This is a really tricky topic to post about. I guess it could have some professional implications, and it certainly has some personal ones. But Ariel and I have been trying to be more forthcoming about the ups and downs of being kinky, so here goes. This is a big down, unfortunately.
I am burned out with BDSM and with my job as a bondage producer.
I think I can turn this around. I’ll describe later what I’m going to try to do about it, and why I am optimistic that this will work.
With Ariel finishing her book which has a fantastic happy ending of us meeting and living happily ever after, it feels cowardly not to talk about an unexpected road-bump: we’re suddenly not doing BDSM because I’ve got burnout.
I have, hopefully temporarily, lost all my “kinky inner life”, the lively fantasy existence that’s been whirling around in my head for literally as long as I can remember (my earliest memories are kink-related).
Having read up on the phenomenon of work-related burnout, I have self-diagnosed myself and I’m pretty damn sure that’s what I’ve got. I’ve been within a hair of walking away entirely, despite being hugely proud of the site and the kinky community we’ve built.
It is particularly tricky because kink is also one of the foundations of my relationship with my wife, as well as being my passion and my profession. I guess it is a danger that if you build a job around your sexual fantasies, if you burnout in the job, your fantasies might be annihilated in the fallout.
Before anyone jumps in with advice, and PARTICULARLY before anyone jumps in to crow or sneer or imply that Ariel and my relationship is on the rocks, I’d just like to say- bollocks. We love each other, we support each other, we’re having a great time on a working adventure in Ireland together and we will get through this together, as we have got through some other crises which have badly affected one or other of our careers before.
We’ve been finding it gradually harder to do wildly adventurous and ambitious BDSM scenes together without the impetus of a shoot. But we have still been enjoying our regular fun sliding into DS roles and doing impromptu spankings and little bits of play, so we’d just attributed the decline in adventurous scenes to us being busy.
It’s suddenly reached a crisis point for me and it is spilling out into making those things feel inexplicably disconnected from my inner life. That in turns has suddenly stopped them leading to hot improvised BDSM scenes together, and to me being devoid of ideas to shoot as well. Which is a bit shit, frankly.
I’m not looking for sympathy (although it won’t be unwelcome, especially if you have been through something similar).
I’m just trying to be honest and document a more recent part of our journey as it is happening to me. Maybe it will be useful to someone someday (possibly even if only to me).
The best parallel I can think of is an injury. A few years ago Ariel got injured at an art nude shoot and had to stop working for a while because of damage to her knee. The physical injury was bad enough but the mental and emotional fallout was horrid, especially so as I was away filming a mainstream movie at the time, because her identity and sense of worth is quite tightly wrapped up in her career, her ability to earn and be independent, and her devotion to being able to make shapes with her body. She’s already gone through one shattering injury age 18 which terminated her prospects as a dancer and this seemed like it might be the end of the one substitute she’d found which gave her some of the same spiritual and emotional satisfaction.
If I’d broken my leg and couldn’t shoot or do BDSM for a few months, we wouldn’t be thinking too much of it. It would be a problem to get past, and we’ve got plans in place to deal with such a thing were it to happen. (Indeed those same plans are the ones I’m going to put into practice for the duration of my burnout-induced shooting blackout).
But because I’ve broken my brain, we have a bit more cultural baggage around getting through the problem. Mental health problems are still health problems, and I want to be honest about mine. It’s shit, but no more shit than wondering whether Ariel and I were ever going to be able to go hill-walking again as I wheeled her around Bristol Zoo in a wheelchair on her birthday a few years ago.
