Christmas 2016 I had, what I’m calling: ‘a mental health speed-wobble’.
Speed-wobble: when you’re driving on the freeway and you’re going too fast. Speeding on a on a motorway.
Then the steering wheel starts to vibrate in your hands and you think “I’m pushing it a bit”. The whole car is wobbling, so you grip tighter. But that’s okay, it’s nothing we can’t weather, because the car is good and has passed all of its checks.
The autobahn is built for this kind of velocity.
So you keep speeding and wobbling but despite your best efforts, the tightness of your grip and the condition of the car, you’ve pushed it too far. The wheels lose traction and the car crashes.
That was me last Christmas, I had a mental health speed-wobble, lost control of the vehicle that carries my soul, and crashed.
At the time I was still reeling from an assault six months earlier. Leaving one of my favourite restaurants at 6 o’clock in the evening. I had just had a yummy dinner after sitting for my portrait. I had taken off the purple gown and the elaborate wig that I wore while sitting. So, I was in jeans and a button-down shirt with a full face of makeup and my shaved head – all and all looking stunning.
If you saw me you would be stunned by how I looked.
So I was walking down Courtenay Place and I felt a hand on my shoulder. My blood ran cold, it just turned to ice.
Now I have been harassed on the streets before. I’ve had things thrown at me. I’ve had people scream things from passing cars at me, on more than one occasion. But it’s been 25 years since someone put a hand on me in violence.
I had theorised that I avoided assault because I’m big. I am 6 feet tall. I’m broad. I’m from a bad neighbourhood so I walk with a swagger. But I was unprepared for this hand to come down on my shoulder. I was unprepared.
Usually, when I’m out in drag in the evening I’ve been to a gig, or maybe I’d been performing at a gig. Maybe I’d been supporting someone, or maybe I just put on a new look and I just want to take it downtown. In those situations I am prepared for trouble.
Every woman reading this knows there can be trouble when we go out to the city in the evening. Because we live in the rape culture. There’s no nice way to put it. My strategy to manage giving me trouble is to be as outspoken as I can be, because nobody wants to mess with ‘that lady’.
I’ll start telling them “I’m from outer space. I’m really famous I live in a space station. Have you seen my YouTube channel?”, I just react and usually what happens is they go “oh my God you’re crazy, bitch. You’re a crazy bitch”. They give me a bit more of the verbal abuse but then they go away because nobody wants to be around a ‘that woman’.
On the night of the assault (I’m not giving myself any blame, it’s just to explain the context of the situation) I was very relaxed. My guard was down. I was just getting out of Sweet Mother’s Kitchen where my posters, my calendars, and all of my shit is. It’s my happy place. I’m just walking along Courtenay Place, which is the main entertainment strip of my city, on a Sunday afternoon. It was quiet and the sky was overcast. I can see my car and I’m just walking to my ride from the restaurant.
Suddenly a heavy hand lands on my shoulder and my blood turns to ice. Time slows down and I thought “It’s happening. This is happening”, and I see out of the corner of my eye, that the man who has his hand on my shoulder, is taller than me; it scares the fuck out of me. Like I was saying: I’m a big girl, from a bad neighbourhood. I’ve been in fights before. I don’t love it, but it gives me a kind of confidence that in this moment is gone.
He was bigger than me, he was younger than me. I think “fuck, this is it. This guy’s got his hand on me and I could get hurt”. So I reach into my pocket.
Sadly, if being harassed in public is part of your experience, then you start to think about it in between times. I’ll be doing my ironing, or steaming some garments, or hand washing my wig and I’ll be pondering things. I think “if I got assaulted, what I should do is live stream it, because at least there is a record of what happened”. I’ve had these thoughts before this man’s hand was on my shoulder.
Now he’s saying some words to me. He’s saying “Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re feminine? You’ve got a beard and shit!”.
I think “Oh my god, this is about this”. As the hate-crime unfolds.
So with his hand on my shoulder still, I reached into my pocket. I looked down at my cell phone, and he was saying some other things, I can’t properly remember what is happening but I know I’m terrified.
I’m stopped, stood in the street while he has his hand on my shoulder while he says some hateful shit into my ear. He’s taller than me, he’s younger than me. And because he’s younger than me, he’s probably stronger than me. And my cell phone is now in my hand and I look down at my phone.
I somehow put my thumb on the biometric reader, I feel the ridges of my thumb scrape over the edges of the indentations where the biometric reader is inlaid, and my phone unlocks. I tap to flip to the selfie, front-facing camera and I press record on the video.
