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It’s personal

  • Posted on July 31, 2012 at 10:09 pm

at workA few weeks ago, a handful of MPs stood up in the House and related their own struggles with mental illness. It’s something we don’t like to talk about. Partly it is because mental health and personality can seem inextricably related. Dementia takes the person out of the body we knew; depression makes happy people inaccessible to reassurance, comfort and love; strong people become fragile, and gentle people become angry. Obsessive compulsive disorders make other people perhaps even impossible to live with. Post-natal depression can make a loving mother hate her baby. However internal a physical ailment is, it is always external to the person. Mental illness seems to be internal to the person. It can seem to change the person. Does it? These are, if I am not being too presumptuous, common perceptions.

The MPs were dreadfully exposed by speaking their story, about how others responded to it – and in Parliament they knew they were being recorded verbatim in Hansard for posterity, and being broadcast. It hit the news. In full.

Today they returned to the news programme where they first featured, to record what had happened since that courageous moment. And they were happy. They felt released. Not cured, not different, just free, because they had stopped hiding something other people find really difficult to handle. In the process they had received many hundreds of supportive and grateful messages: emails and letters of gratitude that someone had spoken for them. The disclosures made the MPs seem very ordinary, family people, struggling with something that was not their fault, and which some, including their families, find very difficult to face.

It all reminded me of the nights I stood in front of the concert bands I play in, to announce to each in turn that I was really so much more a woman than I had ever been a man, that I would be presenting myself from that point on as female. People spoke of the courage of coming out, whilst I was just feeling the joy and release of not hiding any more. It is an extraordinary thing to do, to actually announce that you are different in a way that people can find distasteful or simply be unable to understand or come to terms with. Those of us who ever need to do it, know that it could be a release – or it could be a sentence. (These are just similarities, by the way, it is not that I am regarding gender dysphoria as a mental disorder in any way, for those who are celebrating the end of the GID diagnosis.) It is our risk, it is our story.

And it is intensely personal.

In being so personal, it also creates personal implications on everyone we are associated with. Everyone becomes ‘the one who is married to / son of / daughter of / friend of – the one who is different, and it therefore makes them different too. Whether it makes them the one who is ‘coping with a partner’s mental illness’, or the poor thing who is coping with a gender-transitioning partner (and who by implication must have made a terrible mistake somewhere along the line) we are like Midas who dare not touch what we value most. Should we not speak our stories because we implicate so many others around us? Should we retire and let others ask if we take sugar? Should we speak of how we think we are perceived, with the risk that we have misunderstood others’ misunderstanding of us? Or remain silent because we are stealing other people’s stories?

We speak of change. For mental illness, it may be a lifetime of OCD and the impact on others. For some with depression it is episodic. One day we are the parent or spouse or child who is the life and soul, the next suicidal, frightening. For gender transition, it is the coming out of what was always inside, into a changed presentation. Why did no-one know? They would have avoided us, might never have chosen us as friend, would almost certainly never have loved us.

For all of us who tell these extraordinarily daring personal stories, we are speaking of our selves. Not another person, not a morph into another person or personality. The heart that now bears the terrible inconveniences of OCD, of the impact of the depression, or that realises the joy of expressing a true gender, is the same. The soul, if that means anything to you, is the same.

The MP who remembered the day OCD fell down upon him and changed his life forever, the mother who fell into post-natal depression, or people like me who realise rather too late what it was that was wrong. Each of us is just one person, with one lifelong story to tell. But what we all do – you, me, every one of us – is interpret our world as it makes us, not as it is. If we speak of our understanding of how others see and respond to us, it is inevitably a tainted story, but in whatever voice (as my last blog) it is our story, not an indictment of anyone else. And we have the right to tell it with kindness – and that is all I try to do. My blog could be full of anger and blame, fury and tempest against people who cannot accept me as the same person, against the world. But it is not. I want to observe, to make sense, to understand, and to help others on similar journeys. If I fail, I fail, but at least I tried, in good faith.

And of course it is personal. Intensely personal. Because being a person is all we can do.

