I think I’ve touched on some of these ideas elsewhere but I think it’s always worth revisiting these things from a fresh perspective. In a way it’s therapeutic; it’s like a film that you’ve seen before but you can always watch it again and notice something you didn’t.
I was thinking of the emotional numbing I’ve experienced as an adult, and how I’ve struggled with understanding what I really want now that I’m free to pursue it. Now that I don’t have people in my ear all the time telling me what I should want, it’s something I have to learn if I’m going to get anything out of the rest of my life. But I keep relapsing and falling back into old habits whenever I allow myself to think that I’m somehow over it. It’s frustrating, and it holds me back. I have to keep confronting it because ignoring it always leaves me vulnerable.
I was always a very sensitive child, but I think because I was assigned male my sensitivity was pathologized. I dare say I was less sensitive than my sister, but she got away with it because she was a girl and girls were expected to be fussy.
Instead, when I showed too much emotion, it was always a sign of something wrong.
My mother was one of the first points of reference I had for the idea that it was wrong for me to show emotions. I think I’ve recounted here how the song “Lavender’s Blue” would put me in tears (lots of songs with a lot of sappy violin would, but that song was an instant weeper for me; I suspect it was a song Jane had sung to Jack when he was a baby back in the late 1870s). My mother assumed that this was because of sensory processing issues, the sound of the violins somehow hurting my ears, but that’s not what it was.
In this case, I even told her (with the sparse vocabulary of a 2-3 year old) that it made me sad but she couldn’t fathom how something that didn’t make her sad could make someone else sad. Mom always had trouble understanding people when they didn’t feel the same way she did. And when her erstwhile son, deigned to be the male heir of our modest share of the yeomanry, proved more sensitive than she was, I think it confused and scared her.
There was another moment that I think made me desperate to keep my emotions to myself. I believe I’ve also discussed this moment before. I had an obsession with centenarians and supercentenarians when I was young, and at the time, living in Charleston, SC, there was a venerable old man purported to be 121 years old by the name of Willie Dueberry. He was the very last person in our community- in fact our country- left from the 1870s. I was very sad when I heard he had died, so much that my mother worried and insisted on making me talk to my psychologist about it rather than having some time to think it over myself.
My psychologist drew it out of me uncomfortably, and I tried my very best to explain what was really bothering me with my seven-year-old vocabulary, but I couldn’t. I came off sounding very immature because I couldn’t formulate the questions or concerns I really wanted, so the psychologist ended up reading me a book called “Why Did Grandpa Die?” Which only left me feeling awkward and like nobody understood what I was really thinking.
The thing is, I understood concepts like death and impermanence from a young age. I would have brief moments of utter existential terror as a child knowing that my days were already numbered. I also understood how ephemeral things like balloons were and it really curtailed my enjoyment of them. I understood on a visceral level how fleeting childhood itself was too, and any talk of how much I was growing became extremely stressful because it felt like a countdown toward being tipped out of a home where things were safe and certain into a world that didn’t care whether I lived or died. I understood all of this, at the tender age of six or seven when it would be fifteen years before I actually had the vocabulary to describe what I was thinking, and it was absolute hell for me. I often wonder how much of this may have been carried over from past lives because I haven’t met many other people who had that innate and terrifying sense of impermanence as children.
When my third and fourth grade teacher decided he was going to try to break me down and rebuild me, he described me as “depressed” and “weepy,” which eventually got me put on Lithium, a medication which did nothing for my emotional condition and caused me to gain weight (I still struggle with my weight to this day).
By high school I had learned to hide my emotions a little better. I was proud of that, proud that I could hold back the tears when I was being hazed on a daily basis, because whenever I cried my sexuality was relentlessly questioned at a time when I was already questioning my sexuality and feeling weirdly disconnected from maleness. I got called “gay,” “faggot,” “pansy,” and “queer” pretty often. Mom still thinks the name calling is what made me queer but the fact is it actually made it harder to accept myself because I had something to prove by playing the role of a straight man.
But sometimes it wasn’t anything this serious. Sometimes it was just my parents- my mother in particular- making an effort to show concern and try to console me. But that infernal question always came up. “What’s wrong?” would usually be the conversation starter. I can’t help but think that I must have internalized those words, because it seems like that was pretty much how any sign of sensitivity I showed in my childhood and teen years was treated: as something wrong.
I suppose in that light, the innocent question “what’s wrong?” takes on an inquisitorial tone, the sort of tone that made me practice hiding my emotions at home too. Sometimes, something would bother me a great deal and I’d get very irritable and snappy while fighting the urge to cry. I couldn’t help it; I wore my heart on my sleeve. And of course they would see something was bothering me, and they’d ask about it, and I didn’t want to talk about it because of the probing or even hostile tone they took when they asked.
