Tag Archives: suicide

Leelah Alcorn and transgender suicide

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 11.34.27 PMI want to scream at them.  I want them to feel the full guilt of losing their child, of killing that child. And yet, I want to give them space to mourn the child I believe they loved, even if their love was fundamentally, devastatingly flawed. I want the pain to stop – not just Leelah’s but all trans children who find themselves desperate and despairing. Because Leelah’s story isn’t new. It isn’t even that original. And that’s what makes it so hard. How many more Leelah’s are out there, waiting to end their lives? How many Leelah’s does it take for change to happen?

In the early morning hours of December 28th, Leelah Alcorn stepped in front of a semi-truck on an Ohio Interstate and died by apparent suicide. Her suicide note was posted to her Tumblr account for the world to read (it has since been removed but you can read the gist of it here). It described her struggle to find acceptance for being transgender in her conservative Christian family. She was 17 years old. She claimed to have understood she was trans when she was 14. Her parents sent her to therapists in the hopes of “curing” her. They sent her to a psychiatrist who fed her Prozac to treat her depression. They removed her from school and cut her off from social media in an attempt to limit her exposure to “bad” influences.

What none of these adults could bring themselves to do,  was to love this child for the girl she wanted to be, openly and publicly. Instead her parents loved her for the boy they believed they were entitled to.

The Christian community she belonged to called Leelah “selfish and wrong” and told her to turn to God for answers. In her words:

Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself. There’s no winning.

What we have here is failure of love on so many levels. Caretakers who should have been there to help her develop her own identity, let her down. Instead they suffocated the life out of her until death seemed more meaningful than life itself.

Leelah’s suicide hits a nerve.

Like 41% of trans people, I am myself a suicide attempt survivor. Unlike Leelah I was assigned female at birth and later transitioned to male. But like her my family held conservative Christian values. I grew up listening to my father call AIDS God’s way of punishing homosexuality. My mother policed who I played with at school; lesbians were out of bounds. By the age of 12 I was thoroughly depressed and contemplating suicide. By 16, my father – a psychiatrist himself – placed me on Paxil, an SSRI similar to Prozac. By the age of 21 I was consuming an even heavier concoction of psychiatric medications including Zyprexa, Wellbutrin, Effexor, and Lorazepam. I attempted to kill myself. I was briefly hospitalized.

By 24 I had come to the following conclusion: either I live my life alone and miserable, as the woman my family wanted me to be but that I felt wasn’t me, or I needed to transition to male and let the chips fall where they may. The thought of transitioning all on my own was terrifying – but marginally less terrifying than losing consciousness and dying. So I was assessed for hormone treatment and began testosterone injections. I cannot describe the relief that I felt once the transition was set in motion.

Transition doesn’t solve all your problems. Whatever traumas we carry with us do not suddenly evaporate when we begin to live as our authentic selves. And once we give ourselves permission to be as we are, we must still deal with the bigots and hate mongers who feel entitled to define us. But my burgeoning identity gave me enough hope, enough faith in my own validity, in my own value as a human being, that I started to want to live again. I imagine it would have done the same for Leelah, had she gotten that far. Had she not lost hope too early. Had she had the right supports in place.

Leelah complained that the “It Gets Better” movement, popularized by sex columnist Dan Savage, didn’t apply to her. For her, things just seemed to get worse. How much worse must things get before we stop torturing our children for being different from the norm?

I don’t believe Leelah’s parents purposefully tried to hurt their child. But they clearly didn’t know how to help her and turned to a flawed dogma to guide them. The people they reached out to for help, failed them. And while I sympathize with their grief, my sympathy is muted.

Because there is work to do, for the hidden Leelah’s scattered all over the globe – past and present. Some getting beaten to death because of who they are. Some beating themselves up night after night as they try to make sense of who they are. I feel a primal cry rise up in me like a volcano and I just want to scream and scream.

