By The Skin of My Back
Those who practice the “art of suspension” pierce their body with hooks, and then, through the use of rope and pulleys hang themselves in the air. They are held up by nothing but the strength of their skin.
I first learned about suspension while going for brunch with my friend Talia several months back. When I met her that morning, the first thing I noticed was that sticking out of her shirt, a few inches below her collarbones, were big taped up bloody bandages. I asked her what happened, and she told me it was from the suspension event she went to the other day? I inquired further, and she told me that she’s actually been doing this for years, and had gone up dozens of times.
As the discussion continued, I heard about not only about people who suspend from the skin of their back, or their chest, or their knees—but also, incredibly, about people who hook themselves into bungee cords, and parachutes, and hang-gliders. As I listened to her, one obvious thought welled up in my mind: “Why?” Why in the world would someone willingly pierce hooks through their skin just so they could have the opportunity to dangle like a piece of meat? It sounded like torture.
However, when I fielded this as a question to Talia, she rebuffed my preconceptions. “People suspend for different reasons, some people use to reconnect with their bodies, others to find a meditative space and some people love the endorphin rush and just think it’s really fun.” I asked her if I could come see a suspension meet-up for myself. She said sure, there was going was going to be a meet-up in a month, and I could come if I wanted to. “But,” she added, “if you really want to understand suspension, you’re going to have to try it for yourself.”
And so, one brisk Sunday afternoon I found myself in a repurposed industrial building in Mississauga, in a room with white brick walls and a naked concrete floor, waiting for my turn to go up. Sitting on a couch at the side of the room and nervously eating Timbits, I imagined what my mother would think if she saw me here. Then, snapping me out of my trance, Talia tapped me on the shoulder: “Peter, I think we’re pretty much ready.” I got up and slowly walked over to the piercing table.
“You can stand right here,” said Alicia, a red-headed young woman decked out in light blue gloves and a matching mask and apron combo. While I stood beside the gurney, the two women who would pierce me prepared their implements. I felt a cold shiver pass over me, and began to perspire heavily.
Then, a sweet voice: “Could you take off your shirt please?”
I took it off.
They began to clean my back with anti-bacterial lotion. It was cool, and not unpleasant. I looked forward at the little crowd gathered around another man who had just finished suspending. The hooks had been in his upper thighs and in his back as he sat cross-legged in mid-air: “the lotus position.” He was up there for close to two hours, swinging great circles around the gallery, during which the hooks that were in his legs had apparently migrated, tearing his skin. Now he was lying on a table, blood running down his legs, wincing, as his comrades dutifully stitched him up.
After about 10 minutes of piercing placement discussion, accompanied by the requisite squiggles and scrawls of a medical pen on my back, the moment of truth (or, at least the first of several that would happen in the next hour) had arrived.
“We’re ready when you are.”
“Uh, I guess I just lay over here?”
I lay down on the table. My back felt slick and cold.
“Do you want us to pierce on the first exhale, or on the second?”
“I’m sorry… what do you mean?”
Alicia bent over, and looked me in the eye: “When was the last time you had a piercing done?”
“Uh…” I thought for a moment about the lone diamond stud that had been sitting in my left ear since middle school, “…a while ago.”
A look of consternation briefly flashed over Alicia’s calm and caring face. “Ok, what I want you to do is take a deep breath, and then exhale. We pierce on the exhale. Now, do you want to take two breaths and pierce on the second? Or take just one breath? The only difference is what’s more comfortable for you.”
“Let’s do it on the first.”
“Are you sure?”
A beat passed.
“Breathe in for me please.”
I took a deep breath and held it. My muscles tensed, I felt the adrenaline hit my veins.
That same moment I feel two sharp pains ripple through my back as the hooks went through my skin. I heard little pops as the hooks pierced up and through my skin on their exit. I was sweating like a fish.
“Do you need a moment?”
“No, it’s ok,” I half-whimpered in reply.
Another breath; another sharp rippling pain; two more little pops. Then, just as soon as I felt it, the pain was lost in a wash of adrenaline relief. “There, all done,” Alicia said smiling, “you can stand up now.”
