I was my grandmother’s second grandchild, born 11 years after her first. When I was born, she held me and said, “Oh, this one’s different.”
Little did she know how right she would turn out to be. When I was young, I was different in a lot of ways that the people around me saw as positive: I was smart and funny, easy to get along with, and although I sometimes struggled in school, when I was interested in something (like birds or dinosaurs) I learned everything there was to know about it quickly.
As I got older, I began to be different in ways that weren’t seen so positively. By the time I was in middle school, other kids were starting first to tease, and then to bully me. They would ask me whether I was a boy or a girl, and spread rumors that I was gay. The bullying would have been bad enough if the rumors were false. From my perspective, they were worse because they were true. Although I didn’t have the words I use today to describe my experiences at the time, I knew I was different. I was queer and transgender. My grandmother’s love for me was always unconditional, but I felt pressure from other adults in my life to change who I was in order to meet their expectations for me.
The messages I received from other members of my family, from adult community members, and from church leaders told me that people like me were broken and unfixable. I felt lost, confused, and hopeless for much of my life. I felt terrified that someone would discover the truth about me, so I kept everything about myself a secret.
The stigmatizing messages worked themselves deep into my mind and resurfaced as voices. I spent some time homeless on the streets of Seattle in my late teens, and that’s when I started to hear them: voices of demons screaming at me that God hated me. They tormented me for years, and I both hated and believed them. My journey through the mental health system brought me into contact with still more people whose default assumption about me was that I would be better, more comfortable, and easier for them to deal with if I changed who I was. This time medication was the mechanism for change: I was prescribed a heavy dose of antipsychotics that took away not only the voices, but also my hand gestures, the languages I’d studied, my ability to sing, and any motivation I had to live.
For almost 10 years, that became my normal. It was easier to become the person other people wanted me to be when the medication helped me to forget who I really was. Once I chose to taper off the medication at my GP’s recommendation, things began to change for the better. Pieces of myself I’d almost forgotten began to re-emerge. I started to write again. I started working again — first part-time, then full-time. And, within a few years, I realized that I couldn’t live the rest of my life pretending to be someone I wasn’t. I accepted myself for who I was, who I had always been, and who I would be for the rest of my life: the person I am today.
I can trace the moment my life began to get better to the day I was reading a book and a particular phrase popped out at me: “You are the expert on yourself.” When I encountered it, I knew instinctively that it was true, and I also recognized that no one in my life had ever said it to me. I had always felt that everyone around me seemed to know what was best for me, and yet when I tried their suggestions, I somehow ended up feeling even worse than before. Once I adopted the perspective that no one knows what I’ve been through like I do, and no one knows what I need like I do, I made more progress in a few short years than I had in the rest of my life combined.
For example, I found out that many of the foods I’d been eating my whole life were making me sick, and when I stopped eating them, I felt so much better. Once I learned that, all of the times I’d felt so ill after holiday meals suddenly made sense. I also realized that while I enjoy being around people, I also need plenty of time by myself to recharge. I learned that I have my own pace and method of doing things that may differ from other people’s, but it works for me and my wellness, which is all that matters.
I spent so many years feeling that my life was impossibly difficult just because of who I was. Today, I feel my life is actively better because of who I am, and because of what I’ve been through. I am the healthiest and happiest I have ever been, because I have cultivated the ability to identify my own needs and advocate for them. While I still may feel nervous or down from time to time, the fear, sadness, and anxiety I lived with for most of my life are gone. In their place are resilience, self-confidence, and the knowledge that I can handle anything life brings me.
Most of all, I feel that my life is better because everything I’ve been through has given me greater compassion for the struggles of others and determination to leave the world a better place than I found it.
While my grandmother is no longer around to show her support for me, I know she’d agree.