Too many trans children are forced to fight invisible wars within themselves because they lack the support they need to realize that their lives are meaningful and valuable. No one should have to die for being trans. Parents, lawmakers, doctors, therapists and the public need to shake off their collective apathy. We need our children to learn the true meaning of love.

And they need to learn it now.

Background reading:

Trans Teen Dies by Suicide, Leaves Tumblr Note: ‘There’s No Way Out’ 

Transgender teen who died of an apparent suicide: ‘Fix society. Please.’

High Suicide Risk, Prejudice Plague Transgender People

Canadian crisis hotline set up to help shunned transgender youth

It Gets Better project


Check me out on OP

I posted a personal piece at the Original Plumbing magazine blog. This one was tough to write, I’ll admit, as it deals with a hard topic that a lot of transsexual people struggle with at one time or another. Which is why I felt it was important to write.

Trigger warning: this piece deals with the aftermath of suicide.

Let me know what you think…



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.

Living with Suicide

The day A— died marked a turning point for me. Suicide was no longer just a theoretical concept; it was real.

It’s hard to describe how it felt: I remember a kind of hissing noise in my ears, like when a radio channel isn’t quite tuned in. It also felt like either the event itself was a dream, or my life was an episode of the Twilight Zone, and sooner or later the show would be over and everything would return to regular programming.

Except, of course, that didn’t happen. I remember driving to the house where A— had lived and where her friends now gathered after her death. We sat around in the living room, some of us having never met before. K—, A—‘s partner, seemed the most well-adjusted of all of us. She described going to the coroner’s office to identify A—‘s body. She described how, earlier in the day, she had seen A— amidst the city traffic but had been unable to follow her to wherever she was headed. She mentioned that A— had made personal videos instead of leaving a suicide note. She offered to show them to me, but I declined. They weren’t made for me, I said. I eventually saw one of them at the memorial we held in her honour. She looked drugged, out of sorts. She advised us, her friends, to love each other. She said she felt she had given too much of herself at times, and not enough at others. It was hard to watch.

I later found out how it all went down. A— went to the Sandman Hotel, poured herself a glass of wine and ran herself a bath. Someone, maybe K—, told me she drank Chinese herbal medicines to relax herself, then she slit open her wrists and bled to death. I calculated the timing and realized that while she was doing this I was at Cinecenta, a movie theatre at the university, watching a documentary on the life and times of Edvard Munch, the guy who painted The Scream. A— had left me a voicemail earlier in the day, telling me that she was going on a long journey. I had listened to it and dialed *69 to find out where she was calling from but the number was blocked. I had known something was wrong but instead of contacting K— or anyone else, I chose to go to the cinema with a friend. I felt sick thinking about it.

Unlike K—, I hadn’t had to ID the body once they found her. And yet, without something tangible, some actual proof that she was no longer alive, my brain struggled to make sense of it. I thought back to our last conversation, when we had enjoyed oysters together at a local restaurant. That had been three weeks earlier. She had seemed somewhat subdued but not depressed.

I found myself seeing A— everywhere. Strangers constantly reminded me of her as I walked the streets. When the feelings overwhelmed me, I listened on repeat to David Gray’s Sail Away and Jorane’s Film III, songs A— herself had introduced me to. A restless numbness seeped into my soul.

I visited K— often during the aftermath. I admired K—‘s strength; she seemed so much more grounded than anyone else, a role model on how to handle grief. And yet she had been closer to A— than all of us. She was hurting too, of course. I remember her calling me and asking if I wanted to go to the bug zoo with her. Sure, I said, and off we went. I think it was a Sunday afternoon.

The bug zoo was fascinating. I was mesmerized by insects that disguised themselves so effectively that you couldn’t tell them apart from a leaf.  Or the scorpions that turned indigo under a UV light. Or the tarantula the guide placed on my hand and that crawled up my arm, harmlessly. Or the spider that had figured out that it could copy-cat the black widow quite effectively even if it had no poison of its own. A black widow’s bite, the guide explained, rarely kills people but it hurts on a par to a woman giving birth. I wondered how much pain A— was in when she died.

