It Isn’t All It Seems at Seventeen

My emotional life at 17

At 17 I was an active volcano.

Every mental health professional I’ve ever worked with has asked me if I’ve attempted suicide, if I’ve ever felt suicidal, or if I have any suicidal feelings. The simple answer is no. The complex answer is I’ve been homicidal, not suicidal. I was an angry kid and an angrier teenager.

In my mind I’ve killed off my mother, my grandmother, and Julie and Wendy, the two girls who relentlessly picked on me in elementary school. The only one I was serious about killing was my mother. I didn’t have a good plan. I thought about pushing her in front of a train. I wanted to make it look like an accident. I considered trying to make her overdose on barbiturates, but I never purchased pills or figured out how to mix them with alcohol. There was no internet to turn to.

My mother and I never got along. From the moment I learned to talk, to when I left home for good, we were at each other. By nursery school it was clear I was a shy and gender non-conforming kid. Stubborn and willful. Smart but difficult. Odd looking and unpopular. She berated me and criticized me and attempted to coerce me into acting like a girl and dressing like a girl. We fought every day until I left for college.

When I was in the 9th grade, my Dad died. The next year my older brother left for college. For the last three years of high school it was just me and my mom, and sometimes my Grandmother, alone together in the apartment yelling at each other.

On some level, her concerns were legitimate. Who will want to marry you? Who will want to hire you? You will never make any friends. You can’t go through life looking like a boy. What is wrong with you? How can you go out like that? By the time you realize your mother is right it will be too late. You will die penniless and alone.

My mother criticized the big picture and she criticized the minutiae. I shouldn’t wear boy’s jeans, I shouldn’t wear boy’s sneakers, I should wear make-up, I should lose weight, I should grow my hair, I should cut my hair differently, I spend too much time with my best friend it isn’t natural, I should find some boys to date, I should take easier classes so I could get higher grades, I should take Spanish instead of Latin, I should….

I tried not to listen but I heard everything she said. The sound of her voice made me angry. I just wanted her to shut up. I felt perpetually on the verge of losing control and exploding. My senior year I hit her twice. Once she slapped me and I slapped her back, but with a force that terrified me. The second time she was talking and I couldn’t listen anymore and I hit her to make her stop. She was going to call the police but didn’t because she was too embarrassed to explain what happened. I was seventeen. I was an active volcano.

I was too angry to commit suicide. Every time my mother claimed there was something wrong me I became more determined to prove her wrong. I didn’t want to be a mother, a housewife, or a career woman. I didn’t want to be the girl next door. I was full of contempt towards adults. I knew I could get into college and I knew I could escape and get away from her. Surviving was like a big fuck you to her face.

I was seventeen when I left for college. I knew I was gay. I knew I wanted to be a boy. I knew I was shy and quiet when unprovoked. I thought all my problems were caused by my mother and that when I was physically out from under her and on my own I would be fine. It didn’t work out the way I imagined it would. It was much harder than I expected. At seventeen I learned the truth.

Notes: This post is in honor of all the eccentric, queer, trans, gender non-conforming, and angry kids. It is for the Leelah Alcorns of the world.

The title of this post comes from the lyrics of a Janis Ian song “At Seventeen”. You can watch her sing it here.

 

20 thoughts on “It Isn’t All It Seems at Seventeen

  1. DogDharma

    Über-powerful post, Jamie. I wore that song bare. I wish I’d had the anger you had — the volcano was always directed inwardly at my own self. At one point, when I was in college, I had it in a string of nightmares I’ll have to write about some day. But it was the underlying anger, never expressed, that propelled me on my journey.

    An oddly appropriate (or inappropriate?) musical reply to Janis Ian: http://youtu.be/jXZcJojTucg

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Thanks for your feedback – I’m interested in how kids/teenagers deal with their inherent non-conformity whether they are obstructionist (like me) or comply but manage to keep a hold of themselves anyway. And how long it takes to undo the damage inflicted upon us by our parents (or mothers in our cases).
      The Alice Cooper was definitely and antidote to acoustic guitar – around the 3:54 mark I realized he is wearing a Wonder Woman T shirt – odd, odd, odd (and sequin pants, and make-up but it was glam rock so anything goes).

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      And this separates the 50 year olds from the 30 year olds who are going Janis who? She is still performing – I saw her a couple of years ago at the Falcon Ridge Folk Music Festival and she was great – very open and out as a lesbian.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      And I think they probably both thought there were trying to derail an out of control train and didn’t think about the long term implications of what they were doing. Realizing that the way she “loved me” was about her not me – helped a bit, but she did not get the concept of unconditional love. I think it is great that you have been able to give that to Hammy despite your upbringing. I lived in fear of repeating my parents mistakes.

