This piece is written by Joyce Bartlett and illustrated by Isak Shah, two of SPICY’s guest contributors. Joyce has been ringing you raw and vulnerable since ’92, and is pursuing a masters in social work with an interest in environmental justice, restructuring power, and healing. Isak is a Maryland-based visual artist exploring the female perspective and the intersection of daydreams and reality. Find her work on Instagram.
I nestle my head onto her chest as we recount the night’s adventures. We’d started the night dancing, reminders of glitter on our forearms and cheeks.
“Sooo how was it?”
“It was fun,” her body sighs, “the kind where you go from fuckin’ to laughing to love-making.” Her head tilts as she lets out a grin. Hearing about her love life is a dip into sweetness. Like sucking honey off my pinky.
“Did you come?”
“Nah, but that’ll come with time”
How was she so sure? Did I have one and just not realize?
Re-adjusting, I shimmy myself up, resting chin on palm. “What’s it feel like?” Her face softens as she tries to find the right words. Eyes crinkle then flutter closed as she remembers. After a little, she comes back to me. “You’ll just know,” she smiles, “it’s like everything within you releases”. Her reverie tells me I’m still missing out on something.
Up until about four years ago, I figured I would never orgasm. I thought being on Zoloft for so long had taken away my ability to come. Messages about antidepressants and sexual dysfunction swirling around my mind.
Depression weighed heavy on me starting around age 13. A couple years later, I began taking antidepressants. While Zoloft leveled my chemical imbalances to help me perform and produce, therapy taught me how to trust myself and heal. Unraveling layer by layer, I committed to truth-telling; building a foundation for self-love. I freed anger and found I could still be valued by another person. Instead of bashing my wounds, I learned to cradle them. When I felt depression seeping back in, I’d tell friends I needed time alone and hop on the metro toward the museums. On the way, I paid attention to the breeze on my skin. Savored the vibrant, sun-backed green of leaves. I felt relief that everything did not always have to feel so heavy; that I could have all this baggage and still choose to pack light.
To me, orgasm represented pure pleasure. A woman arching in ecstasy, independent, unapologetic about focusing on her needs. I wanted to feel that. In high school, giggling conversations in hushed tones led to suggestions of buying a vibrator. Even though it felt like cheating, the next time I was at the mall I slipped into Spencers and bought a cheap pink rabbit. I tried it. It felt good, but I’d quickly fall into self-deprecating dialogues. I’d tell myself this was gross. That it was taking too long. That I wasn’t desirable.
I wish I could sit down with my 15-year old self. Cocoon into soft blankets with some tea, snacks on deck. Take some time to breathe deep. I’d tell her how beautiful her body is, as it is. I’d talk about the trauma, strength and wisdom it carries. Teach her stretches and have her notice where in her body she feels tension. I’d ask what she thinks about being Chinese American. And when she realizes she hasn’t sat with this part of her identity, I want to hear her think about why that is. I want her to know that crushes won’t always lead to feeling unworthy. That being inundated by images of thin white women, skews the reality of just how vast beauty is. I’d tell her exploring pleasure is natural and, in the face of so much bullshit, one of the most powerful things she can do.
I spent my teens and early 20s exploring my pleasure in relation to another’s. Reading the subtle body, the facial expressions, the sounds. It felt good to be in tune with someone else’s desire. But after having their head between my legs, shame would creep in and perch on the tip of my words. I’d pull them up toward me. It’s just really hard for me to come. There was no roadmap to my orgasm. And I didn’t want to waste their time.
But there were times I felt close. Like one night near the train station; the meeting of steel and wood rumbling through my body. And a Tinder stint that had my leg shaking so hard I laughed out loud. And that night we started so slow and sensual that the slightest touch left me breathless. In those moments I’d feel a buildup of heat. Right when I was on the verge, it would disappear. Knowing how much work went into my joy, orgasm seemed to require an ability to surrender I just didn’t have.