I want to invite all my readers to pause on this quote from Iris Murdoch, long enough for its truth to dawn:

Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.

This is the love I am looking to show. Or even to find. I want to be loved for completely who I am. Is that too personal?

Who does she think she is?

  • Posted on July 29, 2012 at 12:31 pm
An acknowledgement; it may not be accurate, it is just my presumptuous imagination if you like, and told as a story. Yes, it is fiction. A collage of life, out of sequence.

How did she know what flowers I like?

And now she’s sitting there reading New Scientist like my husband used to. I don’t know what the Higgs boson is, but she does, and explained it to me as well as I could understand. The pink lilies are coming out in the fireplace, and she is slightly elegant in a long jade and navy dress, with butterfly ear studs to match the pattern and a lovely matching bracelet that even has jade butterflies in it. She has taste, and says she hardly has to try when it comes to clothes. Her eye shadow is just right for it too. My husband was never really interested in what he wore: greys and blues, without much thought from day to day. And now she compliments me, like he used to. I don’t feel the same about her. Should I try harder with my appearance? Or give up? Or simply not compare? I don’t know where she came from. She sort of turned up in my life and in my home, uninvited, as I saw less and less of my husband.

A bill arrived in the post this morning, addressed to Ms and Mrs. Something is missing. Not right. Part of me. Now she’s telling me how the International Olympic Committee has apparently got it all wrong about gender testing women athletes, and is asking again: ‘What is a woman? What is a man?’ I never had to even think about it. Now she wants me to. Needs me too. And I realise I don’t know either. We talk about all the many variations in gender markers. In the end I know I am a woman. A woman who used to have a man. She says she only knows what she is not.

We have both been to work today. Very different offices, in opposite directions, and we are both tired. She has a new job and welcomes the inclusion and being paid again. I’m lucky enough to have some extra days, so this month feels like it used to when I had a husband who always supported us financially. I think I would prefer it if she wasn’t making this all possible, and that I was the one with financial independence. Then I could say to her: ‘why are you here?’. My husband and I shared everything, always. Now she is sharing my dressing table, crowding me out. It doesn’t make be cross, it just feels too close, taking my space. But I know what I do best, so I head for the kitchen to make dinner and she goes to the computer. I always used to complain to my husband about that, but actually, I don’t want her in my kitchen all the time. Maybe I should jog her about the shed roof that needs re-felting. She promised. Instead I hear her getting the ironing board out. She does get cross about this, saying it doesn’t have to be my job. It’s funny, she does as much vacuuming and ironing as my husband used to. It’s time I set her a shared schedule on the loos and bathrooms, if she wants to live in my house. So long as she doesn’t ask me to mend the shoe cupboard next time. How did she know what to do? Ten minutes and it was back in use, even before it had time to get damaged. I would have asked a man.

We end up eating on our laps in front of the TV, and there’s a trailer for romance programmes for the autumn. People are kissing; soft focus and music to make it all emotionally inviting. It works. She’s looking away, and I know she is crying silently. I miss my husband. He wouldn’t have let me see him crying, even if he had been touched by things like this. He was sometimes, but he always hid it, like getting up to put the plates in the dishwasher. She is grieving something. So am I, but I am somehow angry inside because my husband was taken away and I don’t know where he is, only that he isn’t coming back. That, not the kissing on the TV, hurts. I was Mrs. I was his other half. I was the woman and he loved me like I loved him. I know he didn’t leave me for another woman, or for a man, or because he didn’t love me any more. I know what happened. I guess I understand why. But it isn’t fair, and I wasn’t given a choice. And I don’t have anyone to be angry with.

The evening is very quiet after that, so we get ready for the night, feeding cats, setting the dishwasher, pouring glasses of water, switching everything off and going upstairs. She always seems to know what needs to be done, how it needs to be done to be like it used to. I grab my nightdress and head for the bathroom. I don’t do naked in the bedroom any more. Not when she’s there. That is a right my husband had, but not her. She does naked though. And she reminds me of him still, so I don’t look. And then she comes to bed, wearing the same nightie he used to like to wear, for a while in his last year with me. She feels the same, but I don’t like to touch. She curls up ‘like a tiny beetle’ she says, right on the edge of the bed, facing away. She is frightened of my rejection. She wrote these last verses to a poem:

If it was a wind
with a ticket for a hope
and a promise in its lick
I would be carried

but this is fear
blowing, just blowing
and I am hanging on
being invisible
to air.

