How Writing Saves My Life

First, let me be brutally honest. I’m a mess. There are other kinder and true things to say about myself, but it is equally true that I am a human mess. The cocktail of bipolar disorder, ADHD, and anxiety I was provided at birth makes “functional” life pretty damn hard for me. I try really hard to be functional, and do succeed for short stretches, and then WHAM, I’m back in a depressed morass. I have an irrational singularity of thought which leaves me unable to feel the sense that today is just today, and that tomorrow could be better. Rationally and logically I know that a bad day is just a bad day. But the panicked emotional response is “what if this is the start of a bad week, a bad month, a bad year?”

I let myself be swallowed by those thoughts occasionally.  I can logically know that I’m not a terrible person, that I have mood swings, and that I struggle with pretty severe mental illness. I can logically provide both an explanation and solution for my depressive periods; the depression is biochemical, and the solution is to simply do the easy good things and ride it out because the pendulum will swing the other way, usually within a day or two. However, the emotional and irrational train of thought will say either “what if this one doesn’t end?” or “is life really worth living if you’re going to be this depressed almost every week?”

That last question gets to me. It’s a variation on an argument my brain sends my way pretty often, which boils down to “give me a good reason why your health and neurosis doesn’t justify wiping you off the face of the Earth?” This is the line of thinking, which coupled with the dysphoria I experienced for twenty years repressing my gender identity, drove me to multiple suicide attempts throughout my adolescence. I struggle to see a future worth living, and so I often give up hope. I no longer present a danger to myself because I’m aware of the trauma that any method of self-destruction would inflict on those who found me, as well as the pain I would inflict on my family, but that doesn’t mean I always want to live.

On the worst days, I day-dream about an atomic war with Russia, or some cosmic catastrophe- something that would wipe me off the face of the Earth without causing undue pain to anyone else. (Of course the absence of pain in those scenarios would be because pretty much everyone else would be joining me in death, so they’re obviously not ideal.) I really hate that these thoughts still dog me, usually in lonely evening hours or occasionally in the tedium of a fruitless afternoon.

However, there are two antidotes to such hopelessness and they are simply Connection and Purpose. Connection is vital for all human beings regardless of their mental state. We are social animals with an incredibly complex society that requires innumerable professional and personal connections to function. Most of our greatest joys come from connection with other people. This antidote I’ve become better at using over the years. I try to have a lot of friends and to stay very socially, because making connections brings me joy. It also provides me with alternatives to pondering suicide- I have many wonderful friends whom I’ve been able to reach out to in my darkest moments, to help talk me through the pain.

The real struggle for me is then the other antidote- Purpose. What motivates me, what rewards me, and what challenges me? Some people have an innate sense of drive and ambition that enables them to locate a Purpose and pursue it like a hound after a hare. I am not one of those people.

I at least know my Purpose. This, what I’m doing right now at two o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, is my proverbial calling. Writing is what consistently makes my life worth living. I love to learn and to experience life, and more than that I love to share what I’ve learned and what I’ve experienced. When someone reads my writing and is moved by it, entertained by it, or challenged by it, I feel a sense of accomplishment and joy. No other vocation or achievement can make me feel quite the way writing does. I love to cook and love when people enjoy my food, but even that happiness cannot lift my soul the same way as when someone says they learned something new from words that I wrote.

The trouble is in the pursuit of that purpose. I doubt myself endlessly because of my mental illnesses and frankly a wholesale dissociation during my adolescence. I doubt who I really am as a person in a world, and I frequently doubt my ability to write meaningful work at any kind of reasonable pace. It’s hard for me. It really is. But it’s getting better. Centimetre by centimetre, step by step. Writing is no longer the fantasy that I clung to for dear life through my adolescence. It is no longer just a dream, or a private comfort. It’s my reality.

If I’m lucky, others will read it. If I’m really lucky, I might get paid for it. Luckiest of all, someone will find in my words or my experiences something worthwhile. Something that makes them laugh, something that teaches them. The truth is I both live to write and write to live. I’m not here to be the twenty-first century’s F. Scott Fitzgerald or Hemingway, I have no illusions about being a genius. Simply put:

I’m here to write, and by hell I’m going to write.

Me Writing

Teachings of the Toothbrush

I have a terrible confession to make. My entire life, I have been bad at brushing my teeth. I’m bad at habit-forming in general, the one-two punch of bipolar disorder and ADHD makes consistency very hard to attain, but I’ve always been fairly ashamed of how bad I am at brushing my teeth. It’s such a basic question of hygiene, it should be intuitive. But for me, it wasn’t.