I slowly got up from the table, feeling the metal stuck through the tissue on my back—a sort of alien tightness in my back that restricted my movement when I rolled my shoulders or moved my arms. Surprisingly, it barely hurt.
For the next 10 minutes or so, I walked around getting used to the feeling of four 7-inch long steel hooks stuck through my back. In the meanwhile, Talia and another team member got my suspension rig ready, threading yellow rope through a 7 holed metal bar attached to a rock-climbing harness.
When he was done, I walked up and turned with my back towards the rig. I felt a slight pinching as the rig was threaded through the hooks. Before I went up, Alicia advised me to walk around a little bit feeling the pressure of the ropes on my back. The sensation was uncanny, it felt like the rig was a part of my body, and, in a way it was. I felt a part of the hooks, the rig, and the ceiling—I was just an extension of a structural-mechanical apparatus and subject to its limits.
After a while feeling-out the rig, ropes, and hooks I decided I was ready to suspend. I turned to Chris, who was holding the belay rope through the rig to my back and said that I would like go up. He started taking slow steps backwards and I felt the hooks rise in my skin. I felt like a kitten lifted up by the scruff of its neck .
This was by far the strangest part of the whole experience. The natural response to having your skin pulled up is to lessen the pain and pressure by rising up with it, and so, when the hooks went up I instinctively went up on my tip-toes. It felt like I couldn’t go any higher, and while I knew at a rational level that I was going to be fine, at some lower more primal level there was the panicked feeling: my skin is going to rip!
Alicia saw my anxious scowl, turned to Chris and motioned him to stop. Walking up to me she said, “You’re going to be ok, just try lowering yourself into it, can you try putting your feet flat on the ground?” I nodded, but remained standing on my tip-toes. “Do you want me to hold your hands?” she said gently. “Yes,” I said softly, “…please.” She held my hands; I took a deep breath, and put my feet down. I felt the hooks pull my skin up and off my muscle. It barely hurt. I told Chris to lift me higher. He began to walk back, and once again I was lifted to my tip-toes. “Try bending your knees,” Alicia said, still holding my hands. I bent my knees and my feet left the ground. Chris took a few more steps. I was suspended in the air, held up by 4 hooks and the skin on my back.
Being up there, it felt like I became a different animal. I felt a tense weightlessness, my arms rendered barely mobile by the hooks pulling up on my shoulders and back, almost all of my movements were a result of a swing of the legs or a twist of the hips.
It took time to learn to control this new physiology, for the first 10 minutes or so, I kept getting trapped in uncontrollable spins and had to get someone to grab a hold of me in order to stop. Eventually though, I did get a better handle on myself, of course, that’s when someone suggested loudly, “why not give him a push?” Alicia glanced at me, “What do you think?”
“Ok…not too hard though.”
She gave me a push, and I swung forward. I felt a pulling on my back, but it barely registered. It was too much fun. “Harder!” I shouted to Alicia. She pushed me harder. Talia moved in front of me, and with Alicia behind me they pushed me back and forth like a kid on a swing. Soon enough, I was flying back and forth and around the room like a grinning gory pendulum.
These sorts of acrobatics and playground antics went on for the good part of a half-an-hour before I started to get tired. The adrenaline was fading, and I began to feel a dull pain in my back. So I asked to go down. The feeling of putting feet to floor again was surreal, I felt like an elephant. Each step was heavy and plodding, my balance unsure as I awkwardly manoeuvred to lie down on the piercing table again.
The final, and in some ways most dramatic element of my suspension was the removal of the hooks. I was lying on the same gurney that I was pierced on, having the first hook taken out of my back, when I heard: “Uh...I’m going to need some more gauze, he’s gushing.”I felt warm liquid flowing down my back and shoulders, as strong hands pressed fresh gauze to my wounds. It took a long time for the bleeding to stop, and by the time I got up from the table, almost everyone had left and it was dark outside.
Why is it that people choose to suspend? Now, long after all that blood has dried, I’m still not quite sure. Though, when I look in the mirror at my naked back, it makes me think that I’ve at least grasped the beginnings of some answer—because when I see those eight little symmetrical scars I can’t help but smile.