How To Blow Up Your Life

Hi, so I’m about to tell a story that has a bit of journey to its end point (isn’t that life?). I want to start by saying how grateful I am for Autostraddle, for being a place where queer writers — in this case, me — have space to tell all of our stories, in the ways and time we need to tell them. Right now Autostraddle needs to raise $145,000 over the next several weeks or it’s over. Not because we are financially irresponsible, not because we don’t squeeze a full dollar out of every 15 cents we are able to pull together, but because, as you well know, capitalism is not built for independent queer media to survive. And yet, here we are doing just that! We know a lot of people are broke right now, and we’re not asking anyone who can’t to support — but if you have the ability to do so, will you give to our fundraiser?

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I’m supposed to be writing about what happened when I blew up my life. “Blowing up my life” is what I call it when I’m talking to people who know me now because it’s quippy and sounds nice. Like a quirky protagonist in a rom-com who jetsets to Paris. Real main character energy. So much better than “when I was 29 years old I was so depressed, that once during a casual phone call with my mom, I offhandedly said ‘I ruined my life’ and didn’t even realize the alarm bells it was setting off.”

Nico, our fundraising and A+ director, asked me to write about “blowing up my life” for our fundraiser because they have only heard me talk about it with joy. Which makes sense! In a specific light, the kind I like best to curate, there’s a lot of excitement in lighting a match and walking away like a badass as the tank of kerosene blows. Autostraddle is fundraising right now for our survival. We are asking you to take a leap with us, because we believe that independent queer media is important. We believe that queer storytelling is vital. I can understand why Nico wanted me to introduce those themes to you, because if there’s one thing I know about — it’s taking a scary leap when everything’s on the line. I so want to be that cool badass.

Instead, I procrastinated.

I don’t talk a lot about my previous life, because well first, I don’t think most people outside of an academic campus care about the niche details of what it’s like to be in academia. It can feel like real champagne problems, I know that. Second, it’s hard to describe what it’s like for your mother to drive cross-country to pack up your apartment and move you back home to the city you grew up, while you sob about being a failure in the passenger seat of your own car, just a few months after your 30th birthday, and throw up in a motel bathroom.

I was a dutiful kid, which is probably as boring as it is relatable, I studied and played by the rules. I didn’t dye my hair fire engine red in high school, even though I wanted to. I didn’t buy Doc Martens (I actually just got my first pair this year, in a fear that at 36 if I didn’t buy them soon my knees wouldn’t hold out much longer). I didn’t come out of the closet. I went to college. I graduated with honors. I got into a PhD program straight out of undergrad — where I was the youngest person in the program. I had been training to be a professor since I was 19. By the time I was 22 and starting my first semester of grad classes, I knew it was a mistake almost immediately. But being an overachiever, that was my brand. Making my family proud? That was my brand. And being Dr. Carmen Phillips, I told myself that meant something.

So I kept trying to make it stick. I ripped myself into smaller and smaller pieces. I changed how I thought, how I talked, how I wrote. Other twentysomethings got messy in clubs, they had boozy brunches and one night stands. I studied even more. People fell in and out of love, made lifelong friendships. I kept trying to get a square peg into a round hole, debasing myself when I couldn’t make it fit. I knew it shouldn’t have been that hard, but I thought I only had myself to blame. And most of all? I felt ashamed. I didn’t know how to talk about my depression, so for years — I just didn’t. I couldn’t explain how empty everything felt both inside and around me, so I laughed it off and pretended I knew how to keep up. Even when I kept falling further and further behind.

I thought that by 35, I’d be married. I thought by 35, I’d have kids. I thought I’d be straight.

Now I’m 36, and I have none of those things. I have a very expensive degree that’s still sitting in the envelope they sent to me, stuffed behind a bookcase. I try not to think about it. You never know what life will hand you.

When I was 29 and at my breaking point, I had already been out for a few years. I had been reading Autostraddle for years. In my memory, those things blend together, a fibrous tree with crossing roots, because the more I was out, the more I read Autostraddle. The more I read Autostraddle, the more I found myself yearning for something more. The more I realized that there was maybe a place for me that didn’t feel… wrong. That I didn’t have to settle for fitting my square peg into a round hole.