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      1. butchcountry67

        Think of your future parenting skills like this… your Mother taught you exactly how NOT to parent, in that context, you will most likely be a great parent because you already know what not to do 🙂

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  2. krisalex333

    Ahh, Janis Ian… Thanks for the memory, Jamie. Why is it that the ONE person who should be loving us unconditionally, are often so unloving and unforgiving? I never was a rebel, but have turned into one in my midlife. My mother was baffled by me from the day I popped into this world. I was just too… different. But she let me be and I loved her for that. I wish there was more of her love to spread around…

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      The Diary of a Midlife Rebel could make a good book. Even with a loving mother, you probably got plenty of negative feedback from outside the house for being different – but having a parent who is really out to get you screws you up in a lot of ways that are hard to understand and undo.
      I was a big teenage rebel, but it took me a while to figure out that was not the best way to go through life and it doesn’t allow you to get close to other people. Or as I complained to my therapist, it is taking me longer to undo the damage than it took her to inflict it.

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  3. Cai

    I’ve been suicidal, but the archangel Michael wouldn’t dare let me go through with it. Between him and this totem spirit I know, they help me everyday.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Whatever gets you through it is good. Anger carried me, but eventually I had to find something else. Although I knew my mother was hard on me, I didn’t accept how out of control we both were until I was in my mid-late twenties – and that that fever pitch of anger was no way to go through life. I’m a lot calmer now.

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  4. PlainT

    Thanks for sharing this with the blogging world. I had had two friends growing up who seamlessly merged with the popular crowd in high school; I tried so hard to please them, and my parents, and everyone except myself. The anger finally blew up during my senior year of high school; sports season was over, I’d been rejected from most colleges I’d applied to, and I had free time and a drivers license. I was tired of seeing the disappointment on my parents’ faces, so as soon as they’d come home I’d take their car, without asking, and I stay out all night with other misfits doing absolutely nothing bad, just talking. I was always a good kid, and when I realized that would never be enough I felt completely lost, devoid of a meaningful identity. “Good kid” isn’t an identity. Neither is “put on makeup, be a lady, and marry a man.” And when we are pushed to suppress our identity and be something we aren’t to cover up our imperfections, it’s in our nature to lash out.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I was a good kid too (didn’t get in trouble and had decent grades). Parents can be very narcissistic about what they expect their sons and daughters (separately) to be like. My brother played the role of the first born Jewish son beautifully – I was not fit for the role of younger daughter.
      I’m still very aware of my temper – and have learned to not react to anything Donna says “as if” my mother had said it. I’m still a little afraid that the switch could flip and I’d feel like that 17 year old again.

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      1. PlainT

        I too have an overacheiving older brother, who was a Jewish parent’s wet dream. Sometimes when I’m around family I revert to being in his shadow.

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  5. Lesboi

    We had very similar experiences growing up I think. I was fortunate to have a small circle of friends that kept me sane in high school and allowed me to see what a “normal” life could be like. Still, there was a slow burning, on-going fire of anger inside me throughout most of my life. It’s only just started to fizzle out. I’m ashamed to admit that I too have returned my mother’s face smack once and the second time she tried that, when I was in college, I grabbed her hand and told her to never try to hit me again. I saw fear in her eyes and that scared me a little. My anger bubbled up a lot in my early twenties and unfortunately a couple of girlfriends experienced physical anger from me. After one really bad experience I swore I would never ever hit another woman and I have not to this day. It was a nasty lesson to learn and I hate that I had to learn it and ashamed to admit I that it was necessary for me to learn it. Somehow we all have to learn to deal with our anger…some in healthier ways than others.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      It is hard to grow up butch/trans and be an angel. The question is how to face up to it and how to overcome it (or do I really have to work on this for the rest of my life?).
      It is also hard to admit to it in “public” and not to carry the shame around inside forever.

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  6. The Little Butch That Could (TLBTC)

    I like to think that there is a rhyme and reason for everything in life. I’ll think back to some old shit I went through or some people that were / are a part of my life that I wish I didn’t have to deal with. I don’t like how stewing on those things make me feel. I’ll get angry all over again, despise the person or even get vengeful. I don’t like that. So, what I try to do is think how this person or situation made me a better person or what did it / they teach me. Sometimes it’s very hard to find something positive. Other times the best thing I can say about a person is they taught me how I did NOT want to be (Did that make sense?). But I keep reminding myself that I am an accumulation of all my past experiences and I’m a pretty kick ass person today. 😉 Peace.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Learning from mistakes is essential if you are going to make it to/through adulthood. I learned how to be a supervisor at work by channeling two old bosses who were great, and avoiding the behavior of a number of truly clueless ambitious stuffed shirts. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see/experience a lot of good relationships before I got in one with Donna, so I made a lot of mistakes early on. Fortunately she stuck it out (she claimed I was a diamond in the rough – but she didn’t realize how rough).
      But, one thing I did learn on the job – is that just like in therapy – people have transference – and that is more about them and how they were raised than it is about me. So I take things less personally, which helps.
      And I am sure you are totally kick ass.

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