Just when I reached the Golden Gate bridge, the nausea deepened. It was perfect. I took one hand off the steering wheel, rolled down the window, and vomited out the side of the car. The pavement flew by, and the red bridge flew by, and even though I was puking my guts out, I also felt like I was flying. I was winning the game. I rolled up the window, wiped my mouth, and kept driving. My stomach felt better like it always did at that point. I was in control.
I started hating my body when I was 12. I didn’t like the way I looked or felt. I didn’t like very much about myself at all. This self-loathing was mitigated by a deep enchantment with everyone and everything that was not me. I loved people, bugs, ideas, rocks, flecks of dust in the sunlight — the world was full of wonderful things, it’s just that I was not one of them.
I spent my early teenage years alternately vomiting up my meals and training for my Great Escape. I was hoping to leave as soon as possible to live in the forest or join a tribe of hunter-gatherers. On the days I wasn’t at the eating disorder clinic, I hung out in my parents’ front lawn, tanning roadkill pelts and foraging wild plants. Something about society just did not agree with my constitution, and I knew it.
When I turned 18, I packed a bag and hitchhiked to Mexico. Life on the road was a different kind of wilderness than I had planned for. I slept in alleys, ate out of dumpsters, and found friendship in the fringes. Homeless people took care of me and taught me how to survive. In Mazatlán I jumped a freight train and let my little blonde braids fly out in the wind: this was life. The world was bigger than me and I was unprepared for it, but people everywhere were mostly kind.
A year later I started college, and that summer I had to find a job. Stripping was not my first choice — I had wanted to mow lawns or be a magician’s assistant — but when both of those gigs fell through, I decided to audition at the Foxy Lady. When your body is a source of shame, the last thing you want to do is expose it on stage. But I had come so far. After so many years of hating my body, stripping felt like an appropriate, positive challenge.
My audition was spectacular. I had never been to a strip club before and my only reference for anything remotely pornographic was my mom’s aerobics VHS collection. Those ladies wore their outer panties high up on their hip bones and used lots of hair spray. So that’s what I did. I showed up at the Foxy in giant underwear, a velvet skirt, and thrift store stilettos. I hadn’t realized that people normally change in the dressing room. Or that velvet had gone out of style many years ago.
The Foxy wasn’t a great club, so the dressing room was full of dancers in various stages of personal and career dishevelment. One woman had short-cropped hair and jittered everywhere, yelling. Another woman had one eyeball with a melted pupil. I asked the bouncer what I should do, and he said to just be sexy and wink at people. When my song came on, I wobbled out on stage, pulled off my velvet skirt, and stood there in my high-waisted underwear. I could not undo the clasp of my bra, so I finally just yanked the whole thing up over my head. And then I tottered around, winking.
I was not hired at that particular establishment.
But I was a go-getter, so I went right back out and got a job at the club down the street. The man who hired me was very large, and for this audition, I just had to sit on his belly and wiggle — this is what they called a lap dance. Afterward, he looked at me in my velvet skirt and shook his head.
“I shouldn’t hire you,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because you will leave here crying,” he replied. “All the girls leave here crying.”
He knew it and he told me ahead of time. But either I didn’t believe him or I didn’t think it mattered. I took the job.
They say that the sex industry is a slippery slope. But what they don’t say is how normal it feels to slide down it. I didn’t like the way my bosses fondled me or the things men said to me. I didn’t like the way men leered or scratched or groped. But I was too strong to let it bother me. Or at least that’s how I framed it. I was so strong I could smile through anything. My job as a sex worker did not feel entirely new; it was more of an extension of what had always been.
The reality of stripping was a gray area, full of complications and contradictions. There were moments when I stood naked on stage and felt more proud of myself than I’d ever felt in my life. There were moments when I threw my pants into the crowd and thought: Ha! I will gladly get paid to show you my wedgie. There were moments when I curled up on some man’s belly and held him while he cried about his divorce. There were moments when I said yes because I didn’t know how to say no. And there were moments when I said no, but no one listened. Amid all these complexities my boss was right — I did leave crying.
