The ghost of a girl

I say it a lot, I think, but I am not the person I used to be.

I live in fear, in fact, of becoming the person I was: that I am still not enough different, that the miserable person I was is still who I am despite my efforts otherwise, that this newness is a fragile shell, thin candy coating over weaker chocolate that melts in the sun. My thoughts and feelings are a trifle suspect at the moment – I am in fact writing this because my new med dose has made me so groggy I can’t think my way to anything else – but this might be a fear I have to learn to live with. I am so much less anxious about many things of late – travelling after dark, meeting strangers, trying new things – which is amazing and something I don’t take for granted, but this anxiety might be forever with me. It’s scar-tissue, a burn healed: the skin is never quite the same as the unburnt skin that surrounds it and never will be. The scar will always be white and hairless, and I will always live with the ghost of who I was. I will always, I think, be a little afraid of that girl. That’s a sad and horrible thing to articulate in words, but it feels like my truth.

Once, I lived the life of a girl. I had long hair and I wore jewellery and skirts. I answered to the name ‘Kimberley’ and told people that I didn’t care what name they called me. These things, though, are quite superficial, because my transition hasn’t only been one of gender – or gender is only one aspect of my transition.

Kimberley wrote for her own expression and escapism – better to live in a world of her words than the real world! She’d have died at the thought of ever posting anything online for strangers to read. (She wouldn’t have known the joy of seeing the one reader work their way through her blog, either; she wouldn’t have known that it means something – everything – to hook a reader that way.) Her writing was a private expression of pain, art given over to all the things she couldn’t speak out loud: her masculinity, her sexuality, her mental illness (not yet diagnosed, but she was writing about anxiety and depression before she ever knew how well those words applied or that she was in desperate want of the application of those words), her tendency to the comedic and absurd, her understanding of the world. She didn’t talk about the things that mattered to her, for good reason – she was born and raised in the world of monsters, after all, and she had no attentive audience in this world – but because of that silence, she wasn’t a person. She was trapped and stoppered by fear so much that she didn’t know what clothes she liked to wear, and the things she did know she couldn’t voice because she knew it wasn’t right or safe to want the things she yearned for. Writing, her family told her, should be a hobby, not a career. She was a doormat in every sense of the word, raised to agreement and obedience, raised to be everything her parents and vast extended family believed right and appropriate.

That’s not true, of course, because inside Kimberley was an outspoken, queer, genderless warrior with a sword shaped by words, everything encompassed by my use of I. This person, the me, was just waiting for a chance to escape. This person, me, was the person that meant Kimberley spent her years post her degree doing nothing, working in a job that didn’t fulfill her, being less than she was: I was the reason she spent so many years skirting time, because Kimberley was too afraid to be her true self and I was unable to live fully a life that wasn’t what I wanted to be. Kimberley is me, and she wouldn’t scare me so very much if I weren’t her. Together, we did nothing, because we couldn’t be real and we couldn’t be a lie, and we wasted the best part of a decade through our inability to act.

(By the by, please don’t refer to me, past, present or future, as she. I do it not because I was a woman – I, my honest self, have never been a woman – but because I was operating in that gender and skin, and the simulacrum that was Kimberley was female: it is one of the things that caused me pain but it is also one of the many things she was that I am not. I don’t know if I can explain this distinction in a way that makes sense, so I’m going to leave it at this: I feel it is right to me and my psychologist to refer to the me that was as she, but I don’t feel it’s anything but misgendering for anyone else to do the same, so please don’t. If it is dissociative to refer to my past self as a separate gender, to divorce my current self from that poor girl … well, I also write about her in the third person, so I dare say if is in no way applicable!)

I’m not wholly the person I want to be, yet, which is a good thing: I should never wholly be the person I want to be, or what else would I have to work towards? I am, though, something a great deal closer to being my authentic self in the words I write, the clothes I wear and the things I do. I get to go my job in jeans and a T-shirt looking like a fierce butch/androgynous person. I get to write and put my words online. I get to be the things I want and feel with less negative consequence; I don’t have to – most of the time – shut my mouth and endure the agony of being less than who I am. I can be Kim or K. A., queer without gender, and live in a world where I matter.

My family are never going to see me, I think – or at least not the whole of me. I don’t like that. I’m not okay with it. I think I can accept it, though, without being okay with it: acceptance isn’t approval. I don’t have to condone an action to accept it for what it is. My family are what they are, and they simply can’t open their minds wide enough to see – hell, the only way they can make any sense of me is to put me in little boxes, and even when I smash the boxes open, they behave as though the boxes exist. They don’t know how to operate without them, so they create something that doesn’t need to exist in the first place.

(I’m not going to pretend that I write Steve’s friends and family as so readily accepting of Steve sans-boxes as anything but a response to my own experiences of boxes. I give my novel character Leïs people who don’t need boxes to understand hir because I know how much it changes a life. Sometimes I write the world as it is. Sometimes I write the world as it should be. Most often I do varying degrees of both, because nothing shines so brightly as the world as it should be when set against a backdrop of the world as it is. Nothing. If this is escapism, then brand me escapist. I claim the label, these days. I’ll fly it as a flag. Who wouldn’t want to escape this world?)

