Monday, May 27, 2013


I'm fairly certain a cashier just called me "sir."

I don't think this should feel as painful and devastating as it does. I don't know if it was intentional or not; I was wearing glasses and a t-shirt. I'm not entirely certain it's what he said, but I'm pretty sure. And it's not like he said anything else that was mean or cruel.

But this, combined with going into "boy mode" when I went to see my grandmother earlier this week, is just so fucking hard for me. And I think what makes it so hard is that it illustrates how tenuous my passing is. If all it takes is glasses and a t-shirt...

It just feels incredibly discouraging. I know it shouldn't invalidate me; the validity of my identity should not be subject to the perceptions of ideas of others. And, practically speaking, it's only something to truly fear if it leads to harassment or danger. I know I pass most of the time, or at least more people don't tell me otherwise.

But it contributes to my constant anxiety about being around others, because I never know (or trust) what they see me as. Again, I know it shouldn't be so integrally important that others see me as female, but... it does. And I think a lot of that is internalized transphobia. I know how the vast majority of the world believes trans women are repulsive and sickening. I know that even people who are intellectually ok with trans women still have a difficult time emotionally accepting us as women. I know that there are *so* many people, even people who desperately wish it were not true for them, that just find us viscerally uncomfortable. Especially when it comes to attraction.

That's really what this is about. It is almost impossible for me to imagine myself as desirable. I just can't imagine anyone ever wanting me. That's already really difficult for me to do without considering my transness, but when I include it... how *could* anyone want me? Like, authentically, holistically want me? It just defies belief. And the further I am from the "cis ideal," the more I feel that my fundamental sense of deficiency is confirmed.

Intellectually, I can argue with this. If I was listening to someone else, I would never believe it and probably actively dispute it. But for myself, emotionally... it's just so omnipresent and encompassing. And it's destroying me.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Small Steps

Change is hard. It requires a lot more practice than I'd like to think. But that doesn't mean it's impossible.

I had another electrolysis appointment today in Dallas. I've kind of liked going to Dallas; it's given me an excuse to leave Knoxville and, for a person who's so rarely traveled, it's been a good way to practice going out into the world alone.

But it's been expensive. The actual cost isn't a huge problem; one of the (few) benefits of going to the University of Tennessee is that I ended up leaving college with a fair amount more than I entered (I had a full ride and my grandparents/mother let me keep the money they'd been saving for me; plus I worked part time pretty consistently. And I'm fortunate enough to come from a middle class family so I had my mom's insurance and phone plan through college.). But much of the reason I still have the money is that I've felt so guilty spending it.

Transition related costs are pretty justifiable for me; the permanency makes it seem more like an investment. But it's still terribly discouraging to spend so many thousands of dollars and weeks of my life painfully getting facial hair removed that the vast majority of cis women never have to think about. And even if it is an investment, it's still solely spent on *me*.... ugh.

That guilt hit me square in my already beaten face today when the electrolysis tech said "8-10" more treatments. I guess I'd hoped my lazer treatments would mitigate some of the time, and they have in terms of intensity (5hr treatments vs. 16hrs). But 8-10 more is not only really expensive, it's also pretty much impossible for me to do with school (the hair grows in cycle so I'm supposed to return every 7-8 weeks).

Given the five hours of electrified needles and not having eaten today, this left me thoroughly discouraged.

I tried scanning Dallas for a grocery store so I could get some fucking bananas, but the closest I could come was a Wal-Mart which had paltry fare. I bought a bag of animal crackers, drove back to my hotel, and cried.

I felt so thoroughly hopeless and deficient. It was as if the integrity of my existence was fractured; I felt so weak and inadequate in handling the simple tasks of human existence it was as if I was just going to shatter at any moment. Simply because things that should be so easy felt so so hard.

A few hours after sitting in the dark in my hotel room, I set out to get a veggie sub because I would be damned if I didn't eat something that had some remote nutritious value. But I overestimated my ability to memorize the directions and, since I had no smart phone, I ended up going the wrong way.

It confirmed all my horrible suspicions. I'm already settling for fast food instead of something approximating what Real People Eat and I can't even navigate simple areas of Dallas to find it. I end up near a suburb with a lovely trail, but I'm so tired and hungry I can only think about how lost and pathetic I am.

