Every year around this time, since starting this blog eight years ago, I revisit the events surrounding a hospitalization that happened when I was 17. That was 22 years ago now, and I’m getting closer toward a goal of sharing my writing about it with a wider audience. Two years ago, I wrote, “Maybe one day I’ll share it with a wider audience.” Last year, I wrote that I was actively working on a memoir, in which the hospitalization plays a large part, but I was avoiding revising that portion. I had a lot of other work to do at that point, so it was easy to not get to it.
This year, I can say that I have a fairly cohesive draft of the entire memoir complete, and I am now forcing myself to get in there with the hospitalization “interlude.” I’m calling it an “interlude” because it’s written in a much different style than the rest of the piece. We’ll see if I keep that phrasing. Almost all of it, I wrote twenty years ago, for a class in college. It’s super disjointed, out of sequence, and jarring. Which, in a lot of ways, works, I think. I was going through a psychotic break. But I definitely needed to get in there to help readers orient themselves. I started to straighten out the timeline a bit. I added a lot of information about when I first got there, and my relationship with my mom, who brought me, at the time. It feels doable. I am glad I can finally start to face it down.
Other than that though, I’m stuck. I feel like it’s been so long ago that I no longer have any firsthand memories. It’s hard to conjure a feeling. (Which is amazing because I used to feel like it was always looming over my head.) I have all this writing, which I think is very accurate because I recorded it so closely in time to the events. I’m trying to figure out how to improve on it.
At this time, the event feels like a mosquito crystalized in amber. Or any other thing that’s trapped in a protective casing. And I’m trying to extract its essence without tampering with it too much. I’m trying to bring it back to life.
Last Wednesday, I asked my supervisor if I could work from 9am – 5:30pm for the rest of the summer, and he agreed. And then it struck me all over again that I’ve never worked this standard shift before in my life – I’ve worked almost everything except, spanning from super early to super late (excluding overnights). I’ve been with this school district for 19 years so far, first as a painter, but mostly as a janitor. It’s a full-time job, Monday-Friday, but my times have varied greatly.
I’ve joked with people before that my job is the antithesis of the 9-5 office job, and I like that about it. Generally, I work a B-shift, which I am a big fan of. But when kids are on break from school, including over the summer, I have to come in super early, and it is extremely hard for me to adjust, every time. My current supervisor is aware and he’s been accommodating for the most part. He set it up so I can come in at 8am instead of 6am like everyone else.
But this summer has been extra stressful in a lot of ways. We have lots of contractors in the building doing renovations. And my supervisor is leaving for a month, soon. And I have trouble working with my co-workers, since I’m used to the solitude of the job when school is in session. Oh also, lots of questions about how we will be adjusting to the pandemic coming up this fall. Lots of unknowns.
Due to all this stuff, I had a hypomanic episode earlier this summer, including being on the brink of a break from reality. I caught myself in time and course corrected, but recovery has been slow. I was out of work for a week and a half, and coming back has continued to be a struggle.
In talking to my therapist, she suggested I ask for a change in hours. Coming in later has always helped me feel like more of a person, but I didn’t want to ask for something too late – it wouldn’t make sense right now. She said, why don’t I ask for a 9am or a 9:30am start time. I laughed and told her we don’t do that. We don’t work 9-5. No one has. We do everything but. But then I let it sink in… Why not though?!
So, in talking with my supervisor, I was more upfront with him than ever before, citing that I need to take time off for therapy appointments, and that I am on medication that makes it difficult to get up early. Prior to this, I was always evasive as to WHY, exactly, I needed time off and why I hated mornings, only saying, “I have an appointment,” and repeating over and over again, like a mantra, “I don’t like mornings.” He was accommodating enough, and because of long absences due to hospitalizations, he probably had more than a clue about it. I just never said it out loud. It felt good. It felt like I was advocating for myself, and I was being accepted for this aspect of myself.
So in two days, I get to wake up at like 7:30am, which isn’t my favorite but seems actually do-able, short-term. Gonna join the masses, gear up for rush-hour traffic, enjoy a happy hour or two. Until school starts, that is, and I get to return to my favorite shift of all time, 1-9:30pm. That shift fits me like a part of my identity.
