This is an account of the days leading up to and following the murder of a young trans woman of color in my community. It is also about falling in love, and how my anxiety and panic are intertwined with an internalized acceptance of my own social marginalization, especially relating to drug use and sex work. Finally, it is about my conflicted (sometimes irrational, self-destructive) strategies for surviving those things.
I wrote it awhile ago during a very dark time. I had to wait for the wounds to heal a bit before I let people read it. They are still raw, and it’s still hard for me to say these things. It’s especially hard to admit my recent addictions. There’s a lot of judgment around being poor, trans, crazy, and a sex worker — but for whatever reason, that derision is easier for me to shake than the bullshit drug users have to put up with. But I think sharing it will help. I hope it means as much to someone else as it does to me.
It is a hard read. It has already made people cry. When I wrote it, I was very lost. I was facing so many tragedies that I couldn’t see the blessings. If you’re looking for something to give you hope, this is not it. This is a story about how sometimes, even when I have completely lost all hope, I just keep going — simply because I just don’t know what else to do.
It ends somewhat ambiguously, because that is honestly how I felt at the time. I still don’t have an answer to the question that is both the title and subject of this essay: How can I rationalize continuing to live when the pain always seems to outweigh the good, and when my coping mechanisms for dealing with that pain are often causing more harm?
Trigger Warnings: Contains vivid descriptions of drug abuse, addiction, mental illness, panic attacks, sex work, violence against trans women of color, and references to sexual assault.
What’s Left When Coping is Killing Me?
With thanks to Amelia.
The first thing I noticed in the morning was the smell of another woman’s hair. I smiled into her beautiful, groggy eyes and held her close. She squinted and bit her lip, squeezing her nose into that charming look I had just begun to adore.
My own eyes were a deep, sleep-deprived red. They matched the dark cherry hue of my chewed-raw lips. My nostril burned and dripped with the residue of some white or blue or brown powder. My jaw was still clenched tightly, my muscles having forgotten how to move properly without speed. Shivers mockingly traveled up and down my spine — the type of jitters I only have after tweaking for too many days.
How long had it been since I had a full meal? I couldn’t remember. When I stood to look at myself in a mirror, my already-thin body appeared more frail and fragile than ever. Clinging to a skeletal frame, my skin glittered in the light. I looked like a shimmering, emaciated ghost composed of dry sweat. The tense highs and bursts of borrowed energy had left my body tender, but the rigidity was almost reassuring. It was delicate, familiar.
I look like a slutty trailer-trash tranny hooker.
Even after all the years of staying “clean” (as though I am somehow dirty now), it still only took a few weeks to fall back and now my nails are constantly stained a pale blue from cutting dust over and over. Lines of adderall and ritalin, tabs of ecstasy and molly powder, stolen bottles of hydrocodone and vicodin, pot, opium, ketamine, hash, roxies, meth, coke, designer drugs with names that are just letters and numbers. Over the years, I’ve done them all. In high school, I would even take far more than the recommended dose of cough medicine lifted from pharmacy shelves.
This time, while I had been crushing up pills and sleeping with new girls, my partner was working long days in the sun. The money from my last job had run out. Work never gave me any shifts. Instead of confronting our empty bank account, I checked myself out from the world. I turned to sex and drugs and the smell of a new lover’s hair for distraction, while the dread continued to linger.
When she came home, my heartbeat quickened as though to remind me that it still functioned. Each breath became more difficult than the last, compelling my lungs to pull in oxygen with as much force as my withered body could spare. Every sound became louder, every motion more unexpected, every thought more abrupt. I was immersed in a haze of angst and anguish.
My body, already terse from withdrawal, tightened into another familiar stringency. The dread finally escaped in an explosive burst of irrational panic. I gasped for air as I trembled and stared off into space, seeing only darkness and remembering only thoughts I wish I didn’t have. As with so many panic attacks before, I became convinced my story would always end with tragedy. My therapist says this is because my assigned-at-birth family abandoned me and now I have a core belief that I will always be left behind. I’m always terrified that, no matter how hard I try, I will let everyone down and I will hurt the people I care about the most and they will abandon me too when I inevitably fail to live up to their expectations.
My partner will leave me next. If I can’t exist without using her as a crutch, it would be better if I didn’t exist at all.
I fought back tears and asked to be excused for a moment, then went to have a cigarette on the front porch. I had told her that I’d stop buying cigarettes so every drag was a reminder of promises broken. I stared with melancholy into the pale bruises on my legs. I ran my dry, scratchy tongue over the sores on my chapped lips, and watched the end of the paper burn a bright orange. I took in the moon, the darkness, the muggy breeze, the rustling leaves.
Gliding slowly and uncomfortably down the back of my throat, I could still feel the dripping of the crushed-up pills I had sniffed earlier. Even though I hate that feeling, I love the taste. Like a Pavlovian dog, it reminds me of the satisfying, euphoric rush. I took another puff of smoke to cover up the horrible sweetness it leaves in my mouth.
