(And yes, of course I have more to say about what it means/what it takes to make it to a 20th wedding anniversary as a trans couple, but not today…. )
Queer Pain and Queer (Self)Destruction
An Honest Perspective on Mental Illness and Addiction
Recently, I made several realizations about myself. Vulnerable, scary realizations that I want to have known but am also scared for people to know. I am afraid it will change how people will see me, yet it feels necessary to share. Perhaps through my experiences, my pain, I can help someone through theirs. I could wait for National Coming Out Day, but I’m too queer for that. (Yes, yes I KNOW queerness is not a competition. Please don’t bite my head off, it’s tongue-in-cheek). So here it goes. One: I am mentally ill. Two: I am an addict. These are two facts I have always known about myself, but I’ve always perceived them at an arm’s length – adjectives, descriptors of behavior. I always thought, yes, I deal with mental illness that flares up from time to time. Yes, I have addictive behaviors. But no, I am not someone who is mentally ill or an addict. Those identities are too close, too vulnerable, and ultimately, too shameful. However, if I don’t acknowledge them as aspects of who I am, I can’t see how deeply they affect me, or how tied with my queer experience, it has led to a particular kind of queer pain and self-destruction.
I was diagnosed with clinical depression and a generalized anxiety disorder at the age of seventeen. After not being able to sleep well for months, a constant feeling of pain in the pit of my stomach, and a horrific panic attack, I finally convinced my mother to take me to the doctor. I walked out of the visit with a prescription to Wellbutrin and something to help me sleep. In the car, my mother and I agreed not to tell my father about the anti-depressant. He was always leery of any substance that could alter how you feel, and thus alter your soul. Only god should be able to do that. When we told him the doctor had given me something to help me sleep, he, the man who probably genetically passed down these illnesses to me, stated warily I don’t trust those things. It took me months to tell him about the antidepressants. My pain could not be fixed by their prayer, and eventually I started cognitive behavioral therapy – as I side note, I recommend CBT to everybody. It is incredible and truly saved (and continues to save) my life. My journey with initially uncovering my mental illness and eventually coming out is deep and painful, and a story I will share another day. My initial diagnosis was that it was something temporary, a hiccup that 6 weeks of meds would help me get over. 4 years of CBT, a stint in the mental ward, and a suicide attempt later, I came to realize mental illness would be something I would be carrying with me for the rest of my life.
Hiding my mental illness was never something I wanted to, or felt the need to do. When comfortable enough around someone and the topic comes up, I openly discuss my journey, my struggles, and how I’ve gotten to where I am today (which is to say: still alive). Despite this openness, I always saw mental illness as something I dealt with, but not a deep aspect of who I am. Perhaps I had the hopes that someday I could get over it and just function like a normal (neurotypical) person for once, even though I simultaneously knew depression and anxiety would be things I dealt with for the rest of my life. I am unsure why this distinction felt important – perhaps I felt as though I was more in control of myself if I am just dealing with a problem versus a chronic illness. If I am mentally ill, then it is a part of me. It is ingrained into the grooves of my brain and there is fear and uncertainty there, and that unpredictability and lack of control is terrifying to me. If I am mentally ill, it may win some day. This thought rests heavy in my heart. Heavy and hard and true. It dips into the pit of my stomach and presses down on my chest until I pause, breathe deep, and choose to keep going. Instead of looking at the endless miles of life ahead of me, I look down, and take one step at a time. I can’t control the road in front of me, but I can control my next step, so I keep on going, step by step.
Life is overwhelming sometimes, but I will keep fighting like hell to stay alive despite having a heart that feels too much. I have galaxies in my chest and the universe in my belly and my body cannot contain the vast penetrating emotions I feel. Some days, my seams are popping and I risk falling apart. The only way to describe existing like this is exhausting. I am constantly tired and the world demands too much of me. I have my toolbelt of coping mechanisms to help me keep going, to recharge my battery so I can face another day. Face another week. Keep marching one step at a time until before I know it, I am in an upswing and the world is beautiful and light once again. Since I feel so deeply and intensely, carrying an unnameable hurt behind my ribcage, I have dedicated my life to kindness and gentleness. The world, with its sharp edges and hard surfaces, damages those who are easily bruised. Damages those who are tender and refuse to harden to the pain of life. I refuse to be another abrasive surface. The balm to my aching soul is love, so all I want to do is pour out love love love. I want kindness and gentleness to radiate around me, to extend a softness into the world that is not seen frequently enough, because when I am soft to others, I also create a space of softness for myself.
