Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Asterisks and Rewards

Once I was able to make peace with my father's death, I went a few years without talking to therapists. Having made it through transition and finally being able to experience life being gendered properly was more than enough for me - once I had gotten past that particular roadblock, I was ready to go experience life and didn't think anything could stop me.

I might have been extremely shy when it came to sex or relationships, but I've loved dancing for years now.  Flailing my hands like I'm surfing is my signature move.
Of course, that's not the way the world works.  Life didn't just get easy all of a sudden once I was living as a woman.  It just led to a new set of challenges.  So, in the early months of 2013, I decided to book an appointment with a therapist to see if I could get some new perspective with a problem that, in a way, felt just as difficult as transition.  At that point I was fully aware and appreciate at how much it helped for me when I needed it years ago, so I was excited at the prospect of being able to talk to someone who could help me.

I decided to book a new therapist this time, one closer to the office.  She was nice, probably younger than me, and I felt an immediate rapport with her.  Trust was built up rather quickly and I had no problem filling her in on who I was and why I felt I needed help.  She tried her best to steer me in the right direction.

With all that said, my appointments with her lasted three months, tops.

I was going to continue on what I started in my last blog post by continuing talking about my therapy sessions, but in all honesty they didn't help me all that much.  So rather than talking about those, I'd rather reflect on what it was that brought me there, and how I leveled up in the process.

One of the classiest pictures of us taken in 2013.
2013

The main thing that brought me back into therapy was that I was frustrated at "being an asterisk".

I don't remember how that term specifically came out, but it was how Kayla and I referred to how I was unique in certain ways that changed the rules for me a little bit.  Despite the fact that we had a pretty wide circle of friends, I was the only person in the group (to my knowledge) who was transgender and in her thirties.

On the surface, that doesn't sound like much.  It really isn't, and I was mostly happy with my life to that point. I had just been hired at Gentle Giant and liked me job.  I had just moved into Six Eleanor and was still in the honeymoon phase where I noticed the good things about living there and was able to turn a blind eye to the bad ones.  I had more people in my life that I considered friends than at any other point in my life.  It was the first time I experienced popularity, and I found I rather liked it.

The only thing that I felt like I was really missing from life was the sense of intimacy that comes from a long-term relationship.  And, just like with gender dysphoria, it started to slowly encompass my thoughts in a way that felt like it was actually literally driving me crazy.

I spent most of my life in social groups that were nearly always male-dominated - in environments like Magic tournaments and arcades and I.T. jobs - where I never felt inferior for being single.  But now that I had essentially finished the process of transition and had tons of friends, I felt like I basically had no excuse.  I was Forever Single in a sea of attractive partiers who were all ten years younger than me, and they didn't need to figure out a way to shoehorn "I wasn't born female" into the conversation without worrying about freaking the other person out.

I could rock femininity when I wanted to, but it never really allowed me to feel like myself.
Here is my best attempt to analyze what was going on at the time in my head:
  1. I had grown up around certain images of transpeople that were affecting my perception of myself. Off the top of my head:  Ace Ventura, The Crying Game, Jerry Springer, porn, multiple episodes of South Park (a show I otherwise love) and a specific episode of Family Guy (ehh) where a character vomited for thirty seconds straight after finding out he slept with a post-op transwoman.  As much as I tried not to internalize that stuff, I started to develop a fear of touching other people - specifically, that it would cause them to recoil away in horror.
  2. Sex terrified me.  My strategy to get through it was "neither move nor say anything and hope for it to end".  I generally only engaged in it for two reasons - because I felt like I was "supposed to" at the end of a date, or because I felt like I was somehow broken and wanted to show tangible proof that I was attractive.  My sex drive went completely into hiding and I was more than happy not to pursue it.
  3. My ratio of age : experience completely undermined any sense of confidence I had that I could find someone.  Who wants to be some 33-year-old's first relationship?  This was reinforced by my spectacular string of first dates that didn't lead to second ones - I think I hit double digits there.  It just got to the point where I fully expected every date I went on to suck, and that proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. 
  4. The closest person to my in my life at the time, Kayla, was newly single and seemed to have no trouble finding interested guys.  She's extremely confident and attractive.  These were obviously net positives through the course of our friendship - she was instrumental in helping me find these qualities in myself.  I did my best to not feel envious about that because she's my best friend and ultimately I was happy she was happy.  Unfortunately, envy isn't the type of thing that you can just choose not to feel.
  5. All of my friends, it seemed, were either in relationships or happy to play the field.  I remember noticing one night that I was the only person going to sleep alone in a bed that night, which started me off on a night of "you're going to be alone forever"-based insomnia.  And while I had no desire for sex, I started to become very aware of how little physical contact I had with other people. Seeing so many people engaging in cuddling or massaging or sleeping next to each other or even stupid stuff like play-fighting would cause my insecurities to flare up.
  6. The combination of envy and loneliness was causing me to develop inappropriate crushes on basically anyone who would show me positive attention.  These were usually friends, almost always awkward, and were more a result of me wanting to feel worth being loved than any actual romantic interest.
  7. As Kayla once put it, I didn't put out "sexy vibe" when I talked to guys.  I had no problem meeting people and making friends and forming platonic friendships - in fact I was rather good at it.  But there was something about the way I was putting myself out into the world that specifically seemed to show a lack of interest in sex.  Kayla once asked me if I thought it was possible for someone to find me sexually attractive and my honest answer was a straightforward "well of course not".
  8. I started to worry that my role in life was to always meet new friends in their twenties while my old friends found relationships and outgrew me.  This thought terrified me - I started to internalize this idea and it affected my self-esteem.
  9. As one might glean from my writing, my brain sometimes has a tendency to sit there and over-analyze situations.  Questions like "will I ever experience romantic love?" and "should I just accept that I will be alone forever and embrace it?" and "what even is my sexual orientation?" and "what is wrong with me that makes me unworthy of human touch?" and "am I missing out on a fundamental part of the human experience?" basically formed a running narrative in my head.
My housemates went out to see a DJ friend of mine spin.  I very well think I may have been the oldest person in the room.

