Worth It

The “mutual friend” I mentioned in my last post has a medical condition that has affected zir hormones to the point where ze is “chemically intersex.” Ze identifies as “on the spectrum” for both gender and sexual orientation, “not completely cis and not completely straight.” Ze has shared some of zir experiences with others, but does everything in zir power to present as the gender ze was assigned at birth, and as straight. Ze wants to come out, but can’t because ze would be rejected by zir family, church, and community; ze can’t afford to take that risk right now.

Last night this friend shared details of zir condition with me that ze hasn’t been able to share with anyone else, because I’m the only person ze feels comfortable enough with. We talked about the bond we share, how we can understand each other in ways other people can’t, because we’re both somewhere in between male and female, straight and gay. We both know what it’s like to live in a world where everyone wants to put us into one of two boxes, and neither box fits; to be free of those boxes is a constant, painful, terrifying struggle. There is so much pressure to just try and find some way to fit in the box we were each assigned, let it close in around us and smother us. My friend’s struggle is currently to fit in zir box; it is the only way ze can live. As tempting as that may be at times – and believe me, it is very tempting, almost every day – stubbornly, persistently, and repeatedly breaking out of my box is the only way I can live.

I take comfort in knowing ze sees, respects, and can relate to my struggle. And ze told me last night that, since I have the courage to be out, ze can vicariously experience the freedom that brings through me. It gives zir comfort, and hope, and the strength to continue zir own struggle. That is worth every moment of fear, frustration, and uncertainty.

I’m making a difference, just by being myself.

Assertiveness

I had my long-awaited periodontal treatment yesterday! It was surprisingly straightforward: she accessed the inside of my gums, flushed the area with water, did the bone grafting, and stitched me up. I estimate the whole thing took maybe 45 minutes. The worst part was getting the local anesthesia.

I was very proud of myself. The radio was on when we were first setting up; it sounded to me like people were yelling at each other. I found it was amplifying the anxiety I already felt about having the procedure and anticipated feeling while people were working in my mouth. So, I requested that it be turned off “to help me manage my anxiety.”

(I think my mom was the one who actually got the staff to comply with my request – not the doctor. I don’t think she would have done that if I hadn’t said something. I’m grateful that she advocated for me.)

As soon as the radio was turned off, I instantly relaxed. It was like I had been naked under a thick, heavy blanket made of an abrasive material that covered my whole body and shrouded me in darkness. When the shouting (on the radio) ended, it was like someone had removed the blanket; I was suddenly wearing comfortable clothing in a room with just the right amount of light. I could breathe easier – literally. It was amazing.

I tensed up to varying degrees throughout the procedure, but was reassured when the periodontist checked in and told me what she was doing. The worst was when she needed to give me an extra shot of painkillers. There was adrenaline in the mixture and it made my heart start racing. I managed to communicate my distress; she told me to breathe deeply, counting to five, and exhale slowly. That made the rest of the procedure much easier to endure – even when my sensitivity returned before she was done with the stitches. (I decided I’d rather endure that discomfort than the pain of another needle.)

I was irritable and out of sorts afterward and actually told my mother I needed her to stop talking to me about stressful things. I took the medications they’d prescribed and relaxed for a couple hours.

And then I went to class. Not only did I exist in class, but I was fully present. I took notes and contributed to class discussion. I did my best to support a group member for whom the material hit close to home and disclosed that I am actively struggling with depression. My group mates acted like it was no big deal; I’m simultaneously relieved that this revelation probably won’t impact their acceptance of me… and annoyed that I didn’t get more attention! But perhaps they handled it in the way that’s best for everyone involved. I need to be just another person in this big scary world, not someone who’s considered different, deficient, “other.”

I even role-played a member of the most difficult population for me to face: cancer survivors. I’m very fortunate in that I’ve never had cancer myself, but it has had devastating effects on my family – and, as a result, my mental health. I have mixed feelings about survivors: of course I wish them well and support them in their efforts to overcome a horrible illness – especially the social pressure they face to “stay positive” during an extremely stressful time. I also… experience them as a painful reminder of what – who – I’ve lost. Some of my most painful memories.

I consciously and very actively set up mental blocks to protect myself emotionally. (e.g. “I have no idea what cancer survivors are going through.”) The blocks prevented me from getting – and staying – in character, but it was what I needed at the time. I saw a threat, made a conscious decision, established and maintained a boundary. Yet I was able to talk about it with my group mates, remain present with them, contribute to their learning (I hope), and learn quite a bit in the process.

The periodontist said the prognosis for my tooth is poor due to the location of the bone loss (between the roots).

I say eff that! I want to keep this tooth, so I will! I’m going to make a full recovery.

This Post Took Three Days to Write

As I was crafting my last post, I came to understand why I was prioritizing a game over the mountains of important things (some of them very good) that are exploding in my life. It’s a defense mechanism.