This is the thing about change. I can write strong, emphatic posts about anger and resilience that seems to imply I am determined to do things differently. But fundamentally, part of me still feels as if I'm flawed on an essential level. And even as my brain tells me that this is fatigue, that this is hunger, that this is those fucking electrified needles, that this is isolation and loneliness and fear, that I am more than this, my heart feels familiar fissures forming and I despair.

That's the pattern: get discouraged, succumb to the stultifying embrace of my inadequacy, give up hope.

But for whatever reason, I don't give up. I don't even know why. But I keep going, keep persevering, and somehow I find the damn thing. And, as pathetic as it is, I feel like it's a little victory.

And I realize that my lost detour is actually a blessing. I drive back to the trail and eat my sandwich staring up at the Texas sky, smiling at bicyclists and watching the water fowl of the little cove as the sun sets in tranquility. And when I walk closer to the water, two beautiful White Herons fly out from around the corner and perch upon a tree. So I stand for a few minutes, watching them, and feeling as if I'm uncovering some beautiful part of myself.

If I had written down my directions like a Real Competent Adult, I would have driven to Subway, gotten a sandwich, and driven back to my hotel to eat alone in my small dark room away from the world. Instead, I had an opportunity to make mistakes, prove resilient, and turn those mistakes into joyful little detours.

It wasn't a "fireworks in the sky," "lifechanging epiphany" moment. But it was a moment, however small, where a younger me would have repeated an old, destructive pattern. Instead, I had something new. Something small, something modest, but something different. A small step, but in the right direction nonetheless. It felt like change.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Grate Depression

After a very long hiatus, the wonderful Allie from the webcomic "Hyperbole and a Half" has returned with "Depression, Part Two," a follow up to "Adventures in Depression." Before I go further, I cannot stress enough: I really like these posts. Anything that helps to normalize and destigmatize depression is wonderful, and Allie does it with authenticity, vulnerability and humor in fantastic ways.

The part that elicited the strongest reaction from me, though, was the pervasive sense of powerlessness throughout. Specifically, the sense that depression is just something that "happens" to a person, like one's own personal black rain cloud that follows you around for no reason.
Eyeore and a black rain cloud.
"The Hundred Acre Wood's drought was finally over. BUT AT WHAT COST?!"
I realize that this is the way it feels. That no matter how hard you try, you cannot care. That all of your actions are shrouded in this persistent feeling of incompetency and meaninglessness. That you are alone and your attempts to reach out to other people are met by misunderstanding and incessant problem solving. Everyone encourages you to be "happy" or to "fix it" in some way or another and each time you think "Fuck you! If this was just about choosing to be happy I probably would have done that by now don't you think?" Allie's metaphor of the "dead fish" is beautiful because it so aptly illustrates how people really do want to help, but they're trying to help with the problem they think is there not the one you're actually grappling with.

Indeed, often times you try so hard and hate yourself so much (as wonderfully illustrated [haaah] in Allie's first depression comic), and you find yourself simply incapable of feeling better and hating yourself for your failure to do what "should" be so very easy. Someone at the Counseling Center yesterday said she's been trying to live by a quote to the effect of "Don't let your best days always be in the future," meaning that one should try to find a way to make now be the best. And I love that idea and hate it because I so desperately want now to feel good. However, as you have probably noticed if you've been reading any of me for the past ever, despite trying so very hard I have yet to find a way how to make it so.

Captain Jean Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise!
I'm trying, goddamn it!

And this is where my reservations come in. It feels like it's happening for no reason and no matter how hard I try I can't shake it. But I also firmly believe that, at their core, depression and anxiety are adaptive. Biology/brain chemistry may predispose us to them or exacerbate them when they arise, but these conditions are not solely the creation of brain chemistry. Brain chemistry may open a gate wider than those found in other brains and brain chemistry may make what we find on the other side more difficult to endure, but we still on some level decide to walk through.