I think she is trying to show she is not taking my husband’s space, even though he isn’t coming back. I don’t want her in that space either. I’m not trying to be unkind. We’re both hurting and I need her to know that. She wants to fill that space. She never will. It would be wrong if she ever did.

I wake up and it is still early. Saturday, so no rush. I can hear slow classical music faintly below me. I know she is dancing, releasing all sorts of strains, in graceful movements reminiscent of the tai chi my husband started doing once. She will make tea, like he used to, and bring it up soon. I should have a shower to replace the long cuddles we used to enjoy on mornings like these. But she will be off out anyway, to play my husband’s old trumpet. She’s just as good. More relaxed maybe.

Breakfast. Saturday Live is on Radio 4 and something comes up that I remember from when I was first married. ‘Do you remember when the kids …?’ I begin. No. That was my husband. He would remember.

‘Yes’, she replies simply. ‘I was there. And you said …’

Who does she think she is?

Just being

  • Posted on July 22, 2012 at 9:11 am

Fifty years ago I was just being me. I was too small to know there were choices and comparisons to be made. I stirred cakes and I helped mix cement, I pushed a straw-filled polar bear (this is before really cuddly toys!) and a bulldozer equally around the floor.

Forty years ago I was wondering why I was different, an outsider unable to break in. I was a teenager, and I guess a lot of teenagers have very mixed-up periods in their lives where finding their identity is based on culture, friends, media and family. Few are free enough to see things as they really are. I had long hair, a bright pink shirt and purple heather-cord trousers. And a lot of feelings and wishing about myself that I couldn’t tell anyone.

Thirty years ago I was in love, and in public ceremony, made commitments that I’d felt for a long time. I had found someone who made me feel alive and brave enough to be vulnerable with; someone who I didn’t feel so much an outsider with.

Twenty years ago we had children pushing cuddly toys and bulldozers around, and we were still making cakes and mixing cement. But I wasn’t the one making cakes; we had a well-organised division of labour that worked well. It was a sensible layer of complementarity and partnership.

Ten years ago I was starting to feel an outsider again. Maybe I mean an insider; inside I was wanting to just be me. The children were at a stage of not running up to me when I got home and my role was changing, and calling me to find myself again. ‘Being me’ meant art classes, then returning to music. The role was doing beautiful things and expressing myself, without a role or expectations. And I really began to come face to face again with feelings from forty years ago.

This year I came to terms with my decades, and with what it means to be myself, instinctively, in terms of how I live and understand what it means ‘to be’. I am living a normal life again, going to work nine to five, sharing housework, cutting the grass, mending stuff, doing the ironing, playing music in several bands. I don’t feel an outsider any more, but I’m doing all the same things, for all the same reasons and in all the same ways. Living, loving, doing, being.

This week I shall remember the decades, especially the thirty-year anniversary. I was a commitment I made for a reason I still hold. I didn’t make vows because I felt any absolute divine obligation, but because it was what I wanted, wholeheartedly to do. That was as close to being me as I felt about anything at the time. I still have the same heart, the same soul, and it feels no different. Am I not the same person? I shall leave that question open, because I read many discussions, and most are based on semantics of ‘person’ – does that mean the heart and soul, or the perceived human being shaped by roles, obligations, moods and emotions? I can’t answer that any better than you can, because we use words to mean what we mean, not what words inherently mean.

But thirty years ago there were two people, the same two as today, for all the external and experiential changes. Unfortunately one of them had gender dysphoria, and it had to be resolved. That has meant a revisit to love and commitment, and the basis for that. And on the anniversary day I shall bite my lip, go to work and live a normal day, because I can be nothing else than who I am, and nothing else would be better.

Sometimes, it is enough just to beSometimes, it is enough just to be.

