Posts Tagged ‘#StayAlive’
We had tornadoes in Northern Virginia tonight. There was a time, not long ago, where I would have had a struggle fighting the urge to drive out to the area and storm-chase. There have been many times in my life where I have gone out looking for the tornadoes, hoping to get up close and personal with them. Tonight was the first night that I did not feel the urge to go out after the storm. The dark, insistent need to find the terrible and dangerous did not rise up. It is not because I am struck by some profound new awareness of the danger, nor is it because I am older and wiser, more stable, or less (or more) crazy. It is because for the first time I did not feel the need to risk my life. I do not have a dark, oppressive secret weighing me down that I need to try to escape.
That feels good.
MtM (Me to Me Transitioning)
The process of regeneration (transitioning) calls a number of basic assumptions about yourself into question: how you move, how you speak, how you interact with others. We see ourselves in a new way and others perceive us in a new way. We alter how we interact with others and they alter their interactions with us. It is a new dance and often times we step on each others toes in the process. This new way of viewing myself, as a woman moving through the world as a woman (as opposed to a woman moving through the world as a man), has sparked the inquisitive and introspective side of me. I have always been one for the deep end of the pool, regardless of how much or little water was in it, but with this new issue I am nervous about plunging in headfirst, as I might go so deep I forget where the surface is. Nevertheless, I take a deep breath and dive into the issue of identity and selfhood.
To begin, a brief explanation of why this is an issue of import to me. Part of being a transgender person is having a repressed sense of self. Every trans* person I have met has had at least a few years in their life where they were denying their true self or hiding it from others. This comes from fear. Fear of how others will react. Will they approve or disapprove, support me or leave me, shower me with (at times an uncomfortable amount of) praise for my bravery or will they just beat the ever-living-hell out of me? Also, fear of how we will react. Am I strong enough to do what is necessary, mentally and emotionally prepared for the consequences, willing to risk everything I have for something I believe I need? We locked our selfhood away and developed characters, perceived selves, that we could don in the appropriate social settings. I was a drinker and a playboy when I was at the poker table, I was a protector with my wife, I was the physically able always ready to haul a stack of wood or fell some trees country boy with my dad and brother. But I was never me. Never wholly and never intentionally. As my Jewish professor told me, if you act a part long enough, you become that part. My sense of self was wrapped up in who I was pretending to be and at the start of the transition I did not know how to be me. I had to learn this and am still learning it, but now I am much closer to me than I have ever been. And this is where my concern about selfhood comes in. I have changed physically, emotionally, and mentally. How do I know that this person who is Caitlin is still the same person who was once A?
There are three major theories to how we know we are who we are. Let’s take a look at them before I raise my issues with them and drain all the water out of our philosophical pool. After all, you can’t drown if there’s no water, right? ::shrugs::
Theory one suggests that we are the same person we were because our current self is recognizable as our previous self. I can look in my mirror and say that person is, on the whole, the same person that was staring back at me yesterday and the day before, and the day before that. When my friend is walking down the street, I can recognize hir because ze still looks like the person ze looked like before, maybe a few pounds more or less, a scar here, a wrinkle there, but overall the same person. It is the very condition of sameness that links us to who we were and who we will become. But is theory one too easy to be true?
Theory two proposes that we are who we are not because we resemble our previous selves but because we have memories of being the previous self. I remember being a little girl-boy in a rural town in northern Minnesota. I remember being an outcast and feeling ostracized. These memories link me to my past and define me as a separate self over and against every other person in the community. This theory sounds more convincing than theory one, but I take greater issue with it than with the previous theory.
Theory three is the most convincing of the theories. This theory states our personalities define who we are. I think, act, and behave a certain way. I have a certain sense of humor and a specific outlook on life. These elements combine to form a distinct personality that is constant through time and links all incarnations of my selfhood together. Perhaps.
Physical Consistency Equals Self Continuity
The idea that we are the same person because we bear a physical resemblance to the person we were yesterday and will be tomorrow is a weak attempt at a theory of selfhood. On the surface it looks good, but if you plan on examining who you are in your depths you better have some back-up theories because this one is like trying to SCUBA dive with a snorkel. You’ll be sucking more water than air. The most glaring problem with this is childhood and puberty. Other than a few qualities such as eye shape and an innie bellybutton there is very little that links who I am now with who I was as a toddler. So, immediately, we have the theory breaking down on a closer inspection.