I was suicidal last week – or, at least, the voices in my head were. It took everything I had just to pay attention in piano class last Thursday; thank the gods the instructor didn’t call on me to improvise in front of everyone!

Banji came over on Friday and helped me clean the area around my computer desk. I’m amazed by how much better I feel just being in this space now! It was really awesome of her … and it was also incredibly stressful for me. I kinda want to say maybe it wasn’t the best timing, but if I hadn’t done it then the clutter would have just kept making me increasingly miserable. It was the timing we had, so I’m glad we did it. I needed her support.

I visited with her family on Saturday. Her uncle was there; he kept criticizing her cousin and making passive-aggressive comments that were too subtle to respond to appropriately but could be devastating to a child’s self-esteem. I tried to ignore him, to connect with everyone else present, to enjoy our group activities… but it grated on me. Like a mosquito bite in a very awkward place. (It reminded me of how my mom has treated me, my own inner critic, and the cognitive distortions that make depression such a devastating illness.)

After they left, Banji and I were free to enjoy each other’s company. We played duets, sight-read my current composition project on a variety of instruments, and improvised on piano. The piano improvisation became incredibly silly, referencing inside jokes that are over a decade old. It felt so good to laugh with her, especially over shared experiences that helped form our relationship. It helped restore some of the sense of continuity I’ve been missing.

Then we moved to the couch and she decided I make an excellent pillow. We talked for hours. While I was holding her, everything felt right. My worries melted away. I felt whole, complete.

And I had hope for a future where little things like eating dinner together and playing duets and talking on the couch all night can happen whenever we both want them to.

Then Sunday came, and she had to drive home. For 5 hours.

I’m not suicidal anymore. I’m just sad. It’s going to take a lot of work to make our dream of living within a short drive of each other reality. (And even then, everything won’t magically be perfect.) A lot of it is outside our control. I have to include Fox in all my major decision-making. It’s big and scary and overwhelming.

Lately I’ve been trying to do too many things that are big and scary and overwhelming:

I’m re-taking 2 classes I had to drop 2 years ago because they were triggering my worst depression symptoms. In that time I was supposed to do useful things like find a medication that works for me and improve my music skills. Well, if Lamictal/lamotrigine has any chance of working, I need a much higher dose. The APN took me off it, then had me on 25 mg; I got frustrated and stopped taking it, then realized it seemed to help reduce my suicidal ideation so started taking it again yesterday… The point is I’m kind of starting over on it, I need to increase my dose gradually, and by the time I get any clinically significant benefit from it (or a different medication, if the APN puts me on one when I see her in three weeks) the semester will be over. I’m on my own. As for my music skills… they’re not as improved as I’d like, but I’m working on them. They’re serving me better than I’d expected (when I trust them).

The point is, these classes are challenging me in every way imaginable, but I just have to keep struggling through them. If I drop them again I might not be able to finish my degree.

Even if I do everything I need to, my school has a limit for how long you can take to graduate, and I’ve reached it. I’m at the mercy of a stranger who gets to decide whether I can have the extra time I’ll need to finish my degree. My recent experience of strangers making important decisions that affect my life has not been very good.

I’ve also re-structured my personality (in therapy) to the point where I have to change the way I interact with my mom. If I don’t, I’ll just continue doing unhealthy behaviors that ultimately hurt both of us. The ways I interact with my mom have been shaped my whole life to reduce the overt conflict between us and prevent her from abandoning me or falling apart emotionally or having to change the unhealthy behaviors she developed to adapt to live with her parents, etc. Changing them means risking the very things I’m programmed to avoid happening. I don’t always choose the best alternative behaviors, and she doesn’t always react well to them.

Based on our recent conversations, we’re both acutely aware of this and feel threatened by it. We’re afraid of… whatever comes next – but we also want the ways we’ve been relating to each other to change. I don’t know whether what each of us wants is compatible – or healthy. She won’t give me a straight answer when I ask her to join me in family therapy.

On top of this I’m (sort of?) coming out as non-binary. I’m in this really painful place where I’ve fully accepted it as my gender identity, but I’m not fully out to the people I interact with most regularly. They keep using the pronouns associated with my assigned gender; every time it happens it’s like a tiny stab in the heart. I don’t correct them because I’m not sure how to do so constructively. (And somehow it’s almost comforting because it’s familiar?!)

Worse, no one seemed to notice when Fox used my pronouns (in a shining moment of glory that filled me with joy) on Saturday. There was an almost imperceptible pause (that I might have imagined), and then the conversation continued as though nothing revolutionary had just happened. No one asked about the strange way he’d referred to me (“ze”). Their brains probably changed their perception of the phonemes to match their expectations.

Finally, my plan for this semester had been to join social groups on campus that might help me feel better about existing. My contact at counseling services has been respectful of my gender identity and tried to help me join a group that addresses some of my needs. But I just can’t stop thinking of it as yet another place to be misgendered! I feel like withdrawing into what’s safe and familiar, and where I know I can be perceived as I am… not reaching out into something new and scary.