Until a week ago.

I went to the dentist two weeks ago, and they told me that besides a small cavity I had developed fairly serious gingivitis. They had told me this information before, but this time they emphasised pointedly that if I did not change my habits I ran the risk of infection and tooth loss. The word “necrotic” came up, and that made me listen. Necrosis, or the death of flesh before the death of the entire body, is one of my greatest fears. It’s about as close as one can be to being an actual zombie, complete with the smell of corpse.

I was given some medicinal mouthwash to use every night, and I was also told to go buy a Sonicare© electric toothbrush. By the weekend I had this brand new electric toothbrush, and I used it for the first time that Sunday night. This may sound slightly pathetic, but one of the reasons I never developed a good toothbrushing habit is that a typical toothbrush is actually to some degree physically difficult for me to use. I have very bad joints, and spending two minutes with my arm in repetitive rapid motion, while not debilitating, was uncomfortable. However, with the electric toothbrush, brushing my teeth became easy.

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Something that was beneficial to me was easy. A good habit was easy. Here’s the thing- I grew up thinking that everything worth doing should be hard. People who work hard, were, by definition, better than people who did not work hard. The harder the work, the more admirable the person. The more work required, the better. Difficulty equated to morality. Easy, conversely, might as well have meant immoral. This was not a conscious framing, but it was an impulse or an association that got planted deep inside me at a young age by the Protestant/Puritanical culture of America and more specifically the Mormon variant of that culture that is so prevalent in Utah.

I feel almost foolish writing that I went twenty-three years, until yesterday, still with that impulse guiding my actions. However, with the electric toothbrush, I discovered that something objectively good for you and not necessarily pleasurable could be really easy. I’ve brushed my teeth every day for the past week and a half. I brushed my teeth in the midst of a depressive episode. That may not sound like much, but it’s a longer span of time consistently brushing my teeth than I’ve ever had in my entire life. And it’s because easy does not mean bad. Easy does not mean lazy. Easy just means easy.

I gave myself a set of rules, a hierarchy of productivity. Because I’ve spent my entire life trying to figure out how to healthily function on a day to day basis, notwithstanding my periods of mania and my periods of depression. A baseline that never falters. With this hierarchy of productivity, I think I may have given myself the tools to actually do it.

1st- Do what is easy and good for you. It is easy to clean a single dish. To brush your teeth. To put a single pair of socks away or to put a single book back on the shelf. Easy things are often small things, but you can always find some easy things to do to say clean a room or finish a project. Pick up the clothes first when you want to clean. Write the introductory paragraph. Do one small thing. And then another. And do…

2nd- Do what is feasible. Some days this will only mean what is truly easy. If you are sick, depressed, in pain, or very tired this may just mean basic hygiene and drinking enough water. And that’s okay. But other days, feasible may mean reorganising a room. It may mean deep-cleaning the kitchen. If harder work is feasible that day, get it done right away. You’ll thank yourself for not putting it off.

3rd- Do what is best. This is at the bottom of the hierarchy because it’s not always possible to do the best thing for yourself. It may be best to go on an hour-long jog every morning, but if it’s unfeasible, don’t sweat it. Sometimes the easiest thing can be the best thing, such as brushing your teeth.

This hierarchy may seem obvious or laughable. But for someone with executive dysfunction like myself, for people with chronic pain, chronic depression, ADHD, and many others, to whom the basic task of life don’t come easily or naturally, this can be a lifesaver.

There is a Chinese fable that neatly encapsulates the underlying point of this hierarchy, “The Foolish Old Man Who Moved the Mountains”. It concerns an elderly peasant whose farm was perpetually in the shade of two great mountains. Longing for more sunlight, the man took a shovel and began to dig away the mountains, shovelful by shovelful. He was of course laughed at by other farmers, who told him “you can’t possibly dig out those mountains in your lifetime, you old fool.”

“I know,” he replied, “but I can move some part of them. And my sons will carry on my work. And their sons as well. One day, the mountains will be moved.”

In the fable, the Emperor of Heaven is so moved by the old man’s dedication that he sends down angels to carry the mountains away. One could read this as praise of hard, repetitive work for the hope of some nebulous reward, very in line with the Protestant ethic that sober and difficult work will be rewarded by admission into heaven. But to me, that interpretation misses the point. The old man saw the mountains not as an enormous impossible whole, but as collections of single shovelfuls of dirt and rocks. He learned to see the impossible in possible terms, the daunting work as a series of easy steps.

We can move mountains, even if it’s just a pebble at a time.

A Friday Party

From the moment she walks in, I know she is a “she”.