Kayla was instrumental with getting through this without cracking.  At that point, we basically shared everything with each other and she was fully aware of how I was feeling throughout all of this.  She was there to give me advice or feedback or encouragement when I needed it, and I needed it often.  Accepting my identity as an asterisk* was basically a struggle that culminated over three total years - basically my last great struggle - and Kayla was with me through all of it.

Unfortunately, I didn't have any outlet by which to vent my insecurities out into the world, and so I started dumping my problems off on her in a way that wasn't fair.  I'd get sad and start crying over minor infractions like her seeing a boy instead of hanging out with me on a given weekend night.  Or I would spend all night venting to Kayla about my problems selfishly without stopping to think about hers.  Or I would spend weeks complaining about the same things without making any tangible changes to my life.  The frustrating thing for me was that I was aware of the fact that I was being kind of a bad friend, but having trouble stopping.

Dark Star Orchestra played a show at Hampton Beach that summer - we spent the night partying on the beach after the show.
So, based on my previous successes, it felt like a reasonable time to try out therapy.

I decided to book an appointment at a new place closer to my job.  It had been years since my last session with my old therapist, I no longer felt like the same person, and I didn't want to sit in an hour of traffic each way anymore.  Rather than gender issues, this woman's specialty was more along the lines of life coach, which was more what I felt like I needed.  I'm pretty sure she was new to the practice and younger than me.

I told her about all the stuff above.  She listened and asked me appropriate questions.  She gave me some reasonable solutions, one of which included telling me to find pornography that appealed to me to try get my libido back.  She told me to put myself out there more and to be more forward with people who I find potentially attractive - granted, that was good advice, but a lot of it was common sense that I had already been trying to apply to my life.

She was giving me a place to vent my problems, but I realized that venting my problems wasn't really making me any happier.  In fact, it was making things worse.  Since I now had a place to devote an hour to talking about my issues, they started to weigh on me more heavily.  I spent the time in my therapy sessions talking about any small interaction with anyone who showed the slightest degree of interest in me, which in turn reinforced the notion that my worth was tied to my relationship status.

Staying up all night at a festival pretending to be a mouse taught me more about myself than three months of therapy.
After a few months, I came to a conclusion that felt almost undeniable - this woman had no idea how to solve my problems.  How could she?  She didn't seem to have the first clue about what a lifestyle like mine was like, and so I started to question what authority she realistically had by which to give me advice.  It's not like I didn't think about this stuff all the time - I spent hundreds of hours on the internet reading studies / watching videos about human psychology and sociology trying to figure out a solution to how I was feeling.

Professional technician isn't a job.  It's a state of mind.  At some point you run into problems that other people haven't solved yet, and you need to figure them out yourself.

