Category Archives: Autobiohistory

The story of me.

More than a victim: letting go of blame and learning to embrace accountability

104HTen years ago my family discovered that I was in the process of transitioning from female to male. No one in my family was happy about it. My father felt that he couldn’t accept it. My mother announced that unless I changed my mind, I was no longer her child. When my father eventually died from cancer, my mother wrote me to say that she wished it was me who had died, instead of my father.

My gender transition was a shock to my family and they responded accordingly. It may not have been such a shock to them had I felt safe to speak up earlier. But I remained silent about my gender dysphoria precisely because I feared the reaction I eventually got – one of rejection and condemnation.

Ironically, my inability to speak openly about what was going on for me inside partially contributed to my worst fears coming true.

The lesson I took from all this was that to reveal who I am, who I REALLY am, is dangerous and will cause only pain to me and those around me. But I could equally have taken a different lesson from the experience – that to conceal who I am, who I REALLY am, means alienating those who could possibly learn to accept (or even love) me for who I am.

My birth family and I have minimal contact today. I haven’t spoken to my birth mother in eight years. I occasionally communicate with my sisters via email maybe 1 or 2 times a year – to wish them happy birthday and happy holidays. The damage done to our relationship was severe, traumatic and, likely, irreparable. I don’t foresee our relationship improving in the foreseeable future. They have shown little indication of wanting to know me as I live my life today. No phone calls, no visits. No acknowledgement of the sacrifices I have made to live my life authentically.

I still carry with me the hurt, and yes, that anger that comes with feeling like I have been wronged. And with that hurt comes rage that my birth family turned their back on me, or at least did nothing to help me, despite my pain starting at a young age, when what I needed most was compassion and some place safe. I never felt safe with any of them.

But being a victim isn’t a place that leaves you feeling empowered. And when everyone involved in a conflict sees themselves as the victim, the conflict can’t resolve itself.

My family would probably claim that they were victims of my self-destructive behaviour and of my refusal to reach out to them for help. And I do feel responsible for the pain I caused them. Especially for the pain and stress I caused my father so short before his death.

For a long time, I have blamed myself for having let my family down. For having these cross-gender feelings in the first place, or for struggling with suicidal depression as early as age 12. The depression waylaid me for most of my childhood and rendered me incapable of functioning for most of my 20s. I exhausted my family’s goodwill in the process.

I blame myself because if I don’t, it doesn’t make sense why my life has gone so drastically awry. It has to be someone’s fault, because then at least there’s a narrative, a coherence to the chaos.

I blame my parents for their emotional neglect and their lack of empathy for when I struggled as a child with what was even then a serious case of clinical depression.

I blame my sisters for deserting me in that house, with parents who didn’t know how to love or care for me. And later, when I spoke my truth, for distancing themselves from me. Like I was some kind of pariah.

I blame God for making me a freak, for giving me feelings as a child that I couldn’t control or comprehend or safely share with anyone.

But blame has a funny way of killing you from the inside. It becomes an avoidance strategy that covers up another emotion – deep sadness and grief. A bottomless pit of it. And I’m afraid of letting myself feel that grief. Afraid that if I do, I will disintegrate and lose what little self-control I still have.

But there has to be an alternative to the rage or blame. There has to be a way to forgive myself for my perceived sins. After all, I was a child when this all began. How was I to know how to process these complex emotions? I had no one to show me how, and nowhere I felt safe to explore what was going on for me.

Oddly, when I let myself feel compassion for the child I once was, the anger towards my family lessens too. Because I realize that they, too, acted mainly out of fear, and out of not understanding. I can have compassion for that even if the consequences of their actions continue to hurt. I can’t say I forgive them fully, but maybe that’s because I don’t forgive myself fully either. Having your pain denied or invalidated leaves you feeling weak and unable to move on. And letting go of the need to have others validate your pain, well, that’s not easy.

I haven’t quite figured out how to hold them – and myself – accountable in a non-blaming, non-judgmental way. Maybe sharing these thoughts is my way of trying to start that process. I’m taking it one step, one day at a time.

