What are the steps I should take to improve my life?
August 18, 2013 6:16 AM   Subscribe

I have made a succession of poor decisions. What are the steps I should take to improve my life?

There was a point when I knew what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be, when I was Ivy league bound and driven to create for myself a life very different from the one I’ve pieced together out of a recklessness that, in moments of clarity, scares me. In rapid succession, I’ve made some very poor decisions. But now, at 19, I don’t know where that once wildly smart and innocent girl went when I made the decision to start stripping, clean some guy’s kitchen floor naked for food, or fall in love with men who just want sex. I wish that were the worst of it.

My family doesn’t know and their veneer of support and concern is just that. They are not available to me and to go into why is irrelevant. They aren’t there for me.

I think one can self-harm in many ways, and I do so by continuously putting myself in dangerous and degrading situations. The more I do it, the more I want to believe that this life is what I deserve in order to make sense of why I’m constantly letting myself be used and rejected. It’s a vicious cycle.

It’s not because I am prude or insecure that the various lines of sex work I’ve done have not made me feel empowered or liberated, as is so often touted. I have not experienced any part of it to be victimless, but have experienced first hand how the commodification of female sexuality is an insiduous force in mainstream culture. Stripping and other forms of sex work do not exist in a vacuum. Much of it hurts girls and women, and many of those girls are forced into certain aspects of it in ways that a lot of people might not understand unless they have experienced it. I’ve experienced it. The things men have said to me and the things they’ve done to me when I was too scared to say no, make me feel sick.

More than ever, I have felt “outcast from life’s feast.” I recently revealed to a friend a bit of what I have been going through, or putting myself through, and he told me that his heart sank, that I deserve more, and it was such a new concept to me; I hadn’t previously articulated that to myself.

I still have an idea of what I want. I have notions of being surrounded by good, kind, and creative people. Of being with someone who cares about me. Today I cried, deep and heavy, because I know one day I will need to figure out a way to forgive myself for betraying my value and my worth. If I cannot be trusted to have my best interests in mind, who else will? I think about the naïve and innocent girl I used to be, and I want to steer her another way. If I had a daughter, I would move hell and heaven to keep her away from this world.

In addition to this, I’m heartbroken over the one person I want. But all that I was to him was a fling, a one night stand. I can barely get myself out of bed these days. It’s confusing because he was very charming and kind; my first interactions with him were like out of a movie. He was incredibly handsome with his wide smile and his confidence and his motorcyle. He was so good at being nice, considerate, and sweet. I really, really thought he was different. But, within days of having sex, he forgot about me and left the state. I called him once on the phone afterwards and he was cold and unfamiliar. What a cliché. I don’t understand why he doesn’t want me. I just feel like I’m not good enough for anyone, that I want anyway.

I’m tired. I’m stopping with the sex work and trying to scrape by. What resources are there for me to heal? What inspiration can I turn to so that I don’t keep going down this path? I don’t want to be here in ten years, when I'm almost 30, thinking that I threw everything I could have been away because I couldn’t get it together.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
My suggestion is that your first step be finding a good therapist. Here is a directory of organizations that advocate for sex workers, organized by state. If your state is listed, give one of them a call and see whether they can direct you to providers in your area who have therapeutic experience with current and former sex workers.

You are so young. Don't be so hard on yourself; everyone makes mistakes. You have plenty of time to do whatever you want to do with your life. Let go of the idea of a romantic partner for a while and work on getting yourself emotionally healthy. I promise that the partner you find once your health is back on track will be much, much more the type of partner you want and deserve. Really.

Chin up. You are going to be okay. One step at a time.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 6:27 AM on August 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm truly sorry you are going through this, and people here I'm sure will given you great advice. I just want to tell you that at 19 I had no idea how long life was, how many people I would be and how much healing is really possible over the decades. The pain you carry now, the pain you feel is an indivisible part of you, that pain can fade. It can fade slowly, and sometimes whole chunks can drop away in an afternoon, and you'll marvel at how natural it feels to be rid of it. Healing is possible and you can be healed and you can be who you want to be. I wish I had specific advice other than trying to surround yourself with good people, but sometimes just hearing that healing is possible from people who have been to hell and back can help a bit.
posted by milarepa at 6:38 AM on August 18, 2013 [20 favorites]

I did some semblance of this, for not only most of my youth, and for periods in my twenties and thirties. There were times when I considered myself an adventurer, and freely sexual. But I also knew that there was much more to it, and it had a lot more to do with self-destructive tendencies than anything else.

