The hardest thing that I have had to deal with this year has not been my gender identity. That was tough, a huge revelation, but also liberating and almost a celebration. Rather, the hardest thing has been something from my past. Another lie that I told myself for many years. Something that I buried because other things seemed more important at the time and because it was ‘insignificant’. And, curiously, something that dovetailed with my issues with gender identity in an odd way.
Someone who I trusted, adored, idolised even, when I was about 10 to 12 or so (i.e. when I started puberty) betrayed my trust. Suffice to say that the behaviour was creepy and my recollection is of what is, if one is being generous, either an incredible lack of appropriate boundaries or if one is more cynical, grooming. I would not have a bar of it and actually got quite angry. My punishment for the ‘rejection’ was sustained emotional and physical abuse.
It was not so bad. I mean, look, there were no bruises. No sexual assault as such. No neglect. The emotional abuse was pretty bad I guess. I was always an anxious child and adolescent and so the instability in the emotional environment made me very depressed. I admitted to myself the emotional and physical abuse and fought back. I forced myself not to think about the other stuff because, well, ‘nothing happened’, there was no proof that it was not just all in my head, and maybe I imagined the whole thing anyway?
It was very difficult when it came to crushes and relationships. When I was in high school- an all girls’ school where everyone was super paranoid about being ‘a gay’- I felt very alone. Everyone seemed to be hooking up with boys; I was not all that interested in them but I felt incredibly unattractive because I did not have anyone. I could not attract anyone. I became pretty obsessed with ‘finding someone’ and was hanging out for leaving home (which was a pretty homophobic environment at the time) so I could. In hindsight, it all equates to a desire to escape what was untenable circumstances.
At university I had some pretty ordinary experiences. I was insecure, anxious, and both needy and avoidant when it came to romantic and sexual interactions. Sex was a pretty big let-down. Look, I mean, it was great to finally get some, and I had a huge grin on my face when it happened, but I always kind of felt gross afterwards. My saying was always about how much I preferred massages to sex. But I did like the cuddling afterwards, the brief intimacy. I spent some time in an complex abusive situation that led to me getting punched in the face. I avoided dating people for awhile and got depressed. I was a needy guy with problems with emotional regulation for a bit and eventually someone called me out on my bullshit and I realised I needed to grow up.
I only enjoyed sex at all after I fell in love and felt loved. I did not sleep with her (to my regret but also I understand why). Sex after that was a revelation. Almost a religious one. I did not need to be emotionally close to enjoy sex though I prefer it that way. Somehow, even now, very few of my actual proper dating-relationships with women have even involved sex even though I wanted them to.
Falling in love made a big impact on me. It changed my worldview to a much healthier one. And I had a motivation to reorganise my friendships to be more supportive of my own happiness. I had always had this desire to help others, and to be polite that ended with me counselling friends for free. I learnt not to do that, to establish some boundaries and to look after myself better rather than dealing with toxic relationships. All of this stuff made me feel infinitely better. And the terrible aloneness of feeling unloveable had been erased since I had been loved by someone outside my family. Though I had a long journey of months to realise that I was in fact loveable. It was a big adjustment, and one that I could not fathom for a long time.
You know, I always felt kind of dirty, tainted when I got really close to people whose worldviews were not healthy. Like their unwellness was almost a contagious disease that could harm me. I suppose it is true- the tendency to abuse is a dirty horrible thing. This was the first time, getting close to someone, that I did not feel dirty or tainted or violated.
But I always felt like there was still something deeply wrong with me. This void inside me. Something horrible and dirty in me that made me incapable of getting close to people and incapable of real relationships as opposed to pseudorelationships with emotionally unavailable or abusive people. The pretence of normality while something was horribly wrong inside me.
The trajectory that seemed plotted out for me, psychologically, seemed very clear from my psych rotation. I had many many major hits to my ability to cope. It was a miracle that I did not end up with a personality disorder. For a while I was very concerned that I might have one. I had felt suicidal on and off before but instead of it being a reaction to acute stress or depression I would have very rational seeming thoughts about the world not needing another messed up person with a complete inability to deal with other people. I felt completely worthless.
Not long afterwards I had another couple of abusive situations. Great.
