mental illness

“Patients Waiting To See A Doctor, With Figures Representing Their Fears” by Rosemary Carson (via wikimedia)

Most people have some form of a lurid narrative about drugs, exploitation, childhood abuse, and mental illness come to mind when they imagine the life of a sex worker. However, sex workers’ relationships to their identity are far more complex and difficult to characterize than that trite narrative allows for. When it comes to sex workers who do live with the stereotypical trope of also having a mental illness, it becomes even more essential to uncover what these sex workers themselves have to say about their lived experiences of that mental illness and sex work.

People diagnosed with mental illness frequently have their decisions invalidated and undermined by the dominant culture. Many individuals who do not have much experience with mental illness will attribute any socially unacceptable behaviors to “mental illness.” In much the same way, people who have never been in the sex industry tend to sideline the decisions of sex workers by inferring that trauma or abuse must have predestined them to a life in the sex industry. When people who are neither mentally ill nor in the sex industry say these things, they are robbing us of our ability to exert agency.

Amber, a full-service worker from Washington DC, states, “I very strongly believe that the way that society treats sex workers, mentally ill people and other marginalized communities (that often intersect)…[is] based on kyriarchal/patriarchal, colonialist, and capitalist systems of control. In order to treat marginalized people better, I think we all have a lot of work to do regarding the unlearning of certain stigmas and stereotypes.”

The presence of stigma is one the key aspects of institutional violence keeping communities and individuals subjugated. It proliferates because it benefits those in power in this way. Stigma creates legal and moral justifications for the criminalization of sex work in America. It also creates an environment in which mentally ill people can be stripped of their rights through court-ordered institutionalization, coerced medication, and the assignation of relatives as proxies to control them legally and financially. The disqualification of the decision-making abilities of communities on the margins is a weapon of the oppressor.

Tara Johnson, a stripper from Portland, Oregon, elaborates on the ways in which decision making can be invalidated based on association with the sex industry, especially if one also has a diagnosis of mental illness: “Just because I’m (sometimes) crazy, doesn’t mean I’m wrong. My sex work was not me acting out, or indulging in yet another form of self-harm. It was nothing that entitles people to belittle my full humanity. It’s nothing that automatically means that mentally ill sex workers, especially ones who may have other issues too (drug use, etc.) should automatically be deprived of the rights that privileged, able-bodied civilians are entitled to.”

Sex work is not a dysfunctional behavior stemming from our disease. Rather, it is often the best choice we can make to adapt to our mental illness. In truth, many people with mental illness find sex work helpful in a variety of ways as an occupational choice. It gives us a less rigorous schedule which allows for more emotional instability. Sex work can also affirm us as something we can excel at when mental illness has hindered our success in more traditional pursuits.

[READ MORE]

{ 6 comments }

(Photo by Du R Maciel via Flickr)

(Photo by Du R Maciel via Flickr)

Disability is the reason that I’m no longer a dancer.  Occasionally, I’d fool myself and go back to work for a while, and then remember why I can’t do it anymore.  The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.  Dancing is hard on the body – and for my body, it’s particularly difficult.  I’m having a hell of a time with chronic pain, and as it stands right now, it’s painful when I walk or drive. Thinking I can dance an eight-hour shift these days is an exercise in self-delusion.

I’m Mel, formerly known as Valkyrie.  I started dancing when I was 20, and I retired this year.  I’m bipolar, and I’m also physically disabled.  I have a connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS).  My joints are very easily dislocated, and I have issues with back and neck misalignment, dislocations, subluxations, moderate to severe chronic pain, and chronic fatigue.  Think major arthritis and a hand tremor, and that’s the reality of the body I’m living in.  I should mention that I am about to turn 31, and none of these conditions are readily apparent unless I talk about them, or unless I’m visibly wearing braces.  

Disability is pretty common in the sex work industryoverwhelmingly, invisible disability.  Many sex workers choose sex work because they can pick their own hours.  The ability to earn high amounts of money in a short period of time really helps conserve spoons/limited energy, which is particularly helpful when dealing with a painful condition.  Many dancers, models, cam girls, and full-service workers suffer from chronic pain or physical limitations.  Mental illness is also very common; I’ve personally run into people with PTSD, depression, bipolar disorder, and at least one sociopath (who, lest you get the wrong idea, is a friend of mine and a wonderful person, all stereotypes to the contrary).  Mental illness can be disabling to a greater or lesser degree, depending upon circumstances.

I have some tips for those of us who are dealing with disability. Then I’ll be discussing disabled customers and how we can interact with them in a way that’s good for both them and us.

[READ MORE]

{ 4 comments }

Suzy Favor Hamilton. (Courtesy of Favor Hamilton)

Suzy Favor Hamilton (Courtesy of Favor Hamilton)

In 2012, former Olympian middle distance runner and motivational speaker Suzy Favor Hamilton was outed as a Vegas agency escort. Recently, Favor Hamilton published her memoir, Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running From Madness, telling the story of her childhood, her athletic career, her stint escorting, her family life, and her struggle with bipolar disorder. After reviewing the book for Tits and Sass, contributor Katie de Long had a conversation with Favor Hamilton over e-mail about the New York Times bestselling autobiography. The dialogue below is a condensed version of those e-mails.

What motivated you to write your memoir?
When I was outed, I was contacted by several writers within the first couple days. I was still in a heavily narcissistic mode, which […] can be pretty common with bipolar mania, especially when untreated.

At that time, I wanted to pretty much write a sex book, detailing my adventures in Las Vegas, capitalizing on my misfortune, so to speak. No mental illness aspect at all. No running, no childhood, just Vegas. At this time, I had no idea I was bipolar…and saw nothing wrong with me.

