Even in My Dreams, She Haunts Me

I dreamt of my mother last night. The specifics of the dream, upon awakening, were immediately lost to me, but the impression of herself she’s carved on my psyche feels as though it is pulsating with remembrance of the scarring she caused. So many years have past since I’ve seen her in person that the line between who she was to me and what she represents to me has blurred.

I wrote yesterday that my capacity as a person isn’t related to the approval of cishet white men. I think I need to acknowledge part of what that means to me is that my parents’ views of me are irrelevant to my worth as a person, but also admit, in the same breath, that they still contour the shape of my inner world so much more than I wish they did. My reactivity to being dismissed and disrespected, the impulsiveness with which I direct my energy to defend myself, is a straight line from being constantly verbally abused and gaslit as a child and teenager.

My mother, real and internalized, was the queen of denial. She could cry and say she was never unhappy. She could have a conversation with me and, hours later, tell me she’d not seen me all day. She could witness my father sexually abusing me and pretend nothing happened. Reality was a malleable, unsequenced energy that she bent to her will. I didn’t have access to voice recorders or cell phone video growing up, but I have no doubt she would have found a way to deny the digital as well as the physical world.

She’s entered my mind as of late because of the pandemic. I fully expect, if she becomes ill, to hear from my siblings for the first time in years as to how desperate she is for my presence. This happened a few years ago when she got cancer, and, when I tried to form a limited amount of communication with her, she denied that she in any way initiated their contact with me. She thinks she owns me and can manipulate me to suit her needs after all this distance, time and hard truths.

I feel contempt more than any other emotion for her and it leaks through when I am disrespected by people who might, even in an oblique way, stand in for her in my mind. My dream had only the emotion of terror and the sensation of being trapped, that she found a way to make the story of my life collapse into itself and become only the abuse, the denial, the betrayal and the fear that underlies my relationship templates. A part of me wants to light up all the circuit boards the next time I’m rebuked for sharing a verifiable truth, to call out the privilege that is no doubt driving the “well, actually…” I’m receiving. I know this will lead to a response of useless and defensive posturing. The truth of my triggering will be apparent if I start emailing sources and data to prove my point.

My mission statement for this year includes “powerful vulnerability.” I wonder what the response would be if I responded with “you telling me I’m wrong about something I’ve extensively researched and for which I could easily locate 10+ scientific sources is reminiscent of how my parents responded to me when I spoke a truth they didn’t want to receive as a child. I’ve learned how futile it is to argue with someone who doesn’t give my voice the weight it deserves, so I’m not going to waste any more energy on this discussion.” There are people who show me through their responses that they value what I have to say and take it in without defensive skepticism. There is a new story of my life I can tell, but I have to stop stalling out in the shallows of my past in order to do so.

Not Backing Down

I’m back at work and the misgendering is already in full gear. I also received several lectures about how asking people to treat me the same way I treat them (by gendering me correctly) is way too much to ask. It’s invalidation after invalidation. When I’m invalidated, I’m sent the message that I don’t matter and that the other person’s comfort is more important than the recognition of my full existence. The harm is multiplied when someone then goes into why what I am asking for is such a burden and so difficult for them to manage.

In sitting with these experiences, I feel prodded to share the pain that they cause me with the people who cause them. The issue with doing this is any guilt they feel will likely lead to increased defensiveness and additional invalidation. I do think that it is worth speaking about the dysphoria misgendering causes to a wider audience, as those who are capable of empathy and compassion will be motivated to stand in solidarity with trans people and to correct others who harm us.

One of the biggest costs I am enduring is increased isolation because putting myself in environments in which I know someone will harm and no one will do anything about it is Retraumatization 101 for me. My complex PTSD/dissociation issues are creeping into my experiences as an open trans person in that I am triggered by feelings of betrayal and elements of abuse when people carry on as though I am the binary gender I was assigned at birth. These same people ignore my mental health issues on the whole as well, so the layers of invalidation are starting to stack quite high.

As I sit with this experience for a longer period of time, what I realize is that the powerful vulnerability I set as part of my mission statement for 2020 has to be targeted in its application. I do not need to open up to the people who are hurting me. I need to open up to the people who can do something about it, namely to my HR department and potential legal resources at my disposal.

I don’t have an option to run away when my employment is at stake, so I need to assemble my game plan. What disgusts me in this is the fact that trans people can be stereotyped as being litigious, when, along with other marginalized groups, I’m coming to see the reason we may be viewed that way is that our attempts at soliciting respect through interpersonal means are completely disregarded. A person can only take so much mistreatment before they have to stand up for themselves. I have little faith in the legal system, but I know any progress I might make will pave the path for anyone who comes after me.

In considering what I am dealing with in the context of the many forms of oppression and marginalization that exist in American society, the commonality that I find is a commitment to responding to the whims and proclivities of those who already have a disproportionate amount of power. In my situation, those who are cis-het are sheltered from the consequences of their exploitation of those of us who do not or can not conform to their worldview. This toxic stew is further concentrated in the power of its poison for those who face racism, xenophobia and the like.

I feel so disgusted in knowing that the people who mistreat me have vulnerable young people who trust them and look up to them, ripe for harm as their unchecked prejudices and biases play out. As this feeling of revulsion rises in me, I always come back to the same thought: I can never slip fully into us/them; I am vulnerable to the same prejudices and biases and must be vigilant in my own inner work in this area. I must do better and I must do what I can to force those whose bias harms me to do better. We can only change ourselves, but we can seek consequences for bad behavior. If you are trans and/or non-binary, where are you at on a scale from acquiescence to riot in terms of how you respond to misgendering? Where have you turned to for support? How have you taken care of yourself in these experiences?