Edit: I only got to work 9-5:30 for one day! Blah! My supervisor wanted to negotiate further, and we agreed on 8:30-5pm. The 9-5:30pm shift remains elusive.
On this day, 21 years ago, I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for 19 days. I was 17. I’ve observed this time of year, every year since starting this blog 7 years ago, by revisiting the events surrounding it, in one form or another. This year, it feels like not a big deal at all. This hasn’t always been the case, but it’s felt less and less traumatic as the years have gone by. Processing it in therapy has helped tons too.
One way I do know it still has some sort of grip over me is, I’ve been working a lot on long-form autobiographical writing this past year and a half. At first, I wasn’t sure what my “story” was. I assumed part of it would include this hospitalization, but then I rejected that and focused on other times in my life. After floundering around with what to focus on, I finally told my therapist, “Even though I don’t exactly want it to be true, ‘this’ is the story.” (‘This’ refers to my senior year of high school, including the hospitalization, and my first year, more or less, of college. Maybe other stuff too; I’m not sure yet) She smiled at that. It felt momentous, as if I’d been on a journey and then found my way back home and declared, “here I am.” Something to that effect.
But I’m still avoiding this part in particular…
As a Freshman in college, I was taking a class called Personal Essay. I ended up writing roughly 8,000 words about my hospital experience as my class project. It was disjointed / not chronological. That’s the way I had to approach it, in order to get as much down as I could remember. My professor, who ended up telling me he had been in hospitals / treatment centers for addiction issues, was super supportive of me pursuing this. That felt good. I was really proud of the final product, and I ended up sharing it with a bunch of friends and family members, at the time. Since then, I’ve glanced at it here and there, but it’s been rough. When writing about my life around that time, I’ve skipped over that completely, rationalizing, “Well, I already have that part down.” And I do. But, I’ve gone back and revised and changed and tweaked everything else. That remains untouched.
I don’t really want to touch it. Maybe it’s good enough as is? I doubt it though. At some point, I will have to get past this, and face it down, if I want to include it in a larger piece. As for now, I’m doing everything but. Which is working out for the time being, but not for forever…
Around this time, 20 years ago, I was experiencing suicidal ideation and debilitating depression, after being hospitalized for mania and psychosis. The #1 stressor in my life was my sexual orientation (I hadn’t yet gotten to the gender identity part). Two things saved me: therapy, and regularly attending the youth group at the Out Alliance (called the GAGV – Gay Alliance of Genesee Valley, at the time).
Learning, yesterday, that the Out Alliance was folding and laying off all its employees hit me hard, both in a community-forward kind of way, and on a personal level. We need the Out Alliance and the services it provides. The board stated, “We hope that this cessation in our services will be temporary and that, after reassessing and restructuring the organization, we will resume our vital mission, stronger than ever.” Let’s hope this happens sooner than later.
I went to the youth group for the first time on March 15, 2000. I was a painfully shy, sheltered, awkward, naive 18 year-old. I wrote about it immediately afterward, in my diary:
“I was really nervous about going, but felt like it was something I had to do. I got mom to drive me. While I was there, I badly wanted to leave, but in retrospect, it doesn’t seem so bad. We talked about dangers on the internet and stalkers. I had nothing to contribute. Dr. [Therapist] says that’s OK. It was my first time. Next Sunday might be better anyway. There’s going to be pizza and a guest speaker on relationships. Also, I noticed many bookshelves filled with books. Maybe next time all the kids are outside smoking, I’ll go check them out.”
And it did get better. I remained painfully shy and awkward. I never did connect with the other kids or make any friends, but I went every single week from then until I left for college at the end of August. At the time, the age limit was 19, but I asked if it could be extended to 22 because I still wanted to keep going. The age got changed in the “rules of the group,” and I was so thrilled I had been heard. I went sporadically when I could throughout my college years.
To back up, I started writing in a diary a year before attending the group, and my first entry starts out with a fantasy scenario in which I come out to a support group, 12-step style.
