Tag Archives: support

22 Days of Musing: 15

15. Grokking my fullness.

I’d like to talk tonight about how desperately important it is, when you suffer from any kind of mental illness whatsoever – depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, PTSD, bipolar disorder, anorexia nervosa, obsessive-compulsive disorder – to maintain a network of supportive and trusted people around you who can assist you to maintain at least a certain handle on the illness, and can act as a soft place to fall if the disorder should get difficult enough to require that. For a plethora of reasons individually too small to consider problematic but joining together to form a larger and more formidable challenge of my psychological strength, it tends to be my friends in whom I place the most trust when it comes to being open and frank about my battle with mental illness. I don’t know what it is that makes me trust them moreso than anyone else. Perhaps it’s the discomfort I feel with the fact that there’s a societal obligation upon family to care – that blood is thicker than water, to the point where in many cultures the word for “family” or “clan” even comes from terms for body parts, as in Māori iwi “clan” (literally, “bone”) and the Ubykh equivalent lhepq (literally “blood [and] bone”) – an obligation that anxiety makes me sometimes question, even as I tell myself not to be so bloody bone-headed. I ask myself, are they being supportive because they truly want to be? Or rather because blest be the tie that binds and the omnipresent ᴛʜᴇʏ would look poorly upon kinship coming not before all? Having anxiety sometimes makes me ask such terrible questions even as I loathe myself for doing so. And so the hands of my friends, bound by no such ties of kin that might conceivably oblige them to catch me as I fall, tend to be those I trust with my psychological well-being (or lack thereof), because I’m more comfortable, on the whole, with the idea that they’re supportive because it pleases them to be so.

Nkiéjuale mğiéjuale waléwmıt.
(Old friends and old roads will not deceive you.)
– Ubykh proverb

This very evening, in fact, I spent a solid two hours (we can’t seem to help talking longer, always, than what either of us plan!) on the phone nattering with my best friend, ranging over a whole slew of topics and running along glorious tangents at every other turn. The peculiar thing is that it need not be a conversation about anything in particular that helps me to feel better or more positive; I don’t necessarily need to drop my bundle or vent my spleen to get a sensation of improvement. It can simply be the mere fact of having contact with another human being who cares about me for just exactly what and who I am, warts and all, that gives salve for the wounds that respond to no physical cure. When you’re mentally ill, the value of having somebody understand you is incalculable. And I’m not talking here simply about passive understanding, the sage nod of the “oh, I see” from someone who intellectually comprehends the words you’ve said, the scenario you’ve described, and might perhaps even feel sympathy, expressed (or not) in a platitude of some sort. Merely being understood is sometimes not what you need, or at least, is often not what I need. Rather, what I mean is having someone actively understanding you, or (with apologies to the late Robert Heinlein) grokking your fullness: not the mere statement of someone’s understanding, but an activity that communicates that understanding. Actions speaking louder, et cetera. The kind of understanding I most value is that shown not by attempting to “understand” as such at all, but by simply interacting, talking, laughing, commiserating, joking, raging together, in a way that demonstrates – that perhaps even performs – one’s understanding of me. Not of my illness, or of my circumstances, but simply of me. This is exceedingly difficult to describe, and the English language really lacks the lexical and grammatical tools to express the idea as cleanly as I perceive it, but equally impossible to describe is the value I place on spending time with people who’re willing to perform this kind of understanding. And sometimes all that’s necessary is to simply exist in the right place at the right time. On two occasions in 2011 after the “girl from the conference” débâcle, I lost my composure and fell apart in public towards the end of two nights out with a group of friends. In both instances, I realised what was happening and separated myself before I dropped my bundle completely. But one friend noticed my unexplained absence and came out to simply sit with me as I sobbed in the gutter and rest his hand on my shoulder. Both times it was the same friend, and he said nothing as I wept. But he knew, somehow instinctively, that I didn’t need someone to comfort me with words; I just needed someone to be with me and perform an understanding of the fact I just needed to feel like I was not alone. To turn a phrase, he understood the shit out of me on those nights, just as my best friend did earlier this evening. Loneliness is one of the curses of depression, and knowing who your truly understanding allies are can help to fend off that loneliness when it becomes too much to bear; I imagine this could be true for any mental illness, that the establishing of a small group of intimately trusted people who can grok your fullness can save you in those circumstances when your mind is seeking rather to betray you.

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22 Days of Musing: 13

13. “He’s just another number, right?”

I’d like to start tonight’s reflection with some cold, hard, and objective data about mental illness in the military. They make for pretty harrowing figures. In any given year, around 5.9% of Australians suffer from depression. For serving members of the Australian Defence Force, this increases to 9.5%, an increase in prevalence of 61%. Similarly, the risk factor for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rises by 60%, from a base rate of 5.2% in the broader community to 8.3% among serving ADF personnel. For veterans the figures are less clear, but among Australian Vietnam veterans the rates of unspecified depression and PTSD are 9.5% and 17.1%, respectively, comprising a 61% and a whopping 228% increase over the background level. We live, sadly, in a world where stimuli for psychological injury are all around us. In the military in particular, people are put into situations they never should be forced to confront, ordered to do things they should never have to do, and potentially take the life of fellow human beings. Of course that’s going to fuck you up. Human minds come in all kinds – one of the great beauties of human diversity, one I’d have no other way – and the truth is that not all of those minds have the capability to witness genuinely traumatic events and just allow them to pass on by, as urged by the character Earl Coley in another of Tim Willocks’s novels, Green River Rising:

Walk on by, brother, ’cause there always a reason for it you don’ know about. An’ even if they ain’t no reason at all, it’s not your fucken bidness.
– Tim Willocks, Green River Rising

I’ve been immensely fortunate, in my third of a century up until now, to never really have witnessed a situation where I had to convince myself that it wasn’t my fucken bidness. And even so, my psyche is still one of those that doesn’t deal well even with minor confrontational scenes either. Watching two of my family members argue is about an even-money chance to make me shut all my emotions down and head into a depressive phase. But even in such circumstances I know it’s not the minor confrontation that’s really the problem, so much as it is that the minor is the last straw, the one feather-light weight that, along with the rest of the emotional load that my mind can’t stop carrying, serves to finally break the camel’s back. Learning how to put down the burden of accumulated experience and pain so that you’re no longer being squashed into the ground under its weight can be one of the great challenges of coming to deal with a mental illness. For me, I’m (slowly) starting to learn how to allow the little straws to bounce off my back, instead of continuing to accumulate in and around the crevices of the load I’m already carrying and weighing me down ever further, but even so I still feel much of the time as though I haven’t yet learned how to put down the bulk of the load. And with PTSD, the load is often unimaginably greater. Have you ever watched M*A*S*H? This is perhaps my favourite TV show of all time – not least because its mix of comedy and high drama helped to get me through the utter blackness of my own worst phase, but also because of its unflinching approach to the depiction of mental illnesses like depression, dissociative identity disorder, and indeed PTSD, illnesses often triggered by the atrocities of war at greatly increased rates I started this reflection by discussing. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to put down a psychological burden like the kinds shown in that series. As Hawkeye himself says: “Nobody forgets what happens here. The secret is learning to live with it. For all of us.” For all of us indeed.

22 Days of Musing: 11

11. Reaching out of the pit.

So last night I was finally able to outline in brief (much as it may not have seemed so to you cats, and I apologise for how maudlin yesterday’s reflection was) the circumstances surrounding my descent into the depths and my conscious recognition that I was at absolute rock bottom. It was the realisation that not only was I entirely drained psychologically, but that this loss of energy had been a fundamental impact upon my ability to muster any physical energy as well, that made me realise some two weeks into that period that I’d been thrown into a depth from which I wouldn’t be able to climb out myself. At this point I was in the middle of my Ph.D. research, but the events triggered by the fiasco with the woman I refer to now simply as “the girl from the conference” took place in mid-January, in the middle of a month of holidays I’d been taking from uni. Moreover, these events had happened in and around the devastation of the 2010-11 floods in the region (floods of such severity that they were reported around the world; I received messages from as far afield as the US and Jordan asking whether I was alright), and these floods made travel – even within the inner city – difficult and subdued the mood of the whole state for some time. Once the floods had passed and I’d realised the necessity for me to reach out for help, I started opening up to a couple of close and trusted friends, one of whom suggested that as a UQ student, I might be able to avail myself of the resources at the university, including (and especially) the counsellors provided free as part of the student pastoral support services. On one level, in retrospect I’m very disappointed that it took a friend to suggest this; certainly everyone knows that when you’re feeling unwell you should go to visit a doctor, but cultural perspectives on mental health even just five years ago were not as open as they’re becoming now; having never been spoken to about the seeking of mental healthcare services, I never put together the series of equations that would tell me depression meant mental illness, mental illness meant illness, and illness meant I should go to see a doctor. But on the other hand, I was infinitely grateful – as well as relieved – to have someone who cared suggest to me that there was something I might be able to do to seek assistance for myself. This was my first contact with mental health professionals of any stripe, and naturally there was the anxiety that went along not only with making yourself vulnerable to someone by admitting that you’re psychically disintegrating and really can’t manage even your day-to-day life on your own any more, but also the added worry of whether or not I could even be helped in this manner. But the counsellor I ended up working with, Kerryn, was absolutely wonderful; it was she who began training me to work with my depression and anxiety, and to develop psychological techniques that’d allow me to unburden myself of the worst of the acute symptoms. I worked with her weekly for about six weeks with great success. After that, internal logistics of the counselling service meant I had to switch to another counsellor, and she was nowhere near as good; in fact, I took a substantial backward step as a result of the single session I had with her. (For instance, one would think that whatever introductory psychology classes she took would have taught her that “So what is it you want me to do?” is probably not the ideal way to phrase a question to someone who’s presented in acute despair and uncertainty for your professional assistance.) It was a cold but effective lesson in mental health treatment: it’s crucial not just to obtain assistance from people who are properly trained in mental healthcare, but because of the sometimes delicate nature of the issues involved, it’s important also to have professionals on your team who can be understanding and adaptable to your particular circumstances – someone with whom you can establish a rapport, and to whom you feel comfortable revealing the wounds and scars of your psyche that you might’ve previously worked diligently to keep cloaked. So it was after having recoiled from this second counsellor that I had to find other possibilities, but at that point I’d found out enough about psychological health care options that I knew I could see a doctor to investigate the issue further, and this I did in May of 2011; it was then that a more in-depth treatment involving counselling in concert with medication was first recommended to me. I think that’s something to talk about another day.

Once, twice, six months a lady

On Sunday of this week, the 11th of September, I realised that I had passed six months of being publicly out as a trans woman. My post to Facebook on the 11th of March was not the first time I’d told somebody I was transgender, of course; by that time I’d already been undergoing hormonal therapy for about ten months, and had told perhaps thirty or thirty-five people in total. Basically my close friends first, then my family, after having worked on the issue for some time with my psychologist and two doctors. (It goes beyond having “a doctor” these days for me; I seem to have accumulated a medical team instead. A GP who specialises in treating gender-variant people, an ordinary GP who I see for other issues, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a laser technician. Coo.) Six months is not very long, to be fair – I know trans people who have been out forty years or more – but still, this forms a milestone in my own journey, and a milestone that this time last year I was still terrified by and thought I would never have the courage to achieve.

On the whole, I’ve been far more lucky than most in my transition. Focused as my life is upon the academy, and of a fairly large city to boot, the people around me tend to have a fairly broad perspective, and are generally much more liberal (in the small-ell sense; my friends overseas no doubt find it a peculiar irony that the major Australian politically-conservative party are named the Liberals) than might be expected from the members of an “average” community. Moreover, we as anthropologists and archæologists spend our lives investigating the structures of and systems of interaction within societies, and when social roles differ from supposed norms, we tend to be curious and interested rather than horrified and disgusted by variations from those norms: we seek to be descriptive and talk about what is, rather than prescriptive and talk about what should be. For these reasons, I’m infinitely grateful to have happened to exist within the milieu I have when I finally realised that transitioning was something I wished to pursue. Though my transition has easily been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and continues in a variety of ways to be challenging and difficult (the breakup of my last relationship resulted from my partner’s inability to come to terms with my being transgender, despite the fact that I’d told her this fact and about my desire to transition less than a week after we started dating; I won’t lie, I’m still a little bitter), the friends, colleagues, and family around me have inundated me with nothing but support, love, endearment, and admiration. From some people it’s even reached the level of clear excitement, which is a little discombobulating, but equally lovely to experience! No doubt it’s a combination of being happy for me on the one hand, and being touched that I trusted them enough to tell them on the other. I’ve felt similar rushes of what I could only call excited love when my friends have entrusted me with their own stories, their own secrets. It’s an immense honour and a great gift when someone trusts me sufficiently to reveal their hearts to me, a gift far beyond any material object, and if that’s an honour and a gift that others have perceived when I’ve likewise shared with them, then they can rest safely assured that their feeling of being honoured and trusted is equalled only by my gratitude for their trustworthiness.

This rich support surprises me anew every day, and every time that I think about that support is another little nudge forward, another shot of gratitude that helps me moving myself forward even through rough times. (And lately these rough times have comprised the bulk of my waking life. While my gender transition is only relatively tangentially related to them, I also suffer from clinical depression and a social anxiety disorder that currently aren’t stable. Nonetheless, the support that my loved ones are giving to both my gender situation and my mental health struggles is in large part the engine that propels me through each new day. I’ll talk more about those anon as well.) And to be completely fair, apart from a snide comment I overheard on the train last week – in which one numb young shit asked her friend how to spell the derogatory word tranny so she could send it in a text making fun of me to a third and presumably equally small-minded friend; a request that, from my perspective, dripped with the richest of irony by exposing the same lack of education that probably yielded the bigotry it contained – I’ve largely been treated with respect and honour by the people I interact with. There have been issues of misgendering, of course, and standing at a broad-shouldered and fairly barrel-chested 6’1″ I’m not really surprised, even though disappointed and a little hurt every time. Even there, though, it’s usually from people who don’t know me and consequently are much easier to ignore or just get past, and from those who do know me, I never have any issue so long as I can see that an effort is genuinely being made. (Self-recognition and self-correction of a name or pronoun slip go a long way in that regard, though it really doesn’t have to be a big deal. In all honesty, a simple apology, a quick “sorry” with a correction of the slip-up and then just returning to conversation as normal is absolutely fine with me. I don’t want for you to have to be overtaken with embarrassment any more than you want to. We all fuck up from time to time, and Christ knows I’m still very much coming to terms with the change myself!)

And it does help me to think that when I attract stares and odd looks from strangers, even though I feel I’m now living as my most authentic self and portraying to the world the person that I feel I truly am and want to be, they’re staring because of my being transgender. I feel much pride in being a trans woman, and although I do wish often that I wasn’t so stereotypically masculine in my build, it does please me to think that when I attract stares from people, I may be one of the first trans people that they’ve seen “in the wild” (as it were) and can thereby show them that I’m just a person, just another human being with my own interests and desires and hopes and character. Another aspect of dealing with the stares and strange glances is that, in part because of the anxiety disorder I mentioned earlier, I always used to feel that people were staring at me anyway, was always afraid that people were silently standing in judgment of me. Even before I realised I was transgender, even before my transition began, I felt this was the case. It’s one of the reasons I got my first piercings – my left brow and ear, which I got at the same time at least two years before I ever began undergoing hormonal therapy (indeed, before I even came to the realisation I was transgender). And the strange thing is that, paradoxical though it may be in that I feel I truly am what many trans people phrase as living my truth, I weirdly feel better about being stared at now than I used to pre-transition. There’s a line that I think parallels this sense nicely, a line from the epilogue of what for many years has been one of my favourite novels – Tim Willocks’s Bloodstained Kings – in which the main character, Cicero Grimes, finally comes to terms with the deaths of his father and brother and leaves his city home for good:

He packed his Olds 88 with the things he needed, and a few of the things he wanted, and drove south, deep into Mexico, where the air was dry and the days were long and where he could speak Spanish and be thought of as strange because he was a gringo, and not because strange was how he was.
—Tim Willocks, Bloodstained Kings

I suppose I view myself in a similar light to Cicero Grimes: I’m quite comfortable now, after my transition, with being the target of stares; with being thought of as strange because I’m a “tranny”, and not because strange is how I am. (And believe me, I really am strange.) It lets me say to myself, “Well, if they’re judging you for being transgender, then they’re just bigoted and they are therefore unimportant.” It allows me in my turn to brush off stares as being the superficial responses they are; as the Klingon proverb says, ghIlab ghewmey tIbuSQo’ pay no attention to glob flies. And who knows? Perhaps those stares will encourage people to learn, to grow, to understand and come to an acceptance of not only me and other transgender people, but everyone in the queer community. These days – particularly with the heated argument across society about the Federal Government’s rotten-to-the-core proposal for a plebiscite on the topic of marriage equality, a plebiscite that I vented my spleen about just a couple of weeks ago – I feel more of that kind of understanding and acceptance can only be a good thing, and if my existence in the community as a trans woman can serve as a means by which to accelerate that acceptance for me and all like me, then let them stare.