The LGBTQ+ coming out group would probably be perfect… except that it’s a new social situation I’d have to adapt to. I imagine once the conversation started I’d either find it easy to participate, or get something out of listening to other people speak. But when it’s time to leave the house I feel anxious about entering a new, unpredictable social situation. I don’t feel like I can handle those at the moment.

I’m falling back, regrouping, re-prioritizing. This isn’t a matter of entertainment, personal growth, or self-actualization. It’s about survival. (Maybe my brain wouldn’t be in survival mode if my body were consistently getting the nutrients it needs…)

Anyway, priorities. The big 3: food, sleep, and physical activity. Let’s add emotional intimacy to that: hugs are amazingly comforting. Research across psychological disciplines consistently finds that the relationship between therapist and client is the most important part of therapy. Being emotionally available and supportive and non-judgmental heals, whatever the therapist’s orientation(s), modality(ies), and technique(s).

My mental health must be my first priority (followed by my physical health). Without that nothing else matters because I won’t be alive to enjoy it…

My classes come next; it’s very important that I pass both of them. Even if I don’t get the extension I need, I might be able to re-apply to the program and keep the credits I’ve already earned toward the degree – or transfer them to a new school if necessary. I’m so close to finishing, it’s painful.

The groups I wanted to join come last – possibly after video games. I thought they would help me to grow as a person, receive support for the issues I’ve been struggling with, and develop important skills I’ve been lacking … maybe even to make friends? I also decided at the beginning of the semester that it’s okay if I just need to focus on my classes right now. Making that decision – setting that boundary – is a way I can assert myself. That’s putting my hard work in therapy into action!

The nice thing about the LGBTQ+ groups is that they happen every week and I can show up when I’m ready to. I can make the decision of whether to go up to an hour before the group meets; my decision has no effect on whether I’ll be allowed to join in the following week. This week I decided not to go, but by the time one rolls around again I might be up to it. I’m thinking of calling and asking for a basic idea of how the time in group is structured, so it won’t be quite so unpredictable.

The counseling services group isn’t like that. It’s a specific 6-week course (complete with homework) and I’ve already missed the first week. I was invited to join in the second week (that is, today), but I’m feeling very ambivalent about it. On Tuesday I was wondering why I even wanted to be part of this group in the first place. By last night I was thinking maybe it would help me feel more confident and able to focus in my Thursday class (and more likely to go, because I’d already be on campus). The group closes after the second week, so if I miss it again I can’t join. I’ve been asked to let the facilitator know my decision ahead of time.

Perhaps it would be best to tell her I’ve decided against it. I already have a lot that I’m struggling with. I want to send in my own written appeal for periodontal treatment, I need to start working on the request for extended time in my academic program, I have instruments to practice, and I have papers to write. I’m counting primarily on the paper to get a halfway decent grade in piano class. If I don’t join this group, I’ll have more time and energy to dedicate to those things. I won’t have to deal with the social anxiety it’s bringing up. And I’ll have more time to recover from waking up before I have to coordinate getting ready to go somewhere with everything I need for the day, etc.

The main appeal of the group is that it’s an opportunity to practice yoga, meditate, learn ways to calm the nervous system, and cope with difficult emotions. I could do the yoga and meditation on my own … theoretically … but experience tells me I won’t. I need – and crave – structure and social support. I need to get outside my own head and receive feedback from someone other than my inner persecutor.

Just last night I had a great experience in my group music therapy class. I’d decided to show up, take notes, and role play for my group mates to the extent that I felt comfortable, but refuse to take a turn as therapist. Everyone else had taken their turn and I felt very shaken up, on the verge of tears. I felt raw, exposed; the muscles in my body tensed to the point where it felt like I couldn’t move. I sat very still for as long as I was able.

But the co-instructor came in and my group-mates told him I was the only one left who still needed to go. I couldn’t bring myself to come out as having a mood disorder, but I was as honest and vulnerable as possible: I said I’d been having a rough time and was feeling very raw and didn’t think I could lead a group in that emotional state. He asked if there was an experience I thought I could lead the group in, that might also help me to feel better.

I was going to do the intervention I’d come up with for my piano class, but sitting at the piano I had my back to the group and couldn’t find a practical way to remedy that. We were role-playing children, so my group-mates suggested I try a simple children’s song with two chords and play on guitar. I agreed to a song someone suggested, and the next thing I knew I was playing guitar fairly fluently, singing, using the song structure to maintain order while allowing the “kids” to be spontaneous and creative and interact with each other, and having fun. I was even able to take constructive criticism and try some of the suggestions that were offered.

I learned so much from that experience and felt so much better afterward … because I was present and vulnerable with others; I allowed them to support me. And they did. They were awesome! They gave me the push I needed to succeed.