It's important here to be clear: I don't think people choose to be depressed or to be overly anxious. Those things suck, unambiguously. But I do think people choose to stay in situations where they are unfulfilled. I do think people choose to not express their anger towards others. I do think people choose to direct disproportionate anger towards themselves. I do think people choose to remain constantly vigilant for threats to themselves and their loved ones. I do think people choose to be incredibly afraid of the judgment of others. Etc. And I do think those choices have negative consequences which often manifest as depression and anxiety.

The important distinction here, again, is that it's not necessarily that a person wants these bad consequences. But they choose to engage in behaviors that elicit them because the alternative, in their minds (and usually heavily informed by their experiences), is worse. Living in fear gives them some sense of control that they can prevent something terrible from happening. Not expressing anger allows for less conflict with others (avoiding the punishment expressing anger brings). Fearing judgment of others helps keep you from doing things that incur that judgment and its consequences. Etc.

All of these choices are valid. They are not arbitrary or stupid: they make sense and we get something from them. For instance, it was "better" for me to direct my anger at myself than express it to my father because doing so would only end up with me hurt more. I felt miserable, self-loathing, and guilty, but I also gained some control and safety. At the time, those were more important.

So too, it's not someone's "fault" they are depressed. This is not about blame. I made that choice (although it felt less like a "choice" and more like a "necessary adaptation") when I was younger, and even though it did immense damage to me, at the time I really think that was better than the alternative. No one else can judge what is an acceptable risk or the "best" course of action for you to take regarding decisions that affect only you. Hypervigilance to protect against risks may be what you need to feel like you can exist in the world and even as it's incredibly stressful and scary, it might be what you need to feel like you can stop horrible things from happening (usually again). It's not anyone else's place to say whether the stress is worse than giving up that sense of control.

However, I also know that as I have gotten older and my circumstances have changed, the consequences have increasingly been outweighing the benefits. I'm still really afraid of the consequences because I know so painfully what they can be, so change is coming really hard. Yet I've increasingly learned that change is the only way for me to get what I want from life (to wit: close, meaningful relationships and to be a good therapist). That's more important to me than the benefits of this pattern, so I'm trying to do the very hard work of changing.

Sometimes change happens when we explicitly decide to give something up in order to get something different. For instance by giving up the pursuit of perfectionism, we risk and likely endure some disappointment in exchange for less anxiety and guilt.

Sometimes circumstances change and we don't have to make the choice, such as when your partner in a toxic relationship breaks up with you and after initially mourning you feel better without them.

Or sometimes something happens to make the choice easier, such as "My therapist listened to me and supported me; I feel safer because someone is on my side, making the potential consequences of taking this new action less hurtful so I can choose to take it now."

But, at the core, I think we are still making choices, even if the results hurt a whole fucking lot. And deciding that some actions, consequences and risks are better than what we currently have is often how change happens.

I don't know Allie, and I don't know what's happened to her or why she's depressed. I know that not feeling things sucks. That it's frustrating and confusing and feels so damned hopeless. That it feels like it has no reason. But I also know that not feeling often feels better than being hurt (like you were when you did feel, whether you did that damage to yourself or someone else did it to you). I know that it often inoculates from fear, from disappointment, from rejection, from anger. I know that it's a way to protect one's self from fully engaging difficult questions about the purpose and meaning of one's life. Etc.

I don't know if any of those things are happening for Allie. It would be presumptive to guess. And I fully believe that it feels beyond her control. But as a therapist and as someone who's had decades of depression for herself and her family, the brain chemistry black cloud model is just intolerable for me to accept. I have to believe there's a reason. I have to believe there's hope, that change is possible. That Allie can change.

It may not matter that we find the reason; there are options for change that happen when we get certain things we've been lacking that make change seem almost inexplicable. Maybe medication may help. Maybe she'll make an epic pilgrimmage to the corn palace and she'll experience a moment of existential transcendence that will prove to her that though she is but one kernel in the great cob of life, it is the kernels that make corn possible.

I don't know. And maybe this is more about what I want to be true than what actually is. But I really do believe there is a place for hope in depression. And this is how I've found mine.
Kernels of wisdom, cobbled together throughout the ages
as humanity stumbles through this maze we call life.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Finding Love in Anger

For as long as I can remember, I have been ashamed of my gender identity. I’ve tried to write and speak so much about that space, but in many ways it defies description. I was not a whole person, I was not “real,” I was a shadow of myself. And even as, in my core, I felt I knew who I “really” was, my culture and the people composing it made it abundantly clear that such a sense of self was not only a deviant perversion to be ashamed of but a literally impossible fantasy.

