Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Father, Christmas

I just saw my father for the first time in a year or so. I used to see him once every week or two, on Friday nights before I went to visit my mother (they live ten minutes from each other). But it was always compelled by guilt and laced with the fear of what would happen if I ever disrupted our relationship. When I felt him pulling away from my after I transitioned, I took the opportunity to pull away also. Now, I talk to him perhaps three or four times a year, for a couple of minutes. And that’s that.

That kind of distance does something. I felt cut-off, certainly; better because I wouldn't feel guilty by being around him, worse for the lingering knowledge in the back of my mind that he was still out there and knew I’d pulled away too. But it also gave me new clarity when I saw him again.

I suppose this is what happens to many when they go off to college and return. Instead of having someone be a usual presence, you gain more perspective and distance. And with distance, like taking a step back to survey an entire scene instead of focusing upon what’s right in front of your nose, you see more anew.

He was the same person I remembered, but I could see the sameness with a twinge of difference. Fat, awkward, a scared boy in a large man’s body who doesn’t know how he ended up in the dolorous life he’s found himself in. Now, his hair and beard are almost entirely white, and I thought of how he looked a bit like a rather tired and sad Santa Claus. The comparison prompted me to imagine, as I often do, a hypothetical future scenario where my partner and I ask him to dress as Santa Claus and bring gifts to our kids for Christmas. And I imagined how happy he’d look, how joyous he’d be to have these innocent little creatures laughing and smiling around him, happy because he was giving them things, and he’d see their joy as love. He’d want to awkwardly pull away, of course. He wouldn’t know what to do with this love that scared him. Or, in the worst case, one of my children would say or do something that would prompt him to respond to them as another selfish, poorly socialized child might, not really understanding that he’s a giant adult playing with tiny children, not a poorly socialized peer. But assuming that didn’t happen (and, if it did, I don’t think it’d be particularly severe), it would make him shine. He would be so so happy. And I would be happy. A bit wary, of course, but with my own family and the safety I felt with my partner and the love I felt for my children, I would be happy.

It’s a fantasy, of course. Not *that* much of one; a feasible one, as far as fantasies go. But it was still starkly different from our present reality. The reality where we stand somewhat distant in the cold,  the gray sky and the dead trees the backdrop to two sad, lonely people. He can barely look at me, his eyes shifting down and away, his body withdrawn. And as I stand there and look at this childish old man before me, I wonder to myself “How could I have ever been afraid of someone so sad and scared? How could this man have ever invoked such absolute terror inside of me?”

Then he looks at me, for a moment, and I meet his sad, sunken eyes with the blueish purple sacs below them just like mine. And I realize how very similar we are. How, even though I devoted years to trying to find ways to Not Be Him, he’s one of the few people I know who feels so very… familiar.

This gaping wound, this morose and fearful child in a decaying body he barely recognizes as his own. I want to reach out to him, to cry out “I feel so sad and scared. I feel so very alone. And you know that feeling. You live that feeling. You are that feeling. I live in a world of people who seem to hide or never feel the loss or hurt or fear or desire that I so so strongly feel all the time and here you are, your very existence aching. I know that ache. God, I know that sad, bitter ache that wishes for so much more than it has. And I hate being so lonely and unhappy, and I hate not knowing how I ended up this way or how to change or break free. And I just want to be with someone who knows, who lives that feeling too.”

But we both know that can’t happen. At heart, he's a little boy who wants to be loved and wants to be protected. I can’t ever be the parent he so desperately needs. I can never be enough for him. I can only ever be a child to this sad, sweet, awkward boy who only ever wanted to be loved and when he finally was he hated himself too much to accept it.

And that’s the dark coda to this sad story. I ask him about his work, and he predictably complains about it (now he has too much work, whereas a year ago he was constantly obsessing about being fired for too little; it’s always something). And then he says “But it keeps me going; I’d probably have no reason to get out of bed in the morning if I didn’t have it.” The sort of glimpse of desolation that he tosses out where part of him so wants someone to ask more, to care more, to reach out and feel that desperate pain even though I know that if I tried he’d lash out and pull away.

Yet it feels like a Ghost of Christmas Future, pointing me towards my own grave. The walking dead, a sad, lonely, self-loathing person who hurts so very much but pushes away those who try to reach past, barely living only for work, the one place one can truly feel useful, valued, and productive.

I don’t want to feel like that. I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want to end like that. But it’s in my blood. I’ve been running from it for so many years, and yet I’m still staring it right in the face. And one day, an ever-smaller number of years from now, I can so vividly see myself traded places with him, glumly bewildered at how it happened just as I always feared it would.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Feelings Work #1

[I'm going to try something I suggested to a client to prompt better exploration of affect: starting entries "with I feel <feeling word> word." I've been trying to write otherwise, and I just keep getting lost in my thoughts, so maybe this will provide a bit more focus or at least a decent drive to finish a post.]

I feel sad. I feel sad because I'm alone. I don't want to be alone. But there aren't really that many people I'd want to be with anyway. That's a polite way of saying there's no one in my life I want to be with, which is true and it isn't.

It's not true because I also feel really anxious. I feel anxious all the time. It's not always obvious (I hide my feelings well), but I'm worried most of the time. Usually, it centers around all the things I'm not doing. I haven't got my classes planned, I'm not doing x for y person, I've done z to q person and I feel guilty about not properly atoning for it etc. And the worst offender: my predissertation and dissertation aren't done and I'm behind schedule and if I don't finish them when I have the chance I won't get out of Knoxville in time and I'll wither away here and disappoint everyone who knows me because I'm so mediocre and far behind and I won't ever actually get out of this PhD program or this goddamn city and I won't ever form a meaningful relationship with another woman because I can't seem to find anyone I really fit with here and, basically, I am a failure and a disappointment who is destined to be unloved and alone.

Did you catch all that? Kinda spiraled out of control pretty fast, didn't it?

I carry that around most all of the time I'm not working on something else. It's why breaks tend to be so depressing/anxiety provoking: all I do is think about all I'm not doing and then I try to avoid all of the negative feelings that come from all the anxiety of not doing things which makes me get even less done which makes me more anxious about not doing things which, well, etc.

And the worst consequence of not getting something done is disappointing people. I am terrified of disappointing and hurting people. It's one of the reasons I hate gifts and Christmas: I am so terrified I will do something wrong or disappointing with gifts that I'd just prefer not to have anything to do with any of it. I absolutely hate receiving gifts because that puts pressure on me to give gifts which makes me even more anxious about disappointing someone.

It's one of the reasons I don't like to touch people. I'm afraid of doing something wrong and disappointing them or making them uncomfortable or hurting them. It's one of the biggest reasons I don't get close to people: I'm terrified of disappointing them. I push them away so I can't disappoint them. And it's exhausting and it's isolating and it's saddening, but it's so.much.better. than failing them.

Of failing you. Because if I fail you or disappoint you or do something wrong, you'll leave me. Or you won't tell me and you'll resent me for it. Or you'll remember it and hold it over my head and I'll never be able to atone or redeem myself and it will forever be a blight upon me.

I would rather be alone than deal with the incessant prospect of failing you.

That's not the only reason, of course. I'm afraid of you failing me, too. I'm afraid of you not understanding me, not protecting me, not supporting me, not knowing what I need. I'm afraid that you'll let me fade away because I'm not really that important to you. Just like I don't let you be that important to me, so that when I fail you and you leave it won't tear me apart like it does when those I've cared about left.

I'm sad that I'm alone, but it's better than the alternative. I'm terrified of disappointing you, so I don't let you get close enough to need or depend upon me or expect anything from me. And I'm afraid that the only way I know to break out of this cycle is to find one person who loves me so I can't disappoint her because she values some essential part of me, loves *me* and no matter what she'll keep loving me and I'll keep loving her (and because I love her and provide value to her, it constantly atones for all the ways I'll fail her). And what's scary about that is that everyone I've loved like that has left me anyway and it was never because I disappointed them, but because I was unhappy or distant or "too good."

So I know that means that I need to like myself and not be unhappy and be somewhat selfish and take risks by letting others get close. But I can't seem to make that happen because I'm so scared all the time of how I'm going to disappoint and hurt others. And I just don't know how to stop it. I don't know how to break one part of the cycle so the other parts fall into place.

So I feel sad. And anxious. And afraid. And all of these things are so much worse for the fact that I don't know if or when they'll ever be anything different.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

What is "Good Enough?"

I tell this story a lot, but it's funny and pertinent enough to repeat:

My therapist once told me I was a perfectionist.
I told her, "I can't be a perfectionist: I never do anything well enough."
And then, two seconds later, "... Oh."

I'd never really considered myself a perfectionist. To me, a perfectionist was one of those people I admired so much who would spend hours and hours over the course of days on their assignments, fine tuning and working to ensure everything was "just so." That was doing something well. What I always do is wait until almost literally the last possible moment in which something can be accomplished and then coast on my adroit writing skills to create something passable right before the buzzer. That was almost the opposite of what I thought a perfectionist would do.

I've written before about the ways I believe perfectionism and procrastination are often related. I won't rehash that here. But that perfectionist value system is not simply the source of my procrastination; it's a core aspect of my depression/anxiety and self-hatred too.

Specifically, this comes from the value system of perfectionism: Doing something "well" is standard. Doing something "best" is positive. Everything else is simply not enough.