Speaking from the inside, what I think has gone wrong is that a combination of low-level stresses has built up in my job over the last few years and has slowly slid me into a downward spiral of working harder but less efficiently. I’ve prided myself in working hard, but there have been too many days working until midnight to get the month’s updates processed. And most of all there have been too many attempts to extract water from the well of kinky ideas and inspirations that let me start a career as a bondage photographer and BDSM producer in the first place. The site has just celebrated its 18th birthday, and in the time I have been involved in creating over 5500 fantasy scenarios, each one brought to life with models, locations, props, cameras, lights, emails, production schedules, web pages, tweets, textural descriptions. Each one represents several hours work at the bare minimum. Add in general overheads and it’s not so far off one day per set.
Put another way, for the last 18 years, I’ve demanded of my brain one kinky idea every working day. I’ve then pummelled and pulled each of those ideas into a commercial product. And the next working day, I do it again. I’ve had a few periods of lack-of-inspiration before but only ever very temporarily and it has never before affected my inner fantasy life.
Added to that were external stressors, and my responses to them.
Like most fetish websites, we hit our peak sales in around 2008-9. The aftermath of the financial crash, the rise of tube sites and the lack of disposable income for most people means that I presided over 8 or 9 years of seemingly inexorably declining sales. It’s only in the last 18 months or so that it is has turned around and got back onto a level-to-very-modestly-rising slope again.
This meant almost a decade of slowly taking all the jobs I’d outsourced back in house, including ones which I find disproportionately draining on me.
We’ve also been labouring under increasingly incoherent and irrational government interference in our business, starting with the corruption of ATVOD (literally corrupt- even the government spotted it and rolled the organisation up). Now we’re in the uncertainly of the badly-thought-out age verification regulations which are sufficiently bad that the government has delayed them multiple times. Brexit adds more huge uncertainty: as I write this on Wednesday, as EU citizens legally carrying on our businesses in Ireland, by Saturday the legal basis for all of this might evaporate along with our citizenship. It’s nowhere like as stressful a situation for us as for many of the EU-UK 5 million, but it’s still a fucking bad joke.
As a result of all this sort of stress, stuff which would have been a minor problem to resolve for me in the past can seem insurmountable.
Throughout it all I’ve been continuing to draw on the well of kinky inspiration for idea after idea, one a day, every day. But I’ve stopped giving the well chance to fill up again, and the well has run dry. Talking to Ariel made me realise it actually ran dry about 18 months ago. But I’d been coasting along on the water still left at the bottom. I’ve finally reached the point where the modest seepage is no longer sufficient to refill the bucket for one last mouthful for today and just hope there’s a trickle left for tomorrow.
Right now, I am completely done with BDSM, I have no sexy ideas, no kinky inspiration, and the narrative thread that usually takes me through those things is just… gone. Dead. There’s nothing there. The number of orgasms I have has plummeted, and it’s not physical impotence or anything, it’s mental. The story that I need running in my head to have a successful fantasy or play session, the narrative voice that’s been there since I was four years old and probably before is… just gone.
It’s a bit scary.
It reaches tendrils into a lot of other parts of my life. I’ve been struggling to get enough exercise, to force myself to go out into the hills. In the past I’ve had to hold myself back from bunking off work to do that; now I’m having to force myself to do it, feel guilty when I do do it, and check twitter and emails as soon as I get signal half-way up the mountain, and again as I eat lunch at the top, and feel guilty and hurry down to sit at the computer. Then I sit until midnight working in a hugely inefficient way to do work I could probably polish off in half an hour were I working at my usual level of efficiency.
It’s drained the pleasure from most of my other fun activities too – I twitch guilty in my seat at the cinema, I can’t concentrate on books the way I usually can and my reading speed has plummeted along with increased guilty inefficient attempts to do site publicity when I should be trying to fall asleep.
I’ll leave it your imagination how being in a state like this feels and how puzzling and potentially hurtful it can be for your partner to see, especially for the year or so when it was slowly getting on top of me without us really knowing that anything unusual or bad was happening.
Again, to forestall crowing idiots, it’s no reflection on Ariel or me or our relationship. It’s not like I’m fantasising about anyone else. I’m not fantasising, full stop. It is like that part of me has just shut off, which is entirely different.
On to the more hopeful things and the positive steps I’m going to take about it.
The most positive thing I know is that on reflection I *HAVE* been through this before, not once but twice, in somewhat different areas of my life.
The first time was actually what launched me into bondage photography- I was totally burnt out with physics at work. I’d achieved the ten-year goal of anyone going into science to do their PhD and achieved a permanent academic position. Job security at last! No more three year post-doc positions, having to move again. I could stay there in the department until the day I retired, if I wanted to.
But making the transition to being a lecturer isn’t plain sailing, especially if you got a streak of perfectionism and pride in your work. I’ve spoken before about the multiple competing demands on your time: being a line manager, being the breadwinner doing grant applications, writing and delivering good lectures, departmental admin, mentoring PhD students, pastoral care for students generally, writing and marking exams, and somehow doing all of that whilst keeping your own personal research (the thing that had got you there in the first place) alive.
What I now recognise I should have done if I wanted to stick with it is to be awkward, like the members of the department who just plain refused to pull their weight in some parts of the job. At the time I thought they were arseholes.
Now I recognise that it’s probably the only way to sustain being an academic long-term. You have to work out which parts of the job you can do really well and at reasonable cost to yourself, offer to do a good job of those, and refuse to take on tasks and roles which extract a disproportionately large amount of energy from you for the net good they do you, the rest of the staff and students, the department and the progress of physics in general.
What I should have done was said “Look, I’m a bloody good lecturer. My two lecture courses have the highest student approval rating in department history, and not by a small margin. I’ll take on a higher teaching load if you protect me from grant applications, line management and departmental administrivia, which I hate, I suck at and which cost me more energy than it takes me to write a kick-ass lecture. Give it to someone who’s actually good at it, or at least someone for whom it is a minor chore rather than a major drain on their mental resources.” Even Richard Feynman went through this, as he describes in his autobiography. He got over his by no longer taking anything seriously about his job (except teaching his classes) and eventually just having fun with physics again.
Maybe that’s what I would eventually have realised if I’d stayed in-post, rather than having a completely-by-chance second career already making me as much money which I was at the time doing and enjoying as a hobby at the weekends. Which was bondage photography.
Note that back in 2003 when I quit my lecturership, I was able to run Restrained Elegance in my spare time. It genuinely took less time- far fewer shots per update, I don’t know if we’d even started video at that point, and a single fantasy idea could make four or five updates. It’s not just that I’m older and less efficient- the ambition has really grown. Compare the workload of one fantasy split into daily updates of 30 shots in 1200 x 1000 pixels with the workload of delivering 4 sets of circa 100 shots plus a 15 minute video, all to professional standards, at 4K or 42 megapixels per week. Even with the help of all the regular RE collaborators, the workload is objectively much larger than it was in 2003.
Anyway, the tipping point of me leaving physics was getting through developing all my lecture courses, getting on top of all the admin and managerial duties, and FINALLY getting to the point of being able to restart my personal research – and realising I didn’t want to. The curiosity and love of physics which had driven me since I was about 4 years old and learning about science in books given my by my parents’ university colleagues had just gone. The well was dry.
But right now I am reading a graduate-level textbook on astro-particle physics by a previous colleague of mine from DELPHI for fun.
The well hadn’t really run dry. I’d just extracted too much from it, too quickly, under too much pressure from under stresses of the job. Given time, it refilled and it is now back to normal.
I went through a similar arc a few years ago with running roleplaying games for my friends, something which had been the basis of my social life and the other foundation of my imagination (along with kink, science and mountains) for over 35 years.
Running games had turned into a real chore which I dreaded, and I just didn’t have any ideas any more.
But I restructured things a bit, ran some low-effort commercial games and stopped trying to extract water too quickly from the well whilst under too many stresses from other places (ATVOD in that case). And one day an idea popped into my head and we’re now into our second sweeping new-world, new-magic-system campaign. The well refilled.