Yet sometimes I am unable to extend this energy to the world. When I swing low, I do not have the energy to put anything out; I retreat inward and attempt to take the small steps I need to take until I get better again. It is in these spaces that I crave the gentleness and kindness I normally give out to the world, but I often don’t receive it. More accurately, I should say, I am unable to receive it. In those spaces, I am unable to reach out. I know I have resources and people who love me, and try as I may, as of right now I am simply unable to reach out. How do I articulate the weight and depth of emotion pressing on my soul? How can anyone help lift that? Perhaps it is my ardent refusal to be a burden to anybody, to be nothing but supportive because I know what it feels like to not be supported. In the early stages of my mental illness when I reached out to my parents and my church leaders crying for help, it was dismissed. I needed to lay my cares on god, that’s all. It wasn’t working, but I must have been not trying hard enough. Not holy enough. It is also difficult for me to reach out due to the pride I carry in being the strong one; I cannot be weak for anyone. I am also afraid that I am all too much for people. How can I even lay that burden on someone? It’s not fair to them. They didn’t ask for it. They may not have the energy for it, and in my weakest points, I cannot stand that rejection.
I am usually able to make my way out of these lows. I do deep breathing, I ground myself, I read over my list of things that make life beautiful and my list of things I believe as fundamental truths about the world. I write poetry, listen to music, and drug myself to sleep. Usually, when I wake up, things are more bearable. I continue to do tender self-care – I take a shower, make a meal from scratch, read, go for a walk. I write more poetry. If I am feeling particularly brave, I call a friend just to chat for a bit. The path out of my lows is not always as simple and beautiful as that; self-care requires energy that sometimes I can’t even muster. Sometimes, the addict in me turns to escape. Run away from all of the feelings, even if for just a moment. I like doing drugs – various drugs enhance experiences in a variety of beautiful ways. However, there’s a difference between doing drugs with friends to loosen up, chat, and enjoy the evening versus getting high in a desperate attempt to light up my pleasure centers and numb the pain. And sometimes I just want to keep going and going, blast myself out of this galaxy, blast myself out of existence, but sadly with drugs, you always return.
After those last few sentences, I am sure it comes to no one’s surprise that I have realized I am an addict. However, if you know who I am, you might be surprised. I keep it well contained, as I have a crippling sense of responsibility and thrive in stability. A high functioning addict. A nighttime and weekend addict. My sense of responsibility and commitment to stability keeps me in check, and for that, I am grateful. I am not the type of addict who doesn’t know how to stop. Sometimes I have a hard time stopping, but I know my limits and know I need to return to normalcy so I can function in the daytime and maintain my life. However, with addiction, it’s not just drugs. I get addicted to hobbies, people, concepts, and habits. I obsess and can’t stop thinking about something, or all I want to do is that one thing and nothing else. It consumes me. Again, I am not consumed to the point where the stability in my life is threatened, but the behavior is still there. Thus, I am an addict.
My addiction and mental illness are inextricably connected, as it is with most people who experience both things. Life is so incredibly difficult for me, I strive to hold on to all things light, beautiful, and fill me with a sense of peace. I also strive to find anything that can pull me from my deep oozing dread, which leads to addictive behavior. If I can find one thing that puts a spark in me, I become obsessed. Sometimes I latch onto a healthy behavior, and other times, not so healthy (Who even decides what is a healthy behavior and what isn’t? Wonders the person who toes the line of a K-hole every other Friday night because they took it a little too far). Sometimes even actively destructive. Boy am I a sucker for a good self-destructive habit – there’s something cathartic about destroying my body in various ways like my mental illness destroys my soul.