I start recording this guy over my shoulder because I’ve always thought if I get into a situation like this I’m going to live stream it. Now I’m not live streaming it, I’m just recording it onto a video because it’s all I could think to do.
That’s all I could think to do.
It turns out this is a really good strategy. It’s a really good strategy because what I am in effect doing, without realising that I’m doing it: is playing dead. I’m not responding to him. I’m focused on my phone. I’m focused on getting the camera angle over my shoulder. I’m scared that he’s going to see that I’m recording and he’s going to give me more trouble because of it.
Maybe because I played dead he loses interest. He gives me a shove and he swears at me and says some more bullshit I don’t even, I can’t even remember. He staggers off. And I’m standing there on Courtenay Place and I’ve been assaulted.
I know people have been assaulted worse than that. People have been knocked out unconscious, bleeding, left with stitches. Friends of mine in Wellington, straight guys who just read a little bit too poofter. A young man was killed in Wellington once: purple hair, nail polish – there’s a play about it, Corner of 4 AM & Cuba by Ronald Trifero Nelson.
He staggers off. I think he’s drunk. I think a drunk guy just put his hands on me and hissed some hateful shit into my ear. Fuck. And I’m looking around and then I hear someone say “are you okay?”. And I look and there’s a late model Mercedes convertible pulled up, driven by a woman who used to share an office building with me. When I had my business she was in the office across the way. I don’t think she recognised me because I’m wearing my makeup and because I did the contouring and the eyebrows it’s like a different face.
She says “I saw all that. Are you okay?”. And I say yes. I mean physically there are no bruises, there are no cuts. I didn’t fall to the ground. I didn’t get concussion. The blood vessels in my eyes didn’t burst from the pressure of a whack. I say “yes”, and she says, “some people are really terrible”. Or something like that, I can’t remember.
All I want to do now is run, run, run. So I take a deep breath and I walk to my car and I get in and I just leave. I speed away from where that happened. I don’t even think of calling the police. Later when I reflect on it I think I should have called the police. I just left. I drove up the hill – back to my house, to my flat, to my rental accommodation on the hill in a good neighbourhood.
The effects of the assault echoed over the second half of 2016. At work I was different.
I didn’t realise I was different.
When I got home I called the police and I reported it. I called Victim Support. I do ‘the right things’. I cry. I feel like crying now. I’ve felt like crying for the last hour.
Everything changed for me. Everything changed in that instant. I had been going around Wellington wearing some lipstick, wearing some makeup, wearing whatever I felt like. I’ve said, over and over “Wellington is an amazing city. It’s so liberal. It’s so safe. People don’t give me any hassle”. Which has been true. Where I grew up just the fact that people knew I was different, even though I was dressed really ‘normal’, they would still yell at me out of car windows.
Here in my good neighbourhood, no dogs are roaming loose fucking chasing me like when I was a kid. I live in a good neighbourhood. I live in a good city. I live in a city where my employer supports diversity. I never thought I’d find that. I spent 10 years of my career managing my difference. It’s not easy to do. It is a lot of energy that I can’t bill someone for. I cannot send an invoice for the energy that I expend managing my difference.
So I go to work on Monday. I say to my manager quietly that I was assaulted on the weekend and my manager is very sympathetic, very concerned. I don’t tell my team. Over the next couple of months I start having difficulty concentrating on my work. I love my work. I’m proud of my work. I would do this computer programming even if no one was paying me. I’m excited to be working in the job that I’m in. And all of a sudden I’m struggling to concentrate.
I didn’t connect that to the assault. I went to the counselor (that work paid for) and we talked about what had happened, I thought I was handling my shit. I didn’t realise that I wasn’t concentrating as well at work. And then I was finding it difficult to do anything beyond just sitting for that portrait on a Sunday.
In the first half of 2016 I MCed shows. I used to be in shows. I used to do shows. After the assault all I was doing was sitting for the portrait on a Sunday.
Then one day when I’m sitting for my portrait, I get a phone call and it’s my friend, my best friend in the whole world. For years we have talked on the phone every night like we’re 1990s teenagers. She’s calling to let me know her partner has died of cancer.
I’m not concentrating at work. My sense of safety in my own neighbourhood has been shattered and now my best friend’s partner, who is also my friend, has died. So I take some time off work and I go and support my friend, her son, and her family with the funeral and after. Then I go back to work.