I am substituting suicide for a slower death.
Like always, I smoked the cigarette down to the filter so that the last few hits hurt just a little bit. Then I had another. Eventually, the anxiety passed. The tightness in my chest let up, the tears dried. My lungs and eyes continued to sting, but slowly my sight and breath returned. I decided not to give up, not yet. I walked back inside to finish talking to my partner. It will be hard, fixing all of my failures. But fuck, what else is there to do?
I bought a disposable pay-per-minute cell phone. I made a new e-mail account using a fake name. I placed an ad on Craigslist: “Cute TS for practice massages.” The first try got flagged and removed, so I added a line about how I’m absolutely not looking to have sex for money and re-posted it.
I spoke on the internet with my new crush, now back in her hometown that felt too-far-away. I already missed her so much. The excitement, her beautiful body, the long talks on the couch, the amazing sex, the way she whispers “you are wonderful” into my ears — when it comes to romance, I have even less self-control than I do with drugs.
I’m falling for her way too fast.
I know why I am captivated by these things. I started dating, had sex, and did drugs for the first time when I was thirteen years old. These are some of the only positive memories I have of my youth. Since then, not much has changed. Even now, when the anxiety and the despair and depression get to be too much, I retreat into what has always gotten me through difficult times: sex, drugs, and romance.
They’ve done me a lot of good, and a lot of harm. As with all things, there are risks. I know exactly what I am doing, and it is my choice. Nevertheless, I am demonized, shamed, and punished for transgressing the sick morality that rules our culture. My cruel, unreasonable anxiety feeds on this oppression. I see myself embodying every sexist, transphobic, classist, ableist insult that has ever been thrown at me.
I am a worthless, psychotic shemale crack whore stealing welfare, a drain on society and a burden on the people around me.
The more useless, emotionally unstable, and financially dependent I feel, the more convincing the voiceless voice in my head becomes. As I cruised the internet for tricks, I started to believe the only thing I had to give back was sex.
Sometimes, fed by memories of an abusive transgender girlhood and a society that says sex workers are only good for fucking, my anxiety convinces me that if I don’t put out for my partners they’ll leave me behind and I’ll end up in a gutter with a needle in my arm. All of a sudden, the simplest sign of affection or sexual desire triggers thoughts of other times I have felt obligated to fuck. The gentle touch of a lover feels too much like the coercive, threatening presence of an invader.
My merciless thoughts wander so far that I become lost in memories of catastrophes that have long since passed. Just as they continue to infringe upon my waking joy, they also haunted my dreams that night.
After sorting through all of the bullshit e-mails and drunken text messages, I found a few dates who knew the drill. They were nice, the type of tranny chasers who asked politely before touching my body and the type of johns who leave the cash visible on the table when I walk in.
It was easy. For the first time in too long, I felt confident again. Holding thick wads of cash, feeling the crisp hundred dollar bills, I remembered that I could take care of myself. Leaving the apartment building of some anonymous balding corporate executive, I was finally the tough and powerful woman I once was again. I felt like a real high-class harlot.
It didn’t take long for another crisis to arrive, another tragedy to take away my fleeting comfort and delicate security. This time, I got a curt e-mail from a police list-serve. There was a murder; the victim was a trans woman. No leads or motives. That’s all it said. The newspapers spent more time speculating whether she was a prostitute than reporting facts.
As the hours passed, I learned more from friends. It happened a few blocks from the house for otherwise-homeless trans and queer youth where I sometimes worked. Her name was Lashai. She used to come by the drop-in center. I knew her. Not well, but everybody knew her. We shared chosen family members.
My ephemeral calm and new-found stability vanished, and next I was crying into my partner’s shoulder and chain-smoking again. My other girlfriend came over to watch me rail more amphetamine, because fuck, what else is there to do?
After years of activism, lobbying, educating, writing, organizing, protesting, supporting friends and lovers, I still felt powerless. Another woman was still dead. What use is all of our hard work, our good intentions and dedication?
The effort I make to save other people’s lives is just another futile distraction. Like the sex and drugs, the only good it does is making me feel just enough hope to keep going so I can suffer more.
It felt like the pain I felt as a teenager, when the whole world said that my identity was sick and wrong, that I was different and should be punished for it. Only now, the stakes are higher. People I know are dying. Last year, one trans woman was stabbed to death in broad daylight on a busy street around the corner from the house where my partner lived at the time.
But Lashai hit me the hardest. Maybe it was because I knew her better than the others. I could still picture her face and remember things she said to me. When she died, I began to ceaselessly worry (even more than I already did) about the other young trans girls who live in that area.
Will I ever feel safe enough to go back to work, so close to where she died? Are any of us ever truly safe?
The leaders and activists in the local trans community, myself included, immediately started to plan a vigil for Lashai. My girlfriend and I wrote a press release and circulated it to our communities and the media. We looked for speakers. At first, I volunteered to read the statement. Then I thought about how much it would hurt, how my brittle, unsteady mind wouldn’t be able to handle it. Would I even be able to finish a single sentence before the anxiety took hold of me?
I skipped the vigil. I decided to visit my new lover — the one whose hair I love to feel in the mornings after a long night of sex and drugs. On a mattress in her bare apartment, we stuck little paper squares of acid on our tongues and let them dissolve. For hours that seemed like eternities, we stared at one another and giggled about the absurd joke that is life.
I had fallen in love with this girl. We can communicate telepathically and have entire conversations with only our open eyes. She is something special, the kind of person you only meet a few times in your life. At one point while tripping, I stopped being able to separate her from myself. She went to brush a stroke of hair from her face at the exact moment I reached to push it behind her ear. Halfway through, I wasn’t sure if it was her face or mine that we were reaching toward.
I couldn’t tell where I ended and she began. I felt what she felt, I perceived everything she touched and saw and smelled and heard. As I spoke, she gestured the body language perfectly in sync with whatever I said. We filled in each other’s gaps, said the things that the other did not say.
This girl and I have seen so many similar traumas. Because we have both been violently taken advantage of, it means even more when we ask for consent. Because we were both invalidated and hurt by the gender that was assigned to our bodies, when she says that I’m more beautiful without my panties, it has so much more meaning. Because we both know the intimate horror of PTSD, we take extra care when opening the bedroom door. Because we’ve both lost so much, what we have means so much more. Because of the pain we’ve shared, the laughter is all the more beautiful.
So we spent the whole day laughing. Because fuck, what else is there to do?
We went swimming by the pine barrens on the Jersey shore. The cold salt water healed more than my bloody nose. Staring out into the seemingly infinite expanse of shimmering blue, I felt calm for the first time in days.
While I was swimming in the crashing waves of the Atlantic and looking for somewhere to buy more speed, back home, at Lashai’s vigil, another of my girlfriends delivered the statement we wrote together. She called me as soon as it was over and told me how the crowd of hundreds had applauded her speech. I had never felt so proud of her, so fortunate to have her in my life. Her strength is just as vital to my survival as the comfort I find in my new lover’s hair or my partner’s unwavering presence.
“You can’t take care of your community if you don’t take care of yourself.” This is something I say a lot, but not something I always live by. This time, I prioritized myself. This time, I did what I needed, got high, relished in the pleasures of a new crush, and fell deeper into love. This time, all I had to give my community was logistical support and my words spoken through another.
I have a problem, but my problem isn’t that I like to get fucked up. It isn’t that I’m a helpless prostitute who has to whore myself out for rent money. My problem, our problem, is that we live in a world where a twenty-three year old woman can be murdered, and despite all of our rage and heartbreak and despair, no one is really surprised. How could we be “shocked” when the life of another trans woman of color is taken away by violence? We might be sorrowful and afraid. But we are not astonished. Not anymore. Not after all the others.
Nevertheless, we keep having vigils and making phone calls to reassure grieving friends. In the speech I wrote with my girlfriend, we said: “Her memory will strengthen our resolve to continue surviving, supporting one another, and struggling for a better world.” I’m not sure how much I meant it and how much I wrote it because it felt like the only thing to say. Either way, it’s true. Even though I’m not sure why or how, the memories of loss and suffering do somehow motivate me to keep trying. There will be more vigils and rallies. Maybe next time, I’ll be well enough to speak in person.
But sometimes I have to ask my lovers to share the burden, and sometimes it’s hard to see the line between self-care and selfishness. Sometimes I have to sell sex to pay the bills. Sometimes I don’t know what else to do besides spend my weekend on a drug binge. Sometimes healing looks like hurting, and sometimes I have to get worse before I get better. Sometimes I throw caution to the wind and fall in love too fast. Sometimes the things I do to keep myself alive are also slowly killing me. But maybe sometimes making me feel just enough hope to keep going is enough. Because fuck, what else is there to do?
I should never have to feel ashamed of the choices I make to stay alive. I know my own bad habits. I’m figuring out how to manage my addictions. I’m learning how to live with my anxiety. I’m looking for other jobs. But I know what the real problem is, and it isn’t me. So however many strangers I have to fuck, whatever drugs I have to take to dull the pain, no matter the number of sad stories and gloomy press statements I have to write, however many vigils for murdered friends I have to skip, I just keep going. For whatever reason, I keep surviving to fight another day.
And to tell the truth, I’d do it all again, if only for those moments when my lover and I realize that it’s all worth it because the pain we’ve shared makes the laughter more beautiful.
I did not remember my nightmares. I made sure to eat a full breakfast before I started snorting speed. It was a good day.
P.S.: After sharing this piece, I got a lot of feedback and a lot of it was super problematic. This inspired me to write this response.