The thing is, I am hesitant to even be so honest. I don’t want people to worry about me. I don’t want sympathetic stares and “Are you okay?” even though some days I also so desperately crave that. I find my catharsis in self-destructive behaviors, but I don’t want people to become aware of my damage and hurt because they witness my self-destructive behaviors. I want them to see me in my normal behavior, see through my walls and ask me if I’m okay then. I so desperately want to be seen and held, yet I simultaneously refuse to be seen or held. If I don’t feel completely safe around someone, I will never be honest. I will never let them in. I will lie and keep on going, desperate to be helped but refusing almost all help because there are so few people I actually feel safe around. And even fewer people I would feel comfortable burdening with my pain. I firmly believe this complex stems from queer trauma. Those who I thought loved me the most rejected me when I revealed my true self. So I protect my truest, most vulnerable self at all costs. If my family and my god whom I thought loved me entirely, completely, and deeply turned their backs when I opened up my most vulnerable self, how can I trust anyone? This thought pattern I know is a lie – I am surrounded by friends and chosen family who love me completely, but there’s a part of me so scared of completely opening up because I have been betrayed so deeply. Here rests the kernel of truth, the most painful spot. Here is where mental illness grows into queer pain and an inability to reach out for help, which leads to queer self destruction. I know this is something I can overcome, but I will probably spend the rest of my life figuring out how.
The scariest realization I had throughout all of this thinking is, as I mentioned earlier, the fact that I may not win my battle with mental illness. I am mentally ill, and perhaps one day it will overtake me. Perhaps one day, I will not have the strength to overcome the intensity of the bad or the simple exhaustion of living. I so desperately hope I die of old age. I so desperately hope I keep on living, but it is also so exhausting. I am motivated to keep fighting by my commitment to doing no harm. Other motivators are holding onto the wonderful beauty of life, the crazy happenstance of existence. However, I may not win. I feel freed in accepting this fact, not weighed down by the length of the road ahead of me. Please, do not fret; I still have plenty of energy to fight yet. Decades hopefully, especially with continued treatment. And maybe I will overcome and die of old age, but if I am going to be completely honest, it may also be the case that someday life will be all too much. However, I’ll keep fighting my hardest to hold onto life, to experience every glorious second and extend as much love and joy and kindness to this world as I can until then.
Many writings on mental illness end with some neat resolution, like “it gets better” or “never give up!” and I struggle to stop writing until I come up with a neat resolution myself. But I can’t, because at least right now, I’m not certain of that happy ending. It feels too neat for the reality of life. Instead, I’ll make my motto “fight like hell, there’s no turning back”.
To all my queers, mentally ill folks, and addicts: fight like hell, there’s no turning back.
(The original can be found here.)
Today is the annual Trans Day of Visibility, and for trans folks (and our non-binary/gender non-conforming siblings) its both the best of times and the worst of times.
I mostly post about the latter because the effort to eradicate — and I don’t use that word lightly — trans people from public life is hateful, alarming and requiring direct action to combat. The on-going hate-crimes murders of trans people, usually almost all trans women, usually almost all women of color, usually the vast majority Black trans women. The demonization of trans (girl) athletes — because it’s almost always trans women/girls who are targeted — by an unholy alliance between social conservatives and purported “feminists,” who are really Feminist-Approriately Reactionary Transphobes. (Because if you’re “feminism” aligned you with the Immoral Minority, then you’re doing feminism wrong.) State legislatures proposing — and passing — laws to criminalize providing trans-related healthcare to trans kids, to allow doctors to deny healthcare in general to trans patients.