*Photo by Ryan McGuire (http://www.gratisography.com/)

Silence is not consent

As a transgender man, I am in the fairly unique position of having lived the first 24 years of my life as a woman before transitioning to living as a man full-time. In those first 24 years, I was exposed to the social conditioning all women absorb whether they want to or not. And hailing from a religious, conservative culture as a white Afrikaner South African, I learned these lessons well. The conditioning involved messages such as: women are there to satisfy men’s needs and desires, women shouldn’t make a fuss, women should be submissive.

Since 1998, I have lived my life in Canada. Like many Canadians, I was caught off-guard by the news that broke over the past weekend about Jian Ghomeshi. The story goes that the beloved CBC radio host and Canadian personality has been fired for sexual misconduct. Multiple women (8 so far) have since come forward claiming that he sexually assaulted them.

At first I was incredulous. Partly because I admire the interviewing skills he displayed on his show Q with Jian Ghomeshi; it’s hard to accept something so unpleasant about someone you respect. Partly also because I simply didn’t see it coming and I like to think of myself as a pretty perceptive person.

Of course, there’s no reason why I would have seen it coming. I don’t move in Jian’s circles. I have never met the man. All I know of him is the highly polished version of him I have listened to on the radio. And yet people with such darkness, a darkness that apparently made it seem OK for him to beat women repeatedly in the head or choke them until they couldn’t breathe, surely that kind of darkness should be visible somehow, in his face or voice or demeanour? Instead he looks like an ordinary man. How can this be?

The revelations that have followed have triggered, as I imagine it has for many women (and men), unwanted memories of my own assault. It happened on a Greyhound bus nearly 15 years ago now, when I was a 20-year-old university student on my way home from Quebec City to Victoria. What happened to me wasn’t nearly as violent as what happened to the women that Jian attacked. And yet the memory of it still disorients me. Especially the shame and guilt that came with it.

My story is almost banal in its simplicity. I had a window seat about halfway down the left-hand side of the Greyhound bus. A large Texan man in his 50s, with greasy hair and a MacDonald’s paper bag, sat down next to me. He had no problem taking up his entire seat – and some of mine. I remember the nauseating smell of fast food and stale sweat. He settled into eating and I pressed myself further into my corner; I tried to distract myself with the scenery outside.

It just sort of happened. His hand landed on my knee, like an innocent butterfly landing on a stick. He kept it there. Then he slowly, incrementally, moved it up, toward my crotch, until his fingers were millimetres away from my genitals. He wasn’t looking at me. Nor I at him. I was completely frozen. I had no idea how to react. I felt shock, horror, rage, disgust. And yet I did nothing. Fear paralyzed me. I couldn’t squeeze by him without making a fuss. I didn’t want to make a fuss. Surely he would stop. He had to stop. Soon, right? I looked around for an empty seat nearby. I saw nothing.

His fingers started to rub against my clitoris through my clothes. I coughed. I finally said, shakily: “excuse me”, and rose as if nothing were wrong. As if I was just going on a bathroom break. I felt numb. He barely moved enough for me to push past him. He smiled confidently. I clumsily made my way to the bathroom at the back of the bus. And trembled in the tiny stall as I tried to figure out how to extricate myself from this incomprehensible situation. I was not equipped to deal with this kind of behaviour. My heart raced. I felt so confused. All I wanted to do was cry. But something in me told me not to show weakness.

When I could stay there no longer, I made my way back toward the front of the bus. It turns out there was another empty seat available. Relieved, I sat down in it and tried to ignore the Texan, who eventually noticed I’d moved. He looked over at me as if to ask why I wasn’t there next to him. He seemed perfectly at ease.

At the next stop, a woman, middle-aged, well put together, climbed on board. She sat down next to the Texan. I wanted to warn her but didn’t know what to say. After all, he hadn’t done anything violent. Maybe I’d given off the wrong signal or something. Maybe it was just me.

It wasn’t. Soon after, the woman announced loudly, so that everyone on the bus could hear her: “Stop that, you pervert!”. I’m paraphrasing here. I don’t remember her exact words. I do remember feeling so proud of her, for speaking up. Unlike me.

No one said anything. She moved away from him. She went up to speak to the bus driver, who told her there was nothing he could do. She switched places with a male rider. The Texan leaned toward his new neighbour and grumbled loudly: “women these days have no sense of fun”.

