Gratitude

A friend of mine nominated me on Saturday via Facebook to come up with three moments of gratitude a day for five days. Well, that was about five days ago, and I haven’t done it yet, but that seemed like a good direction for the blog this week. So Amanda, here’s my list; thanks for the inspiration.

  1. A partner who will join me on silly, spontaneous adventures. Last Thursday, I had the wild idea that we should rent a car over the weekend and drive to Cedar Falls, IA to catch Joe Stevens in concert. The conversation went something like this:

    A: We should go on a road trip and see Joe Stevens!
    E: But it’s Iowa.
    A: But concert!
    E: But IOWA.

    I acknowledged it was a pretty ridiculous idea, but I was a little sad…until I got off work and was greeted by a text to the effect of, “So, about that concert…”

  2. Friends with whom I can escape reality for a while. Saturday was Dungeons & Dragons & Knitting, which is the monthly Pathfinder game with some folks in our knitting circle (the original idea was to play D&D, but Pathfinder ended up happening instead…we just never changed the name). Four of us have an adventure in group storytelling while our partners hang out in the other room and knit and make fun of us. It’s consistently one of the highlights of every month.
  3. Open spaces. We did end up renting a car this weekend and going on a road trip into Iowa, taking a detour on our way to Cedar Falls so that I could show Ethan some of the northeast corner of the state, which is not entirely flat and very, very pretty. The farther we got from Chicago, the more I relaxed. Don’t get me wrong: I love living in Chicago. But wide open spaces do wonders for my soul.
  4. People who choose to love me because of who I am, not in spite of it. The reason I know that there is a pretty part of Iowa (the aforementioned northeast corner) is that my grandparents live there, on a farm in a valley surrounded by trees and bluffs and wildlife and gardens. I remain convinced at age 26 that their farm is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. We were close enough on Sunday that, had I so chosen, we could have stopped by for a surprise visit. But I didn’t. I love my grandparents very much. They love their grandchildren very much. But when I came out to them as Alyx in a letter two years ago, their response (also in a letter) was that they would never call me Alyx, because Alyx was “an imaginary person.” I am almost entirely certain that they don’t know that I started any sort of physical transition. I haven’t seen them in over two years, and I haven’t been on their farm in at least three, and I don’t know when (or if) either of those things will happen again, which is heart-wrenching whenever I think of it. But it also reminds me that I have a whole bunch of people in my life who not only accept that I am Alyx but actually celebrate my life with me, and that is a great comfort.
  5. Those moments of recognition by others in our communities. Visibility is such a huge thing, both for those of us who are still frequently misgendered, and those in our community who pass so well that no one believes they’re trans. There were a handful of those moments this weekend.
  6. Approachable heroes. Meeting Joe Stevens was great: he’s one of our songwriting idols, and is just a fantastic person. But even better than meeting Joe was the fact that we got to actually talk with him. By the end of the night, we were giving each other hugs goodbye. We’re now friends on Facebook. This is still blowing my mind.
  7. Adventures that lead to more adventures. When we got to Cedar Falls and started talking with Joe (and River Glen, who’s touring the Midwest with him), we mentioned we’d road tripped it from Chicago, at which point they told us they were actually going to be playing a house concert in Chicago on Monday night. Throughout the night they told us several times that we should come. We got in touch on Facebook and got the details, and despite the fact that my partner had only slept about 45 minutes and had worked a full day, and the fact that we’d returned the rental car and weren’t entire sure how we were going to get home after transit stopped running, Monday night we found ourselves in the very humid basement of a hippie couple we’d never met, sweating with strangers (and new friends, and someone we met at a karaoke bar three-and-a-half years ago), enjoying more music.
  8. Music that inspires me to create more music. I felt two things in regard to the music at both shows: first, that my songwriting is totally inadequate, and second, that I want to write more songs. There are times when I get the first feeling but not the second one; this was one of the beautiful moments where my feelings of inadequacy were outweighed by inspiration.
  9. New friends. We met some awesome people on Sunday and Monday.
  10. Thinking about the future. My partner and I have been doing a lot of talking about our future together, and it’s really wonderful not only to have a partner I want to have a future with, but to be able to think about the future at all. There was a long time when I could barely see past tomorrow. I’m learning to dream again.
  11. Air conditioning. This is a silly one, but it’s been ridiculously humid in Chicago this week. We don’t have AC at home, but I have it at the office, and I’m grateful for the times I can spend in places where everything does not feel soggy.
  12. Comfort in my skin. This isn’t a constant, but I’ve been feeling fairly centered and okay within myself this week. I was able to go to both concerts without feeling more than momentary social anxiety, and a lot of that had to do with being comfortable being myself. I spent a lot of years stuck in self-loathing, and while I’m not my biggest fan, I’ve at least reached the point where I feel a sort of benevolent indifference toward myself, which is unbelievably better for my mental health.
  13. Fresh perspective. I’m not sure exactly how to explain this one, because it’s been a largely internal thing. Mostly, there have been tiny things happening in the past few weeks that have helped me to look at the world in new (or old but forgotten) ways, and it’s been refreshing.
  14. A (mostly) calm brain. There have been a lot of storms here in the past week. My brain tends to get really uncomfortable when the weather is shifting back and forth rapidly. I’ve felt surprisingly stable in the midst of all of it.
  15. Concrete future plans. I alluded to this in last week’s post, and now that I’ve told my family, I can announce it to all of you: at the end of September I will be filing the requisite paperwork for a court date to legally change my name. By the end of the year I will legally be Alyxander James! There aren’t enough exclamation points in the world to express how excited I am.