Like the attack on voting rights, even when they fail these efforts are meant to intimidate us. They force us and our allies to expend time on effort that could go to more worthy purposes — such as reducing the shockingly high rates of suicide among trans teens. In a 2018 study, 85% of trans teens reported “seriously considering suicide,” while over half of them attempted suicide. Because life is that fucking tough for them. In another study, 78% of respondents reported being harassed, 35% attacked and 12% sexually assaulted. Trans adults have suicide rate comparable only to combat vets suffering PTSD, because yes, life is that fucking hard for too many of us as well. I only post about a fraction of this stuff, not only for my own sanity, but to prevent myself from becoming Janie One Note. Trust me, there’s a lot of other things that I’d rather be posting about. So if you know a trans/non-binary/gender non-conforming person, today is a really good day to show them some love, because although there’s now a lot of good things happening, there’s still all too much threatening and scary stuff going down.
It’s also the best of times. Like for many other minorities, the existential terror of The Former Guy’s administration is now gone. The current administration has our backs, and they’re walking the walk. They’re rolling back the hateful policies of the prior administration. The Biden administration became to the first to celebrate Transgender Day of Visibility, while also today the Pentagon reversed the military’s trans ban. That’s a big Joe Biden Deal. (Even if presidential executive orders mean my rights are at the whim of who’s in power.) The love shown to Elliot Page shown when he came out. The increasing visibility of, and support for, trans men, who’ve traditionally flown under the radar (for better or worse).
Dr. Rachel Levine getting confirmed by the Senate as Assistant Secretary of Health — the first trans person to do so. Dr. Levine’s accomplishment is a double victory, because like a lot of later-in-life transitioners, including myself, she’s “visibly trans” due to the unwanted changes testosterone wreaked on her body. Previously the high-profile trans woman activists, like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock were less threatening: they fit the cisgender heterosexual norms of beauty, they’re attracted to men. Which is not to knock their activism, far from it. But life is different when you look like, well Laverne Cox. I still regularly get “sirred” by store cashiers and others. I’ve resigned myself to always being “sirred” on the phone. I’ve learned to let roll off my back since it’s often not worth correcting them, but for part of me it’s still always another slice in the death of a thousand cuts. (If you don’t think pronouns are important, try misgendering a cisgender person’s pet.) I don’t know Dr. Levine’s sexual orientation, but since she was married to a woman (the married didn’t survive transition), I suspect that like many later-in-life transitioners, including myself, she’s attracted to women. (Sexuality attraction being independent from gender identity.)
Dr. Levine doesn’t really have a choice whether she’s visibly trans. Myself, I blend in more often than I’d hoped for, and for the most part I’m treated as the woman I am. But I still choose to be visible for those who can’t be. (Yes, I’m one of the examples that yes, it does get better, and I have enough privileges to be visible.) But I’m hoping that being trans ends up being the third or fourth most-interesting thing about me. That said, not everyone can be, or wants to be visible. (If you don’t think you know any trans people, trust me you do.) There are many reasons. Some don’t feel safe doing so, some are trying to keep jobs or preserve marriages, some feel it’s nobody else’s damn business. But regardless of the reason, it’s totally cool, and they’re just as trans (or non-binary or gender non-conforming), just as valid, as those who are out. But in the spirit of visibility, I’d encourage you to check out FORGE’s series of short videos where trans/non-binary/gender non-conforming folx share their experiences and feelings about being seen. In particular my friends Helen Boyd and Rachel Crowl. (Helen is an incisive thinker about gender, an amazing writer, and fierce advocate — buy her books!, and check out her Trans 101 talk. Rachel is a bad-ass actor, musician and photographer who got stellar reviews for co-starring in an award-winning indie film, and at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — cast her!)
To my trans sisters and non-binary, and gender non-conforming sisters, brothers and siblings, to their partners (who are too often unsung heroes), to their families, and our fierce allies, I see you, I love you, I celebrate you. I’d also like to give a shout out to all those on the trans spectrum who don’t socially transition and therefore never go public for various reasons (most don’t feel the need to transition and are happy being “just a crossdresser” etc.), and often are deeply, deeply closeted—there’s probably 10 of them for every public transitioner, making them the vast dark matter of the trans universe. Unfortunately many of them are looked down upon not only by society at large, but also too often by other trans people. Yes, I see you, and yes, you’re “real enough” too. To quote Helen, you’re amazing and you’re awesome. Love to you all. Don’t let the bastards get you down.