The wall that became a path

  • Posted on July 8, 2012 at 12:32 pm

It’s funny, the thoughts that come spontaneously to you. I remember in my late teens helping out on summer camps with younger kids. We were called ‘officers’ and the real adults were ‘house parents’. The end of the week away would be marked by an ‘officer hunt’, where we would all disguise ourselves in some way, scoot off into the nearest town, and the kids would follow shortly after and have to find us all, getting our signatures by approaching us. Scary stuff in this day and age! Well, one feature was that we could either blend in, or choose to do something absolutely bizarre and obvious instead, if only to amuse a populace otherwise invaded by a bunch of excited kids!

A memorable and oft-used choice was for two or three officers to get together with ropes and climbing gear (you had to think ahead on these trips!) and scale the pavement. An otherwise authentic climb, but horizontal. And great fun.

wallflowersThe second spontaneous thought I had was from when I was just two years old. The photos have been thrown away now, but I still remember blue shorts, a yellow jumper with buttons on the shoulder, and a toy bulldozer, also blue and yellow – and the scent of wallflowers. Even now it is a smell that takes me right back to my pre-school days. I was in the garden as my dad dismantled a wall that had fallen between our garden and the next. He built a fence instead and reclaimed the bricks. They were really useful, and once cleaned became a compost bin, edging for all the flower beds, and a path the length of the garden. So we had, like the climbers to amuse the kids, a horizontal wall to walk up, into the sun at the end where my mother grew flowers on a small rockery.

And now I hold my head in my hands, because I can just imagine that, had I become a church minister as I once intended, this is how I would write sermons. Or Thought for the Day (which is worse?). So apologies if it sounds like that; I’m just sayin’ . . .

There are places in our lives and times where we go to where the brick wall is. If it’s a nice place, all well and good. Walls can be safe, sheltering, protective. But sometimes we hit our heads against a wall, time and again. The wall is a boundary, a limit, a place beyond which we just know we cannot go. The wall is safe, the wall frustrates, it hurts us when we come up against it, and we don’t climb. And the higher the wall, the less we can see beyond it. Nonetheless it is a predictable boundary, familiar and unchallenging. It is just there, OK?

I faced a wall over the issue of why I felt such an outsider, such unbelonging, in the way I was. I faced it for over 40 years and banged my head over and over. Maybe that was why it began to crumble, and I began to see the other side. I did manage to take it down without it completely falling down around my ears, and somehow, out of all the bits I made a path. My wall became my feasible climb, my way through and forward. The bricks became more useful for walking on than they ever were when blocking my way.

Crap sermon isn’t it? (And none of these bricks were yellow.) But there is a fragment of truth in it, because life has few real walls that we don’t, if we are honest, actually choose to keep. Of course we can go on doing that, but walls aren’t kind to heads and we never see the possibilities on the other side.

If there is one thing I got right in my life, it was the wall that became the path. Now to plant wallfowers . . .

Semantic hegemony, if you know what I mean

  • Posted on July 5, 2012 at 11:38 pm

Sometimes things collide and I feel a small blog coming on. This one involves the proposition that, if gender had never been defined as strictly binary, and anyone could live anywhere in the spectrum they wished, would fewer people feel the need for a solely binary solution to their own gender identity?

A paper (‘Psychotherapy for Gender Identity Disorders’) by Az Hakeem was noted today, which proposed a form of group therapy to reduce gender dysphoria, where the author suggests that a body/mind disagreement can as equally be resolved by treating the mind or perception. His thesis that trans* people are more gender binary than cis folk is somewhat disingenuous of course, but he also proposes that sex is scientifically verifiable, whereas gender is a social construct.

Then a friend was enquiring about implications for reversing transition (which some do; it is why full transition is taken so cautiously and painfully slowly). Let’s face it, the road is very rough and the hatred and bigotry one meets requires an enormous resilience. Which is why I reckon I have never seen such generosity and such strength as I have among trans* people.

And then a relative (I have a very small extended family) that I was keeping in touch with over my own transition revealed a depth of bigotry such as I had not as yet encountered. One email a few months ago (no reply), then a helpful follow up yesterday, evoked thinly disguised hatred (or fear, I suspect) and a very commanding last word between us forever.