In a word: I was depressed. While being proud of my body, I also hated it at the same time. I had many lovers, but most of them didn't love me. Those who did love me, I walked away from without a backward glance, in a way that now makes me cringe in shame.

I went home with some people who very probably considered doing me grave harm, and I was only lucky to still be alive the next day.

You (and only you) can rescue yourself from yourself. If anything, you have the advantage of a lifetime ahead of you.

You have not destroyed anything. You can change everything. Very quickly.

And yes, you need therapy. I wish I'd done it wayyyy earlier. Don't wait, like me, until you're forty and still hate yourself. (I'm sure some will disagree with me, but to get outside the sexual element of your issues, I'd recommend an older female therapist--someone very compassionate--sort of like a replacement mother.)

Do it. You don't need a lot of money, just the phone number of the sex worker organizations (above) that can help you find your way.
posted by RedEmma at 7:02 AM on August 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you've stopped the sex work that's a good start. I am sure the money and the short term rush will be tempting, but don't go back. Treat it like a drug addiction.

If you do go back, it will get bad again and you can quit again. People who keep trying to quit something that is bad for them usually succeed eventually. But it's better for you if you can make it take the first time.

Once you're away from that life you can start thinking about how to chart a better course for yourself, but the first step is to be done with it, and have some stability in your new life, even if it's scraping by.

I know a woman whose story was a little like yours, stripping, hanging on the arm of a flashy borderline criminal, drugs. She got it together and is director of nursing at a nursing home now.

I think you should take a break from men altogether. Maybe six months or maybe a year. All they're doing is using and hurting you. Get some stability in the rest of your life first.

Be careful of charming guys. People who are naturally charming and likeable, it's easy for them to get in the habit of using it, and from there abusing it. There's always the next person who will like them.
posted by mattu at 7:21 AM on August 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think about the naïve and innocent girl I used to be, and I want to steer her another way.

You mention your "innocence" twice.

Your value as a human being and a woman never arose from your innocence or your purity. It was, and always will be, something inherent in you all along--and it's something that no one can take away from you, not even yourself.

The women I knew in high school and college who had the most self-destructive attitudes toward sex seemed to truly believe in the Madonna/Whore dichotomy. They'd go through phases where they were being "good" and abstaining from men entirely--and then, after a time, they'd inevitably return to extreme, self-destructive sexual behavior (reverting to being "bad").

A healthy attitude about sex comes from a synthesis of your sexual and non-sexual lives, though. Women are not either worthwhile and innocent or worthless and depraved. Even though you might regret your experiences, you'll never be able to undo them--but you can learn from them, integrate those experiences into your worldview, and make healthier choices about sex and sexuality in the future in light of them. And those healthier choices don't mean throwing out your sexual self; rather, they mean that you acknowledge your sexual self worth and pursue the kind of sexual life that a person who is both inherently good and inherently sexual deserves.

I agree with the recommendations for therapy. Be kind to yourself. You're young, and have plenty of time to figure it out.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:32 AM on August 18, 2013 [38 favorites]

Hello 19-year old me, it's me - your 40-year old you. I'm so sorry this happened to you, and I'm sending you all my love through time and space. Please, please know that you are not the choices you've made and your past actions do not define you as a person. It's just life. It will make you stronger. And it will make you more empathetic and understanding of other people's lives and choices. These are good things.

But these things have the ability to haunt you forever and continue to ricochet through your life in a million tiny ways. Please start looking for a therapist soon, and please please be honest with this person without fear of judgement. If you feel unsafe or that they are critical of you because of your choices, then please move on. They are just people; not all of them will be able to comprehend or understand the chain of events that led you to where you are today. But some will. Look for those people. A sex-worker or abuse organization would have been a godsend, had I the strength to seek it out back then.

