If I had to choose only three events in my life that have shaped who I am today, they would be:
1 – My decision to transition (Jan 2004)
2 – My friend A—‘s suicide (Apr 2005)
3 – My father’s death (Sep 2005)
I’ve had other key events in my life, like the move from Prince George, Canada to Pretoria, South Africa when I was 11 years old. Or the trip my father and I made to the Yukon the year before that. Or in 2001, when I ended up in the psych ward on suicide watch. Or 1999, when I won a scholarship to study French in Quebec City.
But the impact those events had pale in comparison with the three events above.
My decision to transition
In 2004, when I decided to start hormone treatments, I had very little reason to live. I had been severely, suicidally depressed since my late teens and simply could not shake it, despite heavy doses of medication and regular counselling appointments. Transition was a last kick at the can before calling it a day and ending it. I mustered the last of my energy and dove into a new existence, a more authentic one. I had never been so terrified in my life. But the transition itself went smoothly. I got a job as a man just 4 months after starting hormone treatments. People called me “he” and “sir”, with a few exceptions, basically from Day 1. My height helped, as did the hair that sprouted all over my legs and arms, thick and dark. Later it sprouted on my face too, and I welcomed it with open arms. The physical act of transitioning seemed fairly painless. Emotionally, though, it wasn’t so easy.
The Suckiness of Suicide
As I recently learned at the Gender Odyssey Conference, the trans community’s suicide rate is astronomically, disproportionately, unacceptably high. While the general public has an attempt rate of 1.6%, 41% of trans people have attempted suicide. Think about that. That’s almost half of the trans community. That’s crazy.
When A— died, I wasn’t ready. Not that anyone can ever be ready for something that cuts so close to the bone. It broke something open inside me and left me bleeding in ways I didn’t know was possible. Part of me felt jealous that she got there first. Why couldn’t it have been me? I wondered. I was the one who was always on the brink of slitting my wrists. I was the one who talked about overdosing, hurling myself in front of oncoming traffic (something I’d never do, btw – as it’s a terrible thing to do to the person behind the steering wheel), or jumping off a bridge. Yet here I was, still alive. And the one person to whom I had always been able to reach out, had beat me to it.
But the real emotion it awoke, the one I still wrestle with on a daily basis, is the guilt of knowing I did not try hard enough to stop her. It’s quite common for suicide survivors to feel guilt; I’ve read the literature. But in my case I know it’s warranted. The day she died, she left me a voicemail, telling me she was going on a long journey. I could read between the lines. Her partner had contacted me a few days earlier to let me know that she was worried about A—. I had brushed her off. And when the message came in, I listened to it, dialed *69 to find out where she was calling from, and promptly let it go when the number was revealed as blocked. I went to see a movie with a friend knowing full well what A— was up to. That is, my head knew that her call was a suicide note. My heart, on the other hand, was completely dead. I simply shut down. A day later I called her partner to find out if she was OK. K— informed me that she had died. I felt like I was acting in play, or that any minute someone would shake me awake. But nobody did. It was all real. There was no going back.
I’m told I need to forgive myself; we all make mistakes. Besides, it’s very likely I couldn’t have done anything to stop her. Even if I’d been there to get her call. Or if I’d contacted her partner when I received that voicemail and we’d been able to track her down, she may well have killed herself another day. You can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. I get all of that. But the guilt stems from knowing that I didn’t even try. I had given up on having a positive impact on her, or anyone else’s, life. I’d given up on my agency. I was simply an observer, separate from the world. What I did didn’t matter at all. Life just happened. That’s how I felt at the time. And it meant that I didn’t reach out when maybe I could have made a difference.
I wish I could’ve at least tried.
The Death of a Father-Figure
When my father passed away five months later, in September, it seemed like more proof that I had absolutely no effing control over the world. The timing couldn’t have been worse. He had found out only months earlier that I had started my transition (I had kept it a secret for fear of upsetting him and my mother). A co-worker had accidentally outed me when she referred to me by my male name in talking to my father (she didn’t know I was trans). My mother disowned me. My sisters refused to get pulled into the drama and simply stayed on the periphery, where they remain. It felt like Karma. Like what my mother had told me, and a few of my teachers too — that I was bad. That I was the architect of my own misery. I deserved to die, my mother wrote in her email messages; she wished I would’ve died instead of my father. Part of me agreed with her. My entire existence seemed like a waste of oxygen. Worse still, part of me felt like who I was, was somehow contributing to all the misery around me. Maybe my act of disobedience, my decision to transition, had unleashed the wrath of God. My father used to believe that AIDS was God’s way of punishing the gay community for their sinful acts. Maybe A—‘s and my father’s death was God’s way of condemning me too, for going against nature. For thinking I could defy God. My mother would certainly agree.
Moving on has proven challenging. Eight years later and I have a good job, a strong partnership, a home, a dog , friends. The suicidal feelings have faded, mostly. But the guilt, for the pain I caused my father and my family, for the lack of empathy that led me to dismiss A—‘s pain, or at least not reach out to her more, those feelings are still pretty raw beneath the surface.
Honestly, I don’t know how one moves on from that.