogue, sometimes it’s some interpersonal drama I get myself into. I expect other people to be uncomfortable at the sight of my existence, and it absolutely does not help that sometimes I am right. I compare myself to others and I feel like they’re allowed more tears, more fear, more vulnerability than I, because from them it looks innocent and graceful, and from me it does not. It led me to lash out against those I saw as more socially appealing than me. Reading about experiences of other people who feel the same for different reasons made me want to stop, because I understood that many of those I suspected of disdain towards me may have suspected me of the same.
Now I still don’t know what I am supposed to do with it all. Changing my lifestyle and seeing my relatives less definitely helped both physically and mentally, but I can’t yet just undo my entire childhood and stop feeling like something is wrong with me. And this isn’t even a feeling I can use to fuel my anti-norm stance, because it causes me to suspect fellow freaks. I think I’ll get rid of this feeling eventually, this or that way, but for now all I can do is complain about it.