I’ve got homework on gratitude as a response to my depression, and I am grateful, every day of my life, that I get to not only be who I am but operate in a world where there is a space for me. Not a big space. Not the easiest space. But a space. I can be honest in my words. I don’t have to lie and pretend.

Two things hurt, however.

I lost a great deal of time to not being myself – to living, with all the pain that goes with it, as something I am not. I can tell myself that I’m so very lucky, and I am: I got the shove relatively early in my life. I get to go out and be authentic having only wasted a decade or so, not a whole life or half a life. I’m not having a mid-life crisis because I don’t understand what the hell happened to me or how far I strayed from living my dream. I am so lucky, in fact, I have to believe I’m a little bit touched by the universe, that there is a destiny I am meant to follow that encompasses both the difficulty of my beginning and the length of time, with any luck, I’ll have with which to create art that matters. Still, it’s hard not to look back and ache at all the time spent doing nothing, the years gone, the years in which I could have done something that matters to me. I suppose regret might be one of the most human of impulses, if we consider Peter S. Beagle, but to quote the unicorn: “…I do. I regret.”

I do. I don’t regret anything else with such fierce intensity.

The only thing I can do now is try to live as authentically as I can. I can’t go back in time. I can try and make a world where other boys, girls and people don’t have to spend so long trapped in an unreal skin. Not simple, no, but not complicated.

The real pain comes from the ghosts: the people who never get to read my words, see my new hair, listen to their grandchild explain that they are their grandchild and not their granddaughter, perceive the person I have become. I’ll never get to look my Opa in the eyes and tell him that I too have something of his ability to talk to others – that, in my own way, I am an artist, just like so many of the people in his family. I’ll never know if Oma, who loved everyone with a heart so big it must surely have encompassed her queer grandchild, could have told me that my gender and my sexuality just doesn’t matter to her as long as I’m her child. I’ll never see the look in her eyes when I tell her what I have accomplished. I saw these people every weekend – sometimes twice a weekend – during my childhood, teenagerhood and young adulthood, but I’ll never be able to tell them that, despite the fact they raised some fucked-up people, they are still my family, and somehow they did enough right that I’m able to get out and live as myself despite the challenges I’ve had (am having) to deal with. These people, who gave me fifty cents in pocket money and a lolly (snoopy) every week, who loved me, never got to know me. They died not knowing anything real about their grandchild. Strangers on the internet can find out anything and everything real about me, but the people who would have said that they would do anything for me if I would but ask never knew me.

I know that’s not wholly my fault. I know that’s a world my Opa and Oma, along with my parents and my aunts and uncles and my other grandparents, helped to create: a world where we interact as the ghosts of ourselves, not the actuality. I know my aunt and uncle never told Oma and Opa about my lesbian cousin; I know that those of us – and I am not the only queer in this family – who came out as queer afterwards are the ones paying the price for that silence, a tacit agreement among relatives that Oma and Opa were too damn Catholic to be allowed to know who we really are. How can I be myself when I’m living in a world where the important things I am are brushed over, discouraged, dismissed, hidden? When I am a recipient of a message that my grandparents’ love is conditional on being or seeming straight?

(Do cishet people understand that being outright hated by my Catholic grandparents is better by far than the message presented in the agreement to lie about the identities of the queer folk in our family? That love allowed only due to a lie isn’t love at all? That my family, in lying about my cousins and me, are showing anything but love towards us, people who need more love, not less, just to be ourselves?)

Sometimes I believe that we need a heaven or an afterlife not because we’re afraid of the nothingness in death but because we need to know there is some way those we have lost can see what we have become – and maybe, just maybe, believe in a heaven or an afterlife where the old hatreds and difficulties are perceived as the wrongs they are. I hope there is wisdom after death, and I hope those spirits I loved can look at me and feel the same desperate regret for all the things unsaid in life. I hope they look at me and love me, me, not the ghost of a person they knew, but while I live I will never know. I don’t even know if I’ll find out after death!

I didn’t cry at Oma’s funeral. I cried getting dressed for the funeral because I didn’t know what to wear that made me look appropriate for a funeral and didn’t trigger my dysphoria. I cried because Oma’s funeral was one last thing where I couldn’t wear the clothes and the skin I wanted, because my depression and the pain of my dysphoria were intolerable, because I was unable to be myself in that house and that world. I cried now, for her and for me, for grief and loss, three and a half years later. Does this make me selfish? How could I not be selfish when I was in so much pain and could not give voice to it?

I am haunted by the ghosts of the person I was, the person I wasn’t and the people I have lost.

Is life a process of collecting ghosts? Do they trail along behind us, a growing and unbroken chain of spectres, regrets and memories? Is happiness the state of looking back and seeing as few ghosts as possible because we got to make authentic and honest decisions about who we are and what we want to be?

Be who you are is almost a ridiculous cliche.

If we are to be good parents, siblings, cousins, relatives, friends, companions and co-workers, the freedom for one to be who they are is essential. We must make the world around us as safe as it possibly can be for the people around us to be true to themselves, whoever that is.

I don’t want to add another ghost to somebody else’s chain.


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  1. Pingback: Author ramble: inclusivity in fiction | Adventures in Port Carmila

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