” ‘Hello. My name is Katie. And… I am a lesbian.’ ‘Hi Katie.’* I’ve gone through this scenario hundreds of times. I wish it were that easy. I’d just walk into a gay / lesbian support group and come out. I just can’t do it though; I haven’t told anyone.”
So actually attending and being around other LGBTQ+ people was HUGE for me, even if it was hard. Probably largely because it was so hard. Schools did not yet have Gay Straight Alliances. The internet was, well, you know, it was the internet of 2000. Which is to say I didn’t / couldn’t use it to find like-minded friends or look up information about sensitive subjects. I was too ashamed to take out any books about LGBTQ+ topics from the library for fear of the library clerk looking at them and deducing that I was gay. The information I would have found in those outdated books might have been more detrimental to my sense of self anyway. I was most certainly internally homophobic.
To know that there was an organization that was out and loud and proud was a revelation. I attended the Gay Pride Picnic that July, and was blown away by the number of people. Who knew?!
It took a while, but the sense of belonging and the normalization of the gay experience grew on me. I learned so much about safe sex and sex-positivity, LGBTQ+ portrayals in media, history, just a ton of feel-good stuff. We watched movies, we went on outings as a group, and yes we even got to eat pizza.
Huge shout-out to the facilitator at that time, Patty Hayes. She changed my life. I was so psyched to find that this 44 minute interview with her is out there on the internet! (Interview conducted for the documentary, Shoulders to Stand On. She has about 3 minutes of screen-time in the final product; here is the full interview):
The Out Alliance was there when I needed it, and I can honestly say it saved me from my own self-hatred, homophobia, and loneliness. Now that there are so many more options and ways to learn and connect, so what? It’s still very much needed. Every city needs something like this. It was a place to connect face-to-face and find role models and local resources. A place of hope for kids in surrounding rural areas who could drive in and find out they’re not alone. City and suburban kids too, of course. Older people just coming out. People who have been out for forever. SOFFAs and allies. It does, however, need to change with the times. There were times where I railed against it, for being too normative, too playing-it-safe, not diverse enough.
Hopefully their return will be swift, and well-thought out. The former staff have laid out some demands:
- Diversification of the board’s executive committee. They point out that the board is diverse but the executive committee members are all white and cisgender.
- Selecting a person of color to serve as the next executive director, “to reflect the necessary changes the agency still needs to take.”
- Making all board meetings open to the public and the minutes from those meetings accessible to the public.
- Including dollar figures, not just percentages, in all future annual reports. The annual report for 2018 showed a dollar figure for contributions, but nothing else.
- Changing agency bylaws to give the board greater oversight over the executive director and “veto power” over major spending and investment decisions.
- Creating a mechanism for agency members and community members to weigh in on who sits on the board.
Sources: CITY News article by Jeremy Moule
Shoulders to Stand On, documentary film
*At the time, I thought my name was Katie and that I was a lesbian. Now I know it’s actually Kameron, and that I’m a queer person.
For 20 years, I’ve been churning and mulling over, obsessing and ruminating about, writing and re-writing the events surrounding my first hospitalization which happened around this time of year in 1999, when I was 17. Up until the age of 30, it had a hold on me in that way that trauma can stay with a person: it was my biggest source of shame and fear, I felt like it defined my past and if only I had avoided it, maybe my mental health wouldn’t have gotten so derailed for so long. It was a super sore spot that for some reason I just kept picking at, revisiting, but wasn’t getting anywhere with.
I’m 37 now, and I’ve been seeing it much differently, with the help of my therapist. It was extreme and drastic, for sure, but it led to me getting real help that I desperately needed – without that help, my mental state could have festered and bubbled badly for much longer, in a much darker place; who knows what might have happened. Not that I didn’t suffer for way too long regardless. I did! But some systems were in place that helped me feel not so alone, even through those times where I despised those systems.
I’m writing kinda vaguely here… I voluntarily admitted myself to a psychiatric unit because I thought I was bipolar and I stopped being able to sleep, and things were getting wonky. I was indeed diagnosed with bipolar disorder, as well as having gone through a psychotic break. I was there for 3 weeks, even though I kept thinking I could leave at any minute, if I could just figure my way out. I was put on medications, and later on, different ones and different ones and different ones. So many different ones. I got disillusioned with drugs and eventually weened myself off of everything because they ultimately didn’t make any sense. They did do me some good at some points in time, but not much.