The Right Distance (In the Cards)

Today’s draw from my In an Open Hand deck invited reflection on taking a risk and considering next steps. In coming to a place of being much more deliberate in how I spend time with others, I realize that the social situations that I would most like to experience would be those that somehow combine present-moment awareness and self-contemplation alongside sturdy boundaries that lower the chances of me feeling unsafe in regards to PTSD triggers. I would say that I have one recurring group in which I participate in which I mostly experience this, but I would like more.

I spent several minutes in contemplation while writing this and what came to me is how hard I have to work to manage my interactions with others. My threat-detection system is so tightly-calibrated that it is set off by the slightest boundary incursion. Whenever it isn’t being activated, my “oh shit I said the wrong thing now they won’t be my friend anymore” self-criticism script starts running.

The entire experience feels like being boxed in on a field with lines set to buzz if crossed on all sides (into the next person’s space), and the other people and I are constantly tripping them, startling me and sending all my mental efforts towards resetting the playing field whilst everyone else seems oblivious to what is afoot.

Where I feel safest is when everyone is (figuratively) sitting in their own spot, calmly engaging from a safe distance that does not conjure feelings of abandonment or attack. Something in being fully present allows for this, but I have no idea how to create or locate this type of encounter in a setting that includes casual conversation. It likely isn’t a realistic desire either–people move about relationally and “healthy” people are able to negotiate their boundaries.

I got so angry internally at a coworker recently when I tried to explain to him why a leadership position wouldn’t work for me. He kept insisting I would be good at it, as if too much self-doubt was the reason for my resistance. My PTSD is the whole way debilitating; I feel like no one except my therapist has any g-d clue that I even have it at all no matter what I say or do.

Basically, in casual settings, I have to sacrifice any internal semblance of calmness and safety in order to make it through. I find myself fantasizing about having a group of friends where I could literally scream “trigger” whenever they set off the buzzer, and they would act in an apologetic and reassuring way and “back off” in the moment. I physically isolate myself because of how suffocated I feel in most social encounters. People aren’t pawns and I can’t move them to the distance I need, so I cast them out entirely when there are too many hits to my system.

I trigger others’ abandonment fears much more than their “you’re too close” issues because of the way I’m calibrated.* I respect their boundaries and tend to tip-toe up to any possible touch-points and (sometimes) apologize if I feel I’ve overstepped. I don’t feel badly for leaving people because I would much rather be left than invaded.

This is the inner world I know I have. I explain it to friends. I warn them about how I work. I do everything I can to educate them as to my triggers. And it is nearly always for naught as they lack either capacity or care to work with my system as it stands.

I think shifting my focus off of trying to resolve these dilemmas onto finding places where there is a natural distance held within the setting (to whatever extent these spots exist) and onto what I can offer myself is the only rational response. I cannot keep resetting the field and believing that this play will be the one that leads to perfect balance and no lines crossed. I get that exposure helps reduce the intensity of triggers for most people, but my triggers aren’t primarily fear-based so, in my case, it only makes it worse. I owe no one a g-d explanation for why my steps look side-ways or off-track when I’m simply trying to find a quiet place to sit and contemplate in peace. I think the next time I’m pressed, “I’ve explained my mental health issues to you as much as I’m willing to” is going to be my go-to. How do you hold boundaries with others? Is it harder for you when others get too close or too far? How do you find your peace?

*If you are finding yourself relating to this on one side or the other but aren’t sure what to call it, I would describe it as representing attachment styles. Complex PTSD can be related to attachment trauma. I would describe myself as having moved from a disorganized/unresolved attachment style towards an insecure-avoidant/dismissive one. I tend to attract insecure-ambivalent/preoccupied people as friends which only compounds my problems.

Shopping for Hand-made Crafts (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

I traveled far outside of my comfort zone today, to a craft show in a rural area at which my friend was selling her creations. It was held in a conservative Christian church, a space I have a hard time entering after my experiences in like places growing up. Now that I know myself as a trans and nonbinary person, many spots in which a mix of anger and fear used to inexplicably rise up in me are, in a way, simpler to navigate because I know why I feel the way I do. My internal level of stress tends to be higher as well, because I am more visible than I would have been in the past.

I was delighted to find that the show was bigger than I expected for such a sleepy town, and that it presented a sensory kaleidoscope in terms of colors, textures and shapes. I purchased a beautiful hand-made sign from my friend to take to a gift exchange, and found a piece of art for myself that’s very meaningful. It is made from river rocks and depicts a person and a dog walking, with writing at the bottom noting that there is a purpose in every path. I felt that Spirit was affirming the shift in my inner sense of meaning away from “healing must come through relationships” to “healing is here in this moment.”

I was misgendered only once while purchasing some cards, and the person said “she..?…” in a quizzical-enough way that I felt validated more than harmed by it. There was a merchant selling nothing but large crosses which led to fear-rage rising up momentarily, but I felt my freedom of movement come right back and moved on (my town’s Pride this past summer had a person with a life-sized cross screaming about how we were going to hell so let’s just say that symbol isn’t working for me right now). There were also homemade cookies for sale, a purchase I undoubtedly would have made and regretted in past times as a way to cope with my discomfort. In sum, I entered a space that held potential trigger after trigger, but I was present with myself through it and now have a lovely gift to give as well as a perfect, hand-made representation of my inner work. A good day! What was the last experience you had with local and hand-made merchants? How does the space in which events are held affect you?