**Please note this article mentions suicidal thoughts in some detail. If this is a trigger for you, please be aware.**
I remember watching the boys around me all through my school years, studying them carefully to see what they talked about, their mannerisms and what they enjoyed. I then tried to replicate that so that I could more easily pass as male and not get bullied quite as much. I wasn’t all that successful, to be honest, but I tried. And I got bullied a lot.
At the age of 12, when a friend was able to name the make and model of a car at a distance, I studied cars like my life depended on it. Before long I could tell you the make and model of a car at night just by the shape of its headlights.
My first six years of school I missed the absolute maximum number of days one could miss without being held back. I remember many conversations between my Mum and the school, where she was told that if I missed just one more day, I’d be held back. This was because every single morning I would wake up with severe stomach pain at the thought of going to school. The energy it took to pretend to be a boy was utterly draining. By afternoon, when it became too late to go to school, my stomach pain would suddenly, and mysteriously vanish until the next morning. Doctors thought it was because I was being bullied. But I knew I was being bullied because I wasn’t actually a boy.
Often, my elementary school principle, Mr Brown, would drive to my house to collect me. One time, my Mum managed to get me into the car and drove me to school, but she couldn’t get me out of the car to go into the building. When she went in to get Mr Brown, I noticed she’d left the keys in the ignition.
So I locked the doors.
It took my Mum and Mr Brown an hour to get me to unlock the car, and as he marched me into the building, I remember all the school kids outside for recess clapping and cheering me on.
In my first article, I talked about how it is impossible to change the way a person’s brain is wired. I want to explore a little in this piece about the toll it takes on a person to pretend to be a different gender than they really are. Because, you see, to fake that requires all the emotional energy you posses, and a bit more.
I never knew my father. My mother packed up my seven brothers and sisters, and me, and left him in the middle of the night when I was just one year old, or so the story goes. Eventually though, I found a father figure in one of my brother-in-laws, Ron.
Ron was, and still is I suppose, a hard working Christian farmer in America’s Midwest. His approach to suicide was simple and straight forward. ‘Suicide is,’ he would tell me while leaning against a tractor tyre, ‘a permanent solution to a temporary problem.’
When I was approaching thirty, I began to question his definition of suicide. Because, after all these years, my problem wasn’t going away. In fact, it was only getting more pronounced. I began to wonder, if my problem was permanent. Was suicide then a viable solution? It certainly seemed so according to Ron’s definition.
It was then that I began to understand that Ron had no clue what he was talking about. He’d probably never entertained a suicidal thought in his entire life. Whereas I danced with her nightly.
I came to the conclusion that suicide is very simply what sometimes happens when a person’s situation exceeds their ability to cope with that situation.
I then found myself angered when I’d hear about someone taking their own life, and their loved ones would talk about how selfish they were. They weren’t selfish at all! Not in my mind. They were just overwhelmed. And that, is when I came up with my Candle Theory.
Imagine taking a large, bright candle and holding it up to your face so that it is right in front of your nose. Have it so close you can feel the heat and are worried about it burning your hair. (Please, don’t actually do this! It’s a hypothetical candle.)
Now, imagine the brightness of the flame blocking the view of everything in front of you. Perhaps, if you look to the left or right, you can see some things on the edges of your vision, but everything in front of you is blocked by the flame.
This is also one of those magic candles that automatically re-lights itself if you try and blow it out, so there is no escaping it.
All you can see is the candle flame.
This is what it’s like being transgendered, at least for me. Everything around me; friends, family, lovers, career, life - everything was blocked from being enjoyable because all I could see was the flame. And that flame was my gender identity dysphoria.
People complain when a friend or family member takes their own life, asking questions like ‘why didn’t they come to me for help?’ Or, ‘how could they be so selfish?’ But they don’t get it. If it was anything like I experienced, they just couldn’t see you. You didn’t exist to them. All that existed was the issue they were battling. That’s all they could see. That was their entire life.
At least, my gender issue was my entire life.
It’s all I could see. It’s all I could think about. I would go to bed thinking about it, thinking about suicide and ending the internal conflict. And then it would be my first thought in the morning. I’d think about it on my way to school and on my way home - well, at least when I went to school. Everything I did was tainted by the internal conflict of my gender.
And nobody, not a single person in my life noticed.
It wasn’t until 2006, at the age of 41, I managed to permanently extinguish my candle. That’s when I started on hormone replacement therapy. In August 2007, I was on a plane to Thailand for the surgery I had been praying to God for (and occasionally to Satan) since I was seven.
Once my dysphoria started to fade, I began to see the world around me. I connected with the people in my life, or at least started developing the skills to connect with them. I became interested in my career, in writing again, and doing something with my life.
Friends often comment how I tend to live my life these days doing a hundred things, and giving each thing I do everything I have. And my reply is simple. I spent the first 40 years of my life trapped, and I’m finally free, seeing the world for the first time. With half of my life already gone, I only have half a life left to do everything in.
When we, as a society, hold people back from being who they really are, especially if they are transgendered, we are holding them back from living. If you are a parent holding your trans child back from being the person they are inside, you are denying them the very life you gave them.
You see, my problem was not that I was born transgendered. Being trans is a rare and wonderful gift. My problem was that society didn’t accept me. That candle I was holding up to my nose, that wasn’t my candle. I didn’t light it. The church did. My family did. The bullies at school did.
It wasn’t until I was old enough to wrap words around what I was feeling, to reach out and get counselling, and ultimately surgery, that I was able to resolve the conflict and bin the candle.
I sometimes try and imagine what my life would be like if I’d been accepted as a girl when I was seven. Or even as a teenager. If the counselling and medicines existed back them to prevent my first puberty. If I’d had 30, or 40 more years to live my life instead of hiding from the world.