Accidental Fudge Episode 32: AnxietyBrain Strikes Back

It’s been one of those weeks.

Being Bipolar means that my brain has multiple modes of existence. The two big ones are ManicBrain and DepressedBrain, but there are others that can manifest themselves in different ways depending on which end of a cycle I’m on. The worst of them, the one that causes days when my brain and I just don’t get along, is AnxietyBrain.

I was first diagnosed as Bipolar II five years ago. I’d been wrestling with cyclical mood changes for several years at that point, and finally having a name to attach to the thing that was happening made it all a lot easier to manage. I am medicated enough that I don’t go flying off too far to either extreme, and I have a host of coping mechanisms that work well for me about ninety percent of the time.

The other ten percent of the time, I am just barely hanging on. Nine times out of ten, this is because I’m being visited by AnxietyBrain.

This week has been full of AnxietyBrain. For the most part, it’s just been generalized, unfocused nervousness. I get a little twitchy. I feel vaguely unsettled. But then Monday rolled around, and as I was waiting for a bus and trying to talk myself into going somewhere and doing something intimidating, I nearly blacked out. In the end, I admitted defeat and went home feeling like a failure, because I’m not supposed to be the sort of person who gets so overwhelmed by such trivial things.

I wish there was some sort of descriptor for the state between generalized, low-grade worry and the sort of panic that causes a person to think they’re having a heart attack. I worry that applying the label of “panic attack” to the seemingly endless stretches of heart-pounding, trembling, dizzying time that I spend trying not to hyperventilate, trying not to let anyone else see how completely unhinged I feel is too extreme, because I never think my heart is going to stop…I just don’t know how long I can handle hearing its racing staccato before I scream. It’s probably a useless thing to worry about, but hey, that’s what AnxietyBrain is best at: taking trivial, mundane things and fixating on them in such a way that they gnaw at the fabric of sanity until the vague feelings of unease compound and snowball and turn into something monstrous.

On top of the AnxietyBrain, I think I’m heading into a bit of a down swing. My depressive episodes have been unbelievably mild and unexpectedly brief for the past seven months or so (whether this is tied to the fact that I started on testosterone around that time, I don’t know for sure). This has been nice. However, past experience has taught me not to trust that this will last, so every time I feel myself slipping down from ManicBrain in the direction of DepressedBrain, I am apprehensive. DepressedBrain has significantly less energy than its partner, and that makes it hard to keep up with life. I have a lot of activities packed into my life these days, and I am not confident that DepressedBrain has the horsepower to handle all of that. This, of course, makes the AnxietyBrain that much worse.

I’m not entirely certain what the point of this particular post is, other than to say sometimes, brains are frustrating, and no matter how much we might know, from a rational standpoint, that the current state of things will probably not last forever, it doesn’t really make what’s happening NOW any easier…and there’s always that lingering doubt. What if this is the way things are now? What if I’m stuck being an anxious ball of sad forever? It sucks.

What does help, though, is the knowledge that my life is full of extraordinary people, people who love me and will not stop loving me even if I am an anxious ball of sad forever. They will let me be anxious and sad, if that is what I need to be, but they will also comfort and cheer me, and I know that if anything or anyone has the power to get me out of a slump, it’s the incredible people I am blessed to call friends and family.

Weekend Reflections

One of the perks of working for a Jewish social service organization is that I wind up with extra paid days off for religious holidays that I don’t observe. This past week, we had Monday and Tuesday off for the last two days of Passover. I decided to take the opportunity afforded by a long weekend and take a little road trip up to Minnesota, mostly to meet my new nephew. My partner wasn’t able to join me for the trip, so I had a lot of hours of solo driving in the car to do some reflecting on what I was heading toward and, later, what I was coming home from.