And so, I blew it up.

I was so depressed, I let the clock run out on a job that I hated anyway. I moved back home. I started spending so much time in the comments of Autostraddle that Heather Hogan reached out to offer me a job as a freelance writer. From there, I became an editor. Then Editor-in-Chief. Those parts I’ve talked about before, so there’s a good chance you’ve heard them.

I’m glad I procrastinated on writing this essay, because now I get to tell you about what happens on the other half. The transition from one life to another is messy, and in some ways it’s never complete — or at least I haven’t found there to be as clean of a break between “then” and “now” as I’ve expected. Deciding to write about blowing up my life immediately left me wondering, “well, was blowing up my life worth it?” And I don’t know. That question feels like it should be simple, but I guess nothing in life is.

But today (yesterday, by the time you are reading this) Autostraddle launched our fundraiser. We need to make $145k or we won’t see 2023. Nico has been working until the middle of the night for weeks to prepare for this moment. Riese has crunched numbers, and then crunched them again. We’ve all worked together on messaging, on social media strategy, we put our hearts into this entire package because without this money — it’s over. And then this morning, I had to go into the office and say that a nagging traffic problem we’ve been facing lately — because being an indie website means we cannot afford the kinds of tech specialists who spend all day watching the whims of algorithm changes on Google or social media — was reaching a crisis point. For other publications that’s an entire department, for us it’s something we had to train ourselves and monitor around all of our other jobs, which means we have to work that much harder to get our content out to y’all reading this. Anyway, this morning I had to go into the office and tell everyone that this nagging traffic issue had returned.

I was anxious to even say it. Everyone has been working so hard, you know? And on the exact day of our fundraiser launch, I had to share this bad news! It was also news that couldn’t wait. We’ve learned that bad traffic compounds as the days go on. So I took a deep breath, I gathered up the charts (one of the ways that we’re able to keep our operational costs lean is by only paying for the tech services we can use well and efficiently, traffic monitoring software like Parse.ly and Jetpack have been lifesavers), and I apologized profusely before letting everyone know about the problem we were facing. I never expected what happened next. This team — this exhausted, overworked team — they didn’t get frustrated. They didn’t groan or complain. They rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

With $145k on the line and a mere hours to go before our fundraiser launch, every senior member of the Autostraddle staff stopped what they were doing to help — even the senior staff who aren’t editors were brainstorming! Riese at one point said, “I am loving this ‘throw anything at the wall and see what sticks’ energy” and it was exactly that. The magic of what makes Autostraddle run best, on full display. We closed a 12% daily average traffic gap in an afternoon, that’s unheard of. Kayla wrote three posts in a single day. Riese updated the Generation Q post. Nico wrote us a last minute post — on the very same day they launched this fundraiser! Heather and Riese both planned extra posts for Friday. Later that evening, right as the fundraiser launched, I stopped to promote a tweet from shea (one of our writers), who’s looking for Black butch, masc-of-center, and transmasc people to talk to for an essay they’re working on about Brittney Griner’s wrongful detention in Russia. I’m the editor of that piece.

I spent so much this week thinking, “was blowing up my life worth it?” only to be reminded how profoundly grateful I am to be here. What a gift this life is that I scrapped together for myself — something I didn’t even know enough to see coming.

When I was 29, I thought I had ruined it. I thought, “that’s it.” There was going to be nothing else. Instead I’m lucky enough to somehow get to be in service of the stories of our community. Every person at Autostraddle has allowed me to have dreams I didn’t know were possible.

And that’s just the start of my dreams, because it’s not about me at all. When it comes to Autostraddle, it’s about what we can accomplish together. Last week, our senior staff had a virtual retreat — our first in two years; we’ve been so busy surviving this pandemic that we haven’t had time to take stock — and the ideas that we have for this website?? On top of running the day-to-day of Autostraddle (our first, second, and third jobs), on top of the fundraiser planning, everyone squeezed in time we didn’t have, tucked into the spare common hours across at least three different time zones, to sit together on Zoom and imagine what comes next.

