"I've got a plan. I'm going home to put my feet up and snack!"
That's what she told me as we crossed paths at the entrance to the store. She was in her seventies, wearing sunny yellow pedal pusher pants and those darling thick-soled strappy sandals most older ladies can be found wearing in the summertime. Her little hands were loaded down with bags full of snack cakes, candy bars, popcorn, and soda, and I eyed her purchases with jealousy because I wasn't doing anything nearly as exciting. I was only going into work to start my sixth eleven hour shift in a row.
I was tired. Some of the Chicago escorts I work with don't like people of color and they do their best to make my day as difficult as possible. It's a small, mostly white, country town; many of the customers call me 'girl' and 'colored' and expect me to take their rudeness and abuse silently. Needless to add, like most jobs these days, it doesn't pay well. So, when I think about it all in a larger picture, it's safe to say I was exhausted.
But there's more to it. It wasn't just my shifts at the grocery.
When I leave work at midnight, I go home and do one of three things:
1. I call into the dispatch phone sex line I work for
2. I log onto the internet where I sometimes do independent webcam modeling, or
3. I have occasional extended sessions with clients.
I'm tired, hungry, worn out, stressed, and anxious by the time I arrive at my flat. Sure, the best thing for me to do would probably be to call it a day, of course...but who's going to pay the bills?
This, all of it coupled with the exhaustion, is a perfect recipe for being triggered into flashbacks, dissociation, panic, or anxiety attacks. A little about me: I also live with severe PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [trigger warning for those links]). I talked a little about handling it when it comes to clients and the specific triggers that can come with that in the past. I've been living with it for over 10 years, and though it has gotten better by leaps and bounds, it's still there. It is always there, lurking, hulking, vibrating behind me. The beast is my burden and, as I've never truly left sex work, I realized in dealing with clients, customers, and callers, I had to find a way to deal with it or I would never make it in this industry (or maybe also in life).
People come to me for a variety of reasons and one of the biggest troubles I have is the many moments when I've not been able to serve my clients and customers because their desires trigger me into anxiety or panic attacks. I realized I either had to leave the business or figure out a way to deal with and handle my anxiety in order to finish my workdays.
My first step was to start doing light reading (no DSM for me!) on my specific symptoms of anxiety and being triggered. I joined a yoga class and learned about deep breathing and the concept of impermanence. I found my calm center and after a few years, I was able to get to know myself and how my body felt before a panic attack. For example, one of my 'tells' is bouncing my leg. I'll do it for hours before I notice I'm doing it and it's usually a good sign for me that I'm stressed out or anxious. If I can catch myself, stop it, and engage in shavasana (sha-VAH-sah-nah) or some deep breathing exercises, I can calm myself before things get too hairy.
That doesn't really help when I'm in call or session. I spent years trying to find out how to compartmentalize (which doesn't work for me), trying to control the interaction (which rarely works except when I'm able to screen clients), and arguing with myself about quitting (which simply isn't an option for me), before I found my rhythm at work. It was a lot of trial, error, and pain, but I did it. I rarely share this with people, but I've met a lot of people in the sex trades who live with PTSD, panic, anxiety, depression, other (sometimes more severe) mental illnesses, and mental health concerns. I always aim, when talking about my life or past, to help someone else, so here are the three biggest things I've found help me have the best days I can have as often as I can have them:
- Sleep I hate going to sleep early. I've always been a night owl. Though I'm young enough that I can still go to bed at two A.M., wake up at 6:30 and still push through my day, I know it won't always be this way. I've also found that exhaustion and sleep deprivation can exacerbate mental health concerns or mental illnesses. Even though I don't want to go to bed early, even though I have a lot of jobs that all demand my time, I make time to get at least 6 hours of sleep a night. On my rare days off, turn my phone off and sleep in. If an emergency happens or someone needs me, they'll knock on my door or leave a voicemail. I've learned that if I'm not well enough, mentally or physically, to handle anything that happens, I won't be of help at all.
- Water I'm usually reaching for my water anyway, but for a long time, I drank gallons of soda, coffee, and tea per week- meaning I was dehydrating myself at the same time I was drinking gallons of water per week. I've also learned that drinking water can aid my brain in better functions and knowing this gave me hope it would help me be more balanced emotionally and less prone to the most hardcore panic attacks and emotional upsets.
- Meditation/Prayer I've found many people balk at the words meditation and prayer- religious people think meditation is a sort of witchcraft, non-religious people sometimes say, "Well I'm not religious, I don't pray." But neither prayer nor meditation need to be done in a religious fashion. This is about the person doing it sitting and centering themselves. If making the practice religious helps a person, I say good for them. My practice is religious, yes, but I also know it doesn't need to be in order to get the job done. Learning to quiet my thoughts and slow myself down has been one of the hardest things I've ever done in life. When I sit, cross my legs, and think, "Ok, self. Slow down," as anyone could imagine, nothing happens. But I've found in my prayer and meditation practice what helps me the most is actually beginning it. There are more than a million different results for "How To Meditate" but for me, it is focusing on the intricate, smaller, often ignored parts of meditation that help me get in a mindset to slow down and focus on my center. Making sure I'm comfortable sitting, paying attention to the way the floor I'm sitting on feels against my butt and thighs, giving a long pause to get into the way my legs feel against the floor and each other in my crossing, and more. I give myself a good long time to figure out if I'm ready for lotus, half lotus, basic leg cross, or even totally uncrossed legs. After I've gotten to this stage, I'm only focusing on how my body feels, and I'm not at all invested in my thought process. I can focus on my posture, whether I have a headache or how my head feels at the moment. I'm busy focusing on whether my shoulders are back, forward, or centered and how my hands feel in the resting position I choose. This is all before I ever start my actual meditation and prayer ritual! Then, I take time to focus on my breathing and make sure my diaphragm is engaged as well. After almost 10 years of meditating, I know now that when I'm breathing properly I will feel my belly expanding with my breaths and the bones of my ribcage moving.By the time I get ready to sit, engage, ground, and breathe, I've focused on so many little things, I know my biggest trouble will be to stop focusing on each individual part of my body and I've sort of set myself up to stop thinking about my problems, stresses, triggers, and troubles- at least for the moment.
I can't say these are the only things I do to help myself cope with anxiety, depression, panic, or PTSD, but I can say that, along with medication therapy, these are the three greatest changes I made in my life. Of course exercise is important, as well as positive thinking, notes to self on walls/mirrors during really stressful times (or just every day), and other things are helpful too. It is about taking the days, weeks, months, and even years to search and find what works for you.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Eventually, you'll find your rhythm.