Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sympathy for the Snakes

[[Someone on okcupid asked me to tell her a story and, upon my prompting, asked for it to be nonfiction magical realism, which I found incredibly clever. So here's my attempt.]]

My grandparents’ home was a peninsula of open space surrounded and interspersed by forest. The home itself was like ours in the suburbs, but we had no deer, had no baby rabbits, had no hummingbirds, had no horses. We had no stars and moon. We had no lightning bug chorus. We had no horizontal sky. We had internet and population density and generic accents. But we kept them chained in fences, not hemmed by trees.

And when it came time to socialize, we could no longer speak to dogs and cats and boys and girls. We could talk to each other. Or we could talk to grass. And seeds. And ticks. And songbirds. And mosquitoes. And, of course, snakes.

Oh, the snakes. My grandmother *hated* snakes. I suppose she disliked the things they said. And goodness knows, I wouldn’t give a snake the time of day. The dead eyes, the sharp teeth, the wicked scales. I have doubted much, but never that Satan chose wisely for his avatar.

But in the woods, one does not always choose one’s conversation partners. Sometimes they choose you. One day I left the confines of my grandparents’ home, stepping onto their porch. I imagine I frolicked or fell or attempted some other feat of acrobatic adolescence. And, after I was adolescenced out, I decided to go back inside. But the door was locked. I stood on the porch and knocked. I happened to look to my right. And there, on the brick wall, was a snake.

He was brown with spots. And he stared at me. And I stared at him. And I screamed. And I ran.

But as I reached the yard, he called back, “Where are you going? I’m just here to talk!”
“I don’t believe you,” I replied.
“Why on earth not?” the snake said, trying to hide how wounded he was.
“Because you’re a snake. And you’re scary. And I don’t trust you.”
Indignantly, he said, “ ’Because I’m a snake?’ I could have sworn we were past the days of such displays of speciesism, at least in public, but here you come and say it right to my face for all the world to hear! I’m just here to have a nice conversation, what is so unbelievable about that?”
“Aren’t you going to bite me? Aren’t you poisonous?”
The snake rolled his eyes and said, as if he’d had this exact conversation a thousand times, “Oh good lord. Let me ask you a question: When was the last time you had an honest-to-god conversation with a snake?”
I hesitated a moment, then said, “Well… never.”
“And why not?”
“Because I always scream and run away.”
“And what happened the last time you screamed and ran away?”
Somewhat sheepishly, I said, “I told my grandmother and she came out and chopped the snake’s head off.”
The snake choked down his anger, “Did the other snake bite you? Were you poisoned and hurt and nearly  dead?”
Beginning to feel guilty, I said, “No… it didn’t even touch me. I was just scared.”
“So. You got scared. And for that fear alone the snake lost his or her *life*?” The snake responded sardonically.
“And what were you planning to do before we talked?”
“Going inside to tell my grandmother.”
“And she’d come outside and chop my head off?”
“I guess.”
The snake, now visibly upset, said “Why do you want me to die like that? I’ve not done anything to you! None of my kind has ever done anything to you! You’re just afraid. That’s all you are, you’re afraid of something you can’t anticipate and can’t understand. And because of your fear alone, you’re going to go inside and tell your grandmother and she’s going to come out here and chop my head off just because I had the audacity to come to her house and expect to have a conversation with you. That’s it, right? Right? Tell me I’m wrong. Please, please tell me I’m wrong.”

The snake was, of course, right. And I really was feeling guilty, now. Watching my grandmother decapitate a snake was grizzly and it’s not like it had done anything to deserve it. Other than, you know, being a snake. It wasn’t fair.

But I was scared. And I was young. And I didn’t know what to do. And I really didn’t want to be bitten.

So I went inside and told my grandmother. And she came outside and she chopped his head off. And, since then, I have not spoken to another snake.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

On Owning Hurt

Until you can say "I was wrong" without pausing to defend yourself, there really isn't much hope.