We read through reader survey results, through questionnaires our writers so generously filled out for feedback about our workplace, and we made big, fearless plans. We talked about meeting the needs of readers who have grown up with us and now have (chosen or biological) families of their own, readers who are figuring out what queer independence and stability looks like over the age 35. We made next steps for expanding our coverage to increase the ways we’re writing about asexuality, transmasc representation, how to better serve international readers. We planned for (new!) daily puzzles (get us to $100k and we can get started!). We talked about where we’re going next to keep making Autostraddle more accessible, including audio articles for our longreads, something we will begin work on in 2023 if we can make it to then. We assessed where we want to take our TV/film and books coverage in the immediate future — including bringing even more queer writing luminaries back to Autostraddle (perhaps you saw our recent excerpt from Carmen Maria Machado?), while also making room for emerging queer lit talent, and taking our TV/film recaps and criticism, already one of Autostraddle’s backbones, to an even higher plane.

That’s not everything we talked about. More than anything I want to make sure that when really spectacular, weird, thoughtful, funny queer writing is talked about on the internet, that Autostraddle is there. And that we’re doing so in a way that takes into account the full breadth of our queer community, that we are making a workplace where QTPOC and content makers who are most marginalized in our community, are centered and supported. What I’m most proud of is that we sat together and found ways to rearrange our editorial spending so that we could raise rates for our writers without increasing our budget. And I know — we all know! — it’s still not enough, but none of us could stomach not finding a way to show up with material support, given how inflation has been going. We did all of this in a week. I believe Autostraddle can handle anything, we just need the chance.

I know Autostraddle saves lives, because it saved mine. That’s as plain and honest and true as it gets. And that was true long before I ever knew any of these beautiful queer weirdos as my coworkers or before I was honored to call them my friends.

Six years ago I blew up everything I had planned for myself, burned it straight to the ground. It was not brave; I do not look back to when I woke up every morning in tears and a stomach ache and think “that was a brave girl.” But every day during a period of time in my life that I’d rather leave blurry, glaze over, and forget — Autostraddle was there with a joke; with smart words about a television show when I hadn’t yet made new friends and TV was my lifeline; with advice about sex that I was too depressed to have; and eventually, at just the right moment, advice on how to find a therapist when all I had was shitty health insurance. That’s what they did for me as a reader. And that’s what I’m here writing you today as, someone for whom the words on this website saved her. We are on the brink of not being here. Please don’t let it end like this. Please help us be here for the next person who needs this home on the internet.

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Carmen Phillips

Carmen is Autostraddle's Editor-in-Chief and a Black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 515 articles for us.

18 Comments

  1. this is such a lovely summary of why autostraddle matters so much to me! also love the ‘hanging out in the comments so much heather hogan offered me a freelance job’ to ‘editor in chief’ arc, that’s the rags to riches queer story we deserve !

  2. Relating so hard, because I just blew up my life. The specifics are different but I’ve left behind so much that didn’t serve me, and I know that it’s taking me toward a future where I can be openly and unapologetically queer. Autostraddle has for sure been a part of that process.

  3. whoops I accidentally posted as a reply, my apologies.

    Carmen <33333

    You may not "look back to when [you] woke up every morning in tears and a stomach ache and think “that was a brave girl," but I do that you were brave. you kept being alive, and you kept feeling things, even when both of those hurt a lot to do. you didn't let yourself become bitter or closed off or give up on wanting good things for yourself. and that takes courage. and I'm very glad you're here with us now 💟

  4. Carmen!!!! So much of this was familiar to me. At 30, I *also* called my mom to tell her I needed to move home! She flew up and we packed my civic to the gills. Driving into town, I could barely breathe. What was I doing?

    Ten years later, I’m still here, by choice, and I’m really pretty happy, and I get to work with the website that also saved MY life!

    I am so glad Autostraddle has you — as glad as I am that we had Autostraddle then, when we really needed it, and still have it now!!! Thank you, truly, for all you do. 💙

  5. Autostraddle is so important for community, i.e. all the usual queer reasons, but also for the solidarity in knowing I’m not the only one whose parent drove halfway across the country to pick me up after a full breakdown.

    Thank you Carmen and thank you Autostraddle!! 💜

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