The thing that helped more than anything else, ever in my life, was getting assigned a therapist. I was required to attend 20 sessions after my hospitalization; I ended up going so many more times than that; if not specifically with her because she moved away, then to the therapist she referred me to. In fact, I’m still seeing this therapist (with a break of a bunch of years in between, during that time where I wrote off meds and all other psychological interventions).
I was talking recently with a friend about therapy, (It seems like all of my friends are currently in therapy…) and I referred to the fact that my parents facilitated me being in therapy from such a young age (and by young, I mean 18) as “early intervention.” I know that term usually refers to 3-5 year-old’s who might be on the spectrum or might have a learning disability or a speech delay. But, sadly, when it comes to emotions and figuring out how to communicate them, age 18 is still pretty much “early intervention,” in my opinion. Things are definitely getting better, but not fast enough! And when I said that out loud to my friend, it hit me how lucky I was. I always went to therapy willingly – at some times, it felt like the only thing I had to look forward to. Usually it felt like the progress was not quantifiable. Was it doing anything? What good was it? Was it worth it? I still pretty much always loved going, even if logically I wasn’t so sure.
My therapist has told me that among her clients who have gone through psychosis, I’m the only one who has ever wanted to revisit it (for me, there are 3 instances). Everyone else just wants to put it behind them. I don’t understand that; and I’ve ended up doing a lot more than just revisiting it. I think there’s a lot of worth there. It feels like a gold mine in an alternate universe. The more I write, the more I can mine it later, for future purposes. I’m not sure what those purposes are, exactly, yet, but I want the raw material to be intact as much as possible.
In the spirit of that, here’s one short snippet, that I first wrote in 2001:
“I’m going to be leaving tomorrow,” I announced at our afternoon community meeting. I figured that since I wanted to come here, I was allowed to tell them when I wanted to leave. I was getting sick of this charade. The day before, I had told the nurse that I wanted to go home, expecting to find my parents there when I woke up. When nothing came of that, I panicked, but then I realized the key was for me to get myself out. I was going to have to stand up to everyone and announce my intentions. I had to take control. Everyone, including the staff workers, stared at me without saying a word. That made me uneasy, especially when my statement went untouched, and the meeting continued with staff member Bob saying, “If no one has anything else to say, it’s time to go to the gym.” It’s alright, it’s alright. They’re just testing me.”
There’s a lot more where that came from. Maybe one day I’ll share it with a wider audience.
I’ve been hospitalized a total of 3 times for mania and psychosis; for some reason, the anniversary of this one, this time around, is hitting me pretty hard. Every year in November, I make a post to remember and acknowledge my first hospitalization, because it was so traumatic, and it’s stayed with me even now, 20 years after the fact. These two other, more recent ones were much easier to get past / work through. In fact, I’d even say that this most recent one was even cathartic, in a positive sense (not so much for my loved ones, I know!) But personally, it helped me heal from the other two times. And the fact that I didn’t boomerang into a deep, dark depression afterward… that I was able to take as much time off as I needed and kind of come back around gradually, organically, meant the world to me.
It’s been a very rainy May so far. It reminds me of looking out the windows of the hospital; it was rainy a lot of the time then too. It was my brother’s birthday, and then Mother’s Day, and right after that, I was admitted to the hospital. The Lilac Festival was going on; there are lilacs in bloom right now. We have a lilac bush; I can see the flowers from our dining room window.
Last year during this week, I was preoccupied with a trip to Massachusetts to visit our friends. I didn’t think about the fact that we’d be away during this week. It occurred to me while we were on the trip, I think. I remember being hyper-aware of everything blooming at that time, exactly. We smelled lots of flowers while we walked around different parts of Boston and Salem. Things weren’t in bloom when we left, but suddenly, bam!, they were, when we got back.
