The other part of the emotional root canal I’ve been doing with my therapist is coming to terms to the damage to my life from all those years of having to hide my true self — the desperate and divided years — and the ways in which my survival strategies played their own part in that damage.
The stereotype of being in therapy is sitting on the couch while your therapist intones: “Tell me about your childhood….” There’s a lot more to it, but yeah, sometimes issues do go back to your childhood.
One of the hard breakthroughs was realizing that I never really got much nurturing from my parents. They were both (German/Scandinavian) emotionally-constricted, workaholic loners, who while they might have been loving, weren’t really able to show it, nor able to give me the support I needed as a young child. Later on, I was one of the first-generations of latch-key kids — I was literally on my own when I got home from school with no one to talk to about the ostracism and bullying that became an all too frequent occurrence.
In these circumstances, it’s common for children to “become self-reliant and independent. This is to avoid any possible feelings of rejection from an emotionally distant caregiver. They learn to stay quiet on any issues or upsets they may be facing and/or find a way to deal with things themselves rather than seeking help from others.”(1)
I feel personally attacked…. Seriously, seeing that, everyone of them words rang true and glowed like burnin’ coal, pourin’ off of every page like it was written in my soul. Ms. High Functioning, that’s me. I built up a defensive shield of self-esteem and self-sufficiency.
Growing up as purported boy didn’t help either. As after all, boys don’t cry, right? I don’t think most women truly understand the ways men — at least men of my generation — were trained to shut down their emotions, even from themselves. As bell hooks aptly put it: “The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves.”
It also didn’t help that I was the sort of little boy who sucked at the conventional expectations of boyhood. I was an introverted, dreamy, artsy, highly intelligent, clumsy boy who was always chosen last for sports teams — in a neighborhood of meathead jocks.(2) When your day-to-day reality sucks, withdrawing and putting up walls is defense mechanism. Don’t let anyone in, and I can’t be hurt. I wasn’t bullied for being trans per se (I would’ve gotten the same treatment had I actually been a cisgender boy), but it was definitely for being gender non-conforming.
I first started cross-dressing around 11 — an extremely common age for us late-life transitioners. Unlike the young transitioners you hear about today, who as young as 3 or 4 assert their true gender, impending puberty surfaced a feeling that we were “different,” often without really knowing why. There wasn’t any internet back then. Eight television channels (which was far more compared to many areas). There might have been information about trans people lurking somewhere in the local college library — if I’d even know what to look for.(3) But I didn’t. I thought was the only person in the work who felt that way.
I was extremely fortunate that unlike so many of my peers that I never felt guilt or shame about my crossdressing. I knew it was problem, but it was *society’s* problem, not mine. But I also sure as hell knew that it wasn’t safe to be open about it. So like many of my late-life transitioning peers, I built up the facade. I may have sucked at being a boy, but I wasn’t femmy, in the ways that young-transitioning trans women are often overtly femmy as kids, their femininity too powerful to be able to conceal.
It didn’t help that in high school I was the odd kid out. A liberal in Orange County, CA. An atheist during an evangelical revival. A misfit who didn’t even fit in with the other misfits.
And so more walls went up. Don’t let anyone inside, if they see who I really am, they’ll reject me. Maybe even hurt me. Emotionally. Physically.
Isolating myself. Telling myself that “I don’t need others, and they aren’t really important to me. I am fine as I am.”(4) Elsa isolated in the castle lest anyone discover her strange and terrible secret. But also Anna separated from the world outside and longing to be part of it.
It’s kind of been that way the rest of my life. I tried. I developed people-pleasing habits to my own detriment in a variety of non-reciprocal social and romantic relationships. I threw myself into workaholism and busyholism to distract myself from the that feeling that: it’s so lonely over here, it’s a cold part of town. Never quite fitting in, feeling like I always had my nose pressed up against the glass. Never having some someone to rely on — having been let down too many times. Always having to go it alone.
In retrospect, I realize that part of it was internalizing the transphobia and misogyny in our society. It’s hard to swim in a sea of poison and not swallow some. To feel, despite my defense of apparent high self-esteem, that I was unworthy of love. Plus all the other side-effects from living in a society that hates who you are. (For you younger folks, the world was far different, far less tolerant place — even from within the LGB communities — back then. Even as little as 5-10 years ago. Even now as TERFs still viciously assert that trans women aren’t women, and trans women continue to be excluded from “women only” spaces.) I think pretty much everyone who belongs to a stigmatized minority group deals with some degree of life-long low-level PTSD.
Armoring up, not letting myself feel, not letting anyone in, was my way of coping. Compartmentalizing was necessary for survival. I’m privileged and lucky that my transition went as smoothly as it possible could — but it was still by far the most stressful things I’ve done in my life. Far more stress than even the death of my mother from cancer last year. Tunnel vision is what enabled me to get through it.
Especially since I essentially transitioned single handed. Yes, there was plenty of people online were supportive from afar, and for that I’m greatly appreciative. But there was no one in-person to show up for me, and rarely did people online reach out to me. I’m not blaming anyone. Like a lot of “strong friends” it’s hard for me to ask for help.(5) I’ve mastered the art of masking my pain. To look like I’m hanging strong even when I’m falling apart inside, and could really need Aunt Beast(6) to comfort to me. Someone who could actually hold me tight and tell me it was going to be OK.
So what now? The first step has been admitting that I have a problem. That my past solutions aren’t working anymore and have become my current problems. I’ve known in my head, but I’m finally allowing myself to actually *feel* this in my heart and in my gut. To grieve the damage and the years I wish I’d been able to live differently. To come to terms with past that I can’t change the past, but move past that and focus on changing my future.
I’m working on it. I’m still socially awkward, still have that inner teenage wallflower standing by the wall at the school dance (plus when I do go out to lesbian spaces, it seems like everyone’s two or three decades younger) but I’m forcing myself to get out there. To get outside my Fortress of Solitude. Working on building up a social network and finding new friends. Which is a hella harder at my age, since there’s less inherent places to meet people compared to when you’re young and in school, or going out clubbing regularly.
I haven’t felt centered enough yet to do so, but I’m planning to just embrace the suck and get out there and start dating again. Which when you’re trans is extra fucking hard. Disclose upfront in your profile that you’re trans and you’re unlikely to get many replies, except from chasers who are attracted to the *kind* of woman you are, not who *you* are. (Plus, now I’m now longer a “chick with a dick,” I’m not of interest to them anyway.) Don’t disclose, and lots of people will ghost you when they find out.
It sucks to deal with all this stuff again my 50s, but there it is. The only thing I know how to do is to keep on keepin’ on, like a bird that flew. Tangled up in
blue pink. I’ll get through this. I always get through things. But maybe going forward, I won’t have to do it alone. At least that’s what I hope. Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have — but I have it.(7)
2 Of course there’s jocks who are smart, and jocks who aren’t assholes. Unfortunately, they didn’t live on my street.
3 There had been trans people in the public eye periodically over the years — such as Christine Jorgensen and Renée Richards — but none during my teen years, at least that I was aware of.
7 “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have — but i have it” by Lana Del Rey, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rY2LUmLw_DQ