You can see it two posts ago. In that post, I essentially assert that I feel as if I was born with negative value (as in, it would be better for everyone if I did not exist). Adding value to the world was the only way for me to even justify my existence. Presumably, being "the best" or doing something "perfectly" was/is the only way for me to be genuinely worth something. Which, of course, is impossible.

However, what that post and the self-hatred post did was to increase insight about and debunk negative feelings. Neither suggested reasonable alternatives.

Of course, that's the goal of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. As demonstrated in the above posts, I can totally get behind undermining negative attributions. Where CBT falls flat for me is in the counter assertions: "I have value." "I am worthy of being loved." "I am good." I just don't know where the proof for those things are, outside of wishful thinking. Thus it's no surprise that I stopped at "existence is value neutral." It's a disavowal of the negative without an affirmation of the positive.

But "value neutral" isn't sufficient for resilience or affirmation. The base question still needs to be answered: "What is good enough?"

It needs an answer, because perfectionism has an answer. Even if you're charitable with yourself, "good enough" is "doing everything well." Perhaps not perfection or superiority, but no egregious mistakes or mediocre performances either. And that's great, if you never make mistakes. But if you're a human like me (and there's a pretty good chance you are!), never making mistakes is not a valid long term strategy.

In fact, it's a terrible one. I can feel good on days when I feel like something (clients and/or teaching) has gone well. But when they don't? Or, God forbid, when I make a mistake? It's a suicidal spiral, filled with alienation, failure, and hopelessness with nothing but a lifetime of the same to look forward to.

I had no counterargument. I had nothing to say. And I need one. When I start to self-destruct, I need to be able to tell myself "You are doing enough. You are not perfect, but you're enough." In order to do that, I need to figure out what the hell "enough" means.

If perfection's not the answer, then what is? What's the counter proposition? What is "good enough?" Not necessarily happiness, but a base level of satisfaction and fulfillment, a state of being where, when met, you can say "If I do no more, no differently, that will be OK." What does it look like? What does it feel like? How do you sustain it? But, most importantly, for you, for yourself, what is "good enough?"

I've been chewing on one possible answer I'll hopefully post in a bit. But, for now, I think it's important to frame the question. And, hopefully, hear some of your answers to it too.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Quitting the Self-Hate Habit

There's a theory of psychotherapy that operates under the assumption that all beliefs and actions serve purposes. Usually, these beliefs/actions were at one point adaptive to the environment one was in, but in other settings they prove maladaptive and ultimately cause various levels of distress to the individual and those around them. It's a particular useful approach to take when an individual holds onto a maladaptive belief/habit even when much of them knows it is harmful and wants to let it go. Under this thereotical framework, that belief/habit clearly serves some kind of purpose and the trick is to figure out what, exactly, that purpose is and then to help the client decide if they genuinely want to give up what the behavior brings them.

For me, I think I've narrowed much of my anxiety down to "I deserve to be punished." Worthlessness is a part of that, yes, but it's not that I believe no one cares for me or that I am absolutely devoid of value. Instead, it's that no one should care for me and no one should value me because I am bad and wrong and need to suffer for being bad and wrong.

I think that's why I fantasize about vicious suicides instead of just wishing I didn't exist so the pain would stop. Suicide is a way of telling myself "No matter how bad I am or how much I fail, I can always kill myself so people will know how sorry I really am." It's one of the reasons I think I get a masochistic thrill about being so open about my pain: you can see I'm unhappy and know how bad I feel about how wrong I am.

So what does having people know I feel bad accomplish? Some theories:

1. It minimizes the pain I cause because I feel bad about it. [In the way that when people acknowledge they're wrong things tend to hurt less than when they never apologize or admit fault <--- aka trying not to be my father]
2. It minimizes the need of others to punish me for my failures because I'm punishing myself. [<--- trying to avoid my father's wrath by preemptively assuming guilt so he won't feel any of it, causing him to have a violent meltdown]
3. Part of me believes that being so abusive to myself will help me not make similar mistakes in the future. [<--- common reason for anxiety/worry, part of perfectionism]
4. Minimizes disappointment in me by reducing expectations
5. Makes criticisms less painful because they're not as likely to surprise me/you can't pop a deflated balloon. [guess]

And, to a certain extent, much of this is true. It's harder/"not as needed" to hit a dog that's cowering with its tail between its legs acting ashamed than it is to hit a dog that's snarling or unaware of its behavior. In sports, the NCAA will reduce punishments for programs that punish themselves first. We relish seeing the arrogant/successful fall, but not those who have already fallen/are already suffering. Internal pain mitigates external pain, and, as a child, mitigating external pain was a significant priority.

But now, it's harming my performance. The pressure I put on myself, I put on my clients which reduces my ability to be patient and empathize. The anxiety I cause myself promotes procrastination and causes stress to my entire body, making sickness and fatigue much more likely. My need to distance myself from others make intimacy significantly difficult. And, interestingly, as my self-esteem rises, I direct more of my internal criticisms towards others (i.e. if I'm doing this and I'm terrible, surely you can do it too so stop failing).

I am tense, I am distant, I am unhappy, and my professional growth is being impeded if not undermined. And, truly, it's that last part that's fostering my desire for change: my own unhappiness is, obviously, necessary and appropriate [eyeroll at self] but when my behaviors hurt others then they obviously need to be changed.

I dunno. Self-hate is a difficult thing to give up. But I might be on the verge of convincing myself that I genuinely need to change. Here's hoping.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Existence is Value Neutral

Deep down, my father never really wanted kids. He told us, when I was about eleven, as he softly held us captive one long drunken night, that he had married our mother because she said she "really liked having sex." And then, after my sister was born, she stopped. He said he felt used, as if that was all he was good for. As if we were all he was good for.

He's spoken often of how he hated to be "tied down," how he was created to "wander" and explore, how his responsibility to us is what always held him back. And although he felt too much shame to say it, it was obvious that each time we asked something of him, he resented us. He told me four or five years ago that one of the happiest days of his life was when my sister turned 18 and he was no longer legally responsible for her. As if my almost 4.0 GPA, forensic theater champion, Brandeis-bound, self-possessed sister was somehow a hellion who at any moment would crush my father under the immense need of her very existence.  As if simply having children was one of the most significantly damaging components of his incredibly unhappy life.

We knew he didn't want us, even if he didn't say it, even if we couldn't articulate it. It bleeds into you, in the proxy wars, in the aggrieved grimaces, in the perpetual ire. And it doesn't take a psychologist to tell you that that kind of stain doesn't simply wash off after escape.

It leaves you feeling as if your very existence is unwarranted. That you should always be striving to be better not out of an internal desire to self-actualize but because you have to justify your continued presence upon this earth. Part of me authentically feels that if I could just be perfect, in appearance, speech, professional responsibilities, disposition, ... then I could finally be good enough to merit my sustained existence. But until then, that part feels I will forever be that unwanted child, that burden, that leech, that prison.

In short, I feel wrong. On a fundamental level. Being trans obviously exacerbates this feeling, with the unwantedness and fatal imperfection extending to cultural norms as well. But I really think the trans stuff can be a source of strength and resilience in a different, more affirming environment. It's that deep-seated unworthiness that can't be changed with a new zip code.

I asked a speaker at an event today how he had developed the courage to be so open, proud, and out (as a gay, black veteran). And although it took him a few moments, he eventually said that he was fortunate to grow up in an environment that did not demonize him. He was speaking about his homosexuality, significantly, but his external attribution of his self-possession really struck me.

He said the same things I already knew, that you have to grow self-love, that it's a never-ending process. But  he also said this: "At a certain point, you just have look in the mirror and say 'This is who I am' and get on with your life.' "

All my life, I've viewed myself as a negative entity, and it's always been my responsibility to try to make up for my severe deficiencies. I have always felt wrong, I have always been wrong, and only through immense (impossible) work and self-flagellation can I ever change into someone good enough.

But those words made me realize how much effort I am pouring into hating myself, to wishing I was someone different. How limited, how small, how inhibiting an attitude it is. Because although I can change so many of my peripheral parts, I can never change the fundamentals of who I am. I'm never going to be cis. I'm never going to be liked by everyone. I'm never going to save the world. I'm never going to reach a point where there's no more to be done. I'm never going to be perfect, I'm never going to be perfect, I'm never going to be perfect.

But I am going to be empathetic. And I am going to be conscious and critical of power structures. And I am going to be playful and sarcastic. And I am going to keep pushing myself to learn more and do more. And, often, I am going to succeed. And I am going to make a positive impact upon others. And I am going to be cared for. And I am going to be loved. And I am going to love. And I'm going to get really angry and I'm going to write suicidal blog posts and I'm going to let everyone see how blown apart I ever-so-intermittently am. And I'm going to have people see my chaos and know that they're not alone in the violent vagaries of their own. And I'm going to get better. And worse. And still better.

Simply existing as a flawed human in a species of flawed humans is not a crime. I'm not prepared to say that existence, in and of itself, confers worth. But it certainly doesn't mean that we are worthless until proven otherwise. I exist. And I just need to get on with it.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

That Old Familiar Feeling

I'd say it was roughly six years ago tonight. The early hours of the morning, after an evening spent alone. The notes written to best ferry whoever was left when my world ended to the other side. I cared so much more about others then. And at a least a bit less about myself. So it goes.

