For most of my life I split myself in two. A tomboy and a boy, and then a butch lesbian and a boy. Public and private. When I realized I was transgender, I imagined that the two parts would merge together seamlessly. A happy reunion. Instead, they are like disgruntled siblings strapped into the back seat on a road trip; neither wants to sit next to the other.
I carry a deep and irrational shame about my childhood. Shame that I was a shy, awkward, and unhappy girl. Shame that I could not transform myself into a happy and confident boy. Shame that I kept us from looking like a normal happy family. My mother was hell-bent on me being a girl, even though the screaming and arguing made both of us miserable. I hated getting dressed in the morning. I hated being picked on because I was weird. I hated myself for being a girl, for being unable to find a better solution than just being a boy in my head.
I started cultivating the split when I was six. I slipped into boy fantasy at night to put myself to sleep. I did it during the day when no one was watching. It felt right. In those fantasies, I was abused (beaten), and then rescued and taken care of. More than anything I wanted to feel safe and comforted. Something I rarely experienced as a girl.
I learned to tune out “real life” and wait for times that I could escape into fantasy. I learned to go numb. I channelled my feelings of humiliation and neediness into my fantasy life. Deep down I knew something bad was going on but I kept it to myself because I could not explain it and I did not understand it.
I can look at those fantasies and think that I was just a screwed up kid who couldn’t cope with reality, or I can look at those fantasies and see how much pain I was in, how hard I tried to hide it, and how lonely I was. It is much easier to look at them critically than to look at them with empathy. It is easier for me to feel shame than pain.
I carried that fantasy into adulthood and kept it secret. Every few years I would try to stop, sure that I was “well enough” to do without it. I thought I was ready to have my feelings in real-time, with real people. It didn’t occur to me that I used the fantasies to avoid coming to terms with being transgender. Or being abused by my mother.
It is not easy to live in the real world. I’m fine at home, but the self-criticism starts when I go out in public. Old shame. Girl shame. I’m more ashamed of being a girl than a boy. Ashamed of allowing other people to see me as I am. Being present with other people is harder than I thought. It isn’t child’s play.
It is better to feel shame than to feel nothing at all. Better to name it than to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Better to get everything out in the open. The feminist in me winces at my shame at being a girl. The writer in me winces because I don’t know which tense to use for referring to myself as a girl. The adult in me winces because I still have a lot of work to do before I can accept that I once was a girl, that I once was that girl, that I still am that girl.
Notes: Months ago a reader suggested that I watch Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability, which I finally did. If you are not one of the 19 million people who have already watched it, I highly recommend it. You can find it here.