I Just Really Hate Conferences

TW chronic health, food, eating disorders, income/money

On face value, conferences seem like something that I would enjoy. There’s so much opportunity to learn and practice different skills, a bunch of your friends, probably a pool or lake to swim in, excuses to get dressed up in fetish/queer gear, people to meet and network with, and more. I like all these things!

But I just fucking hate conferences. And yet, I feel like I have to keep going to them, time and time again.

What makes me dislike them so much?

The price

Let’s start with a big one. Unless the conference is in Toronto, I tend to pay $600-1200 to attend, even if I’m presenting. That’s one to two months of my rent. Why so much as a presenter? Because conferences rarely pay. The most I’ve ever received is $75 plus comped entry for teaching two classes and being in an event. Normally you just get a full or partial entry comp. That still leaves me with plane tickets, hotel, food (if I am even capable of eating), and emergency/misc money to come up with.

This is…very challenging for me, and frankly it puts me further in debt, keeps me from being able to reliably buy groceries, or move into a house that doesn’t have a roof that leaks (and therefore making me unable to have a proper workspace). It stops me from being able to build my home life up, go to the dentist, or invest in things that I need. It means that my anxiety and everything else is worse, all the time, because I’m constantly worried about money and if I can pay rent this month. The frustration when I can’t “do well enough” to afford to go to one; like this is my fault; like I’m broken.

A pile of 11 conference badges spanning from 2016-2018. Some are marked as a presenter, others are not.
A sampling of some (not all) of my conference tags amasses since 2016.

It also means that I need to make even more money to get there. I live below the poverty line in a big, expensive city, and have so much workplace trauma that getting “a real job” (read: one that actually pays reliably) is basically impossible. Maybe I’ll get there one day, but I’m not holding my breath. I’m also chronically, unpredictably ill, which further complicates the “me working jobs that pay” thing. Even though I charge above minimum-wage for all the things that make me money, the effort of doing enough work to pay my bills and afford a conference, plus my (basically) unpaid work (like this site!), plus chores and everything else you need to do in a month, is really, really draining on my system.

It’s worth it, usually. But it’s a LOT of money, and it’s a LOT of work to put in for the privilege of working someone’s event (for free). Paying that much money again and again to talk somewhere and not getting paid, even though you’re literally part of what brings the crowd, is insulting and exhausting, especially at a “feminist” organization, especially for a marginalized person.

The food

About 60% of the time, my diet is, in my opinion, fairly straightforward. I’m a lactose intolerant vegetarian (“mostly vegan”) and have a sensory disorder that renders certain food like avocados to cause a visceral reaction of disgust; but since I live in Toronto, this is not an issue at all. It’s very, very, very rare where I’ll go out to eat and can’t have anything – I honestly don’t remember the last time it happened.

The other 40% is when some of my chronic health problems kick in – specifically those surrounding my throat and history of an eating disorder. Depending on the severity of the throat flare up; I may not be able to eat anything solid, too acidic, or too spicy (as general rules). Flare ups tend to occur when I’m overwhelmed, emotional (strongly positive or negative), or worn-down.

Being anorexic as a pre-teen/teenager shut down a few parts of my body’s functioning, including my ability to know when I’m hungry. I tend to get hunger cues for the first time if I haven’t eaten in 48 hours. When I’m well, this is manageable, as I remind myself to eat anyway. But when I’m overwhelmed, emotional (strongly positive or negative), worn-down, manic, or depressed, I can’t.

So those 48 hours creep up easily at conferences and suddenly I know I’m hungry and I need food right now, but my throat is also acting up because same triggers, so I can’t swallow anything, and I need to find food immediately but I don’t know this city so I don’t know where I can eat, and America isn’t Toronto so it’s much harder to find even “mostly vegan”, let alone the rest, and I’m needing to navigate this in front of people who don’t know me well enough for me to communicate what’s up and they expect me to be social in a loud place and I think I’m going to have a panic attack.

And maybe I find food that is compatible with my restrictions. But I probably can’t eat more than two forkfuls without feeling like I’ll puke. Or maybe I don’t and I just continue not eating, now acutely aware of my hunger.

But either way I have to put my game face on and teach a class or run a kink party or play a scene or be social, or…and not let people know that I feel like I’m dying because then I’ll ruin everyone else’s good time.

The stress

(On others)

Something about conferences (probably the stuff listed above, with details changed!) seems to wreak havoc on the people that I care about. Conferences are hard. There are always so many meltdowns and crises at conferences. So many. And I don’t know how to say no to that at a con, especially if I think they won’t turn to anyone else.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very glad to be able to be there and provide support for my friends and loved ones when they need it. But that support doesn’t exist in a vacuum and I’m already struggling to maintain boundaries, take care of myself, and keep myself healthy. I don’t have much to give. But I’m going to give it anyway, no matter what, if the options seem to be show up for them or they will be harmed. That’s a lot of pressure and of course I’ll be there. Even when I know I shouldn’t be. Even when it’s literally back-to-back-to-back.

(On me)

Okay, so I spent two months’ rent to be here, it better be fucking amazing and I better make the most out of every second and attend all the sessions and go to all the parties and – no. Can’t do that, I’ll get sick. And not just in the ways listed above. Dial it back, take it slow, rest, look after yourself, be mindful of how you spend your energy and with whom. Okay, I’ve got this. Maybe I avoided making myself sick, but probably not.

Most likely I’m sick anyway and angry with myself for “not knowing better” and “not doing better”, as if being ill is a moral failing on my part. As if I asked for this. As if I like being unable to eat to the point where I faint, to the point where my long-distance play partners who I was so excited to engage with cancel our scenes because they know I can’t handle it. As if I want to be too sick to see my friends and feel good and stand for 5 minutes and follow a simple conversation. As if this is the life I thought I’d be living in my mid 20s.

And if I do manage to get through it without a flare up? Okay, I spent two months’ rent for…what? Going to probably two classes at most? Possibly none that challenged me? Missing out on almost everything that I wanted to see/do, not getting to really engage with my friends because I was too busy putting out fires and trying not to be sick?

Neither one of these options are great, honestly.

Not to mention, people in the States (where almost all the conferences are) seem to universally think I’m a woman and refuse to understand differently, which puts me on edge and, frankly, is mildly traumatic knowing that I’m choosing to go to a place where I will be called a woman 24/7.

So why the heck do I keep going?

It feels necessary for my business

A bar graph of Twitter engagement. Stats skyrocket in August when Woodhull happens and remain elevated
Twitter engagement for July and August. See the difference after Woodhull? Up 1581.5%.

Quite frankly, I feel like I can’t afford not to. Presenting gets my name out there, gives me connections, adds to my resume. Being there allows me to get a sense for people in real life. So many projects and opportunities come from being there (at SFS I was approached about the Effing Foundations grants and told to apply, for example). You get items for review, get to see what new things people are working on, get to put faces to names, network, build relationships with people.

You can’t get this as well if you stay home.

If I want to be more than a person with a blog, it’s way harder if I stay home (nothing wrong with people with blogs, obviously, but I want to take my work off this site more than just stay here).

Yeah, I enjoy seeing my friends, traveling, all that, but I go because it’s so, so hard to get ahead in this industry, especially if you’re marginalized, and it feels like staying home from the big conferences especially will mean losing ground that I’ve fought so hard to very tenuously gain. Like I’ll become obsolete if they don’t engage with me in person. Like people remember you at the cons but forget you exist once you leave them.

And so I keep going.

But I’ll continue to go. And it’ll continue to make me miserable and sick and in debt. Until one day I give up on that, and hope that folks will sick around.

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