After cutting ties with the therapist, I made a few important changes to my perspective:
  • I stopped bullshitting myself and trying to act like other women for the sake of securing a partner.  For years I had based a lot of my gendered behaviors on what I saw my friends doing, and I finally acknowledged to myself that typical femininity wasn't for me.  Whenever we went to a show, my female friends would enjoy the process of putting on makeup together and getting ready.  I tried to force myself to be that but it was clear that I wasn't that type of person.  I started embracing androgyny, shedding things like makeup and dresses in favor of flow-y pants and ponchos.
  • I tried to fill my life with everything else in life I wanted that I actually had control over.  I stopped worrying so much about my relationship status, and that led to one of the more adventurous years of my life.  The conclusion that I had come to - which is advice that I often give to other single and lonely people - was to focus my attention on the other things in life that make me happy.  That way, if I meet someone who might be compatible with me, they would be able to see me in my true element; and if I never did meet the right person, at least I would live life doing what I want to be doing.  I went on a handful of live-music related adventures that included a five-city road trip with Kayla, throwing after-parties at our house for touring bands when they came to Boston, and eventually making a last-minute road-trip to Atlantic City to catch Phish over Halloween.
  • Once I stopped putting so much weight behind the fact that I was feeling lonely, I re-approached dating with the mindset that a bad date was better than no date.  Bad dates only take up one awkward night and sometimes lead to interesting stories; being lonely and not making a conscious effort to fix it lasts an awfully long time.
  • I forced myself to go out into new social situations and expand my horizons, specifically for the purposes of meeting people to date.  Much like my experience with going to concerts when I first started, I went to places like "kareoke night at a bar" and "lesbian night at a nightclub" and "meetup.com group for single queer people".  I started online dating again and focused more on enjoying the process than worrying about finding someone (anyone) who wanted a relationship. A date is basically just two people trying to enjoy each other's company and doesn't need to be anything more than that.
In November of 2013, by forcing myself out of my comfort zone, I met Cody.  He ended up being the love of my life.  The courting process took a little long because I had a lot of inhibitions going into it, but the things about me that probably made me un-date-able to other made me unique and interesting to him.  After years of enviously looking on at others' physical affection and feeling like an outsider, I had found someone who genuinely made me feel attractive to them.

It's been years, but I haven't forgotten the feeling of "going months and years without physical human contact" any more than I've forgotten the feeling of "not being accepted as a woman".  There are times where I do my best to consciously remember that sense of loneliness that I had or a really long time, because I feel like I owe it to myself not to take it for granted.

Oh by the way, I won my fantasy football league that year.
As for therapy?  Ever since then, I haven't really felt like I've needed it anymore.  I feel like I do a good enough job of reflecting on life's problems by myself, and hopefully this blog is a reflection of that.  Sure, there are times where life feels like a struggle or where I don't know what to do, but that's all part of human growth.  If anything, I do my best to make myself available for those who might find themselves stuck in similar phases of their life.

* the asterisk is often a symbol used to denote a footnote.  When using it to refer to me, we meant it in the sense that while I was confident and outgoing and way younger-looking than I actually was - I still might as well have been a virgin.  Rules like "there's plenty of fish in the sea" and "you'll eventually find someone if you stop looking" and "you don't have to worry about admitting you transitioned to everyone you date" didn't apply to me.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Sage Training

One week ago, Rich came to visit and Cody and I tried to take him on a nice hike that ended at a waterfall.  True to form, we forgot how to get there and attempted to wing it.

Cody: "You should write"
Me:  "I don't have anything I want to write about"

That's not an easy thing for me to say and actually mean.  Writing is my creative outlet - it's what I do when I want to share my point of view with the world.  I've found that when I don't want to write, it usually means that I don't want to think about what's actually on my mind.

I think it would be great if this blog was full of posts about how amazing life is.  That would basically mean that my life is perfect and that I've made nothing but correct decisions to get to where I am.  But that's not how the real world works, and if anything my goal with this blog is to be as honest and genuine with things as I possibly can.  Besides, a daily log filled with nothing but success stories probably wouldn't be all that interesting to read.

So if not successes, then what?  Epic struggles and lessons learned along the way?  Those are good, but I've written about my past a whole lot and I'm just kind of bored with it at the moment.  Thanks to my social butterfly nature, most of my best stories are anecdotes that I have told a number of times, and simply writing those out and calling them blog posts has a distinct feeling of me phoning it in.

After doing this for a few months I've realized that I'm far more invested in writing about the present, because it's way easier to write about things when the subject matter is "how I am feeling".  Or, at least, that's how it generally works.  When I'm emotionally invested in something, it's often tough to get me to shut up about it. That was the reason that I wanted a creative outlet in the first place.

...