Driving to a secluded spot, I took some pills (not enough) and tried to asphyxiate myself. The bag was hot with my breath, gradually tightening as the contours slowly encased my face. I don't know that it was the pain that caused me to pull away. Perhaps the fear. Perhaps I simply doubted my willpower, quitting in the face of difficulty (fire fought with fire).

When I turned back, I just felt an overwhelming failure. People warn you all the time about "not getting yourself killed," and yet here I couldn't even merit an emergency room visit. Too scared of incapacitation. Too scared that falls would not be fatal but would be paralyzing, that pills and poison would have me pissing blood with only liver damage to show my efforts, that nooses would be too long and agonizing if I couldn't find a way to break my neck, that guns would not be obtainable or that the gun violence would hurt the ones who found my pathetic remains. A nonfatal lack of commitment.

I'm not sure I've ever felt so defeated as having to get up and face the rain the next day.

I'd do it differently now, of course. A significant improvement upon the original design requiring a great deal less pain tolerance and less steadfast resolution on my part. And it's almost a shame. The pisspoor research I spent my Saturday mornings upon was comforting. It felt like progress towards relief. Now, my ruminations merely remind me of my lack of conviction. I ask myself "If you could press a button and be dead this moment, would you?" to test my sincerity. And if I let my rational mind make the choice, I answer no. It's only in that spur of the moment, like when the gambling addict places everything spontaneously on the table because it feels good to have the hint of relief not because he has any rational chance of winning, with that impulse that I'd press it. Because my lizardbrain knows the world must end someday, and that I won't even know it to suffer once it has.

I kept telling myself tonight that the desire wasn't real. That, in better moments this would be no choice. That I was exhausted. Stressed. Triggered by failure and helplessness and abandonment and isolation. Triggered by the atmosphere, the calendar, my internal clock. That last year was the same. And the year before. And the year before. And the year before. And the year before. And the year before. And the year before. And the year before. That last April, I was buoyant, floating up when shaken instead of sinking down when lifted up. That that time, that feeling will likely come again. That I might still know love.

I can tell myself these things. But this is not a question of hope, or insight, or progress. This is not a matter of whether "I want to be well."

No. The question that defeats me is "Do I deserve to be well?" Not "Can I love?" or "Will I love?" but "Do I deserve to be loved?" Not "Can I matter?" or "Do I matter?" but "Do I deserve to matter?"

And for the life of me, I cannot figure out how to answer "Yes."

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Limitations of Insight

Two weeks ago, I was sitting with a client who spoke very circumstantially. I would ask her a question and her response would trail into all kinds of spaces that, while related to the topic in her mind, were just packed with details to the point that they did little to answer the question. I asked her about these "complex" answers, telling her that it was difficult for me to follow and asking her "What can we do to help me understand you better?" Curiously, she smiled when I said this. I was quite surprised: I would have thought she'd be hurt and feel criticized or angry that I wasn't listening better. After we talked about some possible solutions (all to the point and direct, in contrast to before), I asked her about her reaction. She said it felt good. That, normally, she just assumed no one would listen, that their eyes would glaze over and they wouldn't care enough to even ask for clarification. But as I had taken the effort to try to clarify, she felt it was nice to be heard.

Therapy's funny like that. Both because of the surprises, but also in how you see yourself in clients. Because I do the same thing as that client. She and another client both had to raise siblings (and, honestly, their parents) in chaotic homes with antagonistic fathers. Both have flat affects making it difficult to attend to them because you can't feel them. And both don't know how to function socially without taking care of those around them. Despite some significant differences in backgrounds and manifestations, I know that dynamic. Of being so emotionally protected that others don't connect to you, of never feeling comfortable unless you're taking care of someone else with the attention off yourself, of feeling so incredibly alone and wanting to care for others so very very much because that's all you know how to do.

And I want to tell them, "You're stuck in a vicious cycle! No one will hear you until you expect to be heard, until you believe you deserve to be! The defenses you've adopted to survive your home life are maladaptive in this new environment. You need to love yourselves, you need to be more vulnerable, you need to trust more if you ever want to find what you're seeking!" But I don't. Because it won't work. Insight, alone, so rarely does.

Knowing the reasons why, knowing the solutions, knowing the effects of continued stagnation, all of this helps but it is not enough. I have literally asked my psychotherapist "What do you wish you could tell me that you know if I just believed it, I would feel so much better?" And she said that she wished I wasn't so cruel to myself. Just as she'd told me so many times before and so many times since.

And yet today, we did an activity in Sunday School today about thinking about what to forgive yourself for (as part of Rosh Hashanah). It made me incredibly uncomfortable because I didn't think I deserved to be forgiven for all the bad things I'd done. I couldn't think of a single thing I wanted to be forgiven for because I deserved to suffer for all of them. When we thought of hopes for the next year, it took me a few moments to get "I hope I die" out of my head. And I had to seriously consider whether I genuinely wished to die. To compromise, I settled for "I hope I get better" as in "I hope I can figure out how to stop being so terrible."

And I know how cruel that is. I know how incredibly unforgiving, how brutal and violent that is. I know that considering myself a freakish monster because I'm not cis is oppressive and violent and vile. I know that hating myself for all the ways I fail as a teacher, a therapist, a person, and a woman is anxiety inducing and miserable and wrong.I know that when my friends and clients do it, I think it's tragic. But when I do it? It's because I deserve to be punished for my failures and monstrosity. It's because other people just don't get how bad I am, how wrong I am. They don't really know. When they do it it's because they're being too hard on themselves, but I'm legitimately bad. If I was one of my clients I would be heartbroken at how unrelentingly callous I am towards myself. But as me? It's justice. And I just wish I had the courage to give myself the punishment I truly deserve.

The natural followup question, of course, is "So what do you need?" Validation, certainly: I genuinely wonder how others perceive my gender (particularly my face and voice), but I'm too terrified of the answer to ask. Empathy, definitely: it would be nice if people understood or wanted to understand just how inherently stressful it is to be trans on a daily basis. Concern and affection, too, no doubt. And I think I need to be better about soliciting those and letting myself be open to them too.

But, of course, knowing what I need is just more insight. Actually getting it is a different matter. And for my sake and my clients, I hope I someday figure out how.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Before the Fall

I felt the familiar feeling of September again. Of darkness. Of death. That hint of chill in the air that signals the onset of fall, that tells us that the life around us will soon be dying, the light around us steadily shrinking. The warm months are the times of anxiety, but the cold is for depression. Calmer, harsher, deeper.

But there's fear, too, as the world washes out.I tried to kill myself in late September 2006, with its subtle bite, and I still recall the days of rain that met me as I turned to meet the world my failure left. It's not that the actual attempt was particularly traumatic, mechanically; I was quite cautious, too cautious, because I knew it had to be all or nothing with as little distress to anyone else as possible.

But there's still something to being in a state where you knew that if someone gave you a red button labeled "death" you'd push it without hesitation for days straight. Most of my fantasies about suicide are ephemeral, coming and going as stress rises and falls. Even in the years where I was miserable incessantly, I would still have periods where I would rise to hope that perhaps someday, somehow there would be change. But that September was the furthest I ever went, settling on a day, a place, a method, writing out multiple notes with instructions on how to deal with whatever small things I left behind (to, again, try to lessen the blow to those who remained), and then plunging into it with the full and mitigated desire to end my existence. It's not just wanting to die but sustaining the desire and trying to die.

And every Fall, part of me slips back into it. It's nice, in some ways: I like the softness of depression more than the harshness of anxiety. It's falling asleep in the snow and never waking up vs. tearing yourself apart. I like the internal sense of falling, of desolation, of sadness without so much contamination of angst. Mourning instead of wrestling with life and death.

But it hurts, too. Like a scab pulled off too soon, blood slowly pooling. Like perpetual defeat without the ability to surrender. Like the way I felt returning home after the attempt, glumly steeling myself to face a world I wished would be no more.

Things are so much better now, of course. I don't spend entire Saturdays researching ways to kill myself. I don't feel miserable all.the.time. I have more tools to self-correct, if I have the inclination to do so. And, most importantly, I've just changed fundamentally towards my ideal self.

And yet even as I write this, as I ask myself "Do you wish you had succeeded?" it's difficult for me to say "No." The answer to that question changes, of course, and there have been times within the past year where any other answer would seem positively tragic. But that hint of Fall has a razor's edge to it, and as if a siren's song there is still a part of me that wishes it cut deeper.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Letter Response to Sexual Assault Article

Last Wednesday, the student paper published an article on sexual assault. In that article, one of the prevailing themes was how much of a disparity there is between the number of attempts/assaults and the number of reports. What the article did not mention is why this disparity most likely exists. Well, I will: it exists because of articles exactly like this one.

If I was to glance at this article without years of study of sexual assault and gender, I would assume two things: that women should live in fear because it is their sole responsibility to protect themselves from rape, and that whether because they wear sexually appealing clothing (like that in the ostentatiously irresponsible graphic) or because they did not do enough to protect themselves they would be implicitly responsible for rape if it does occur. And that is bullshit. Most rape victims already feel guilty because they didn’t say “no” loud enough (or at all), because they didn’t plan ahead better, because they trusted someone who took grotesque advantage of their trust, because they got out of bed that morning, because they had the audacity to exist in proximity to a rapist. And you know what? None of that matters. Because the only person who is responsible for rape is THE PERSON WHO ACTUALLY RAPES ANOTHER PERSON.