After the bug zoo visit, we went our separate ways, K— and I. Eventually she met a nurse and moved to Vancouver. We visited a few times, but slowly drifted apart. Maybe I reminded her too much of A—. K— conceived and had a baby. I never got to meet the little girl, though I hear from friends we have in common that she is quite cute. I am happy K— has been able to move on. She deserves a happy, enjoyable life.

But for me the descent into madness continued after A—‘s death. Five months after she killed herself, my father passed away from cancer and my family disowned me for being transgender. It seemed like a cruel joke, like the universe was trying to tell me something, only I couldn’t figure out what. The Twilight Zone episode that my life had become continued on; I tumbled deeper and deeper into the abyss.

(to be continued)

When relationships hurt

Relationships come and go. Like everything in life they ebb and flow. But when you find a pearl, you don’t want to let her go. M is a pearl.

When I met M I knew I’d found someone unlike anyone else I’d ever met. She was smart, funny, exuberant, and had a joyfulness to her that was infectious. Her heart was big and generous and she broke through my crusty exterior like a butter knife cutting into soft, melty butter.

I thought the good times would never end; I didn’t want them to.

I thought we’d get married, have babies, and grow old together.

Part of me still hopes we will.

But everyone has baggage, and some of us have a heavier burden than most. I’d never met anyone who’d had to go through what M faced. She ran away from home at 11 and escaped an abusive household, but the scars of her troubled childhood accompanied her into adulthood.

I know a thing or two about troubled childhoods; I have my own scars – some of them etched into my wrist quite literally.

But M has a fighting spirit; her fearlessness mesmerized me from the first day I met her. Her ability to articulate complex thoughts about her past and about her politics was astonishing, especially considering she had never finished high school. Hers is an unusually bright mind.

The closest she ever came to having a supportive family was T, a radical feminist lesbian 9 years older than her that adopted her when she was 16. While she only lived with T for a year and a half, they connected enough that she calls T her adoptive parent. They are close to this day. Note, she doesn’t call T ‘mother’. That word is forever tainted by the unspeakable deeds her biological mother inflicted upon her. Who can blame her.

Maybe that’s one of the keys to our relationship, that bond over non-existent mothers. I don’t pretend to have lived through the horror that M faced with her parents, but I’ve experienced enough parental neglect that I can empathize at least at some level with what she’s been through.

My own mother turned her back on me for good in my early twenties, disowning me for being a transgender man. The last time I spoke to her was in 2006, a year after my father passed away and two years after I first started taking hormone treatments. Neither of my parents approved of my decision to transition. And because they come from a conservative culture, with conservative friends, I did not feel comfortable attending my father’s funeral. I grieved on my own, a continent away.

But long before I transitioned, my relationship with my mother was toxic. In her eyes, I was lazy, stupid, and purposefully disobedient. I could do no right, and when I became suicidally depressed, she refused to talk to me about it, asking that we “let the scars heal”. She meant her scars, not mine. Now, I realize it must be difficult for a parent to watch their child descend into the depths of a suicidal depression, but I wager that most parents would seek help for their child and stand by their side. My mother’s only effort in this direction was to have my father, a psychiatrist, give me sample anti-depressants that the drug reps dropped off at his office. I was never taken to see a psychiatrist (other than my own father) and I was never taken to a psychologist or counsellor.

As far as my parents were concerned my depression was genetic. And that’s all there was to it. Pills were all that were needed. Never mind that they made the suicidal thoughts worse. But my parents wouldn’t have known that. Because we didn’t talk about why I was taking them. They figured it was my job to tell them what was going on, and I figured it was better not to say anything – because who wants to tell their parents they want to kill themselves?

I did eventually seek out help on my own, long after I’d left my parents’ home and fled to a different continent (my parents lived in South Africa and I settled in Canada). But by that time, the depression had gotten quite severe. Long story short, I still suffer from it; and I still see a therapist. Sometimes I still contemplate suicide, but I haven’t acted on those impulses in over 10 years. I’m proud of that accomplishment.