Eventually I sublimated my feelings of worthlessness into various goals, one after another. Helping someone out. Then work. I was a workaholic. But things still did not sit right with me. I was avoiding thinking about a lot of things. I still felt unwell. A dragging sense of awfulness. Not depression but just this mild dysphoria; a thin, scummy grey wash over my life. I did not see that many people at all other than very close friends. For quite some time I did not even trust them, because there was no-one you could really trust anyway, was there? I was still very angry about my adolescence but I could not quite put a finger on why I could not move on.
I became resentful of work and burnt out and eventually quit what I was doing; I needed a life outside my work and my reasons for working so hard were all bogus. I took 3 months to do nothing much, 3 months of locuming, and started working up where I am right now. In that time I found some worth to my life that had nothing to do with running away.
And somehow we get to the present day. The person I mentioned above did something that brought all the past back into focus and made it real. I had nightmares. In fact I have had nightmares on and off over the years. But the nightmares had been slowly getting worse for quite some times. Nightmares about pubescent boys being abused. Disturbing dreams. Dreams of being pursued. Of a lack of personal space. It all got much worse after I came out as a guy, even though I was much happier overall. I was lucky enough to at the time be involved with someone who had the patience to listen to some of this junk and eventually by chance I figured out what it was I needed to talk about. I am incredibly indebted to her.
It was like a random postcard or newspaper clipping that happened to be shoved into a physical copy of the novel of my life that happened to fall out at the right moment. Something forgotten, a clue, that was there all along. And that mystery solved, I felt much better- mostly.
One big thing that I am glad of is that I finally have the vocabulary to talk about my experience in more specific terms. I have categories to put things in. Words. And this has power itself. Seeing my counsellor at the sexual health clinic (about gender identity mainly but also about this) has helped a great deal in this regard too.
I pretty much hate considering myself a victim of any kind but the downside there is that one internalises things and blames oneself which was what I was doing for years. Denying there was a problem of that sort and feeling guilty and ashamed for having ‘imagined’ it. Because ‘nothing happened’.
I really do not know what was going through the head of this person. I am inclined to be generous and to say it was their past, their own experiences of abuse that lead to a breakdown in understanding healthy boundaries and appropriate behaviour, rather than a concerted effort to groom and ‘seduce’ me. But I really do not know. It might have been something more sinister. It might not have. I will probably never really know. I am at peace with that. I do not need to know. I have compassion for whatever awful hell they must have in their own head, especially having refused to get help for many years.
I have started talking, opening up, telling this story. I tell you, ⅔ of people are pretty much amazing. And ⅓ of people repeat years of doubts back to me.
“Sure you didn’t imagine it?”
“Come on, nothing actually happened, why are you upset?”
“You’re playing the victim.”
“I don’t get this at all.”
What do I say to that? It was not a ‘recovered memory’. It was a memory I had all along that I used to examine intermittently. It is fairly clear in my head. And it was not as if I ‘wanted’ to feel like a victim. Not in the slightest. I blamed myself for many years over something I did not understand, something that did not make any sense to me. I had nightmares. I felt creepy and dirty and sick. Nothing ever seemed to make sense and now it does. I admit that I do not know the motivations behind what happened and that it was the odd behaviour that did the damage.
The gender divide among those who do and do not believe me is also very clear. Most of the men I have spoken to believe and support me but almost all the people who do not believe me are men. Only one woman has not believed me. Is this because women share their (more common) experiences of sexual abuse and assault and harassment and are more aware of those issues? There is a great taboo about being a male victim. While male victims actually do better long term than female victims, I doubt many of them speak about their experiences.
Not being believed when I have presented the story as honestly as I can really does bring me back to that anxious, sick, guilty, ashamed feeling of having failed as a competent adult, as a man.
The things that happened to me when I was young make me terrified of ever being a parent. The person I refer to had an awful childhood. Abuse I experienced was transmitted generationally, like congenital hepatitis B. Will I be prone to making the same mistakes? I sometimes find my instinctive thoughts about a child misbehaving are completely irrational. I have a temper and problems with emotional regulation at times. I am prone to anxiety and depression. I am so much better than I was but is that enough?
If I have anything I would like to say to parents it is the following: