The Inspiration and the Eulogy of Love
To begin a series chronicling the making of their new film, Atlas O. Phoenix sheds light on the lived experience that makes the work possible, and how autobiography can become a survival guide
This piece discusses attempted suicide and mental health crises.
My name is Atlas O. Phoenix, formerly Ayesha Adu. My pronouns are they/them. I am 50 years old. I am an award-winning filmmaker. I write, produce, and direct my own films. I have made three short films in the span of 20 years. Currently, my latest film, Do I Qualify for Love?, is touring around the world. Do I Qualify for Love? and my other short film, Little Men, were official selections at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival this year and last year.
I am developing my new film project, Beautiful Boi. I am like many in the LGBTQIA2+ community who struggle with mental health disorders stemming from childhood trauma. As I prepare to say goodbye to my breasts and vagina, while I become transmasculine, this film focuses on my transition and my mental health journey after losing my most significant relationship with my dear best friend. Often people say you have to love yourself if you want people to love you, but how do you learn to love yourself and receive love when you’ve never been taught how?
What started out as a gift to my friend has become a documentary about love, loss, and transfiguration. I will chronicle this process on Mn Artists through essays with footage and photos from the making of this documentary. Will you join me? This film isn’t just about the surgeries, the hormone replacement therapy, nor is it trans trauma porn. The journey to find your voice and the work it takes to be who you truly are from moment to moment has been my mental health journey since the age of 13. I am concerned with the legacy I have built and what I intend to leave behind.
My art has always been about going as deep as possible inside myself to find where I belong, to question my existence and the validity of my life.
I always struggle in conversations. I have suffered from imposter syndrome since kindergarten. My teacher asked my parents to come in to discuss a piece of art I made for class. Impressed, she recommended a special art school for me to attend. We visited the school. It was decided we couldn’t afford it so I didn’t go. I thought it was because I wasn’t really talented enough otherwise we could have afforded it. I was five at the time. With over 21 laurels on my Little Men poster, and seven on my Do I Qualify for Love? poster, I now have to radically accept I am talented. This acceptance is essential in my daily work.
The stories I chose to tell were character examinations of their darkest, most authentic truths, even if they appeared ugly. In fact, the uglier I could make a character, with all of their flaws pushed to the surface like a pimple, the better.
More empathy, love, and understanding was required from the audience. Their ability to see themselves in my characters was paramount to their ability to be empathic to the people they were watching on screen. I wanted to expose the audience to their own deepest, darkest places in their psyche, those rooms in our minds that we never share with anyone. We keep those doors locked. We never go in. But deep down inside we know our truth. A truth you can never escape from. There was a special someone I could share some of this truth with.
At the end is a song that is an accompaniment to part one of this two-part essay. Please be sure to listen.
Backstory: The Unicorn
Every now and then, you meet someone who changes your life. My story begins with meeting someone who was a catalyst for my deep and vivifying transformation. I am protective of this person so I will not use their name, but I will instead refer to them as Beautiful Boi. I’ve given both of us this infinitely complex nickname.
It was April 21, 2018. April 21 is a special date to me for a number of reasons. The most significant reason is that Prince Rogers Nelson died on April 21, 2016. The second reason is that on April 21, 2018, I became friends with Beautiful Boi. The third and final reason is that April 21, 2021 is my T-birthday. I came out to the world on this day as transmasculine. I chose this day because Prince taught me to be myself, and my wonderful friend, Beautiful Boi, showed me I was loveable, valuable, and that I should take up space for myself in this world.
On April 20, 2018, Beautiful Boi was performing at a venue. I am a performer with this venue, but I couldn’t perform that month. I was decompressing after a hard shoot for Little Men. Instead, I came Friday night to enjoy a burger with a friend who was a cast member. My intention was to eat and go home. I felt awful. I felt incompetent as a filmmaker. I had no one to share this with, so I kept it tucked away in my belly button. Before the show started, I was asked if I would like to stay and watch it since there weren’t many audience members. The cast members are more than people I performed with; they are family. I agreed to stay.
About 30 minutes into the show, this person unknown to me came out to the stage to begin their piece. It was jarring, because I didn’t recognize them. But I knew it was a burlesque act so I just sat back and waited for the inevitable.
Moments later, fully clothed, they did something that would shake my foundation to its core. All they simply did was look in a hand mirror. But it was the way they looked at themselves. They had gagged themselves with a piece of black nylon. Then they took out the hand mirror and gazed lovingly at their reflection. They not only loved and appreciated what they saw, they liked themselves for who they were, without apologies. They were completely in love with who they truly are; it was shameless pride.
I shouted in my head, “Who the fuck is that!? Who the fuck is that!?” My next reaction was, “I want to take them on a date! I need to know everything I can about this person, and I need to learn everything I can from them, because I want to look at myself in the mirror like that, and they can show me how!” I was invested in knowing them as intimately as possible, which had nothing to do with sex. I wanted to earn their trust. As I watched the rest of their powerhouse piece, a heavy feeling washed over me. I thought, “I have so much work to do to become the person I really want to be.”
