Risk and Leverage

Photo Credit: Celena Flores
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I can remember vividly the first time I realized that I enjoyed risk. I’d been told by others that I was a risk taker, and had been called an outside the box thinker. But I never saw it in myself until I was standing on the landing of the 2nd floor apartment I’d shared with my mom one sunny afternoon in April, holding the last of my stuff in a file box. The landing was notoriously wobbly and had a piece of plywood covered in astroturf bolted to the crumbling cement in a futile attempt to stabilize it, but the worn green plastic only served to underscore the shoddy workmanship. My mother, when she’d been sober, called it her springboard to the 4th dimension and it did have a lot of springboard qualities.

On that day, there was a slight breeze and I stood there for the last time, swaying gently with knowledge that this was it: no going back. I felt true risk and I loved it. I was still a high school student, and while I’d owned and operated a cleaning and gardening business on my own, and had used the proceeds to pay my portion of the rent and groceries for the last three years, I felt so young in that moment.

My mom, back on whatever she could find that would get her high and keep her there, was desperate for me to stay and pay for her crash pad. She’d told me repeatedly that if I left her, I would die. I didn’t necessarily think she was wrong. I only knew that I would definitely die if I stayed. Or she would kill me. Maybe not on purpose (although it wouldn’t have been the first time) maybe not even on accident. But the rotten need for heroin that was consuming her cell by cell in front of me would kill me before it even half-way finished with her, and I could feel it in every ounce of my body.

Standing on that landing, I didn’t know if I’d survive, I didn’t know if all the horrible things she’d told me about myself (that I was so dumb she thought I had a developmental disorder, that I was a sociopath, that I wasn’t worth anything to anyone, that I was a naturally unlikable person, etc.) were true or not. But I knew that I was willing to take the risk and follow my intuition. I felt free to sink or swim on my own merit, free to define my own destiny.

There’s a quote in the movie Capote where Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the famous writer, says of the criminal he profiled in his career-making book In Cold Blood, “it's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.” When I think about that April day, I also think of that quote in relation to my mother and I, who did grow up in the same house by virtue of the fact that her mother and step-father took guardianship of me and raised me from ages two to thirteen.

As far as metaphors go, I’d been moving towards the front door for a long time before then, and I continue to choose the front door every day that I practice a principled life and focus on recovery. But I’ve come to think of that day as the day I actually got up and went out the front and away from the way I was raised, and the people who raised me.

When I look back, it was hardly a risk at all, and that’s why I am still sometimes surprised when people call me a risk-taker. These don’t seem like risks as much as they are me leveraging something for something else. Which, of course is extremely wrapped up in risk. A lot can go wrong in leveraging things.

My whole life, I’ve gotten an extra thrill out of having nothing to lose. That was a big advantage for me in 2020. After being chased out of a job I loved by an abusive boss, starting a new chapter back in the “safe” place of being in business for myself, and then being too young of a company to receive any COVID relief, I truly felt like I had nothing. But I had start-up money and I had 20 years of experience in this business, so I took advantage of that and I made the even more risky move of insisting on running this new venture as if it was already viable. By that I mean I worked less than 4 hours a day most days, I took leisurely lunch breaks and started learning how to cook after 35 years of relying on either hot dogs and mac and cheese or the generosity of a series of culinarily talented friends, most recently my partner of 17 years.

I slept late, and I stayed up late. Not working. I played video games. I read, I wrote. I painted and drew. I did anything my deeply buried creative heart wanted me to do. I cancelled meetings and closed shop for family events, either on Zoom or social distance. I took afternoon naps and yoga classes online and I quit things and said no to projects because I felt like it. Even if it was something I’d previously said yes to, even things I’d said yes to for years. If I didn’t feel like it, I didn’t do it.

I only worked with people I liked on projects I liked and while that didn’t always turn out how I’d expected, it usually did or it was even better than expected. Way more frequently than I thought it would be.

All this luxury is a privilege afforded me as a middle class person, a person with a degree, a cis-passing person who is fairly light-complected and whose disabilities are invisible. It was privilege I was not leveraging for my benefit or anyone else’s, and therefore it was a resource I was leaving on the table in the fight against white supremacy. I can only apologize for not seeing my own value sooner, as I could have been doing this work for longer if I had.

It’s easy to see that during this risky time, I took a deeper risk and threw the startup manual out the window to my great reward. It’s harder to see that it didn’t feel like a risk to me, it felt like freedom and it felt like that day on the landing all over again. Yes, maybe this business will die. Yes, maybe I am all the things the people and systems in my abusive employment history told me I was (too idealistic, not strong enough, too short-sighted, not savvy enough, etc.) but I know that staying in that system was killing me, and faster than it was killing itself.

When I was young, I had only my body and my mind to leverage. While that choice did put me in danger and do me harm, the truth is I was already being harmed. I was born into abuse and raised by abusive people. The abusive work situations I either put myself into as my own employer or agreed to enter into as an employee could never hold a candle to what was going on at home. But as the years went on, I didn’t change my equation. I was leveraging more and more of my safety and identity for less and less reward. I was leaving my valuable experience out of the deal and now I’m not.

That’s the big lesson from 2020 that I’m bringing into 2021. At the start of last year, I feared I’d lost value by no longer being willing to put myself in harm’s way for money (whether physical or psychological, or through the increasing stress of working under late-stage capitalism). But when I followed my intuition, I realized that my true value isn’t something that can be taken away from me, or traded with someone else.

The value I carry is as a force multiplier. I am a catalyst, that’s why I love risk so much. That day on the landing, the thing I was feeling was because I had caught sight of my own life in the moments before potential became reality. The way I navigated risk served me when I was young, and then went on to harm me later in life. But it wasn't risk’s fault. Or anybody’s, really. I’d simply been leveraging the wrong thing for too long.

~ M ~