International Day of Transgender Visibility – Suicide
This blog post is part of an ongoing series on transgender issues authored by EQ AZ Board Member Juli Myers. This is a personal account and includes some bad language. This is not an official EQAZ organizational position.
Warning: This blog post covers suicide and suicidal ideation.
My bedroom in that house was in the basement. It was a pale red brick ranch-style house with a large, sprawling lawn that was always neatly clipped to help show off the obsessively maintained bits of flower garden placed exactly where they needed to be. The flagstone porch was adorned with hanging baskets, some of which dated back to three houses ago, and their maintenance, along with keeping up the museum-like appearance of the public areas of the large home’s interior, kept the lady of the house constantly moving. It was my job to mow the grass, and I hated it, mainly because the property caretaker was a miserable bastard. An employee of the adjacent church where my father preached, he never failed to spit and sputter and make me feel about two inches tall every time his attention was required to fix something on the riding mower that I kept breaking. On more than one occasion as I stood there, dripping sweat that glued bits of grass to my tube socks, while he cussed and carried on, I thought, “Oh, just drop dead, Carl.”
And on the first Sunday evening of the first December we lived there, he did just that. My dad got the call a little before 8:00, and after he left to go comfort the family, I called an older woman in the congregation to share the news (I had as many friends older than my parents as I did around my age, and I’ve always had a weird fascination with observing or listening to people’s reactions to bad news). My mother overheard me on the phone and lost her shit. Didn’t I know that my dad could get in trouble for one of us sharing private news about parishioners? To be honest, I hadn’t really thought about it, and besides, how private was it going to be? Mowing the grass and shoveling snow wasn’t that specialized a skill that we were going to try and figure out how to have him keep doing it, so his death was going to be public information soon enough.
I didn’t voice these thoughts after she yelled at me, though. Instead, I put on Genesis’ …And Then There Were Three and lay in my bed in my pitch black basement bedroom with a pair of scissors tracing lines on my wrists that I wanted to – but couldn’t – make myself bring to life.
That was the first time I can remember actually allowing vague thoughts of self-harm to coalesce into full-blown ideation and action. The thoughts had been there for nearly two years, after the initial numbness of my molestation wore off and I became overwhelmed with daily dread of its discovery, panic over my uncle’s visits, and a deep sickness in the pit of my stomach as he moved on to my friend. I couldn’t voice the feelings I felt then: disgust at his touch but, still, a strong desire for his attention, all supplanted by the pain of what I saw as his rejection of me. All I could think was, “It’s because I’m really a girl and he knows it.” Up to this point, I had only been confused about my feelings regarding my gender identity, but now I hated it, and because I was only thirteen and didn’t know any better, I hated myself, too.
My experience with suicidal ideation is that it’s like herpes: once you have it, you will always have it. What is particularly insidious about it is that, although it took the trauma of molestation and nearly collapsing under my identity to bring it to life, the obsession with wanting to die developed a taste for smaller and less consequential triggers; so where a bad day for a ten-year-old was just a bad day, a small upset at fifteen could awaken the thoughts hanging in their trees, and they would come flying at my head.
“I want to die.”
“I wish I had never been born.”
“I’m fucked up and embarrassing.”
“They won’t love me when they know.”
“You’re fucking useless, Myers.”
The trauma and the self-awareness were simultaneous, so I can’t say for sure which exactly was the genesis of my urge to die, but it was the awareness of my gender identity that would take the lead. Driving down the road and crashing into brick walls or telephone poles, “accidentally” falling into machinery at work, pills, jumping…from that chilly December night onward, I lived with having to regularly wave the thoughts away from my head. A few times, they became so bad that I checked myself into the hospital. Medicine, therapy, love, support: they all did their thing, but I suppose that removal of the thoughts wasn’t their thing.
“Why can’t I look like her? Why can’t I be a girl”
“But you’re not and you’ll never be. Just die. It will be better. Trust me.”
In the last decade before transitioning, all through my second marriage (Jesus, I will never be able to offer enough apologies to her), and all through my first four years with Melissa, these thoughts became a part of my daily routine. I said the words I needed to in order to get out of the hospital the second time around, but the obsession wasn’t going anywhere. Somewhere deep down inside, I promised myself that, as long as I knew it was wrong to act on it, I would just keep it my secret. In the summer of 2010, after one of the most miserable years of my existence, something snapped. I had contemplated all manners of escape – from my marriage, from my responsibilities, from my life – but, since I couldn’t make any of them happen, the only option left was to give in.
With the last bit of concern I had left for my own life, I sat down one cloudy Sunday morning with the girl who would save it. Tearsa became a friend of ours after she and Melissa worked together at the Selinsgrove Library for two years. She and her girlfriend, Bailey, were our only friends, and we would often hang out on Saturday nights playing games. I sat down with Tearsa the morning after one of those nights, and I unloaded all that was on my mind. Carefully, patiently, she helped me understand what I already knew: I needed to transition. She hugged me so tight that morning, and as I walked to my car, for the first time in years, the din in my head had quieted.