But let us say, for a moment, that the selfhood of a person does not develop until a relatively stable physical appearance has developed. The Hebrews said that a boy becomes a man at thirteen so set that as our approximate age. The wonderful experience of puberty! ::shudders:: If you were to look at photos of who I was at thirteen and compare them with who I was at nineteen, twenty-five, and thirty-something, you would be able to identify each snapshot as being the same person despite the difference in age. True, one picture may look dorkier than another and I may have long hair in one and short in another, but the general features are, subtle differences aside, the same. A is recognizable as A consistently. But if you were to compare a photograph of me now with a photograph of thirteen year-old A, you would be hard-pressed to recognize the one as being the same as the other. The characteristics altered in the transition process have become disassociated with the characteristics of my former self. And this is more than a matter of having breasts. Physical changes in the face, hips, waist, and tuchus has resulted in an over hauling of this lassie’s chassis. Thus, by the standards set by this theory, Caitlin and A are not the same person.
And this is not unique to those of us who have regenerated. A myriad of things can happen to a person and result in the same disconnect. Survivors of traumatic accidents that result in severe burns or amputation. A person who undergoes corrective or enhancing plastic surgery. Sometimes just plain old aging is enough to make us unrecognizable. Even before transitioning I caught glimpses of myself and couldn’t figure out who the old person was in the mirror, I’m still nineteen! No, I’m afraid that as a functional theory of selfhood physical resemblance just isn’t enough.
I Remember Mama, Therefore I Am
The idea that we are the same because we have memories of being the previous incarnations sounds like a firm theory. We don’t run into the problem of growth spurts and the majority of accidents are incapable of altering our indelible sense of self. I remember what it was like to sit and have a cup of coffee on the patio with my mum in 1998, therefore I am the person who sat and had a cup of coffee on the patio with my mum in 1998. My life, if viewed from a four-dimensional perspective would look like one of those time-lapse photos, a blur of memories connecting A in 1998 to Caitlin in 2011. But there are so many things that can interrupt that flow of memories that this is a dangerous way to define our selfhood.
When I was in college I was sitting in the dorm room of my then girlfriend, J. J and I were talking about the psychology course we were taking and how one out of every three people experienced some form of abuse as a child. One case study in particular, a boy who was sexually abused by an older boy, sparked something inside me and I was suddenly flooded with the awareness of being in the babysitter’s basement and being confronted with the demand to give oral sex to the babysitter’s oldest boy. A repressed memory had risen to the surface of my mind. An event I had no previous recollection of had now become a pivot point in my memory. If I am my memories then the person before the spontaneous recall and the person after the spontaneous recall are not the same person.
Now, let’s take it the other direction. My grandmother is showing signs of Alzheimer’s. She is forgetting more and more things. She has trouble remembering events that have occurred and muddles the past in with the present. According to this theory of selfhood, my grandmother is becoming a different person, because the memories that link her to her previous selves are being stolen by the disease. This is also the case for people who experience traumatic brain injury, drink to the point of blacking out, and suffer from amnesia. If this theory holds, the moment they lose their memories they become another person, which would make helping them recover their memories a unique type of murder as we would be eliminating one person in favor of another. No, this theory is too volatile and too many things can end that chain of memories to make it safe to hang our understanding of self on.
I Am What I Am and That’s All That I Am
I think of this third theory as the Popeye theory of selfhood, the idea that we are the same person we were because we demonstrate a consistent character throughout the course of our lives. My sense of humor, my indignation at injustice, my compassion, and my skill with words define me. These things are important parts of my personality and they are fundamental cores that have not changed with regeneration. If personality is taken solely as these elements then yes the person who was A is the same as the person who is Caitlin. My personality, however, is more than just those things. Personality consists of traits and characteristics across a wide spectrum and can include style, preferences, outlook, and demeanor. If we look at who A was and who Caitlin is we can find as many differences in their personalities as similarities. A liked spicy food, Caitlin not so much and A couldn’t stand strawberries, but Caitlin loves them. A was the type of person to get violently angry when pushed by a situation. Caitlin withdraws in the same situation. A was animated and enjoyed tossing himself into any given debate, but Caitlin is more the type of person to listen and absorb while others carry the conversation. A was disorganized, not very good at self-care, and difficult to motivate. Caitlin is more put together and initiates the things she needs to do to preserve; she makes things happen while A waited for them to happen to him. By the standard of the Popeye theory, A and Caitlin are nowhere close to being the same person.
