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First suspension:walking on air

We were driving to Pittsfield, and I was a little scared.

I'd done my first pull about three weeks ago, and that had gone pretty well after a rough start (but that's a story for another time). Afterwards, I knew I'd do another pull at some point, and started thinking about working my way up to a suspension, but figured the opportunity wouldn't present itself for at least a year or so, so I had time to prepare.

My friend Dave had made arrangements for himself and a couple of friends to be suspended the day after the Mass Tattoo Convention. Less than a week before, he told me that one of his pals might not make it there...and before I knew it, I said, "If there's an open slot, can I take it?" A couple of instant messages later, the deal was done. I was going up.

Emrys, who runs ritesofpassage and was supervising the hangs (as well as generously offering up his backyard), suggested that I do a "superman," or horizontal, hang for my first time up. There were more hooks involved, but it was less stress on the body that the suicide (vertical) suspension I'd planned on doing. Since I'd gotten light-headed and almost passed out at my pull, he thought it might be a better choice. I told him that I'd defer to his experience if he really thought there would be a problem, but that I wanted to do the suicide. I had very stupidly not eaten the day of my pull, and hadn't gotten much sleep the night before, both of which I thought were responsible for my near-faint. More importantly, I'd watched people do both kinds of hangs, and the superman somehow seemed like it was less "effort"—more like "floating" than "hanging," if that makes sense. The people who I saw doing superman hangs were up for a long time (one guy went over an hour), and ate sandwiches or called friends on their cell phone while they were up; people I saw doing suicides looked a little more involved in the process. If I was going up, I didn't want the easy one. I wanted to make sure I felt it. So suicide it was.

We got to Emrys' house, the rigs were put up, and people got down to business. My friend Dave went first. He hung upside down from his knees for probably half an hour, and five minutes into it he was totally relaxed and smiling. It was a powerful thing to watch. Rip went next. He had done a suicide suspension once before, and wanted to try it again. This time, he was up for close to an hour. And then it was my time.

First, of course, they had to put the hooks in my back. Four of them, in a straight line across my shoulder blades. Phil from IWasCured and Dave from ritesofpassage did the honors, and they were really great—talking me through the process and keeping me calm. I laid belly-down on a massage table (the kind with a hole for your face, so you can be completely flat) and tried to relax. They each pinched big wads of skin on my back, counted off, told me to take a deep breath...and two hooks were in. I felt the sensation of force or pressure as the hooks went through the skin more than any pain; it hurt a hell of a lot less than getting the cartilage in my ear pierced. The nervous anticipation in the second before the hooks went through was probably the worst part. The second pair of hooks went in just as smoothly, and the preparations were done. They told me to take my time, and let them know when I was ready to go.

I sat up and tried to clear my head. The hooks were not uncomfortable at all, and I almost couldn't tell they were there. After maybe three minutes, I got up and told Phil it was time. Dave wove a thick black nylon cord through the eyelets on the rig and the eyes of end of my hooks, carefully balancing them before he tied it off so that my weight would be equally distributed across the hooks (both for comfort and safety). I could feel small tugs now and again; just enough to remind me what was about to happen. Phil came right up in front of me, took my hands, and instructed me to bounce up and down to get used to the pull on the hooks. It was very painful at first, but after a minute it was tolerable, and I began to put more weight on them...at which point Phil asked me to "dance:" he pulled me a few steps forward, and then walked me a few steps back. Forward again, and back; forward again, this time three or four steps, and then back, and then forward...all of a sudden, m y feet were off the ground. Phil gave me a gentle push backwards, and I was swinging.

I don't remember feeling pain, and I imagine that's my brain editing the experience...what I remember is the pressure as the muscles in my back and chest took on the job of supporting me. I'm asthmatic, and the pressure in my chest felt like an oncoming asthma attack; a sudden tightness when I inhaled that was all too familiar. For a second, I was afraid I wouldn't be able to breathe, and I'd have to come town. So I forced myself to remain calm, to not panic, and to breathe normally. I soon realized that there was no asthma attack, and that my lungs were working just fine. Now I could focus on the fact that I was suspended.

Phil kept me moving back and forth, explaining that the movement would make me more comfortable physically and mentally. My friends who had hung before called out instructions—"relax your shoulders;" "flex your fingers to keep the blood circulating;" "kick your legs back and forth like you're on a swing..." Someone asked if I wanted water, and I realized that I was incredibly thirsty and a but nauseated. I took a drink (once they found a straw—I couldn't raise my arms to get the cup to my mouth, because I was too tense) and felt much better. And then I tried to retreat from the crowd, and focus on what my body was experiencing.

Swinging back and forth was very soothing, and I experimented with moving my arms and legs differently to get different effects. If I wasn't careful, I'd start to spin, which I found very uncomfortable...when that would happen, I'd ask for help, and someone would step up to get me back to a simple "forward and back" motion. Moving my arms and legs also helped me to relax my body a bit, and give in to the hooks and gravity. That was really the hardest part: letting go of the tension in my shoulders, and not trying to "hold myself up." There were three or four moments, maybe 30 seconds at a time, when I realized I was hunching my shoulders, so I took a deep breath and made myself relax. For those short spaces, I felt truly free—swinging above the ground, unattached to the earth. It was incredible.

After a bit, I definitely entered a kind of minor trance-y state. I was focused totally on my body and the feeling of floating and the hooks pulling on my back and chest . I let my head droop and my arms and legs dangle, and closed my eyes and retreated inside my brain. Once or twice I got kind of creeped out, realizing that I was just hanging there, like a corpse swinging from a hangman's noose (hence the name "suicide" for this kind of suspension, I guess). At one point, I opened my eyes and saw a thin woman with long blond hair staring at me; I didn't recognize her and for a brief second thought I was seeing things. A little scared and confused, I called out "um...she wasn't here before, was she?" and pointed to her. She said "No, I just got here," and my friends concurred, which meant they could see her, too, and she wasn't a ghost or a hallucination.

I'm not sure how long I was suspended; nobody really kept track, but the best guess was 10 or 15 minutes. All I know is that I was flying, and going back and forth between tense and relaxed, between being aware of the people talking around me and just listening to my own thoughts...and then I knew that it was time to come down. I felt the tiniest bit of a panic attack creeping in, and realized that some combination of my body and mind had decided that they were done. Phil came and grabbed my legs, supporting me, and Emrys lowered the cord until I was back on the ground. The weight of my body came back to me, and I had to sit down. For a few minutes, I didn't want to talk or move or do anything other than readjust to the effects of gravity on my body and brain...and a small part of me wanted to go right back up, to feel that weightlessness again, and the pressure. But it was over. My friends surrounded me, hugging me and telling me that I'd come through well. Finally, Dave and Phil slid the hooks out of my back and cleaned me up, and it was over.

I don't know that suspension is for everybody; I'm sure that everyone who does it has a different experience. For me, it was a few minutes of transcending the usual connection I had with the world around me, physically and mentally. It was a way of testing the limits of my body and brain, pushing through pain and fear to reach a place that otherwise would have been closed off. I flew.

I definitely want to go up again, and the next time will be another suicide hang. It won't be for a while, but until then I have a ton of pictures that my friends took, the slowly healing holes in my back (which I hope will scar at least a little), and the remembered sensation of nothing under my feet.

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submitted by: Anonymous
on: 22 Oct. 2002
in Ritual

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Artist: Emrys
Studio: ritesofpassage
Location: MA

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