Every time I quit a club, I would audition at a better one. My best friend Basil* also worked the circuit. Eventually, we drove out to Vegas, and then later to San Francisco. We studied the industry and changed our bodies to meet the male demand. I bleached my hair and started tanning. Basil got eyelash extensions. We were both honors students finishing our bachelor’s degrees in philosophy. On weeknights, we sat on the floor with a bottle of cheap champagne and watched Hugh Hefner’s “The Girls Next Door.” In between episodes, we argued about existentialism. And on the weekends, we danced.
Eventually, Basil started working for a pimp, and sometimes she was gone for days. When she got home her eyes looked glazed over, like she was there but also not. I started drinking and taking painkillers at the club each night. It took the edge off of everything, including my own coherence. It also made me puke. If I timed the pills perfectly, I would vomit right when I reached the Golden Gate Bridge on my way home after work. It was a way of self-destructing without jumping, and it was exhilarating.
There came a night when I realized I had to change or I would die, and on that night I walked around the club in my high heels and said goodbye to my clients. I felt close to many of them. Even though they paid me for my services, there was still intimacy involved. But as I walked from man to man, they all gave me the same look. They did not believe I was really going. As I turned away from one of them, I overheard him laugh to another dancer, “She’ll be back when she needs the money.”
This man was a lawyer. He was short and stout, with little wire-rimmed glasses. It wasn’t his words that hit me. It was the way he spit them out, with the full force of extraordinary arrogance. She’ll be back when she needs the money. I could feel my life inside that sentence.
Afterward, I worked briefly as a mascot for a local aquarium. Each day I zipped myself into a giant, full-body costume of “Scuba Sam” and stood on the sidewalk, waving at people as they walked by. Sometimes I had to ride around in a boat or just stand in a corner at team meetings. Once my boss set up a platform in front of the aquarium and hired a band to play children’s music. I lumbered out onto the stage and gave the music everything I had. It was the fullest of full circles.
Life can be funny and dark at the same time. Basil’s work was dangerous, and I didn’t know how to help her. She slipped further and further away. I moved out of the apartment and onto a sailboat with my sailor boyfriend. I felt like I had failed Basil, and myself. I felt weak for not being able to stick out the sex industry. And I felt confused about what we had become. We had made all our own choices, hadn’t we? So why had we made so many choices that hurt us?
I missed the sex industry. I missed the power I felt when I hustled high rollers. I missed the smell and weight of cash. I knew that if I went back, the industry would own me and I would never be able to leave it. I could see that it was a trap. But still, I craved the trap.
I had to go away; I had to go so far away that I would be safe from myself and my choices. I had to go so far away that I could never fully get back again.
I boxed up my things. I gave away my mattress and got rid of my car. I said goodbye to my boyfriend and to Basil. Then I gathered up my bike and my camping gear and bought a one-way ticket to Alaska.
Alaska was wilderness. There were bears there, and moose! I wanted to become wild like those creatures. I wanted to become a creature like those creatures. I didn’t plan a route, a destination, or a timeline. I was going and that was all that mattered. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I felt ecstatic.
Finally, I boarded the plane and we took off. I was giddy with the thrill of my escape. Everything would be different now. Everything would be okay.
The plane touched down in Anchorage and I built my bike in the airport. It was dawn, I had been up all night, and my adrenaline ran high. I loaded up my gear and cycled out the door into the wild.
Except that Anchorage is not wild. It is a city with lots of gray concrete. I pedaled through the streets, my bike wobbling with all my gear. I hadn’t ridden in over two years. It was early in the morning and the roads were mostly empty. Each street looked the same, and to my horror, I could not find my way out of the city.
I pulled over in an empty lot to make breakfast. I was so frustrated that my hands were shaking. Then it started to rain. It was a cold rain.
I sat there on the curb, the water drizzling down over everything, and I realized that I could not do this. Who did I think I was coming here, planning some wild trek? I was alone and I had no destination. I sat there and cried.