I was at my friend’s birthday party, having arrived a little early with a bottle of Vielle Ferme rosé that I promptly drank half of. She came about an hour later. Six feet tall, shaggy haired, with bright blue eyes. Outwardly she presents as a male, but I have an eye for others like me (T-Dar, one might call it), and something about her spoke to me.

She’s shy, it’s her first party since she started college, so I set about talking to her, trying to draw her from her shell. I pour her a gin and sparkling water. I learn she loves Geography, that she’s of eclectic tastes in music and art, and like me is bad at texting- in short, practically perfect.

A little later, outside, while I smoke a cigarette, she confesses what I already know- that she is a girl, and she’s scared to transition.

“I know, khroshka, I know,” I reply.

“What does ‘khroshka‘ mean?” she asks.

“It means ‘good little one’, using your name-”

“-feels wrong?” she finishes with a laugh and a small smile.

“Exactly.”

When we go back inside, my friend Christine asks, “are you going to get drunk enough to Russian dance?”

“Only if I speed up,” I remark with a laugh.

She immediately presents me with another strong drink.

“Drink up!”

I do as told, and go with Khroshka into the living room, empty save for a sleeping drunk, and I commandeer the speaker.

“Do you dance a lot?” my thin, bright-eyed companion asks me.

“Only when I’m drunk,” I say, offering my hand as the Russian Sailor’s Dance I selected begins to play.

“Oh, I don’t know how!” she protests.

“Neither do I!” I laugh, taking her into my arms. We begin to dance, kicking to one side then the other, whirling around and stamping our feet to the claps of the dance and the strum of the balalaika. It has been months since I dance with someone, and though I tire quickly I persist, enjoying the unmistakably feminine gasp of delight from my partner, the laughter, the warm throb of alcohol-laden blood through my veins.

After two songs I smile and say,

Basta! Enough!” and I pick her up, smiling at her delight and surprise.

 

Why I Hate to Write “Happy”

I’m in the midst of a major rewrite of An Unremarkable Girl at the moment. It’s a top-to-toe affair. Our first draft of the manuscript was not “bad” per say, but my writing especially came off more as a compendium of analytical essays about the various psychological and cultural concepts that have affected my life rather than a memoir of a transgirl fighting to assert her identity in the face of many challenges. It was antiseptic in many places, as opposed to being visceral, which is what a good memoir should be.

As I write along, following a stricter chronology than the first draft, I’ve come to a section that really needs to be about the happy parts of my childhood, the amazing food, the trips to Europe, the loving attention and near-infinite patience my parents showed me throughout my elementary school years. This should be a piece of cake, I keep thinking, because happy idylls are nice to write about. This doesn’t have to be viscerally painful. Or does it?

Here’s the thing- I’ve always preferred writing tragedy. My short stories are usually set in the Soviet Union during the Second World War or the decade following it, i.e. in a bleak war-ravaged and psychologically damaged country, following the travails of partizans, veterans, and others who gave their bodies and souls for the Motherland. Why? Because aside from my historical passion for Stalin’s Soviet Union, it’s easy to find drama and plot in that particular period of history. There’s a lot of pain, a lot of conflict, and some great stories to be told against the backdrop of war and the painful, jerky recovery from that war.

So when I’m called, as I am now, to write about the good times in my own life, my Schreibdrüse (“writing gland” in German), suddenly shrivels up. It’s not as interesting or naturally compelling to me to write about good times because they lack conflict, but it is also harder for me to write about good times in my own life because I’m still grieving their loss. When my parents told me they were getting divorced, in August of 2008, that world, the world of dinner parties and nearly annual trips to Europe, was lost. I still bear the bruise from that cosmic punch to the gut.

That bruise doesn’t sting when I write about the divorce. I’ve talked about the divorce a lot, I’ve been in therapy for a decade and have spent perhaps 45% of that time working through my issues around that cataclysm. I’m over the divorce in and of itself. What I’m not over is the loss of the halcyon days of childhood. When I recall them, that bruise stings and aches. Hence the Schreibdrüse shrivelling problem.
I still have to write it. Without the happy times as context, my parents’ sudden divorce won’t hit the reader the way it hit me, like a ton of bricks falling from a clear blue sky, and that’s a necessary part of the book. To understand why my teenage years were such a special kind of hell it needs to be prefaced by how heavenly much of my childhood was. So I’m trying to slog through it, and “slog” really is the word, as I feel with this portion that I’m trying to traverse a swamp after knocking back ten large gin and tonics.
So I tempt myself onward. I reward myself with a cigarette after an hour of banging my fingers against the keys, even if the end result is essentially pond scum in written form. I bait myself by saying “you can write a depressing story about Russia just as soon as you finish this.” Eventually (and hopefully in the very short future), I’ll have written a whole coherent piece about the halcyon and happy days. And when I have, I will write such a tragedy as the world has never seen.