Of course, the driver could have done something. He could have stopped the bus. He could have ordered the man to get off. He could have at least spoken to him. But it was pretty clear the driver didn’t want to be bothered. To him, it was no big deal. No one seemed to want to get involved.

When we got off the bus for a break, I approached the woman and told her that the Texan had tried the same thing with me. We commiserated for a moment then went our separate ways. I never saw her again. Nor the Texan. He left too, shortly after. He walked away quietly, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

The rest of the trip was non-eventful all the way to Vancouver. But I couldn’t shake what had happened. In fact, I couldn’t stop shaking. What went through my mind wasn’t about what a creep he had been, although there was that. My thoughts revolved around how humiliated I felt, how weak I must be that I hadn’t been able to speak up and tell him to stop. I re-played the tape of events in my mind, looking for anything to explain why he thought he could get away with what he did. I looked for signals I must have given off, to invite this kind of treatment. I felt dirty, vulnerable and small.

Once I arrived in Vancouver, I called my sister in tears. I tried to explain what had happened but I struggled to articulate it. No, nothing had happened, I said. A guy had made me feel uncomfortable on the bus. What else is new? My sister, unable to understand why I was so upset, offered little sympathy.

I vowed I would never take a Greyhound bus ever again. And for almost 10 years, I didn’t.

I hate what Jian Ghomeshi did to the women who came forward, and to the many out there that I imagine fear telling their stories but are traumatized nonetheless. I respect and admire the courage of the women who have agreed to speak out publicly. It can’t be easy. Especially when you are speaking out against a public figure who has been so loved by so many for so long. Who wants to re-live such a painful experience, and then get attacked for expressing it? Why sign up for that?

I’m glad that out of all of this, a fervent public discourse is unfolding about the reality of sexual harassment and assault. We need to talk about this, openly. It needs to stop. We need to stop turning a blind eye just because it’s uncomfortable to look at. Silence is not consent. Violence is not consensual if it’s based on the victim’s silence.

*Photo by Volkan Olmez (unsplash.com)

My wasted life?

There are times where I seriously question whether it’s all been worth it. The years of self-torture, the decision to transition, the rejection from family that followed, the alienation, ultimate rebirth, the surgeries, hormone injections, therapy sessions and hate.

Unlike some trans children I did not announce to my parents when I was four that I was a boy. I knew better than that. I knew that whatever I thought didn’t matter; what mattered was what the world around me thought, what my family thought. And the world around me was telling me that I was a little girl. My family reinforced this notion. It wasn’t a comfortable label to carry, the one of girl, but what alternative was there, really? In my eyes I had only two choices, learn to live with being a girl or die. For a while there, I seriously considered dying. Sometimes I still do. Old habits die hard.

When I finally came out, my mother accused me of having nothing better to do with my time than to come up with this ridiculous idea that I was a man. She guilted me by telling me how, when she grew up, she didn’t have time to contemplate such absurdities as being uncomfortable in her body, because she had REAL problems to worry about, like my father’s sickness, like raising three children, like being a good wife. Those are grownup problems. She made it seem like my struggles with gender were somehow an indulgence that I engaged in because I was lazy or had too much time to be idle.

Maybe it is a first-world problem. Had I been born into a third world reality, maybe I would have spent my time consumed with thinking about where to get my next meal, or where to scrounge a few coins together to buy the basics of living. I would not have been able to afford hormone treatments or surgeries. But the fact that third genders exist in developing countries counters this theory. In India, hijras form a recognized third class. Neither man nor woman, they nevertheless are recognized in the law as a distinct category. They do not come from rich middle-class families. I’d wager, in fact, that most of them do not.

But that feeling, that my transition was an indulgence, persists. Never mind that the time I spent coming to terms with my gender, robbed me of what should have been the best years of my life: my childhood, my teenage years, my early adulthood. I sank into an early, deep depression. I self-harmed. I tried to kill myself. And when I really could not see any other option, and when it occurred to me that it didn’t really matter what happened next once I transitioned, because living the way I was living was already a kind of death, I made the decision to see a specialist. I was diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder and in quick succession was approved for hormone therapy.