I was hoping to have a similar experience with the counseling services group. We’d all be there to learn to overcome certain insecurities and practice new ways of being with ourselves and others. If I didn’t feel like it’s helping me, I could always drop out. Short of dropping out, I could decide the degree to which I want to participate (including whether to do the homework). It’s only five weeks. I might have made new friends, or at least learned something useful…

… But then I talked to my contact at counseling services, and she suggested I “put it on hold” so I can “focus on stabilizing my depression.” She seems to think it’s not really the kind of group I need right now. Perhaps I can try it in the fall.

I feel empty, deflated, tired, and maybe just a little bit relieved. and thirsty. Maybe I’ll just sit here. Indefinitely.

Transgender Tuesday: Closets

content note: brief description of thoughts about self-harm

I’ve been very depressed lately. I was woken up on Wednesday by the phone call informing me that my request for periodontal treatment had been denied. When I called to make my appeal, the person neutralized my language so “I’m in a lot of pain” became “I’m experiencing discomfort.” I felt powerless to advocate for myself because no matter what I said, she could submit whatever she wanted on my behalf and I wouldn’t even know. (I hadn’t yet received the letter with information on submitting a written appeal.)

I walked into Wakana’s office later that day, outwardly very calm and personable – but inwardly ready to explode! I told her I was scared of how calm I was and urged her to insert earplugs before allowing me to play on the drums and cymbal. We were all set up to make music when I told her I felt like cutting myself because I didn’t know how else to express the anger: I couldn’t kill people, I’d regret breaking things, but my skin would eventually heal. I said I wanted to get a tattoo in the spot I always think about cutting on; then I’d be less tempted to cut because I wouldn’t want to risk messing up the tattoo.

She said she thought I needed to make a statement… and that my feelings had little to do with my tooth. We talked for a while before I expressed my (ongoing) frustration with Mom: “I’m trying to have a healthy relationship with her, but she keeps hurting me! Even when I think things are going well between us, she always says or does something to hurt me. I can’t take it anymore!”

She told me, “Saying ‘can’t’ makes you a victim. Try saying ‘I won’t take it anymore.'” I tried it and felt a lot more powerful. Whether I allow my mother to continue abusing me is a choice; I can continue to take it – but I am unwilling to accept the consequences of that choice. I don’t want to take it anymore, so I won’t.

The consequences of that choice are terrifying. I was finally straightforward and honest with her on Sunday; I told her how I feel when she goes on and on talking about trivial matters, doesn’t listen to me, asks me to do random things for her she could do on her own, dumps all her emotional garbage on me, doesn’t respect my boundaries when I try to end a conversation. (Well, maybe I didn’t talk about all those things. I wanted to list my major complaints here.) She actually said, “So I’m a horrible person!” and hung up on me! Then she called me back. I told her she’s a wonderful person, and I want her to stop doing all this other crap so I can spend time with who she is beneath it all. She said I was wrong for telling her she could use the computer at the library (hers had just died), she didn’t raise me to be like that, if it were anybody else I’d be falling over myself to help them, etc. She said she thinks the problem is she’s doing too much for me and she’s going to cut me off and I have to pay rent and…

I realized why I let her do all this shit to me. If I don’t, I’m a horrible person and I might end up homeless, without a car, unable to afford therapy, etc. The next thing I knew, Fox had found a new computer for her online and I had agreed to accompany her when she went to the store to buy it. I spent the whole day with her yesterday, first getting the computer, then running a couple errands she hadn’t told me about before I was trapped in her car, then helping her set up the new computer. I was tired, cranky, and starving, but I remained pleasant and even got Fox to help after a long day at work. When it was time to go our separate ways, I said “I love you. Good night” and gave her a hug. She said “Good nigh… we need to…” I repeated “I love you, good night.” and left. Boundaries.

Today I woke up hating the world. I always wake up hating the world. I’m tired of waking up hating the world. I couldn’t get myself to go to the LGBTQIA+ groups on campus. I was too focused on my fight for something remotely resembling adequate healthcare. I’m too busy training to be my own lawyer to get dressed, drive places, talk to other human beings, eat, or do schoolwork.

I hate it. All of it. I want to see it burn.

The above has nothing to do with being transgender, except that I was misgendered in every single interaction that involved another person. (Except Fox and Banji.) At my piano midterm on Thursday I had 3 people using the wrong pronouns to talk what a pleasure I am to work with. (if only that had helped my grade!) Even in interactions that didn’t involve another person, I was asking an imaginary witness questions that required me to describe myself as the gender I was assigned at birth. It’s inescapable!

People don’t seem to see or hear me, they see and hear whatever fits with their expectations (or what’s convenient for them).

The Whole Truth of Coming Out of the Closet – In Comic Form explains the concept of closets quite well: “Closets are created by social and structural expectations about who we are supposed to be, and the consequences of defying that.” It shows how coming out is not a straightforward process, nor is it the same for everyone. There are some links after the comic that are great further reading.