I’ll have to find a job here, I thought, finally. I’ll just find a job and live in Anchorage.
I imagined myself waiting tables at a café or hauling fish off a boat. It seemed possible. And then I imagined dancing again. I sat there in the rain and seriously considered this. I could buy some high heels, some makeup. It would be easy.
But as my mind opened to this possibility, other thoughts and feelings came flooding in with it. All the times when I had said yes but meant no. All the hands on my body. All the eyes, watching me, wanting me. Wanting me to be what? I could see the little lawyer with his little sneer and his little wire glasses. She’ll be back when she needs the money.
And in that moment in the rain, I suddenly felt something that I had not fully let myself feel before. I felt anger. No, not anger — I felt rage. I felt rage at the compromises I had to make to be wanted by men. I felt rage at the way men took without asking. I felt rage at the way they thought they owned something they did not own.
It wasn’t all men as individuals. I loved men. But I felt angry about my relationship to maleness. It wasn’t just the sex industry. It was everything I had always felt and known my entire life. If you are a good girl, you stay down, you stay small, you stay quiet. You smile. You dance. There is an underlying pull toward certain directions, certain choices. There is gravity to the slippery slopes. At the age of 23, sitting in that empty lot, I could not articulate this. But I could feel it. I could feel it in a way I had never fully felt it before.
I packed up my gear and stowed it back on my bike. I got on the saddle, gripped the handlebars, and pressed my feet down on the pedals. One rotation, two. I was moving. And as I pushed my body through my rage, a strange thing started to happen. All of the moments and memories that made me feel so bad about who I was started to crumble. They fell apart and turned to dust, and when I looked at them again I saw them differently. They had turned into fuel. And each pedal stroke was a spark. I blazed out of Anchorage like a rocket ship. No one in the world could have stopped me.
Within the first week, I was breaking a hundred miles a day. I rode through sunshine and storms. I passed bears and crossed mountains. Whenever I reached a hill that I knew I could not summit, I drew out the worst of everything from inside myself. I channeled the moments in my life when I had felt the most powerless, the weakest, the most ashamed. I channeled feelings that were alive inside me that I didn’t know how to express. And then I burned them up on the hill. The same things that had held me back were now my source of power. I made it to the top every time.
According to the Law of Conservation of Energy, energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only be transformed from one form to another. I believe this. And I believe that this also applies to our emotional selves. We cannot ignore, deny, or anesthetize our feelings and expect them to just go away. The body cannot hide from itself. Our feelings stay with us, trapped inside our cells until we release them. And once we let them out, once we experience our feelings as ourselves, we enter a process of transformation.
As I burned through my rage, I began to experience myself as a person who could move forward. I began to experience my body as a thing that was powerful in its own right. And I began to feel joy.
Joy was motion. It was legs pushing and pulling. It was sweat evaporating into air. Joy was the warmth of sun and the rush of wind. It was breath flowing in and out. Joy was my body, free to be itself on its own terms.
I pedaled my way through Alaska, the Yukon, British Columbia. Each night I set up camp in the forest. I didn’t have a phone, an iPod, or anything to distract me. I was just there: pedaling, eating, breathing, sleeping. I was a body that took care of itself. I was a wild female human creature.
After I crossed the Rockies, I camped in a little field by a river. I built a fire on the rocks and cooked dinner. The river flowed, the sky melted into sunset, and my whole body felt strong. I felt like I was part of something that made sense. Life was not perfect, but that moment of it was.
Every long journey has its cycles. You go up and you go down. You dig deep and you let go. Joy was not something I ever learned to capture or control. But it was something I learned to let happen. It was something I learned to be grateful for, and it was something that became a part of who I was.
After 3,500 miles of pedaling, I rolled back into San Francisco. But instead of staying there, I just kept going. I moved on with my life. I had gone too far to go back again.
*This name has been changed to protect the privacy of the individual.
A special thanks to my friend Basil for all the conversations leading up to this essay. Thank you for being there then, and for thank you for being here now.