All of that time and energy spent wasted on something that, to some, seems so inconsequential. Who cares if you are a man or a woman? Why spend so much time hung up about it? Why not just move on, live your life, with your god-given body? Make peace with yourself.

But there was no peace to be had, not for me. Not until the hormone treatments started. That, really, for me, was the turning point. More so even than the subsequent surgeries. Because that first injection was about more than just changing the chemical makeup of my body. It was the first time that I truly acknowledged to myself that all of this was not just in my head. That this was real and that I was really doing something about it. Hormone therapy changed my life.

But was it worth it? Ten years later, I have no real contact with my birth family. That in itself might seem like a tragedy if it were not for the fact that even before my transition we had our share of problems. I don’t miss them much. I miss having a family of my own, but I do not miss the family I had. There are too many painful memories there. I’m sure they would say the same. I was the black sheep that ruined their world. We are better without each other.

Ten years later, I am also without a partner of my own. I was engaged, once. Until fairly recently actually. It’s still too raw for me to write about. Considering I’ve not had great role models in what loving relationships look like, I suppose it’s not surprising that I’ve failed in this domain so far. Especially considering how few trans people I know who have succeeded in finding loving partners in it for the long run. I’ve not entirely given up yet. But I’m wise enough now to know not to rush into anything. There are worse things than being alone. An unhappy marriage is one of them.

Ten years later, I have no real career. This one hurts the most, I think. If one does not have family, one should at least have a career. But to fail here, well, that truly is to be a failure. My career failings have largely been a result of my inability to hold down a job for more than a few years at a time. Hurdles include crippling social anxiety, and recurring clinical depression. Add to that my need to pay for surgery. I pursued a job that had benefits, and that allowed me to go through six surgeries in 3 years to finalize my gender confirmation process. Had I not had these practical needs, I am sure I would have chosen a different career path entirely — as I most recently have.

I left a fairly lucrative career last year, a career that offered me little enjoyment except for a comfortable pay-cheque. Instead, I pursued work that was more in line with my values, working with others who deal with mental health and social challenges. The work is rewarding, the pay not. But at least I wake up and feel like what I do has value, unlike before.

But to be 35 and just starting out is a challenge. I am ashamed of how little I have truly accomplished. I am embarrassed that I let so many years slip by without tackling the issues that were holding me back. I grieve for the child I once was, the child who had hopes of great achievements, and ambition to match. The child who, to my parents, could have been a diplomat, scientist or great artist. Instead, in their eyes, I threw it all away. All because I simply couldn’t come to terms with my gender. How silly is that?

And yes, sometimes I wonder if it has been worth it.

*Photo by Todd Quackenbush (unsplash.com)

 

Love is just the beginning


I used to complain to anyone who would listen that love simply isn’t enough. I loved my family, for example, but that didn’t stop me from hurting them, even though it wasn’t on purpose. I’m sure deep down, too, my family loved me. But that didn’t stop them from pushing me aside when my clinical depression was too much to bear, and my gender transition became a point of shame. And when romance entered my life? Again, love could only sustain it for so long, before the spikes of life punctured an already fragile union. Love isn’t enough, I despaired. So why try?

I think I’m starting to see things differently though. I think the problem with thinking that love should be enough to right all wrongs is that love isn’t an endpoint. It’s not a goal that, once you achieve it, you get to cross it off your list and forget about. Instead, it’s a direction, a point of departure, a tool that develops as you use it over and over again. It’s a guiding light.

The love that couldn’t keep my biological family communicating with me didn’t dry up. The communicating dried up. I still love my sisters, my late father, and yes, even the mother who I’m not sure ever loved me back. Loving those who hurt you, doesn’t mean you have to keep letting them hurt you. It means that you need to re-direct that love in a constructive direction. Killing love is a form of self-harm. Better to keep that love alive and thriving. Better to find a new home for it.

I’m re-directing it in the work that I’ve chosen to do, working with street-entrenched and homeless young people. People who, like me, couldn’t find what they needed in the families they were born into. And now they struggle to build a life for themselves, and the forks in the roads are stark and sometimes dangerous. I may not be able to reach them all, but maybe I can reach one of them. That would be something.