It inspired me to draw this:

putting someone in the gender closet based on secondary sex characteristics - original artwork by Ziya

putting someone in the gender closet based on their appearance

The most important point – from my perspective at least – is that people don’t go into the closet. We don’t start out with everyone seeing and accepting us as we are, then decide (for whatever reason) that we’re going to hide some aspect(s) of our identity/identities. Other people build closets around us.

Sometimes even after we’ve come out to them.

Medical Update

I ran out of Lamictal because my appointment with the APN on Friday was cancelled for reasons outside my control. The receptionist said the “other doctor” would refill my prescription that day. Nada.

I called today around 11am and the same receptionist said the APN would take care of the prescription within the hour. “I’ll call you.” Four hours later, no call. I called back at 3pm and she said “by the end of the day.” I had important things to do today, so I couldn’t sit around waiting for it. But, according to the voicemail I just listened to, it’s waiting at my pharmacy.

I called my dental insurance to find out if there was any update regarding my periodontal referral for my Endangered Molar. I had received authorization for a consultation only; the periodontist (whom I saw on January 22nd) had to request authorization to actually treat me.

The dental insurance representative said they hadn’t received any such request from the periodontist! It’s been almost four weeks! And to make matters worse, she tried calling the office three times and kept getting a busy signal. She said she’d leave a note for someone to try again later.

When I’d met with the periodontist, she seemed to be on my side. They said “we’ll call you to make an appointment,” so I was a good patient and waited. They made it seem like any delay would be because of the insurance. I trusted them! I feel betrayed.

In related news, I went to get a root canal on Root Canal Molar last week. The endodontist-in-training attempted to perform the root canal, but had difficulty accessing it for several reasons – including but not limited to my inability to open wide enough for her to reach the back top of my mouth. Apparently the tooth is also rotated toward my cheek, making it even harder to access. We both put in our best effort, but all she really ended up doing was beating me up.

We’re officially at 6 months since I started having unbearable toothaches, and I still have yet to receive treatment! The bone damage near those teeth keeps getting worse; I can see it as a growing dark area in the x-rays.

I have an appointment to go back and try the root canal again… In two weeks… But I’d really rather not. We’ll need at least a couple of painfully long visits just to complete the root canal, then another 2 or more for the crown – if it’s approved – and there’s a chance I may have a problem with it later and have to come back again…

No, just no! That’s not happening! I’d rather just get the damn thing pulled and be done with it! I don’t even want to replace it with anything.

So now I have to convince the endodontist-in-training to refer me for an extraction and wait for that to be approved… I just hope I can communicate with her directly – and that she’ll follow through in a timely manner – without jumping through a million hoops. I can’t tell you how often I’m tempted to try and pull both teeth out myself!

But wait, it gets better! The sleep study that contributed to my crisis two weeks ago failed to reveal whether I have sleep apnea! The doctor had called me to discuss the study and, when I told him I’d slept much worse than usual, suggested we try an in-home study. I agreed and he said someone would contact me to set it up…

I was just thinking it was time to call them and find out what happened, when I received a letter from my insurance company saying they were terminating treatment by an out-of-network provider. The letter didn’t say what treatment; in fact, there is a sentence that doesn’t make any sense because the [insert colourful phrase in gorram Chinese here] who prepared the form letter didn’t bother adding what I consider the most important information! The only clue I had was at the very end: “cc Obnoxious Sleep Center.”

I was very worried that they would turn around and make me pay for the on-site sleep study (that had proven to be a waste of time and fucked up my head). I had trouble focusing on other things all weekend, I was so angry! I hated the insurance company for sending me an unedited form letter – instead of calling me to address the issue and offer help. I also suspected the sleep center of lying to me, billing my insurance for treatment I hadn’t received, etc. In short, it all made me feel very unsafe.

I called my insurance about the letter today. It had been intended to inform me that the in-home sleep study was denied because they don’t think I need out-of-state treatment. I explained that I wouldn’t be treated out-of-state, both the sleep center and my home are in the state that’s currently paying for my healthcare. But apparently the company (parent company?) that would ultimately receive the funds is based in another state. My results might have to be processed in another state, etc. To be honest, I understand why they wouldn’t want to pay for that. I just wish they’d told me in a more straightforward way!

The doctor who is ostensibly treating me was and may still be trying to get the decision reversed. As far as I’m concerned he’s welcome to continue (or not); I’ll follow through with whatever works best for me. I now have a list of names, addresses, and phone numbers that may or may not be accurate contact info for in-state sleep specialists.

I’d almost rather not even bother! But if I do have a sleep disorder, treating it could go a long way toward helping me function better in my daily life. I need all the help I can get – especially with two emotionally-intense graduate-level classes. I just need to consider whether trying to access treatment is worth the disruption it’s causing to my everyday life…

I’m considering the possibility that I might be better off going untreated, at least until my classes are over. Then I don’t have to play phone tag, listen to musak while on hold, reschedule my life around appointments that only add to my difficulties, and constantly feel like I’m beating my head against a wall. I estimate that more than half of my current stress would be eliminated if I weren’t trying to access healthcare (particularly dental) at this point in time. I kind of need to stay on my psych meds (I think), but perhaps the rest of it should be put on hold.