And it isn’t as if these rapists are all troglodytes waiting behind bushes and under rocks for a lady in a short skirt to walk past. They are friends, they are brothers, they are boyfriends, they are husbands, they are fathers, they are priests, they are scout leaders, they are teachers, they are rarely but occasionally even women. About 2/3 of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows. Does this mean women should never be in an intimate relationship with a man? Of course not. But it does mean that at a certain point, women are going to be vulnerable and the only person who can truly prevent rape is the person who might commit it. And yet even though I have read plenty of articles encouraging women to travel in fierce packs and carry their car keys like cat claws whenever they're outdoors, I have yet to see an article saying “Hey, guys, STOP RAPING PEOPLE.”

 Does that sound obvious to you? It does to me too! And yet there are still plenty of people who persist writing articles like this one. Articles that insult women by making it their problem that other people don’t view them as fully human. Articles that insult men by implying they are slobbering sex-crazed monsters who don’t have it in their power to stop themselves from participating in the abject dehumanization of another person. Articles that insult heterosexual male peer groups by not believing they can send constant messages to each other about respecting women, about what consent is and why it’s important, about not tolerating jokes or talk that diminishes the effects of rape. Most men, like most women, are pretty good people! Why can’t we expect more of them, as we seem so comfortable doing with women?

This is to say nothing of male victims of sexual assault, of child victims of sexual assault, of sexual assault in homosexual relationships, of what the lifelong aftermath of sexual assault is like for victims, of the way our culture tacitly perpetuates so many myths about rape. This is a topic that demands more. And The Beacon failed this time. Fortunately for them, and us, they’ve got hundreds of more chances to do better next time.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Twenty Six: It's Getting Better

For the past few years, I've written posts on my birthday as a way to see where I've been and where I'm going. This blog, as a whole, accomplishes that purpose, but the birthday posts are meant more as "state of the union"esque than the other posts I do about more specific points.

The problem I'm encountering is that what I write is heavily, heavily dependent upon how I feel at that moment. I have two paragraphs of a post about how this past year has been "the best year of my life" by virtue of how not terrible it was compared to all that proceeded it. But, at various points over the past few days, I've felt enraged, intensely overwhelmed, disappointed, ashamed, suicidal (my go to coping mechanism), unhappy, despairing, unlovable, undesirable, hideous, pretty, excited, connected, alienated, the list goes on. Certainly, there's a significant fluctuation of human emotions in the standard human experience, but it feels odd to me to feel suicidal one night, fantasizing about guns and leaps, and to feel ok (with a bit of anxiety) now.

So how do I sum up the past year and assess the future one, when the present is so in flux? When I write the sentences, the paragraphs get away from me. So the only way I think I can get through this is to bullet point this mofo.

Positives over the Past Year

-Met new cohort, many of whom with potential (if quixotic) for platonic intimacy
-Joined Horde Facebook group as outlet for intellectual and (to a lesser extent) emotional energy; another source of new relationships
-Began counseling and received significantly positive appraisal of my performance to the point where I, for the first time in my life, feel comfortable owning some degree of my facility with the job
-Began doing Trans 101 sessions in earnest, becoming more confident in presentation skills and learning not just to own my ability to inform and engage but to enjoy it [this and the above are *monumental,* and feeling like I do useful things well has done truly amazing things for my sense of self]
-Formed friendships with a handful of new people outside the program
-Experimented with living alone, but then made the very smart decision to get roommates which has turned out to be quite good for me
-Had two sexual-ish experiences with women as a lesbian (as opposed to pre-transition me) to muted success, but they both seemed to confirm that I can, at least, be attractive/desirable to the people I'm trying to attract
-Planned, prepared, and underwent SRS largely on my own, which has thus far proven quite successful
-Improved relationship with mother
-Allowed self to distance from father
-Diminished suicidality compared to post S/other years
-Continued to gain new insights via therapy
-Experienced periods of emotional buoyancy where dips into depression invariably shifted back to relatively positive frames of mind (an inversion of the previous norm)
-Further internalized positive sense of self re: being Juliet

Negatives over Past Year (carrying into the next)

-Significant barriers to intimacy remain, and although there is potential I remain quite guarded, isolated and dissatisfied emotionally with all relationships in my life
-Persistent alienation with no emotional outlets that feel adequate
-Departure of two friends (arguably more) who had very positive impacts upon me and had potential for future growth
-Suicidality still go-to coping mechanism in stressful situations
-Despite active engagement via online dating, very limited success romantically with no promise of improvement
-Still quite poor eating/exercising habits
-Procrastination paralysis and omnipresent feeling of failure significantly related to pre-dissertation research
-Realization that demographics of Knoxville are significantly limiting while simultaneously resigning self to stay in program for an extra year to reduce course load
-Continued disillusionment with local progressive activism (specifically organizational/adult)
-Continued if not exacerbated bitterness towards cis LGB community regarding trans issues
-Continued recurrent dysphoria regarding body, voice, facial hair, breast size, etc. resulting in depression, intense self-hatred, hopelessness regarding improvement/attractiveness, terror of how others perceive my gender
-Spent significant amounts of money on electrolysis with poor results
-Persistent, omnipresent anxiety

Goals for Next Year
-Don't push self to do All The Things before recovery is finished
-Find some social outlet outside of cohort; possibly queer discussion group for graduate students?
-Focus upon strengthening areas that will be part of long term career plan while not fretting so much about the rest
-Find emotional outlet via reading more
-Possibly establish exercise routine after recovery
-Try to be easier on expectations for self and, as a result, find more manageable expectations for others
-Continue to embrace realization that productivity leads to better mental health and procrastination leads to needless stress
-Continue to be more and more ok with being single
-Work on trusting other people/being more vulnerable (BUT HOW?!)

A few final observations:

All told, this past year's seen a lot of positive changes. Most of the negatives are problems that I've struggled with for my entire adult life, and although they're still dominant (I am certainly not "happy" and still far from "content") they're no longer the only game in town. On the whole, that makes last year a pretty good year. I'm getting better. I still have a very long way to go to even feel "ok" most of the time, but I am much better in comparison to the past. Thanks to all of you for helping to further that growth, in large and small ways. Here's hoping my twenty seventh birthday will bring even more.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Memorial for Boppo

Check this out on Chirbit

Boppo Memorial 8/24/12
I don’t have too many happy memories of growing up. But of the ones I do, they usually involved Boppo. Boppo, of course, is James R. Harmon. A veteran of the merchant marines in World War II, an insurance man, a telegraph deliverer, a landlord, a husband, a father, a sometimes worm farmer, and my grandfather. But ever since I was born, he’s been Boppo.

                There are so many great things I could say to try to honor his memory. His industriousness, working well into his 80s to maintain the apartments he’d worked so hard for. His resilience, growing up poor in the Great Depression and gaining so much in his life. His passion for lifelong learning, reading National Geographic and other publications every week and maintaining an active curiosity about the world despite never even completing high school. His love for jokes, his generosity, and so so much more could fill this space. But, to me, the one thing that stands out about Boppo more than any other trait is his strong, dedicated, and so enduring ability to love.

                “Love” is an easy thing to say, but, especially over the course of time, it’s a much harder thing to do. So often we let our fears, our pain, our pride get in the way of letting ourselves meet others where they are and open ourselves to loving them. But although he had his share of hardship with an unstable family as a boy, poverty, the death of his beloved wife, Madge, over thirty years ago, Boppo made love look easy.

                He made it look natural, so natural that it was easy just to take it for granted. He was the sort of person I might introduce a friend to once, and the friend would remember him forever as “the sweetest man [they’d] ever met.”

                When I was younger, I worried that he felt like he had to be generous to get affection. And he certainly was generous. He spoiled me as a child with toys and arcades and trips and food and anything I wanted that he could buy. He was the sort of person who would let neighborhood kids come in to his apartment whenever they wanted and grab a Coke. The sort of landlord who’d be flexible if not downright forgiving when rent was due. The sort of person who’d go down the line at Wright’s Cafeteria at Christmas and give each employee a $20 bill. I worried that he may have felt like he had to give all this money away, because that was the best way to show he cared.

                But as I got older, I realized that it was moreso a matter of priority. Growing up with nothing, he knew that money and material goods were luxuries, not requirements. That, at the end of the day, what truly matters is love. And whatever he could do for love, he would.

                He did the small things. Like trundling up to our daycare once a week to pick my sister and I up in his big blue van, taking us to McDonalds and then entertaining us with arcades and Legos and TV until we went back home. He was always willing to take care of a dog, fix a toilet, drive to help you where ever you were with never a complaint. He enjoyed simply spending time with us, watching cartoons on Sunday morning, going out to eat, watching movies that he may have found too racy or too confusing but thoroughly enjoying the experience simply because his family was with him.

                But he did the big things too. While my family’s home may have been a source of fear and chaos, Boppo’s apartment was a refuge every Saturday night. He would welcome us, spoil us, love us unconditionally. And he would enjoy every minute. Where my father often thought of us as burdens, Boppo always wanted to be with us more. He was always happy to have us visit. Always sad to see us go. He, just like my mother, would and did sacrifice anything for us to be just a little happier.