I re-direct the love each time I volunteer at a suicide hotline too. I hear my own story reflected back to me in the calls that come in. I hear different stories but similar pain. I hear suffering and grief and trauma, and I offer them the one thing I have — empathy. Love.  It’s not everything. It’s not a cure. But it’s the beginning of one. And it’s amazing how much it can mean to people.

We all have to start somewhere. Love is where I choose to start. It’s where life is. I want to live.

I exist, I belong

large_5558352358It’s taken me a long time to realize that I am a valid human being. My multiple minority identities are woven tightly together – a foreigner in my adopted homeland, a South African-born Canadian, a left-handed writer, an ambidextrous everything else, a survivor of mental illness, a female-to-male transsexual, a gender non-conforming man, a downwardly mobile free spirit, a wannabe artist, a pansexual (almost) celibate lover, an agnostic, a seeker of enlightenment.

In every space I enter, I feel my difference. I feel the struggles that come with being different. But I don’t talk about that much. Not an easy dinner conversation when you’re the kind of introvert that makes other introverts look like party animals. Besides, who wants to be a downer. So much of my journey has taken me through suffering, that ultimate human experience. It still hurts to talk about the loss that comes with some of my more primary identities. The family who stood by helplessly as I sank deeper into the darkness of clinical depression. The mother who disowned me for daring to turn my back on my “god-given” femininity. My lover who left me because I could no longer support her. The loss of jobs and friends. The inability to speak or write what lies closest to my heart. The confusion that comes with doubting yourself.

I accept that others experience belonging differently, in the sense that they experience it at all. I’ve learned to be OK with that, with being slightly out of step with the way others move. Not that I like it. But I guess I’ve finally realized that comparing myself to everyone else does me no good, and leaves me feeling miserable, envious, small. Why do that to myself?

Instead, I try to focus on the basics. I was born, I am here, I exist, I belong. I breathe, I walk, I talk, I grow. I belong on this earth as much as anyone – because I am human. Because every human has a place under the sun. My awkward steps are leading me somewhere even if I’m not always clear where that is. Even if it’s only in circles. Besides, everyone is different if you dig deep enough.

Despite the weirdness of my storied past I’ve survived this far. And along the way, I have managed to accumulate a collection of friends, memories, experiences that give my life some kind of meaning. They make this journey, this daily struggle I call life, worth it. I have done nothing to deserve this life. But maybe that’s OK. Life is not earned, it’s simply accepted. It’s the gift, the curse, the thing we all have in common. It’s what binds us together.

photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/katieheartsphotography/5558352358/”>katieblench</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Happy Mandela Day!

On this, Mandela’s birthday, I thought I’d repost a piece I wrote for Original Plumbing about his legacy in my own life. Enjoy.


In Mandela’s Wake

Nelson Mandela was more than a black man with an axe to grind against an oppressive white minority government. His long imprisonment and subsequent rise to the presidency is well documented, his words of inspiration scattered across the internet. Mandela was an icon, symbolizing freedom and the power of persistence in the face of unbearable hardship. He was father and child to a nation that needed him. And to me, he is the man who set into motion my political – and personal – awakening.

I was born in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, at the height of Apartheid and lived in the country briefly before my family sought adventure in the Canadian hinterlands. We lived in Canada off and on for the next decade, safely removed from the political turmoil back home. I was eleven when I again set foot in South Africa – it was 1990. That was the same year Mandela was finally released after 27 years behind bars. To my child’s eyes the mayhem his release triggered meant little at first. I was more concerned with what was on TV than with the political machinations of a corrupt regime. But I knew that something historic was afoot – even if I didn’t fully understand it. I could feel it in the electric tension I absorbed all around me. I witnessed it in the vague terror among my parents’ white South African friends.

By 1994, my predilection for watching television collided with the political realities of my time. In May of that year, I sat on my parent’s brown leather couch and watched the presidential inauguration of a man who was once branded a terrorist. Here he was, the first black president of South Africa. What to make of it all? I was 14 years old by then, old enough to have some understanding of the atrocities too many innocent civilians had endured at the hands of a trigger-happy and violently racist white regime. But still too young to believe that anything I could do could make a difference.

