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.