                And he was brave in his love. He was the only person to ever call the police on my father, during one of my father’s rampages, in an attempt to try to protect us when no one else would or could. And when I transitioned, as so many others receded or fell into their own fears and worries, he alone reached out. This 90 year old man with little formal education, raised in the Bible Belt, who watched Fox News all day called me just to make absolutely sure I knew that he loved me no matter what. Unlike anyone else, he needed to make sure I was ok, that I felt safe around him, that I knew he still wanted and loved me. He didn’t let anything get in the way of love. Because, to Boppo, loving me, loving us was all that really mattered.

                And, of course, that’s just some of my own experiences of his love. Everyone who met him, even for a few moments, can testify to how loving a person he was. Whereas as some families grow apart or always were distant, Boppo’s only got closer. In his final months, he was attended daily by the family that meant so much to him. He was surrounded by loved ones the night before he died. And, in death, he looked like someone who was assured of the deep, deep love in his life.

I don’t know how he did it. I don’t know how he overcame the hurt, the loss, the attendant pains and sorrows that his life knew as well as any other. I don’t know how he loved not just because that’s what one is supposed to do, but because he genuinely felt it. I don’t know how he so internalized that, ultimately, love is all that matters. I really don’t know. But I do know that because of him, because of his life, because of his memory, because of his immense and indelible impact upon me, I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to do the same.

We’ll miss you, Boppo. Your physical presence is gone from our lives, but we will always, always feel your love. And we will always love you, too.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Returning to Nightmares

The past two nights I've had strange nightmares. The nightmares themselves had very typical content (my ex being distant while in a great deal of peril & me teaching a class and losing control of it while my voice doesn't work), but the strange part of them was that when I woke up, I wanted to go back into them to finish them. That's a stark contrast from most nightmares, where they leave my heart aching and a deep sadness bubbles up that I can only find in the twilight between waking and sleeping. These both felt unfinished, as if I had more to do in them. And I kind of wonder what that means.

The beginning of the school year is always stressful, and this certainly look to be the busiest I've ever had: teaching a new class at UTK, leading the high school Sunday School at church, doing my presdissertation, taking my own courses, having nine clients, co-chairing a subcommittee for the LGBT Commission, organizing Trans 101 content to put online, organizing a Trans Day of Remembrance, recovering from surgery/dilating multiple times a day, etc. I get why I'm stressed. And when I'm stressed, I have nightmares.

But why do I feel like I want to go back inside them? Do I want closure? Am I starting to feel like I have the power to effect change that I couldn't before? Certainly part of me is afraid that teaching college will produce similar results to when I taught high school; I have so many nightmares about when classes where I was the sole person in charge would just get out of control, where I could feel the students sharpening their knives and jabbing jabbing jabbing as more and more blood flowed. And I don't know that I'll fully move on from S until I have someone else I can love.

But I guess I'll take it as a positive, that I feel like I'm better able to fight my dragons as opposed to being ravaged by them. I guess we'll find out how true that is on Thursday.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

All Us Pretty Things

"Very pretty. You look natural." the woman said as I was leaving. It wasn't the only time someone complimented my appearance while in the outpatient facility in Montreal. But it certainly stood out. "Natural."  To borrow a phrase, "Born this Way." One may as well have said "real." (The "pretty," of course, is attendant upon the "real.") And to hear it from another trans woman haunted me.

"You are so young and so pretty! I cannot believe no one would come with you!" my cis hostess enthusiastically exclaimed at the bed and breakfast (where I stayed the night before moving to the hospital). She was an exuberantly open and affectionate woman who really seemed to be capable of making anyone feel welcome and appreciated. But those first words lingered with me too. As if me being "pretty" ("real") meant that of course I would merit company and support.

The sentiment alone was said effusively, but it was meant in implicit (and, naturally, "well meaning") contrast to some of the other patients, particularly those who had transitioned fairly recently at older ages. And whereas some women who had transitioned a significant number of years ago but were in their 40s would be read as female easily, there were a few women who were in their 50s who had likely not done much HRT or who had transitioned later who I imagine have significantly more difficulties.

Physical appearance as a metric of "realness" is a common tension for trans people. For instance, most of my experiences with trans women have been with a scant few locally and then online. And online, ages skew significantly young. I've written here before about struggling with resentment towards younger transitioners (which I know is a product of my own self-loathing and absolutely nothing to do with any fault or flaw on their parts), and it's a not insignificant chip I carry on my shoulder: how much different, how much better would things be if I had transition at 20? 18? 16? Whenever I run my fingers along my cheeks, whenever I catch my voice skewing masculine, whenever I get rejected because I'm trans, it flares up in spouts of self-hatred. When I see myself in the mirror, when I look at most pictures or videos of myself, I think "Every person I know must be politely refraining from pointing out how foolish it is that I think I'm anything but a man in women's clothing." And I start to desperately wish I was cis, to desperately wish I really was "pretty," to desperately wish I had transitioned before my face masculinized beyond repair. Because I am under no illusions that, regardless of what others say, if I am "pretty" it's only in relation to those who are not read as female as easily as I tend to be.

And when some of these other trans women said "pretty" to me, I wondered: did those women feel similarly to how I feel? Was "pretty" an innocuous compliment, a way of trying to soothe an insecurity I presumably have, or a way of hurting themselves? Did they see me with envy, the way I looked at the young woman who came in the last two days who looked and sounded so cis I wasn't sure whether she or her boyfriend was getting the surgery? Did they think to themselves "I can never be as real, as beautiful, as desirable as her?" Because we know, oh how we know that really, on a fundamental level we are fake. We are hideous. We are undesirable. And, worst of all, we deserve to be unwanted and unloved. Because who could possibly commit such an act of immense charity as to fool themselves enough to join us in the delusion that we are something we are decidedly not?

And the worst part is that this is not a uniquely trans issue. There's a hierarchy, certainly. But if we set "realness" aside, much of that paragraph could apply to most any cis woman comparing herself to the "ideal." A fat woman to a thin woman, an older woman to a younger woman, a woman of color to a white woman, a disabled woman to an able-bodied woman, a fat, older, disabled pre-op trans woman of color to a thin, young, able-bodied, cis white woman. And there's a significant chance that that thin, young, able-bodied, cis white woman can *still* have an eating disorder that causes her to utterly loathe her body, seeing something hideous whenever she looks in a mirror and firmly believing no one could ever find her beautiful.

I know part of me, on some essential level, views being cisgendered as "the goal." If you're read as cis, indistiguishable from cis if no one who "knows" says otherwise, you've "made it." You are "pretty." You are real. You are ideal.

But of course that's ridiculous. Certainly, so very very many things are so much easier/safer at that point. But there's still a never-ending litany of reasons for women to hate their bodies/appearances/selves, whether it's weight, breasts, butt, curves, height, voice, facial structure, skin color, hair, etc etc. Trans women, particularly trans women of color, get the brunt of the intersections of racism/homophobia/misogyny/transphobia, but their oppression is an aggravated manifestation and combination of forces that still affect everyone who is at a higher place up that ladder but not on top (if there is one). Being "cis" wouldn't cure all their problems, it would just reduce the intensity.

And just so, being "cis" wouldn't make me "pretty." I know cis women (who certainly had plenty of viable alternatives, if they wanted to exercise them) have been attracted to me as Juliet. I know that there are people in my life for whom I've always been female without an asterisk. I know the way I see my reflection is tempered by a wicked combination of cultural narratives of platonic ideals and historical narratives of my own lack of worth. "Pretty" is a subjective term applied as if it's an objective pronouncement of worth. And I know that that feigned objectivity is the voice of oppression (or kyriarchy), equating a woman's worth with appearance, with cisness, with whiteness, with thinness, with straightness, with femmeness, with an impossible ideal. (Men's worth is judged too, of course, but on different scales)

But, and this is the key, simply because there are established hierarchies of legitimacy, of worth, of "pretty" does not make them true. When we buy into those hierarchies, we may pretend that we're on a spectrum of worth but really it's a binary: you are valuable or you're not. You are you, or you are perfect.

Knowing this is different than internalizing it. I don't feel I'm "pretty," meaning I don't feel I'm valuable or attractive or desirable or real or human in the way everyone else. But I do realize that I am the only one who can make that determination. Now, it's just a matter of sucking out the poison and letting myself be the beautiful of an authentic self. "Pretty" be damned.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Climatic Conclusions

[This is going to be very TMI. So, um, considered yourself really really warned!]

Holy. Shit.

So, you know how lots of you were wondering if I could orgasm and I kept on telling you "Hopefully!"? Well, we can change that answer to a resounding, emphatic yes.

I'd been tentatively trying, rubbing my clitoris in the way that sort of thing is usually done (in my experience), once a week for the past two weeks. The results were fairly poor. There was a slight sensation, but it wasn't the deeper, physical pleasure I was looking for.

So I tried last week, a bit more, but with comparable success. Much of my hesitance is that I'm not fully healed. Most of the stitches are out or almost out and I feel a lot more flexible and mobile than I was, but it's still scary, ya know?

The thing is, I've been having nocturnal emissions (two so far). Which is downright bizarre. Ironically, it's why I started masturbating when I did at 19: I wanted them to stop. And they feel the same way now that they used to, except... there's contractions but nothing comes out. And in many ways it feels like my penis is contracting when it's... not there. WHICH IS RATHER DISCONCERTING.