I had to reconcile my own percolating opinions with the reality of my parents’ political affiliations. Never strongly active politically speaking, my father was still a self-professed supporter of what he believed was a fair and equitable political ideology. Apartheid was, in his view, a sound concept that had been poorly executed. To him Apartheid meant creating space for separate but equal nations to co-exist. And he continued to vote in support of it until the day he died, in 2005.

This split, between wanting to honour my culture, my parents, and their beliefs, and the awakening of my own individual consciousness, was difficult to resolve. Sometimes it still is. And had I been anyone other than who I was, I may well have simply followed in my parents’ mostly apathetic footsteps. But apathy is a luxury you can only afford when you are not personally impacted by the unfair attitudes and actions of a powerful few.

It took me a long time to make sense of my own murky identity. But at 24, I claimed a label for myself that shifted for good how I engaged with the world around me. Being openly trans forced me to reconsider the relative privilege I had enjoyed as a young person. It opened my eyes to all kinds of inequalities I hadn’t really seen before – whether based in race, gender, sexuality or class. It made me truly appreciate the magnanimity of a man like Mandela, who set aside past grievances to build up a country alongside the same men who had once threatened to execute him.

In death – as he did in life – Mandela reminds us that despite the great burdens we bear, and the unjust treatment we face, life is still worth living, fairness is still worth fighting for, hope is still worth having. If Mandela could leave behind the bitterness he had every right to feel, then surely so can I. Moving forward sometimes means putting aside the past, even a violent past. Mandela did so with dignity and with the quiet determination of a man who understood that the future is built one brick at a time.

There’s a lesson in that for all of us.

How to start over and create the future you want

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image by Tiago Gerken (unsplash.com)

In January of this year I did something drastic. I gave notice and left my job. This was a result of a long process of thinking about my life and where I’m headed. The job I was working at paid well, was well-respected and could guarantee me a financially comfortable existence. There was just one problem: I was deeply unhappy. There was no one thing that made it a bad fit. My co-workers were nice enough, though I resisted getting too close to anyone. I felt like I had little in common with them. They inhabited a privileged world that I had left behind when my struggles with mental illness and my battle with coming to terms with my transgender identity set in. In short, they did not feel like my tribe.

I believe that satisfaction in life comes from taking the experiences we have been through and making them part of our life story, having them inform our decisions moving forward, such as what we want to do with our life. My life has been shaped by my experiences as a transman, as a survivor of mental illness, and as a South African-born Canadian. For too long I think I have tried to pretend that I can ignore what has happened to me along the way to who I am. The truth is, I cannot. I feel it’s time that I live my life in accordance with the path I’ve walked.

I’m not sure what the future looks like exactly. I’m playing with a few ideas, one of which is to work with at-risk youth. I certainly have enough life experience to feel like I have something to offer. So I’m currently volunteering to gain experience in this domain. I am also working on starting my own writing business. My goal: to help non-profits and small businesses successfully promote their services.

It’s both scary and exhilarating to strike out on my own. But I’m excited to see what the future holds.

To the motherless on Mother’s Day

To some of us, Mother’s Day is a reminder of a painful past, of broken relationships and broken dreams. The following piece is my tribute to the woman who gave birth to me. Mom, I’m sorry I let you down…

ImageThe last time I spoke to my birth mother was in 2006. She flew to Canada from her homeland of South Africa to spread the remainder of my father’s ashes in the city we’d spent 10 years as a family: Prince George. My mother emailed me from my sister’s, where she was staying, and asked if I wanted to meet. It was nice – and surprising – to get an invitation, especially as the previous year we had had our share of conflicts around my decision to transition from my assigned female identity to a male one. At the time, my mother had disowned me and accused me of bringing shame over the family. After my father passed away from cancer, she told me she wished I’d died instead of him.

Given the acrimony that my transition had caused, I stayed away from my father’s funeral and accepted that I would perhaps not ever see my mother again. The thought was not so horrible. If love had once existed between us, I could not remember the last time my mother had admitted to feeling anything resembling it. Long before my transition we had locked horns over everything from my lack of motivation to my intentionally bad behaviour, as she saw it. In truth, my sin was that I had dared to become clinically depressed at the tender age of 12. Mental illness reflected badly on her skills as a mother. And if I had to guess, the guilt of her failure rendered her incapable of showing me affection.

