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9) Escape from Fieldwork

Several posts prior, I posed the question, how did my research affect my drug use? My previous post was meant to start to tackle that question, but instead, I neatly sidestepped it, and discussed my rules surrounding my drug use and my research interlocutors. I am now ready to dive deeper and take a look: how did my work in the red-light district, surrounded daily by sex workers, drug consumers, pimps, drug dealers, thieves, hustlers, and other marginalized members of Ecuadorian society help fuel my drug consumption? As an anthropologist out on the streets, I was recording the stories of sex workers, and in many cases, they were stories of trauma. However, I want to avoid bolstering the myth that all sex workers become sex workers due to trauma--that they are somehow acting out on their pasts and repeating cycles of abuse. That's a tired perspective. Some of the workers I worked with enjoyed their jobs. They loved being freelance workers and did not mind performing sexual acts for a living--they chose their clients after all (unlike in brothel work), and felt empowered by using their bodies to earn cash. I recorded the stories of as many sex workers as possible, victims of trauma, among those with other varied experiences.

I do not think the heavy stories of trauma drove me to use, per se, but I do think being in the ambiente--environment--daily, affected me more than I would have liked to admit at the time. Every day I encountered new and difficult situations to navigate emotionally. Lots of people in the ambiente, viewed me--a white, privileged, highly educated, woman from New York City--as an ally, which I was, but many viewed me as occupying a position of power I often did not have. (Although, to be fair, I had much more power than most of the poverty-stricken, marginalized folks around me). Lots of people felt that I could magically get things done for them, due to my subject position. Of course, there were the requests for money. Those requests happened dozens of times throughout the day. I used to get frustrated, and once I lost my cool, and snapped at a sex worker, exclaiming: "I am not your ATM!!!" I very rarely gave money to anyone, not even to my closest friends on the streets. But I digress. How I dealt with all the money requests deserves its own post. I was also asked to help the sex workers navigate different government or medical bureaucracies, which was surreal, as I was a foreigner. How would I know anything about the medical industrial complex in Ecuador? However, I ended up getting highly involved in the care of Santiago's (my unofficial bodyguard--all names changed) special needs' son, Francisco, so I did in fact become an expert of the medical bureaucracies in Ecuador. But all these constant pleas for help were exhausting and emotionally draining. I felt like people looked at me with dollar signs or thrust me into the role of Mother Teresa. Some days, I just did not feel like helping anyone. Other days, I felt incredibly guilty for not doing enough to help. Every day I faced the startling poverty of the streets and watched people suffer--I saw fights break out, I witnessed intimate partner violence, police brutality, muggings--I saw violence in its every form. 99% of the time, I was holding emotional space for the sex workers, as they flooded me with their stories and experiences. They would tell me about their small, daily misfortunes, like missing the bus to work that morning, to the big heavy lifting stories, like the time that client raped them. (Perhaps that former client had just walked passed or something to that effect). There's a reason I became a therapist after graduating with my PhD in cultural anthropology--I was acting as an amateur therapist on the streets all those years during my fieldwork. I loved listening to the women. I enjoyed receiving their complaints, hardships, and general experiences (not all of them negative). I offered words of wisdom and solace, to the best of my ability. It felt good when I could make these women feel a bit better--lessen their burdens for a moment, share a laugh, or reflect on something positive.

But all this emotional labor had a price. When I got on my bus northward at the end of another exhausting day in the field, all I wanted was a beer to wash away the heaviness. I wanted several drinks and knew that they would lead to smashing rails at Pablo's (my former boyfriend) apartment. I just wanted to feel light and carefree. It was like a "reset" button. My after work drinks and lines of cocaine allowed me to occupy a different head space. I just wanted to blow off some steam and enjoy myself--laugh with my friends, dance salsa, get floaty and high--feel the day's distress melt away. Drugs and alcohol were simply the best escape I had ever found.

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