This holds for people who aren’t regenerating also. Consider the Type A business person who has a heart attack leaves hir high-profile, high pressure job and takes up Zen meditation. Or the religious fundamentalist who watches hir friend slowly waste away from cancer and loses hir faith in god. People are inconstant and constantly changing who they are and how they deal with the world based on their present circumstances and even who they are with. This theory cannot work because it ignores a fundamental characteristic of the human self.
So, Where Are We? Who Are We?
With all three theories failing to hold up to honest examination I find myself stuck in a selfhood purgatory. All rational thought argues that who I am now and who I was then are two completely different people, that Caitlin and A are not and could never be the same self. Yet, there is something inside me that recognizes who A was as who Caitlin was and who Caitlin is as who A is. I feel like the same person. But is a gut feeling enough? I wish had the answer. All I can say with certainty is none of the current thoughts on the consistency of self survive exposure to the human factor. Each looks nice on the surface, but each is incapable of sustaining us for deeper reflections. The pool of identity is deep and clouded by a plethora of psychological detritus; if we’re going to go diving in, we better bring more sophisticated equipment than philosophy offers thus far.
[Note: I do not often tag my blog entries as I typically keep to a more intimate audience, but I felt this one needed to be more public as it concerns a topic I have seen posted cross-forum throughout the web. Transitioning, divorcing, and regenerating has made this a priority topic for me and I hope my thoughts on how to #StayAlive will help someone else]
Twitter and Kate Bornstein were my introduction to this hashtag. Kate’s book, my gender workbook, was a life-vest during a time I suffered tsunami force upheaval and change. I had spent time in the hospital being weaned off doctor prescribed medication that had built up to toxic levels in my system. I spent a week on the ward and my then wife only visited me once and she brought her brother along that one time. Don’t get me wrong, the concern from him was genuine and appreciated, but with my wife only visiting once I was feeling rather abandoned and I wish she had come to see me on her own before I was released. I am still sad about this, but I have also come to terms with her reasoning. I am sure it was hard for her to see the man she married, the person who is supposed to be the strong, resilient one, brought so low by a medication that was supposed to help. I also believe that she needed the time alone to solidify what she felt she was missing or needed and to determine if it was something she could get from a married relationship. Deep rooted feelings of isolation and a fear of abandonment resurfaced and lead to a serious state of despair in which I considered the long-term effects to ending my life. With the medicinal fog clearing from my mind I began to feel again and the primary feeling was misery. I had moments of happiness but they were increasingly distant from one another and in decreasing duration.
There were still a great many moments where I was happy; the majority of these were with my wife, but they were all moments where I wasn’t at home. Part of this was when we vacationed or took a trip I was also on med-holiday, there was no point to taking the Adderall to focus if I was in a situation that did not require focus. The larger part, however, was we were out of the stress of working and living, we could relax and be ourselves again. The stress of the day-to-day and the expectations of work, friends, family, and marriage were too much for us. It smothered our relationship and, I realized, it was smothering something inside me. The chasm between being the expectation on a full-time basis and being myself when away from life pressures put my home life inside that canyon in perspective. I was miserable because I couldn’t be who I was. I was stealing moments when my wife was gone (which had become more often than not) where I could be me, but they were transitory and sporadic; they couldn’t sustain me. I needed to find away to
I was seeing an analyst and a marital therapist and began discussing the problem of identity with them. I knew I had to tell my wife that I had repressed my personality and selfhood for thirty years and they were helping me prepare to tell her, but a week before I was ready to bring her to my analyst and lay my life bare before her, she discovered things on her own. The result was a meltdown between us. She was firmly against being in a married relationship with some who deviated from social acceptability. I had always felt like I was an embarrassment to her and this revelation capped those feelings. She wondered: How could she go somewhere with me? How could she visit her family with me? How could she sit in the same room alone with me? It was wrong. It was deviant. It was unacceptable. And my thoughts through this: Why doesn’t she love me? Why can’t she support me? Why doesn’t she want me to be happy again? These attitudes were knee-jerk reactions and have slowly faded over time. She sees I have more moments of peace now and that the reduction in stress has dramatically improved my health, but at that time, when combined with everything else she was feeling, who I am was a reason to end things that could be claimed as no one’s fault. Irreconcilable differences. A way out.