Or, quite often, they didn’t ask. They would just assume I had a bad attitude for no reason and I’d get spanked, or sent to time-out, or just generally be treated to a display of parents yelling, slamming doors, stomping on floors, driving erratically, and carrying themselves so aggressively that I was afraid to talk to them.
The damage has definitely been done. Not only have I not been able to live up to my full creative potential because of emotional blunting, but I’ve had some substance dependency issues as an adult; part of the reason I became a hard drinker a few years ago was because for a while, alcohol let me cut loose and not hold so tight onto these emotions, but it became less and less effective with time. Cannabis has actually had good results but I’m having to wean myself off because it’s limiting my job prospects severely. I’m hoping to give bupropion another shot but the mental health system in this country (and in Oregon in particular) is so broken that it’ll be April before I can see a nurse practitioner who can write the prescription (I’d have to pay out of pocket to see a real psychiatrist).
Still, I wonder what more I could do to help myself? I have an extremely hard time meditating because my mind tends to race too much and the more I try to concentrate, the more distractable I become to the point where one seam on my jeans being too tight is enough to throw me completely. Cognitive engagement with the problem helps a little, but I have a hard time confronting/expressing what’s wrong when I’m in an especially strong state of emotional dissociation. I’m a weird collision of some unspecified neurodevelopmental pathology and emotional damage, and untangling it all might take the rest of my life. The trouble is, I feel like I don’t have that long. I feel an urgency to get my life back together because I’ve got bills to pay, errands to run, and so many responsibilities. There’s no safety net for someone like me; I can’t take time out to recover. I have to stay in the game while I’m barely holding myself together. I’ve come pretty close to ending it a few times because I’m under immense pressure to perform and I keep choking.
Also, this is related more to the whole idea of understanding things when I was a child that other children didn’t, but there was another realization that I think somehow feeds into all this because it made it very difficult for me to adjust to the expectations of childhood.
I understood from a very young age that adults could be wrong. When my peers believed what parents and teachers told them unquestioningly, I openly questioned things. In part, I did this because I knew more about things like animals, cars, and geography than most of my family. And I was often praised for being smart. I had a snazzy little desk they bought for me, kid-sized with drawers for pencils and paper, a space for my globe, and even my own set of Children’s Britannica (incidentally, the very last paper encyclopedia my family ever bought). And being designated as the smart kid was pretty much my only outlet to feel good about myself so I defended it fiercely. I took slights to my intellect very personally and, of course, I thought nothing of correcting adults when they were wrong about something because I never really understood why I should trust and obey someone when I knew they were wrong. You can probably guess how much trouble that caused for me (I think I’ve waxed on that elsewhere too, come to think of it).
I also understood from a young age that adults could lie. In a weird twist, my mother- a person of deeply legalistic and literalistic faith- didn’t raise my sister and I to believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny because she didn’t want us to doubt that God exsisted the way she did when she discovered her mother putting presents under the tree one night. Instead two things came of this. First, I was introduced to the idea that an adult could tell a lie and second, I lost all affection for religion as a set of received principles accepted with total submission without some direct experience of the divine to allow me to internalize that truth. That, I think, is what drew me to the Gnostic path. I held Gnostic ideas before I ever knew what they were, or had the experience to act on them.
I often wonder if the emotional blunting I’ve struggled with didn’t keep me from getting to the point where something like the start of gnosis clicked in me sooner. At least, I feel like the emotional crash from my gender dysphoria may have been somehow related to all this inasmuch as it stripped away 20 years of learned defenses and left me completely raw and vulnerable.
I think the emotional blunting related to gender dysphoria was only one of the factors; I’ve alleviated that quite a bit and I’m much happier as a woman, but it’s clear that correcting that aspect of myself was only the beginning of a much longer struggle. I still have so much I need to sort out.
I can only hope I can continue to eke out an existence with the meager stipend my father sends me as long as I’m making an honest effort to sort myself out, the paltry sums I make from my writing, occasionally buying and selling antiques, and a pittance I make from selling Cascadia-themed stickers in my Redbubble store. At least, I hope I can continue until I’m stable enough emotionally to be able to balance earning a decent living and pursuing the path toward either a Master’s degree in history or toward priesthood in my church. Or both. I want to be able to juggle things like all the other great over-achievers who live these amazing lives. I want to- but it’s so hard for me.