It can be difficult, as a sex worker, to talk about my bad experiences because it feeds platitudes so often attached to sex work. I almost feel like it’s unnecessary, when I do speak people respond unhelpfully, even the well-intentioned ones. Then I run the risk of my story being stolen, remodelled and used to attack my industry—which in turn contributes to the very stigma that catalysed these hardships. I speak to raise awareness, so people can hear an actual lived experience, for how can I expect the world to think differently of people like me when we remain silent and allow others to tell our stories? The silence is unbearable, anyone can scoop it up and mould it into a tragic story to their liking and they often do. Other times, I’m held culpable for placing myself in these circumstances, as though it’s my fault that anything bad happens simply because I choose to be a sex worker. As if it’s acceptable and to be expected. Being a sex worker shouldn’t mean I deserve to be treated any less human and to think otherwise means that you’re perpetrated to the stigma that hurts me and every other sex worker. If I was in any other industry and I spoke of a hapless time, I wouldn’t be treated like that. So now I will recall upon a time I suffered my first burnout as a sex worker. It continues to haunt me to this day. The trauma from the burnout wasn’t due to the type of work I do; I’m comfortable with sex. It was a rather a case of doing too many things at once. Unfortunately, there is no ‘how to’ guide to sex work to prepare you for such events and even if there was, it wouldn’t be suitable for everyone. Sex is a subjective experience
I was 19 when my first burnout hit me and I had never had a burnout before. I didn’t even know what a burnout was. The closest thing I felt to a burnout was a meltdown. They felt catastrophic but were nothing compared to a burnout. I have periodic meltdowns nearly every 3 months and they are a necessity whereby I would sit down after every episode and re-evaluate my life, direction and reposition my perspective.
Meltdowns feel like I’m breathing in smoke, slowly suffocating, it’s a building anxiety really. It feels like a wraith is stalking me, prodding me, adding weight to my shoulders, whispering nonsense to my ear. And finally when I’ve had enough, I react inelegantly. And it’s during these meltdowns that I realise I have unwittingly relinquished what the wraith has sought for all along and taken possession of my control. Feeling plight and embarrassed for myself, I go on with my day as if nothing occurred and I hope no one ever brings it up.
The signs of a meltdown are clear cut for me. I get distracted easily. I turn into a smart ass. I get colds. I have headaches. I don’t have energy. I’m grumpy. People keep telling me I’m on my period. My feet feel heavy. My eyes strain. Everyone annoys me. I need to physically stop myself when these signs are apparent because they don’t stop themselves. During these times, I have a time out. I have a kit-kat. I get out of town. I read a book. I buy myself new tea. I stop pushing myself. I stop pushing others. I just hit the brakes as hard as I can until I’m ok again. The wraith eases away and I hold it at bay where it belongs. That’s where it stays, that it’s spot, out of my way.
When I had my first burnout, there was no wraith. As a matter of fact, that anxiety was nowhere to be seen. I think the wraith scattered off when a much fiercer force foreshadows me. Like a mouse that sees a human, I think it did the smart thing and ran in the opposite direction. Me being me, I was oblivious. I just did what I normally did: I worked. I’m a hard worker, with nearly everything, all the time. I’m more comfortable that way, being stressed out is almost therapeutic for someone of my character. It can be problematic because I induce my own meltdowns.
I’ll admit that there was tension before the burnout happened. I didn’t see it then but I see it now. All the tell-tale signs were there but my determination coupled with my stubbornness often meant I had a difficult time confessing to my vulnerability, even to myself. I still sometimes do.
At that time, I never refused a booking unless I didn’t have time and I only took breaks when I was physically exhausted or otherwise engaged. Besides, I could sneak in naps between lectures at university. I didn’t know that by handling so many things at once, I was diving head first into a hellhole. My physical body took the brunt of the burnout before my psychological self did. Like a tsunami, it overcame me. I remember fighting the creeping sniffles, the ache in my bones, the numbing headaches, my withering muscles. Normally, I could fight off anything, I was ‘superwoman’. But overnight, my body succumbed and no matter what I did, I could not muster the strength to rise from that bed. Control was relinquished and I was left alone. I’m not the kindest to my body and it does have a tendency to shut down if I ignore its pleas: partying, sleep deprivation, diet, any of these things or usually a combination. Throw stress into the mix and of course my body betrays me. I thought that I had just pushed myself too hard as usual. The physicality was just the beginning. Within a few days, the simple brain functions went offline. I stared at the ceiling in my bed, at the walls, my eyes glazed over, with very little sensation in my body. I was numb and silent and I could only hear the sound of my shallow breathing and my monotone heartbeat. While music usually helps reach to my heart, even that had lost its touch. It felt like a heavy liquid was flowing, drip by drip, onto the centre of my forehead. I didn’t move and I didn’t think. I didn’t even sleep properly; I just drifted wish-washed through the layers of consciousness. I was so far gone into a dream like trance that I forgot that there were people who loved me and who cared for me. Eerily, it seemed as though time had stopped and I was transfixed in a reverie of absolute nothingness. I wasn’t in any physical pain, it just felt like my soul left my body and I was left to deal with a hollow version of myself. I don’t remember leaving my room for anything although I must have. I’m not even sure if I ate food. My radio silence had people worrying for my wellbeing. I lay in that bed for a week, with little stimulation, no human contact, no desire to do anything. When I eventually came to, I was confused by what I had experienced. I needed to catch up on proper sleep and eat real food. I went to my family home, curled up in my mother’s lap and asked for her love and nurture. A few days later, I went back to my own home with some basic functionality regained but I was still fairly lost. It took a further two weeks to find my mind and my heart. My brain wasn’t working. I could barely string sentences together. My body struggled to do the simple things like hold a cup of tea. I would walk into walls. I’d give up on walking and lay on the floor. I would stand in the shower and forget why I was there. I would try to read a book only to find myself reading the first line over and over again. All in all, it took a month of recovery….