So what I need to do is to allow the well to refill. I am confident I can do so. What I’m not so sure how to do is to manage this without hurting the business side of things, especially now that the business has finally stabilised and seen some modest growth again.
Fortunately, I’ve always had break-your-leg contingency, and hopefully this will let me get through break-your-brain.
We have over a year’s worth of content already shot and on disk. Six months’ worth of videos are already edited and uploaded to the site ready for scheduling Ariel and I are currently powering through editing stills so by the end of this trip we will hopefully have a similar amount of them too.
Collaborators are still producing work for us which won’t need much in the way of imaginative input from me (technical stuff like doing the colour correction takes a lot less out of me, it turns out).
We have shoots in the calendar, but because I’ve been aware that something’s been wrong with my brain for a bit they’ve been booked deliberately so as to maximise my chances of getting good stuff out without drawing too heavily on my inspiration. For example, finding the first five ideas to shoot in a new room is easy; finding the fiftieth is hard. So, lots of location shoots. Shooting with friends is easier than shooting with new models just because of the social energy it takes to meet and work with and tie up a stranger the first time. And having collaborative photographers and riggers around lets me set up the lights, help with the cameras, and then slink off for a sit down outside for a while as they develop the storyline without me.
So I’m OK to do the shoots I’ve got in the calendar, which added to the input from other collaborators means I’ll easily make it though the end of the year without needing to book anything else- and it won’t even run my stock of sets on disk down to a point I consider “perilous”.
I’ve got a few annoyances coming up which I will have to deal with – age verification, and a move to a new version of PHP on the websites. Hopefully I’ll cope although those sorts of things are feeling disproportionately difficult right now I think it is more because of the overall burnout than inherent demands of the tasks.
I’m going to step back a fair bit from online presence, keeping going more with scheduled tweets and similar for a while. What I REALLY need to do is to be able to leave my phone behind for a few days at a time- something I used to manage in the early days where a trip away might mean no internet connection for a week. I have to stop checking multiple times a day. I’m going to be much less accessible as a result but will of course still deal with customer service issues as promptly as I can.
I may institute an “I answer emails only on Fridays” rule while I get through the crunch part and start recovery.
I find writing the text that goes with the sets disproportionately difficult. I’m going to outsource some of this (initially to Ariel) and the text may get a lot more curt for a while.
I’m also not going to take on any more custom videos beyond what I have already accepted, as I find them quite a drain creatively at the moment.
Similarly, I’m not going to take on any tutorial or teaching activities beyond what I have already accepted.
I’m going to give myself as much space and distance from the business as I can, particularly in terms of the need to extract fantasy storylines from my brain. I’m going to be going to the mountains a lot more, and I’m going to try to have an actual holiday from contact entirely over the summer (unlike all holidays for the last 10+ years, which have included daily checks of emails, twitter, websites).
And by putting all this in a blog post I’m trying to be honest with you and with myself and commit myself to taking the drastic steps I need to do to get my inner fantasy voice back.
Hopefully, this will all work, and I will be able to reset myself and get the job back to the efficient flow it mostly has been.
I guess there’s a risk that I fail and that I have to make more drastic changes but let’s cross that bridge when we come to it- as I said I have at least a year’s grace from the break-your-leg contingency already filmed so I’m hopeful that as customers you’ll hardly even notice. But it would have been disingenuous of me to keep pretending everything was fine when actually I’ve had a bit of a meltdown.
Hopefully this might be reassuring to read (for you and me) and I’ll look back at it and think “well, thank goodness you took steps back then when it all seemed pretty bleak, ‘coz now you’re fine. Let’s not let that happen again, shall we?”
Urg. That hasn’t been the most pleasant of things to write. But here we go, maybe it’ll help someone, maybe even Hywel-of-tomorrow, and I’m nothing if not honest to the point of stupidity.