Within a month, I was on hormones; within six months, I was living as Juli; and within a year, I was an Arizonan; and it was only once I became an Arizonan that I realized why I transitioned, why it was important that I needed to live and become myself.
Two years into our Arizona adventure, I decided that I had had enough of being a work-at-home medical transcriptionist. Feeling more comfortable with my life and myself, and full of admiration and jealousy for the work Melissa was doing as a teacher, I enrolled in community college with the goal of getting a bachelor’s in Education. A requirement for one of my Education classes in that first semester was that I spend twenty hours observing in a classroom. Where that would be done was an obvious choice, and so, after securing permission from Melissa’s superintendent, I accompanied her to work on Thursday, February 26, 2013. Her seventh-grade class was studying Ellis Island and immigration at the turn of the 20th century, so I made up a lesson centered on one of my great-grandparents and gave it to those classes.
Sitting in one of those classes was Bella*, and although I didn’t know it that day, that shy girl who thought I was more than a bit of a bitch, would end up teaching me a few things. There were two more days that I spent observing Melissa’s classes, days which convinced me that maybe Public Policy was the way I wanted to go. I don’t believe I said more than two words to Bella on those days, but I did sit in the back of the room and make sarcastic comments, dispelling the bitchy reputation I had created in her mind on that first day. I’m not quite sure why – and I don’t know that she is, either, to be honest – but a month or so later, she friended me on Facebook and we had a short conversation about whether or not she should kick the ass of some girl who was picking on her sister. If I remember correctly, my advice was that fighting never solves anything, that violence of any kind was not the answer, and that I wanted her to understand that. When I knew that she did, I added, “But if you’re going to kick her ass, do it when no one’s around.”
Over that summer, we talked quite a bit through Facebook, at first a little, and then a lottle. My youngest, Rhiannon, had been back in Pennsylvania nearly a year, and I was lucky if she talked to any of us once every few weeks, and then it was just to answer a text with one or two words. Between that and the fact that, at my most mature, I’m really only twelve years old, Bella and I became friends. The oldest of five kids in a family where Mom was working as hard as she could to get by and Dad was a piece-of-shit loser who took more delight in emotionally abusing Bella rather than being a father, she was struggling and needed someone to talk to.
We talked a lot about body image (she thought she was fat), music, growing up in a backwater town in the middle of nowhere, and the other million things that make growing up suck. One Saturday afternoon while I was watching TV and messaging back and forth with Bella, she asked a question about a few of the older pictures of me in my Facebook photos from when I first transitioned. “Why,” she asked, “did you try to look like a guy? You’re so pretty.”
She didn’t know I was trans.
I had assumed that everyone automatically knew it just from looking at me, so we hadn’t really talked about it. What would I tell her? I was pretty certain she didn’t really know much about transgender and that she had never met anyone trans before; also, I had no way of knowing whether or not her family would allow her to be friends with a trans person. After a few minutes, I answered her cautiously, and then we spent an hour talking about who I had been born and who I was now. When it had all been explained to her satisfaction, I said what I usually say to someone who didn’t know I was trans. “Don’t be silly,” she typed back, “Why wouldn’t I want to be your friend?” And that was that. As it turned out, my being trans didn’t matter to her family, either – not to any of them and not for one minute. Over the next few months, Melissa and I became part of the family, and Bella had a new nickname: “Baby Sister.”
We hung out a lot at the end of that summer and through the fall, and Bella and her sister would come visit us. Melissa would make a big deal out of pretending she was annoyed and did her best to maintain her teacher status at all times, but secretly, she enjoyed having Bella and her sister around. She did her very best that whole school year not to show that she had come to love Bella, too. As a combination birthday and Christmas present that year, I took Bella to see Beyonce, and that New Year’s Eve, Melissa and I took Rhiannon (visiting for the holidays), Bella, and her sister to see “Mamma Mia” at the Gammage.
Growing up, I had a sister. She is three years older than I am, and we were only ever close-ish at best. Then, when I transitioned, she told me, “I can either have a relationship with God or I can have one with you, but I can’t do both,” and just like that, I my sister was gone. Suddenly, I had one again, a baby sister who talked to me about everything and who was as much a part of my family as I was hers. We have spent holidays with them, and, as insane as they all seem sometimes, they have become friends I wouldn’t trade for any kind of treasure you could offer me.
The difference in Bella after two years of our friendship is marked. She had been shy and so unsure of herself, and when I look at her today, I see one of the most remarkable human beings I have ever met, a strong, beautiful, and confident young woman who really is my best friend, as strange as it might seem. Yes, she’s as huge a pain in the ass as any fifteen-year-old diva can be, but she and her mom and grandparents and siblings and cousins have given us something we didn’t feel we had here in Arizona: a family; and I have something I have never had before: a real sister. I would like to believe I have taught her a few things, and I know she probably doesn’t understand all that she has taught me. She has had to defend our friendship and me to some very transphobic people, and she has done it with a strength I’m certain she didn’t believe she had. Truly, with the exception of my children and grandchildren, no one makes me prouder.
