Dis-so-cia-tion and a history of shame

It started a long time ago. Don’t ask me when. I don’t know when. I was young. And then it just got worse. And now it’s automatic. The way sleepwalking is automatic. I don’t want it to happen, I don’t choose it to happen. But it does. And now the challenge is to make it stop happening. But you can’t will it to stop. It doesn’t work that way.

Turns out I’ve been dissociating for as long as I can remember. As far as a protection mechanism it’s worked OK, but it doesn’t work anymore, not when I’m trying to engage with the world and claim my space in it. It’s hard to do that when you feel yourself pulling back, having a brief out-of-body experience that means you can’t feel anything, say anything, or remember anything. As they say: ignorance is bliss. It’s also no way to live.

Shame is something I grew up feeling a lot of. I was, in my own eyes, slightly out of step with the mainstream, just a little bit off. Partly this was because of my gender incongruence. Trying to fit into feminine social behaviour roles when these did not come naturally to me. Partly it was because of my disconnection from a place to call my home. My family moved from South Africa to Canada and then back again, multiple times. As a child, violently hurtled into a new culture as I entered into my teens, I felt misplaced. Moving from Canada back to South Africa when I was 11 years old was like travelling through time, from the 21st century back to the 19th century — it was not a pleasant experience. Not only was I faced with a socially conservative society that had little use for gender-confused, sexually curious teens, I was having to navigate the dark waters of a deeply ingrained culture of racism unlike anything I had experienced before.

As I learned more about my history, as an Afrikaner, as a Boer-child, as the child of a follower of the National Party, a political party that is best known for implementing the racist policies of Apartheid, I was none too pleased with my heritage. The National Party my father so loved brutally, violently, bloodily reducing those who opposed it to silence through torture or death. How could I hold my head up high? I coped with the confusion by  stealing away into an alternative world all my own, a place of pure emptiness. In this safe place I did not have to face the questions that I had: about my gender expression, my sexuality, my skin colour, human inequality. In the face of a world I could not understand, I felt disempowered to affect any meaningful change. What right had I, after all, to speak for anyone other than myself? And why should anyone care what I had to say?

When I left South Africa at the age of 18 to attend university in Canada, I had already developed some severe symptoms of clinical depression. While I had not yet actively tried to kill or harm myself – that would come later – I simply avoided every kind of emotionally charged interaction. I navigated the world only half present, the other half pleasantly checked out and floating in a psychic limbo of my own making. The symptoms were a lack of affect, a blank mind that seemed to miss even the basic capacity to string together words into sentences. When my dissociation ran this deep, it terrified me. Words were one of the few things that brought me comfort. Not having access to them felt like losing myself, or at least losing my sanity. Which still seemed preferable to facing the deep shame I felt for who I was, who I am.

So here it is, in writing:

  • I am white and I am an Afrikaner. My father and my mother are (were) Afrikaners (my father is dead now). My father voted for the National Party and believed in the policy of Apartheid. To him it meant “equal but separate”. I was opposed to Apartheid once I grew old enough to understand its consequences. But I kept my opposition to myself.
  • I am transgender. I was assigned female at birth and began my transition to male at the age of 24. My mother rejected me because of it. My father died broken-hearted. I did not attend his funeral as it did not feel like the right time to reveal my new identity to his friends and loved ones. I did not want to shame his memory.
  • At the age of 26, the same year my father died, a close friend, also transgender, slit her wrists in a hotel room and bled to death. Before she killed herself she called my number (and many others) to say goodbye. I still have the recording of her message. But on that day I wasn’t home when she called. And when I heard her message I did not immediately call back. Instead I dissociated. I went to see a movie at a local independent theatre with a friend. I blocked the meaning of her message out of my mind as if it didn’t happen. But it did and she was dead.
  • A year later, I had a nervous breakdown.

This is the shame I carry with me: my inactivity, my passiveness, the ease with which I simply separate from reality when it no longer makes sense or when I feel helpless.

I am not helpless. This is what I am learning, step by step, day by day, as I walk my path to recovery, to healing. This is what I want to share with the world.

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