                Yet as I emerged into young adulthood, I discovered that this part of myself was not something I could ignore.  Although I tried to resist it, without being true to myself I found I would never be able to authentically connect to another. Through the help of a wonderful therapist, I was at least able to accept that it was possible for me to “aspire” to be female. I was still ashamed, still terrified of the potential fallout, still so incredibly afraid that I would never be considered “female enough” to count. But eventually I reached a point where transition was the only viable solution that even held the possibility of me keeping myself alive for the foreseeable future.

But when I finally did start transitioning, that shame turned to guilt. If shame is “I am bad” and guilt is “I do bad,” then I felt it was with world destroying audacity that I dared call myself woman. I felt guilty even being in a room with someone my identity was making uncomfortable, acutely aware of their feelings all the time. I felt even guiltier “correcting” people about pronouns and names, which they slipped between without even noticing. Indeed, I felt guilty for the constant act of being myself.

                However, to my surprise I also discovered that most people would be pretty nice, if you approached them right. If I was small, polite, apologetic, people might be awkward or confused, but few were intentionally rude. 1 If I swallowed my hurt and made the fears my fault, if I forgave them everything and blamed myself for the discomfort, if my only challenge to them was my existence, people were usually pretty decent. And it was this way that I survived. Intellectualized, self-loathing, wracked with guilt, never vulnerable, never letting the rage and hurt and immense alienation I felt out, I survived.

                I changed minds, too. I was the first (out) trans person most people I knew had met. Most people didn’t know anything about trans people, even in “LGBT” spaces, so I started doing classes to try to provide some basic information. And many responded really well. I felt alone and afraid, but I knew they wanted a narrative of me feeling better (in order to make my arduous transition “worthwhile”), so that’s what I showed them. They gained knowledge, saw the me they wanted to see, and felt good doing it.

                What’s more, I was so very well-behaved. Someone told me that, too. A person in one of the other programs in our department, saying “I wish the others were more like you.” When ze said it, it was like I’d been slapped. Suddenly my restraint had become a weapon to invalidate “the others’” hurt and “the others’” anger. I was “the good one.” The one who showed that it was possible to be better, that they were just not trying hard enough. They want to be angry, they want to be hurt, they want to be sensitive. Juliet isn’t, so why do they have to be? I filed it away; I was still ok with being “nice,” because I knew it meant people would be nice back. But I didn’t forget.

                I kept doing more presentations. I began getting invitations to go to classes. The presentations kept going well. But I was also angry. I didn’t know how angry I was, but I was angry. Some came out in classes, me steeling myself in intellectualized assertion, never emotional but so strong, so active in my comments. I was a social justicar, and I had to comment, I always had to comment, because I didn’t trust anyone else to speak. I was so used to commenting, so used to confrontation-that-wasn’t-confrontation that it didn’t feel like it should be an issue. I do this all the time, every day. I choke it down every time someone says “LGBT” and means “gay,” every time someone talks about gay marriage as if it’s the end all be all of queer activism, every misgendering, every misnaming, every time someone takes for granted that someone is like them, is advocating for them, is sympathetic to them, knows who and what they are. I’m “brave” and “honest” all the fucking time. And as I fell even moreso into that role, I just kept taking on more.

Just so, when my responsibilities increased, I found I just couldn’t handle things as well. When I got to my Trans series during Fall of last year, I started getting sick. I had the constant stress of grad school while still pushing myself to keep on presenting, keep on educating, keep on trying to play nice because when you’re nice others are nice. All while I was being consumed with feelings of guilt and shame and failure.

This semester, I broke. Like a toxic waste barrel filling up to the brim with poison, it started spilling out more and more. I started doing too much, saying too much, feeling too much responsibility and pressure in far too many places and trying to do it all. It felt great to be so busy, to be doing so many things, but when I stopped I found myself aching. I started being more vulnerable in my classes, sobbing in confrontations or when trying to express how thoroughly I felt I wasn’t doing enough. At first this was  welcome, but it kept escalating. I was just too much. I was dominating, I was audibly impatient with sighs and eyerolls, I didn’t trust anyone to do anything because no one ever seemed to do the things or say the things unless I did and how could I trust otherwise now? I was so used to it all. And when I started imploding as a therapist, taking on too much and having it be too much for my clients (failing where it really hurt)… I started falling apart.

