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On Survival

(Photo by Flickr user Nasrul Ekram)
(Photo by Flickr user Nasrul Ekram)

Last month, I woke up to the news that a friend of mine had overdosed and died.

I’d never met her, but I’d known her for almost 15 years online. We’d found each other back in the days of Livejournal, back when it was a shock to my system just to be able to read the writing of another heroin-using sex worker like me. I read everything about us I could get my hands on back then, even tabloid trash or Narcotics Anonymous literature.

Reading someone writing about her life, our lives, in the first person—daring to construct her identity as more than a punchline or a cautionary tale—was revelatory. People talk about the value of “representation,” but there’s no way to describe what knowing she was out there like I was meant to me when I was 22.

I could always talk to her about all the things I couldn’t discuss with my straight friends: lazy dealers, asshole cops, and the constant grind of working enough to keep ahead of withdrawal. Later, when we both got on methadone maintenance, we groused to each other about the unique blend of bureaucracy and condescension we found at the clinics. She’d always keep me up to date on the latest drug war fiasco, and we could be candid to each other about our rage in response.

I’m still not sure what happened to her. She could have been a victim of all the fentanyl floating around the country mixed in the heroin supply. I know she hadn’t used dope in a while. Keeping her kid was too important to her. Her tolerance must have been low.

But I can’t shake the suspicion that her death wasn’t entirely accidental. Like many of us, she was incredibly harm-reduction savvy. She could have taught a class on overdose prevention. I don’t think she killed herself. But I’m not sure she was trying her hardest to stay alive.

And who could blame her if she stopped making that monumental effort to survive, for a moment?

I have to tell myself everyday that despite all evidence to the contrary, I’m worth something, even if I am a walking worst-case scenario to most people. Even if by every rubric of mainstream success, I’ve gone way off course. Even if living like I do is not only criminalized, but reviled.

But sometimes, it’s difficult to believe that message when you and your small circle of movement friends are its only source.

Mealy-mouthed progressive jargon, like “internalized whorephobia” and “drug shaming,” while politically useful, flattens the meaning of the experiences it’s meant to describe. It can’t convey the Greek chorus I hear internally, exhorting me to kill myself since no one wants people like me to survive anyway.

Many marginalized sex workers have it worse. Reading about the grisly murder of Turkish trans sex worker and activist Hande Kader the other week made that abundantly clear to me. But those of us who haven’t been killed by clients armed by their impunity, those of us lucky enough to remain unincarcerated and free from police brutality today, still often end up dying from knowing we’re just that disposable.

They don’t have to kill us if we do it for them.

I’m not proposing a conspiracy theory. Sometimes, I think what makes us want to die most is the sheer indifference people display about what happens to us more than any overt hatred or oppression. When I was younger, I often had this melodramatic image of myself as a rat living off the crumbs of middle-class men’s erotic consumer demand. That analogy, however overwrought, holds true in that we are often barely noticed except to be the objects of disgust.

It’s impossible to do a comprehensive study on a criminalized population’s mental health. I can’t quantify how likely we are to commit suicide. But I can say that every day surviving as a marginalized sex worker is an achievement of its own, given what we’re up against. If you’re reading this, and you managed to get through another night, if you managed to remember that you’re worthwhile despite everything they tell us—that matters.

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I'm a small town escort and activist, with purely *academic* interest in drugs and madness (because identity politics are so passe). I've been escorting low-end on and off for fifteen years, and haven't gotten sex worker burnout quite yet. I'm a co-editor here at Tits and Sass, and you can also find my writing at The Forward, HTMLGiant, the emilybooks tumblr, the Red Umbrella Project's literary magazine Prose and Lore volume 4, in a couple of issues of make/shift magazine, and in the anthology Eros & Thanatos. I wrote a series of pieces on drug-using sex workers for the Influence, a sadly-now-defunct drug journalism site, and those pieces have been reposted in Vice, Alternet, Raw Story, and refinery29, among other sites. I also have experience in the mad movement, the harm reduction movement, and the low-income rights movement. I fundraise for and am a member of a local drug-using-street-worker-led sex worker harm reduction task force/support & organizing group as well as the local safe injection facility task force of New England Users' Union.

18 COMMENTS

  1. Caty – thank you. Just, thank you.

    Thank you for being, thank you for writing. Thank you for expressing your humanity – you affect my life, I’m sure you touch more lives than you know by speaking your truth.

  2. You matter. A lot.
    You are valued. You are worthy.
    I want you to survive.
    Your voice matters and it is so important to hear your experiences. The narrative of your life matters to me.
    <3

  3. So sorry for your loss. As someone ‘straight’ who recently had a mental health crisis of existential proportion, I can identify similarity with a tiny fragment of your pain.

    Your survival is important, you do matter, even though I realised during that time that very many people really don’t care what happens to any of us, every one of us is disposable in their minds, they just categorise you and move on. I think to survive you have to make your own answers and your own path, it’s cold at first but you begin to get used to it, and as another poster said, fuck the begrudgers.

    Your writing can be a voice of good to others, and it’s clear you have a great care of others in your life. Those qualities are something more than many, many, many of the ‘straight’ or upstanding will ever have.

  4. Thank you again for another introspective post that echoes my own inner dialog. One of the strongest reminders and feelings of encouragement is knowing I’m not alone.

  5. I read this when it was posted, and came back to it again, trying to find words. You matter. Your friend matters – present tense – in her life and despite her death. I am so sorry for this loss – for her, for you, for her family, for this world; and for the continued pain and burdens that you and others in your position are forced to carry.
    And for people like me, I think, it is a call to step up in saying this elsewhere as well, to step up activism against marginalization.

  6. Just saw this. As usual you sensitivity to reality and its effect on you and others is nothing short of spectacular. You are a healer and bright light to your colleagues. May you truly know your value as a uniquely talented and loving person.

    • I seek out any reading material that involves those categories as well and particularly gravitate toward your posts because you’re out as both (though on maintainence), that’s rare to find. I certainly can’t be. On my (quite neglected) blog I don’t discuss prostitution bc I don’t want to “hear it” and if anyone puts together who I am, I don’t want the info passed along to family or current or potential clients. To most clients, if anything- I smoke weed because the automatic assumption for injecting heroin addict is AIDS. With Facebook I acknowledge neither since my family is on there, even though a number of them have distant awareness of past or current drug use that is not discussed. In my personal life, I know 2 girls I hang out with on occasion who do both- but one is higher priced with a gf who does the same, and tends to move away and get clean from time to time – so don’t see her much. The other is a street worker with an abusive bf and feel terrible for her. So it breaks down to not having much of anyone to relate to. And the best treatment I’ve gotten with being “out” as both is at the testing center, they give me more condoms, and a clinical trial facility that does Abscess studies with antibiotics, where they were very professional and kind. I’m too scared to admit it anywhere else because you’re seen as this vector for disease, not a person outside of these things you do. But it’s nice to know I’m not alone. As well as that life goes on & it is possible to survive this way long-term, bc I think you have a number of more years than I do, I’ve only been seeing people full time for 3 years (close to 2 years between semesters before that) and on heroin for 8. Never been on maintainence. And while I fully accept myself and my life and don’t feel bad about myself for either- not having much of friends “like me” and keeping up with the dope cycle gets tiring at times.

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