I went to see one of my friends in a show a while ago. He didn't want to spoil anything for me, but he did warn me that his solo number would be kind of intense.

Intense how? I asked.

You'll see, he said.

He started out on his knees. His character had just seen his entire world end, literally and figuratively, around him, leaving him with the now-useless remnants of everything he'd spent his life working for.

He hit himself. He clawed at his precious papers and flung them into the audience. He threw himself at the stage like he was angry at the floor. He peeled away his clothes like he was peeling away his skin, and when that wasn't enough, he took his tie and wrapped it around his neck and twisted--

It's only a show, I reminded myself. But that was my friend up there. A friend I almost didn't get to meet, because something not too far removed from that had happened, once.

He looked my way a couple of times. I couldn't tell if he was seeing me. I couldn't tell if he was seeing anything. I don't know what expression I was wearing at the time, but it probably wouldn't have been what he was expecting.

The audience whooped and hollered, because that's what you do at a burlesque show when someone starts taking off their pants. One of the other dancers commented that it was probably the sexiest number he'd ever done, and if I pull up the eidetic clips and look at them from a stranger's point of view, I get it. Having his self-consciousness stripped away made all of his movements raw and wanton. But all I could think at the time was: They don't know what they're seeing.

They thought they were watching a melodrama with striptease. The entire show was B-movie bizarre; the frantic jumping and auto da fé fit in neatly with the aesthetic. I knew the story that ran beneath it, and all I could see was thinly-fictionalized self-destruction, a complete and utter decompensation re-enacted for an unsuspecting audience. Catharsis, disguised as entertainment.

It was extraordinary, and extraordinary difficult to watch.

I don't normally share these thoughts. I assume they're some sort of overly-romanticized twaddle. I also assume it doesn't matter if I indulge the overly-romanticized twaddle so long as I don't bother anyone else with it. So I go, and I watch, and I leave in silence. If anyone else wonders why, they can fill in their own reasons.

I did tell him about it. It took a lot of guts for him to tell me what was behind it in the first place. It would be a poor way to pay him back, not telling him the things that sparked off in my head because I'd listened.

He told me later that he prepares for that number by sitting in a corner backstage and pushing himself into a genuine breakdown. Someone always comes to check on him to make sure it isn't real. It isn't. Or it is. Somewhere in between the two.

I wasn't alarmed, quite. I already knew he did things like that when deeply frustrated and upset, if somewhat less over-the-top in real life. Hitting walls -- or, to be more accurate, using large unmovable things like walls to hit himself. I don't think I could stop it from the outside, and I'm not even sure I should try. It's a semi-controlled release. A boxer's fracture is a small thing, compared to what he could be doing to himself. It keeps him sane.

But it was very hard not to reach out and try to touch him, as his co-stars were half-towing, half-dragging him away at the end. He was not quite entirely back.

He takes a lot of physical and emotional risks when doing this. I find I am okay with that. Not that my opinion would stop him if I weren't; just that the part where he gets knocked about on stage isn't the part that makes it difficult to watch. He's not doing that for the pain. It's self-induced, it's goal-directed, and it does actually accomplish what he's setting out to do. He takes his art very seriously, and if he gets a few hefty bruises while giving a performance he's proud of, well, he'll heal.

He also takes a lot of other risks by default. He doesn't take care of himself while working on something like this, not because it's a necessary part of the process, but because he can't -- getting into the frame of mind he wants involves letting go of your sense of self-preservation. He abdicates responsibility for the boring mundane things because he's not capable of handling them himself, and he would rather gnaw his own ears off than dump the task on someone else. It doesn't help his performance; if anything, it hinders him, because by the time show night rolls around, he's spent so much on rehearsals that he has no reserves left to draw on.

I pointed out that he's tangling with altered states quite dangerously close to what the BDSMers call 'subspace' -- hard to pin down in a brief description, but the gist of it is, subspace is the state of mind that some submissives slip into where they give up all control in order to also give up their own internal constraints. It's a form of dissociation, albeit intentional. The dominant partner is not in command so much as they're handed responsibility for making sure the scene goes as planned, that all boundaries are respected, and for halting things immediately if the sub suddenly finds they're not okay. He's handing himself over to the producer/director and the other performers on the stage with him, when he's like that -- only they don't necessarily know that's what he's doing, because I don't think he's really explained it to them. I'm told the producer/director is kinky and has probably figured this out, but as for the rest of them, who knows? The ones he's working with right now are all friends and genuinely care about him, but one of these days he's going to try that with strangers, and it may not go so well.

I told him he needed a tripsitter when he does this, and he needs to pick someone he's comfortable with and charge them with his aftercare. I expected an argument -- he is independent to the point of self-destructive sometimes -- but he seemed to think the idea made sense. He has a girlfriend, who is the obvious choice, but since he has managed to find a version of subspace for his burlesque that is ironically not sexual in nature, he could honestly pick anyone he trusts.

I nominated myself. I've watched over other people, and been the one in need of watching. I'm not easy to scare. I've guessed a lot of the terrible things he wanted-didn't want to tell me already. And I can really only vouch for me. He has trouble accepting help from other people, but I've gotten him to do it before, and his art may be the one thing that manages to outweigh the combination of guilt and stubborn pride.

I suppose I won't know until he tries it again.