This post is inspired mainly by two things:
  • that rather morose bit above that I wrote a week ago where I attempted to create despite not feeling particularly inspired
  • recent reflection about what makes my writing style different / why people would choose to go out of their way to read what I have to say
People have called my writing "conversational" - a term that I really like - but I never really stopped to think about why that is until recently.  When I ask myself what fuels my writing 'voice', I think it all boils down to one thing:  I've spent a lot of time in therapy.  

As I've often said, I like to be looked at as an open book.  I tried being in the closet regarding certain aspects of my life for years and it brought me nothing but frustration and unhappiness.  Transitioning forced me to share something personal with the world, and if anything I found that process to be extremely rewarding later in life because I'm no longer scared of being rejected for my beliefs.

And where did I gain experience talking about my personal life?  Therapy.

It's sometimes good to look at the world around you and realize that there is a lot of beauty in it.

1991 

I had gone from getting straight A's in first and second grade to not doing my homework and getting C's and D's instead.    In an attempt to figure out if there was something wrong with me, they took me to a child psychologist. 

Here's a hint for future parents: if you're going to force your children to go listen to some grown-up against their will, don't book the appointment on a Saturday morning or they will hate said adult on principle alone.  All I remember about this guy was that I said upfront that I would refuse to talk to him, and then sat silently for 50 minutes.  He actually told my mother right in front of me when she picked me up that it would take a few sessions for him to be able to build rapport with me.  Challenge accepted, asshole.

I told my mother that she was throwing her money away taking me to this guy.  Thankfully, she listened.  At 11 years old, it would be my first (but not last) experience calling a mental health professional a quack.

Writing this 26 years later, it isn't rocket science to figure out what happened: I got a Nintendo in the third grade and no longer found schoolwork to be the most interesting thing to use my brain on.  The common belief was that subjects like "history" and "science" and "a foreign language" are objectively interesting and useful, and they're not.

1999 

I had just dropped out of college and was feeling miserable.  Even though I was able to surf through high school with minimal effort, college proved to be a whole other beast.  I was forced to repeat a core class because I didn't hand in a final project, and then lost interest when I found myself being re-taught things that I already knew I didn't find interesting.  I skipped out of a few classes and things snowballed out of control pretty quickly.  

My parents picked me up and I moved back home, terrified at the thought of trying to succeed in life without a college education.  At that point in my life, I didn't think it was actually possible.  As if to drive the point home, I got a data entry job inputting records for a museum database where I had long hours to wonder what was wrong with me.

Unlike my visit to a psychologist years earlier, I wanted to go to this one.  It didn't make any sense to me why I could never focus long enough to do my schoolwork, and all I wanted was a cure for it.  He gave me a 100-question survey to fill out with statements like "I find it difficult to focus on my homework" that you have to answer on a 1-5 scale where 1 is "never" and 5 is "all the time", and I answered with 5s on a lot of them.  At the end of my first session, he told me that I was in the 97% percentile compared to other test-takers for something called Attention Deficit Disorder.

I was floored.  That was a thing?

I bought some books about ADD and it was like reading a biography of my life to that point.  Inability to focus on long-term projects, bad grades in school, doesn't pay attention, daydreams too much, tendency to fidget, disorganization - almost every symptom listed for ADD was something I struggled with in school.  He told me that he knew a psychiatrist that specialized in ADD and an appointment was booked.

The psychiatrist did a similar thing where he gave me a questionaire to fill out.  This one was larger - 500 statements instead of 100 that used same 1-5 scale with statements to rate.  This one had things like "I want to kill myself" and "I am sad all the time" thrown in there to mix it up a bit, and I noticed that it repeated questions using different phrasing .  

Humorously, there were also a bunch of questions like "I want to exist as the opposite gender" that I gave straight 5s on, but the psychiatrist never mentioned any of that.  It probably would have saved me a lot of trouble later on in life if he offered me help there, but oh well.

I ended my psychiatrist appointment with a Ritalun script.  It was interesting in that it certainly made data entry easier for me.  I was breaking data entry records with my newfound sense of focus! Unfortunately, breaking data entry records isn't really all that interesting and I didn't like what Ritalun was doing to my appetite, so I stopped taking it.

As years passed and I gave more thought to ADD, I revised my stance on my diagnosis.  I have an attention deficit - specifically to things that I don't find interesting - but I don't think I have a disorder. Years later I would have to do this very same thing for "Gender Identity Disorder".

My childhood did teach me how to shit-talk my friends when I'm better than them at things, like hiking.
2007 

This was basically the bottoming out point of my life.  I (and my close friends) had known for years that I wanted to exist as a woman, but I didn't have the courage to transition and no longer had the patience to exist as a man.  I was fully convinced that the risks of transition outweighed the rewards, and as a result I found it almost impossible to care about anything I did.