Finally, New Zealand is adding to the list of countries including a third gender on passports (Mx or X is used), which immediately presents non-binary or transitioning people as ‘other’, which, unless you are out and proud, and everyone is freely using a third gender in the day-to-day, is really not what you want.

And it’s all about semantics. Shared meaning and understanding.

As my last blog, words are everything when communicating. Lewis Carroll plays with this a lot in Alice in Wonderland (and Through the Looking Glass). Here is Humpty Dumpty:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’

So when we talk about gender (sorry, I do, rather a lot because it’s a conundrum to me too – I had much the same education as you) we fall immediately into what the user of the word means. All words are made up, so the problem arises when different people don’t agree about the meaning or definition of a word, and whether complimentary terms are absolute or relative (eg, black/white versus light/dark). The result is that for me to really mean ‘dark’ I might feel obliged to use the term ‘black’ (or vice versa if I want to be less absolute).

Male and female are the chief cultural terms for gender, and the rest are constructs (andro-gynous; gender-neutral/queer etc.) so it is rather difficult if you are comfortable in the middle (non-binary) but have to fill in forms with M/F. And then you ask why the telecomms company actually needs to know, or the DVLA (are we really all gender-stereotypical drivers?). And then you ask what gender is anyway (covered in earlier posts here). The etymology of the term isn’t helpful, but meaning ‘kind’ (ie, distinguishing men and women) goes back to about the 14th century, but only came to be really useful when the term ‘sex’ started to get embarrassingly common in the 20th century in terms of activity. So it isn’t really very specific.

Who wins, Humpty?

You could be heading for a fall when the egg-heads disagree with little Alice. Is it an academic thing, defined by researchers? Or is it a colloquialism? And oh dear, when you prefix it with ‘trans’ you really stir things up, because what one trans* person claims it for is not the same for another. So the construct of gender is not so much a mental or psychological status as a social consensus on behaviour and presentation.

So back to our little coincidence of events today. How can we decide whether gender dysphoria, that feeling of mismatch between an assigned binary term (absolutist male or female) is a mental disorder, a physical disorder, or simply over-prescription of the need to associate sex-identification (physiological) with gender identification (social – no, not psychological!)? Tricky ground, and one that elsewhere has created very strong feelings. Is there a disorder at all, or is it just that because we don’t accommodate the non-binary or ambiguous or mixed presentation and behaviour, we artificially create a problem that need not exist?

Well, I have met enough different people to think that there are firm clinical and/or genetic roots for real ‘gender dysphoria’ at a profound physiological level – a clear awareness that the body does not fulfill the needs and expression of the psyche in terms of sex-differentiation. But also enough to feel that trans-binarism is not the only answer, and is entirely unsuitable for others. Women behave and dress as men frequently, but we go ape when a man dresses and behaves as a woman (even well, so let’s leave out the bizarre) – this is not, in my mind, a clear case of gender dysphoria, but social and cultural dysfunction. People should be free, but not obliged, to identify as non-binary, and free to live anywhere else in the spectrum they feel most appropriate, and that should be respected.

When someone undertakes the real life experience of their preferred (non-assigned) gender they really are finding out what it would be like to always be ‘the opposite’, and it may not fit well enough. And for others, even full transition with complete surgery is not enough for them to overcome feelings that they were ‘born wrong’. So freedom to identify in a fluid way is the socially mature way to regard gender. And finally, if we can sort out the use of ‘gender’ and ‘transgender’ flexibly enough through not needing to be prescriptive, we need to discard absolutism.

The case of my family member (‘relative’ seems strangely appropriate now), in all likelihood, is seated in religion. God made man and created them male and female. Well, did god create me? So whose fault in quality assurance am I? Old Testament absolutism is so riddled with fallacy that I shan’t discuss it here, except to say that the world’s major religions are founded on peace and love, and those who betray that ideal on spurious interpretations of ancient literature, may have to choose whether or not to shake my hand at the pearly gates as Saint Peter (and god) look on! What if they do, what if they don’t … ?