For the rest of the show, I tried to figure out my game: what I was going to say and how I was going to say it. After the show, I made a point of waiting for them in the theater. Like a perfect gentleman, I waited quietly after midnight, April 21, 2018.
When they came up, I introduced myself. They were so beautiful, even more so in the regular lighting of the theater. Surprisingly, they were kind, sweet, humble, and so fucking easygoing; that’s the part that killed me the most. They never took their eye contact away.
We never went on a date, but over nearly two years, we forged a brilliant and beautiful friendship. We gave each other profound emotional support. We enjoyed being dorky together, often sharing the same expressions in our photos. We had deep conversations about the world we lived in, the universe we shared; we shared so much about ourselves with each other. We had shared our journals with each other. I read their 13-year-old journal multiple times.
The two things I love about Beautiful Boi the most are their enormous, loving heart, and that they are unapologetically themselves. When they love, they love with all their heart. So do I. Through their gentle and caring ways, they would remind me to be unapologetic, too. They often reminded me of what I brought to the table, whether I was prepared to see it or not. Magical and deeply enchanting, their love galvanized me into examining myself through deep self-reflection and self-examination. I was starting to see everything I held to be true, differently. They challenged me, and they loved me when I didn’t know how to love myself.
In December 2019, I told Beautiful Boi I was considering transitioning. I just mentioned it in passing in the middle of a conversation we were having. Like so many things I shared with them, again this was another thing I never shared with anyone for 16 years.
We meant to touch back on it, but my deeply embedded insecurities and my loss of purpose led me to make a series of serious mistakes in a short amount of time. After nearly two years of friendship, I subsequently lost the most significant relationship I ever had with another human being. This was the most significant person in my life. They were the only one I ever really completely trusted until I couldn’t trust myself. They loved me in ways my parents never did.
After the premiere of my short film, Little Men, in October 2019, I told an audience of 171 people that this film was to be my last. Some gasped. There was a long silence, until someone said, “Yeah! Right!” But I was exhausted. I was broke. I was broken. I had a nervous breakdown a month earlier and never told anyone, including Beautiful Boi. I didn’t want them to worry. I pretended I was well. I pretended I was okay. I pretended my feelings could be silenced and forgotten.
I tucked every bit of pain behind my belly button and tried to keep it there. I quickly learned in a very hard, heartbreaking way that if you don’t ask for help, soon you will spiral and hit rock bottom. Also, on the morning of my premiere, shortly before the public came, they did something that made me realize I wanted to be life partners with Beautiful Boi. With my head low, I told myself I didn’t stand a chance. We had never been intimate or romantic.
From the first day of 2020, I was spiraling hard. I had started EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy). On February 24, things shattered between us. I had told them I was in love with them. Soon after, I lost Beautiful Boi. This was the beginning of the end.
Shortly after starting EMDR, I was taken out of it and told I needed to get Dialectical Behavioral Therapy before I could continue trauma therapy. I was furious. I needed help—now. During March, I couldn’t find anyone in the city of Minneapolis who would take my insurance. In March 2020, with a possible exposure to COVID-19, I had to quarantine two weeks before the national lockdown. I lived alone and was isolated. By April 4, 2020, I smacked rock bottom. My ninth suicide attempt, since the age of 13 in 1984, landed me in the hospital. I suffered the most significant loss of my life, and under the weight of so many other things plus a pandemic, I gave up.
As surprised as I was to wake up in the hospital, I realized I needed to make changes, because my way of surviving all of these 49 years was no longer serving me. I wanted to live and not just survive. I don’t know how I could have survived the attempt. And yet, somehow, I did. The questions that came to mind were: What is divine intervention? What is life? Who are you? Why are you here? What’s next? When you survive nine attempts, you start asking questions.
All I knew was that I didn’t want to ever hurt someone I loved as much as I loved Beautiful Boi. I had my other friendships to consider and since I’ve never had a partner, these friendships were all I had for connections and love. I needed to get better for myself and my future.
Ten days after I got back from the hospital, a clinic in St. Paul, Minnesota said they would take my insurance and welcome me into a queer DBT group. This therapist’s decision to take me in was not only a game changer, it was a life saver.
DBT was the hardest kind of work I would ever do in my life. I took on 250 hours of therapy in 52 weeks. To break that down, that’s three and a half hours of therapy every week for a year. This included group therapy Zoom calls. This included a workbook with extensive handouts and worksheets. Homework was due every week. DBT is a habit-based program. This required commitment of the most intent kind. This required my soul, mind, and body.
I wanted to quit every month for the first four months. But in September 2020, I experienced a major, seismic breakthrough. It was almost too much to absorb. What I was feeling for the first time in my life was self-love. I felt it palpably and viscerally. It could not be confused with any other feeling. When I felt this love for myself, my eyes slowly moved upwards to the sky, and I simply smiled. I could have cried, but I just felt my feelings and enjoyed the moment.
For my 50th birthday, in November 2020, I had a Zoom party with 13 wonderful, dear, and beautiful friends. I am so lucky. We had a great time. I wore a purple felt crown and used my purple throw as a cape. After leaving everyone in suspense for a few minutes, I turned on my camera and introduced myself, “It is I, your king and court jester! Welcome!” We laughed and giggled. I was generally doing pretty damn good and feeling a little bit guilty about it. I missed Beautiful Boi tremendously on my birthday, though. A year before we had made plans to travel to Europe. I hid my sadness with laughter, good food, incense, and candles.