Suicide, my constant fallback, became a persistent thought. That's nothing new. But what really concerned me was when I seriously considered dropping out of the program. Mind you, being a psychotherapist as Juliet is literally what I have wanted more than anything else in my life. And because I didn’t feel I could do it adequately, I’d rather drop out, fade into obscurity, and wither away than keep on failing so much all the time. Then I started doing my Trans series for the Spring semester. And I got the flu. And my voice left. And I kept pushing, kept going because I wanted to do good so very very badly.

And the harder I pushed, the more the toxins kept spilling over the brim and splashing on others. I realized that I couldn’t keep this up. Something had to give. And that something was the source of all the relentless pressure, of that constant grinding pressure to “do more:” the guilt.

But that’s the thing, right? The guilt’s adaptive. It’s a way of turning all that pain and anger inward, of making me “the good one.” And now that I’m challenging it? I have a hell of a lot of pain and a hell of a lot of anger that I honestly don’t know what to do with.

Surprisingly enough, that anger crystallized in our intergroup dialogue. 2 We’d been having “success,” creating an environment where the Christians (dominant group) felt safe enough to openly grapple with the ways their beliefs about the superiority/universal Truth of their religion conflicted with their desires to be loving, accepting people. I’d probably been too involved as a facilitator-participant, but it was still non-blaming, non-confrontational. We had an intense session about Christian superiority and attitudes towards LGBT folks, but it was challenging in a productive way.

And then we started processing it. When we were processing it, the Christians owned that they were struggling with divergent values, and I really appreciated that. I appreciated their honesty and openness about grappling with “Christian supremacy.” They started talking about how they were “growing” and that this was “part of a process of change” and who could ask for anything more? Wasn’t this the goal of the intergroup dialogues, to have the dominant group ask themselves hard questions about their privilege and role in oppression of others? Weren’t they actively and honestly engaging in it? I mean, it would be unreasonable to honestly expect them to change their minds then and there. That’s a long, difficult process. They were trying, they really really were.

But then they started to accept that “process.” Their views were evolving and they just needed to be patient with that growth. And while that’s, like, exactly right because you can’t rush that shit, they’re only human, these things are deep-seated… it really, really bothered me. It really, really bothered me because it really hit me in that moment that I was literally waiting on them to give me the rights they already have. Was I supposed to be ok with that? Really, really ok with that? Was I supposed to say “Thank you, oh open-minded Christians, for considering granting me access to the privileges you already have!” That’s what this entire process has been about, right? Right?

That’s certainly the political reality. Nothing in this country happens without the Christians’ permission. They’re 70% of the population: they control every position of government power in the country.  I literally have to wait on them to decide to grant me my rights, rights they already have and take for granted.
And it’s not just “Christians,” as a group. Christians are 70% of the population, but cis people are 99%. This very dynamic of waiting on people to grant me rights they already have is what I’m engaged in constantly, all the time. It was only in that moment that I realized it.

And you know what? That fucking sucks. That infuriates me. And it infuriates me all the more that I have to swallow that infuriation. That I have to choke down every incessant microaggression, every feeling of discomfort, every single comment (countless every single day) and I have to smile and calmly, politely say something which still makes me feel like the bad guy. Or I could not say anything, and sit there in my shame and hurt and discomfort because I don’t want to be the bad guy again. Or, I can cry. And while I cry, I can try to validate their fears because I don’t want to be attacking, don’t want to make them feel like they make me feel all the fucking time, but I can put my vulnerability on display so they can get a glimpse as to what this shit is really like and when I’m done they can say “oh. You’re really brave.” The courageous audacity of me being myself.

Because you know what would happen if I don’t do those things? If, instead, I honestly and without reserve express how hurt and angry I am at having to put up with this shit all the time, every day? I will be all the more alone. One more angry tranny, angry feminazi, angry queer, angry man in a dress who if I was just “logical and reasonable” like I used to be before I transitioned (or so I have literally been told) I might actually be able to get shit accomplished and have people listen and wait patiently for them to let me have some of the things they never question not having.