I’ve been super stable, mental health-wise, for a long time now. I’d say I re-stabilized by September of 2017, and I’ve been good since then. Great, even. Super productive with creative projects. Anxiety has been at an all time low. I have energy. My mood is very very very even-keeled. Iike, maybe a little too much. Meaning, there’s so little variety in how I feel, from day to day. But… I’ll take it. I haven’t felt any compulsions. I haven’t been having obsessive thoughts. The only down-side to my mental landscape, in an ongoing way, is that I sleep a LOT. And I have trouble waking up in the mornings. I usually sleep 10-11 hours a day, on average. Which is most likely a side effect of the medication I’m on. (Seroquel.) But, also, as the years have gone on, I’m also realizing it just might be how much sleep is actually optimal for me. I generally slept that much, if I was able to, long before starting this medication. And I used to beat myself up about it, like I was being lazy and unproductive. And whenever I’ve had to get on an earlier schedule, such as during summers, for work, my mood, energy levels, and motivation have always suffered. Probably because I wasn’t sleeping as much as I seem to need to.
So I’ve decided to give myself a break. It works out much better if I let myself sleep as much as I tend to need to (as opposed to how much I think I should want to, I guess?), life goes much more smoothly.
Huh, I went on an unexpected tangent about sleep! I meant to write about my most recent hospitalization. Actually, I’ve already written, in a word document, as much as I could remember from my week-long stay. It was jam packed with activities; it was action packed. So maybe I’ll just cut and paste a slice of life from that time. …I just pulled it up to find an excerpt I could put here, but it’s total nonsense! No one paragraph makes any sense within itself. Also I burst out laughing a bunch of times. I think it’s not quite ready for consumption yet. But it might be, one day, as part of a larger project…
It’s been long-known and proven over and over that, in general, people who identify as LGBTQ are worse off, financially. Discrimination at work and within housing, along with being kicked out, disowned, or cut off from family ties, are big factors as to why this might be. Mental health also plays a huge role. There have been times when I was so deep into depression that I was not able to function at my job (or, in the past, at school). Fortunately for me, I was able to take multiple medical leaves, when I needed them, with full pay and full job security. That’s not always the story, though…
I was contacted a couple of months ago by Linda Manatt, who works for OverdraftApps.com, a company “created to increase awareness of the annual $35 billion overdraft problem in the U.S., which primarily affects the most vulnerable populations of our society. By creating content and developing tools to inform the public, [they] hope to make a positive change and shape tomorrow’s consumer finance policies for the better.”
In July of 2018, they commissioned a research organization to conduct a survey about financial attitudes and realities. 1,009 people from 46 states, aged 18- 71 participated, and 11% of them identified as LGBTQ. A couple of other factors were isolated, including renters vs. owners and income levels, but not age, race, education level, or any other demographic.
Some of the big take-aways, as it applies to the LGBTQ community were:
- While only 14% of people surveyed make less than $25,000 per year, 25% of LGBTQ people fall in this bracket.
- 51% of the general respondents reported feeling “that the system is trying to take advantage of them when it comes to financial products.” When isolating for LGBTQ people, that percentage jumped to 61%.
- LGBTQ people are 50% more likely to overdraft between three and nine times in the past year compared to the general population (18% compared to 12% of the general population.)
It is surprising how many people overall have over-drafted at least once within the past year (46%), how few people were even aware that they can opt out of over-drafting all together (39%), and how frequently over-drafting happens without their knowledge (42%). No wonder people feel taken advantage of, purposefully! As I was reading through the data, the overarching human emotion running throughout is the avoidance of embarrassment. And sure enough, there’s a quote within the article to suggest this:
Paul Golden, from Nefe [National Endowment for Financial Education], provides an … interpretation on the reasons people don’t opt out more often of overdraft protection. In his opinion, “bankers [don’t] say that overdraft protection is mandatory” but they do sell it as an insurance to one’s reputation. In his experience, this is how they are sold to consumers: “You go out to dinner with your friends or work colleagues and the bill comes up. You don’t have enough to cover it – can you imagine the embarrassment you would suffer if your card was declined?” People react: “Oh yeah, I should have overdraft protection.”
It’s like, pay $35 later for the convenience now of not having to put groceries back, in front of other people, when there is not enough in the checking account. I’d even take this a step further and go so far as to say that people who are more likely to be singled out, to be devalued, humiliated, harassed, abused, and assaulted, are exponentially more compelled to do certain things to get out of embarrassing situations, including (but not limited to, by a long shot!) financial embarrassment.
I’d be curious what types of trends would emerge if the data had been isolated even further, to account for transgender and gender-nonconforming identities, within the LGBTQ community. I can tell you right now that the picture would become much more bleak, very quickly. I’d love to hear your own stories if you’d like to share, in the comments section!
If you’d like to see the full study, it is here:
Overdrafting in the United States: Distrust and Confusion in the American Financial System
And thanks to Linda Manatt for prompting me to get out of my comfort zone and attempt to cover such a big issue, in my own, semi-personalized, way…
Every year around mid-November, I tend to think back and reflect on a defining period of time in my adolescence. And for as long as I’ve had this blog, I’ve written something about it, annually. When I was 17, I voluntarily admitted myself to a psychiatric unit. I envisioned I’d be there for a day or two; in the end I was there for 3 weeks, with everything quickly no longer becoming my choice. It was both good and bad that I went voluntarily – On one hand, I didn’t resent anyone else for making that decision, and I may have made some things easier for calling that shot so early-on in my downward spiral. Specifically, I could have been walking around in a mild/moderate psychosis for a long time without giving off any glaring red flags, which could have been much more damaging in the long run, led to me slipping back into that state easier and more frequently as the years went by. On the other hand, I couldn’t forgive myself for the longest time, and I blamed that traumatic experience on being just the start of all problems and struggles that came after it. If I hadn’t gone to the hospital, everything would have been different, I thought. If I hadn’t gone to the hospital, I wouldn’t have lost my mind, I thought. Now though, 19 years later, I don’t think those things anymore. Instead, I think that I was an incredibly self-aware teenager, and I acted out of self-preservation.
When i was in the hospital, it was expected that I keep up with my schoolwork, or at the very least, try. In Humanities class, we were just starting to read The Handmaid’s Tale. Instead of my school-issued book arriving for me to read, a copy was sent from the Central Public Library, which made me immediately suspicious. I was paranoid that we were being force-fed, brainwashed, and doped, and every little detail just added fire to that flame-in-my-brain. I started reading it anyway, but I didn’t get far. On pages 3 and 4, phrases such as,
“A window, two white curtains. …When the windown is partly open – it only opens partly…” “I know why there is no glass, in front of the watercolor picture of blue irises, and why the window only opens partly and why the glass in it is shatterproof.”
really freaked me out!! All I could think about were the parallels. The decor in my own hospital room, the panic and the dystopian surrealism of it all. This part especially has always stayed with me:
“It isn’t running away they’re afraid of. We wouldn’t get far. It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge.”
I’m pretty sure I did eventually finish the book. But I dropped the class. I dropped a bunch of classes when I got back to school, out of necessity. In order to graduate and have as little stress as possible while doing so. In order to try to put some of my mental health issues behind me and to look forward to college…
My spouse and I just finished watching The Handmaid’s Tale, up through season 2. So depressing and distressing. Just a really jarring portrait of where we could end up, some of it hitting way too close to home – not so much on a personal level, but in a collective consciousness kind of way. Hauntingly horrifying.
I got the book out of the library again – my local branch this time, not the Central Public Library… Gonna attempt to re-read it.
Here’s what I wrote in the past, on the topic of being hospitalized:
2013: Continuing to work through a specific trauma
2014: That specific trauma is still there
2015: That specific trauma is no longer a big deal
2016: Anniversaries, traumas, deaths, and name-change
2017: As that specific trauma dissipates further…
A friend of mine living in Albuquerque posted about an art project s/he recently completed, and I messaged hir to find out more about it. What follows is an interview with the artist, Harley Kirschner, in which we touch on toxic masculinity, safety, artistic processes, and a whole lot more!
Kam: How did you get involved in it? Did you propose the idea?