On a much more positive note, I took some steps toward finding a potentially-therapeutic group experience today. I met with the leaders of the “coming out” counseling group and told them that I’m trans*. They admitted that they’ve been having trouble finding members and expressed concern because the couple of clients they do have are cis, coming out as lesbian or gay. They would want to have at least one other trans* person in the group so there would be someone I could relate to on that level.

I appreciate that, even though it is a bit disappointing. At least they’re willing to work with me to find a group that might work, whether it’s the “coming out” one or another focused on general interpersonal issues. I expressed my interest in the latter and they said “if you don’t hear from us in two weeks, give us a call.”

They also encouraged me to join the extracurricular LGBTQ+ group I’ve been considering; that helped me overcome my reservations and actually show up for it today.

The facilitator was sitting at a table, surrounded my empty chairs. I walked over, said “my, what a lively group we have today!” and sat across from him. We talked for a bit about random things (completely unrelated to sexual orientation and gender identity) and had several awkward pauses.

Then he asked what I was hoping to get from the group. I told him I want a safe place where people will see me as I am: queer. He said that’s exactly what he intends for it to be, and what it had been in previous weeks when people actually showed up. His words were welcoming, but he seemed skeptical regarding whether he would see me again.

I think I’m actually more encouraged to return than I might have been if there had been a group. I felt like I bonded with the facilitator, and that makes me want to come back. I felt safe there; knowing it’s a safe place will make it easier to be there as part of a group. I feel less like I’m inserting myself into someone else’s party and more like I’m helping to establish the group. Next week we’ll be starting on the same page.

Reframing

many picture frames of different shapes and sizes, painted a variety of colors, standing up and leaning against each other. from magpieweekend.com

many picture frames of different shapes and sizes, painted a variety of colors, standing up and leaning against each other.
image credit: Becca at magpieweekend.com

Lately I’ve found myself reframing stressful experiences by highlighting the positive aspects, seeing them as learning experiences, or considering the new opportunities they provide. A prime example of this occurred while I was walking to class last Wednesday, feeling absolutely horrible about myself for being late. I thought about how I felt (almost suicidal), what had triggered it (fear that I would never belong in a group), how I would have responded in the past (stayed home, possibly hurt myself), and how I was behaving at the time (going to class!).

I wasn’t exactly in the best frame of mind to think positive thoughts about myself, but I imagined the instructor saying, “Wow, you were feeling that insecure and you still came to class? That shows a lot of dedication! This must be very important to you.” In other words, I imagined someone else saying something positive about me – the thoughts were my own and they contained positive self-talk, even though I couldn’t express and experience it directly as such. That’s… actually quite healthy.

Since then I’ve taken some time to put the whole incident in perspective. There were a lot of factors that made doing my schoolwork and showing up on time for class on Wednesday very difficult for me. I’d spent most of the weekend decluttering, a task that – while necessary and healing – I found very stressful. Fox had offered to join me in continuing that task on Monday, but instead we ended up shoveling snow. I stayed up all night in preparation for a daytime sleep study on Tuesday… during which I did not sleep. Lack of sleep alone probably would have been enough to undermine my ability to function on Wednesday, and I was already painfully aware of the 17th anniversary of my father‘s death on Thursday. I believe it may have predisposed me to cognitive distortions like only viewing the negative aspects of things, generalizing, and catastrophizing.

As much as I’d like to be functional at this time of year, it seems most adaptive to accept that I will need to take “mental health” days on and around February 5th – and to plan accordingly. At the very least, I need to do my best to avoid making extra appointments around this time, especially since I never know how the weather might impact my plans. It’s not a weakness, it’s making an informed decision and engaging in self-care.

Considering everything that was going on, I handled myself quite well on Wednesday. I actually got up, got dressed, and tried to go to class. I traveled all the way to the classroom door before my anxiety got the best of me. The class has a strict attendance policy, so I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about the consequences. But all I did was miss one class. That’s a very minor mess up in the grander scheme of things.

More importantly, when I got home I wrote a blog post about my thoughts and feelings. I expressed what was going on instead of allowing it to consume me; this kept me safe until Fox came home, hugged, and comforted me. Even though I couldn’t reach out to anyone directly, the public post let Banji know what was going on. She reached out to me and we had an awesome, healing conversation. The written record has also made it easier for me to talk about and reflect upon what happened. This blog is an awesome resource that I’ve created for myself and that you, my readers, have helped maintain as a safe space. Thank you.