She is why I transitioned, why I needed to live and become myself.
And then there was Sara*. If Bella hadn’t shown me why I was here, Sara would certainly do so, and she would bring me out of a depression that had the voices flying around my head once again.
Last August, I lost the full-time job I had as a private contractor medical transcriptionist. Over the next few months, I was fortunate enough to be able to continue working a part-time gig I had doing campaign work, but once the election was over, so was the job, and then shit got real. Since August, I have applied anywhere and everywhere, and although I have been on a few interviews, nothing has panned out. In my boredom, succumbing to my ADHD, I created a Tumblr account and spent more time than I probably should just scrolling through, adding sarcastic asides to pictures and re-blogging them, and, along the way, making a few rather amazing friends who don’t mind talking to an old broad from the desert.
The first of these was Sara. A freshman at NAU, she was in the very beginning stages of her transgender journey, having started hormones but not having been on them long enough to be comfortable beginning to transition. In “real life,” all but a few people know her as Seth. It was remarkable, though, because, to me, after seeing just a few pictures of her on Facebook, all I could see was Sara. Tall and rather elegant, she is fair of feature and has the kind of cheekbones that women of all types would cut a bitch for. Naturally feminine, her family and most of her acquaintances have assumed she is simply a really effeminate young gay man, and she has always just gone with that.
The eldest child of older parents, one of whom has served in the military, Sara is the survivor of a childhood memorable for its horrible memories: emotional abuse at home and sexual abuse by someone close to her. When she summoned the courage to come out as trans to her family, the response was ugly, and when I first met her, she hadn’t talked to her parents or brother in a long time and was going through some of the scariest changes in her life all by herself. She had managed to set up her medical care in Flagstaff, along with vocal therapy, counseling, and electrolysis, all on top of maintaining a full schedule of coursework.
But the isolation and the residual effects of sexual trauma had left Sara constantly feeling broken. In the first few weeks of our friendship, we spent a lot of time talking about coping strategies and dealing with being up and then down and then up and then plummeting ever downward. She described a suicidal ideation that was so familiar it was eerie. The worthlessness, the pain, the sorrow, the unending thoughts of killing herself were at times unbearable, and when she would message, we would talk, no matter what else I was doing.
All the while, I was sinking, myself. Months without income or any real prospects were beginning to take their toll, and as I would text furiously to Sara telling her all the reasons she had to hold on, I was fighting my own urges to end it. At least two years away from a degree, middle-aged, and trans: I was never going to get a job, so what was the point of even trying? It was so strange: almost every time I felt so down that I was planning scenarios for how to commit suicide, I would get a cry for help from Sara. Every time, without knowing it, she pulled me out of my spiral, and we would spend time talking about the strategies she needed to employ to get through all of this.
One Wednesday afternoon, though, it had been too much. After one too many disappointments and not seeing why it would matter, this beautiful little flower messaged me that she was done, no more talking, she was going to end it all. I furiously replied, only to be met with silence. For the next few hours, there was nothing except a cryptic message that she had taken some pills and took other measures and that she was sorry. I scrambled to try and contact her roommate (who didn’t know she was trans) and let him know that he needed to get help and find Seth. Then, I contacted another of her friends to look for her and settled back and waited.
Thankfully, whatever pills she had taken weren’t nearly enough, and when her roommate came in their room, she took off but got herself to her therapist and made a contract for her safety. That night, she called me to assure me that she was okay and to thank me. She couldn’t figure out why I cared, but she was glad I did. I talked to her a few times over the next few days to make sure she was fine, and she thanked me again. There was no way, though, I could thank her, because the fear I felt had snapped me out of my funk.
Two girls drowning, each the other’s lifeline.
A few weeks after this, which was a catharsis for her in many ways, she sent me this message: “You are my trans Irshad Manji… she is a Muslim woman who encouraged others not to look at anyone else or any ‘role models’, not even her, just find out what your identity means to you personally, live it, and love it. I figure you are my lovely trans equivalent.” Other than being big sister to my beautiful baby sister, no one has made me feel as purposeful and thankful about the many choices I have made to stay alive as Sara did at that moment.
I have resigned myself to accepting that I will always be prone to suicidal frustration. When things get bad and I am feeling low, like an old friend, the thoughts will take flight and buzz my aching head. Most likely, one will even land on my shoulder and whisper in my ear, “Now?” But that’s okay. I will just close my eyes, and there I shall I see Melissa, my children, my grandchildren.
And in my other ear, I will hear my Baby Sister and my favorite Little Flower, whispering gently, “Love you,” and I will soldier on.
According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 41% of those who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming have attempted suicide at least once. Such a statistic, however, can never take into account the number of people who leave this world without ever telling anyone who they really were.
*Indicates name has been changed