Now, at this point I’m starting to realise that things aren’t right with me but I’ve got some strategies to cope. I thought “you’re having trouble concentrating and you’re finding things frustrating. Maybe you need to meditate more”. So I discovered that there were rooms I could book at work and meditate. So most lunch times, I’d go into a room and I would meditate for 45 minutes, which was good. And then after the meditation I felt fresh, calm.
But I’m still having trouble concentrating at work. I still don’t have any energy. Christmas is coming up and I don’t want to know about it, and the steering wheel is starting to vibrate, I’m on the highway driving fast, and the wheels are wobbling, and I think everything’s okay, I think “we’ll just get to the end of the year”.
I didn’t get to the end of the year. The week before Christmas everything came crashing down. I didn’t tell anyone, not straight away. I worked that last week of work, and then I was on vacation.
After Christmas I admit that I haven’t been honest with myself, and I haven’t been honest with my friends. So I called my friend, my best friend, whose partner died of cancer, and I tell her what’s been going on, and I just start to unravel. I cried a lot. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good cry. If you feel sad, have a cry. It works great for me to have a cry—I love to have a cry. I’ve got a special brown tarten blanket that I go and lie on when I have a cry, but I was crying a lot, and not sleeping.
I was sad, I was negative, and I couldn’t see my place in the world. This is a familiar place to me where I think, “what the fuck do I do, there is no place for me in this world. Someone like me, who thinks like me, who acts like me, where do I fit in in the world?” I’m bloody-minded enough to have forced my way through this far, and I’ve left outlived some of my friends.
I am part of an ‘at risk community’, gender-variant, gay. I’ve known five people to die by suicide. This is not an easy thing to live with. It’s unusual. When I was younger I sorted myself out, went to University, and got a professional qualification. I used the brain that God had given me, because my grandfather said to me when I was young “you can work with your head or your hands, it’s up to you” and I decided to work with my head.
So now I move in these middle class circles. And it’s comfortable. Good Lord, the middle class knows how to be comfortable, and I would be lying to say that I don’t enjoy it. It is a relief to feel safe and to feel comfortable; this is not where I’m from. It is still not where I can be all of the time. How do I tell them, when they’re talking about: school-friends that have been admitted to the Bar, or their own successful architectural practice, or having just bought a nice apartment. How do I communicate the reality that in my world I’m doing well to have made it to 39.
That is some painful shit.
I think about the pressure that I put on myself to succeed, because my success in my career (which is very real) is my ticket out. It’s my golden ticket away from my past. Away from that place where some of my friends still live.
Part of the reason why I’m so visible on social media, and so out there in my community, is so that if there is someone younger than me—or older than me—who is like met, they can say “hey, there’s a place for someone like me in the world” because I do not feel that every day. I feel it some days, but it can be tenuous.
So in the beginning of 2017 I contacted medical people on the advice of friends. I sought help from a psychiatrist and a counselor. I’ve worked with a psychiatrist and a counselor. I took medication. I have taken medication since I was 25 for depression and anxiety. It is not a great mystery to me why I am prone to be depressed and anxious given where I’m from, and the challenges I still face as one of the world’s eccentrics.
Today, I’m still seeing a counselor. I’ve stopped seeing the psychiatrist. The psychiatrist had prescribed me additional medication. It saved my life. The day after the first new pill, I thought to myself, “thank God I was so close to the wire”. I had hit no reserve, no more answers, no more bloody mindedness, no more sassy one-liners, no more comedy. Slowly I got better, and slowly I stopped taking that particular medication.
The Modern Pharmacopoeia is a source of wonderment for me.
That’s my story. What I have called: My speed-wobble. Where the tires shook so much that the car crashed. In the telling of this story I had a little bit of a cry. Lord, I needed it. I need to feel that stuff. I need to not numb it out to cope. It doesn’t help. Numbing that stuff out doesn’t help. I mean, sure, have some skills so I don’t lose the plot when I need to be ‘on’, but I have found that my feelings are patient things.
I wish my friend’s partner had never died.
I wish I always felt like there was a place for me in the world.
I wish I could wear lipstick and a kaftan on Oriental Parade without fear.
Oh God, it’s so painful. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. But I remember my mother telling me a story about Pandora—that Pandora had a vessel filled with all the evils of the world. Pandora opens the box and all of the evil things fly out. My mother said the last thing in Pandora’s box was hope. Sometimes it seems really hollow, but I’m here. I’ve outlived some friends, and I have hope.
Thanks for listening.