I share this with you because I want to make a point. When we separated we freed each other to pursue who we are and what we want. With this came a sense of selfhood, and a renewed interest in being alive. Searching for your desires and being yourself is a way to #StayAlive. But the story does not end there. This is life and happily ever after cannot be sustained for more than three hours before something creeps in and makes you question your commitment to
Released from a repressive situation I could search out my true self. This is a reason to #StayAlive, but it better not be the only reason because this is not a road paved with caviar and champagne; this journey follows an overgrown deer trail through a dark and deadly wood. It is as much an end to all things as it is a beginning and, sweetie, let me be honest with you, the endings are more intense in their low, persistent aches then the beginnings are in their euphoria. Reality, the ever-present bitch, is right there waiting to sucker punch you and now that you have reclaimed some of that lost joy the blow is going to hurt that much more.
When you first make a change it is a novelty for you and those around you. But as that novelty wears off and routine sets in, you will find the overwhelming support, the sudden new-found friendships, will slowly fade back into obscurity, and formerly close friends will see you as a stranger. Life, love, and your happiness require work to keep them buoyant. There is a reason folks call it the deadman’s float. If you are not actively treading water you are not going to
In my search for self I have confronted the realities of life: friends who have lives and personal quests of their own that keep them busy, discrimination and prejudice that make it difficult to carry out normal daily tasks like getting gas or going to the post office, active hate-fueled attacks and vandalism, the grind of carving out my new nook personally, professionally, economically, and legally, and my penchant for depression as I realize in spite of my drastic changes the world is still the same. Bills need to be paid, friends and family can still irritate, and the jerk behind the checkout counter is still a jerk. Only now, I have to deal with these things while coming to terms with what I have sacrificed in search of my reason to #StayAlive and the relationships and activities that used to sustain me through these blue periods are not always there any more or have changed too dramatically to ease the loneliness. There are times when I question why I chose to keep going and in those darker moments I need to call on new reasons to
My friendships took the hardest hit. I lost a number of friends when I transitioned and the majority of the ones who stayed have faded into the background. There is a new sense of awkwardness around who I am. Not that the transition is a problem for them, but it is coming to terms with this new person who has appeared, a person who simultaneously is and is not who they have always known. I have found that people who I hung out with are now awkward around me and constantly monitoring themselves and me for new or unusual reactions. We are getting to know each other all over again and most of them do not like the feeling. It is a lot like shoes. The ratty, well-worn, comfort of broken in sneakers has been replaced by the pinch, squeak, and discomfort of a new pair of heels. Most people do not have the time or energy to surmount this, so they gradually fall away. They call and write less and begin rescheduling and postponing engagements. Soon several months have gone by and we have not exchanged two words despite once seeing each other on a regular basis. This is where #StayAlive becomes difficult. I feel alone, I feel down, and the people who once were close are asking: I thought this was supposed to make you happy, how can you change and feel bad? Why don’t you give up and go back to how things were, when we were all more comfortable?
To #StayAlive we need to work at maintaining old friendships or put effort into developing to new ones. If we do not, we will not make it. I have been fortunate in this regard. I have several friends that I had not seen much of due to time issues, marriage, or distance. I have been able to build these relationships into something stronger primarily because there is less history between us, so the old comfortable sneakers feeling does not become an issue. I have also been blessed with a supportive family willing to work through the discomfort of new heels in order to break our new relationship in. They are reasons to
I still experience plenty of down days and mourn for what I lost, troubled by insecurities and the fears of being unloved and unloveable. This is normal human existence. You cannot be a thinking person without the requisite number if neuroses. The situation’s reality is this: the choice to #StayAlive is not a once-off decision, it is something you need to recommit to on a daily, or even an hourly, basis. It does not guarantee you happy days. It cannot mystically cure your life or your heartaches. When you are doing it right, it hurts more than the alternative, but if it did not it would not have to be something you choose. The decision is a commitment to actively maintaining the journey, it is a vow you make with yourself that you will continue in spite of the hardships you know are coming. In the face of this challenge we must remember what Joker said in Full Metal Jacket: The dead know only one thing, it is better to be alive.
- Caitlin on How to #StayAlive (caitlinsong.wordpress.com)
- The Problem of Self and Regeneration (a Caitlin On . . . post) (caitlinsong.wordpress.com)