(I have to write about this: Pot au Feu, wonderful French dinners with fine wines that my parents and I shared every night. I grew up on two and three course dinners, with a fantastic chef for a father. I was a spoiled kid.)Pot au Feu

Remark from the Heart: Depression

A “Remark from the Heart”, shall, on this website, serve to be a no-bullshit no-frills no-frippery kind of warning label. This is “hot off the press” writing as my mother would call it. Uncompromising and impolite, others might call it.

Today’s remark is on the subject of depression, a demon which has dogged me ever since my early years, and her twin sister in sorrow, dysphoria, the disconnected sense of misery most transgender people feel between their gender and their physical appearance. They come in tandem, usually, and one will typically engender the other.

They kill my ability to write. Even getting these few short remarks on the page, messy and discombobulated as they are, is taking a Herculean mental effort. There are sort of gossamer webs between the active part of my brain and my fingers, slowing the nerve impulses. The words are there in my mind, but they fade and fray as they travel down the nerves to my hands, and I have to exercise an absurd amount of willpower just to communicate them.

The sisters completely deflate me. I’ve spent maybe twenty-five minutes total out of my bed today, and it’s almost six pm. Admittedly, having recent snowfall and arthritis means that there’s a physical pain aspect to this as well, but if I wasn’t so damn depressed I’d at least be sitting at my back table to write, and maybe I might have done a dish or two rather than letting them pile in the sink.

Depression isn’t romantic. It’s ugly. It’s matted hair, oily skin, messy rooms, rotting food. It’s having the feeling that everything is wrong, desiring to change it, but having no will, no energy, and no hope by which to do so.

TrenchI logically know that it will pass- it always does. But when I’m down here in the trenches, the salvos of self-hatred bursting around me and pouring out so much toxic feeling, it doesn’t feel like it will abate. Everything is grey and brown and pale sickly blue, and as I huddle here I can only try to remember what it feels like to hope for happiness again.

This will abate. Yet no one, least of all myself, can make me believe so- not at least until the fog finally lifts once more, and I see the sun on the other side.

An Unremarkable Girl

When I was born, my birth certificate came with two glaring errors. The first was the name, a name which though well-intended, proved to be cruelly ironic- “Truman”. The second was the gender, “Male”. I don’t blame my parents for giving me that name, nor do I blame the hospital for assuming that the squalling kid with a penis was a boy. But as soon as I started to form consciousness, I knew something was wrong, that if boys and girls were different and mutually exclusive categories I had been sorted into the wrong one. Throughout my childhood I wished desperately that I’d simply wake up one morning as a girl, the mistake corrected. I didn’t desire to be a great beauty, an inspiration, or a heroine- I just wanted to be an unremarkable girl.

As I grew older and realised that I was not alone in my feelings, that others in “male bodies” felt whole-heartedly that they were girls. At thirteen I  learned the word “transgender”, and realised that the label was accurate in the extreme- though assigned male at birth, I felt at the core of my being that I was a girl. This discovery did not spur a radical self-acceptance, however. I didn’t want to be trans, because all the examples of trans individuals I’d seen in media were either punchlines or punching bags, deliberately mocked, made into masculine parodies of femininity. I didn’t want to be like that- I still just wished to be an unremarkable girl, hopefully cute, but not one who’d stand out in a crowd.

The years that followed were years of depression, self-denial, suicidal thoughts and occasional attempts, until finally in 2014 I resolved to go forward, to be who I was. In March of 2015, I began HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy), and came out to the world at large as Miss Beatrice Washburn. In September of 2017, I finally corrected the twenty-two year old mistake on my birth certificate, legally becoming the girl I’ve been since my earliest days. Between those two momentous events, my mother and I began to write a book, which we have titled An Unremarkable Girl. It is the story of becoming myself, the story of my mother’s frankly heroic struggle to support me and see me through the darkest moments to the other side. We are still crafting this story, still living it, and in these electronic pages I hope to show what it’s like to write a book and to be a transgender woman in Salt Lake City Utah in the time of Trump.

The final irony is that I will never be an unremarkable girl. I am six feet and two inches tall, transgender, a socialist, a monarchist (yes you can be both, but it’s not easy), and I am an unabashed geek when it comes to my passions. The journey to becoming myself meant becoming remarkable, for good or for ill.