Love yourself. It will be the thing that saves you.

Please send me a message if you want to talk.
posted by lilnublet at 7:55 AM on August 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

One of the best bakers I worked while I was cooking was a former stripper. She decided to stop, and pursued something that she loved and had forgotten that she was interested in whole heartily. As part of picking yourself back up - you may want to start thinking about the things in your past that drove you. This isn't a question of what were you good at, this is a question of what were the things that you were not only good at, but that you were driven to participate in. Is there a way to pay the bills that ignites that part of your original passion?
posted by Nanukthedog at 8:24 AM on August 18, 2013

I have also made many bad decisions that hurt myself and others and which I regret. I have learned to see those regrets as information about the choices that I want to make today. I am learning that living one day at a time means that I focus on the choices I make today, and if at bedtime I regret one of todays choices I know to make a different choice tommorow.
Please allow yourself to get therapy - you will learn how to forgive yourself for what was your part and how to not beat yourself up for what was not your part. You didnt make these choices in a vacumn, but rather in the context of a patriarchal society and a specific family history etc...
I wish you well. You are young and everything can change for you.
posted by SyraCarol at 9:20 AM on August 18, 2013 [5 favorites]

In the late 70s/early 80s, I attended an Ivy League school with two former sex workers (that I knew about). They used college as a reset button; quoting an old song, one remarked to me that "I was so much older then. I'm youger than that now."

If you got into a good school before, you can do it again. FWIW, you write beautifully and I'm sure your essays will be really compelling. Look into financial aid and a school that offers students access to mental health care. There will be an adjustment period, as will all immersions in new cultures, but it will feel good to lead with your brain instead of your body.
posted by carmicha at 9:58 AM on August 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

You now know and understand things that few people do, and you have the intelligence to learn to do something meaningful with that knowledge and understanding. If you choose to accept this as a mission, you could find something very particular to do to help women or anyone who has a vulnerability few understand, and who has a contribution to make that might otherwise disappear.
posted by amtho at 10:01 AM on August 18, 2013

There are plenty of therapists who are not terribly skilled. Interview potential therapists, find out if they have experience with sex workers, ask questions to get them to talk, and ask what types of therapy they practice. I think you need therapy to deal with your sense of self-harm. If you are feeling like hurting yourself or someone else, please go to an emergency room. You deserve to feel better. Therapy and medication have helped me a great deal and I think a good therapist would help you.
posted by theora55 at 10:22 AM on August 18, 2013

Several women in my group of friends did sex work just out of high school. We're all respectable middle-aged forty somethings now and most of us are happily married, have children, have great careers, etc. You're so young you have no idea where life will take you but just know that you will not be defined by the things you've done up until now. But there is one thing that often goes along with the sex work lifestyle that can easily destroy you and that's hard drugs, particularly cocaine. Just stay away from that shit, okay? If you want to go to an ivy there is still tons and tons of time. You're fine.

One other thing. The fact that your family isn't there for you so you're looking for love and/or attention from strangers isn't coincidental. Try to find a healthier way to get over whatever happened to you as a child.
posted by hazyjane at 10:33 AM on August 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

This suggestion will probably get scorned, but if you want help and a community and kindness and all that, those things come pre-packaged: they're called churches. I recommend Catholic or Greek Orthodox, the kind that are serious about sin, because they are the ones that are serious about forgiveness and redemption.

I say this as an atheist, by the way. If you hang around people who think sex work is empowering, you'll never get the kind of uncompromising support you need. You'll just get really nice enablers.
posted by luke1249 at 11:18 AM on August 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

I am a sex worker.

Sex work is not for everyone, and there are many, many people that get into it for reasons that have nothing to do with empowerment or liberation - it can indeed be used for self harm, and the culture around a lot of sex work is really fucked up. This isn't your fault. Nobody is going to be offended if you get out of sex work because it isn't for you.