The trip was full of excitement of varying sorts (my dad had an emergency appendectomy the evening I got into town, for one thing), but there are just a couple of things I really want to get into.

First, today (April 24, 2014) is the three-year anniversary of my grandfather’s death. He passed away Easter Sunday, ten days after his 90th birthday. Since his grave is in Rochester, MN (an under-two-hour drive from the Twin Cities) and I happened to be in town over Easter, I decided to get up early that morning and drive down to pay him a visit.

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I think a lot about my grandpa. He was a man of deep faith and quiet love, and to this day I respect him immensely. I found out five months after he died that my dad had told him that I was queer; I never knew that he knew, and it is one of my few major regrets in life that I never shared that part of myself with him. I was too afraid, and I thought I was doing what was expected of me.

I think because my grandpa never treated me any differently, I have sort of built him up in my head as being this paragon of tolerance, a rarity in my family. I’m not entirely sure that this is fair to his memory, though. I know that, ultimately, he loved me, and that was the most important thing. But I also know that he probably struggled with the idea of having a granddaughter who liked both boys and girls. About six months after he died, I adopted the name Alyx, and started walking a bit more boldly down the road of gender variant identity. As I stood by his grave (and in the car on my way back to St. Paul), I wondered how he would have handled the knowledge of my decision to start on testosterone.

I don’t have an answer. In the end, I don’t know that it matters. I have hope that the view from where he is now offers a greater sense of perspective, and that he’s able to be happy that I am happy. I hope that he is still proud of me, even though I know I am not the person he imagined his grandchild would be.

Being with my family this weekend was challenging. My mother very pointedly avoided using any names or pronouns in reference to me, though there were ample opportunities for both. My brother called me Alyx when talking to my nephew, but addressed me by my given name at dinner and apparently never gave it a second thought (he also called me “she” a lot). My dad is clearly trying, but it’s still hard.

But it was worth it for the handful of minutes I got to hold my nephew.

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I was crazy about this kid before he was born; I’m even crazier about him now. He is absolutely adorable, and I realized as I held him that there is nothing I wouldn’t do to keep this child safe. While it’s still frustrating that my brother has declared that I’m not allowed to be his child’s uncle (ommer is the title we’ve settled on for the time being), it’s something I’m willing to put up with if it means I get to be involved in the kid’s life in any way.

My strongest enduring memory of my grandpa is of the fact that every time we said goodbye, he’d give me a hug and say, quietly and earnestly, “You’re special.” As I said goodbye to my nephew on Sunday, I found myself saying the same thing to him. I hope that if I have any influence in this child’s life, it’s to teach him that he’s special and loved, no matter who he grows up to be.

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One Rule

Technology is a fascinating thing. Thanks to the power of the internet, I’m not only able to put part of my life out in words for public scrutiny on a weekly basis, but I’m able to see who my audience is — at least, I can see what countries/states you’re coming from. It’s a regular reminder for me that the world is both vast and yet small enough to be this interconnected.

A couple of days ago I had a website stats first: I was able to see the search terms someone put in that led them to my little corner of the interwebs. The query? What do I do if I’m transmasculine. Well, honey, I don’t know if what you found here was helpful, or if you’ll ever be back, and that is a loaded and nuanced question if I ever saw one, but I’m going to give you the simplest answer I have:

You do what you need to do to stay alive.

If that means staying in the closet because you’re not in a safe space, then that’s okay. If it means tearing down the walls and being out and loud and proud, that’s okay, too. Educate yourself. Find your options. Find ways to be more comfortable in your skin and your brain. But mostly, stay alive. (Are you familiar with Kate Bornstein? She is fabulous, really into this idea of staying alive, has written some wonderful things about ways to do it, and has started a #stayalive hashtag movement on Twitter.)

Whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever you might believe about yourself, know that I believe that your life has value. And maybe in the grand scheme of things that doesn’t make a difference to you. But maybe it does, and that’s reason enough to say it. You, yes, you, my friend, are valuable. Your mere existence is revolutionary. People will try to tell you otherwise, but I promise they’re wrong.

I don’t believe that the “it gets better” rhetoric is actually helpful at all. Because sometimes, it doesn’t ever really get better to the extent that we want it to. But someday, even if things aren’t the best you can imagine, they might be better than they are now. And sometimes that hope makes holding on a little easier.

Hang in there, kiddo.