So, today, I decided to stick with it a bit longer. And, again, it's not like merely touching the clitoris sends a little bolt of pleasure (which for some reason is what I was looking for). But I started slowly rubbing it, and it started feeling kind of nice. Not like "OH GOD YES" kind of nice, but pleasant enough. And I keep looking at whatever sordid and sundry stimulant material I'm looking at. Nothing to write home about (so to speak).

And then something clicked. And my body started to feel like it wanted me to rub faster. And I did. Then it's practically like I'm tapping a button. And my vulva starts to do huge contractions, to the point where I wasn't even sure I was entirely touching the clitoris (the vulva's still significantly swollen, although much improvement), but I got the arching back sensation and just kept on moving through. And then... it hit me.

And my.god.

For those who don't know, orgasms with a penis (at least for me) kind of felt like rising tension, rising tension, tense tense tense RELEASE done. It's over fast. And, at least for me, the buildup was more perfunctory than pleasurable. Hell, the whole thing was more of a "well, I'm glad that's out of my system" kind of thing in lieu of "THAT FELT AWESOME." Again, various issues play into that for me, and obviously lots of people with lots of penises tend to really like it so go figure. But, for me, masturbation (even the vast majority of sex, with three or four exceptions) was more about exorcism than enjoyment.

But this was different. It felt... good. And when it finally hit... it wasn't like one "BANG." I was waiting for the "BANG," because that's what I'm used to, and it never really came. Instead, there was just this really intensely pleasurable feeling and I couldn't help but moan really loudly. For, like, ten seconds. Arched back, really intense pleasurable sensation, and moaning. And when it was over, I just kinda lay on my back staring at the ceiling in a dazed, happy kind of way.

And it didn't just feel good. It felt right. After almost every orgasm I've had before, I've felt kind of guilty or, at best, relieved that it actually happened and was over with. But this time, I was just really glad (and, of course, thinking "Wow, I'm going to get to do that again!").

There wasn't that big moment of relief, like "WHEW IT'S OVER." It felt good, but I was also kind of wondering if something was wrong because there wasn't a huge "release." And as I processed it, it occurred to me how very amazing it all way.

Because, listen. Everybody's different, and we can never really know what it's like to feel/be another person. But this orgasm felt a lot closer to the descriptions of vaginal orgasms that I've heard/read. One of my friends and I were talking two weeks ago about differing descriptions of orgasms, and how she felt it was kind of sad that people with penises just kind of got a "BANG" and then had to recover, whereas people with vaginas got longer, intense sensations and could keep going very soon after.

That's how I felt today. It honestly blows my mind that this is a thing. Because seven weeks ago, I had a penis! I had a different kind of orgasm! And now it's changed! The machinery is altered, but nothing "new" was installed. And I would think that "cis female orgasm narratives" might have impacted what to expect and act out if I hadn't experienced it myself. I couldn't fake what happened. Hell, I wouldn't have known how to. Despite everything that I "knew," I was expecting something a lot more similar to what I'd known. What happened was positively surprising.

Obviously, it's my first time, and who knows how things will change as I heal/learn the patterns better (I am really looking forward to that). But this is fucking amazing (so to speak). It's paradigm shifting. That this is even possible shocks me, and that it's so exciting and right is just affirmation upon affirmation that SRS was the right decision.

And, you guys, truest story: I cannot wait to see how this changes sex.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Moving On

I'm in an emotional space I've never been in before: stability. Lackluster stability, perhaps; I'm not complacent and certainly not happy. But the multifarious chaos, desolation, and trepidation that's adorned my furrowed brow for the better part of my ever is largely dissipated. 

For as long as I can remember, I was always preparing for the future, always looking ahead, and even when I was significantly unhappy in the present (which was often if not usually), there was always something in the near or distant future that I was working towards. And each realization offered the prospect of some significant change in my day to day life.

That's what transition has been like, but on a micro level. There are zillions of steps in a long process. And I've had it mapped out since deciding to transition, two and a half years ago. I wouldn't say SRS is the "culmination" of the process, but it's certainly the last major step. 

And now? Now I feel kind of... hollowed out. I've been staying with my mom for the past five weeks, and I'm kind of scared to leave. Not just to go back into the world and the grind and the constant demands upon my still recovering body. But to go back out into the world not looking forward to something else.

I think this is what post-op depression is. I've been putting so much planning, putting so much mental energy into getting to this point that, now that I've reached it, it almost feels surreal to move past it. I'm pretty well set, barring economic collapse or unexpected tragedy, in terms of my career path. I'm pretty well done with the "obligatory" tasks of transition. I feel like I'm going to be floating instead of swimming. And after so many years of struggling so very much... I don't know what to do with myself.

I'm sad. And I'm scared. But I'm sad and I'm scared while knowing that I am at a better place in my life than I ever have been before. It's good to be stable. I literally cannot express to you how much even the lukewarm dissatisfaction I feel now is so.much.better. than the very vast majority of my emotional state up to this point. And yet I miss it. Already. I miss the stress, the fear, the tenuous hope mixed with apprehension. Not for a moment do I want it back, but still I miss it.

I know this too will pass. Part of me relishes the fact that, the further I get from the surgery date, the more I can devote myself to so many other parts of my life and growth that I've been delaying while focusing upon the rest. Once the school year starts and I'm seeing clients again, doing the work I was made to do, I will feel that fire and direction again.

But I'm mourning. God help me, I am mourning something which I am glad is dead. And I am saddened all the same.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Questioning Self Worth

I've been working on establishing self-worth for myself for quite sometime. Much of that's been figuring out why it's so low (abusive alcoholic father, being trans, not finding fulfillment in work) and taking steps to try to change (distancing self and appropriately categorizing relationship with father, transitioning, getting admitted to program on path to ideal career). And, compared to even a year ago (much less four or five), I'm doing markedly better.

However, what I find myself struggling with now is maintaining that sense of self-worth consistently. While there may be intermittent moments where I feel that I'm a person who can be loved, can be desired, and should be respected, it's difficult for me to consistently foster those feelings for very long. At this point, I honestly think I have a pretty good understanding of why and how I feel. What I need is a way to internalize that understanding, to believe it instead of just being able to abstractly explain it.

So my question(s): Do you feel like you have a healthy sense of your own self-worth? Have you always had it? If you haven't, what did you do to gain it and maintain it? If you're still working on it, what's been particularly helpful for you thus far?

As always, your contributions are incredibly appreciated. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Guilty of Dating While Trans

[In response to this Feministe post, responding to a "Dear Prudie" advice column about whether a relative should out her trans cousin to the man her cousin is dating.]

 I'm pretty sure I got rejected a week ago for being trans by someone on okcupid. And it was especially irksome because the woman was awesome: really into all kinds of different social justice, knew about cissexism, seemed really ambitious and compassionate. She was enthusiastic and engaged, and then she read that I was trans and she... wasn't. When I saw she'd answered that "trans people ought to disclose their status in messages before meeting" (coupled with a note about her "grappling with the cotton ceiling,") I knew that it wasn't going to work out.

 And sure, online dating sucks etc. But I think it was one of the first times someone else really made me feel directly ashamed and disgusting. I mean, certainly, trans women are repulsive on an existential level to a great many people. But this was a direct rejection from someone who really seemed like she ought to know better. It was the first time I'd ever even considered not being so out all the time, because if even the folks who are progressive social justice activists and sympathetic to the abstract cause of my rights feel, on a visceral level, that I'm really just a dude in disguise... How else am I even supposed to get the chance to show them I'm not?

 I won't hide it, of course; being trans is too much a part of my identity and my politics. But it reminded me of parts of Kiese Laymon's gawker essay TNC posted, and how this sort of prejudice sticks with you and poisons you. How everytime a character jokes about the obligatory "tranny hooker" being "really a dude" it stings me. How I still feel like it's charity when people are attracted to me. How being trans feels like a stain I just can't get out. And I wonder how the hell I'm supposed to find and keep that sense of self-worth when it's so frequently reinforced that I ought not to have it.

Because when trans issues are framed in any kind of mainstream discourse? It's all about protecting cis people. Bathroom panic about scary men-dressed-as-women molesting cis women on the toilet aside, I've frequently seen people compare having sex with a trans woman who's not out being akin to rape. (And, of course, the ones who have sex with us when we're out are primarily perverts). Not to mention that it doesn't occur to Prudie for one moment that if that woman's cousin outs her, it might result in a beating or murder. We're just "living in a dream world" in thinking we're real women like the rest of you, and everyone needs to be saved from our delusion.

It weighs on you. Eats at you. And it makes it all the more difficult to believe that anyone would truly want you. Because, at the end of the day, the stain remains. And, in the eyes of most people, no amount of scrubbing will ever remove it.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


These are some questions that people have wondered, so I thought I'd start a post to answer these and more. If you're wondering anything, feel free to ask about it below.

- "What the hell do you do all day?"

Well, mostly I lie in bed naked and stick things in my vagina.
[It's not as exciting as it should be.]

I lie in bed because it hurts to sit without my invalid ring and even then it's generally uncomfortable after awhile (fortunately the toilet isn't painful at all).

I'm naked because air drying is generally recommended, my mom doesn't care, and pants/underwear are kind of uncomfortable while I'm still swollen in general. (The swelling is supposed to subside within the first four months, so I won't know what the "finished product" looks like for quite some time).

I dilate four times a day. Take two Sitz baths (put some soap in water and soak for ~10 minutes). Douche twice. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.

- "What the hell's dilation?"

Dilation is where I put plastic rods in my vagina and hold them there. One of the "unique features" of the trans vagina is that you're creating a space of nothing where something used to be. As such, the body wants to heal upon itself in the space. If you don't artificially keep it open by dilating, the vagina will close up which, you know, would be bad (in addition to kind of defeating the point of the whole 'surgery' thing).

Dilating, fortunately, isn't uncomfortable for me most of the time. It's difficult at first; the muscles get tense, so the dilators don't go all the way in easily. I have to really focus upon relaxing and maneuvering to get them as far as they'll go (about 4.25"-4.5," which is a bit below the average for the surgery but because I highly doubt I'll need to accommodate anything aside from fingers and the dilators' more fun-loving second cousins, I'm not too concerned). The maneuvering is frustrating and uncomfortable, but once they're in it's just a matter of listening to something until I need to switch to the larger rod or stop.

Overall, it takes about 45 minutes to an hour including setup, cleanup, and positioning. The frequency is what's most obnoxious: I'll get one done, eat a meal, and it's practically time for another. Fortunately, the frequency gradually decreases the further you get from surgery (schedule is here), but I will be required to dilate once a week for the rest of my life or risk it closing. So, you know, that's fun. (Penetrative vaginal intercourse can count, though. Which will make for an awesome pickup line: "Hey baby. My vagina's about to collapse and only you can save it. Wanna be my heroine for the night?")

- "Why Montreal?"

So, the penile-inversion technique means that, contrary to popular belief, the penis is not "chopped off" but instead inverted using the scrotum for much of the vagina. This can require a skin graft for some trans women whose penises are not large enough (and, regardless of initial size, after years on antiandrogens/estrogen and possibly no erections, this might be a real possibility).

Unfortunately, scrotums be hairy, yo. Most American doctors recommend.require genital electrolysis to remove the hairs. Dr. Brassard in Montreal removes them himself by cautherizing them. The American doctors advice electrolysis because it's the only way to be absolutely sure. But I've had really poor results with electrolysis and I didn't know how to find someone in Knoxville to do the genital version so Montreal seemed a lot easier. So too, the Montreal clinic has reputable aftercare and since I was going alone I thought that'd be an asset. [Thailand is the country that does the most in the world, but I didn't want to be that far from home alone and I also didn't want to be that far from the surgeon in case I needed to go back for some reason].

The cost and, honestly, the distance was pretty comparable to most of the other top places in America.

- "Can you orgasm?"

Hopefully! I mean, I wouldn't want to let your mom down now, would I? With the penile-inversion technique, the surgeon keeps the nerve endings from part of the glans in the penis intact and essentially creates a clitoris. Most women, barring complications, are able to orgasm post-op although it may take some time before full sensation returns to the area (and, of course, degrees of pre-op sensitivity differ too).

Hell, there's even some degree of lubrication for some women from the urethra, depending upon how much lubrication the penis tended to create before.
But for now, I just have to wait and see. (Not gonna lie: I'm pretty excited. Since, you know, I can't get unexcited. Since, like, it... anyway, next question)

- "How did you pay for SRS?"

So, SRS is expensive. Well, let me qualify that: SRS that in Canada or the USA with reputable doctors is expensive. After travel costs and paying for therapists to judge me insane enough to qualify for letters, I paid about $20,000. For someone who's never made over $13,000 a year, that's a substantial amount of money.

For better or worse, instead of going to a private college with a $40,000/year tuition, I went instate to the University of Tennessee which paid me to go. However, as my grandparents and mother had saved up some money to help me pay for college as I was growing up, they charitably gave me that money anyway. This, combined with spending very little money on much of anything and working pretty consistently throughout college, left me with a fair surplus once I graduated. 

So instead of going to a highly-regarded private school and leaving with a fair amount of debt, I went to UT and got a vagina. Worth the tradeoff? Meh. But it does let me say that my vagina was partially subsidized by the state of Tennessee.

If you have other questions, about the surgery or being trans or anything, please don't be afraid to ask in the comments below!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Prurient Proof

So, funny story: a week or so before flying to Montreal, I start talking to a young woman online who lives in Atlanta. She's smart, pretty, showed me glimpses of her *huge* diction... I'll spare you the graphic details. Anyway, it just so happened that, to save money, I was already scheduled to take a bus to fly out of Atlanta. And we figured that, since I was going to be there anyway, we ought to do lunch before my flight.

So we did. Her train was delayed so I got there first, and she surprised me by walking out of the subway tunnel with a bouquet of yellow roses. Not gonna lie: I swooned. She didn't know the area well, so we kind of wandered around until we found a sub place (for lack of anything else). She made some flimsy excuse for buying me lunch. We ate. We were both sleep-deprived, so it was somewhat awkward. But it was a nice diversion from thinking OMG SURGERY OMG SURGERY like a stock ticker in my head.

When our time was getting short, I suavely and subtly said, “I wish I could just pull you into a corner and make out with you.”
She said, “Yeah, that would be nice.”
Heartened, I took the classy route: “Well, the bathroom is a single room.”
She promptly responded “Well, I'm finished eating,” dropped her sandwich, and started walking. I, as you might imagine, swiftly followed.

Lovely, lovely makeouts commenced. It happened so fast it was almost unreal; I'm not used to other people taking the lead in matters of the sexy and sordid. Anyway, lurid details might prove superfluous, but suffice it to say I had somehow gone through life never being thrown against a wall and furiously kissed and now I have.

Eventually, as you might imagine, someone tries the handle outside and finds it locked. We start to compose ourselves when I discover that I have a huge erection.

Like, a huge one. Bulging against my jeans for all the metropolitan area to see, no doubt no way no how. And I realize that I honestly cannot recall a time where this iconic happening-to-penis-havers has been a problem. Two days before the surgery, and I'm going to have to walk to the subway station in downtown Atlanta beside a really hot girl with a giant hard-on. The poetry of the divine, indeed.

So I do what any sensible person would do and awkwardly angle my bag to cover the front of my pants as I walk down the street and wait for the subway.  Someone fortunately gives me their seat on the subway (on account of my luggage) and, aside from my date's amused grin, I escape major embarrassment.. Soon she gets to her stop and kisses me goodbye (*sigh*). And, as she's gone and I can finally stop being turned on, I think to my penis, resting smugly and far-too-snugly in my jeans, “Q.E.D., motherfucker. Q.E.D.”

It might be an understatement to say that I had the last laugh.

On Crying Alone

On the night after the surgery, my hospital roommate (call her “Kate”) phoned her mother. Kate had been in significant pain all day. Whereas I was fortunate enough to merely have the motion sickness-esque nausea and headache that usually accompany my forays into anesthesia, she hurt terribly. And as time went on, the pain worsened.

Pain medication provided temporary relief but only fleetingly. And, of course, that's cause for even more distress: the gradually dawning knowledge that modern medicine can only do so much to save you from the mysteriously individual agonies of the body.

So, in unrelenting pain, no end in sight, she did what many of us would do: she called her mommy.

She did not ask for much, after their brief salutations and Kate's preface regarding her pain. She said, merely, “Tell me a story.”

And though I can only hear Kate's side of the conversation, I can make a good guess what happened.

“I don't know any stories,” her mother replies.
“Surely daddy or Uncle Tommy's done something funny recently,” Kate says, almost begging.
The subtext is clear. And Kate, uninhibited by pain, gingerly jumps to it: “Don't you love me anymore?”
“I don't even know who you are. You murdered my child. How can I love you?”
Kate, sincerely, pleading, “I didn't murder your child, mama. I'm right here. I'm still your child.”
“You aren't my child.”
“I may sound different and look different, but I'm still your child, mama.”
“You aren't my child. You promised me, you promised me that you would never go this far. You promised me. And here you've gone and made yourself into some kind of freak. You promised me.”
“Mama, I didn't know what I was saying! I didn't know it would mean that much to you, I was just trying to make it easier on you and I didn't really know what I wanted and I'm sorry mama.”
“You promised me.”
“Mama, I'm sorry. I love you, ok mama? No matter what happens, I'm still going to love you. And I just need you to love me, that's all. Right now, I just need you to love me.”
“Alright. Bye, mama.”

Kate was so calm. She wasn't angry, she wasn't hurt. She wasn't crying. At least that she showed, of course.

I was, though. And, tear-stained from across the room in the darkness, I choked out “That was so terrible.”

Kate made excuses for her mother. Said her mother is the “most selfish person I know.” Explained the gaps in the conversation I'd already guessed. Said “Daddy will take up for me, I know it.” And that was that.

So I cried for Kate. Cried the tears she couldn't, fueled the anger she didn't, felt the hurt she blocked. And I reaffirmed my commitment to keep working towards a world where this bullshit doesn't happen.


Later, though, I wondered: given Kate's obviously fraught relationship with her mother, why had she called her, of all people, that night?

I don't really know. It's not really my place to ask, and it's arguably not my place to tell the story.

But I wonder: who would I call?