I second the suggestion of therapy. It is OK for you to seek the healing that you need. And don't feel ashamed of feeling ashamed.

PM if you would like an ear or any practical assistance.
posted by Mistress at 1:43 PM on August 18, 2013 [5 favorites]

You don't mention too much detail about your financial situation, but many of your peers are in residential college programs. Why not immerse yourself amongst other people your age and go to college? If you don't want to live in a dorm, rent a room with an established local resident (many people do this in college towns). The bigger schools have student health centers where you can get therapy and treatment for depression.

Investigate your options there; they may surprise you. As an entry step, right now may not be too late for you to enroll in community college classes and take advantage of their free academic advising services. Immersion in some semblance of normalcy for age 19 might give you some perspective.

There are lots of good suggestions here. If you follow this up with a post requesting resources in a specific region, you may get even more targeted ideas. All the best to you.
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 2:14 PM on August 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think the first thing you need to do is be compassionate to yourself. Learn to cope with the decisions you made and take them as learning experiences that have helped you define what you want and don't want in your life. We all have done things we feel ashamed about. If you were Ivy League bound and have had such a detour in life then I can see why you would be so strict to yourself, so I want to tell you that you are allowed to live your own life, mistakes and all at any age.

I am your age right now. 30 is a biggie and it makes you look back and criticize every minute of your life you weren't moving forward (in a very specific way, because nearly all your experiences help you move forward in one way or another- only we learn to only appreciate professional or economic progress).

It sounds like you have good friends, you have explored your sexuality and you have a degree of introspection few people do. Appreciate what you have, love yourself, forgive your fuck ups, appreciate your brilliance and realize that time will pass anyway, and you can either slowly move towards the life you want, or be paralyzed in shame and do nothing.

So yeah, 1. Forgive yourself, appreciate your life and learn to love yourself. 2. Try to figure out what kind of life you would like in the future. Travel and adventure? marriage? doctorate? non-profit work? corporate shark? 3. Start moving towards that life at a slow and steady pace. Take some classes, volunteer, surround yourself by people you want in your life.

Good luck! And if it helps, from an outsider's point of view, you do not sound like an outcast from life's feast. I can definitely imagine your first 30 years in the biography of a badass writer! Also don't let society's hang ups get to you! An Ivy League education is very respectable, but you can seriously shit on what people find respectable, as long as you are respecting yourself. I felt a lot of pressure to be a conventional success growing up, and disappointed a lot of people with my life choices. Now my biggest stress in life is making sure my chickens are well fed. I have never been happier.
posted by Tarumba at 4:41 PM on August 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Be kind to yourself. We've all made decisions we regret. I've lost count of my mistakes, God knows. There are few things in life you cannot move on from, truly.
posted by hockeyfan at 8:48 PM on August 18, 2013

In addition to therapy and school, how about seeking out some wise and compassionate older "sisters" as mentors and guidance counselors? Check out this thread.
posted by Dansaman at 9:40 PM on August 18, 2013

I'm sorry you're sad. You have my permission to stop beating yourself up. Shit, if I had to live with the dumbass stuff I did as a teenager...whoo! Thankfully, I got older and wiser and I too, had much to forgive myself of.

You don't have to stay where you are. You can decide to make a change today.

For a start, although it's not Ivy League, why not sign up for classes at community college? Basic stuff that will transfer for any degree. It's cheap, cheerful and easy to do. The semester may just now be starting.

As for loving jerks, yeah, that happens. Accept that there's nothing you can do about it, and go about living your life. Eventually one day you'll wake up and the birds will chirp and the sun will shine and you won't even remember that yutz's name. Never wonder why someone does or doesn't want to love you. It's pointless. If you're picky enough, you'll find the person who is right for you. So be pickier and don't settle!

For now you have to step out on faith. Do the things that you want to do, even if you don't get an immediate reward for them. Sure, a J-O-B flipping burgers grinds and sucks, but it's not permanant, and you can always find something fun about it. If nothing else, there's someone there who is a total hoot to work with.

Hang in there. I promise in a year, you'll be where you want to be.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:57 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

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