This is really key, for me. As I was transitioning (and still sometimes now), people would commonly slip up on pronouns and my new name. And almost invariably, they'd respond defensively when I said something about it, saying "I didn't *intend* to hurt you" or "I'm still learning" or "I didn't know." 
And it's infuriating and exhausting. Because I know most people don't intend to be cruel. Even when they do cruel things, they make up all kinds of rationalizations about how their cruelty is just or deserved. It's rare that someone does something purely out of malice. People make mistakes and those mistakes often hurt others. But when they don't own those mistakes, the hurt isn't validated, it isn't "deserved" and you have to convince yourself that it's ok, alone.
What I really just want is for people to say "I'm sorry" and then to keep trying. It validates my hurt, it assures me that the other person values how I feel, I don't have to feel threatened or scared, and I can trust the person to try to not hurt me again.
Being able to own your mistakes is really difficult, but it's central to engaging difference and respecting others. I have said and done some really cringe-inducing, hurtful things out of my ignorance. But owning those actions has helped me not repeat them. I'm rather inclined to agree with TNC that any other way isn't likely to work.

(From my comment in response to this post.)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Perfection and Procrastination

Procrastination's always been a problem for me. It's a problem for many, if not most, people. On a fundamental level, it makes sense: the act of work, itself, is harder than not working, or else it wouldn't be "work." Why wouldn't we put it off if we could?

 But it's often more than  a simple aversion to effort. For me, it's also hard to do work when you feel like you're failing as you do it, when you feel that no amount of work will take what you've made and make it satisfactory. It's partially an aversion to effort, certainly. But it's also an aversion to imperfection.

It took me awhile to get the perfectionist connection to procrastination and to myself; I assumed that a perfectionist would be the sort of person who labored intensively for hours trying to get every last thing right. And, for some, that's the case.

But then I had a conversation with my therapist
Me: "I often notice my clients repeating patterns or behaviors, and I think 'if you could just stop doing that, you'd be so much happier and healthier.' Do you have that experience with me?"
Her: "I sometimes wish that you could stop being so much of a perfectionist and just give yourself a break."
Me: "But how could I be a perfectionist? Pretty much everything I do is miles from perfect."
<two second pause>
Me: "Oh, right. I see your point."

The fear if imperfection fuels my procrastination. I put things off because one cannot worry about creating inferior material when you literally have to work at that moment or not get the damn thing done. Procrastinating until the last minute is what saves me from having to experience doubt, fear, and failure.

So what can I do? A friend posted a link about forgiving yourself for procrastination being the key, but I think that addresses a symptom not a cause. The really hard, and more important, thing, is to forgive yourself for being human: to accept that you will inevitably make mistakes and to instead find virtue in the attempt.

I've been learning that, slowly but surely. I delayed reading my adviser's response and making changes to my IRB application for eight days. I could have put it off longer, but I pushed myself to just sit down and do it. It took me maybe 45 minutes. After having it weigh on me for eight days. And you know what? It felt good to get it done. It felt good to do the work.

It felt good in the same way that Physics 101 and AP Calculus II did, because I had to actually work to get the concepts. And, when I did, I felt like I'd really accomplished something. It's what I loved about (pre-abstract) math: you do the work, you can eventually get the right answer. And it's what I hated about Chemistry/science: you do the work, and real world variables can still screw it up.

But that's also why I left Math: Partially because it was so time-consuming and hard. But, more importantly, because it didn't feel real (at the levels I was at). There are not perfect answers in life. You can check an answer in Math, but it's much harder to find anything approaching that certainty in the questions of who we are, what we want, and how we get it.

Tackling procrastination is just as much about tackling my inherent feelings of worthlessness. I need to learn how to see value in work, even if the results aren't perfect. It's appreciating the challenge of a paper. It's being present with clients, not fixing them. It's caring about someone, about myself, even if, someday, everything ends. It's getting hurt, and accepting that that's the cost of a life lived.

But that's me (for the moment). What's your relationship to procrastination? If you do it, why? If you don't, why the hell not?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

For My Self

Sometime in early April, something weird happened: I scratched an itch. For years before, I had desperately wanted deep, intense conversations because their realness was the only time I felt genuinely connected to someone else. I wanted them all the time, any time. So when I started seeing clients, at first, it was positively joyful. I was finally getting what I'd been craving.

But after awhile, at some point, the craving seemed to shrink. It's not that I stopped enjoying the work; I still did/do. It's just that omnipresent desire was no longer... omnipresent. And I've found myself at a place, now, where I don't really want much of anything (aside from, you know, a girlfriend). I'm not working towards anything, not building anything, not growing. I'm just waiting for something to happen. Waiting for surgery, waiting for the fall, waiting to start practicing psychotherapy again, waiting to leave Knoxville, waiting for "The One" (or, rather, "A One"), waiting waiting waiting.

