September 19, 2016.
“Look at where you are. Look at where you started. The fact that you’re alive is a miracle, just stay alive - that would be enough.”
- Eliza Hamilton, That Would Be Enough (Hamilton)
I’ve never, ever been a stable person, but I hide it well. People who know me, even those who are close to me, would probably be shocked to know the depth of things that I feel and manage to keep hidden. There are names for it, but even the names don’t say enough - depression, body dysmorphia, anxiety, attachment disorder, borderline personality. To feel is a blessing and curse, to feel deeply even more so.
Last year after my driver’s license expired I went to the DMV to get another. I did my usual hair thing, put on some makeup and was able to pull of what I thought was an almost genuine smile for the picture. It took a few days for the envelope from the DMV to show up - I was on my way to Target to look for some new clothes, and I stopped at my P.O. Box on the way. I left the envelope sitting on the passenger seat. The reason for this is that I knew that what was inside would have the potential to either make or ruin my day.
I pulled over to get gas, my curiosity got the better of me. Or the worst of me. I opened the envelope slowly, looked at the photo and my heart sank. And sank. And sank.
I saw a small, shadowy picture of someone who looks tired and gaunt with angular, masculine features, dark circles under their eyes, an overbite, a face that to my mind reads as male in sharp contrast with the female gender marker that I had gone to such great lengths to change over 10 years ago. Great. Every time I check into a fucking hotel or take a flight I have to show them this and have them think, What Is It.
Mostly for me it confirmed, I am not in any way beautiful. And I don’t say this so it can be refuted, it’s just something very real that I feel and I feel it a lot. I can curate my image on Facebook or online, but in bad moments this feels like the real truth, what I see in my rearview mirror, what I see on bright, sunny days in the reflections of car windows, what I see in bad cell phone pictures taken from unforgiving angles in bad light. Someone old with bad skin, skin that has been through maybe 36 laser electrolysis treatments to get rid of the beard hair that still stubbornly refuses to completely go away. Pores, wrinkles, crevices, a growing list of imperfections that makes me feel like I’m worth less, and less, and less. Worthless.
And this is just my face.
I turned the car around and started driving home. The predominant thought I had was, fuck Target, fuck clothes - there’s nothing I can wear or buy that’s going to change the fact that my face is an ugly, shitty, horrible thing to look at and it’s only going to get worse. No wonder I’m alone, no wonder I can’t be with anyone, how could I ever want to let anyone get close enough to look at me.
On the 20 mile drive home I felt mostly just numb. Or dumb. Dumb in the way of kids who believe a fantasy, who are play-acting, dumb in the way of someone who was naive and got tricked into something because they were too trusting.
Did I transition? Did I actually think I passed as female? In my weaker moments, did I entertain the idea that I was passably attractive? Look at this face, look at these hands, look at this pathetic attempt to try to mimic something that any 17 year old girl wearing sweat pants and a flannel shirt could easily put to shame. Look at this neck, when I swallow it looks like my grandmother’s, I look 25 years older than I am.
Did I mention I have a touch of dysmorphia.
On the way home all I could think was, I have that vicodin left over from that root canal years ago, I could take a handful and just disappear for a day. People might wonder where I am and if I'm OK. Or maybe, they say 4000 mg of acetaminophen can fry your liver, maybe today is the day. Look at this sunlight, look at these clouds, feel that breeze through the open window, look at these rolling fields of corn, look at this world, this could be the last day if you want it to be. Maybe that’s it, maybe Today is The Day. The last one. Maybe this is part of the plan, maybe I’m supposed to self-destruct, maybe something good will come out of it, maybe this is the one idea that won't go away because it's what's meant to be.
I got home, walked upstairs, started googling, how much vicodin to kill yourself. In those search results are always links for suicide help and the number for the suicide hotline. I haven’t called it in years and I didn’t feel like calling it then either but after 20 minutes I thought, I am in a little bit of a crisis. Understatement.
I dialed the number and started talking to this young woman - she sounded like she was still in college, and she also sounded like she was reading from a form and neither of these things were exactly encouraging. I told her about my experience that day, told her that I was holding a bottle of vicodin in my hand. I told her I was trans and lived in a small town, I told her that I had been through the local behavioral health system with no luck, that I had to explain to someone with an MSW that surgery was not just “chopping it off.”
She said, what do you need to do to get some help. I said, I thought calling you was getting some help. She said, it sounds like you need a therapist, I said, I’m trying but my insurance doesn’t cover therapy. She said, just so you know, we’re not a therapy service, we’re a crisis line. I could hear the irritation in her voice, and I said - Do you actually even want to talk to me? It felt like she didn’t, it really felt like that. I said, what do you think I should do? And she said, I don’t know, it sounds like you’ve exhausted your options.
That was a little disappointing to hear.
I just sat there staring at the carpet for another 30 minutes, I was kind of stunned. And also more than a little bit angry. Maybe that was her secret strategy, to piss me off so much that my hopelessness turned into a white-hot laser beam of rage directed at this nameless twenty-something who was probably volunteering so she could put it on her CV when she applied for grad school.
After another twenty minutes I thought, I could call my friend Simon. And I did. I’m rarely honest with people about my mental health because I think that they might overreact and call 911 (if that’s overreacting.) Or else they might be overwhelmed and not know what to say. I worry that I might come across as too needy or ungrateful, I worry that after a couple of phone calls like this they might not pick up next time.
None of those things happened. We talked for an hour or so, I said, look - this is what I’m struggling with, I deal with this and a heap of other shit every day, some days it’s better, some days it’s worse, some days it’s a lot worse than worse. Some days it just hurts to be in a room with people who have eyes, it just hurts to be looked at. We talked, or mostly I talked, and he listened. I bitched about the suicide hotline, how it was unconscionable that this girl could treat me the way she did, that I could have hung up and killed myself, that I hung up feeling worse than when I called. He listened, and he agreed, she was a shitty volunteer.
Years ago I wrote a song called Find a Light - it’s about suicide, I don’t think there’s any mistaking that. There’s a line at the end that says, You were looking for a friend/Someone to listen/Someone to lend their ear/Someone who would really hear you, really hear you.
I felt like Simon really heard me, and in that hour I felt my resolve soften, and I started feeling like, it’s just one picture, there are other pictures, which ones are true, I don’t know. I don’t know. At some point, since we’re both Irish and neurotic, one or the other of us made a joke, I laughed a little bit, for one second I remembered that I have the capacity to take myself less seriously. What a gift that was.
This was a year ago - since then I have different insurance, I have a therapist, I have a great doctor and have been on and off different antidepressants trying to find something that helps. In spite of all that it’s still been a Hard Fucking Year. And not even the hardest, I lived through much worse in my twenties and thirties, much, much worse. And my life is good - I’m not ignorant of all the blessings I have, my health, my intellect, the resources to have transitioned, a talent, a gift, the luxury of travel, the ability to turn my pain into something beautiful. The small miracles that surround me every day, bird, sky, bee, cat, wind, grass, the impossibly beautiful world.
The struggle is still real and is still there and sometimes I deal with it constructively and sometimes not. Sometimes to be really heard by one person is enough, enough to plant the seed of doubt in our sinister plans for ourselves, enough to awaken a blessed uncertainty, maybe. Maybe we do matter. Maybe.
To all who struggle, hang in there. The tropes are all true, it’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem, but that doesn’t mean we’re not hurting and we don’t need help. On my list of favorite movies is Contact with Jodie Foster, and this is a quote from the end that always sticks with me.
“You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.”
Some resources that made me feel less alone and actually helped:
Pleas share more if you know something that worked for you.
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