Friends and family need to stop framing our transition as a death (open letter style)

Dear friends and family of trans-people,

It can be super challenging, on multiple levels, when a loved one comes out to you, especially if it never occurred to you that they might be transgender.  You might not know where to turn, or what resources to access to help you navigate the changes they (and you) will be going through.  There ARE resources though, plenty of them, and support groups (if not locally in your area, then definitely on the internet).  It is not up to the transgender person to be your sounding board, your therapist, your coach, or your educator.  In addition, as you work through it in your own way, please put a damper on the “transition as death” narrative.  It is trite, outdated, and toxic.

If you feel like you are mourning a death, that’s fine – all feelings are valid (etc.)  But why would this be something you need to work out publicly?  We are very much alive.  Almost always, transition is actually close to the opposite of death – it’s a time to finally feel out who we actually are.  We may have felt like a “half-person” or a “shell of a person” or, to put it in those same grim terms, like a “walking dead person.”  I know I did prior to transition, quite a bit.  Coming out was a celebration of life.  I feel like I have so much more to live for now.

When you claim that the person you knew has died, you are implying that the person we are becoming is not worth getting to know, or that we have slighted you, tricked you, we are to blame for your feelings of loss.  And, actually, we aren’t even “becoming” a different person.  We are the same person, just finally in technicolor, finally kaleidoscopic, however you want to look at it.  If you took the time to see how much we settle into ourselves, how often our worst mental-health issues start to soften around the edges, how we can be more present in the moment, more peaceful, more calm, then you might understand that it is so far from a death that the analogy is utterly ridiculous and laughable.

Please reflect on the ramifications of claiming we have died.
Sincerely, Kameron

And now for some hard evidence!  Two sources that have been recently on my radar have had me in hyper cringe mode as they talked about the “death” of their transgender loved one.

First, an episode of the podcast Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People:  I generally love this podcast, and in fact, I’ve written about it before, because there have been 2 prevous episodes highlighting transgender narratives.  If you wanna check that blog post out, it is:  Beautiful / Anonymous:  Trans-related episodes.

Episode #116, sensationalistically entitled She Killed My Father is a much harder pill to swallow.  The gist is that the caller is an only child, the adult child of a transwoman who came out later in life (in her fifties), much to the surprise of those around her.

Caller:  “Sometimes it feels like this person killed my father.  And in a way, that’s right.  You know, I, well, think about it this way:  When you lose… my father, as a male, does not exist anymore.  This person is gone.  And normally when that happens, you have this grieving period, you have this ritual, this ceremony, you can go to this funeral or this memorial service and people bring you food and people give you cards and people just give you your space and they really support you and they let you process that.  But for me, um… especially with my dad… I don’t have a dad anymore, and this person came in and said, ‘Your dad’s gone.  Now it’s me….'”

Chris:  “Wow.  This is, this is, by far, out of all the calls we’ve ever done, one that is so much to wrap one’s brain around.”

Blaaaaaaaaaah!!!!!  To be fair, I am just isolating this one thing, and of course it’s way more complex as we hear more of her story:  Her father is also bipolar, and has issues with boundaries, always wanting to be more of a “buddy” than a parent, stuff like that.  But really, nothing excuses this framework the caller has set up so starkly.  Can’t get past it!

The second instance I’ve recently come across is in a book called, At The Broken Places:  A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces.  This book is co-authored by both mother and son, and it is in many ways a difficult but worthwhile read.  It’s rich in its depth and complexity.  Both authors are not afraid to show their wounds and flaws, and, to be sure, some of that is cringe-worthy.

She (the mother, Mary Collins) delicately sidesteps the specific “my daughter has died” scenario, but she has an entire chapter entitled “Mapping Modern Grief,” and there’s plenty of comparisons to the death of her father at a young age, as well as, “I am grieving the loss of my daughter,” “I understood my daughter would never return,” and this mindboggling way of looking at it:  “My emotional journey with Donald seems to more closely mirror more nebulous losses, such as moving away from someone I will never see again.”

Not as in-your-face with the death imagery, but just as chafing, on an emotional level.


Recent books I’ve read with mental health content

Back in November, I lamented about not being able to find much writing out there that really portrays what can go on in someone’s head while they are in the middle of a psychotic episode.  In the past few weeks, two such books sorta fell into my lap, so I want to mention them!

My spouse picked up a book called Mental:  Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind from the library last weekend.  They pointed it out to me, like, eh?  You’ll want to read this!  This weekend, I was super sick, and I binge read it in 2 days, while trying to stay warm on the couch.  It was compelling for so many different reasons, one major one being that I could relate to so much of it.  The author, Jaime Lowe, was also hospitalized for a good chunk of her senior year of high school, and she also just took the pills without much reflection for years and years.  Like, it’s something that is a thing now.  (Although, for me, it was Depakote, and not Lithium.)  She had another manic / psychotic episode when she tried to get off Lithium at age 25.  I successfully(?) did get off all my pills in my early 20s, and that was my new normal for a long time, until I had 2 subsequent manic / psychotic episodes in my 30s.  She had to switch off of Lithium because it was killing her kidneys, and she had a really hard time stomaching Depakoke, but she finally did get through it.

Having to switch sent her on a spiritual journey to learn about Lithium as not just a psychotropic drug but as an element, super common in nature.  Which made the book encompass much more than just her mental health trajectory.  The best thing about it though, was how thoroughly and deeply she gets back into that headspace of being so completely out of her mind.  The slightest suggestion toward a minuscule thing could send her on an all-day (or longer) journey to do and/or be that thing.  She devastated every aspect of her life that second time around.  I was surprised by the fact that everyone around her wanted to keep her out of the hospital for a second time because she was no longer an adolescent and the adult ward was apparently to be avoided at all costs.  As a result, she was in that state much longer – days, weeks…  I was brought to the hospital like, BAM!  So fast my head didn’t get a chance to spin out too far too fast with too many repercussions.

The second book I’m reading with a portrayal of a breakdown is called The Petting Zoo, by Jim Carroll (of The Basketball Diaries fame).  He wrote this book in 2010, and according to the forward by Patti Smith, he died at his desk while writing.  He had finished it at the time of his death, but it was still in the editing process.  A few people had their hands in trying to edit as close to Jim’s style as possible.  It’s fiction.  It’s hard for me to get through (probably largely because it’s fiction – I almost always gravitate toward non-fiction and memoir).  The book opens with the main character, Billy, in the midst of a manic frenzy.  I didn’t know the book would be about that at all – nothing about that on the back cover summary – I bought it on a whim from a record store that was going out of business.  So it was interesting to get thrown into that unexpectedly, but I gotta say it felt lacking in… something.

Billy has some kind of crisis over an art opening at the MET and how what he saw of this one artist affects how he’s approaching his art for his own upcoming show.  He careens off down the steps, on his own, into the Central Park Zoo, more specifically a side spectacle, an outdated petting zoo.  From there, he flees down the street, in his tuxedo and fancy shoes, to a building that reminds him of an Aztec temple.  He then hits his head and his eye on branches or something and starts shouting something about a knife.  He has a momentary black-out and the cops pick him up.  At which point he comes back to reality, and that’s it.  Although the aftermath ends up taking longer, red tape and everything.  He has to stay overnight in a mental ward, which is just kind of looked at as a novelty, a curiosity, a stop-over.

In conclusion, real life is zanier (or at least more compelling to me) than fiction.