Harley: I work at Winnings coffee shop again, after a few years in plumbing and pipefitting , unemployment, self employment and other jobs. We have artists do murals in our bathrooms and it was time for a new one.The need was expressed and I jumped on the opportunity. I got free reign over what I wanted to do and as a trans artist who is getting into what I like to think of as oversized zines, naturally I created a zine installation about using public restrooms as trans in a public restroom.
Kam: Is it related to your plumbing career, your art career, or both? Can you elaborate on that?
Harley: My plumbing career collapsed which I now see as a blessing. However, in that collapse, after living stealth 24/7 I really collapsed emotionally. Everything about my art and my loud trans non-binary self is because I failed at fitting the mold of what a plumber or pipefitter or man is supposed to be. Trying to be someone that I’m not almost killed me as I was terrified and disassociated all the time. I do share my experience with how bathrooms were such a huge part of that in this installation. However, although I would usually put my name on my story, due to the location being my place of employment and coming to embrace myself as non-binary and using mixed pronouns when I feel safe, I felt too vulnerable. I thought about censoring my story but felt the content was important so I chose to leave off my name.
I found empowerment in taking a bathroom and making it my own and a safe place for trans people after my experience in the plumbing industry which has rules (which are laws under the guise of safety… Most are.), about gendered bathrooms. That was one issue that I always had issues with myself. My experience in the plumbing and pipe fitting industries was heavy industrial for the most part so I did very little in bathrooms and actually very little with water. Mostly, I piped refrigerant and coal. I still use some of my skills in doing irrigation.
When my plumbing career fell apart and I started talking about it in zines and about how toxic masculinity makes me want to kill myself, I started getting recognized for my art and it was very clear to me that where my art had been lacking in the work that I had been showing wasn’t in the technical sense but rather in the voice. I knew that if I wanted to achieve what I wanted with my art, to make trans people feel beautiful, I had to use my own voice and make it loud. I had been very scared to do that. Partly because it was incredibly unsafe in my plumbing career and partly because I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself. When I had nothing to lose career wise and my sanity and breath depended on taking up queer and trans space I knew that taking the steps to enhance my literary voice would give my fine art real value.
Kam: What are your goals with the project? What would you like people to get out of it?
Harley: To make Winning Coffee Company the most queer and trans friendly coffee shop in Albuquerque. To take back bathrooms after they made me feel so unsafe. To embrace the diversity within my community by feeling the love and support of not only trans people but of all the people who love my work. I feel that it is very new to me to feel the amount of love and support around being trans from cis people that I do and I would like to offer that same safe feeling in a public place in Albuquerque for all trans people. I am very lucky to have such great supportive coworkers that helped make this happen, including making the bathrooms gender neutral (a few years ago) and helped me paint the walls.
Kam: Do you see ways to expand on this? Other places or other ideas?
Harley: I would like it to be an ongoing conversation. As the installation deteriorates and get tagged (unfortunately a given with the Winning’s bathroom-nothing offensive just disrespectful in general) I would like to replace the paper with different stories. People are encouraged to contribute any stories they have about using the bathroom as a trans person. I have thought about doing this bathroom in other spaces but am too busy artistically to take on another project right now.
Kam: What did your artistic process look like for this?
Harley: I used matte black paint on all the walls but chose to keep the ceiling white and paint the door white so it didn’t create a feeling of being trapped. There was a metal frame that used to have an advertisement poster in it. The advertising company closed but the frame was still there. It reminds me a lot of the welding that I was working with at the job that I reference in my story so I chose to keep it and decoupage the plexiglass that it holds. It works very well with the symbolist element of my work. I wallpapered large photocopies of stories and photocopied collages of images related to being trans and using bathrooms. I incorporated images from my time in the union, including an image of my shadow where I look like I’m holding a gun and I’m going to shoot, an image of a sign that says “ouch”, and images from one of my textbooks. My favorite part is the dictionary words “restricted” followed by “restroom”, nothing could have been more appropriate. In my photocopied collages I incorporate transfers to overlay images. There is a grainy quality in oversized prints that I find particularly appealing.
Kam: Anything else you wanted to add that I didn’t ask about?
Harley: Thank you very much for asking me to talk about my work on your blog. Your writing has always inspired me and I hope that my voice will be as touching to others as yours has been to me.