Some children bring out the worst in their parents, and I certainly brought out the worst in my mother. Between my severe depressive episodes and my father’s physical disabilities, I imagine my mother felt her family was more of a burden than she’d signed up for. At least where I and my father were concerned. She convinced my father, a psychiatrist, to prescribe me antidepressants. But neither of them thought it necessary for me to speak with anyone outside the family. And so, when the medications made my suicidal thoughts grow worse, I withdrew even further, scared that I was going crazy, scared that if they found out, they would have me committed.

The yelling started gradually, and became more severe once my two elder sisters left the house. My mother would get upset at anything and everything it seemed. Like when my father dropped his fork at the dinner table, his fingers like twisted twigs, the result of severe rheumatoid arthritis. She would scream at him when he clumsily knocked his knee into the corner of the coffee table and blood poured onto the living room carpet. Because of the medications he was on, my father bled easily and long, his blood refusing to clot. My father rarely defended himself against my mother’s cruel jabs. As he later told me: try to think of it from your mother’s perspective, being with a man who is dependent on her to get around, to live. I couldn’t understand his logic. If she loved him, surely yelling was no way to show it?

But there was a viciousness in my mother’s attacks that made me want to leap up and defend my father with all my might. I loved him and wanted to look up to him. And yet, there he was, vulnerable, in many ways a broken man — and not even his wife treated him with respect. It made my blood boil. I tried to defend him but for my pains I unleashed not only my mother’s rage but my father’s too. In his eyes, my mother could do no wrong. And given the choice of defending the woman he depended on or the child who wanted to look up to him, he inevitably chose my mother’s side, condemning my angry outbursts and ordering me to apologize to my mother for challenging her authority.

I learned two lessons: sometimes doing what you think is right, hurts. And, never trust your parents.

As my father’s physical health declined, my mental health plummeted as well. My mother, too, sunk into a kind of sullen, angry depression, though this was never acknowledged. I remember her spending her afternoons stretched out on the leather couch in the TV room watching soap operas with the sound turned off. Some nights I would hear her screams from the bedroom, waking as she sometimes did from vivid nightmares.

It carried on like this until I finished high school and, at the tender age of 18, fled to Canada to stay with my sister and attend university. By then, my depression had become so entrenched that a mere change in environment wasn’t enough to shake it. But I finally reached out for professional help and started my long road towards recovery.

So, in 2006, when my mother invited me to meet with her, I thought: maybe we can finally have an honest conversation. We got together in front of the Empress Hotel in Victoria, BC. As I approached her I asked if it was OK for me to hug her. Stony-faced, she told me to do whatever I wanted. She stood as still as a tree-trunk as I tried to wrap my arms around her. We settled onto a park bench and I told her of the hurt she caused me, of the anger I still felt. When I questioned her outbursts, she seemed surprised. “Why did you bother listening to me?” she asked. As if it was my fault for caring what she thought of me.

I told her I needed her to apologize for the way she belittled my father and me. She refused. She said that I was to blame, that I had made her life a living hell. That’s when I realized that my mother would never change. And I needed to be OK with that. That day when we parted, I realized I could not continue the relationship with my mother and keep my sanity. I needed to let go of needing her acceptance. I needed to move on with my life.

I haven’t seen her since that day, and though it hurts, I know it was the right decision for my own healing.

Blogging once more

So it’s been a while since I’ve posted in this space. Life has been busy and tumultuous – more on that in a later post perhaps. But I’ve been wanting to blog more about the things that have shaped me into the person I am today – in an attempt to define the values I hold and the beliefs I cherish. And in the hopes that in writing down my origins I can get some sense of where I’m headed. Something that is especially timely these days. And if others find enjoyment or learning from these stories, well, all the better.

Today’s blogpost theme is Fatherly Love. In it I explore my relationship with my father, a man whom I loved deeply and who passed away after a long struggle with non-hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2005.

