I Battled My PTSD At A Leather Bar — And I Won

“Consciously, I knew I was in no danger, but my nervous system felt differently,
“Consciously, I knew I was in no danger, but my nervous system felt differently,

“Consciously, I knew I was in no danger, but my nervous system felt differently," said the author, Lara Americo.

Iwalkedinto The Eagle, a notorious leather bar in Manhattan. As a transgender woman, there are places you know not to go. The bar is inclusive but the men who frequent it are not — and being a femme around a bunch of horny, “masc4masc” types isn’t my idea of fun.

The bar was hosting a play that Boundless Theater, a queer theater company, produced called ”Slap & Tickle.” I was there playing the role of Shira, a 40-year-old Jewish transgender woman (which is, give or take, my exact identity). The cast was made up of me and six of the most tender gay cisgender men I’d ever met.

From day one, I was smitten with each of them. They wore nothing but tiny bath towels wrapped around their waists to set the scene of an early 2000s bathhouse. I got to wear clothes because trans women were hardly in bathhouses at all. 

When I first read the script, I knew I would be performing scenes that were identical to the most traumatic moments in my life. At this point, I had been diagnosed with PTSD and knew that there were things that could trigger anxiety. I moved forward because I believed I could grit my teeth through the inevitable moments of anxiety. 

I was used to pushing through pain — enduring to prove I was stronger than the demons that were chasing me. I had been doing this as far back as my 20s as an active-duty airman and training for cage fights in Mississippi. Back then, I wanted to be as violent as my abusers were to me. 

Now, standing in a dank bar with glossy black walls and dildos hanging everywhere, I was taking in the smell of urine, leather and lube. Somehow, this was my chance to prove that I defeated my demons not with violence but with compassion. The years of therapy and trauma-informed yoga brought me to a place where I could face my past and not crumble. 

The bar didn’t have a stage, so we set up 12-by-12 platforms throughout the cavernous bar. We mimicked this as best as we could in our producer’s living room where we rehearsed. As we neared opening night, we memorized our lines and blocking and were starting to move as one. One night in our producer’s living room, I watched two of my cast mates perform a scene where one was being sexually abused — and my hands started trembling. The scene was coming up where my character would find him alone in the bathroom. I played his savior and delivered the line, “Are you OK, honey?” 

“Are you OK?” It’s all I ever wanted to hear in all the times when I was beaten, abused or let down by the world because of my identity. I have been the outlet for so many people’s trauma and just once, I wanted someone to save me. To let me know that everything was going to be OK. Ultimately, I had to become that for myself.

My heart was racing and I was having trouble breathing, but I forced myself into our scene and sheepishly delivered my lines. Why was my body reacting this way? Consciously, I knew I was in no danger but my nervous system felt differently. My heart, breath and nervous system were acting independently of me — and I was a prisoner. 

I live with PTSD. It took decades for me to say this out loud, let alone begin managing the symptoms. I’ve experienced all of these — nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks — and denied them. I put them in a box, only for them to come up later in the form of ruined relationships, careers cut short and self-harm. 

Today, though, there’s no shame. I congratulate myself for coming out of so many dark places. I just wish there were a tangible finish line.

On our sold-out opening night of the production, the bartenders looked like they walked out of a Tom of Finland drawing. The second floor was being renovated and any place that wasn’t demolished became our greenroom. My cast mates and I all shared mirrors above a metal trough in the bathroom, pancaking our faces with stage makeup and covering any exposed skin with glossy moisturizer. Adam, our director, arrived decked out in a leather biker cap and vest. 

“If any of you mess up, don’t worry about it. It’s just a play in a leather bar,” he assured us.

"There was no way to convey to my cast mates that my body was reacting to our play as if it was real," Americo said.

He was right. I had been on many stages doing many things. I had broken people’s noses and had my own broken in underground MMA fights. Later in life, I sang punk music in front of a very different audience. I had organized and led protests, shutting down busy streets. A play in a bar seemed like nothing — but my body felt like it was life or death.

The lights fell and I waited for the opening scenes to finish so I could introduce my character to the audience. My hands started to tremble and I could feel my heart rate rising, but I ignored it. I burst through the curtains and delivered my lines. My character was an angry drag queen and I could feel the rage transmitting through me to everyone around me. I stepped onto the makeshift stage to give my first monologue. On the platform, I stood a foot taller than everyone else but I felt like I was in the clouds.

Backstage, after my first scene, my heart was still pounding as if I were in danger. I knew I was in the bar but my mind and nervous system were elsewhere: the military, the cage, the abusive household. I felt like I was going to war but I knew I was just reciting lines from a script. My eyesight blurred; my hands were shaking uncontrollably and I was disassociating from my body.

“You’re on! You’re on!” the stage manager yelled, interrupting my episode. I was pushed onstage. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. The room was silent. All I could manage to do was mumble the beginnings of my lines. I could see my cast mates staring at me from across the bar. Each second of silence that came felt like days — and months soon passed by.

Jimmy, who played the bar bouncer and my boyfriend, joined me on the platform. In rehearsals, he was our guide and mentor. We were all experienced as performers but none of us were even close to him. He’d memorized our lines before we had. On the small platform, he joined me in character. He started asking me questions — coaching and prompting me to deliver my lines. Then, he put his arm around me and escorted me offstage. He still has no idea how he saved me that night.

I was inconsolable. My abusers, the military and all the transphobic attacks I’d ever shrugged off were taking something away from me. The bliss of stepping out of my own identity and exchanging energy with strangers was being robbed from me. I was being pulled away from my safe space and dragged right back to my trauma.

For the rest of the night, I pushed through the performance as if I were moving in slow motion and the world was speeding up. Afterward, the cast had a Q&A with the audience but I couldn’t bear to stay for it. I snuck out the back door and walked the streets of Manhattan for miles until my body calmed itself and my shame subsided. I couldn’t go home. 

I spent the week after the performance reviewing everything I had ever learned about PTSD. I revisited all the advice my therapists had given me, every yoga pose that I felt safe in and every breathing technique that made me feel whole. There were three more shows to go. If I was going to make it through, I would have to do months of work in just a few days.

I returned to the Eagle Bar and my cast mates consoled me by sharing stories of when they had forgotten lines. There was no way to convey to them that I knew my lines but my body was reacting to our play as if it were real. I simply nodded and thanked them. Our second showing had begun and I spent most of the play in a moving meditation, using a technique where I mentally spoke to my body. I juggled lines in the play with mantras in my mind.  

Backstage, I was upside down, folded over with my legs spread apart in a wide-legged standing forward bend called the Prasarita Padottanasana. I tapped behind my ears and buried myself in visualizations of peace. My cast mates treated me like their little sister, congratulating me on every successful scene. I hugged myself and whispered to my body, “This is just a play and we are OK.”

Our performance was going well. All that was left was the sexual assault scene in the men’s bathroom. The stage lights went red and sinister music boomed, vibrating the floor. Two performers who I’d grown to love were conjuring darkness as victim and abuser, and it was my time to be the hero — both to the characters and to myself. I summoned every bit of feminine ferocity I could and transmuted my pain into creative joy. There were tears in the audience. We had done our jobs well.

The play was over; I pushed through two more showings after that. Although it was just a play in a leather bar, it was proof that I can turn my pain into something positive. Still, there is a lifetime of work to do.  

There may never be a time when my mind and body stop going to those dark places and that’s OK. I’m doing the work I need to do because I want a future for myself and know I deserve to have joy in my life. I also want to be the hero I never had for someone else and be able to tell them, “It’s going to be OK, honey. It’s going to be OK.”

Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.