Some of my chosen family are painters and, when I think about the process of learning my orgasm, I envision their process of creating. The waves of patience, frustration, paralysis, and inspiration they work through. The mixture of colors in their palette and how those colors are shaped by emotion and environment. How much of painting is layering and how those layers reflect that moment in time. But what really strikes me is the raw honesty in each brush stroke. There is something about letting whatever flows forth, be. Sometimes a break is needed for a week, a couple months, maybe even years. But the painting is not worthless because of it. It is just a work in progress.
Once I recognized my pleasure as a work of art, something in me switched. After hours of research going through different vibrators, I invested in my Magic Wand (bless you, Shop Spectrum Boutique). In the first year I had it, I would try and try and try. Each time moving through this crescendo to…nothing. Like Wile E Coyote zooming off a cliff. Or I felt my clit numbing because of so much sustained pressure. There is a dialogue around vibrators where you turn it on and, boom, there’s your orgasm. But that’s not what happened for me.
It took months and months of patience. And dedication. And honesty. Instead of developing a recipe to my orgasm, I had to let my desire be. My sadness, shame, doubt existing alongside my wonder, curiosity, and joy. Rather than focusing on orgasm, I needed to focus on what felt good. I carved out Thursday nights for myself. A standing date night dedicated to my pleasure.
The night starts by getting my room in order; putting things back into place, piece by piece. Then I shower, actively moving a little slower, a little more tenderly. Anticipating the sweetness of the night. Scrubbed and clean, I set the lights low in my room. Smoothing lotion into my arms, thighs, legs. I check in with each part of my body. Skin holding the quiet transformation of flower to fruit. Then I ease into bed with my wand, propping my hips up with a pillow.
One hand surveys curves of stretch marks and moonflesh. The other grips my magic wand. Changing pressure and angle, my lower abs syncopate with pulse. I think about previous partners and imagine future ones. Sometimes not thinking about anyone at all, focused instead on sensations in my body. Sometimes I need to turn off my wand all together and just let my body cool before getting back to that slow build.
At some point, I may realize I’m putting too much pressure on myself to orgasm. That I’ve lost track of just being with myself in the moment. Recognizing this, I come back to my senses—the music, the sheets, the cedarwood, the pulse.
I play and drift into the riffs of horns, the pulse of the kick drum, the tremor of vocals. Time stretches and eventually I find myself in that familiar place. Suspended in trembling gridlock, body steeped in heat. I hold steady to my wand. Pressure building swelling expanding until
I crack open. A wave from my core up back into stomach and down legs. Arching, releasing, crying out over and over and over again. Then serenity. It settles into body as sand into water. Flowing like smoke, pleasure gives way to clarity.
For me, orgasm is healing. It is a natural antidepressant. When I come, all my inner barriers lift. Lightheaded, my energy is expansive and I’m in this space where I leave off and the room begins. I do not need anything. I do not owe anyone.
That said, this journey has taught me that orgasm is just a piece of pleasure, not the pinnacle. What we pay attention to grows, and by focusing on pleasure I’ve learned how vast of a world it is. When I am working, I notice how the work I’m doing feels in my body. Typing posture that causes tension to build in my neck and shoulders. Moments in meetings when I feel insecurity compressing in my chest. Interactions that energize my belly and those that drain it. I think about pulling my belly button in and up and aligning head over heart. I breath in through my nose, lightly bringing the tip of my tongue to the roof of my mouth, right behind my two front teeth. I listen to the oceanic sound at the back of my throat. I breathe out and relax my body, noticing how the floor rises to meet me. Some days I get home and realize how kind I have been to my body the entire day and this kindness—this romance—is a level of tender that sweeps me off my own feet.
Being in my body—breathing deeply while tending to my core, alignment, muscles as they stretch between skin and bone—I move from paralyzing thought cycles into the graces of gratitude. In this space, I am aligned with the self I love; she who sits in wonder and is alive with big ideas. Depression will continue to ebb and flow, clouding her over. But I know now, in body and in mind, that I will never lose her. When the fog clears, I know she will be patiently waiting. Ready to move onward. All I have to do in this moment is release; tap into my senses and let my body love what it loves.