The Fox Cities Book Festival recently chose the book George by Alex Gina as a community read, and as a result they asked me to do a Trans 101. It’s been up on Facebook but they were nice enough to get me a copy to be shared, so here you go:
I wrote a longer post about having a panic attack as someone with PTSD today. It’s not something I write or talk about often, but after this year, I’m realizing I probably need to share more of what it’s like, what it’s been like, how you learn the shape of your own trauma, how you negotiate with it.
Here’s an excerpt:
“Today’s panic started around 2:30. It’s just past 6:30 now and I’m coming down which is why I’m able to write about it. I’ve always wanted to and I honestly don’t know (also don’t care) if this explains how it works. This is just my version of PTSD; everyone experiences it differently.
In this case, too, there was resolution to the thing that caused the panic within an hour of the stimulus that set it off.
So: panic stimulus – stop breathing – stomach goes weird – fingers go cold – head comes off.
That all happens in about a minute.
I had a reason, an actual direct cause, to stop panicking maybe a half an hour after that.
Yet here I am, four hours later, typing this because I can’t get back to my work because I can’t focus. Because once it starts, you’re kind of just a passenger while the whole of you goes off the rails for a while. You wait. You watch symptoms once you’ve learned them – and that takes years – and you do the things that help a little, whatever they are, but mostly it’s just about passing the time until the brain can wrest control back, once telling yourself “you’re okay” actually starts to sink in.
So yeah. That’s what PTSD is like. I’ll be a little weird the rest of the day, a little queasy, a little angry, a little jittery. Eventually I will tell myself it’s okay to go to bed and I’ll take a pill for it, the kind I have an “as needed” prescription for, and mostly I’ll wake up feeling like myself tomorrow.”
You can read the whole thing here.
As many of you know, I am not a sports person.
What I am very enthusiastic about, however, is girls doing sports. I was a tomboy, remember, and had to compete with boys a grade older in order to lose some races. I dropped out of sports for a variety of reasons, but that’s a different story for a different day.
But I’m even more enthusiastic about trans inclusion in sports, because it makes sense. And with this rash of bills making their way around the country – one is supposed to be introduced here in Wisconsin – I thought I might gather a reading list on the issue for those who want to know more.
First, this great article by the ACLU about the common myths surround trans inclusion in sports.
Completing the ACLU trifecta, Chase Strangio’s annual tracker of trans bills on Twitter.
My friend Quince Mountain on trans inclusion in sports and on being able to play sports doesn’t necessarily have to do with winning at sports.
TransAthlete.com, a project of Chris Mosier’s, which has a ton of information, from the basics on trans and sports, and an action center.
Dr. Veronica Ivy on Twitter regularly writes about sports and champions trans inclusion.
Here’s a great piece about how, if you want to protect girls in sports, you should probably worry a lot more about sexually predatory coaches (and not about trans people).
To close, I’m going to say a few things. When someone you know contacts yourself, ask yourself a couple of questions: (1) has this person ever cared about women and girls in sports before? (2) has this person ever expressed any interest whatsoever in feminism and “leveling the playing field” ever before? and (3) where is this person getting this information?
Because if the answers are (1) no, and (2) no, and (3) who the hell knows, you might want to send them this list so they can do some research and get back to you.
I’ve got 20 years of experience doing this work and no, I can’t boil it down to a meme or 5 basic issues. This rash of bills is an attack on trans people, plain and simple, and it is hateful and unwarranted and a waste of time.
But while they’re out there trying to pass these state by state by state, trans people you know are suffering, scared, and already dealing with so much prejudice and discrimination. Be kind to them, and argue with your friends for them as often as you can.
(I’ll keep adding to this list, so feel free to send me more resources.)
added: Utah op-ed by Max Chang which makes great arguments.
added: This Nancy podcast called “When They Win“.
added: Vice article on the physical changes transition brings.
added 3/19: American Progress article on the importance of trans participation in sports.