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I had a strong respect for my father from an early age; I wanted above all else to earn his approval. I was also terrified of him, of what he represented. He was an authority figure whose job it was to show me right from wrong and who, I felt, was judging my every action. He was also a man who had endured great suffering. My mother took great care to tell us, their three children, about my father’s kidney transplant at age 25, how he had almost died and then miraculously survived. How they had embraced life together afterwards and had accepted that life was precious and in need of cherishing. Life was also, we were told, fragile. Very fragile.

My father’s health was never good, for all the years I knew him. He had vertigo and sometimes would black out, especially as he grew older. He was a hemophiliac, which means bumping into objects left him bleeding all over the place without end. His skin as thin as parchment, this was not an uncommon occurrence. He also battled with skin cancer for years and regularly would go in to the doctor’s office to have a malignant wart frozen and removed. He wore thick glasses that doubled the size of his eyes when he wore them and rendered him even more imposing. But the kidney transplant was the main threat to his survival. He was living on borrowed time, we were told. And I, for one, had no reason to doubt it.

The medications he was on kept his body from rejecting the organ his mother had donated to him, but they were also slowly killing him. The drugs ate away at his muscles until, as he crept towards his 60s, he could no longer stand on his two legs or walk. His muscles had atrophied and the rheumatoid arthritis was so severe that his feet jutted out at a 90 degree angle from his legs, and his fingers dangled useless from his gnarled hands, the swelling having cut off the nerves. He crawled around the house on his knees, shuffling across the carpet from one room to the next on styrofoam pads. My father never complained about this. Each night he would do stretching exercises, at first in the pool in the back yard and then, when that became too difficult, in his bedroom. I could hear him huff and puff from my room at the top of the stairs.

The family treated my father with deep reverence. Here walked a sage who had endured great suffering and to whom we were all beholden. Because despite his great personal suffering he had also managed to establish himself as a well-respected psychiatrist. He had his own private practice until the day he died at 65. And throughout his life he dabbled with teaching university-level courses, though he always seemed to prefer working with patients, first hand. Forensic psychiatry was another strong interest, and one that he practiced more and more in later life, appearing in court as an expert witness in murder trials. His work kept him alive, he said, and it was the single most rewarding aspect of his life. Besides his family, perhaps.

He loved the family he had built. I never heard him say an unkind word to or about my mother, his loyalty complete until the very end. He doted on his then three daughters and had big dreams for all of us. My sisters were much older than me and left the house before his illnesses truly crippled him. But we all lived with the fear of not knowing how long he would be around, and witnessed his constant pain, the result of severe rheumatoid arthritis, another side effect of his medications.

I loved, respected and feared my father, and, in a childish way, believed that his life depended on my total obedience. That was unfortunate because I was a naturally energetic, rambunctious child who seemed to get in trouble at every turn. I wore out my babysitters with my constant drive for excitement and enjoyed nothing more than activities like playing outside in the Prince George snow, barefoot, wearing nothing more than shorts and a T-shirt. Even then, though, I carried a darkness in me, a sense I could not shake that I was evil beyond hope. A belief that was probably born from the vestiges of my cultural heritage as a protestant Afrikaner from South Africa.

As Calvinist Christians, my parents – especially my father – held the belief that we were all born in sin; only by the grace of God did any of us stand a chance to achieve forgiveness and gain access to heaven. I took these beliefs to heart and struggled to regulate my impulses, sexual or otherwise. My father had a temper too, and when I behaved particularly badly he would take me to my room, throw me over his lap and spank me with his bare hand. This is hurting me more than it’s hurting you, he would say to me, but I didn’t believe him. I recall one particular day when my father’s voice bellowed forth from a neighbouring room, calling me. I froze. Terrified of the upcoming spanking I feared was inevitable, I sought to protect my behind – and sat down. The loud crack that followed was the sound of some of my father’s prized vinyl records breaking under my weight.

When my father entered, his anger exploded. I darted from the room, up the stairs and to my bedroom. My father soon followed and I received my worst spanking ever. That was perhaps the only time my father came close to losing control with me. Most of the time he was a gentle man, a kind and loving father. This moment was the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps that is why it terrified me so.

 

Sex, Lies and Suicide

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.