Tagged: family

Hysterical Man: 4 Lessons Learned Preparing For Middle Surgery

I’ve been processing the prospect of a hysterectomy for the past year. I’m at the point where I definitely want the surgery and will probably schedule it as soon as I don’t have a bunch more urgent stuff demanding my attention (i.e. when the semester is over). I have to say it’s been an excruciatingly painful aspect of my transition. A few thoughts on where I’m at and how I got here.

Mules are also sterile, and this one is ready for a nap. I guess there’s just something about being between categories. Photo: David Shankbone.

1. Sterility is a really big deal. When I went in to get a prescription for testosterone, my doctor asked me if I wanted to preserve the possibility of having a biological child. I was like, um, yeah, hell no. I was also 21 years old and way more concerned with paying for beer that night than with being a parent someday.

Letting go of the possibility of having a biological child has been the hardest and most heart-wrenching aspect of this experience. I don’t want to use any of the options available to me for having genetic offspring. There are so many reasons for this, I don’t even want to get into it. Suffice to say that even though I don’t want to use what I’ve got–just the prospect makes me queasy–it’s still hard to let it go. It means letting go of the fantasy that I could ever be a biological father. In confronting this reality, I have felt disappointed, cheated, and humiliated. I have felt left out of the great dance of life, a lonely alien. It feels strange to be so sad, yet so repulsed by the options that are open to me.

2. I am in profound denial about my body. I have never accepted the fact that I was born with a female body. I have to admit that I just straight up do not believe it, to this very day. There’s some pretty solid evidence for my view in that I am, you know, a man. Again I ask, WTF God? WTF?

This is a very deep-seated belief that is beyond all logic and is extremely resistant to change. As far as I can tell, I have always carried the worldview that I am male and it seems I always will. This is the reason approaching hysterectomy has been so painful–it has forced me to experience the cognitive dissonance of being transsexual in a whole new horrible way.

My take on this is, to paraphrase Eckhart Tolle, when you can’t accept, accept your non-acceptance. I accept that I am a trans man, that I have a view of my body as male that is not going to change, and that the thing I can change is my body. I accept that I cannot be a good custodian to female reproductive organs. It’s just not realistic for me at all. So a hysterectomy is something I can do for myself and for my health, out of love.

3. Grieving is necessary. I spent a good while feeling heartbroken about my status as soon-to-be-sterile and never having the option to be a biological father. This was an absolutely essential process for me. It’s normal to grieve over this kind of thing, and we need to allow ourselves the space and time to fully go there.

I can now see that a lot of my grief is about lingering shame and pain around being trans, rather than about parenthood (though of some of it really does have to do with parenthood). I have an ingrained belief that being able to father a child has something to do with being a “real man.” I’m still dealing with this; cultural ideas like that are just hard to shake off.

4. Planning a family is about a lot more than gametes. As I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel of my grief, I got a reality check about my hopes to be a parent. Having a child is something I want to do with my wife, obviously, but it’s only recently that I’ve been able to really consider her feelings. In retrospect, I’ve been pretty myopic and selfish about the whole thing; but at the same time, I really could not have gotten to this point without moving through my grief.

Alma has always wanted to adopt and has absolutely zero interest, or really less than zero interest, in ever being pregnant. I can now enjoy the wonderful match we have in this area and feel good about supporting her in her bodily autonomy.

I’m enjoying my new-found clarity about my own feelings, hopes and fears. I’ve come to realize that I actually do not care about having a biological descendant or sharing that connection with a child. I do care very much about being a father someday and I hope to adopt children with my partner. There is a scary vulnerability in this, as I have no idea if it will work out. But it’s real and it’s honest, a genuine dream.

How has your transition impacted your feelings and choices about fertility and parenthood?


Thanks to Lesboi for teaching me the term “middle surgery” for hysterectomy.

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Onionskin Heart

[A more personal post.]

I’m in grad school studying mental health counseling. Six weeks ago I started seeing clients for the first time. The experience has been amazing, challenging, beautiful, heartbreaking, overwhelming, exhausting… Basically it’s kicking my ass.

A soldier wears a gas mask while peeling onions. I guess that’s one way to avoid shedding a tear. Source.

I am confused and tired. It is strange to be suddenly doing the work for real, after a year and half of training. I feel a bit like an impostor, of course. I find myself acutely aware of my age, feeling both painfully young and oddly grown up. It’s the feeling I like to think of as “7th grade all over again.” The grade/age varies a lot by school system, but you know when you go from being the biggest kid at primary school to one of the youngest and smallest at secondary school? I feel like that, or like the first time you venture into the deep end of the pool. I’m treading water, but I can’t put my toes down anymore. Shit got real.

