Aftercare – It’s Not Just for Kink

[Image description: Photo is of Christ Church College in Oxford, England, originally constructed 500 years ago.]

Occasionally, something I’ve learned from kink will help me to reflect on something from vanilla life, which then influences my overall mindset for the better. This post illustrates one of those times. 

A few years ago, a dear friend and I went into the woods to play pretend, as one does. This wasn’t a kink scene, mind, just us imagining that we lived in Medieval Europe. We made up silly details as we walked along (“Ah yes, they have put out flowers because there has been a death in the family…”). We ran into a couple of  ‘journeymen’ on the path who played along for a while. I became a troubadour, and she became a duchess. I had to make up a song on the spot to sing in her honor (it was actually a pretty epic song). We must have pretended for at least a couple of hours. I still remember it fondly. 

But a strange thing happened when we stopped playing and my friend went home for some introvert time: I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had just spent the last couple of hours experiencing life as a troubadour of the Middle Ages, and now I had no one for whom to sing, no station in life. I practically could have recited elegiac poetry about the lost mead halls. 

After wandering around in that state for a while, I went home and watched several episodes of Wolf Hall (a PBS Masterpiece program set in the court of Henry VIII). Presently, I felt a little more normal, like my imaginings had finally run their course and my brain had found equilibrium. 

It didn’t hit me until more recently, when I started exploring kink, that I had that strange response because I didn’t know how to find my way back to the present day. Essentially, though I didn’t realize it at the time, my brain was scrambled by the rapid gear shift from courtier to college student. I needed aftercare

In the kink world, ‘aftercare’ is what players do after the end of a scene to find their way back to their non-play selves. They might drink some water, cuddle and chat, bandage any wounds, watch mindless television for a while, or even take some time away from each other to reflect. ‘Cruel’ master becomes doting partner, playful puppy becomes exhausted friend, etc. Aftercare continues with check-ins and debrief conversations in the following days. Aftercare is different for everyone, but many players need it to minimize and mitigate the effects of ‘drop’. (Side note–anyone can experience drop, including tops and dominants. I’ll talk about my experiences with dom drop in another post.) Whatever form it takes, the ritual of caring closure that aftercare provides helps players to transition out of whatever intense thing has just occurred. 

The concept of aftercare is something that I now keep in mind after any intense experience, no matter how trivial it seems. Watching historical dramas did the trick for me a few years ago. When pretending nowadays, I try to let people know beforehand that my imagination is wild and to have a closing check-in with them afterward (something like “Thanks for going there with me; I’m ready to go back to reality now and will need to clear my head. Are you okay? Need anything?”). 

This practice may seem excessive, but consider all the ways that humans seek closure and aftercare on a daily basis. There’s a reason that activists debrief over pizza after a protest–sometimes, you just need to feel like a person again. After a show ends, actors hold cast parties. Athletes have cool-downs. Students end their years of toil with ceremonies of praise, hugs, tears, and mementos. At the end of a long day, parents read their children to sleep.

When we don’t get caring closure, even when we don’t realize that’s what we need, we may feel strange and disoriented, unable to move forward. I don’t always know exactly what I need at the end of an experience, but I’m learning to ask. Whether in kinky play or vanilla life, aftercare has been a helpful concept for me to keep in mind as I explore.