The imagined conversation in my most recent post is a reframing of my Wednesday class as an opportunity for growth and healing. This is a big deal for me. Yalom (the author of our primary textbook) recommends understanding mental illnesses in terms of how they affect our relationships – both with other individuals and our ability to function within groups. He instructs (group) therapists to treat these difficulties, for they are the true pathologies clients face. In this class, not only do I have to function in a group where the expectation is that we’re all “normal” (to be honest, I have a hunch that at least 20% of us have mental illnesses – probably more considering we’re all studying to be therapists)… but I’m also studying myself as the “other” as I read and listen to class discussions about people with mental illnesses, “their” problems, and how to treat “them.” It’s all about what I need and often feel I can’t have, what I simultaneously strive for and run away from.

This class is the embodiment of my psychopathology, including (especially!) the internalized stigma. I’ve already had to drop it once; on Wednesday I thought that history would repeat itself. But in reality I have a choice, and that choice is mine alone. I can decide I’m not ready to face it so directly; far from “another failure,” this option opens all sorts of opportunities to me. I could focus more on activism, composing, write a book, find a job, volunteer, hang out at Fox’s workplace all day, read every book in the library … there are too many possibilities. I spend my life playing Skyrim because I’m overwhelmed by all the possibilities. But they’re there! And each one comes with its own challenges. Each one will probably cause me similar problems, all linked back to some aspect of my psychopathology. Each one holds some potential for personal growth.

Or I can keep going to class on Wednesdays and be in that group, whatever that means. I’m increasingly convinced that it needs to include coming out as having mental illness, even if the conditions are not ideal. I could be so vague as to say “I have a mood disorder” or explain that “I live with depression, anxiety, and occasional hypomanic symptoms.” I’m leaning toward the latter because it paints a more interesting, complex, and accurate picture.

I really hope that whatever I say will encourage the other students in that class who have mental health issues to speak up, because there’s no way I’m the only one. One of the readings for this week (by Yalom) was all about how the therapist needs the courage and confidence to be human in the therapy group – fallible, affected by group members, and in the process of learning about zirself through zir experiences in the group. Part of being human is having mental health issues – by Yalom’s definition, difficulty relating with others and functioning in groups, and even doing things that aren’t necessarily healthy in an attempt to be accepted by a group. Group therapy is therapeutic because it provides a safe place to stop doing those unhealthy things and try out new ways of being with individuals and groups – a space that is created and maintained first and foremost by the therapist. How can we create such a space for our clients, if we can’t do it for ourselves?

Before I can do it for my (future) clients, I need to do it for myself. I’m already a member of a group of student therapists who are learning to do group therapy and (probably) feel just as uncomfortable as I do. As much as I want to claim that I’m coming out to help and/or teach the other students in my class, what it ultimately comes down to is that I can’t struggle to pass as “sane” anymore. It hurts too much and requires too much energy. I need to be in the world and I need to be fully myself, including my mad self. Why not here and now?

Links:

Everyday Health: Cognitive Restructuring

Mind Tools: Cognitive Restructuring – with free downloadable worksheet

Blessed Imbolc

Monday, February 2nd was the Pagan holy day (or sabbat) known as Imbolc, Imbolg, Candlemas, (Saint) Brigid’s Day, etc. My understanding is that it is a festival of lights celebrating the strengthening of the sun (e.g. days getting longer) and looking forward to  spring. In some areas the first signs of new life are beginning to show; where I live it is (I hope) the coldest and most wintry part of winter. This sabbat is a very well-timed reminder of the life that still thrives buried underneath all the snow, waiting to burst forth when the time is right. The Wheel of the Year continues to turn, and seasons will change.

My observance of Imbolc has thus far been limited to taking a few moments out of shoveling to just Be in the silently-falling, surprisingly peaceful, and beautiful snow. I felt the Child so full of wonder inside me, bursting with joy just to breathe in the cold air and see how everything sparkled. I used to love winter when snow meant a day off from school that I could spend building igloos and snowpeople, then come inside for hot chocolate. Now by the time the shoveling is done I’m usually too tired, achy, and grumpy to enjoy additional time in the snow. But I’m trying to get back some of that joy.

There’s been a lot of change in my life lately.  Classes starting up again is one of the best things that could have possibly happened for me. It’s given me structure, purpose, motivation, and a reason to get out of the house. I have opportunities to socialize with my classmates before, after, and sometimes even during class. I find that my attitude toward the classes has changed: where in the past I’ve felt self-conscious and deficient, I now feel like I have something unique to offer as well as opportunities to be creative and to learn. Being on campus opens other opportunities as well. In addition to the extracurricular social/support groups I plan on joining, there is also a psych counseling group for people who are in the process of “coming out” as LGBTQ+. It seems like it could be really helpful right about now, for multiple reasons.

I’ve also started decluttering and cleaning the apartment. I put old clothes aside to be donated and reorganized the rest of my wardrobe to fit in drawers instead of being thrown on the floor. I recycled and reorganized the kitchen to make it a pleasant place to cook and eat. I even cleaned part of the living room!