I absolutely love working with my clients. It’s fascinating, exciting, moving, captivating. I really enjoy it. I find myself extremely awake and present during the sessions. There have been times I was totally lost, and times when we connected and some real work got done. My biggest fear right now is, will I ever develop the endurance do this shit 40 hours a week without keeling over?

I have a wonderful, very committed supervisor who has been giving me great feedback. I am learning to breathe deeply and not rush the process. Interestingly, she pointed out that I seem more openhearted with my female than my male clients. I still carry a lot of “boys don’t cry” baggage and it gets between me and deep empathy with another man.

Sometimes I can observe myself swallowing an emotion in real time. It is so weird; the reflex to swallow, repress, so powerful, and then it’s gone. Not really gone, but no longer accessible, bound to come back later. One of the stranger times: Alma and I watched the very important and heartbreaking film Broken Rainbow. I got through the whole thing without crying, though it hurt. Then a year later, we were discussing the movie one night, and I just burst into tears, absolutely no warning. It felt like the very same tears I swallowed in the first place. I am still letting go of all my backlogged tears.

Flashes of memories of learning not to feel: my father’s exhortations of toughen up, determination, learn the difference between pain and discomfort, stop crying. I think my dad picked up on my masculinity and he trained me the best way he knew how. He taught me that you have to be tough or the world will destroy you. As a young gender-variant person, I keyed into messages of masculinity with a secret intensity, clinging to them for dear life. Onionskin heart, I dismantle one wall and I find another.

My world is changing. It essential to face the world with an open heart. Love is far more powerful than fear. The more I open to the world, the friendlier the world becomes. Strange how my family has changed. What would be dad be like if he were raising me now? Now that he seems so much less anxious and reads the Tao Te Ching?

Brick by brick, I keep dismantling. I will not compromise love.

My Grandmother’s Lighter Case

The one heirloom I treasure, a talisman, you would never have given me. I found it in a jewelry box in your dresser while we were cleaning out your apartment. A metal lighter case with two bits of turquoise, the only scrap of Santa Fe style I found in your home. It’s an anachronism, a piece of a city where you dwelt but never lived.

Everything else was old country, old country. Books in Hebrew, English, Spanish, Ladino and French; old photographs; your mother’s fur coat. There are heirlooms you would have approved of: the Sephardic cookbook you gave me, your wedding ring, now on my mother’s hand.

I don’t know if you even used the lighter case. I imagine you buying it on a whim one day on the plaza, smoking a single cigarette with a sense of satisfaction, and putting it away, forgetting about it. Now I cling to it with a little desperation, like I hear your voice in click-whoosh of a conjured flame.

I don’t see your eyes in shine of that thin metal. I see you in the ruffling feathers of a sparrow settling into her perch, in the frost crystals that crackle across my window. If you reincarnate, I hope you come back as a butterfly.

I heard that four generations of monarchs live and die in their forest sanctuary in Mexico before they turn north to make their great journey once again. Is any heaven superior? I wish you the beauty of that brief existence, a reprieve from all migrations, home, home, home.

I guess the lighter case gives me the suggestion that you did, once in awhile, open your eyes and behold the strange land where you spent your last years, the country where I grew up. I’m playing connect the dots; you can get here from there, however imperfectly. A sprout’s first tentative tendril, your wavering writing after the stroke, a fragile bridge from your world to mine.

Love could only seldom connect us. Vice, at least, is reliable.

Trapped In The Wrong Childhood

If I could have, I would have given you the body that you wanted.

So my mother told me, wincing sadly, in the first year of my transition. It was sweet of her to say; her intentions were good; and I didn’t miss the pained note of guilt, as if she ought to somehow have controlled this.

And yet the sentiment entirely missed the point. First, I have never blamed my mother for the fact that I’m trans, and I never would. God made me this way, and she had no say in the matter, or she surely would have made me different. Indeed she said as much: she wished she could have given me “the body that I wanted,” or as I would put it, the body that my mind and soul expected. In other words, she would have made me cisgender.

That’s not what I wanted from her, or from life, or what I’m hurt with her for. I wanted her to give me the right childhood. To recognize her trans son when he was still a boy, and to love him for it; to not wait for me to fight it out and tell her; to know somehow, and to raise me that way.

I do firmly believe I was created this way. I don’t regret being trans. It is my struggle, my uniqueness, my gift. Most importantly, it is my real life. This is the experience: to be gender-variant, to be different from other people, one of the strange ones, queer, to change my body to manifest my soul. We have always existed, and I think we are on purpose.

What’s not on purpose is the silence, violence, and rejection. That is human error. Deep in prayer on a recent occasion, I saw with clarity what it means that God made me like this. Like this: this body, this soul. Not what the world did with it. That wasn’t part of the plan.