As time went along, my motivations changed, and I grew unsure I wanted to write a book at all. My parents were making it clear they did not want me to write a book. Others were advising me against it. Things had settled down, so why bring it all out in the open again?

As I began to achieve more clarity, and what had happened to me began to make more sense after diagnosis and treatment, my motivation for writing a memoir grew again. Before the escorting, I was speaking quite a bit about my brother’s suicide and my experience with anxiety and depression, so that desire to make a difference had always been there. I saw a memoir as the most effective way of making that difference, being better understood, sharing what is admittedly a complicated story, and doing so on my terms. I thought a book could have a more lasting impact on a bigger platform.

What do you hope people will learn about bipolar disorder from your book?
I wanted to show the common elements of denial, silence and stigma and how they prevent good people from getting help, and getting well. I want people to be aware of behaviors to look for, so they can help others or perhaps motivate those not yet diagnosed to seek help for themselves.

There are many people out there who don’t buy the whole idea of mental illness and bipolar and how bizarre behavior can stem from it. The “convenient excuse” argument. I hope my story might open a few minds.

Now that you are receiving treatment and establishing a new normal for yourself, do you find yourself being treated differently? Do some people expect you to be able to return to who you were before the disorder worsened?
My parents want the old me back, but I think they are accepting that won’t happen.

There is that perception that I’m not well, mainly when I speak about sex, dress a certain way, hang with a certain person, use my voice. Or, quite frankly, if I happen to be a little manic or depressed on a certain day (especially manic). I’ve learned with certain friends and family, I…stay away from certain topics…sit on my hands and smile, otherwise…they’ll just give me that concerned look. Others, they like “this me” who’s not afraid to be myself. [They] know my moods might change from day to day, even minute to minute. Those are the people I tend to gravitate to these days.

Those who don’t get mental illness think you have to be a non-functioning zombie when you’re manic…In many ways, you can be more productive, more creative, and go, go, go, etc. I believe my mania was a big reason I was a desired escort…My clients loved my mania. Disney, who hired me for their racing series, also loved my mania when I think about it. Zero inhibitions. Bubbly, sparkly. Life of the party. I had no off switch, no ceiling.

I am that imperfect girl, and I want to be that imperfect girl. What’s the bipolar? What’s the real me? I just know I want independence, [to] do what makes me content. I still want to live life to the fullest, live it with a little edge. Don’t want to live by others expectations. Be myself. But admittedly, I’m pulled into old habits often where I do what others expect of me. People are so accustomed to the old me that they think I’m not well when they see someone else.

Let’s say I were to want to go to Burning Man, go hiking with a couple of escort friends, post a beautiful nude portrait of myself that was done for me…many around me would raise red flags. I’m having to be something to please others and doing what drove me to craziness in the first place. So am I going to get criticized on occasion or told I’m not well? I suppose. Dr. Phil said as much when I was on his damn show.

[READ MORE]

{ 7 comments }

afastgirlSuzy Favor Hamilton’s autobiography, Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running From Madness, catalogs the Olympic runner’s experience with mental illness, her career shift from professional mid-distance running to high-end escorting, and her eventual outing and diagnosis as bipolar. Following the birth of her daughter and her retirement from running, Favor Hamilton found her career path fraught and unsatisfactory, its travails amplified by her growing problems with postpartum depression and bipolar. Eventually, the media outed her as a sex worker, exacerbating her struggles.

From growing up picked on by her bipolar brother in small town Wisconsin, to her love/hate relationship with the athletic talent she built into a career, and the way that relationship shaped her psyche and primed her for sex work, Fast Girl covers a wide range of material. It is also one of the more honest memoirs I’ve seen on the day-to-day struggle of being bipolar, and how the disorder can escalate.

I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. My thoughts upon reading the book were filtered through my own experiences with the illness: some of these ideas may seem strange if you haven’t lived with bipolar disorder, or lived with someone who copes with it.

In my experience, an important thing to understand about living with bipolar disorder is that it doesn’t always make sense to those who don’t suffer from the disease. Triggers might be minor, like someone looking at you wrong. You might never find out exactly what association triggered your most recent bipolar episode. Sometimes you do know exactly what the trigger is, but even when you know, you can’t really stop it, only remind yourself your perceptions aren’t reflecting reality.

At times, bipolar made my work in a strip club a hell in which I was irrationally afraid of accepting drinks, terrified that every customer was laughing at me. It made me second guess every moment so thoroughly that suicide sometimes felt like a logical post-shift endeavor. At its worst, this illness makes me question everything about myself: my agency, my sanity, my humanity, my very perceptions. My body and mind became communal property- things for others to manage without my input, sometimes overriding my preferences.

Accepting treatment for a mental illness like bipolar can feel like a violation to me. I have to accept that it’s not about me, it’s about what people around me want for me. Maybe I want it, too, but accepting that treatment means accepting I won’t be the arbiter of what’s “right” for myself. That is left to the family members who can no longer handle my outbursts, or the doctor who thinks that no matter how I feel now, it’s worth reaching for something even better by shifting the med dosages, even at the risk of the new doses making me sick.

That level of outside authority is one that women who’ve grown up in a patriarchal society are already used to. We’ve had it enforced from birth that our wishes and agency are second to the men around us, second to our families, second to the comfort of our community, etc. Favor Hamilton’s story is rife with that conflict, even in instances unconnected with her mental health or sex work. From the other department’s coach in college who videotaped her breasts as she ran, with no negative consequences; to the coach who dictated her sex life after her marriage; to the spectators and competitors who claimed her main talent was her beauty; to her dad’s pushiness and embarrassment in response to her swimsuit calendar modeling, the list goes on and on.

[READ MORE]

{ 5 comments }