So when one of the Christians in the class says “I mean, we’re fundamentally all broken just in different ways. So how can I judge your [queerness] when I’m just as sinful?” I don’t stand up and scream “If you want to see yourself as sinful and broken I will be sad for you but give you the space to self-determine for yourself. Just don’t fucking craft an entire culture, government, and society undergirded by the assumption that I and everyone else are broken and inherently, irreparably damaged because of your beliefs.” Because saying that would be cruel and make her feel terrible. 3 Hell, it’s not even her fault: she didn’t make the system, she just benefits from it. But even if I did that, it wouldn’t be a teaspoon compared to the constant ramifications for myself and all of us who suffer because of that system (and others like it) I’d describe.

I don’t say it, though. I know who has the power and ability to make changes in this country. A self-identified queer student asked me after a presentation how I responded to folks who wanted to be allies, saying “I get pissed off when straight people want to be good liberals by being allies because I don’t fucking want or need their approval.” And I said, “I do need cis people. Perhaps LGB folks have a critical mass in our culture and the wind at their backs, but I still can’t even get my birth certificate to say ‘female.’ Only cis people can make it so I can do that.”

So yeah, there’s a realist inside of me. I want to go all Malcolm X and turn my guilt into anger, consistently and accurately putting the blame of my oppression where it belongs. I want to embrace “self-defense” and respond with the anger and pain I feel when people say hurtful things, not attacking them but simply returning the pain they make me feel. Malcolm X feels so good when you’re an oppressed person. But Martin Luther King Jr. got results from the dominant group. He sacrificed himself and his followers, persistently and consistently, putting his suffering on display while turning the other loving cheek. But he did get results.

So that’s where I’ve been and where I’m at. I am angry, I am discouraged, and I am honestly burnt out. But I am also learning what I need to do to keep doing this work. I have to stop fighting this anger and turning it into guilt. It is not my fault that my identity makes others uncomfortable. It is not fault that my body does not meet cisgender ideals of beauty or validity, and I am not required to hate myself for not meeting them. It is not my responsibility to make cisgender people accept me, understand me, or feel comfortable about me. I may choose to do those things, but I have no obligation to. And when I choke back my anger because it is more “effective” to respond with the patience and kindness I am expected to have an infinite supply of, I can choose to do it. But I don’t have to.

I want to be a loving, patient person, but to do that I need to love myself too. And loving myself means accepting that I am not responsible for creating or ending my own oppression. Loving myself means acknowledging my anger and sharing it with others, because my hurt is not just my problem but our problem. Loving myself means, if I choose, to not feel guilty for telling you that you benefit from systems of socially constructed oppression centered around identity and it hurts me. Just as loving you means challenging myself to acknowledge and destroy those same systems I benefit from that hurt you.

                So I’m not giving up on this work. I’m not giving up on dialogue. But if I am to keep doing it, I simply must do it differently. I have to be kinder to myself. I have to be more validating to myself, even when those feelings may be difficult for myself and, worst of all, other people. I have to be better about acknowledging shared responsibility for hurt instead of making it all my own. I have to find a way to love myself. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life, it’s that loving myself is the only way I’ll ever be able to truly love others.

1. Being white, being middle class, and passing well helped.

2. For those who don’t know, this semester I participated in an “intergroup dialogue” (IGD) as a cofacilitator-participant. The idea in IGDs is to identify dominant/oppressed social identity categories and create “dialogue” groups with half dominant members, half oppressed members to explore privilege, raise consciousness, form relationships, and ultimately empower individuals to pursue social change. So there are IGDs on race with half White, half non-White, on sexuality with half heterosexual half LGBQ, etc. I was in the “religion/spirituality” group composed of Christians and non-Christians as the non-Christian participant-facilitator. This is partially a reflection upon that dialogue as well as a reflection on my evolution as a social justice advocate and trans woman.
3. It would also be an abuse of power in the context of IGDs, but I think the feeling is applicable for contexts where I'm not in a "facilitator" role as well as a "participant" role. It just so happens I realized it here.