In Another Universe, I’m Already Dead: Costs of Traumatic Activism

[I wrote this post over the course of October and November and genuinely did not mean to put it up the night before my twenty-fourth birthday. Somewhere, the universe is laughing at me.]

Last night (not actually last night), I lay in bed at 1am, clinging to my partner as I tried to get my heart rate down. Normally, I’d say panic attacks aren’t particularly common for me—usually, I have one or two a year—but over the past few months, my body has truly become the biggest testament to how difficult this transition back into Phoenix has been for me. Very few people besides those I’m close to have an understanding of how fear-based my interactions with this region and community can be. It’s difficult to return to a situation that previously was very, very bad for me, especially since I know I’m going to do far too much to try to fix problems that aren’t my responsibility to address. And my body holds that knowledge. It tells me—quite loudly—when it knows I’m about to do something scary, and it hits me with the consequences of dealing in this much tension and stress on a regular basis.

Normally, I average two panic attacks a year. Since moving back to Phoenix, it’s closer to one a month. So far, I’ve realized that while I do a pretty good job processing my trauma at my own pace, aspects of the way I’m treated by colleagues who either are angry with me or want to talk in-depth about the things that drove me away in the first place, things I haven’t fully been able to articulate to myself even after two years, tend to kick my trauma in ways I’m not prepared to deal with yet.

Like most of the things I write about, I’m not interested in naming names here, though the reasoning is slightly different. Usually, when I keep things anonymous, it’s because I want to focus on the action and its impact rather than the person who sparked that particular instance of it; here, that’s compounded with the fact that these moments of no control are already brought on by unexpected conversations that turn (mostly unintentionally) invasive. I’m not going to invite more of them by publicly coming clean about who’s done the damage so far. But it needs to be discussed, because as I’ve mentioned before, I spend a lot of my life doing everything I can for the causes I champion while staying alive and marginally healthy.

I say that because if I’m being really, really honest, if I didn’t have a fantastic partner and a handful of people I can call crying at all hours of the day and night, I’d already be dead. Full stop.

That’s not a maybe sort of thing. It’s a fact. My support systems literally save my life. And while that’s not necessarily a series of big, sweeping gestures and incisive actions, it’s a never-ending stream of check-ins and hugs and rants over text and, in the case of my partner, a nontrivial amount of sacrificed sleep when I get hit with something late at night and feel like I can’t breathe.

The fun thing is that I know where my different traumas live in my body. One’s in my sternum. One’s in my stomach. My Phoenix-related trauma? It’s in my lungs.

And y’all wonder why I don’t play at jams anymore.

The thing I’ve realized since the move that’s maybe the most stressful (/dangerous?) is that I’m no longer interested in performing femininity at my own expense. I don’t want to pretend to be in the wrong to smooth something over; I don’t want to feel like I have to cower at the feet of some of the men in the community and hope that if they’re feeling magnanimous, I might get the respect and acceptance I need and deserve. And despite the fact that many of the men a decade or two older than me know damn well what I do and how I do it, my actions and advocacy (even just for myself) are only acceptable if those actions never make them uncomfortable past a certain point.

And when I speak against them, even about something small, they make me cower.

This probably seems counterintuitive to my peer group, since most of them know I’m capable of a lot more damage than I ever let myself deal. And they’re right; as I’ve mentioned before, I could go scorched-earth on a lot of people and institutions without putting too much thought into it. That’s the power of informed listening, whisper networks, and a lot of reading. But the thing about going scorched-earth—or anything near that—is that you usually have to leave town to do so. I’m not going anywhere, so for now, I’m limited to lots of behind-the-scenes change. While that’s okay, one arena becomes patently unfair: because many of the men I anger are those trying to unethically flex their power over me, I am not able to meet their anger at that same intensity. Not if I want to keep the jobs I have. Not if I want to have an ice cube’s chance in Hell of making meaningful change in those situations in the future.

Even still, my anger and hurt are my best tools. So I hone them to a point and fan them out on my blog for everyone to see. Sometimes, in extremely niche situations, some of these men see enough of themselves in my writing to realize they’re the ones perpetuating this harm. Usually, they don’t.

Usually, the harm continues and the mindsets remain the same. But thanks to my partner, my best friends (near and far), my family, and the outer reaches of my support systems, I’m still kicking.

This kind of work—and this kind of hurt—within a career in the performing arts tends to reshape your mindset, your goals, your ideas of success. I’ve only been at all involved in the professional world for six years, and already my life (present and future) looks drastically different than it by all rights should. One night recently (well after the “last night” I started with but well before time of publication), I was knee-deep in a conversation with John about the performance side of our careers. You’d never know by looking at us, but performing is the one arena where I usually feel woefully inadequate next to my partner (because, I mean, he can play the trombone Sequenza, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg). We’ve also shared teachers, which, in this case, came in handy, because I was stressing in a big way about letting my performance teachers down. Speaking about one in particular (who will absolutely know who they are when they read this), I half-cried, half-whispered, “I just want to make them proud.”

John leaned into me and said something that made me pause. “They’re proud of you because you’re here.”

I laughed, uncertain what to make of it. “In America’s butthole?” (Phoenix twentysomething humor. Just accept it and move on.)

I think I knew what words were coming before he actually said them. “They’re proud of you because you’re alive.”

(I cried.)

And if I had to boil this ridiculous journey down into a single thought, maybe it’d be that one. While most of my (allocishet) male peers equate making their teachers proud with the virtuosic excellence that we normally associate with success, I’m so far down a different path that the argument of most importance isn’t that I’m good at my craft and making compelling art. It’s that my heart still beats and I get out of bed every morning and I fight. And yes, these teachers (comp and performance both) are the ones who will point at the things I’m screaming about and go, “those are what make your art important and compelling and necessary,” and I believe them every time. But on a fundamental level, the focus is entirely different.

For most of you, technical excellence is the default to shoot for on a good day. For me, still here—not just not quitting, but close to 98.5 degrees and aiming to stay that way—is always the goal.

Every human is different, but for me, this is the cost of this work.

And I’m writing it all here, because I think you should know. ♦

Thanks for reading! If you like what you see (or would like to see more of it), come back every Saturday at 8pm MST. To follow my ramblings and creative process in real time, or to support the work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @honestlyeris on Instagram.