Here’s a piece I wrote before Election Day about Monica’s death that I recorded for FORGE’s Trans Day of Remembrance.
It feels so different this year with Monica gone.
It feels so much the same this year, seeing all the photos of the beautiful people taken by violence because they were trans.
It feels so different this year with 250,000 families mourning a loved one who died from Covid.
It feels the same to realize that there are still people who think a person’s gender identity is a good reason to hate them.
It feels so different this year because President Elect Joe Biden not only marked today as Transgender Day of Remembrance, but he made trans and non binary people a promise to respect their dignity and human rights.
I was talking to a fellow partner of a trans person recently about how terrifying it can be to negotiate other people’s attraction to your partner. On the one hand, it’s nice to see someone realize that they find a trans person attractive for the first time. On the other: really? I mean, there are a million billion examples of beautiful trans people. But the dynamic for someone who is surprised by that attraction is so, so complicated. I’ve had people walk up and tell me how hot my wife is, and sometimes they are so proud of themselves for validating her gender and beauty. Other times it’s just creepy and weird.
But partners always live with that fear that exactly the wrong person will find your person attractive, or find their gender an affront, and so we live with that fear all the time of the person we love being hurt because of who they are, but moreso, because the wrong person’s dick got hard.
It sickens me over and over again to see the beautiful people who were killed maybe because they slept with the wrong person or just because they were walking home from work late at night. Maybe they were doing sex work. Maybe they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it’s still a reality that a trans person can be targeted for doing absolutely nothing at all but existing.
So when we have these “theoretical” conversations about what gender is I never hear a conversation about gender. What I hear instead is a conversation about whether my beautiful wife deserves to be treated with respect, her life and autonomy protected.
And honestly my heart hurts these days, hurts with the piles of grief. It hurts because I miss Monica and still can’t quite believe she’s done. And it hurts with the fear I have for others’ safety, the frustration when I realize how little I feel like I can do, have done.
So this year I’m inviting you to celebrate or thank a trans person you know, to send them a card or a gift or pay a bill that needs paying.
If you’ve got suggestions for organizations that specifically help trans people, let me know.
Here in Wisconsin there’s FORGE and Diverse & Resilient. Today, consider a donation.
Do more. Read a book. Watch Disclosure. Support trans candidates for office.
Sometimes what bothers me most about TDOR is that I am reminded that a bunch of my friends are trans because their being trans isn’t the important thing about any of them and never fucking has been.
But we mark the day to respect the dead, to say their names, to say: violence is not okay.
I just really hope, someday, there is no need for TDOR because there is no violence against trans people.
I got interviewed for this article which focuses primarily on Sarah McBridge but also on the history and reasons so many trans people are running for office. I think the most important point I made was this one:
“The election of President Donald Trump in 2016 has spurred trans people to consider elected office instead of just local community organizing and advocacy, according to Helen Boyd Kramer, an author and instructor of gender studies at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. She said trans people understand the unnecessary politicization of bodies, choice, and medical care “in deep ways.””
Yesterday, for the trans/GNC and LGBTQ caucuses, the Jane Fee award was given to Babs (Barbara) Siperstein, who died last year.
This year, there are 35+ trans /GNC delegates to the DNC, and they, of course, are standing on the shoulders of giants.
Jane Fee was the solo trans delegate, at age 73 – the first ever out trans delegate- to the DNC in 2000.
By 2004, there were 7 trans delegates:
Monica Helms (who also created and designed the trans pride flag and TAVA, the first trans veterans org)
Vanessa Edwards Foster, who created the trans lobbying org, NTAC
Barbara Siperstein, who was so awesome she now has a law named after her
Kathy Padilla, who helped pass Philly’s trans rights law
Melissa Sklarz, who has been a moving force in NYC trans rights since forever, and
Christina Ocasio (whose current focus is her awesome music).
They were joined by trans journalist Roslyn Manley and by Mara Keisling of NCTE, who has gone every year in one role or another.
Stay tuned for more info about the current crop of trans/GNC delegates, info about their races, and how you can support them.