The day I flew back, as a product of exhaustion and hormone fluctuations, I started sobbing for twenty minutes straight. There was no definite reason. I was just... overwhelmed. My mother was in the room when I started, and I tried to hide from her. She's great if there's a physical/medical problem, but, as mentioned, she has her own significant barriers to trust and intimacy. I did call a friend who has talked me out of killing myself an embarrassing number of times and can at least roll with the punches, even if  she lacks the emotional vulnerability to be comforting. But when she didn't pick up? No one. I cried alone, just as I went to Montreal alone, just as I've done most of the hardest parts of my suffering and changing alone.

In other words, I don't have anyone I can call who can make me feel better. Not a single person who will be able to make me feel understood and loved and safe and cared for.

The reasons are legion, of course. I don't need to revisit my childhood here, but it doesn't take an expert in object relations to tell you that alcoholism, abuse, paranoia, and deadened stoicism don't foster trust and openness in a child (or her parents, for that matter).

But being trans, pre-transition... how can you be truly intimate with someone? Intimacy is all about knowing someone better and better, but when you haven't transitioned the person someone else is getting to know isn't you. Not really. Not in the way that matters most. My first and only long-term relationship was with one of the sweetest, most affectionate people I know. But whenever she touched me, it was as if she was blocked by stone. The person she was trying to reach, the person she was attracted to, the person she loved was not who I really was. And that's an obstacle no one can surmount.

It's not just being trans, of course. It's anything that makes you feel like you need to keep essential parts of yourself hidden from others. I sometimes, in my pettier moments, start to roll my eyes at LGB people getting so torn up about being closeted because, you know, at least the world sees them as who they are even if they don't recognize who they love, right? But it's the same fundamental thing: hiding part of yourself makes it harder for others to get close to you. The bigger the hidden part, the more distance between you.

This certainly isn't the case for all trans people. But I wonder: now that my active transition is nearing its end (vagina dynamics aside, I mainly have to get electrolysis finished, and the rest will just be dilations/HRT for the rest of my life) and I'm finally reaching a point of relative emotional stability for the first time in my life, will I be able to get closer to others? Will I find myself in five, ten years in some emotional turmoil and be able to call someone who I know will help me feel comforted and loved on some essential level?

I don't know. But I think there's more reason now than ever to hope I will.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Two and a Half Weeks Out

Every day seems to follow the same pattern: I wake up feeling nasty and terrible, dried out and poorly rested, not to mention seeing spots on my bed/bed pad from discharge. I dilate. I take a shower and douche. I feel recharged and ok. I dither around for a few hours. I eat lunch. I dilate again. I sitz bath. I dither. I dilate again. I eat dinner.

And then I start to worry. I look at my vagina. I see this horrible white stuff that is most likely "fibrinous sloughing" or something. It creates constant discharge. I get pissed off that my bed pad is full of spots where I've sat, that I'll have to get more pads, that I'm wasting pads. I look at forums and google and everything trying to figure out if I need to do something. Because I can wait, that's fine. But needing to do something and not knowing about it is terrifying. I dilate again. I sitz bath. I douche. I try to go to sleep. I eventually do.


I emailed back the "follow-up" questionnaire my surgeon's office sent me yesterday. I got an auto-return email saying they'd be on vacation until August 22, effective that day. I'm furious that they'd just up and leave and not even warn us about it. I don't know what to do about the white stuff. I don't know what's normal.

I'm light-headed and my thoughts are foggy. My doctor here said that if I got light-headed, I needed to reduce my anti-androgen. I don't want to; I've already regressed so much from the month I had to stop hormones. I hate having dark facial hair again. I hate having greasy hair and rougher skin. I read a forum post about "adrenal fatigue" with the fogginess lasting years.

I don't know what normal is. And that's the problem. I don't have pain. I don't have that much bleeding, aside from the discharge. It just looks bad. And foreign. I want to lie naked in bed recovering, knowing that I'm doing everything right. I don't want to sit here terrified that my incompetence is going to produce lifelong sideeffects, botching this entire surgery. The only people who can really say are on vacation for six weeks. There's a metaphor in that somewhere.


This is easier than I thought. This is harder than I thought. This is so incredibly worth it. This might be a gamble turned disaster. I have so many people who support me. I'm, essentially, alone. I'm so looking forward to living. I wouldn't mind dying. I literally had a fainting fit of vertigo after I wrote that. I don't know what to do. I don't know if there's anything to be done. I need someone to tell me. I'll get someone who says "Wait and see." This isn't that hard. This is far too hard.

I want to be well.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Way We Were

Ever since I was a child, I have wanted nothing other than a vagina. I would lie awake at night, fantasizing about its majestic curves, its mysterious crevices, its supple and moist texture. I could imagine nothing hotter than being penetrated by a hard, erect penis, feeling it pound against those beautiful walls deep inside me. I knew that I could not be whole, nay I could not be human without one.

But society was stacked against me. My parents hated it when I wore dresses. I was a boy, they insisted, and that meant I was supposed to play in the dirt with guns and sticks and foosballs or something. Of course I knew better: inside, there was a little girl howling to be let free. But it took me 23 years before I was finally able to build up the courage to say that yes, I truly wanted to be a Vagina American. 

I wanted to be a woman. And what's a woman without a vagina? A man, that's what. I wanted to be anything but a man. I wanted to let the woman trapped inside me out. And I knew that she could only escape through that glorious, flowing opening betwixt my legs. 

But first I had to convince everyone I was really serious. I dressed as a woman for an entire year. It was hard and all, but once my therapist saw I was serious she gave me papers saying that people shouldn't give me shit because I'm mentally ill and it's not my fault. Wearing makeup and a dress felt so freeing! Some people laughed and mocked me, and they still made me use the men's restroom at school. But I could kinda get that, though; I mean, I wasn't really a woman, not yet anyway. I was just some freak. I hadn't earned it.

It was hard. It was really really hard. But that's the price of real womanhood, you know? Well, that and $20,000. I worked really hard to save that money: nothing was more important. And when I had finally saved enough, finally gone through all the tests and therapy, finally proven myself, I made my appointment. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

As the time got closer, I was scared, sure. But I knew who I wanted to be: a woman. Not a drag queen or a he-she fag or a crossdresser. And that's what a vagina is, ya know? It separates the men from the girls!

Anyway, after so much time, I finally made it to Montreal. In just a few short hours, Dr. Brassard was able to work his magic. And when I woke up? It was like being reborn. I was a women. A real woman. And no one could ever take that away from me.

Now, I'm recovering. And it will certainly take awhile. But after that? I'm done! For all intents and purposes, I'll be just like any other normal woman. All of this “trans” business will be behind me. I can finally just be “me.” And that will be the sweetest thing of all. 


In case you haven't already surmised from my subtle and urbane satirical narrative above, this is not going to be a conventional retrospective about Sexual Reassignment Surgery (SRS). If that is what you're seeking, one need only google the term to find countless videos and articles about SRS, most of which will be produced by cis people, for cis people (although the discerning searcher can find trans owned narratives with a bit of work).

As such, if one wants to write about SRS, it's impossible not engage that narrative. Indeed, the vast majority of cis people equate being transsexual to having Sexual Reassignment Surgery. It's a point of fascination, both morbid and mocking, for the culture at large. Increasingly, much of this is well-intentioned: progressive people, in particular, love to see marginalized people become happy with themselves and their identities. But this is undermined by the inordinate focus upon SRS even within these circles: never have I seen celebrations of name changes, of starting Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), of even simply coming out as trans that match the congratulatory and celebratory joy from cis people regarding a transsexual person's surgeries. It always has been and remains the most familiar and intriguing aspect of transsexual people's existence for cis people. And that creates a host of problems. 

Because SRS is not just about surgically altering one's genitals to be closer aligned to one's true sense of self. It's about legitimacy, legal, cultural, and social. It's about wealth. It's about those who don't or can't have SRS as much as those who can and do. It's about cis people's deepest fears and suspicions of trans* people. It's about definitions. It's about biology and culture. It's about relationships, sex, and love. It's about “real.” It's about verisimilitude. It's about impossible standards. It's about women, it's about men, and it's about everyone and anyone involved in that inherently limited binary.

I cannot write about this without writing about all of that. And if you think I am angry, then you are right. I am furious. And excited. And hopeful. And terrified. And thankful. And resentful. And a whole host of emotions complicated by the fact that I had quite invasive surgery two weeks ago that will take a year to really recover from.

These feelings, together, do not fit the conventional narrative. And, as such, this exploration is going to make you uncomfortable (and not just because I'm going to go all "nonlinear postmodern" on your beautiful butts). But I want to ask you to engage with that discomfort. Chances are, what you want, what most people want, is to read a story about how I was sad because I was a boy and then I became a girl and then I got surgery and then I became a real girl, and now I'm happy. You want to celebrate with me, unambiguously, to embrace unmitigated positivity. And believe me when I say I appreciate so much about that sentiment. And I will write about that. But I need to challenge it, too. Because the only way this story is coated in unmitigated, celebratory positivity is when we don't want to see anything else. And there is just too much else there.

Hopefully, I can find a way to show a bit of everything.*

[*Well. Almost everything. IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN.**]

[[**I mean I'm not showing you my vagina. Which is kind of ironic, because that is what this is all about, right? And yet, you not seeing my vagina is also kind of the point. Isn't that deep? It'll be deeper after I dilate. *drops mic* GOODNIGHT EVERYBODY.]]