The Therapeutic Experience of Being Suspended by Your Skin

"Grab the meat of our best friend's back and just yank up really hard," AJ Karras suggested. "Try to pick them up, too."

Karras, a young woman with pink hair, came to New York City from outside Amherst, Massachusetts, to be suspended for the first time by Coichetti. She was excited, and her boyfriend had come with her for his first suspension, too. Karras has been involved in the body modification scene for about five years, and has been helping out with suspensions and heavier body modifications, mostly types of cosmetic implants, for the last two.

"I saw suspension videos when I was 15 years old," she said, "and I was like, 'Dude, I have to try that. I just have to.' I just always knew that it was part of me."

I asked her what types of suspension she was interested in trying.

"All of them," she said without hesitation. "Eventually. Gotta let my body heal up between, but eventually I want to try as many different and new things as we can think of."

Tearing of the skin can, and does, happen, but it's almost never the sort of dramatic freefall that someone watching a suspension for the first time might imagine. There are certain parts of the body, like the knees and the chest, where tearing is more likely to occur. Tearing happens slowly, and there is more than enough time, Coichetti said, to get the suspended person down on the ground before there is any serious injury. Skilled suspension artists can tell when the skin is beginning to tear, and will inform the suspended person what is going on.

Coichetti's biggest concern about suspension is that people will try to imitate what they see on the Internet without the proper medical and technical knowledge required to perform a safe suspension.

"When someone is in the air and they're swinging around," Coichetti said, "and I see that tearing has begun, I'll stop them and be like, 'Your skin is beginning to tear. It's not an issue right now, but in about a minute or two it's going to get to the point where you need a stitch or two. Are you comfortable with that?' If someone's in danger of the skin completely opening, we bring them down. They don't have a choice. But if you're suspending and you're at this moment, most people go, 'Leave me up here, suture me later.'"

You can find examples of suspensions gone wrong on the Internet. At a certain point, skin gives out, as King said. In most cases when a suspended person falls, though, the fall isn't due to the skin actually ripping. Improper insertion of the hooks, in conjunction with a high degree of motion, can result in the hooks sliding out. Professionals who are attempting suspensions at great heights or suspensions that involve a good deal of motion will rig up a safety harness that acts as a failsafe should the hooks come out for some reason. 

One video on Hook Life, a blog that caters to the suspension community, shows a Russian suspension team suspending a man in an abandoned warehouse. The man freefalls from a great height, then swings back and forth. He is harnessed in. Hook Life, though, added a lengthy disclaimer before posting the video, warning readers, essentially, not to try this at home. Coichetti's biggest concern about suspension is that people will try to imitate what they see on the Internet without the proper medical and technical knowledge required to perform a safe suspension.

Both King and Goldberg considered infection to be the greatest risk during suspension, but knowledgeable suspension artists use sterilized hooks, needles, and gauze when suspending someone to minimize the risk. Some scarring is inevitable, but when Coichetti showed me a point on his leg where he had suspended seven times, I wouldn't have noticed anything if it weren't for a white spot in a tattoo, evidence of where hooks had been. There is, as King suggested, a high level of physics and medical knowledge being put to use during a suspension, and Coichetti says safety is his number one priority. He is a certified first responder, meaning he is trained in providing pre-hospital care for medical emergencies, and a volunteer fire fighter. Most of his team are certified in first aid care, and two of the suspension artists in the Rites of Passage Boston chapter are paramedics. If someone has a medical condition that would complicate a suspension, he consults the person's doctor to clear him or her for suspension. He has turned some people looking to suspend away due to the medical risks that a condition presents.

"It's up to the individual to figure out if the harm involved -- which, realistically is very minimal -- is worth what they get out of it," Coichetti said. "And the answer for suspenders is yes. Shock can be life threatening, but, I mean, you break your leg, you go into shock. Shock is on a spectrum," he made a wide space with his two hands, "we're just fucking around in this range," he said, using two fingers to indicate the very low end. And, he says, if something ever were to go wrong, the first thing he would do would be to call an ambulance.

That feeling of shock is what many who suspend are looking for -- the rush of endorphins, serotonin, and other chemicals that results in a sort of high. Some see it as a spiritual experience. Others find it exhilarating, and laugh while they are suspended. A subset of those who practice suspension do it as a type of performance art, choreographing lurid and shocking spectacles that are performed in front of audiences.

"A performance is there to shock the hell out of you," Coichetti said. "They're going to scream, they're going to make it look like it's the most bloody, painful, awful thing in the world. And it's all an act to get a visceral reaction out of the audience."

Performance suspensions, Coichetti said, with their focus on shock value, can cheapen the type of suspension that he practices, which focuses more on creating a unique experience tailored to the suspended person.

"I feel like it puts out the wrong public perception about what we do," he said.

"Spirituality is very important to me," Coichetti said. But, he clarified, "I'm very technical. I look at, when I'm doing a suspension or any kind of ritual, what physically is going on. I want to know what's causing this euphoria. We're in a world nowadays where I don't have to go, 'Oh, the state of euphoria is caused by this god raining down on me.' This state of euphoria is caused by these certain chemicals being released because of these physical triggers. I will absolutely suspend you and have a drum circle going on, beating on drums and chanting; not because I'm a hippy, but because I know steady bass rhythms allow your brain to function at a theta level and it allows you to trance easier."

"Now, even though I'm very technical and I want to get into the chemistry of this, it's still a spiritual experience. Is it spiritual to a god? To the world? To myself? I don't know, I'll figure that out one day," he said with a smile. "All I know is that my end result, regardless of how I get there, is a feeling of complete freedom."

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Wyatt Marshall is a writer and photographer based in New York City.

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