I don’t want to be cisgender. I want to be loved.

 

The 3 Things That Saved My Life

Moving forward in my counseling program, I find myself wondering what really helps people. Last night Alma asked me, “What helped you?”

How do people change? Why do some people overcome profound loss, abuse and tragedy, while other people just fade away? This is a particularly sensitive question right now as we watch a loved one struggle with serious mental illness and addiction. We both look back on our troubled younger years and see so many forks in the road where we could have taken a lethal turn–and didn’t. And so many others did. So what made the difference for me?

1. Relationships. I am blessed with an awesome family that has always supported me. I have always had good friends. Relationships are a double benefit. People were there to help me and talk to me, which was invaluable; and just knowing that they loved me was itself a powerful incentive not to hurt myself. Though I considered suicide many times, I never attempted to end my life–as soon as I thought about how I would do it, I thought about the people I would leave behind, especially my little brother.

2. Radical consciousness. I got into social justice at a young age, and it’s been endlessly valuable to me. I learned that just because you’ve been told you’re disgusting and worthless doesn’t mean you are. Society is often wrong. I learned how to see myself as in the same boat as other marginalized people. And I learned that respecting them meant respecting me, too.  I could sink really low, but pretty soon I’d see the injustice of it all, and then I’d get angry–and then I didn’t want to die anymore. Radical consciousness allowed me to adopt a stance of defiance instead of defeat.

3. Religion & spirituality. When things started to get really scary for me as a teenager, I retreated into my religion. I studied Jewish philosophy and kabbalah, and I talked Torah with rabbis ranging from Reform to Hasidic. I read about other religious traditions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. I saw myself at a crossroads, and I had a choice: the path of life or the path of death. I chose life, and clung desperately to every scrap of help and meaning I could find; for me that was God, and my tribe, and my tradition, and mysticism of many varieties. Religion gave me the sense that there is meaning in the universe, the sense of being connected to a tradition across place and time, and a rich repository of narrative and poetry to draw upon in times of need. Ecstatic experiences of awe made me feel life is really worth living. I embraced life as a quest for connection and truth.

So that’s what helped me. But does that really account for it? Through these three things, there is still something unexplained, an x-factor. I always sensed the meaning and value of relationships, radical consciousness, and religion; I was able to take advantage of them. I wanted to take advantage of them. Perhaps that is the key ingredient. But what is it? Did I really just help myself? Why was I able to? Is it will to live, random chance, hope, strength, luck, faith, genetic predisposition, destiny?

I wish that I knew.

Hysterectomy Blues

I’m planning to get a hysterectomy fairly soon. I always knew this would be part of my transition. Now that I’m here, it’s more difficult than I thought it would be.

It makes being trans much more real. I am a man who was born with a uterus and ovaries. What the fuck, God? It feels like a head-on collision with the absurdity of life.

I have always wanted to have a family. I feel a profound longing to be a parent, and I have for my whole life. I don’t feel strongly that I want to be a biological parent specifically, and I don’t want to use what I was born with. Still, there’s something really sad about surgical sterilization at the age of 24. I feel shut out of an important experience that other people take for granted. I know that many people can’t have biological children, but nobody talks about it.

My fiancée and I want to adopt. I am terrified we will face discrimination that will make that impossible. I am not interested in reproductive technologies, for a variety of reasons. I have been fortunate to meet a number of trans people who are parents, but none who have adopted.

There are some major silver linings here, of course. I won’t have to worry about the elevated cancer risk I may have as a transsexual man (the reason my doctor recommends hysterectomy). I won’t have any female-specific health care needs. I will have an excuse to lay around watching movies for a week. And I think I will feel a satisfying peace that my transition is complete.

So it’s not that I don’t want a hysterectomy–it’s that I wish I didn’t need one.

On Irises & Ugly Ducklings

My mother taught me the names of flowers. Wandering through her garden, they come unbidden, like fragments of songs I’ve almost forgotten. Crocus, iris, hyacinth. I say the words and then second-guess them, I think that’s what it’s called. I look them up; they’re never wrong.

On the radio I heard about a man who taught his young daughter the names of all the colors, but never mentioned the color of the sky. When he asked her what color the sky is, she wasn’t sure how to answer. White? Blue? She settled on blue, but it took awhile.

Language shapes reality, mediating not only what is know, but what can be known. Closer to us than skin, language is a lens, directing our focus.

Nobody taught me the words for myself. I learned them, a second language. They will never be self-evident like the words I learned in childhood. A hyacinth just is a hyacinth, the distance between name and named minute. I can go years without saying the word, yet it is always there, ready. But the words for myself, for my body, I struggle to pronounce like contorted transliterations. They don’t roll off my tongue.

