Switching off Survival Mode

In a recovery group, we recently covered the topic of motivation. The group worker asked us what motivates us, and immediately I said fear. It wasn’t fear from someone else, or fear of not being perfect but rather, fear that things will collapse if I don’t keep going. I explained that if I don’t do my job, the world around me will cave in and the thought of that is too much to bear. I’m not sure this resonated as much with the group, who met my negative response to motivation with blank stares. This isn’t fear of losing material items, but my home. Similarly, I told my GP that I didn’t care what happened to me, as long as my rent was paid then anything else in life is simply extra. She had to remind me that food, clothing and utilities are not extras, but are in fact, essential.

These feelings aren’t new to me. Growing up, I remember my mum always making sure rent was paid, and any other bills were secondary. Drilled into our mind from an early age was that provided there is a roof over your head, the rest can be sorted after, and that rent should always be paid first. For most people, they likely include their utilities and food bill in this ‘essential’ category, and anything left after is for yourself. This isn’t the case when you are living precariously and you know starving and having no food is not as important as having nowhere to sleep, there is no extra for yourself. These attitudes were reflected in my conversation to the GP, because going hungry doesn’t matter provided you are warm and protected. It’s difficult to get across to people just how ingrained in my mind this is. I would happily eat ice cubes to soothe hunger pains knowing full well my rent is paid.

Motivation

As the recovery group continued discussing motivation, we spoke about positive and negative motivation. Positive motivation is when you do something because you believe there is reward from it, or perhaps by doing something it will make you feel good, such as volunteering. Negative motivation on the other hand, describes when you are motivated because you fear the loss of something, or to run away from the pain by not doing something. This is where survival sex work comes in, why you can’t stop, even if you want to. I have never said I am a happy sex worker and it is these awful attitudes that have kept me chugging along. It is why I cry about how much I wish to leave, but wipe the tears away and get on with it, because I know if I don’t, I will fall back again. I told my support worker this week that I would rather kill myself than go back into the hostel. So, for me, it feels like keep working, or kill yourself. This is of course too simplistic, but I’m running from the fear of the hostel, of killing myself, of being homeless and being without.

People often talk about surviving vs thriving, and it can sometimes feel like a cliché style of phrase. However, it is very accurate. Maslow’s infamous Hierarchy of Needs demonstrates that physiological needs are core, and these include shelter, clothing, water and food. However, if you are constantly chasing the basic necessities, or you simply don’t have them, how do you ever climb the hierarchy? The thought of even considering things such as friendship, self-esteem, or self-actualisation are not even a thing because they don’t matter. I have lost significant respect, status, sense of belonging and relationships at the expensive of trying to sustain the bare minimum. It makes me sound really brutal, but the top of the pyramid can all be sacrificed when you’re desperate. I would argue it’s why addicts steal from their loved ones – it’s not because they hate them or wish them harm, but it’s because their basic needs aren’t being met. Despite the shame they may end up feeling, it doesn’t matter because survival is number one.

I hope you are never in the position but I can assure you, you will hurt you loved ones if you are withdrawing from drugs, or you are so financially desperate to the point your water is cut off and you can’t cook, bathe or even drink.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

I have spent years in this awful cycle of survival. I realised that I have never had the opportunity to pursue positive motivations because I have been too busy running away, keeping my head afloat. Most people go to University for positive motivation, because they believe it will get them a good job and they can see the long-term benefits. For me, I went simply to get away from home. I chose the University the furthest away from home that would accept me and vowed never to return to my hometown, no matter what happened in life. I endured any difficulty because I could not return to what I had left. This is exactly what negative motivation is. I don’t actually care about my degree, and I never did because it was the distance I craved, not the prospects at the end.

All of my siblings had their route to escape home, and mine was education. Some of us got into relationships and moved out as quick as we could; some got a job and took on the burden of poverty by taking on rent we couldn’t afford; some spiralled into crime to earn money to get away. Home wasn’t safe, I was constantly trying to flee. It was this negative motivation that pushed me through my A Levels, which were undertaken during one of the most difficult times of my life. I cried my heart out on a bench on my own on results day because I made the grades to go to Uni. I cried because I knew I was finally free, not because I was overjoyed to reap the rewards of my hard work. I thought about pursuing a masters degree, but I am no longer fleeing so it’s a different motivation this time, and I don’t feel confident or equally motivated.

Sex work

Unfortunately, this survival mode is so entrenched that it naturally intertwined with my decision to become a sex worker. Money is a fundamental motivation in everyone’s life, it’s why we go to work. I was so swept away by the money I was earning at first that it felt like a cure the fears I had been harbouring for so long. I knew it would give me the financial security I could only dream of, so I kept going, even when I didn’t need to. However, as any sex worker will know, this soon came crashing down when I realised just how unreliable the income is. Instead of stopping and working out other streams of income, I kept going instead. My motivations kept changing – from survival, to thriving, to drugs and addiction, to housing security. Sex work has truly saved me from falling off the edge when I have been so close. However, it sometimes feel like a trap because I know I couldn’t now be without it.

It is argued that the term ‘survival sex work’ should be removed from the language of sex work. I disagree. It serves it’s purpose and describes well the differences between those who are scraping by, and the sex workers who have greater choices, financial stability, do not live chaotic lives or facing homelessness, drug use or other disadvantages. People argue that it causes division among sex workers. However, we can not be lumped into one group. The needs of certain sex workers are different, and this needs to be appreciated. If we remove the term, we are not doing justice to tackling the reasons why many felt they had to turn to sex work such as drugs and poverty. Otherwise, it assumes sex workers are a homogenous group who are all facing the same issues, we are not. You can argue that we are all surviving, but that isn’t the reality for those who are at the middle to top. All sex workers work for income to live, but not all are having sex for drugs or for £10.

Above all, survival sex workers are at greater risk of sexual exploitation because they have less financial ability to say no, because they feel they can’t. We all know abusers exploit the most vulnerable or the most desperate. It’s also one of the core reasons why the Nordic Model does very little to help the people they say will benefit mostly from it, because removing income removes choices. When you remove or restrict people’s choices, they make desperate situations such as unprotected sex for more money. I know when working street, the other girls get angry at those who do unprotected sex, but there is also an unspoken understanding as to why, because they are rattling from drug withdrawal and we all empathise with that. Nobody holds a grudge. For me, financial freedom is fundamental to me. I am so scared that without it, I will find myself relying on abusive people again, because I crave security more than the fear of abuse.

As I wrote in a previous blog that financial abuse is my one of the main reasons why I keep shooting myself in the foot, doing things I don’t want to as the fear of being financially insecure is worse. Without financial freedom, you find yourself being controlled by the person you may find income from such as a partner, charity or even your children. When you ask a sex worker why they keep working when they don’t want to, don’t think it’s because we just love doing it. As a street sex worker, I’d get asked that all the time by clients and sometimes by services. It used to make me angry because they are making the presumption that I am deliberately making the worst decision for myself, assuming I am incapable of knowing myself, or acting in my own best-interest.

Switching off

I am housed, my biggest fear has been alleviated. Yet, the fear hasn’t. I still think someone is going to ring me up and tell me they made a mistake, telling me the flat isn’t mine and I have to leave. I still haven’t felt the homely feeling as I walk through the door, because I am too scared to get attached to the thought of having a home, just in case it is ripped away from me – emotionally protecting myself. Chasing money to find a place to stay has gone, the constant anxiety and weight on my chest has slightly lifted, although it’s not gone and I keep expecting it to drop back on me. It’s worse this time though, because now I know what to expect and remember how awful it was, whereas before, I was just making my way through a difficult time, and clinging onto hope that things would get better.

This is learned behaviour, I haven’t reached these conclusions by accident. It is because I have been constantly living on the edge, in a high-stress situation where my fundamental needs have not been met. Needs that are core and essential but I’ve been given no resources, instruction manual or tools to meet the need. How can I ever thrive, or expect myself to when I haven’t even got a foundation to fall back onto? I sound irrational ringing up my support worker and telling her that although I’ve paid my rent this month, I still need to find more money just in case something ever happens, and I have to up and leave and start again. She reminds me it’s not irrational and is to be expected given everything that has happened in the past few years, but I am angry that I can’t shut this nagging in my mind.

As I sit here, feeling relatively safe as it’s past 5pm so I know nobody from the council is going to ring me up tonight to tell me to leave, I ask myself what now, and how do I switch this off? I don’t want to punish myself by not doing so, because that’s counterproductive. I can’t expect myself to change my behaviour when history has shown me how engrained it has been over many years. However, sitting down and realising why I am this way is awful. It reminds me of every bad situation I endured because I was driven by an invisible fear in my mind; of every angry conversation I had with services because they didn’t understand why I was this way; how much I have neglected myself and my health in pursuit of stability; each time I questioned my own sanity because I didn’t understand why I kept doing something I hated.

Last week, I sat watching a documentary, and there was nothing in it that was particularly relevant to myself or my life, but I found myself in floods of tears randomly. I try to explain to people it’s like grief. One day, you are making dinner and you realise you don’t need to get a second plate out because they are no longer there. Before you know it, you’re on the floor in tears despite your loved one having passed months ago, and the sense of loss feels fresh and raw again. These things come out of nowhere, and catch you when you least expect it. Being chronically poor or having chronic instability takes its toll on you. I am forever torn between not wanting to seem ungrateful to have my flat and realising how bad things have been, and hating that I now have the time to sit back and reflect on it from a place of relative safety. When I was in constant fight and flight mode, I didn’t have time nor care to look back because I had to keep going forward or end up worse off.

Tackling your emotions can feel scary. I am sure anyone can relate to when you feel low or bad about yourself, suddenly everything you’ve felt bad about floods your mind, making you feel even lower. It’s why we avoid it. However, I implore people that if, like me, you find yourself crying as you’re walking to the shop because a random memory has popped into your mind, seek help. It’s one of the first signs that your mind is telling you something is wrong, and you need to deal with it. Therapists tell clients that it is only when you are safe does your mind also feel safe to revisit these memories and tackle them. If you keep pushing them down, either by locking them away or downing 2 bottles of wine a night, they’ll continue to eat you up inside. It’s what kept me in the cycle of addiction.

What now?

The truth is, I haven’t switched off survival mode and I don’t feel ready emotionally ready yet to say I have a home. It would be unrealistic of me to expect so much from myself so early on. However, I am recognising that I feel this way and learning why. I am also seeking mental health support, reading lots about c-PTSD and general self-help books. It’s not much, but I’m making an effort and realising that I am this way is half the battle. You can’t resolve something when you don’t recognise there is a problem.

I am no longer a survival sex worker in terms of working to reach the basics anymore. Although I still work to pay my bills, and buy basic furniture. I am no longer on the edge anymore, and I have a foundation. I am still not thriving however, I am stagnant. Although, many may argue this means I am still a survival sex worker. I continue to have the mind-set of a survival sex worker – the fears that come with it, the memories which keep you fuelling that cycle too. My support workers always remark on how little I live off, they encourage me to spend more on myself, to enjoy money and treat myself. However, I can’t, I keep feeling as though I need reserves because an unexpected bill will throw me into an awful spiral again.

There is a lot to be done, both mentally and physically, to get myself out of this mindset. I know I need to allow myself to relax, but rationally, history tells me it’s not okay to and therefore, I need proof first before I can relax. Although, I need to define what the proof is, otherwise I will keep justifying this feeling of survival. Once I have carpets, a sofa, and have lived here for 6+ months, got a job and put my roots down, or lived here long enough for condiments to expire, maybe then will I emotionally allow myself to call these walls my home.

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4 thoughts on “Switching off Survival Mode

  1. Amazing, insightful article – thank you! I hope you don’t mind my suggestion, but I found the book “CBT for Dummies” really great for tackling my issues, building self esteem and challenging engrained behaviours and negative thoughts. Don’t be put off by the title! It’s cheap on eBay or you can get the ebook for free via the Overdrive app xx

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  2. Thanks for sharing. I have been in a similar survival setting, but with a family to support at the same time. My belief is that simply “switching off” is not possible for people who have touched the bottom and who have had all of their preconceptions about the human condition stripped away and replaced with the hard reality of existence. My only suggestion is to turn the narrative around in your head. At a survival level you say x number of bj’s pays rent. But to grow out of that mode the little voice in your head must say something like – my target this week is x number of bj’s at my usual price, and when I hit target then I can offer a little more but charge a extra. In a nutshell, you turn your service into a product with an upside. From your perspective looking at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you are saying that as your income crosses the different levels, your

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  3. I don’t know what to say, but thought I must comment anyway.

    I was a sex worker for 12 years. I stopped 5 years ago.

    My ‘motivations’ were/are the exact same as yours.

    We have been taught/shown/made aware, through life experiences, that security and stability can (CAN) be fleeting.

    I stopped sex work because I realised it was harming me more than my fears of financial insecurity were harming me. I was 28. Every day I have to face the fact that I would enter sex work again if I had to. It’s so hard never being able to say ‘I will never do this again’. It’s so hard that most don’t understand, don’t get it.

    I absolutely despise most abolishionists. I got involved with the movement when I first quit, and I never met anyone who had genuinely worked in sex work. Those who have can tell if others are genuine.

    Until the system which allows people to rely on food banks to live, is reformed to being humane, then our recourse to survival should never be criminalised!!. “They” are looking at the completely wrong issue here. Fuck knows why.

    I don’t want to preach to you Grace, I admire you and your writing is way better than mine. If I may, here is my advice to you –

    Take it one day at a time. Reassure yourself that sex work is still there if you need it tomorrow, next week, next month. But choose to keep yourself away for this one day. I still do this every day after years.

    I hope you are not offended by this.

    xx

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    1. Hello,

      Apologies for the the delay in response. You haven’t offended me at all! It’s been a lovely comment to read, and I always welcome people commenting their experiences or talking about topics.

      I’m sorry you had bad experiences with the abolitionists, from my experience, they’re not friendly towards sex workers themselves. I recommend reading Why I Am No Longer An Abolitionist by Michelle Kelly on Medium. Like you, she got involved with abolitionists after she quit sex work, but reached similar conclusions to yourself. You’re not alone x

      & thank you, I appreciate your comments on my writing and your advice. Well done for transitioning away from sex work (hope that doesn’t sound sarcastic) because it’s really difficult to do & perceptive to recognise the harms outweigh the goods.

      Thank you xxx

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