Needless to say, M and I both have trauma, and while that shared experience brings us together, it can also send us in a tailspin apart.

Maybe that’s what happens in relationships. We rub up against each other’s raw spots and we bleed and bleed. And if we don’t learn how to quell the blood, well, things can end badly.

I worry about that, especially these days.

The suicidal thoughts are back for me. And M is struggling with behaviours that I can’t help her with, behaviours that, I’m sure, once helped her deal with the trauma of her childhood but now simply cause her to hurt herself. It’s mostly related to body image and food. For the sake of her privacy, I’ll leave it at that.

Figuring out a path forward, a path that doesn’t lead us in separate directions is the challenge we face. We are at a crossroads. And it’s foggy out there. But I’ll keep looking for the light. Because I love her. And because I want to live. I need to remember that.

The body remembers: leaving depression behind

Well, whatever the slump is I went through last week, it has passed. I seem to be able to again experience joy and moments of perfect clarity. In fact I feel like something has clicked, at work, and personally. I feel a new sense of confidence in my own abilities and in the knowledge that I can learn things, that the curious child within can experience wonder once more.

That’s the thing about depression. If you can just hang in there for long enough, if you can just get through the suicidal feelings, some insight occurs. A release. Sometimes it’s not enough to make up for the abyss you have to crawl through to get there, but sometimes it really is. This time it was.

But I wouldn’t wish the abyss on my worst enemy.

And somehow, the release that follows seems so tentative, fragile even. Like the thread might break again at any moment, and you might tumble into the darkness once more, never to emerge again. I really don’t know if I’ll make it through next time. We all have our breaking points. How many breakdowns does it take before you decide that that’s enough, you’ve gotten out of life what you can, now it’s time to move on to the next energy state?

But let’s not be morbid tonight. It’s Friday night, and I just got back from a birthday party. Let’s just enjoy this moment, shall we? An oasis between the miseries.

Why is it so much easier to feel crappy than good? Why does it feel so much more real? Like really real, not just pretend real. Does happiness ever feel that real to other people? If I was able to experience happiness to the same depth that I seem to experience depression, I think I would float up into the sky like a bubble and never come down.

My father once told me that he thought my problem was that my superego (conscience) was too strong and my id (desire) too weak. I should mention my father was a professional shrink, and I was reading Freud at the time. Interestingly I had self-diagnosed just the opposite. I felt that I was evil inside, rotten to my deepest core. I did terrible things like masturbate and think bad thoughts. I was lazy and stupid, or so my mother claimed. Oh, and I was transgender? Surely this all meant that my conscience wasn’t strong enough to keep my evil desires in check?

I think in a way we were both right, my father and I. My superego was strong because my desires and appetites ran deep; two sides of the same coin. But my superego was winning out. And in its authoritarian view, I deserved to die.

Maybe one never truly shakes that kind of self-critical voice. It softens to a whisper when I am drunk, but roars back to life when I’m sober again. I can reduce it to a whisper by healthier means, like practice loving-kindness or just giving myself space to be in all my non-glamorous complexity. But it’s not my default setting. Not by a long shot. Twenty to thirty days. That’s how long it takes, apparently, to establish a new habit.

Can I try to silence the self-critical voice for 20-30 days? Do I have that much control?

And if I fail, how do I make sure that, when I am choking on my own despondency, I don’t choke myself right out of life?

I want to live. There, I said it. Now body, remember.

When introverts care about sustainability

You wouldn’t know it looking at me, but I believe in the value of community building. I believe we each belong in an inclusive society and that creating such a society is the best way to counteract such things as suicide and depression. Pills might prevent you from killing yourself in the short term, but it’s the people who don’t feel alienated that stick around for the long term. And it’s community-building that makes it worth sticking around.

I’m not your typical community advocate; for one, I’m not an extrovert. Hanging out with a bunch of people all the time is not my idea of fun. I like my solitude – in fact, I love it sitting here in front of my living room window staring out at the ocean with nary a person to interrupt me. But I know that solitude by itself doesn’t work. I work hard to interact with other people every day. It’s one of the reasons I choose to work outside of the home, for someone else. It’s my way of ensuring that whether I want it or not, I must interact with others.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about doing a certificate in Community Sustainability Development. Sustainability is one of those catch-all phrases that means everything and nothing. But in a nutshell, it represents an approach to life that is about conserving what we have rather than considering everything disposable. It’s about recognizing that our well-being depends on living in harmony with our environment. And it’s acknowledging that our present and future generations can only thrive if we commit to environmental, social and economic practices that support everyone rather than a greedy few.

Sustainability, in my view, is not the enemy of capitalism. But it demands that we re-think what we value. Because how we spend every dollar we earn is a much better indication of what’s important to us than the results of, say, a provincial election where only 52% came out to vote (I’m talking of course of the BC election in Canada. Every poll in town said the NDP would win, but the voters voted Liberal. Because the people who voted weren’t the ones answering the polls, clearly. Else they were lying).

What I would like to help build is a community that welcomes diversity because it sees the value in bringing together a rich tapestry of people of all walks of life (immigrant, settled, aboriginal, gay, bi, straight, male, female, intersex, transgender, able, disabled, upper class, middle class, working class, white, black, brown, red, yellow or pink). Cities thrive when different kinds of people come together. I think it’s one of the reasons people flock to cities as much as they do. People come mainly to find work but also because of a (maybe somewhat naive) belief that exciting things are *happening* in the city – and no one wants to miss out on the action. Ideas thrive in cities because of the diversity of voices we find there.

Cities are living laboratories where we each get to be an experiment or be the experimenter. We can become socially engaged, help change policy, or we can become part of the city landscape, shaped by other people’s policies, other people’s decisions on what matters and what doesn’t.

In Vancouver, this was brought home to me recently when the Parks Board finally decided to establish a task committee to make community spaces such as community centres, gyms, pools more transgender friendly. I can’t tell you how relieved I am at the possibility that future generations of trans people won’t have to deal with gender segregated change rooms and toilets, one of the reasons I and many other trans people avoid going to these types of spaces. I didn’t think it would ever change, and didn’t think I could make much of a difference one way or another. Thankfully other people saw it differently. And because of them, change is finally happening.

Related Reading

Opening the box


A doodle of what’s in the box.

What am I afraid of? What am I not afraid of?

The uncertainty that lies beyond.

The lack of knowing whether what I do with what lies ahead is the right choice.

How does one know if anything is the right choice?

Maybe this is why people cling to religions, doctrines and dogmas. Having a manual for your life is a way to face the sheer enormity of our existence with at least an inkling of what to do next.

But what if you put all those books aside and face the universe as it is? What if the universe isn’t created to give our lives meaning? What if the universe doesn’t owe us anything at all?

Comfort. That’s why I fear opening the box. I’m not ready to leave it behind. The knowledge that if I just continue on as I am, everything will stay the same, life will remain safe.

But this comfort makes me uncomfortable. I want to embrace uncertainty. The place where not knowing is, that’s where the juice is.

How do I overcome the fear? How do I reach for the box and peel it open? How do I let the sunshine in?

For much of my life I have operated in crisis mode. I have fought to survive; even breathing was a struggle. When you’re struggling to survive, you don’t think about the future; you don’t plan. It’s one moment til the next, and the next moment after that. That’s what it was like living with depression from the age of 11 to my mid-20s. I didn’t know how long I would stick around. I sort of assumed I’d stop living at the age of 30. I had long since stopped dreaming of a future for myself or for anyone else. I just tried as best I could to keep on breathing.

It’s that part of me, the part that wouldn’t stop breathing, that I want to get to know better now. That part is where my strength lies, I think. It’s the part that, despite all logic, despite deep grief, and utter despair, just wouldn’t let me go. Why? Why do some people get through the darkness and other people don’t? It’s not because I’m stronger than any of the other ones, the ones that went through with ending it. Having witnessed the aftermath of a few suicides, I can honestly say that some of those people had so much more reason to live than I ever did. They contributed so much more than I to this world, to making it a better place, before they left.

Maybe it’s that my journey is still ongoing. Maybe it’s because whatever it is that I have to offer the world needs to be born first, before the world will let me go?

I can’t know for sure. I don’t know anything, really. Sometimes the very little I know frightens me, because it makes me feel like I have no right to exist in the first place. But here I am, alive, breathing, in this body, on this earth, in this universe.

What do I do with the box once I’ve opened it?

The Transition

Growing up I embraced the conservative Christian beliefs of my father (i.e. that we are all born in sin), observed a culture steeped in violence (South Africa just before the fall of Apartheid was on the verge of civil war), and inherited a dark outlook on the future passed on to me by my anxious, frightened parents. Xenophobia was in the air we breathed. Not to mention homophobia. AIDS, my father told me, was God’s way of punishing gay people for their bad lifestyle choices. Transsexuals weren’t even on the radar of God’s wrath they were so far down the hierarchy.

My childhood wasn’t happy but I didn’t know it was unusual back then. I thought everybody’s families were like mine. Sure, it occurred to me that at least some other people seemed happier than what I was or what my parents were, but in my childish naïveté I thought it was because they didn’t understand how crappy things really were. My father knew, because he was a psychiatrist. He knew because people respected him, and because, well, who was I to argue? He saw the dark side of human nature every day in his private practice.

My mother had even less empathy for childish insecurities than my father. She believed that her children had to learn to be independent – the sooner, the better. And that meant that she wanted as little to do with us as possible. “I’m not your friend,” she would say to me when I asked her for help because I was scared to go out alone, “I’m your mother”. I thought that meant that I wasn’t supposed to ask her for things. So I didn’t. And because I was struggling with depression, I figured it would be better if I just closed the door to my bedroom and climbed under the blankets. Maybe, I told myself, maybe if I lie really still, nothing bad would happen.

But bad things kept happening. Depression darkened my mind and by age 12 I was thinking suicide regularly. No actions yet, just thoughts. At 16, I stopped eating with my family and lost a bunch of weight. My father fed me antidepressants he got for free from drug reps who visited his office and I was sent to see a nutritionist. At 18 I was pretty convinced that I would end my life before the age of 30. I couldn’t see why anyone would want to be alive in this messed up world. At 21 I overdosed on antidepressants and cut my wrists. I spent a week in the psychiatric unit of a hospital, terrified that I was going crazy. My shrink said I wasn’t crazy, but if I wasn’t, and the world really was as messed up as I thought it was, then why was everybody acting like nothing was wrong?

At 24 my life changed. The change started a year earlier, actually. I met people who were different, odd, but alive. They were making decisions about their bodies that I hadn’t even imagined possible. They were daring to live according to their own beliefs. I watched in awe as one friend, a poet and a scientist, told me about taking hormones to masculinize the body. They had been born female, like me, but that identity no longer served them. Really? I thought. You can change your gender? But what about my genitals? Don’t they proclaim me woman?

I had explored lesbianism but it didn’t really fit. I was attracted to men as well as women, and besides, I wasn’t really a femme or a butch. I had not interest in playing any roles. I just wanted permission to be me. But what I was didn’t have a name. At least, not until then. When I read up about transgender people, transsexualism, and intersex conditions, I knew that I was reading my own story. But accepting the label wasn’t so easy. Transsexuals were ostracized in mainstream society. People made fun of us. Did I really want to choose to marginalize myself by claiming an identity that was, in many ways, taboo?

But at age 24, I was at a crossroads. Choose to live my masculinity, or die. The choice was that stark. I had tried to be a masculine woman, an androgynous asexual, but I was miserable.