After dinner this weekend, my mother laughingly mentioned my first therapist, who I saw when I was five or six, who we haven’t talked about in years. I feel we share an awareness of the obvious cause of my childhood troubles, but I can’t be sure–it’s unspoken.

There is no love in my heart! My mother crooned in a singsong whimper, imitating things I told the therapist. I winced and tried to laugh, unsure if she noticed my discomfort. I think she wanted us to laugh about it together, to make it funny, to make it okay–absolution. I was taught to think of my childhood depression as humorous, slightly ridiculous. These days I can’t remember what was so goddamn funny about a five-year old who says “There is no love in my heart” and “I wish I had never been born.”

Recently I told my fiancee the story of the ugly duckling. She said she didn’t know it. My voice trembled as I told her of the awkward baby duck who looked like no one else and had no friends. I couldn’t keep from crying when the ugly duckling at last transformed into a beautiful swan.

I suddenly perceived the desperate hope I’d hung on that cygnet in a picture book. A saltwater mixture of hope and despair had pooled in my heart and stayed there. I carried those tears for twenty years, until I could no longer carry them. I was that hideous duckling–but in real life, I thought then, no one ever turns into a swan. It was a mute grief, failure a foregone conclusion. I had a double secret: I was destined to be someone, and I would never be him.

On the last point, of course, I was wrong.

Forgiving My Parents

“He was always so… Manly.”

These were the words I’d been waiting to hear my whole life. Said by the person I’d always wanted to say them. Unfortunately, when my mother finally spoke those words, I wasn’t there to hear it. I was a hundred yards away and under general anesthesia.

My girlfriend, now fiancée, was the one who heard them. She told me later, back in our hotel room. While my chest was being reconstructed, the two women in my life had gotten to know each other better.

Alma and I had only been together for six months. It seemed perfectly natural she’d accompany us to Cleveland to help take care of me after my surgery. My mom cooked; Alma cleaned my drains full of blood and pus. Her tender care and steel stomach made quite an impression on both my mother and me.

While I was in surgery, Alma was overcome with worry. True to form, my mother tried to feed her. And she told her things about me–some she’d told me before, and some she never had.

Things I already knew: That there was always something different about me. That they’d been really worried about me and were relieved I was doing so well since starting transition.

Things I didn’t know: That she noticed I was masculine from the time I was a tiny child. That I always had a masculine look. Square jaw, muscular limbs, broad shoulders. She said I looked like a little linebacker. She said she knew there was something there, and it seems so obvious now–but at the time, she just didn’t connect the dots. Remorse ran off her voice, rainwater in a gutter.

It was a great gift to get this information, no matter how indirectly. Some thunderstorm in my heart finally went quiet, a temper tantrum I’d been waging for twenty years resolved at last. Like when the heater turns off and you’re suddenly aware it had been humming in your head for hours. Like the first day you wake up feeling better from the flu. You remember what it’s like to feel good.

Then I understood why she’d never told me. My parents bit their tongues on the very words I needed to hear the most. They thought those words would crush me. They thought they’d be calling me ugly. Now they know they were wrong.

They had probably never met a transgender person. They’d certainly never been parents before. This year I’ll be as old as my father was when I was born.

I forgive them.

On Coming Out To My Grandmother

My grandmother died about five months ago. I’m still reeling. She was a big part of my life–she lived with us when I was growing up and was one of my main caretakers. She gave me many gifts and burdens: our Sephardic heritage, her experience of the Holocaust, her lifelong struggle with mental illness.

Today, though, I want to talk about another gift she gave me: her acceptance.

I was scared to tell her about my transition. I’m not sure why. She was a hardcore leftist, and I never heard her say a bad word about trans people. But she an old woman, a towering authority. I guess I was scared to tell pretty much everyone.

I think my mother was the one who finally told her. I have no idea what happened in that conversation, but she never said anything negative to me about being trans. This makes my trans status one of very few topics she did not complain about.

She told me my name was old fashioned. “It is not a modern name,” she said, a little perplexed. “It sounds like an old Sephardi man who keeps the keys to the synagogue.” I took this as a compliment.

She did mess up my name and pronouns from time to time. Then again, she did that to everyone. She had two strokes and forgot more languages than I will ever learn. And she didn’t make more mistakes than anyone else did.

Later, whenever she wanted to bring up my being trans, she would say, “What is this group, how do you say, the one that has no civil rights?” This would lead into a short lecture about the discrimination transgender people face–a set-up to try to convince me to go to law school.

She saw being trans like she saw everything: a reason I should become a doctor or a lawyer. She was not just any Jewish grandmother. She was a true master of the form.

Rest in peace, grandmother.