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.