One extremely cold night in February, I accidentally started a fire in my room.  I'm not going to go too much into the details of that story other than to say that (a) it was my fault and I felt really guilty about it, (b) I lost all of my possessions and personal space at a time in my life where I was already feeling depressed, and (c) I started to realistically give thought to what would have happened if I lost my life in that fire, and the conclusion that I was coming to was that I wished I had.

Thankfully, I snapped out of it.  I made an appointment with a therapist who specialized in gender identity issues, and for the first time ever I felt free to talk my feelings out (without the influence of drugs) in a safe space with a professional who could help me make sense of them.  I still remember one exchange that made a huge impact on me:

Me:  "I guess that the perfect scenario would be if I had the magic ability to choose my gender at will, so I could be male at times and female at times"
Her:  "If you had that, when would you be male?"
Me:  "..."
Me:  "Well, if I was outside and I needed to pee.  Or if I was playing sports, I guess?"
Her:  "But other than that, female?"
Me:  "Yeah."

I can't remember how long I saw her for but it was probably two or three years.  Since her practice was a 45 minute drive for me, I made my visits to see her into my first attempts to go out in public presenting as a woman.  I would go and see her, wearing a dress and heels and probably not passing, and then go to somewhere like a mall or grocery shopping to work on not being terrified to be seen. She gave me a lot of helpful insight through a lot of scary stuff.

Once I was living female full-time, psychoanalysis no longer felt worth sitting through the commute to get there, so I stopped making appointments.  She understood and made herself available if I needed her in the future.  I started seeing her again when my father got sick, and once again she was instrumental in helping me through a really tough time in my life.

Trying out for "Riverdance"
2016

I think that therapy is both useful and overrated at the same time.

I mean - it's obviously useful to talk out one's thoughts and feelings.  It's nice to be able to do so with someone that who is:
  • confidential
  • non-judgemental
  • interested/engaged
  • knows how to ask relevant/helpful questions
It's just that I've never understood why there's this belief that it takes ten or more years of schooling to teach someone how to do that.  History and sciences and foreign language are interesting to some kids, but to a lot of kids they're not.  Being able to communicate and empathize and seeing the value in human connection has brought me far more in life than anything I learned in a classroom, and I think those lessons are universal.

One side effect that has come with being open about my transition is that it establishes right away that I'm willing to share some of my past with people who want to know.  I like being able to paint the full picture of my life, and it's hard to do so if I'm going to omit the first 27 years of it.  I like meeting new people and feel like I make friends pretty easily, so allow me to share my secret with anyone who wants it:
  • Think of questions that you're interested in hearing the answer to, and ask them.
  • Be willing to answer questions about yourself if they reciprocate, or to listen if they don't.
  • Try to see things from the point of view of others.
These days, I like to make myself available for others to talk their problems out to.  I'm no psychologist - I'm just an open person with a decent amount of life experience who likes connecting with other people.  On one hand, I would never be able to be an actual therapist because I hate all the formality and rules that come with treating human nature like a science.

On the other, I think that my mindset lends itself well to things like writing and making friends.  This is because I do it for fun, and thus no one can stop me.

Do whatever you want in life, but be willing to own it.
Therapy didn't teach me how to write, though.  Therapy taught me how to ask questions to myself and others.  The fact that I've been using the internet as a primary means of communication for more than two decades is what taught me how to write.

I've been on the internet since 1994.  Using written word to communicate with other people has always been natural to me, because for a very long time in my life I used the internet as a way to hide from my real-life insecurities.  I was an early adapter to the idea that one could have "friends on the internet", and more often that not I used the anonymity of the internet as a way to come out of my shell in a way that I wasn't yet comfortable with in real life.

I've used all sorts of different platforms to save my writing, but my favorite has always been long e-mails. Throughout my life, whenever I've really wanted to connect with someone I would send them a long e-mail about everything going on in my life, and invite them to do the same.  Thankfully, I still know all the passwords on all my old e-mail accounts, and so in a way I've created an accidental diary where I can go back and read about how I was feeling at any past point in my life.

My best writing has always been done in letters.  This has many forms - from internet pen-pals, to catching up with old friends who I no longer see as much, to getting to know new people without resorting to small-talk, I do my best work when I'm addressing it to someone else.  I can't believe it took me so long to realize this about my writing:  essentially my blog is like a letter I'm writing about my life, addressed out to anyone who wants to read about it.  As long as I look at it in that light, I can't imagine I'll ever decide to stop.