The process isn’t just about physical cleaning, it is an emotional restructuring and reclaiming of a space I’ve felt like I’ve had no control over. I needed Banji (my best friend) to witness all of it over Skype: the ambivalence, the temper tantrums, the catharsis of throwing things away, the pride in looking around the newly-cleaned space. I needed her encouragement to keep going. I needed her to hear my stories, to commiserate and celebrate with me. In return I did my best to be supportive of her doing schoolwork. I think I got the better end of the deal.

some backstory: About 5 weeks ago, I had a conversation with Wakana (my therapist) that I feel speaks for itself. I had been talking about how much more alive I feel when Banji is around, and how we’ve come to appreciate each other more since she moved away.
Wakana: “Are you in love with her?”
Ziya: “Yes. I have been for years…”

I remember being aware of such feelings even back in high school; the amount of attention I paid them kind of waxed and waned over the years. We’ve always been very close and valued our friendship highly. Even though we don’t express particularly romantic feelings toward each other, I’m pretty sure they’ve always been there. This was the first time I used that kind of language to talk about it with another person, though.

It’s been a bit of a landslide. I feel like a part of me that’s been hidden and silenced is finally bursting forth, fully alive! For the longest time I felt confused and guilty about valuing my time with Banji more than my time with Fox (my husband). I’ve wished there were traditions in our culture to give the same recognition and importance to close friendships as to romantic/sexual relationships. I’ve felt like I’m not being fully honest by calling her my “best friend” and making a huge deal out of my relationship with Fox in front of all our friends, both our families, the government, and Facebook. I feel like I slapped her in the face by telling her she was my “maid of honor” when I decided to marry Fox, instead of asking her to marry me.

Now all these feelings finally make sense! While I can’t take back my years of being dense, I can be more self-aware and genuine in the present and future. To be clear, that includes continuing my relationship with Fox: I love him and find joy, comfort, and opportunities for growth in our marriage. He accepts me as I am – even when I find it difficult to accept myself – and was actually the first to bring up an interest in polyamory. He wasn’t surprised or upset when I told him about being in love with Banji.

Taking to her about it was a bit more difficult because I was afraid of losing her (again). Above all I want our relationship to be a safe place where we can just relax and be fully ourselves, without any weird expectations that might come up if someone starts talking about “love.” Among the holiday insanity I tried talking about the importance of our relationship and the life I want to have with her – basically expanding on plans she initiated and that we’ve been talking about for years now – all without mentioning “love.” She said she sees the three of us as a polyamorous V with me in the middle, so I took it to mean we were on the same page. But were we really?

Finally, on Saturday – when I’d decluttered most of the kitchen and could no longer put off finding a home for some of the stuff from the wedding – I decided I just had to be honest about it. I told her I love her as a lifelong partner and that I don’t need anything about the way we relate to each other to change, but it’s important to me that she knows. She said she loves me too (squee!!!) and that she’s known for a while now (*facepalm*).

We talked a bit more but weren’t able to get into too deep a conversation because she had a lot of homework and a tight deadline. She said that in the past she hasn’t been sure whether to envy me for having boyfriends… or my boyfriends for the relationship they got to have with me. She also kept saying “it’s complicated.” I could hazard some guesses about what might make it complicated – beyond the obvious fact that polyamorous family structures are more complex than monogamous ones (oh, yeah, and we currently live a 5-hour drive apart) – but I’d rather talk with her about it. I worry that I might assume things that aren’t true, so I’m trying not to get too preoccupied with all of this. (oops)

In some ways it’s big and scary and new. It definitely flies in the face of dominant cultural norms. She’s expressed not caring what people think, nor feeling anyone needs to know. I don’t have to shout it from the rooftops (just my blog, lol) but I don’t want to hide it, either. I’ll admit to some anxiety about being discriminated against and/or ostracized from my recently-expanded family. I care about others’ approval – perhaps moreso than is healthy for someone as ‘outside the box’ as me. “But if that’s love / it comes at much too high a cost.” (Elphaba in Wicked: “Defying Gravity”) One of the things I’ve been working on in therapy is experiencing myself as someone who is worthy of my own love, without the need for others’ approval.

And, well, it has us talking about our relationship in ways we haven’t really before. She’s dropped some hints here and there, but I was being dense to escape feeling guilty about what she was – or kind of wasn’t – saying. *facepalm* Now I need to be more honest. I can’t be so enmeshed with her, primarily requesting her support in dealing with my other relationships (like Mom does to me). I respect her as a separate, awesome person with whom I’m dedicated to maintaining and growing our meaningful relationship.

In some ways I find it all very comforting. The earlier cognitive dissonance about these relationships has been resolved. I feel whole – or at least a lot closer to being whole. I feel secure knowing I don’t have to navigate whatever happens next on my own. I’ve got my two favorite people on either side of me. ❤