I didn’t want to take hormones. I hated the idea that I would have to inject it into my muscle every two weeks for the rest of my life just to achieve a body that would allow me to feel more like myself. My mother accused me of being a drug addict. She told me the hormones would destroy my liver and cause me to die. But wasn’t it better to live, even for a short while, like the man I felt myself to be, rather than exist as a living dead person? Besides, why was it OK for me to be on four different drugs for depression for the rest of my life, why wasn’t that considered an addiction, but taking hormones to begin reclaiming my life was?

Nothing made sense anymore so I decided to go for it. I had nothing to lose. It was a last gasp attempt to live.

The day I went to get my first hormone injection at the university clinic, my palms were sweaty, my heart beating a million miles a minute. The nurse showed me how to pull up the viscous liquid, how to find the right spot to inject, how to make sure I didn’t hit a vein. When it was over, tears flooded my eyes. It was relief. It was me learning to breathe again. It was the beginning.

The Power of Place

Stock PhotoWhere is home when home keeps moving?

I kicked and screamed my way into existence in a city 45 minutes outside of Johannesburg, South Africa in the late 1970s. Eight months later, my father, mother, sisters and I traversed the ocean and landed in Vancouver, Canada. From there we flew north, to Prince George, BC, the second largest city in the province, with a population of approx 71,000 today so I imagine it was around 50,000 when we lived there in the 1980s. I loved the snow, the spruce trees and pussy willow bushes. I was happy.

Then, in 1990, as I was entering into my teens, my family uprooted itself again. We packed our bags and left for Johannesburg Airport, stopping over briefly in Nairobi, where as white South Africans, we were told we could not disembark – for fear, I assume, of violence. This was my first inkling of the world I was about to enter. A world of racial tensions, the constant threat of violence and political unrest.

I lived in Pretoria, South Africa, with my parents until the late 1990s, when I graduated from high school. During that time, I transformed from a hyperactive, jubilant if slightly sensitive child, into a surly, lethargic, deeply disturbed teenager. Fearing for my mental health my father fed me antidepressants when I turned 16 and took me to see a neurologist and a nutritionist when I flirted with anorexia nervosa.

Despite my father being a psychiatrist, I had little understanding of what was happening to me. Only that I could not see anything beautiful about the world I lived in. I contemplated ending my life for the first time when I was 12 years old. The thoughts were simply that, thoughts, at first – but as weeks turned into months and months turned into years, the thoughts turned into harmful actions. Nothing seriously damaging at first: I would bang my head against the wall softly but repeatedly for hours. Or punch my one hand black and blue with the other.

I thought the darkness would pass after high school. My sister who had stayed in Canada back when my family had uprooted itself in 1990 invited me to come live with her while I attended university. For the first time, I had hope that maybe I wouldn’t die. My mother was reluctant to let me go, but eventually she and my father dropped me off at the airport and I left South Africa for good. I was excited.

Home became Vancouver Island, BC, where my sister worked. I signed up for university courses. Knowing no one other than my sister, and lacking an extroverted personality, I struggled to make friends. The dark thoughts returned. I sought out counseling but nothing seemed to work. My tendency to self-harm returned: I would overdose on the antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications I was prescribed, or I would cut into my wrists with scalpel blades I snuck out of my sister’s laboratory where I worked part-time to make a little extra cash.

I felt ill at ease wherever I went. A transient, just passing through. In 2006, the year my father and a close friend passed away in the span of a few months, I hit bottom. I left my full-time job at an on-demand publishing company, cut ties with my abusive mother, and started the hard work of re-assembling my life. Part of the journey included moving again. This time, to Vancouver, BC.

It’s 2013, and I’m still in Vancouver. I met my partner in 2011 and in two days’ time, we will move into our first apartment together. Yes, I’m moving again, but not far this time. At least not geographically speaking. But emotionally, this move is every bit as important as the many moves across continents I’ve made. And it’s just as hard.

This time, though, the darkness is just a memory. This time, I’m creating home, not just a place to stay. Together, M– and I are building a future, one day at a time. I never thought I’d be alive to experience this. I want to cherish every moment.