Later the week of my birthday, I thought to myself, “If you did transition, what would your new name be?” Atlas?
I googled it. Atlas is the strongest Titan god. He is stronger than Hercules. Atlas waged a war with Zeus and lost. Zeus gave him the punishment of holding up the heavens, because he knew he had the endurance and would never let it fall. Yes, Atlas.
Oh, what about Oggún for my middle name?
I googled him, because I had a vague recollection of his image on a tarot card I saw, back in the day, at Old Arizona Studios, when I was sorta kinda practicing witchy stuff. Oggún is a mythical African god and brave warrior. His tool was the machete. He was a laborer, a blacksmith, a peacekeeper, and keeper of covenants. Yes, definitely Oggún.
But what for a last name? Nelson? Nope. Too on the nose for this Prince fan.
It wasn’t until February 2021, while laying on my acupuncturist’s table that it came to me. For the last year, I have had so much to overcome in the middle of a pandemic, George Floyd’s brutal murder, and an entirely too exhausting election, that I felt I had risen from my own ashes; resurrected and rebirthed. I had reinvented myself like a phoenix. Atlas Oggún Phoenix was the name I earned. The weight of carrying Ayesha Adu was finally over. It never suited me anyway.
For the last three weeks of February, upon the cajoling of my therapist, I came out to 35 close friends as transmaculine and nonbinary. I let them know my pronouns are they/them. I informed them that I would be getting top and bottom surgery and starting testosterone in April. The emotions ranged from casual but happy to outright sobbing and excitement. I actually had to Google the word “verklempt.” All the reactions were wonderful and meaningful. It was glorious, and I felt so much love from my chosen family. I wish I could have told Beautiful Boi officially.
A week later, after I came out to my friends, I discovered that Beautiful Boi had dropped off my journals a month and a half earlier, in response to an apology card I sent them at the beginning of this year. I sent them the card and letters because on December 31 at 2 am, I had a terrible fall and was nearly killed. I lost control of my body when I attempted to get out of bed. When I came to, our relationship was the first and only thing on my mind. I figured I don’t know how much time I have left. If an apology was to be my final words to them, I could die knowing I did my best to say I’m sorry.
To commemorate the loss and the gains of this relationship, I got a tattoo by an amazing and empathic queer artist. I am still in mourning. Grief comes in waves. Forgiveness is what’s necessary to carry on. I know what mistakes I made. I learned many lessons. The loss is tough, heartbreaking, and in no way taken lightly. Beautiful Boi was the white rabbit that led me down the rabbit hole to my self-discovery. For this, I am monumentally grateful.
I am brazen. I am my own person full of integrity and value, and I am still shaken by the impact of Beautiful Boi’s presence in my life. That moment they looked in the hand mirror, my soul saw theirs. I am irreversibly transmuted. To them, I raise a glass and say, thank you for everything, Beautiful Boi. Being your friend was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I never felt closer to God than my time with You. Godspeed, my beloved friend. I truly adore you.
Love is a many-splendored journey. I have never been more loved and protected than the way Beautiful Boi loved and protected me. I was seen and heard by Beautiful Boi. This feeling will never end. In the past, I never understood how they could see me the way I see myself now. I never understood why they loved me so unconditionally, a love I destroyed and ran from to save myself from the energetic frequency we shared. Insecurity and paranoia is enveloping and poisonous. Beautiful Boi taught me what unconditional love is. I never truly loved until I could love myself. I wasn’t going through the motions, I was trying to understand what love actually is. I still am. I’ve never been in love, I don’t think. Entitled, but not in love. To be honest, I don’t know what that means.
I don’t know if I am in love with Beautiful Boi; I just know I love them immeasurably, confidently, and infinitely. Is that what “being in love” means? It seems so incredibly personal. And no one can claim love to be one thing or another. As Love is a primordial god, maybe it’s hard to track its true origin, feeling, and meaning. Maybe we just decide on our own. Love is such an important gift, I sometimes feel inadequate at trying to understand and express it.
In my ongoing journey to myself, the one thing I have discovered is that as humans, we are fallible, and if we try, we are malleable. This journey, filled with experiences, heartbreak, and growth were necessary; I now consider myself a Beautiful Boi.
This energy, my perspective and increasing self-knowledge, will go into making this tender and vulnerable self-portrait: this film. Knowing how to tell your own story is essential to building your legacy. Legacies are survival guides for others to reflect upon. This is why autobiographies are valuable. It proves we are not alone. We are all connected, energy pouring into each other. Our existence is pure entropy.
Take care and be well,
Atlas O. Phoenix
Please listen to Phantogram’s “Barking Dog” as an accompaniment to this essay. For your convenience, it is linked to both Spotify and YouTube.
For more information about the documentary, Beautiful Boi, please visit www.beautifulboi.com, @beautifulboiatlasphoenix on Instagram, and @beautifulboiatlasphoenix on Facebook. #beautifulboidoc