In many ways, it's like I'm waiting to feel alive. Much of that, certainly, has to do with not being in a romantic relationship. But there's not much I can do about that here and now that I'm not already doing. And besides, I want someone to complement me, not complete me. And having someone else "help me feel alive" seems to dip decidedly into the "completion" category.

But what else is there to life, aside from work and relationships? What else is there of value besides, well, what and who you are for others?

The only answer seems to be "who you are for yourself."

It's an answer I don't like. And don't want. But I'm increasingly finding that living for others, that basing so much of my self in others makes me angry and anxious and self-conscious. When others so strongly inform my sense of self, I have to control them if I'm to control me [e.g. their failures become my failures, so I have to stop them from failing or I fail]. And that's not right or healthy.

So I need to work on myself. More specifically, I need to use the next few weeks well. I'm going to write more often, and I'm going to identify concrete aspects of my self I want to work upon and then plans to do that. And, if you don't mind, I need your help.

Part of the magic of therapy is how just having someone listen to you makes a difference. Just so, if I know people are paying attention, I'm more likely to follow through with this. But to make this less of a "respond to me" kind of thing, I'd like to ask salient questions instead.

So, first question:

What are some aspects of yourself that you've wanted to change and how have you done it?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Question Wanting

It hurts to want. It hurts, and when the want seems this sound, the only way to stop it is to stop the imperfect self. “I cannot have, so I cannot be” goes the refrain.
I want a love worth living, but all I have is a life wanting love.
“all I have.”
As if a life is small change, scrounged from a blue jeans pocket and carelessly left as gratuity for someone who might give a fuck. As if lives come and go, but loves last forever.
I have been asking the wrong questions. I have been wanting her to come and be the person I want to be instead of being her myself.
Who am I? Who do I want to be?
If I met me, would I love me?
I do not know the answer.
But I do know:
it needs to be yes, it needs to be yes, it needs to be yes.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On Regret

I used to not regret. I tried to conceptualize every misfortune or mistake in my life as a building block of myself, arguing that as long as the end product was "good," then the path to her had to have goodness too.

And then I transitioned. And since then, I can't help but regret that I didn't do it sooner.

It's not a matter of wishing I did it sooner; I wish, for instance, that I'd gotten a masters degree in counseling instead of secondary education and then built upon that to go to a different PhD program. But I benefited so much from teaching and although where I'm at is not ideal, I think it's a hell of a lot better than a lot of alternatives. And, as a result of my English B.A. and my Teaching M.S., I have perspectives and approaches that I am positive I could not have gained from Psychology alone.

No, this is regret in the sense that I wholeheartedly wish I had done things differently and now there is nothing I can do to change the consequences. One of the worst parts of coming out as trans is that it's somewhat time sensitive. The younger you start Hormone Replacement Therapy, the better your results. If you start it before or during puberty, you can even come quite close to cis-ness (aside from genitals) and you'll grow and develop as your identified sex. But if you don't, your body starts to change in ways that bring you further and further away from that goal, and hormones lose more of their ability to make up for it as more time passes.

But I was too scared and stupid. So instead of trying to figure out how I could be who I needed to be, I spent most of my time trying to figure out how to kill myself. And, as evidenced by my presence here today, I couldn't even figure out how to do that right.

So I'll never have the almost-cis voice. Or the breasts. Or the knowledge. Or the experiences. Or, most importantly, the round and curved face.

And what makes this a regret is that I could have had them. If I had done more research, if I hadn't been as afraid of my father, if I hadn't been as afraid of my peers, if if if. And I know that I'm doing this younger than most transgender women, and I know that my father's programming and abuse wasn't simply a matter of "wishing things were different," and I know that if my society had been more trans friendly I would have done this younger and sooner.

But I can't shake the feeling of wondering what if. And every time I talk to another trans woman who is younger than I, who is prettier than I, who passes better than I, part of me is so envious of her and so angry at myself.

It is, undoubtedly, internalized transphobia and something I need to work on. But it's there. It is, in its self-destructive malice, there.